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ROME – To open the New Year on a spiritually positive note, I hereby offer a public confession: On the first night of 2022, I cooked, ate and thoroughly enjoyed chicken parmesan, with spaghetti and tomato sauce on the side.
I admit this knowing full well the likely reaction of many Italian friends: “Ah-hah! We knew it. You’ve spent the last year or so learning to pass as a real Italian the kitchen, making versions of amatriciana and cacio e pepe and genovese that even our grandmas would recognize as authentic, but deep down you’re still just an uncouth American who thinks spaghetti and meatballs is an Italian dish. Gross!”
Truth to be told, I sometimes experience that particular rant in even more ferocious fashion from ex-pat friends here in Italy, who exhibit the usual zeal of the convert about the Italian kitchen … though Italians themselves are also tremendously snobbish about their cuisine, and, let’s face it, not without reason.
Full disclosure: I love authentic Italian food with a passion that borders on irrationality, and I think the better Italian cooks I know are Da Vincis in the kitchen. Yet I also occasionally dig the classic dishes Americans grow up thinking of as Italian, but which don’t actually exist here, with chicken parm near the top of that list. (I might give a slight nod to fettuccini alfredo for the top spot, but that’s a topic for another time.)
Here’s the argument I make whenever the subject of the relationship between Italian and Italo-American cuisine comes up: In a nutshell, these are different culinary genres, and it’s a category mistake to insist that one is “inauthentic” simply because it’s not exactly like the other. It’s like complaining that the Chinese food you get in the States isn’t actually Chinese … of course it’s not, but that doesn’t make it any less delicious.
If you accept that when you walk into an Italian restaurant in America, you’re not going to find the same fare as you would in a classic Roman trattoria, but rather a different sort of fare inspired by Italy but also reflecting American tastes and instincts, then you’ll be fine. If you demand that one be a photocopy of the other, however, it’s likely to be a dismal experience.
I mention all this because my New Year’s wish for 2022 would be that more Catholics be open to a “Chicken Parm” mode of thinking about ecclesiastical life.
Let’s quickly review a series of things Catholics spent a great deal of time fighting about in 2021, often through snarky social media commentary:
- Whether Pope Francis is better or worse than John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
- Whether the American bishops should be more or less submissive to Francis.
- Whether the pre-Vatican II Latin Mass is more or less authentic than the new Mass in the vernacular languages.
- Whether the Church needs to become more progressive, i.e., open to change to adapt to the signs of the times, or more conservative, i.e., protective of its core teachings, practices and pillars of identity.
- Whether the Church ought to be more horizontal, i.e., engaged in pressing social issues such as fighting injustice and poverty, or more vertical, i.e., focused on its core spiritual tasks of fostering prayer, devotion and the sacramental life, such as regular confession.
We could go on, but you get the idea.
Faced with such debates, I’m often reminded of the words of Benedict XVI when he met with a group of clergy from the Italian dioceses of Belluno-Feltre and Treviso in 2007. Benedict took a question from a veteran priest who recalled that when he was in seminary, his spiritual director had rebuked him for enjoying playing soccer more than taking part in Eucharist adoration, and he wanted Benedict’s perspective.
Here’s what the pope said:
“Catholicism, a little simplistically, has always been considered the religion of the great ‘both/and,’” Benedict said, “not of great exclusions, but of syntheses. ‘Catholic’ means precisely ‘synthesis.’”
“I’d say that a good and truly Catholic pastoral approach means this, to live in the ‘both/and’ … I’d simply want to commit myself to the great Catholic synthesis, for this ‘both/and’: To be truly human, everyone according to their gifts and charisms loving the earth and the beautiful things the Lord has given us, but also being grateful that the light of God shines upon the earth, giving splendor and beauty to everything else.”
In far more elegant language, that’s chicken parm ecclesiology – where others may see either/or dilemmas, the genuinely Catholic instinct is to seek both/and solutions.
That’s not to say hard choices don’t have to be made from time to time, and not every one of those choices can be dissolved, or wished away, with a ‘both/and’ outlook. However, some of the rancor in Catholic life might be dialed down if we could at least recognize the legitimacy – indeed, the ‘Catholicity’ – of the instincts and values that usually underlie these opposing positions.
For myself, today I’m thinking about classically Italian spaghetti all’amatriciana for lunch, and maybe distinctly American pepperoni pizza for supper – and, frankly, I’m pretty sure I’ll feel great about both.
Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr