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 enjoyed a lot of Chicken Parmesan, with spaghetti and tomato sauce on the side.
I admit it knowing very well the probable reaction of many Italian friends: “Ah-hah! We knew it. You’ve spent the last year or so learning how to pass for a true Italian in the kitchen, making versions of amatriciana Y cheese and black pepper Y Genoese that even our grandmothers would recognize as authentic, but deep down you’re still a rough American who thinks spaghetti and meatballs are an Italian dish. Stupid!”
Truth be told, I sometimes experience that particular spiel in an even fiercer way from expat friends here in Italy, who display the usual convert zeal for Italian cuisine … although Italians themselves are also wildly snobbish about it. of your kitchen, 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 best Italian cooks I know are Da Vincis in the kitchen. However, I also occasionally enjoy classic dishes that Americans grow up thinking Italian but don’t really exist here, with chicken parm near the top of that list. (I could give a slight nod to fettuccini alfredo for the top spot, but that’s a topic for another time.)
This is the argument I make whenever the subject of the relationship between Italian and Italian-American cuisine comes up: Simply put, these are different culinary genres, and it is a category mistake to insist that one is “inauthentic” simply because one is not. it is exactly like the other one. It’s like complaining that the Chinese food you get in America isn’t really Chinese … of course it isn’t, but that doesn’t make it any less delicious.
If you agree that when you walk into an Italian restaurant in America, you won’t find the same fare that you would find at a classic Roman restaurant. trattoriabut a different kind of fare inspired by Italy but also reflecting American tastes and instincts, then that will be fine. However, if you demand that one be a photocopy of the other, it is likely to be a depressing experience.
I mention all of this because my New Year’s wish for 2022 would be for more Catholics to be open to a “Chicken Parm” mindset of church life.
Let’s quickly review a number of things Catholics spent a lot of time fighting over in 2021, often through sarcastic comments on social media:
- If Pope Francis is better or worse than John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
- If the American bishops should be more or less submissive to Francis.
- If the pre-Vatican II Latin Mass is more or less authentic than the new Mass in the vernacular languages.
- If the Church needs to become more progressive, that is, open to change to adapt to the signs of the times, or more conservative, that is, protective of its central teachings, practices and pillars of identity.
- Whether the Church should be more horizontal, that is, engaged in urgent social issues such as the fight against injustice and poverty, or more vertical, that is, focused on its main spiritual tasks of promoting prayer, devotion and the sacramental life , like regular confession.
We could go on, but you get the idea.
Faced with such debates, I often recall 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 answered 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 participating in Eucharistic adoration, and he wanted Benedict’s perspective.
This is what the Pope said:
“Catholicism, in a somewhat simplistic way, has always been considered the religion of the great ‘both / and’”, said Benedict, “not of great exclusions, but of synthesis. ‘Catholic’ precisely means ‘synthesis’ ”.
“I would say that a good and truly Catholic pastoral means this, living in the ‘both / and’ … I would simply like to commit myself to the great Catholic synthesis, for this ‘both / and’: To be Truly human, each according to his gifts and charisms loving the earth and the beautiful things that the Lord has given us, but also grateful that the light of God shines on the earth, giving splendor and beauty to everything else ”.
In much more elegant language, that’s the ecclesiology of the chicken parm: where others may see one or the other dilemma, the genuinely Catholic instinct is to seek both solutions.
That’s not to say that tough decisions don’t need to be made from time to time, and not all of those options can be dissolved, or discarded, with a ‘both / and’ perspective. However, some of the rancor in Catholic life could be lessened if we could at least acknowledge the legitimacy – indeed, “catholicity” – of the instincts and values that generally underlie these opposing positions.
For me, today I am thinking about the Italian classic. spaghetti all’amatriciana for lunch and maybe a distinctly American pepperoni pizza for dinner and frankly I’m pretty sure I’ll feel great with both.
Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLallenJr