Why Be Catholic? Part 1

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Fr. Andrew Greeley, the controversial (some would say notorious) Catholic priest/sociologist, wrote that there are two reasons for being Catholic. The first reason is that one believes what the Catholic Church teaches. The second reason is that one wants to be a saint.

I think it still pretty much comes down to that. Today, I will write about believing what the Church teaches. In my next article, I will write about being a saint.

The teachings of the Church are God’s revelation to humankind for the sake of our salvation. These teachings can be found in three sources, especially: The Catechism, the Sacred Scriptures and the writings of the Church Fathers. The faith of the Church is summarized in her two greatest creeds: the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed and the Apostles’ Creed. The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed was composed at the Councils of Nicaea and Constantinople in the fourth century. I don’t know the origins of the Apostles’ Creed, but the name comes from the legend that each of the Twelve Apostles contributed one article of faith to the Creed. Catholics profess the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed every Sunday at Mass (most know it simply as the Nicene Creed). The Apostles’ Creed is usually recited to open the praying of the rosary.

It is the faith of the Church that the Church is the instrument of God’s revelation. It is the faith of the Church that, God being God and the Church being His instrument of revelation, the Church cannot teach error on matters of faith and morals necessary for our salvation. Without this confidence, each individual believer is left with shifting through the Scriptures and the writings of the Church Fathers in hopes of grabbing this snatch of truth and that snatch, or of simply relying on their own conscience to ascertain God’s truth. Some people, many people I suspect, are content with this idea. Many people in this current age would never think that it was otherwise. Each believer, it seems, is his or her own personal instrument of revelation. Even the obvious absurdity of this notion, manifested in the thousands upon thousands of different denominations, many taking directly opposed positions from each other, is not perceived as a problem, since God being love is interpreted as God being obliged to save all, regardless of whatever personal truth any individual might espouse, or even how any particular individual may live his or her life. Since there is little confidence in our contemporary culture that truth can even be known, and the only virtue exalted is that of tolerance, the one truth that seems universally claimed is that God must respect all personal opinion as personal truth, so God is obliged to save all. Of course, in this scenario God Himself is superfluous. We save ourselves. No need for God at all.

Catholics, however, have insisted from the first (and Jews before Catholics), not only that God’s truth can be known, but that God’s truth has been made known to us by God in His revelation, given to us over the centuries. For Catholics, God’s truth for our salvation culminated in the revelation of Jesus Christ, a person rather than a rule book, and One sent to us to make known to us the fullness of God’s plan for our salvation, which is nothing less than our reconciliation with God and the healing of our broken human nature, broken by our rebellion against God and His design for our glory. Catholics believe that Christ founded His Church for the purpose of proclaiming His truth and making available to all God’s saving grace. The Church, then, is the herald of God’s truth and the font of God’s grace. This is anathema to a culture where the notion of objective, revealed truth is a heresy and a crime against the only virtue of tolerance. This sets the Church and the secular culture at direct odds with each other, each vying for the hearts and souls of the nations. The Church is filled with saints, in heaven and on earth, committed to bringing the truth of God’s love and grace to every corner of the world. Sadly, the Church is filled, too, with many who have bought into the demands of contemporary culture and are quick to reject Church teaching in favor of any variety of personal truths and cultural claims.

I confess to having a hard time understanding why someone who doesn’t believe what the Catholic Church teaches would want to be Catholic. Now, I wholeheartedly respect the fact that some are struggling with certain aspects of the Catholic faith, and I would encourage those who do to remain in the Catholic fold and seek guidance in their struggle. In fact, participation in the life of a Catholic faith community is an important way to get one’s bearings on Catholic faith and morals. When I was in college, I met a young man who was very excited about his relationship with Jesus. This kid was really on fire! Somehow, a conversation we were having got onto the subject of where we worshiped, and I suggested that he consider a Catholic parish. He laughed and said that he was already Catholic. I asked him, “Where do you go to Mass?” He said that he didn’t go to Mass at the time, that he was exploring whether or not he wanted to stay Catholic. I told him, “You’re not exploring the Catholic faith. It’s impossible to explore the Catholic faith without participating in the life of a Catholic community.” Well, he must have taken it to heart, for a year later he was playing guitar for the local Catholic parish. A dear friend of mine, whom I sponsored on her journey to Catholicism, said it took her three years to come to a Catholic faith in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. She was not willing to be baptized and confirmed until she could assent to this central Catholic dogma. Both of these examples reflect an honest, genuine journey to the fullness of Catholic faith.

I also understand the attraction many have to the beauty and goodness of the Church. The lives of the saints, the power of the Church’s liturgy and prayers to transform lives, the majestic cathedrals, the art and music that lift the soul to God, the good work for charity and justice performed by millions of Catholics every day over the face of the earth — all of these attract many to Catholicism. But, the beauty and goodness of the Church must, ultimately, lead one to the truth of the faith. One who remains committed only to what is beautiful and good about the Church and never advances to what is true, is like one who remains on a diet of milk who never advances to meat and vegetables. Such a diet has no power to sustain one to grow in the faith.

There are others who reject the fullness of Catholic faith, or even central articles of Catholic faith, and remain content with this. I would never tell anyone to leave the Church, or suggest that anyone was not Catholic because they reject a particular matter of Catholic faith or morals that is somewhat lower on the hierarchy of truths. But, I have no problem saying that such Catholics have rejected the fullness of Catholic faith and, if they reject a central, even credal article of faith, I have no problem questioning the veracity or meaning of their claim to be Catholic. I once worked with a doctor who was very proud of her Irish Catholic heritage. She loved being Irish and she loved being Catholic. It would have never entered into her mind to miss Mass on Sunday. But, she admitted that she didn’t believe in God. To her, acknowledging the existence of God had nothing to do with being Catholic! Another Catholic friend admitted that he did not believe in the resurrection of the body. I asked how he managed to attend Mass every Sunday with integrity while rejecting a truth of the faith he professed each time he recited the Creed. He had never even thought about it from that perspective.

There are many who are content to be “cultural Catholics.” They practice Catholicism outwardly, but have no sure foundation, no roots that sink deep into the essentials of the faith. They are planted on rocky soil, and are easily washed away or pulled up by the slightest challenge. For many, they are rooted more in themselves, in their own personal faith. So long as being Catholic doesn’t cause much consternation or conflict too terribly much with their personal views on God and morality, then they are content to bless the Church with their on-going presence and occasional support. Should the Church demand too much of them, however, then they often decide that the Church is no longer worthy of their continued presence and support. Their Catholic identity and faith may be important to them, but it is ultimately optional, a distant second to their own personal tenets of faith and their own personal morality.

Others struggle mightily with the presence of the weeds among the wheat. Some become aware of the dark history of Catholics over the centuries, or currently, and claim that their faith and commitment to Jesus demands that they no longer remain in a Church so full of corruption and sin. This is absurd, of course. How can one embrace Christ and reject Christ at the same time? If you think that abandoning the Church and abandoning Christ are two separate things, think again. Christ is the Head of the Church and the Church is the Body of Christ. You cannot have a relationship with someone’s head and not have a relationship with his or her body. Not only is it impossible, it’s gross! Our relationship with Christ is our relationship with the Church. Our relationship with the Church is our relationship with Christ. Rejecting the Church as the Body of Christ because of the sins of her members is, at heart, the same argument atheists make against the existence of God because of the evil in the world: If there is a God, God must be good; but, a good God would never tolerate the existence of evil; evil exists, however; therefore, there must be no God. If the Catholic Church is truly the Body of Christ, then the Catholic Church would reflect Christ; but, a Church that reflects Christ would never have in her midst those who sin against God; there are those in the Catholic Church who sin against God, however; therefore, the Catholic Church must not be the Body of Christ. Just as the argument against God’s existence on the basis of the evil in the world is at root a “God on my terms or not at all” argument, so the argument against the Catholic Church being truly the Body of Christ on the basis of there being sinners in the Church is a “Church on my terms or not at all” argument. But, Jesus warned us that there would be weeds among the wheat, and one of His closest followers betrayed Him. So, there can be no excuse or claim of being surprised by the sins and crimes of Catholics, and the argument that the Church cannot be Christ’s Body if there are sinners among her fails on the authority of Christ Himself.

Others make the unfortunate choice of putting too much faith or confidence in the credibility or holiness of a particular member of the Church, such as a priest or bishop, or beloved friend or parent. When that person is revealed as a fraud or worse, or when they are simply revealed as a broken human being struggling with a particular sin, the scandal of this revelation can break the faith of those who looked on them as pillars of the Church.

I can certainly empathize with the sentiment and weep for the broken hearts of those who feel that Catholics have let them down or sullied the Church’s credibility. I have often noted that the actual sins committed by Catholics over the centuries are so many and so heinous, it amazes me that anti-Catholic bigots and atheist propagandists still feel the need to make things up! One cannot be Catholic very long without being disappointed or scandalized by the actions of fellow Catholics, including priests. I was very close to the two priests who served my university during my college years in Virginia. I considered one a true friend and worked very closely with the other, who I still regard as one of the best preachers I’ve ever heard. I learned years later that the first left the priesthood to marry and the second was arrested for indecent exposure and activity on an airplane. A priest I lived with over the summer in the parish rectory when I was a seminarian, and with whom I enjoyed long, regular conversations, was later credibly accused of abuse. I once was sponsoring a young man who was taking classes to become Catholic. Just prior to Easter, he confided in me that he did not believe in the divinity of Christ. I spoke with the pastor about this, a priest I greatly admired, whose retreats I had attended, and whose books I had read and recommended. This priest saw the young man’s rejection of Christ’s divinity as no obstacle to his being welcomed into full union with the Catholic Church. The bishop of a diocese in which I once lived, who was known as very orthodox and devout, was later forced to resign for his role in covering up abuse committed by priests.

And, I haven’t yet mentioned the sins of lay Catholics! Consider that Napoleon, Hitler, Mussolini, Franco and Castro were all baptized and raised as Catholics. While they all rejected the faith as adults, it is no secret that they could each number among their supporters members of the Catholic hierarchies and lay populations of their respective countries. Blessed Franz Jagerstatter was an Austrian farmer who refused to fight for Hitler and was executed for this crime. His bishop recommended that he join Hitler’s army when he was drafted, just as all of the other Catholic men in his village had done. Only Franz refused, and his only support came from his wife, the one person who had most to lose.

So, boy, can I empathize! But, I cannot sympathize with the idea that the sins of Catholics would ever recommend or justify my leaving the Church or abandoning the faith. My own sins are sufficient for my damnation, so I don’t need to point to the sins of others to recommend my abandoning Christ. If you think you can simply join another Church that is not so corrupt, I would like to introduce you to the brokenness of human nature and recommend to you that naivete is not a virtue. Research on the question recommends that the ministers of other Christian churches abuse kids at the same or even higher rates than Catholic priests. The only reason most people don’t know this is because the media does not report on it, or rarely does. The same is true, by the way, for secular institutions. In fact, it’s well known that the rates of abuse in the public schools, in secular professions such as university professors and coaches, doctors and therapists, and in sports and scouting programs far outpace abuse in the Catholic Church. Like Peter, then, we are forced to ask ourselves as he did when Jesus asked the apostles if they were going to abandon Him along with the rest of the crowd, “Master, to whom shall we go?”

God’s grace is my only hope for salvation. While the Church has her fill of weeds, she is also God’s instrument of revelation and font of grace. There can be no justification in misplacing our faith in other persons suffering the consequences of our broken human nature. Our faith is in Jesus and in no others. If your faith is in your bishop, your priest, your friend, your coach, your parent, or any other Catholic mired in the muck of this temporal order, reconsider the object of your faith and realign your compass to true North.

Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.

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