“What does being Catholic mean to you?”
That may sound like a corny question asked of high-schoolers at a church youth group… because it is, in fact, a corny question recently asked of high-schoolers at my church’s youth group… but how would you answer it?
Maybe a better way to ask it is this: “Laying aside the question of whether Catholicism is true, why are you Catholic?”
Here’s how I might answer.
1. I am Catholic because the Church gives me a different vantage point on the world. As Chesterton wrote, “The Catholic Church is the only thing that frees a man from the degrading slavery of being a child of his age.” Your environment will determine your beliefs and actions — unless you can compare your environment to something unchanging, indifferent to time and place. So while the world pursues hedonism, we Catholics practice self-discipline; while the world glorifies sex, we are chaste; while the world demands its rights, we focus on our duties.
Or take an age with opposite excesses: the Middle Ages.
To scholars pursuing philosophy before they pursued holiness, Thomas a Kempis wrote, “An unlearned peasant, whose contentment is the service of God, is far better than the learned and the clever, whose pride in their knowledge leads them to neglect their souls while fixing their attention on the stars.”
When many people denigrated the lay vocation, St. Francis de Sales wrote, “A different exercise of devotion is required of each — the noble, the artisan, the servant, the prince, the maiden and the wife; and furthermore such practice must be modified according to the strength, the calling, and the duties of each individual… The devotion which is true hinders nothing, but on the contrary it perfects everything; and that which runs counter to the rightful vocation of any one is, you may be sure, a spurious devotion.”
And consider the life of St. Francis of Assisi: born to wealthy aristocratic family in an age that prized social class and obedience to one’s parents, he gave up his wealth against his father’s will. Though most people then thought monks belonged in monasteries, he decided to bring prayer and preaching into the streets.
Thomas a Kempis didn’t neglect philosophy; St. Francis de Sales didn’t downplay the importance of religious vocations; St. Francis of Assisi didn’t scorn family or contemplative monasticism. Without rejecting the good things their contemporaries praised, they embraced the good things their contemporaries forgot. To be Catholic is to see beyond the biases of your time and place, to compare its prevailing standards to eternal ones.
2. I am Catholic because I can’t figure everything out for myself. Imagine trying to deduce Christian theology from the Bible alone or to evaluate whether to fight a war without Augustine and Aquinas. Or to go more broadly, where would the world be without the Church? Catholics have made inestimable contributions to nearly every field of study — not just theology and philosophy, but history, literature, political theory, education, biology, genetics, astronomy, medicine, mathematics, psychology, and more. The story of the last two millenniums is the story of How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization.
Cue atheist response: “If that’s what people can do despite the Church, imagine what they could do without the Church!” Sure, I admit the human race would have achieved some technological advancement without a pope in Rome. But keep in mind: crucial Catholic teachings not shared by most pre-Christian civilizations — on the dignity of every human being, the order of the physical universe, the reliability of human reason, the possibility of discovering truth — undergird the very notion of progress. The Church has advanced human knowledge for more centuries than most civilizations even exist. To be Catholic is to gain access to her bottomless fount of wisdom.
3. I am Catholic because I need condemnation, salvation, and moral guidance. It is fashionable now to craft one’s own code of ethics, to do what’s right for you. I find this a bit pathetic: the human race should really know better by now. Do-it-yourself morality quickly turns into the rejection of all moral norms, which sounds fun until it ends in bloodbaths like the 20th century.
Anyway, my main point is this: Even do-it-yourself moralists recognize everyone else’s hypocrisy; only religious people recognize their own. I know what is right; I do what is wrong. And since the Church is so darn inflexible and unyielding, she sees right through my excuses and tells me the truth. You are a sinner. Think about it, admit it, turn to Christ, be grateful that He died to save you… and stop sinning. No one but the Church (acting as God’s instrument in the world) calls you to holiness or gives you the grace you need to attain it.
True: most Catholics do not even come close to obeying the Church’s teachings. Some betray her — and her most vulnerable members — terribly. I do not pretend that Catholics are holier than anyone else. Yet the only grounds on which you can condemn us are the grounds provided by the Church. Denounce our sins if you will, but remember that the idea of sin entered civilization through the Church. (If good and evil are relative, the Church isn’t evil. If good and evil are not relative… wait. Don’t consider that possibility unless you’re ready to swim the Tiber.)
Most of us aren’t saints yet, but the moral commands and spiritual graces of the Church are our only hope of getting there someday. To be Catholic is to recognize your sinfulness and still aspire to sanctity.
So what did I miss? Besides your belief that Catholicism is true, why are you Catholic, and why do you need the Church? Or if you’re not Catholic — why not?!