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What Does It Mean
to Be Catholic?

by Jim Heft, S.M.

Some questions are easy. If you ask me "How much is 10 x 20?" I can calculate an answer that's undebatable. But if you ask me "What should I believe?" my attempt at an answer will take longer. You might want to debate the answer too.

Some other questions are just as tough. Take this one: "What does being a Catholic mean to me (or you) personally?" Or this one: "What does it mean to be a Catholic?"

As a teacher at a Catholic university, I'm asked questions like these and I take them quite seriously. So this is my serious answer.

Both Christian and Becoming More So

Right off, I want to make two points clear. First, a Catholic is a Christian. Christians believe in Jesus Christ as the Son of God, that there are three persons and one God: the Creator, the Redeemer and the Holy Spirit who is the Sanctifier. In other words, Christians believe in the Trinity.

All Christians have as their ideal a desire to live by the teachings of Jesus, to accept his transforming love. They gather frequently to hear the Scriptures read and to break bread together. Such actions are important to all Christians, not only to Catholics.

It may seem odd to stress that Catholics are first of all Christians, but it hasn't always been obvious. Jackie remembers her young neighbor who went to a Church other than Catholic telling her she wasn't Christian—she was Catholic. When she died, he further informed her, she would go to a different heaven than the one for which he was headed.

Some adult Christians have had other reasons to suspect separate heavens. Those who accept as authoritative only what is stated in the Bible sometimes think that Catholics can't be Christians because we venerate (give special honor to) saints and accept the pope as our religious leader.

Then there are Catholics who get so wrapped up in the appearances of Mary that they lose sight of some of the more central beliefs, such as Jesus as the savior and the value of the Scriptures. It might help keep things straight to think of "Catholic" as the adjective and "Christian" as the noun. We are, then, Catholic Christians.

My second point is that being a Catholic takes time. It is true that in Baptism we are plunged, as the Scriptures say, into the death and resurrection of Jesus and made members of the Church. Nevertheless, it takes time to grow into a mature Catholic.

One author illustrates the process by distinguishing four stages of growth in faith. Experienced faith, the first stage, is a faith learned in one's family. It's this kind of faith that leads little children to beg to go up to Communion long before they understand the meaning of Eucharist.

Affiliative faith, a second stage, is typical of later childhood, when a person is apt to take the authority of the Church for granted and has an unquestioned sense of belonging. This is the faith of the 10-year-old boy who just can't understand why his friend, who goes to the synagogue, isn't Catholic.

Third comes a searching faith. During this period, lots of questions come up. Tension between individual and Church increases and sometimes it may seem as if there is little or no faith. "Why should I go to Mass if I don't get anything out of it?" "Why should I believe what other people say about God?" These are the familiar questions of a person with a searching faith.

Finally, an owned faith may emerge. This is the faith of a person who understands the beliefs of faith and personally chooses to belong to the Church. You may have heard an older brother or sister say, "I'm really convinced that the Catholic Church is right for me. It may not be perfect and neither are the people in it, but I love the Church and see that God's hand is in it somehow."

I'm assuming that none of you is in stage one, and that all of you are in various facets of stages two and three, though some of you may even have entered stage four. Just as you have grown physically and emotionally, you also need to grow spiritually. You may have been baptized as an infant. You will remain a Catholic only if you now grow into it. So I want to describe characteristics that are particularly Catholic. I'm not assuming that my description is perfect. I do think, however, that I've touched on important clues to a Catholic identity.

Sacramental Sense

Being a Catholic means sensing God's presence and power sacramentally. We gradually come to understand that there is more to life than just what meets the eye or enters the ear. We gradually come to realize that God is present to us and touches us, for example, through the beauty of a sunset or a snowfall, the care and concern of our mother, the delight of being in love and our desire to give of ourselves to other people.

A sacramental sense allows us to see in all such experiences opportunities to learn more about God as the source of all beauty, the most faithful and loving friend, the one who has loved us first and whose Son has laid down his life for us.

More specifically, Catholics see sacraments as "close-ups" or clearly focused instances of God's presence and love. Our liturgical celebrations use many signs and symbols such as bread and wine, oil and water, vestments and candles, crucifixes and statues. We make many symbolic actions, such as touching and blessing, bowing and genuflecting, incensing and anointing. Through such symbols, Catholics recognize the presence and power of God. We call them sacramentals.

Through participation in the seven sacraments, Catholics are enabled to develop a deeper sacramental sense that reaches beyond even these specific signs. For just as in the bread and wine we believe that Jesus Christ is truly present, so other ordinary elements of life become transformed and communicate the power and presence of God.

God's love for each of us, for instance, is a personal, individual love. Marriage can be a demonstration of that kind of love, but God's grace is essential to the strength, endurance and faithfulness of a marriage. So Catholics, recognizing the link and hoping for a glimpse of God in their own marriages, celebrate marriage as one of seven special celebrations of God's activity in our lives.

Scripture and Tradition

Catholics pay attention to both Scripture and tradition. You may have heard it said that Catholics don't read the Bible. It's true that for many years Catholics didn't emphasize reading Scripture. The Second Vatican Council stressed the importance of these inspired writings and asked that the homilies given on Sundays be devoted mainly to explaining them, what they meant for Jesus' early disciples and what they might mean for us today.

The Scriptures, however, don't touch on every topic that might trouble your conscience. For instance, nuclear war, corporations and their ethical decision-making, racism and sexism are not so specifically mentioned as to leave no questions. Yet Jesus promised not to abandon us. He told us that he would send his Spirit, who would make clear the things that he had taught us, the truth that he wanted us to know.

That continuing presence of the truth-bearing Spirit is expressed in the lives and teachings of the saints, not just the official ones like St. Anthony, but our friends, grandparents, aunts, uncles, parents and teachers who love the Lord.

In a more official way, the Spirit of Truth speaks through the teaching of the bishops who, drawing upon their own experience and the experience of other members of the Church, address the moral and religious dimensions of important issues such as just use of wealth, the morality of nuclear war, racism and sexism.

As Catholics, we give full attention to what the Scriptures reveal, and to the application of these Scriptural truths and values to problems and challenges in our world. These applications are known as tradition.

Communion of Saints

Catholics believe in the "communion of saints." Even though people die, we stay in touch with them and they with us. How is this possible? It is possible through Baptism by which we enter into the death and resurrection of Jesus. Even though Jesus died, he rose from the dead, remaining even more present than when he was on earth to all who believed in him. We live in Christ. Those who have died believing in Christ remain alive in him.

Therefore, whether dead or alive, we are connected in love. So when your grandmother who loved you very much dies, we believe that she now continues in heaven to love who she loved on earth, but with much greater intensity and depth and selflessness.

The saints play an important role in Catholicism, because Catholicism recognizes how people come to know and love God through others. Parents and family play a key role in your development in everything, including faith. Later in life, all sorts of other experiences, especially friendships, have a deep influence on how we grow in our faith.

The communion of saints is a network of friendships that connects us to the love of God. Saints function like windows through whom we can see the shape of God's love. Saints don't point to themselves, but to God. It is impossible for saints to take the place of Jesus, for their whole lives and all their energies were and remain focused on him, and on us in him. If we look to the saints, we will be led to Jesus.

States of Life

Still another way that Catholicism has been unique has been in its encouragement and support of different ways of living as Christians. It has from the very beginning recognized as sacred both virginity and marriage. In recent years, a few Protestant Churches have begun to look again at the desirability of the celibate life for some of its members. For the most part, however, Catholics are distinctive in the way we have supported both celibacy and marriage.

Some people might think that this is a contradiction. How can we at the same time advocate two such different ways of life? The Church sees, at the center of both, the desire to love God and to love others. The Catholic Church encourages some people, if they feel themselves so called, to remain unmarried for the "sake of the kingdom," as Jesus put it—and himself embodied it—and encourages others to marry so that their love, personal and sexual, might reflect the faithfulness of God's love for all of us.

The Second Vatican Council made it clear that everyone is called to be holy. All of us, religious, priests and laity, are called by Baptism to be lovers of God in Jesus. In Catholicism, one is not lost if single, lower if married and privileged if ordained or a member of a religious community. All life's possible vocations ought to be sources of great holiness. The task for each of us is to figure out in which lifestyle God's love will flow through us most fully.

Tough Calls for Catholics

I have said that being a Catholic includes developing a sacramental sense, learning to value both Scripture and tradition, finding a place for the saints in your life and choosing not just a career but a vocation. Now it seems that living in this way will often place one in a different position from other Christian Churches and from the majority opinion within society.

  • Take, for instance, the way we view the sacraments. In particular, consider the way we view the Eucharist and Reconciliation. We believe that Jesus is truly present in the bread and wine. We do not believe, as some other Christian Churches do, that the bread and wine remain only bread and wine. Nor do we believe that the bread and wine are really the body and blood of Jesus only if we so believe, and that otherwise the elements remain just bread and wine.

  • As Catholics, we also believe that when we confess our sins sincerely to a priest, our sins are truly forgiven through the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Other Christian traditions, especially fundamental denominations, say we should go "directly to God." While we Catholics do speak to God in our hearts in prayer and ask God directly for forgiveness and comfort, we also know, through our sacramental sense and our belief in the communion of saints, that in this life we can also go to God through others and through God's ministers in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

  • As Catholics, our approach to God is through the community and with others. Sacraments are ordinarily celebrated face-to-face with another person, and thus remind us in a visible way that where two or three are gathered in the name of Jesus, Jesus is there healing and forgiving and blessing.

    This communal and sacramental dimension of Catholicism makes it easier to understand why Catholics see as an integral part of the following of Jesus the work of justice for others. We are not saved from this world by ourselves but in the world for others. In other words, we enter the world to transform it rather than to make a speedy and solitary escape, having earned heaven for ourselves.

  • Consider abortion. The Catholic Church has consistently opposed abortion. In January 1973, the Supreme Court decided that abortion on demand was permissible during the first trimester and was, indeed, the right of the mother. During the second trimester, the question was between a woman and her doctor. What is now legal, Catholics see as profoundly immoral. That disagreement puts us in opposition to this law and the thinking of quite a few other Americans.

  • As a final example, take the issue of premarital sex. The Catholic Church says that sexual activity belongs in marriage, which it regards as a sacrament. Much of society, on the other hand, assumes that premarital sex is inevitable. Some school-based clinics exist to cope with this "inevitability" by providing birth-control devices to sexually active teens. The Catholic Church believes it is more in keeping with its tradition to encourage abstinence from sexual activity and to provide programs that support such choices.

    If as Catholic Christians we accept the teachings of Jesus, then we find that we are called with all other Christians and people of good will to live simply, to lead nonviolent lives, to confess our sins, to break bread together, to care for the poor and defenseless, to work for justice. We are to do all this even at the risk of our lives.

    Jesus was crucified because he didn't "fit in." If we "fit in" neatly, place material success at the center of our lives, neglect the poor and ignore the truth when it is convenient to do so, we no longer follow Jesus. If, on the other hand, we follow Jesus and live by his commands, we enter into solidarity with others who love deeply and faithfully and who can never be just part of the crowd.

    What then does it mean to be Catholic? It means first being a Christian. It also means realizing that it takes time to grow into that identity, indeed, an entire lifetime. And what does that identity include? It includes a vital sacramental sense, a respect for both Scripture and tradition, a connection with all the people who are and have been a part of us, several choices of vocation, plus the call to make a radical commitment.

    Catholicism is an extraordinarily rich Christian tradition. The best way to learn about Catholicism is to try it on, live it without reservation and test its results in your life.

Father Jim Heft, a Marianist, has taught high school religion and is now the chairman of the Religious Studies Department at the University of Dayton in Ohio.

Youth Update advisers who previewed this issue, asked important questions and offered helpful advice are Mike Bittner (15), Kate Corrado (16), Brian Heinz (15), Nathan Henninger (17), Kym Harvey (17) and Becky Wallendzak (14). All attend Chaminade-Julienne High School in Dayton, Ohio.



Is it possible to develop a sacramental sense through rock videos and rock music?


To the extent that such expressions of modern culture really express the values of the Gospel, there should be a possibility of finding in them signs and reflections of the message of Jesus.

All too frequently, however, when these expressions of modern culture speak about "love," they do not have much in common with the idea of love in the New Testament, a love that leads one to the laying down of one's life for others as Jesus did.


How do I know whether my divorced and remarried aunt who died recently is in heaven and a member of the communion of saints?


Except for canonized saints, we have no absolute certainty about who is in heaven. But we should be confident that God, who cared so much for us as to send us Jesus, will continue to draw everyone who wishes to respond.

It should be encouraging to know that the Catholic Church has never officially taught that any specific human beings are in hell, while, on the other hand, it has taught that thousands of people are in heaven.

Finally, the doctrine of purgatory assures us that even the sinful are called by God to heaven.


Is being a Catholic basically being a sincere Christian?


It's impossible to be a good Christian without sincerity. But being a sincere Catholic Christian means that you have learned to value Scripture and tradition, to discover a valuable place for the sacraments and saints, and continue to show courage in following Jesus today, even when it doesn't help you "fit in."


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