Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
Eight Good Reasons for Being Catholic
Many of us who are older and who grew up in the Church
before the Second Vatican Council never seriously faced the question,
"Why be Catholic?" Not being Catholic was almost unthinkable for
us, as unthinkable as not being American.
Yet today, many people are in fact asking the question,
"Why be Catholic?" They ask that question when their parish liturgy
becomes intolerably boring, when they disagree with the pope or
bishops on social issues, when they divorce and remarry and are
told that they can't receive Communion. Often the question is,
"Why remain Catholic?"
Following Vatican II, Catholics rightly rethought
the narrow approach they had taken with the belief that outside
the Church there is no salvation. They broadened the idea of salvation
so that it could embrace God's love for all Christians, and indeed
all persons of good faith.
If good people of other religious persuasions can
be saved, then why beor remainCatholic?
The answer is Catholicism's rich 2,000-year tradition
of living the gospel. And this tradition is a "wisdom tradition."
Unlike some of the younger Churches which sprang up after the
Protestant Reformation and often splintered into further divisions,
Catholicism has maintained unity and diversity over the course
of 20 centuries. It embraces the wisdom of the ancient world,
the Middle Ages and modern times.
We can summarize the wisdom of the Catholic tradition
under eight headings. Each of these values represents not only
a challenge but also a good reason for being Catholic.
1. An optimistic view of creation
There is an old poem that reads: "Wherever
the Catholic sun does shine, There's music, laughter and good red
wine. At least, I've always found it so: Benedicamus Domino!"
The last line is Latin for "Let us bless
the Lord!" And this poem captures a very basic Catholic sensibility:
that creation is good. It represents God's wisdom as God looked
out on the world just after its creation and pronounced it "very
good" (Genesis 1:31).
From time to time some Christians have
not believed in the full goodness of creation. Early Gnostics and
other "super-spiritual" groups felt that the material world was
badbut they were regarded as heretics by the majority of the
Christians. In the Middle Ages some monks thought that sex was sinfulbut
the Church replied by affirming the sacramentality of marriage.
A few centuries ago Catholic puritans (called Jansenists) condemned
all worldliness and sensualitybut the Church officially rejected
Many of us who come from northern European
backgrounds (especially Irish and German) inherited this Jansenistic
negativity anyway. Priests, nuns and others who shaped attitudes
often portrayed sexual misconduct as the worst possible sin. As
Americans we also adopted a good deal of puritanism from our Protestant
neighbors. Our immigrant grandparents didn't want to appear less
moral than the people around them!
The older and larger Catholic tradition,
however, has Mediterranean roots. Palestinians and Greeks, Italians
and French, Spanish and Portuguese have generally been more comfortable
with their bodies than northern Europeans. Peasants and poor peoplemost
"Catholic countries" even today are poorhave always been among
those who best appreciate the good things that nature has to offer.
Food and drink, sex and children are the simple but most basic pleasures
that life can give us. They are, after all, gifts from God intended
for our enjoyment when wisely used.
This is why Catholicism is fundamentally
sacramental. A sacrament is a sign of God's goodness to us. Catholic
wisdom says that the world and everything in it is a gift from God
and a sign of God. The seven sacraments we celebrate in church use
water and oil, bread and wine, and human touch as signs of God's
graciousness. Catholics see God shining through all of creation,
and so they use the gifts of creation in their most important rituals.
Thus Catholics are very comfortable bringing sculpture, painting,
stained-glass windows, music, drama and other elements of the created
world into their worship.
2. A universal vision
The original meaning of the word catholic is
"universal." The Church was first called catholic in ancient times
after the entire Roman Empire had been converted to Christianity.
The first universal Church council met in Nicaea in the year 325,
and in similar councils the world's bishops formulated the Church's
catholic faith. The summary of that worldwide faith is the Nicene
Creed, which we say at Mass every Sunday.
The Catholic Church still has a worldwide faith, and
the Church's vision is still universal. Pope John Paul II travels
every year to meet Catholics around the world. The Pope's vision
and the Church's vision stretch beyond national boundaries. Wherever
the pope goes he is greeted by Catholicsour brothers and
sisters in the Lord.
The Catholic Church is not a national Church. It is
one of the few truly international institutions in the world today.
The Catholic Church is also a multicultural Church. It is not
just European and American but also Latino and African and Asian.
People of every race and culture embrace the Catholic faith and
are embraced by the universal Church.
Because the Church is universal, it calls us to a
universal vision. As the world gets smaller every year, we need
to regard everyone in it as our neighbor. Our faith is already
larger than most of us realize, challenging our narrowness and
preparing us for global citizenship. The pastoral letters of the
U.S. bishops on peacemaking and on economic justice seek to promote
this global outlook.
If we are truly Catholic, we must look at the world
and all people in it from God's perspective, and not from a nationalistic
or ethnocentric point of view. The Catholic vision, when fully
lived, reflects God's concern for the entire human family.
3. A holistic outlook
The Church has always been concerned with holiness.
At times in the past people have equated holiness with becoming
a plaster saint, aloof from others and abstracted from life. Today
we realize that holiness is wholeness. And if we look at the Catholic
past, we see that this wholeness has always been the ideal.
Catholicism has never said you need to be a secluded
monk or a cloistered nun to be holy. When we look at the Church's
calendar of saints, we see fishermen and farmers, husbands and
wives, rich and poor, soldiers and scholars, even kings and queens
honored there. Everyone is called to achieve his/her fullest potential,
to be a truly whole and holy person.
This holistic spirituality is very rewarding, but
it is also very demanding. Catholic holiness is not a Jesus-and-me
attitude. It's not enough to go to Church on Sunday and leave
the rest of your life unchanged. True holiness requires a conversion
of the whole person, a transformation of the total personality,
a concern for bodily as well as spiritual health, and a balance
between prayer and action. This may require a conversion of our
lifestyle, no matter where we live or what we do for a living.
4. Personal growth
The Catholic vision of human potential
begins with conversiona conversion that is ongoing. It sees
life as a process of continuous conversion and growth. There is
no one moment when a Catholic claims to be "saved," as fundamentalists
do. The stories of the saints show that they continuously strove
for holiness. Even the Catholic devotion known as the Stations of
the Cross suggests that the Christian life is a process, a journey
that goes through stages, introducing us to different challenges,
pitfalls and personalities along the way. Those who persevere in
fidelity and trust enter more deeply into God's life.
Fortunately, our salvation and our happiness
do not depend on us alone. God is with us and lovingly takes the
initiative in offering us salvation and calling us to holiness.
This is the meaning of grace. Grace is God's invitation and power
reaching into us. But we have to open ourselves to God in order
to be filled with the Spirit. We have to cooperate with grace.
Curiously, our cooperation is not so
much a "doing" as a "not doing." The wisdom of the saints is that
they stopped long enough to listen to God in their hearts and let
God tell them how to be truly happy. Growth in the Spirit, growth
in spiritual perfection (as we used to call it), is the same as
growing in Christ. It means surrendering our own shortsightedness
about what we can be and entering into the process of becoming like
Paradoxically, personal fulfillment means
abandoning ourselves and putting others first. In the Catholic tradition,
ultimate satisfaction is promised to those who give up their desire
for self-satisfaction. This is part of the meaning of crucifixion.
The cross leads to resurrection, to new life. When we let go of
ourselves, our lives become filled with grace. The lives of St.
Francis of Assisi, Pope John XXIII and Mother Teresa of Calcutta
radiate a grace that people of all religious traditions admire.
5. Social transformation
Society has been transformed again and again by Christianity.
Jesus proclaimed the coming of God's Kingdom, and the Church has
tried again and again to make the Kingdom real. The Church has
always been concerned for human betterment.
In ancient Rome the Church protested against gladiator
fights and other forms of killing for sport. In the Middle Ages,
prophetic voices in the Church were raised to defend the peasants
against the tyranny of the nobles. Monasteries were the first
hospitals for the sick and the first hotels for weary pilgrims.
The Church has always cared for widows and orphans. It has fought
against slavery, against the dehumanization of factory workers
and against the exploitation of migrant laborers. In the 1960's
Catholics marched for civil rights, and today they march for the
right to life in its many forms as well as for many other social
This concern for the poor and the underprivileged
springs directly from the Catholic understanding of holistic growth
and universal salvation. God wants everyone to reach full potential
as a human being created in God's image. This means first having
basic human needs met and then growing to full maturity in Christ
through meeting the needs of others. The gospel is a message to
be shared at every level of human life, and the good news is that
God's power is available to redeem the world.
Accepting the Catholic vision means never accepting
things the way they are. People are always hurting and suffering
oppression. People are always needing to be healed and set free.
But to stop much of the pain and hurt, society itself has to be
transformed. Being Catholic means standing with those social reformers
who have always wanted to change the world, making it more like
6. A communal spirit
To a great extent, we in America have
lost the Catholic sense of community. Our large parishes are often
very impersonal; at Sunday Mass most people feel more like an anonymous
audience than a faith community.
The reason for this is that we Catholics
have bought into the American myths of rugged individualism and
middle-class success. We believe that we have to make it on our
own and that, if we are successful, we should have our own separate
houses , our own private cars, and all the appliances to live comfortably
This individualism and self-centeredness
is disastrous for community. It is not the ideal taught us by our
Catholic tradition. The Christian way of living is communitarian.
Early Christians were so connected to one another that St. Paul
called each community a "body of Christ." When the Church grew larger,
some Spirit-led Christians left the cities to live together in the
countryside. They worked and prayed together in what were then called
monasteries. Today we might call them Christian communes.
Monasteries were centers of Christian
living all around Europe in the Middle Ages. In time, community-minded
Christians discovered other ways of joining their lives together
even in cities. Usually these communities focused on some apostolic
work such as caring for the sick, the homeless or the uneducated.
That's the origin of today's religious orders.
The peculiarly Catholic gift to the Church
is community. Protestantism broke away from the tradition of monasteries
and religious orders. This is not to say religious orders are the
only way of achieving a communal spirit within the Catholic and
Protestant traditions. Indeed, in many cases, Catholics can learn
much from the degree of "fellowship" achieved in numerous Protestant
communions. However, Catholic theologyif not always our practicechallenges
us to see the Church as community.
Today, when many of our traditional orders
have grown to institutional proportions, Catholics are searching
for new forms of communal life. Many in religious orders are moving
into smaller, more personal living arrangements. Prayer groups,
spiritual movements and base communities are all attempts to revive
this Catholic charism in a modern setting. In our individualistic
society, there is a felt need for this gift of community.
7. A profound sense of history
The Catholic Church has been around for
a long timenearly 20 centuries. That's four or five times
the age of the oldest Protestant denominations, and 10 times as
old as the United States. Belonging to a Church with that sort of
history gives us a unique historical perspective. At least, it should!
Too often we as Americans live in the
immediacy of the present. We forget that most of the problems we
face today as individuals and as a society have been addressed by
the Church for centuries and centuries. How quickly we forget that
the English once were our enemies, as were the Germans and the Japanese
even more recently. How quickly we forget the conversion of Russia
some 1,000 years ago, and that the majority of people who live under
communism are Christians. When we forget that most people who would
be killed by our nuclear attack are our sisters and brothers in
Christ, it is easy to picture them as our enemies. Yet our history
shows that those who were once considered enemies can become friends.
In its 2,000 years, the Church has lived
under kings and emperors, in democracies and dictatorships, under
capitalism and communism. The Catholic perspective on history shows
that we do not have to fear any political or economic system. The
gospel can be lived in any place, at any time, under any conditions.
Our strong sense of roots and continuity with a rich Catholic past
is certainly a value to be cherished.
8. A respect for human knowledge
After philosophy (which dates back to
pre-Christian times) the oldest intellectual discipline in the world
is theology. Catholicism has never been a matter of blind faith.
One of the earliest definitions of theology is "faith seeking understanding."
The Catholic ideal is to respect reason and promote understanding.
When barbarian tribes swept across Europe
and caused the fall of the Roman Empire, monks carefully copied
fragile manuscripts so that ancient science would not be lost. Even
in the "Dark Ages" that bred the anti-intellectualism of the Inquisition,
Christian scholars were founding schools which eventually became
the great universities of Europe. Despite the obtuseness of the
Church officials who condemned Galileo, modern science grew out
of the efforts of Christians to understand the universe that God
St. Augustine tried to understand all
of history from the perspective of Catholic faith. St. Thomas Aquinas
studied all medieval science before writing his great Summa Theologica,
a four-volume "summary" of theology. Other Catholic scholars advanced
medicine, law, astronomy and biology. Catholics believe that if
they are firmly grounded in their faith, they do not have to feel
threatened by any scientific knowledge. Teilhard de Chardin integrated
evolution into his Christian understanding of the cosmos.
This openness to human knowledge is not
true of all Christians today. Some fundamentalists close their eyes
against the evidence for evolution. Others insist so strongly on
the truth of the Bible that they have little respect for what psychology
and sociology can teach us. Some Catholics fall into this same trap
regarding Church dogmas. But the broader Catholic wisdom is that
all truth comes from God, whether it is revealed or discovered.
Our heritage points to Christ
To be truly Catholic therefore means
to enter into the Catholic wisdom tradition. It means appreciating
all of creation and looking at the world from a universal perspective.
It means adopting a holistic outlook that encourages personal growth
and social transformation. It means building community and learning
from history. It means not being afraid to ask questions about faith,
about the Church, or about the world in which we live.
Yet all this heritage is pointless unless
it also points us to Christ, and to living the gospel. The reason
for accepting the Catholic tradition is to learn better from our
rich past how to live our faith more deeply today.