by Richard Rohr, O.F.M., and Joseph Martos
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 be—or remain—Catholic?
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 bad—but they were regarded as heretics by the majority of the Christians. In the Middle Ages some monks thought that sex was sinful—but the Church replied by affirming the sacramentality of marriage. A few centuries ago Catholic puritans (called Jansenists) condemned all worldliness and sensuality—but the Church officially rejected their teaching.
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 people—most “Catholic countries” even today are poor—have 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 Catholics—our 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 conversion—a 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 Christ.
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 causes.
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 God’s Kingdom.
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 by ourselves.
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 theology—if not always our practice—challenges 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 time—nearly 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 created.
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.
Richard Rohr, O.F.M., founder of New Jerusalem Community in Cincinnati, now serves as executive director of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Joseph Martos heads the theology department at Allentown College in Pennsylvania and is the author of Doors to the Sacred. This Update is adapted from their book, Why Be Catholic? by St. Anthony Messenger Press.