Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Being Catholic

Many people seeing the strange outward trappings of the Catholic Church, learn superficially of some of her teachings or upon seeing its members’ sins automatically assume that the Church is a purely human institution that is misguided and backward thinking. Unfortunately, some Catholics believe this as well but many continue going to Church because they rightly recognize that the Eucharist is the most important bond that they can possibly have to Jesus.

After learning more of the theology of the Church, I found some of the reasonable explanations for why I followed the inner wisdom of my heart and made my way back to this Church that is so ridiculed in our modern times.

The Church is not simply a human institution, or a “religious Enron” as a man visiting our bookcenter recently angrily insisted. It is hard to understand this when we focus on the failings and serious sins of the human members of the Church but we must continually remind ourselves of the reason for the existence of the Church.

God loves us each in a deep and unfathomable way but our relationship with Him is never purely individual. He has always willed to save us not as one person but as a people, united in the Holy Spirit.

It is the Church that can bring about this unity that binds us together through a common profession of faith, celebration of sacraments and apostolic succession. These three things are what keep us from falling apart, from spinning off into breakaway groups and losing part or most of the deposit of faith that Jesus gave us in Scripture.

You may rightly be saying - but wait Catholics have a lot in their tradition that is not directly from Scripture. That is true. The concept of the Trinity, accepted by virtually all Christian denominations, was not fully developed until 325AD. Does this mean that it was not found in Scripture? No. It simply means that the Holy Spirit is still speaking to us, helping us to understand Scripture and to learn more about God through the Church, through the Holy Spirit speaking through the Church.

That being said, the Church cannot subtract or change the teachings of Scripture. This is very important in our modern day and age when there is a huge amount of pressure for the Church to change with the times, even if it is opposed to Scripture and Jesus' teachings.

While the Church cannot subtract or change Scripture, it can add to the teachings of Scripture. This does not come from the authority of the Church but rather the authority of Christ. The Church is not here to add dogmas willy nilly but rather their primary purpose is to preserve what Scripture and Jesus has given us and if you look at the bulk of Catholic teaching, that is what it does. Given that, when the pope does declare teachings that are Scriptural but not directly found in Scripture,  the addition is not mechanical like a room being added to a house. Peter Kreeft likens the Church’s Sacred Tradition to fruit blossoming on the tree of Scriptural truths; it is not a human addition but rather a divinely inspired discovery (i.e. the Immaculate Conception) revealed to the Church from the love of God.

The Church is also holy, not because all of its members are holy but because the head of the Church, Jesus, is holy and He pours His holiness on us so that we can be shining examples of holiness in the world and lead others to Christ who we are imitating. Mother Teresa is an example of this holiness that the whole world recognizes.

But the Catholic Church does not have a monopoly on holiness (obviously). There are many holy people of other faiths and religions but because the Church provides the strongest means to holiness through the graces of the sacraments, people are given a greater opportunity to become holy within the confines of the Church. I know this sounds arrogant but truthfully it is the opposite. It is because of this teaching that I realize that whatever sanctity I gain in this life, it comes from Jesus and the graces He gives me through the Church, it is not due to my ability to discipline myself in the spiritual life or any of my talents or gifts. I can attribute it all to Jesus, who pours His graces out on me, through the Church.

The Church is catholic or universal because God is universal. He is Truth and Truth does not apply to one person or one nation, it applies to the entire world. God is THE universal truth, which is why His Church must be universal. It cannot be confined to one part of the world or only applicable to one kind of person. It is easy to become narrow in our thinking, to focus only on the United States or one group of people or on particular aspects of our faith that are relevant to our world view. Catholics are not exempt from this problem. But we are a universal Church, heading towards heaven together, not country by country or issue by issue.

You may be saying what about other Christians who are not Catholic, are you saying they are not part of the Church? Not necessarily, the Catholic Church recognizes that the Body of Christ extends beyond the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church. But there is only one Body of Christ. Division is not from the Holy Spirit, and there is only one Truth - God. Therefore, what divides us must have answers and we must strive together to find these answers, to find unity in Christ who is the Truth.

Many people, including many Catholics, refer to the Church hierarchy with disdain and anger but if it were not for the continuity of apostolic succession from the apostles to our current pope, where would our Church be today? Gone. Jesus knew what He was doing when He established apostolic succession. It is not because He is a fascist or because He thinks men are better than women, it is simply because He knew what would work. He is God after all.

So, Jesus chose twelve male apostles, He told Peter that He was particularly important and upon Him, Jesus would build His Church (Mt 16: 13-19). These apostles of Christ chose successors to pass on the message of Jesus and that is how apostolic succession was established. Contrary to a lot of current thinking about the hierarchy of the Church, it is not by nature backward or dictatorial, it is simple there to continually adhere to the teachings of Jesus Christ as put forward in Scripture. That is why the Catholic Church does not change with the winds of popular opinions. The Church has to stick with what has been given to us.

The Church is not just an outwardly visible institution on earth. We are all united in Christ together and not just on earth. The Church is composed of those people here on earth, in purgatory and in heaven. That is why Catholics ask for saints’ prayers, it is the same for us to ask St. Therese to pray for us as it is to ask our Christian brothers and sisters on earth to keep an intention in their prayer. We are all one family and we are in this together.

Some of you may be asking – this is all nice but what about non-Christians – how do they fit in this picture? The Catholic Church clearly teaches that there is no salvation outside of the Church, meaning you cannot enter heaven without being a member of the Church. This has been a teaching from early Christianity and Jesus Himself said, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn 14:6). But it is really important to understand that this does not mean that non-Catholics or Christians cannot be saved. The Church teaches that people who, through no fault of their own, do not know Jesus and understand what He has done for them, can still enter heaven. This is pretty obvious to me but I am astounded by how many people think that the Catholic Church believes all non-Catholics will go to hell. This is simply not true.

But, this does not mean that those people who DO know Jesus are off the hook though. The Church does not dare say that everyone automatically gets into heaven because God is merciful, (although some Catholics will tell you differently). But Jesus Himself does not say that everyone is saved - "Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it” (Mt 7:13). If Jesus Himself says that many are not entering heaven, He does not tell us this to scare us but out of love, the love of a Father for His children. And it is this same love Jesus gives to us that impels us to share Christ with others. We do this because we want others to share in the joys of Christ, not because we are positive that their religion or faith will not lead them to heaven.

If you have read to the bottom of this post and are not Catholic, I congratulate you on your tolerance! I hope that everyone who reads this will come to understand the Catholic perspective better and I hope that what I write only leads to unity because God wants us to be together on earth to prepare us for a life of being together in heaven.

May God bless you dear friends.

This blog post inspired by readings from the Catechism of the Catholic Church and Catholic Christianity by Peter Kreeft (highly recommended!)

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