I have the privilege of corresponding almost every day with people who are curious about coming into the Catholic Church. I also spend a lot of time with Catholics talking about the state of the Church and the world—what to hope for, what to worry about, whom to trust. For people outside the Catholic Church, there are often questions about what it would really be like if they came inside. For people inside, what the Church really is can become obscured by what we think it should be, imperiling our efforts to seek and save the lost, and to bring our separated brethren into full communion. For the sake of our evangelistic efforts, and the health of our own souls, I offer my fellow Catholics five useful words.
As the Lord departed from his disciples in Matthew 28:18, he reminded them and us that we are empowered for our work in the Church and the world by a power proper to him alone: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” But even from the very beginning of the Church, Christ’s authority was never exercised in the abstract or according to competing visions of what it should be, but in the living authority of the Apostles, with St. Peter at their head. For Protestants looking to come into the Church, the pope can be an obstacle; but he also solves the problems of formal disunity and doctrinal disagreement that plague other ecclesial groups. After all, if we don’t obey a living authority in the faith outside ourselves, then we obey our own interpretation of the faith. When I became Catholic, I was liberated from being my own pope. During Pope Francis’ reign, as in papacies of the past, Catholics should not spend time publicly criticizing the pope or dismissing his authority.
Trusting the Magisterium and being obedient to the pope does not mean switching off our individual brains when we open our copies of the Catechism. Rather, the clear boundaries of faith and morals in which we live as Catholics come to resemble an ever-expanding playground of the soul, not a claustrophobic mental prison. When I was a Protestant, I was sometimes paralyzed by infinite options, and at other times, I foolishly dug in my heels defending theologically broad ideas in a very narrow way because I imagined I was alone against the wicked world. As a Catholic, I can relax a bit—though I still have to watch myself against falling into scrupulosity. There is, after all, no such thing as “almost” heresy or “almost” sin. Dogmatic and canonical lines exist precisely so that we know exactly—not approximately—how far we can wander on our own spiritual journeys. And when we cross lines, we know exactly what to do to be healed, restored, and put back on the right track. I’ve never felt freer to be myself than after Confession. Enjoy the Church’s vast expanse!
Being Catholic means there is no part of one’s life that is untouched. A couple of practical examples: We are not the weirdo sub-genre of Christianity that rejects contraception. Rather, we don’t contracept because we cannot resist the power of a transcendent natural law that governs all of humanity whether we know it or not. Moreover, our complete openness to life is a response to Christ’s full outpouring of grace upon us in everything we do. Likewise, we are not the “mean Christians” who refuse to let people start afresh if they have had a bad marriage. Rather, the annulment process, however it may end, is how the Church helps a couple discern a way forward in individual cases, while preserving the inviolability of a sacramental system that is much bigger than anyone. (But that’s a topic for another time.) To insist on a sovereign self who makes sacrosanct personal decisions is to live in a very small universe. Thank God our lives are not about us!
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “The Church is in history, but at the same time she transcends it” (770). In the Church, we get a foretaste of eternity every Sunday, if not every day: Christ’s Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. The veil between heaven and earth drops every time we are present for the sacrifice of the Mass. As a former Protestant, I can’t get enough of this mystery. As St. John Vianney said, “If we really understood the Mass, we would die of joy.” I would ask, “Why don’t we Catholics work a bit harder to help people find deeper understanding and deeper joy in the Mass?” In the Catholic Church, we can make sense of the here-and-now because we can experience here-and-now the life of God in the liturgy. “The kingdom of heaven has come near,” Jesus tells us. Why, therefore, do some of my Catholic brothers and sisters content themselves to ignore it or diminish it by getting mired in worldliness instead of receiving, spending, and sharing the heavenly riches of the Mass?
Catholicism is not a denomination. We should be quick to point out “the Church teaches _______,” but none of us should give the impression that Catholics have the most truth simply because we have the most rules. The Creed, the sacraments, morality and ethics, and prayer are the way things are. They describe as much as they prescribe. As Joseph Ratzinger wrote in the Introduction to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, our faith should avoid “ecclesiocentrism,” which “leads to a kind of relativism and subjectivism of faith,” or “merely the Church’s consciousness.” This error can run in many directions—towards a liberal unraveling of the deposit of faith, to be sure, but perhaps towards an artificial traditionalism at times too. We do not become or remain Catholic because we find it the best option among many. Nor do we get bent out of shape when the Church does not always look the way we wish it did. The Church is, and we are within it.
When we find ourselves talking to people who are curious about the Catholic faith, or family members who have drifted away, let us use these five words as a framework for our conversations. And let us each check our own assumptions about what it means to be Catholic for the sake of expanding our number to the ends of the earth.