When I first began considering the claims of Christianity, I encountered a lot of Christians—all of them Protestant—who admitted to having a personal and abiding relationship with Jesus Christ, professing this inner, subjective fellowship to be part and parcel of the Christian faith, with no particular religion or creed required apart from that. At first blush, this appealed even to me, a grinch. No tiresome, stuck-in-the-mud, medieval theology to study, no (allegedly) outdated social teachings on contraception or abortion to uphold, and no institutional hierarchy under some dogmatically infallible bishop with a froofy hat. Just a sort of “Let’s hang out, me and you” thing, only with God. Now, who wouldn’t want that? Well, there is at least one person who wouldn’t want that, and that person was (and is) God.
For all the conversations I had with Protestants explaining their personal relationship with Jesus (crudely, I often wondered if this relationship had yet been “made official” on social media), I noticed a conspicuous and enduring absence of what always seemed to me a much more fundamental question: When talking about relating to God, are there any specifics from God on how to do this? Could it be possible, I often wondered, that this relationship isn’t simply unidirectional, largely subjective and feelings-based, and maintained principally at our convenience, but that certain, particular details might have been expounded by Christ on what this relationship should objectively entail? Did God offer any instructions—or, commands, say—on how to relate to him? Because if so, then Christianity is still a relationship, but it’s also a religion.
Let us refer to Scripture and see.
By my count, there are several quite specific “requests” (if we’re calling them that) apparent throughout the New Testament on how God wants us to relate to him and so be saved, including but not limited to: our profession of faith (Luke 12:8, Rom. 10:9); our belief in Christ (John 3:16, Acts 16:31); our Baptism (John 3:5, 1 Pet. 3:21, Titus 3:5); our repentance (Acts 2:38, 2 Pet. 3:9); our eating of Christ’s flesh (John 6); grace (Acts 15:11, Eph. 2:8); and, naturally enough, also our works which follow (Rom. 2:6-7, James 2:24), including our keeping of God’s commandments (Matt. 19:17). In short, it is eerily as if God wanted us to be Catholic.
(Surely enough, Protestants will debate the interpretation of some, if not all, of these passages, but that merely brings us back to the obvious ontological and epistemological primacy of the Church which, through Sacred Tradition, compiled what Christians consider Scripture in the first place.)
Thus, to be Catholic is this: to understand, accept, and conform our lives in relationship to Christ in just the way that God commands—by joining ourselves to the Church he established, partaking in the sacraments, and living according to Christ’s teachings. This is how God wants us to know and love him, and how he intends to get us into heaven and make us saints. Nowhere, at any time, did God command us solely to profess our “personal relationship with Jesus Christ”—a sort of “set it (or in this case, say it) and forget it” theology—but, on multiple accounts, he did command us to literally eat him, follow his moral teaching, and take disputes before the Church. That last one, in particular, is a divine command that reduces instantly to meaninglessness apart from any unified, authoritative hierarchy—that is, the Catholic Church. To be Catholic, then, is to have a relationship with God on God’s terms, and not our own.
After all, what is religion if not, when looking at the root of the word, a “linking back”? And so it is through the tradition of the Catholic Church that we bind ourselves to Christ and his apostolic succession, and, in doing as much, participate in the same holy and divinely ordained visible, unified body that Christ established here on earth, benefiting from the same beautiful grace-conferring sacraments, devotions, prayers, and community that Christians throughout all ages since Christ have engaged in. We’re Catholic because Christ commanded us to be. Our religion is the relationship God intends us to have.