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Friday 26 August 2011

What is a Catholic, anyway?

Those of us considering the Ordinariate (a structure for Anglicans coming into full communion with the Holy See) ponder what we believe, what we have been and what we are becoming in terms of our membership in the Body of Christ. We must also consider what a Catholic Christian affirms as distinct from those of other faiths or of no faith.

Catholics are not . . .

First of all it may be helpful to consider what being or becoming a Catholic is not, despite what popular opinion and prejudice may say.

1.     Entering or being received into the full communion of the Catholic Church does not mean being “re-baptized”. If one is already baptized by water in the Name of the Holy Trinity, one is already a member of Christ’s One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.

Here is a helpful thought from Fr. Sam Edwards, an Anglican priest who is entering the Ordinariate:

    Like Tennyson’s Ulysses, “I am a part of all that I have met,” and it is a part of me. I was baptized into the Great Belonging of Christ’s body in the Methodist Church, but that act did not make me a Methodist, but a catholic Christian.  This is true in the case of all baptisms administered with water “in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.”  (Methodism claims nothing less; the Catholic Church entirely agrees, for while she teaches that the Church of Jesus Christ “subsists” visibly and most fully in that body whose bishops are in full communion with one another and with the Bishop of Rome, she does not thereby deny the reality of the Christian identity and commitment of those who are outside those limits, but instead invites them inside . . .)

2.    Being a Catholic does not mean you must be a member of the Western Latin Church (mistakenly called "Roman" Catholic, a term which refers officially only to those in the Diocese of Rome). Catholics who are, by definition, those in full communion with Rome may equally be members of Eastern churches. In fact, Christianity, like Judaism, is originally an oriental religion. Some Eastern churches in full communion with Rome are: Ukrainian, Melkite (Arab) and Maronite (Syrian/ Lebanese) Catholics. These churches are fully Catholic along with many other Eastern churches in a variety of countries using a variety of liturgies and languages: Coptic Catholics, Armenian Catholics, Chaldean Catholics. There are over 20 distinct self-governing (sui juris) Eastern churches in full communion with the Pope and the Holy See. They are Catholic but not Roman.

3.    All those who are not in full communion with Rome are not considered heretics. There are degrees of communion since all the baptized are part, by definition, of the one universal Catholic Church of Christ on the most basic level. A number of Eastern churches, apart from those mentioned above, are not yet in full communion with Rome but have bishops, priests and deacons who are recognized by the Pope as legitimately ordained sacred ministers. These clergy hold the Orthodox Christian faith and celebrate what Rome considers valid sacraments but are not yet in full communion with the Holy See e.g. the Greek, Russian, Romanian and Bulgarian Orthodox along with the Orthodox Church of America and other Orthodox churches as well as the Assyrian Church of the East, amongst others. .

4.   These churches professing Catholic faith but not in full communion with Rome are not excommunicated. As noted, they participate in a degree of unity or communion and may, in certain circumstances, share in or even administer the sacraments to Roman Catholics.  Canon 671 of the 1991 Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, states: 

    "If necessity requires it or genuine spiritual advantage suggests it and provided that the danger of error or indifferentism is avoided, it is permitted for Catholic Christian faithful, for whom it is physically or morally impossible to approach a Catholic minister, to receive the sacraments of penance, the Eucharist and anointing of the sick from non-Catholic ministers, in whose Churches these sacraments are valid. Likewise Catholic ministers licitly administer the Sacraments of Penance, the Eucharist and Anointing of the Sick to Christian faithful of Eastern Churches, who do not have full communion with the Catholic Church, if they ask for them on their own and are properly disposed."

5.    Being a Catholic does not mean practising every tradition or custom found in the various churches which are part of Catholic Church.  There is a difference between doctrine as set forth in The Catechism of the Catholic Church and the devotions or practices of various groups in the Catholic Church.  For example, nothing requires a Catholic to say the rosary, go on a pilgrimage, venerate relics, kiss icons or light candles at shrines to saints. Blessed John Henry Newman, a famous Anglican who was received into full communion with Rome, did not like some of the practices and attitudes nor some of the art of continental European Catholicism. On the other hand, every Catholic is required to attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation unless hindered by sickness or another legitimate reason and to prepare for and receive Holy Communion at least once a year at Easter. 
So there are customs and spiritual practices that vary from place to place as well as doctrinal rules that apply to all Catholics. The former are a matter of taste and preference and are not obligatory; the latter are the basic rules of membership in the Body of Christ and so are for all. Many outside the Church confuse popular piety and a mistaken emphasis given by some Catholics to certain practices with the actual teaching of the Church.

So, what does a Catholic believe?

Catholics, like other Christians, are followers of Jesus Christ; believing that Jesus is fully God and fully man, the Son of God and their Lord and Saviour.

Catholics believe that Jesus Christ commissioned the leadership of his Church, which is, in a mystical way, his body. Jesus insisted upon the unity of the Church based upon the rock of Peter. (Matthew chapter 16 verse 18). Those who hold the Catholic faith are called to unity with each other in the body of Christ and with all Christians, indeed with all humanity, through the power of the Holy Spirit. 

Christian unity reflects the unity of the one God, perfectly united in Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is the vocation of every Christian to pray for, seek and serve unity in the Church.

Catholic unity requires both allegiance and sacrifice. There are levels of unity between people and with God. The Catholic faith requires that we join our Lord in his prayer ut unum sint – that they all may be one. We join in his sacrifice, his self-giving for the life of the world by seeking to nurture the unity for which he gives his life through the Church and the ministry of all baptized people for the life of the world (John 6:51).

If one holds the Catholic Faith it is imperative, then, to find ways to grow in unity with the leadership of the one Church commissioned by Jesus and to bring others into that unity. The principle ministry of the Bishop of Rome, the Pope or Holy Father, is to nurture this unity. 

It is central to the Catholic faith that all bishops seek and nurture unity and that bishops be in communion with the Bishop of Rome, the centre of unity and successor of St. Peter of whom our Lord said, “And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18)
This is a contentious issue for some because they profess Catholic faith but have difficulty with the history of the papacy or with the history of the Catholic Church as they understand it or have been misinformed about it. These are understandable concerns as there is much of fallen human nature that has wounded humanity and the witness of the Church. Yet the principle of unity is essential since there is one God, one Christ and one Church and Jesus commands it.

How do we square the fallen nature of humanity, the fallenness and corruption of some people in the Church, indeed at times of some at the highest levels of the Church, with the holiness of the Church as proclaimed in the Catholic creeds. How is this possible when we have the promise of Jesus to Peter and to us, his followers that the gates of hell shall not prevail against his Church? (Matthew 16:18)

This question is pertinent to what it means to be a Catholic Christian and requires a fuller treatment elsewhere.  We need say here, however, that the Church, the centre of unity for humanity, is the Body of Christ but the body has been and continues to be wounded by the sinful actions of human beings – “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23; cf. Romans 1:18-3:20; 11:32; Gal 3:22). 

Since all have sinned, this includes all those in the Church and those leading the Church. Jesus did not say that Satan would not be able to influence some in the Church, but that evil would not prevail against the mission of Christ and his Church.  The struggle goes on.

This struggle and the occasional defeat does not and will not stop Christ’s reconciling love and his giving of himself for us and others in and through the Church – the Bride of Christ. Christ continues to give us his very life – his body and blood in the Eucharist bringing healing and unity through the proclamation of the Word and Sacraments in and through the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church despite the fallen nature of those who serve the Church.

Forgiveness is always available and always necessary for members of the Church especially as they prepare to receive and offer Christ in the sacraments. The sacraments are the outward and visible signs of his love for us and are the assured means of his grace for those who will receive and, in turn, minister his love to others. This constant need for forgiveness does not affect the Church’s call to holiness or the ideal of perfection which she holds out to all those who seek the City of God. In a family no member is perfect but all are called to serve the good and the unity of the family by seeking forgiveness from God and from one another so that the family may continue to pursue its ideals and help others.

So, being a Catholic means recognizing the holiness and vocation of the Church (which is God’s doing and grace) to bring others to reconciliation with God and with one another as a witness to the world that God so loves (John  3:16). 

As stated recently in an article here on Confession, “The Seal of the Confessional”, unity in the vocation to holiness requires that the Sacrament of Penance i.e. the ministry of justice, forgiveness and healing be participated in by every member of the Church including the Pope and those leading the Church. This sacrament of reconciliation is a witness to the world, a sign of unity and a call to the rest of humanity to seek the same unity that Christ wills for all. This is entirely the work and power of God conveyed through ‘earthen vessels’ (2 Corinthians 4:7), by frail human beings whom God has chosen to be his partners in the ministry of his justice and love.

To be a Catholic means, then, to be a penitent receiving God’s forgiveness and then forgiving others by the power of the Holy Spirit, a power which is communicated in the assurance of the healing sacraments: Baptism, Penance, Eucharist, Unction (anointing of for healing) and in various other acts of love and mercy.

This recognition of the fallen nature of humanity is widely rejected in the West today, but remains true and all the more necessary because it is so widely denied. Ironically, those who stand outside of the Church to judge her do so based upon the very principles of the Christian faith, which they have absorbed but failed to attribute to Christ and his Catholic Church. The standards of justice and mercy in the West are directly attributable to Christianity (see Rene Girard: Things Hidden from the Foundation of the World, Stanford University Press; and The Scapegoat, CBC Ideas:)

What about Protestant Objections?

This issue of God’s justifying us through faith and our continuing participation in the life of Christ or sanctification and growth in love and service goes to the root of the thorny problem of justification and sanctification that has been an obstacle for Protestants since the Reformation. 

The justification/ sanctification issue is a very large topic to be dealt in another article but is one that has been discussed extensively in recent years and has been discerned not to be an insuperable barrier to further unity in Christ. In recent Lutheran-RC dialogues and in the discussions that the Catholic Church continues to have with other Christian ecclesial communities these matters bring forth agreements leading to a deepening of Christian unity.

A Catholic Christian believes that by God’s forgiving and justifying grace we are open to the goodness of God’s creation and sanctifying grace. Though imperfect as human beings, we are forgiven for our sins and empowered by the Holy Spirit to seek God and the good of others by means of faith, hope and love. We accept grace by faith in Christ. This faith is freely bestowed as a gift by which we are empowered to co-operate and so bring forth the fruit of God’s love in works of mercy for the good of all.  

Grace abounds and as members of the Body of Christ, the universal Catholic Church, we participate as free human beings growing in grace now and beyond the grave as we are purified by God’s burning love along with the prayers of all the faithful here (the Church Militant), those in the Church Expectant (those who have gone before us in faith) and those in the Church Triumphant (the saints in heaven).

One recent example of the reconciling negotiations on this and other matters is The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, a document created by and agreed to by the Catholic Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Lutheran World Federation in 1999. It affirms that the Lutherans, Catholics and others now share "a common understanding of our justification by God's grace through faith in Christ." This agreement resolves the conflict over the nature of justification that was at the root of the Protestant Reformation and removes another barrier to unity in Christ.

The excommunications relating to the doctrine of justification by the Council of Trent  no longer apply to the teachings of the Lutheran churches and others who affirm the agreement. In 2006 the World Methodist Council, meeting in South Korea, voted unanimously to adopt this document.  Anglicans who did not share the same level of doctrinal concern on this issue generally accept the text as well.

This kind of agreement is important because it removes another barrier to unity and contributes to acceptance of the Petrine ministry, the ministry of unity exercised by the Pope and the Catholic Church for all Christians. Discussions continue about various aspects of universal Catholic Christian faith and how it may be more widely accepted by all those bodies separated from full communion with the Holy See.


A Catholic affirms all efforts to bring about co-operation and increase communion with people of faith and good will who affirm life, seek healing for themselves and others and are open to dialogue and co-operation with the Holy See. Being in communion with the Catholic Church links us to the largest and most universal community of all time and one which seeks the good of every human being from conception to natural death. The Catholic affirms that everything good in human nature and the world comes from and returns to God who loves and holds the universe in being.

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