Is Anyone Catholic Anymore?


April 6, 2017

God is the Most Real Being, so our religion is about what we accept as most real. It’s our basic understanding of the world, to which all our other views must accommodate themselves.

That’s a problem. To all appearances, Catholics have pretty much the same basic understandings as other people. Otherwise, our thoughts and actions would be distinctive, and on the whole they’re not. That’s what opinion surveys show, it’s what many of us find in ourselves, and it’s essentially the view of John Allen, a well-informed and level-headed journalist. As he notes,

Rudolph Otto famously described the religious sentiment as the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, ‘the tremendous and fascinating mystery,’ but to be honest, that’s probably not how most Catholics experience it.

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Instead, he says, the Church as a practical matter is basically about everyday concerns like community, politics, and charitable activity—all worthwhile pursuits, but far from unique. He mentions worship and doctrine, but without the mysterium those things lose their reference and become hobbies. He notes there are Catholics who want more, but describes them as people looking for “signs, wonders and miracles under every rock.” So from his perspective they’re more like flying saucer buffs than mystics or saints.

It appears, then, that for the most part either no one is Catholic today, because Catholics are no different from anyone else, or everyone is as good as Catholic, because the absence of the connection doesn’t make much difference.

The “no one’s Catholic” theory has more scriptural support: “There is not any man just. There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God.” “Strait is the gate, and narrow is the way that leadeth to life: and few there are that find it!” “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man [apparently, anyone with sufficient material goods to arouse attachment] to enter into the kingdom of heaven.” “But yet the Son of man, when he cometh, shall he find … faith on earth?”

All of which sounds rather dispiriting, so it’s not surprising that many people prefer the view that at bottom everyone’s Catholic. That view can appeal to distinguished support: Karl Rahner had his theory of the anonymous Christian, and Hans Urs von Balthasar tended toward universalism. Put the two together, drop scholarly nuance, and everyone becomes a budding Catholic saint.

This second view seems to have caught on within the Church, as evidenced by vanishing concern with conversion, denunciations of “proselytism,” and praise for atheists, along with strong emphasis on ecumenical and interfaith solidarity. The idea seems to be that it’s small-minded and possibly malicious to make so much of doctrines and dogmas that divide when what unites us, for example our common humanity, is so much greater and more important.

Beyond that, our pastors have wanted to bring Catholicism to modern man. That can mean a variety of things, but as a practical matter it tends to mean making it appealing to someone with a fundamentally modern understanding of the world—that is, a thoroughly secular outlook that excludes any understanding of the transcendent specific and concrete enough to support belief in a substantive revelation. So the effort to update the Faith—or at least its presentation, to the extent the distinction matters practically—tends to suppress God’s distinctiveness and objectivity. He becomes in effect a content-free point of reference, not the sort of being someone could love with heart, soul, and mind, while Jesus becomes a teacher who performed no miracles as traditionally conceived, but challenges us to do in our time what he did in his.

For the sake of contemporary outreach, what Jesus did in his time is to be interpreted with current preoccupations in mind. So “acting like Jesus” becomes a matter of downplaying law, ritual, tradition, and other concrete aspects of religion in favor of “following the spirit” and “not judging”—that is, accepting and supporting people exactly as they are. The updated Gospel message, then, is that we should be spiritual but not religious, and above all tolerant and inclusive, and the purpose of the Faith becomes personal fulfillment and social betterment as determined through open-ended discernment that draws heavily on current progressivism.

But such a this-worldly faith isn’t Catholic at all, certainly not distinctively so. So the “everyone’s as good as Catholic” view merges into the “no one’s Catholic” one. Either way, supposed Catholics and supposed non-Catholics are pretty much the same.

The clergy, theologians, and ordinary believers involved in these and related developments have their own views, of course, and may be able to present interesting arguments in favor of this or that position. Even so, general practical tendencies have, I think, pointed in the direction described, and the overall effect and tendency seem a basic test of the value of theology, pastoral initiatives, and how all of us understand and practice the Faith.

A basic issue is that we are rational animals, so truth and therefore doctrine matter, especially in the long run. Aquinas and Aristotle tell us that “a small error in the beginning grows enormous at the end.” That is why it is normal for distinctions to clarify as a tradition develops: it’s the natural attempt to get things right. With that in mind, it can’t be a sign of progress when Catholicism starts to go in the opposite direction.

So it’s a problem that in the last half-century the Church has tended more and more to blur distinctions. I’ve mentioned the anonymous Christian, creeping universalism, and developments related to ecumenism as examples. Another is provided by Jacques Maritain’s “democratic charter,” which tells us that unity in the truth is not needed for unity in the good. (Can that be right? If social goods can be secured without definite reference to ultimate truth, because good tendencies spread on account of their intrinsic appeal, why would the salvation of the world require something as dramatic as the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection, and the foundation of a visible Church endowed with infallibility?)

The question lurking behind all these issues, I think, is whether transcendent realities need to be taken seriously. Is Catholicism just a way of symbolizing human concerns also dealt with symbolically in other traditions? Is its basic function helping people deal with those concerns, and leading them to support the common project of building a global habitat for humanity? Or does it truly provide a special connection to the Most Real Being, so that simply as rational beings we need to concern ourselves with it and put it first? The Catholic answers seem obvious, but to all appearances people don’t pay them much attention.

I should note though that visible tendencies however impressive are not the only things that matter. It would hardly be Catholic to believe so. It matters far more that there are people for whom God truly is the Most Real Being. They are the saints, who outrank hierarchs, scholars, commentators, and majorities, and to aspire to be Catholic is to hope to join them. They may sometimes complain about conditions within the Church, but those conditions—mediocrity, corruption, subordination to worldly powers and interests—are not the point for them. The point is what is most real, and from that the Church and those who love God can never be separated. We should take their example to heart.


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