Monday, May 3, 2010

Putting First Things First: Why Be A Catholic?

On another blog, I was reading of certain conflicts some people had in being interested in being a part of the Church, yet disagreeing with what it taught.  In my comment on this blog I said I found myself perplexed as to why people would want to join the Church if they think she errs so fundamentally on a matter.

I did some looking around and found this was a position which did exist more widely than I had thought.  There are people out there who are attracted to the Church, but disagree with what she teaches, and think she should change her ways before they would enter.

On reflection I should not have been surprised. After all, within the Church there are many who think the Church should be what they want it to be and get angry when it goes a direction they do not want.

This is not a rebuttal to the blog in question (so if the author is reading this, I hope you don't think this is an attack on what you wrote.  Rather your blog made me reflect on this issue).  Rather it is a reflection on the underlying concern of the question and why I was perplexed: Why should one be a Catholic?

Preliminary Clarification

Let me be clear here that I am not speaking of people who do not like to see dissent within the Church, so long as they recognize the authority of the Church to act as they think best for the salvation of souls.  Rather I am speaking of when the magisterium of the Church is attacked by those who want what the Church itself teaches. People who say “The Church needs to change its policy on X before I join” or “I joined the Church because I thought it did Y” are missing a fundamental point in joining the Church.

Many Wrong Reasons: The Example of Marriage

There are many wrong reasons to do a thing.  In getting married, for example, it would be a wrong reason to marry because the future spouse was rich, or had a wonderful body, or seeking the endless romance, or the marriage would improve the social class of the one seeking to marry.  No doubt people do marry for these reasons, but in doing so; they choose the wrong reasons for taking part in an institution which has specific purposes which cannot be changed.  Most of us would recognize the above reasons as the wrong reasons to marry of course. 

Certainly the bride-to-be would have a right to be hurt. She could justly say “You don’t love me! You only love the image of me you want, and that will only last as long as I meet your ideals!”

There is only one right reason to consider marriage, and that is knowing what marriage is for, one is willing to make a lifelong commitment to join to a person for life to share lives, raise children (if the couple is able to) with mutual love [which is not the same thing as Romance]. When this primary reason is kept first in mind, these other things become superficial. If one truly loves a spouse, the fact she is not wealthy, does not have the appearance of a supermodel and so on.

Wrong Reasons: Joining the Church

Of course the idea of an analogy can only go so far. It would be wrong to apply the examples above in an over literal way. However the basic point needs to be considered.

When it comes to entering the Catholic Church, there are many wrong reasons to seek to join: Being attracted to the liturgy or art, being attracted to certain positions which agree with yours, being attracted to the unity it possesses or being impressed with the sanctity of certain members of the Church.

While these are all elements within the Church which do bear witness to the primary reason the Church should be sought out for… but they are all secondary, and if one makes the secondary reason the primary reason, the person will ultimately grow disillusioned.

One Right Reason: Because it is True

The right reason to join the Church is because one believes that the Church exists because she was established by Jesus Christ intended a visible and hierarchical Church, under the headship of Peter, for the purpose of bringing people to Him, recognizing that she has, through Christ, the authority to bind and to loose and is protected from error when she formally teaches on what we are to do. In other words the one who would join the Catholic Church would need to accept that what the Church teaches is true.

If one rejects what the Church believes about herself, then to put it bluntly, why would one want to join the Catholic Church to begin with?

Putting Second Things First Will Not Support Us

The reasons I mentioned above in the section Many Wrong Reasons are wrong, not because it is wrong to think such things within the Church are good, but because they are not the key reason to be a Catholic and that the real reason for joining or remaining in the Church exists whether the other things are present or not.

If I believe the form of the Liturgy is the reason to join the Church, what happens if the Church changes the form of the Mass to something less desirable?  Many Radical Traditionalists are in this boat.  They loved the Extraordinary (Tridentine) form of the Mass with the Latin and the chants and the incense… but then the Church changed it.  If the form of the Liturgy is the reason one becomes Catholic, it creates a very unstable formation to base one's Catholicism.  One's personal sense of aesthetics become the judge.

Joining the Church because of its art is even worse.  Yes in certain times in history we have seen man and women create beautiful works of art brought about by their religious faith.  At other times, we see particularly bad looking architecture and tacky religious artwork.  Now it is true that art and architecture done for the purpose of glorifying God helps elevate our hearts and mind to Him.  However, a church which looks like the Bauhaus and plays Handel's Messiah on kazoos yet still does what Christ intends His Church to do [Not that I'd want to see this of course] is far superior to a beautiful gothic Cathedral with a beautiful choir which taught error. 

Likewise, joining the Church because you approve of its stand on an issue is not wise… particularly if it is because you perceive the Church to be "Liberal" or "Conservative" overall.  The purpose of the Church is not to create a physical government structure.  It is to direct people to Jesus Christ for the purpose of their eternal salvation.  Political movements, when they depart from what the Church teaches separate man from God, and are to be opposed.  If one joins the Church on grounds that the Church teaching on a subject is conservative/liberal, what will such a one do when the Church must take a stand against something else which is conservative/liberal?  Too many have decried the Church for turning "right" or "left" which basically means "The Church doesn't do what I want it to do!"  This makes the individual the infallible judge of what is right and wrong, when in fact it is the Church who guides us to live our lives in accordance to what Christ wills.

In concerns of the sanctity of a specific person, this is also a bad reason to join the Church by itself.  All of us, being sinners, can fall short of the Christian witness we are called to give.  Then what?  Because such a person stumbles, does this mean that what he professes about Christ is not true?  Tragically some people do make this error.

Love what the Church Is, Not What You Want it to Be

In all of the above reasons, it is the personal desire of what the Church should be which is seen as good, not the Church itself. It is like falling in love with the ideal image of a woman. No real woman can match up to an ideal, because she is a real person and not a fantasy. Likewise the Church is made up of real persons who are sinners, not merely a hypothetical ideal museum of saints. We believe that Christ protects His Church from error. It does not mean that people within the Church will always behave as we think they ought, or even that they behave as God requires them to act.

The Proper Perspective on the Church

As I said above, the only right perspective to join the Church is the perspective that "what the Church teaches is true, and that the Church exists because she was established by Jesus Christ intended a visible and hierarchical Church, under the headship of Peter, for the purpose of bringing people to Him, recognizing that it has, through Christ, the authority to bind and to loose and is protected from error when it formally teaches on what we are to do."

If one does believe this, then the other issues are put in their proper place.  Yes, good liturgies, good art and architecture, stands we like on issues and sanctity of the members of the Church are all things which are desirable.  However, none of these things reflect what the Church is supposed to be and if we insist on these things over what the Church is supposed to be first (the ordinary means Christ uses to bring His salvation to the world), then the point has been totally missed.

Things to Be Understood

A person who walks away from this article thinking I am saying we should just shut up and ignore people in the Church who do wrong is completely missing the point. Likewise it would be wrong to think I am saying we should tolerate error in the Church. The Church is indeed called by God to be Holy, and when individuals are saying we can disobey the Church, those individuals err.

We must understand that while individuals are in the Church, it is only by heeding the authority of the Pope and the Bishops as successors to Peter and the Apostles when they teach in a way requiring assent that we can say we are of the Church.

When we pass judgment on the Magisterium, saying “it cannot be the true Church unless it agrees with me” we are missing the point entirely.

If we believe that the Catholic Church was established by Christ to teach in His name and that Christ protects the Church from teaching in error, then it requires us to ask a fundamental question: If this is true, and I disagree with the Church, then who is really in error?

Either God’s Church or No Church at All

This is where the Cafeteria Catholic and the person outside the Church who thinks “If only the Church would change X, I would join,” are in error. I believe the anti-Catholic is in error, but he or she at least recognizes the point better than the cafeteria Catholic.

The point the anti-Catholic recognizes but the Cafeteria Catholic does not is that: either the Catholic Church has the authority to teach in Christ’s name or it does not. This leaves us with two possible conclusions:

  1. One believes the Church is indeed the Church willed by Christ and is protected from error, and therefore must be heeded when she teaches formally.
  2. One believes the Church is not the Church willed by Christ and is not protected from error, so she may or may not be right on an issue.

Under condition 1, one must accept the Church when she teaches formally and not reject the Church because of certain cosmetic changes.

Under condition 2, it is entirely irrelevant whether the Church is beautiful, or holds the “right” positions or has people who behave as we like. What she claims fundamentally about herself would be wrong.

A Clarification

Don’t misunderstand me and think I am saying “Love it or Leave it!” Don't think I am saying the truth is subjective.  I am saying if you think the Church is right in what she claims, then recognize it is far more likely that you err than the Magisterium of the Church when it comes to an issue of truth, while a question of aesthetics is irrelevant to what the Church is intended to be (though it can be a symptom of problems the Church needs to address).

God calls all of us to seek the truth, and follow the truth, because He IS the Truth (see John 14:6). Truth is objective. So either the Church teaching is true or it is not.  This is the first issue which will affect how we view the rest.


I expect the non-Catholic, the non-Christian or the non-Believer will take the second option and reject what the Church teaches about herself. However, since God is truth, He will require of such people to make an honest search for what is true. If such a person rejects the Church, it would have to be due to their honest error in seeking the truth, and their honestly believing that they are doing right – and have no way of knowing they had made an error. This of course means investigating why the Church teaches as she does and not merely invent a reason.

However for those in the Church struggling with resentment that the Church “changed” or the person outside the Church thinking they would join the Church “if only…” the question is: Do you believe the Catholic Church is the Church established by Christ and is kept free from error when she teaches formally through the Magisterium?

If so, when it comes to the final judgment, the person remaining outside or the person living disobediently inside will have to answer God’s question: Why did you disobey My Will, when I said of my Church, “Whoever rejects you rejects me. And whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me” (Lk 10:16)?

No comments:

Post a Comment