Catholicism – What does it have to Offer? – Part I

by Fr. Charles Irvin

October, 1995

The Catholic family of faith offers belief in, and the experience of, the God of Abraham as personal; it finds God’s presence in all that is inter-personal, believing each incarnate soul is of God. God, we have come to know, is significantly present to us not simply in things, but personally present in other people. (Genesis 1:27; Romans 8:29-30)
Catholics cannot find salvation individually. We find salvation by living in the world while belonging to God’s Holy People, by living within the Church. We believe that the Church is the Mystical Body of Christ. The word cult and the word culture are interrelated words. Therefore, the Catholic lives in an alternative culture, a counter-culture to this world’s culture; the Catholic lives in Christ’s Mystical Body in order to worship God our Father while in the world but not of the world. (Philippians 3:20-21; Hebrews 11:13-16)
What are the indices of the culture that is this world’s?, that we live in but are not of?
In an intellectual world of moral relativism, we stand for perennial values and ethical norms that lead to healthy and holistic human behavior, with the result that people can live lives of serenity and fulfillment even in the midst of collapse and chaos.
In a culture that values caring for self first and then for others, we stand for being responsible and caring for others first and then for self. Catholics attempt to live lives that witness communitarian values as being primary; individualistic values as subordinate. (Well, that’s what the idea is, the ideology, even though it isn’t lived out very well!).
Among many people who tend to regard freedom as license, we hold to the notion that freedom entails responsibility. God gives us freedom to respond to the Good. God gives us freedom of choice in order that we might choose to do what is decent, right and good. He doesn’t give His children freedom as a license for shallow self-aggrandizement and the acquisition of power over others.
In a popular culture that regards faith as anti-intellectual, Catholics stand for the notion that faith is an act of human reason. Faith is based on thoughtful choice, not simply a nice, warm fuzzy feeling. Because of this we have made enormous investments in schools for young people as well as in institutions of higher education.
In a world that trivializes religion as being a sort of private hobby in which people indulge in their subjective feelings and emotions, we attempt to present religion as one of the deepest of human needs. It is an adventure, a quest of the human mind, and a reasoned choice that brings fulfillment to our human power to choose.
In a secular, civil society that tends to regard faith as individualistic, subjective and emotional, ours is a lasting tradition that has stood the test of time. We have watched what is voguish and faddish come and go in their own superficiality. Ours is an ancient set of shared beliefs that we hold in a Communion of Saints, saints both past and present. We experience that Faith as perduring with rock-like stability.
In a world that is fragmented and broken, wherein any one interest group necessarily pits itself against all others in order to gain superiority and dominant control, we stand for family, community and the common good in sharing the stuff of life and the things of the spirit. In a win/lose culture we stand for a win/win way of mutual sharing and living in a holistic communion.
In a hedonistic culture that’s hung up on sex, anywhere, anytime, with anyone or anything, that regards sex as little more than mutual masturbation, ours is a tradition that regards sex as an act of spiritual intimacy and communion. We see it as an act in which souls really do unite with each other to become soul mates. But in a world wherein people do not realize that they have souls, we must appear to be mad. Sex and commitment? Sex and our innermost beings? The world around us ridicules such ideas.
In a world that denies the reality of death and refuses to give serious attention to life after death, we enter into it with Jesus Christ in order to show others that death is but another birth, a birth into a new and transcendent life.
Cardinal Suhard, Archbishop of Paris at an earlier time in this century, once wrote: “Every Christian, especially the Christian priest, must be a witness. To be a witness consists in being a living mystery. It means to live in such a way that one’s life would not make sense if God did not exist.” It’s exciting to live life like that.
To be Catholic is to be passionately against our culture?s apathy and indifference toward death. To be apathetic and indifferent toward death makes one, necessarily, passive and indifferent toward life, especially the human life that is inherent in the weakest of persons.
The Church calls us to live this life so fully that we can die in the fullness of life and thus transcend this life by passing over into another. How we die depends upon how we live. Therefore, living this life is of the utmost importance. Because dying is of the utmost importance, we must treat living as having the utmost importance.
In a culture that exalts rights of privacy and hyper-individualism, with all of the resultant fracturing of communal bonds and the breaking apart of communities and churches, the Catholic Church remains bonded in unity, and (curiously!) inclusive of many diversities within its Household of Faith. The fracturing of the Church is something she has avoided at all costs, with a few spectacular exceptions. Priests will go to any length to keep folks Catholic, much to the chagrin of many. Excommunications have gone the way of the Inquisition and other past horrors.
In a legal system that regards the Church as simply an association of like-mined co-religionists who create and sustain their church solely according to human politics and standards (however high-minded they may be), we try to be that “cloud of witnesses” testifying to the reality that the Church was founded by God and is maintained by God. The Church is an edifice built by God, not by Man (Genesis 11:1-9: Luke2).
In a political climate that exalts the exercise of power, the priest comes to us with authority. Power relies on limitless dominance and control; authority relies on inner principles and truths that come from God. Power flows from the capricious and fickle will of all too human men and women. All genuine authority, however, flows from God. (Matthew 16:13-20; 18:18; 21:23-27; 28:16-20; Mark 11:27-33; Luke 20:1-8)
Catholics are very much at home in our American Experiment. The American Revolution grounded its revolt against the power of King George by appealing to “unalienable rights” with which we are endowed by our Creator. Catholics maintain that no government, Congress or Court gives us our rights — only God does. The French Revolution came just thirteen years after ours and grounded its revolt in the self-proclaimed Rights of Man. Presently, secularist Americans are busily rewriting our Declaration of Independence to fit the French mold, separating religion from society and thereby removing our government from its grounding in God, the Transcendent Source of all human rights. Should the secularists succeed, the result will be catastrophic. Our rights would then depend upon the fickle will of human beings and the political power which they capriciously manipulate.
Secularists look to majority opinion polls and majority votes in order to determine law, norms, and even truth itself. We find truth and moral norms in the Lord of life and in the od who awaits us at the end of our life, the Finality toward which all of life is ordered. The world finds truth in information, facts and data. The Catholic finds it in a larger reality –in Wisdom. Wisdom is a reality that transcends the processing of data and that transcends our own manipulation of facts and information to suit our purposes. These things are all under human control and therefore not truly objective or absolutely reliable. The Church attempts to find truth subsisting in the One who is above and beyond that which humans can control, in Wisdom, in the One we call our God, our Father and our Creator.
John Henry Newman was born in London, England, in 1801, having an English banker for a father and a mother who was the child of a French Huguenot family. It was under her tutelage that Newman learned his religion from the bible. Newman’s intellect was keen, voracious, and vital. When he was only sixteen and a half years old he entered Oxford and began to engage his intellect with the keenest minds in all of England. When he was but twenty-one years of age he was made a Fellow at Oriel College when Oriel was at the height of its literary and intellectual fame. It was the beginning of his reputation.
Newman is perhaps the most compelling and influential figure in the English-speaking Church of the last one hundred and fifty years. His name is associated with the emergence of the Catholic laity, the founding of Universities, advances in philosophy and theology, the thought and spirit of Vatican II, and the challenges modernity presents to a life of faith. Before his conversion to Catholicism he became the leader of the spiritual renewal in the Anglican Church known as the Oxford Movement. This was a direct result of his study and love of the Early Fathers of the Church.
Tradition is something which we Catholics revere (2 Thessalonians 2:15) because in it we find the product of our human wrestling with that which God has revealed to us, the God who is (among other things) Truth. And it is in Tradition that Newman’s restless mind found fulfillment and satisfaction. It is at one and the same time both authoritative as well as challenging, for Tradition is something that is, along with us, in an on-going pilgrimage through human history as it tends toward our final human destiny in God’s purposeful plan. Like every other living creature of God, Tradition mutates, its content changes shape, always adding newer human insights into God?s Revelation that is the continuing work of the Holy Spirit deep within the nature of the Mystical Body of Christ.
Understanding John Henry Cardinal Newman (if one can do so with any reasonable degree of comprehension) requires an understanding of how the human mind arrives at Truth, which immediately raises Pontius Pilate’s question: “Truth? What is truth?” Is it a construct of one’s own individuated mental thought processes? Or is it an external and already existing reality toward which the mind tends and only in which the mind rests? Catholics experience that to be the case and have found that the human intellect can attain it in what we call Tradition.
Newman observed: “Liberalism in religion is the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion…. It is inconsistent with any recognition of religion as true. Revealed Religion (claims Liberalism) is not a truth, but a sentiment, a taste…. Devotion is not necessarily founded on faith.”
There are those who hold to such notions today, regarding religion as a matter of private sentiment, something utterly subjective, incapable of being true in its nature, something that is merely useful in teaching people to be respectable, polite, and “nice”. Such indictments energized Newman’s mind, giving us as a part of our Church’s treasures now, his vigorous mind in support of the divine nature of the Church, her mission, duty, and reason for being.
Catholicism, as Newman found, regards Truth as incarnate in God’s Word and present to us in the risen Christ who comes to encounter us in God’s Word and Sacraments. With deliberation, Newman fashioned his motto to read: “Cor Ad Cor Loquitur“, Heart Speaking to Heart. For the wonder of it all is that God has given us His offer in love, His offer to love and be loved by Him. And He has given us the even more awesome gift to freely respond.
God speaks to us as a Person. His Word for us has become human flesh and blood. Christ Jesus is God’s revelation of Himself to us, a revelation that was foreshadowed in the Old Testament, a historical sharing of Himself in Christ as recorded in the New Testament. The bible is God’s revealed word to us centered in and found in the Jesus of Nazareth who was, by the power of the Holy Spirit, raised as the Christ of glory.
Catholics understand the bible in relation to Jesus Christ, the Holy One who is the fullness of God’s revelation to us. Actually there is but one revelation of God, found in Jesus the Christ. That revelation comes to us in two rivers that flow forth from the side of Christ, Sacred Scripture and Tradition.
It is crucial, then, to understand that it is the People of God in both Testaments that produced the bible. The bible did not produce the People of God. The bible is the recorded history of God’s coming to us in word and in action, as well as the recorded history of our human response to God’s initiatives.
Catholics never lose touch with the central reality that God is Personal and that God relates to us personally. It was necessary, therefore, that God enter our human history and into our very humanity in order to speak to us and encounter us humanly. All of God?s revelation is, therefore, centered in upon and flows from the truth that is expressed in the Prologue to St. John’s Gospel:
“In the beginning was the Word: the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things came to be, not one thing had its being but through him.
All that came to be had life in him and that life was the light of men, a light that darkness could not overpower.
The Word was made flesh, he lives among us, and we saw his glory, the glory that is his as the only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth.”

Numerous occasions reported in the New Testament reveal Jesus commissioning The Twelve to bind and loose, to teach, to forgive in His name, and to reveal His Presence in this world so that people of all nations might have the opportunity to encounter Him. His teaching Presence, in the power of the Holy Spirit, was preeminent among his commissioning of The Twelve. Christ’s placement of Peter as the “Chief of the Apostles” was central. (Matthew 16:13-20; 18:18; John 20:19-23; 21:15-18)
It was paradoxical, to say the least. Vacillating and unreliable Peter… compulsive and strong-willed, with narrow vision and only superficial insights…. this Peter was made to be the Rock upon which Christ’s Church was to be built, the center and source of unity among the Apostles, the only one to whom Christ individually gave the power of the keys along with the responsibility of proclaiming to the world what the Church believes. It is a fantastic scene to behold, and yet very much of the Gospel.
Frequently our human minds turn to the question: “What is authentic? What is of authority? What does the Church believe and teach?” In the context of our American culture with its exaggerated individualism and promotion of the autonomous self wherein each person’s opinion and autonomy is just as good as anyone else’s, and wherein egalitarianism has reduced us all to individuated little monads with each person being his or her own universe, what we hold in common has become extremely problematic.
There is at the same time a “Catholic Spirituality” as well as an array of pluriform spiritualities within the Catholic ethos. Together they all focus on Christ, The Mother of Christ, our Mother Mary, the works of Christ (compassion, mercy, justice and peace), and The Communion of Saints.
All of these spiritualities point toward the sovereign majesty of God as well as to intimacy with God. Catholic spirituality sees that the reason why we are born, the reason why we live life on earth, and the reason why we die is to love God face to face. And we begin to do that in the here and now when we discover the face of God in the many faces of those who surround us. We find God looking at us in their eyes, loving us with their hearts, and near to us in all whom He has created and made to be living temples of His Holy Spirit.
Social justice is the recognition and balancing of individual rights in a community of rights. For the Catholic, social justice flows from the recognition of the dignity of each human being’s nature as expression of God and as a child of God, and who is therefore one’s brother or sister. Action for social justice is a constitutive element of living the Gospel; God’s Incarnate Word in the Mystical Body of Christ requires us to live and act in the recognition of who each and every human being, as a consequence of that Truth, truly is in his or her nature.
Continued on next page

About Charles Irvin

Fr. Charlie was ordained a priest June 3, 1967 and has served as pastor of St. Mary Student Chapel in Ann Arbor, founded Holy Spirit parish in Hamburg, MI, served as pastor of St. Francis of Assisi parish in Ann Arbor and was pastor of St. Mary parish in Manchester, MI when he entered Senior Priest status in 2001. In 1999 he was appointed Founding Editor of FAITH Magazine which has grown into Faith Catholic Publishing located in Lansing, MI. He is now very active in his “retirement.”