In their inspiring book, Rome Sweet Home, Scott and Kimberly Hahn tell of their conversions to the Catholic Church from Presbyterianism. Scott was the first to draw close to the church and he wasn't receiving much encouragement at home. So he sought out priests for advice and information.
"I asked one of them, 'Father Jim, how would I go about converting to the Catholic Church?'
"'First,' he said, 'please don't call me "Father." Second, I don't think you really need to convert! The best thing for you to do is simply to be the best Presbyterian you can be. You'll do more for the Catholic Church if you just stay put'" (p. 66).
Scott was astonished by this attitude which he says he encountered on more than one occasion. Here he was feeling called in the direction of the Catholic Church and yet the church didn't seem to want him.
That attitude of icy indifference to potential converts has probably changed somewhat in the decade or more since Scott Hahn began his approach to the church. The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults has become well-established and is even seen as a necessary part of parish life. Few parishes or priests would turn their backs on potential converts who come knocking on their doors.
But it's still important to examine the attitudes which underlay Father Jim's rebuke to Hahn. There we find a false ecumenism, a lazy relativism which assumes there is no truth and that one church is as good as another.
A genuine ecumenism would certainly not try to steal the faithful from other Christian denominations. But it would be ready for real dialogue, a discussion in which each party tries to defend his or her church's claim to be the true church of Jesus Christ. Both parties can be enriched through such dialogue.
For Catholics, a discussion of the four marks of the church -- that it is one, holy, catholic and apostolic -- is an essential part of that discussion. The previous two articles in this series look at the Catholic Church's claim to be one and holy. More pertinent to the rebukes Hahn received, however, is the church's claim to be catholic.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that there is a double sense in the meaning of the word "catholic." There is a sense in which a catholic church has "a mission to the whole of the human race" (no. 831).
A catholic church is not a national church, it is a church with a mission to all nations. It is missionary in the sense that it endeavors to unite all people, even all creation, in Christ.
But there is also the sense -- which is mentioned much less -- which says a catholic church is one which has received from Christ "the fullness of the means of salvation." In other words, a church which is truly catholic does not rely solely on Scripture or baptism, but on "correct and complete confession of faith, full sacramental life and ordained ministry in apostolic succession" (no. 830).
Moreover, the catechism treats this second meaning as more fundamental. To the extent that the church has a mission to the whole world, it must first possess the fullness of the means of salvation. And further, we recognize the true church more by its possession of this fullness than by its being spread around the globe.
If we believe the Catholic Church possesses the fullness of the means of salvation then we must conclude Father Jim was doing Scott Hahn a grave disservice. He was steering him away from the fullness of the faith to a less-complete faith.
In a similar manner, we can cheat ourselves if we accept only part of what the church teaches or only some of the graces which it offers. The Second Vatican Council introduced the notion of a hierarchy of truths to express the notion that some truths of the faith -- such as the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus -- are more central than others (see Catechism, nos. 90, 234).
But this notion does not mean we should accept only the most important truths and neglect the others. For our faith to be full and to bear fruit, we should believe all that the church teaches. Our concern should be with knowing the fullness of the truth, not with adhering to as little as one can get away with while still remaining Catholic.
In fact, being catholic means buying the whole meal, not just enjoying a smorgasbord where you chose what you like and leave the rest. And we have the assurance that God, not human beings, has cooked the whole meal. Infallibility, the catechism says, "extends as far as the deposit of faith itself" (no. 891).
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