Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
September 18, 2000
The adventure of being Catholic
Christianity is not, at its core, an experience or a feeling. Christianity is, first, a belief in the truth of a set of propositions - a submission of the intellect and will to God. The most central of those propositions is that the full revelation of God is given to humanity in the person of Jesus Christ who is "the way, the truth and the life" (John 14:6).
Belief in the truth of that proposition and its corollaries has enormous implications for how one lives one's life. It may even lead to various experiences and feelings. Indeed, those experiences may bolster the firmness with which ones holds to the truth of the proposition. But what remains ever central is the obedience of faith, not experience.
In recent years, the Vatican has seen the main threat to the Catholic faith as various forms of relativism - the assumption that Jesus is only one of many ways to the Father, the belief that the Catholic Church is only one of many equally valid ways of coming into a relationship with Jesus and the belief that moral norms do not hold true in all situations.
Pope John Paul and the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) have gone to great lengths to show both the rational untenability of relativism as a system of thought and the irreconcilable contradiction between relativism and the Gospel. Their efforts, most recently the CDF document Dominus Iesus, have come under strident criticism in the secular press which have negatively misrepresented them as out of date, authoritarian and intolerant. Indeed, it must be admitted that in terms of public sentiment, the secular forces have the upper hand.
But Christian history shows us that for two millennia the Church's basic beliefs have come under attack from one direction or another. In the fourth century, St. Athanasius stood practically alone in opposing the Arian heresy - the belief that while God is eternal, Jesus was simply one of his most exalted creatures.
In the fifth century, St. Cyril of Alexandria met strong opposition from those who believed that Jesus was just an ordinary man at birth, but later became the Son of God. Through Cyril's steadfast faith, the Council of Ephesus proclaimed Jesus the eternal Son of the Father and Mary the Mother of God (Theotokos).
Part of the challenge Pope John Paul and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger are combating today is a new Arianism. The heresy has re-emerged with the widespread belief that all religious faiths are more or less equivalent - Jesus was simply a great prophet among others, not the eternal Word made flesh.
Few attitudes are more at odds with the Gospel and the Christian tradition. That such an attitude would be afoot in the Church - and the pope and Ratzinger clearly believe it is - can only undermine the zeal and energy the Church needs to faithfully proclaim the Gospel.
The Catholic Church's attitude is to respect the consciences of all. It is also to respect the "ray of truth" exhibited in non-Christian religions. It is further to respect the experience of seeking for God that millions of people undergo and to help such a search culminate in the person of Jesus Christ.
In relations with other Christians, the Catholic Church's attitude is to rejoice in the true faith to the extent that we share it, but also to teach, as did the Second Vatican Council, that Christ's Church "subsists in the Catholic Church, governed by the successor of Peter, and by the bishops in communion with him."
To the secular world, those words appear harsh and narrow. But the truth is not always popular, especially when its light reveals the darkness of the contrasting untruth. Martyrs die precisely because the truth challenges others. Likewise, in today's secular world, many achieve fame and popularity because they preach or live by the comfortable falsehood.
Pope John Paul and Ratzinger do not call us to walk the easy way of life. They call us instead to the adventure of believing wholeheartedly in Jesus Christ and his holy Catholic Church. In every age, this has been the unpopular way. But it is also the way of the fullness of truth and of being a light to the nations.
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