On being a Catholic
From May 2003

There is a God, the source and end of all being — ‘I am that am’ (Exodus 3:14), the God revealed to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to the prophets, to the Jews in the Old Testament. This God is one essence in three persons, one of whom, the Son, became a man, Jesus who is called the Christ (messiah, anointed one), who left the church on earth. In short, there is a God, and Jesus Christ is God. (Sounds like a Christian version of the Muslims’ Allahu akbar!) Of course, along with that go a lot of the ethical and moral teachings many other religions have (variations of the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule). Jesus said, ‘I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world’ (Matt. 28:20). To keep his promise, he founded the church, with the special ministry of the apostles and their successors to perpetuate his presence through the sacraments and to be his infallible teaching voice to the world. Before there was a New Testament (compiled by bishops at the Council of Carthage), there was the church. The Nicene Creed, written by the church, pre-dates the final form of the New Testament.

I use the term Catholic, big C and all, much like Anglo-Catholics historically do. For a while I began to say apostolic instead because it’s less confusing to people. And because I realised that meaning can be quite different in practice from the one commonly understood and used by most of the world, including many Roman Catholics themselves. That said, these days I use and claim the C word again. In the sense I instinctively use it and respond to it, it’s the basic beliefs I’ve had for more than 20 years, right to this moment — Trinity; hypostatic union; virgin birth, resurrection; Mother of God; communion of saints; apostolic ministry of male bishops and their ordained deputies, priests and deacons, likewise all-male*; the church as the mystical body of Christ, his continuation on earth; the Eucharist as the re-presented Sacrifice of Christ and the complete change of the elements into his Body and Blood, hence appropriate traditional ritual and ceremonial; liturgical prayer (such as the hours/divine office) as corporate/communal, objective and Godward, and as the heartbeat of the church; the rest of the sacramental system, including sacramental Confession; the use of images in worship, etc. The whole warp and woof of my religious life, for what that’s worth. Certainly by those criteria I am a Catholic as, for example, is every believing Eastern Orthodox. (I originally wrote this for an Eastern Orthodox readership.) And those criteria are why Anglo-Catholics included EOxy as one of their three ‘branches’ of the Catholic Church, along with the Pope’s church and the Anglican Communion. Not what the man on the street would say, and perhaps especially if he is an RC! ‘Are youse under da Pope?’ is what common-meaning Catholic is to him, whether one worships with the Fraternity of St Peter or belongs to Call to Action. Of course, historically common-knowledge Catholic always implied all the other stuff. But in practice, not anymore, since the royal foul-up of Vatican II, after which things that outprotestant Low and Broad Churchmanship in Anglicanism are passed off as ‘Catholic’ (certainly the mode in America and I fear most of the Western world) and anything else, anything smacking of the ancien régime and smack in the middle of the historic Catholic mainstream (‘eternal Rome’ as Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre of blessed memory might put it), is called ‘not Catholic’! Just trying to think about that, which was my firsthand experience for a long time (since not too long after some of you reading this were born), makes my head hurt! Seems Orwellian. Freedom is slavery. Maybe similar misunderstandings to the one about the C word are behind discussions of what papal primacy is, or the stalemate between Orthodox and Roman Catholics today.

Catholic also means what the ‘canon’ of St Vincent of Lérins says — what has been believed and taught by the church ‘always, everywhere and by all’ — and everything that is ‘soul-profiting’ (духовнополезный as the Russians say) or spiritually healthful for all men in all times and in all places. True of natural religion, natural theology, but on top of that what’s been revealed by God, especially God-made-man, Jesus. It is universal in the sense that it lacks nothing (Psalm 22/23:1, Book of Common Prayer).

But there is a thing called Catholicism, which is a way of loving God... as Catholics are not in the least ashamed of saying that they believe their way of loving God to be the best possible way in all the circumstances, it is desirable to explain, at least in outline, the principles on which their belief rests.

Leonard Prestige, 1927

The doctrine of the ‘Great Church’ ... includes, first of all, the main fabric of Trinitarian and Christological dogma, including, of course, the beliefs in our Lord’s virginal birth, bodily Resurrection, and Ascension into Heaven; the presuppositions of Christian soteriology known as the doctrines of the Fall and Original Sin; belief in Christ’s atoning Death as objectively bringing within our reach that salvation which we could never have earned for ourselves; the doctrines of the Sacraments as the means of grace, of the Real Presence and the Eucharistic sacrifice; of the grace of Orders and the necessity of the episcopal succession from the Apostles; of the church’s absolving power in Penance; of Confirmation and Unction; of the Communion of Saints; and of the last things, Heaven and Hell, and the intermediate state (more), and the Last Judgment...

— Dr N.P. Williams, ‘Our Position: Authority in Matters of Belief’, Report of the First Anglo-Catholic Congress, 1920

How else, when entering any large city filled with Novatianists, Priscillianists, Cartophrygians, and other heretical sects, all calling themselves ‘Christian’, am I to find my true brethren, whose church was founded by Christ himself? Surely, a name is necessary. If it weren’t for heretics, ‘Christian’ would be quite sufficient. ‘Catholic’ is my first name and ‘Christian’ my surname; by the latter is the general group I identify meant, and by the former is my own, Apostolic group meant.

— Pacian of Barcelona

To be a Catholic ... means many things. First the good news. It means being an heir of a mainstream Christian tradition that goes back to the Saviour himself. It means enjoying a system of seven sacraments, which — when approached properly by the institution and the individual believer — ennoble all of the most significant moments in human life from birth to death and offer sustenance and the opportunity for new beginnings along the way. It means embracing a rich, beautiful tradition of prayer and mind-blowingly great art and music and literature that was inspired by the ponderings of the church throughout the last 2,000 years and still has much to say about who God is, what Christ has done, and what kind of a relationship God wants me to have with him. I would say that it is almost an ‘ethnic’ feeling, at least for my generation of old farts. It means belonging to something at such a deep level that it would be equally painful to turn my back on the church as it would be to turn my back on my family of origin.

— ‘Prudentius’

The Catholic Church simply is. She is not one option amongst many.

— Jeffrey Steenson

The Catholic Church is bigger than any one experience of her.

Marco Vervoorst

The flash-point of all heresy, all dissent, is to do with the intersection of God and mankind, of spirit and flesh, and can be classed in three categories:

Reply from Dr Alex Roman:

All heresy does derive from the theological view of the Divine Incarnation and Its impact on the world. Christ’s coming in the flesh, as St John says, is the ‘litmus test’ for everything in Christianity. God did not have to mediate salvation through the humanity of Christ and come to us through the Most Holy Mother of God, but he chose to so do and has revealed this to us as the way of salvation. He made whole what was formerly alienated through sin, matter and spirit. He divinized us through making our nature his own and through his life, death and resurrection. Christ mediates his grace to us through his deified humanity and also through those whom he has deified in himself, the Mother of God and the saints. Salvation in Christianity is always ‘mediated’ whether through the Scriptures, the mysteries/sacraments, the saints, the sacramentals, prayer etc. And we too are called to be mediators in the One Mediator and reflect the glory of God in our lives so that it may lighten the darkness of the world. The Incarnation has made our bodies into temples of the Holy Spirit. The demands of Christian holiness are such that we are to treat ourselves and one another with respect and in accordance with the Law of Christ, whether this is in sexuality or any other facet of human existence.

Summing up:

Catholic: credally orthodox, sacramental, liturgical, episcopal, believes in a complete and lasting change of the elements at Communion and — the deciding difference with liturgical Protestantism when all else seems equal — believes in an infallible church (defined doctrine is a constitution without repeal). Well-known differences with it — the Protestants’ women clergy and gay weddings — are signs of this big underlying difference.

Other terms I use and what they mean:


*Pope John Paul II described the equality but complementarity of the sexes well to explain consistent Catholic practice on this. His was essentially the impossibilist position on women’s ordination. The other entirely Catholic opinion on this is the improbabilist one: Catholics have never ordained women; the only groups historically that did were heretical sects. The overarching concern for being connected to God through the unity of the Una Sancta, the church, including the reunion of all Catholic believers, is what grabs me. As far as I can tell the problem with ordaining women is in order to do it you have to undermine the rest of the faith: ‘Jesus didn’t found a church’, orders (their substance not just their form) are wholly man-made and so on, Protestant fashion. So... so far it’s a non-starter for Catholics. Misogyny is nothing to do with it.


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