The Catholic Thing
Catholic Distinctiveness Print E-mail
By Bevil Bramwell, OMI   
Sunday, 24 July 2011

The distinctive thing about Catholicism is how we commit ourselves to the truth, that is, what actions we take to embrace the truth. We believe that the Divine Word has revealed God in Scripture and in Tradition. We are not a sola Scriptura (“Scripture only”) Church. As individuals we are embedded in a Church community that has Tradition. And the Tradition is not certain vague memories of the past to which we can be indifferent.

Rather this Tradition is precisely “what was handed on by the Apostles [and] includes everything which contributes toward the holiness of life and increase in faith of the peoples of God; and so the Church, in her teaching, life, and worship, perpetuates and hands on to all generations all that she herself is, all that she believes.” (Vatican II) This is the rich matrix of meaning in which we find ourselves. And this is the distinctiveness of Catholicism.

At the heart of this matrix is Jesus himself, God’s truth and therefore man’s truth too. Far from being superfluous, the elements of Christ and his Church are there to reach us and give us the horizon of meaning of the material world. We need to visualize Christ and his Church as the center of all of our efforts in our daily hunt for meaning. Here are the person and the principles that anchor our search.

The answers to the deepest questions lie here. Nothing else even vaguely compares to this oasis of truth in a sinful world. Christ and his Church are not separable, given their spousal relationship. This unity is where we are “molded in the likeness of Him, until Christ be formed in [us].” (Vatican II)

This irreplaceable center of life then becomes the reference point when we hear from politicians, the media, the guy at the bar, our next-door neighbor. They all claim to speak with certitude. They claim to be true. Some of them will be speaking the truth, others will be partially true, and still other will be wrong – and some will even be deliberately misleading. When we are dealing with serious topics then we need a reference point. And we have it in Christ in his Church.

        Christ the Judge by Michelangelo (Sistine Chapel detail)

Now if we are slaves to the social mode of truth then we are influenced by the company that we gain when we hold a certain idea: This idea makes me part of this club and I want to be associated with them. Only if we push through this social way of choosing ideas to ask the most fundamental question — is this idea true? — do we come face to face with truth itself.

The truth question brings us to Christ and his Church. All of the profound human questions end up right back here, not as just as another news outlet among many but rather as the benchmark for all truth.

Of course, acknowledging this fact means that our social group will probably start to change as we embrace more and more the one God intends for us. To stay in any other, we would have to make too many compromises.

For example, we all have to deal with people who agree to abortions and so there are issues that they will not as a rule discuss reasonably. They hold that the value of human beings is relative. This view poisons conversations unless they remain at a really shallow level. Some components drop out of our social interactions and they become less and less substantial.

To pick another example: we can no longer vote for just any political party because, being in a real relationship to God through his Church, we cannot act in a way that promotes abortions or denies the reality of marriage. But this is not political partisanship – indeed, we’d be delighted to see all political parties embrace these most fundamental notions of the sacredness of all human life.

There is a whole plus side to having a center of truth in our lives: we start finding other people who are interested in the truth, not out of any sense of superiority but simply because it is the truth. In Benedict XVI’s words: “The word of God makes us change our concept of realism: the realist is the one who recognizes in the word of God the foundation of all things.”

Realists know what marriage is, and they get the real meaning of work. You can tell a lot about yourself if your social group begins to shift to include saints, perhaps saints not yet on any liturgical calendar, but saints none the less. They are everyday people who are unabashedly caught up in Christian life.

Rather than sitting on the fence and hedging their bets, they just follow Christ. For them life is not a trade-off, a devil’s bargain so as to be in this social group or that political party. For them, as Benedict says: “Christianity is the ‘religion of the word of God’, not of ‘a written and mute word, but of the incarnate and living Word.’”

Next time anyone asks, you can tell them: this is the distinctiveness of Catholicism.

Bevil Bramwell
, priest of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, teaches theology at Catholic Distance University. He holds a Ph.D from Boston College and works in the area of ecclesiology.




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