The Catholic Thing
The Catholic Principle Print E-mail
By Robert Royal   
Monday, 01 October 2012

In this season of non-stop polling, here’s a figure that might make you stop and think: 39 percent of Catholics in a 2002 Boston survey said they would support an American Catholic Church independent of the Vatican.

That was ten years ago, at the height of the priestly sex-abuse scandal, and the Boston Globe, which had published hundreds of articles exposing moral turpitude by priests and feckless oversight by bishops, was doing the polling with the obvious intention of getting precisely that answer.

Still, Boston used to be heavily Catholic and people in the area are among the most highly educated Americans. For almost 40 percent of respondents to say that they would be fine with a Church separate from Rome – even at a singularly emotional moment – is no small thing. So far as I know, no one has asked that question again, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the results were basically the same now, or that the number was even higher.

We’ve seen other efforts to measure the beliefs of Catholics that are equally appalling. Mass goers – Mass goers, not the nominals – who think the Eucharist is a mere symbol; Catholic school religion teachers who don’t believe in God; Catholic universities who drive more students away from the Church than do secular institutions.

But underlying all that, and of ultimately greater importance than the fact that Catholics are split in their political allegiances, is the fact that many have abandoned or, more likely, never heard of what I would call the “Catholic principle.”

All other churches in America pretty much belong to what sociologists have called the “denominational mentality,” that for public purposes there’s no real difference what any religious group teaches so long as it falls in line with prevailing social mores.

Once you’ve given in to that, you essentially will stand for nothing anymore because, even within your own church, you’re going to have people deciding what they will believe and what they won’t. In fact, they will start to make the “right to choose” the central tenet of the faith.

The Catholic principle is quite different. All of us have the freedom of the sons and daughters of God, but we don’t get to make up the truth about who God is and what he expects of us. If that’s what you want, it’s hard to see why you also still want the name Catholic. My suspicion is that, in another generation, the current sentimental attachment to the Church will simply disappear for anyone with the denominational mentality, as it has in much of Europe.

         Hilaire Belloc

To be a Catholic means accepting the Catholic Thing, so to speak. What is that Thing? No one has put it better than Hilaire Belloc:

The essential in our judgment [we of the Faith] is that there stands on earth an Individual to be recognized as we recognize human individuals – by the voice, the gesture, the expression. The chain of reason is complete. Is there a God? Yes. Is He personal? Yes. Has He revealed Himself to men? Yes. Has He done so through a corporation – a thing not a theory? Has He created an organism by which He may continue to be known to mankind for the fulfillment of the great drama of the Incarnation. Yes. Where shall that organism be found? There is only one body on earth which makes such a claim: it is the Catholic Roman Apostolic Church. That claim we of the Faith accept. The consequences of that acceptation are innumerable, satisfactory and complete. We are at home. No one else of the human race is at home.

This is of far greater moment than the division between Catholic liberals and conservatives. The liberal – say Dorothy Day – who gets this one point, is Catholic to the core no matter how far left her politics and economics. The conservative – even the reactionary like Evelyn Waugh – if he sees this truth, has a heart, whether anyone else can detect it or not.

The great danger, as C. S. Lewis’s tempter Screwtape clearly sees, is to regard the Faith as real belief plus something else. Then the devil works little by little to make the something else the greater reality to us until it swallows up everything and becomes our whole life.

All this may seem airy abstraction and a mere distraction when so much is at stake this Fall in the electoral campaign. A few thousand votes one way or another may consign millions more unborn children to destruction – or rescue them; which party controls our government may determine whether the Catholic Church is free to be Catholic in this country or will be forced into a ghetto; which economic policies are in place over the next four years can put tens of millions back to work, or into the streets, as in Greece, protesting unavoidable austerity measures.        

A culture of life is inextricably connected to the Catholic Principle, because God is the Lord of Life. All real Catholics know that is not merely an “issue” among a list of others in public debate. It puts a question to us about whether we are Catholic.

Give me the right to life and religious liberty. And I’ll be happy to wrestle over the rest with anyone, Catholic or not.

But if Catholics themselves lose a grip on the Catholic Principle, or allow others to take it away from them, it won’t take long before we have a different Church. And we’ll have a different America as well.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (31)Add Comment
written by Michael Baker, September 30, 2012
Robert, Do you not understand that when, in your penultimate paragraph, you uphold ‘religious liberty’ you are contradicting the criticism you have levelled at those who would like a Church separate from Rome? Is it not precisely this liberty—‘religious liberty’—these people are seeking to exercise?

Read Leo XIII in Libertas praestantissimum, nn. 18 et seq. “[L]et us examine that liberty in individuals which is so opposed to the virtue of religion, namely, the liberty, as it is called, of worship. This is based on the principle that every man is free to profess, as he may choose, any religion or none…

“And if it be asked which of the many conflicting religions it is necessary to adopt, reason and the natural law unhesitatingly tell us to practise that one which God enjoins upon us and which men can easily recognise by certain exterior notes through which Divine Providence has willed that it should be distinguished, because in a matter of such moment the most terrible loss would be the consequence of error. Wherefore, when a liberty such as we have described is offered to man the power is given him to pervert or abandon with impunity the most sacred of duties, and to exchange the unchangeable good for evil. This, as we have said, is no liberty at all but its degradation and the abject submission of the soul to sin.”

Whose side are you on, that of Leo XIII (and Pius IX) or the Fathers of Vatican II?
written by Riki, October 01, 2012
September 22nd 1990 we visited Medjugorje for the 2nd time.(1st time in 1984) Ivan Dragicevic one of the seers was answering questions posed by a group of pilgrims. A question was what about the schools nowadays. He said : "Our Lady says about that : "that not a single school is able to educate, teach and rear children as the parents can AT HOME. In Schools, colleges, at universities they ruin and break down everything the parents taught their kids." And I say Our Lady is right. I have been to a Catholic University, I have been to a freemason College, without Gods Grace you would come out as an atheist. But I am a fighter, and it only made me stronger in my faith and my love for the Lord. Mi ca el = Who is as God !!!!!!! Riki Biesemans
written by Suzanne, October 01, 2012
A wonderful article, as always.
written by Different Mark, October 01, 2012
As a recent convert to the Catholic faith, I have to say that I love this article with the exception of this:

"All other churches in America pretty much belong to what sociologists have called the “denominational mentality,” that for public purposes there’s no real difference what any religious group teaches so long as it falls in line with prevailing social mores."

I have spent time in many Protestant churches. This does not describe my experiences there. I would assume that you, in turn, have spent time at pro-life rallies. Do the Protestants there strike you as people more concerned with social mores than they are with life? We need the Protestants for the fight ahead. What we don't need is snarkiness.
written by Willie, October 01, 2012
Abortion rights, same sex marriage, homosexuality, family disintegration and of course no "God" in the public square all in the name of freedom and liberty! Very timely piece Professor, as we now seem to be confronted by a choice of returning to "first principles" or freedom to pursue evil.
written by Manfred, October 01, 2012
You have written an excellent piece, Dr. Royal, but I believe your responder Michael Baker is spot on. Dorothy Day, Hilaire Belloc (and I) were all raised and taught in the Church of Leo XIII, and, more importantly, Pius X, the last pope declared a Saint! Religious freedom is precisely what the Traditional groups attack! There is no history of religious freedom in the Church-you either accept the Catholic Principle or you are out! If you don't leave you have to be excommunicated because of the damage you would do to the Church if you were to remain. It is that simple. You are concerned about this election? Who isn't. But look at the parish closings by diocese which have been years in coming-Milwaukee, 103, Detroit 60, Cleveland 40, and Philadelphia is looking to close 100. We are in the throes of the "diabolical disorientation" which the Blessed Virgin told Lucia would occur. Trenchant questions are being asked by serious Catholics about Vat II and the questionning will not stop until the answers are unearthed. How did the Church go from Hilaire Belloc to Fr.Charles Curran and the Church you describe today?
written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, October 01, 2012
Let us once and for all abandon the Reformation fallacy that we can define Christians by their tenets, or churches by their teaching.

Mgr Ronald Knox pointed this out nearly a century ago. The faithful, be they many or few, be their doctrine apparently traditional or apparently innovatory, be their champions honest or unscrupulous, are simply those who are in visible communion with the see of Rome. No doubt, in the long run this means the people who are so orthodox that Rome has seen no reason to excommunicate them, so that unity and orthodoxy still react upon one another.

Any other test ends up in a vicious circle: : “The true church is that which teaches the true faith” and “The true faith is what the true church teaches.” This is a real test, remarkably easy of application; just what one would expect of the criterion of a divine message, intended for all, regardless of learning, capacity or circumstances.

There can be little doubt that, in the West, our labelling of this party as orthodox and that as heterodox in early Church history comes down to us from authors who were applying this test of orthodoxy and no other. Those, traditionalists or liberals who propose any other depart from Catholic tradition.
written by Rick DeLano, October 01, 2012
At Mass yesterday the priest got as far as "The Church made a big mistake a long time ago when it said there was no salvation outside the Catholic Church. Everyone is born a child of God"

I didn't need to listen any longer.

Let us count the heresies:

1. Two solemnly defined dogmas are "wrong"; first, that there is no salvation outside the Catholic Church, second, that one is not translated by baptism from the condition of child of Adam to child of God;

2. Therefore the dogma of the Church's indefectibility is likewise denied.

So there are three, at least, objective heresies in two sentences.

The priest is legitimately ordained, incardinated by his bishop, and uttered these three heresies in the first two sentences of his homily.

His pastor was present.

One thousand Catholics sat quietly through this abomination.

One left.

Mr. Patterson-Seymour, your above condition might be necessary, but it is certainly not sufficient.
written by Manfred, October 01, 2012
Post Script: On Tuesday, Sept. 25th, Abp Myers of the Archdiocese of Newark, N.J. issued a 16 page statement which focuses on abortion and same gender marriage. On page two the Abp states that if one cannot agree with the Church's clear teaching on these two subjects or either, that person should desist from receiving Holy Communion. This statement may be read or downloaded at My question: is being told not to receive Holy Communion a form of excommunication as the person in question is obviously outside the pale of the Church? Recall that in the election of 1948 when the Communists were threatening to take over Italy politically, Pius XII excommunicated hundreds of known Italian Communists by name and insisted that Italians could not vote Communist under the threat of mortal (eternity in Hell) sin. In America today you can be pro abortion, pro infanticide and pro same gender marriage and you will get invited to the Al Smith Dinner. My, how times have changed.
written by DS, October 01, 2012
A faithful Catholic in the year 2012 must reject Michael Baker's question ("Whose side are you on...."). It is an invitation to dine in the cafeteria.
written by Susanna, October 01, 2012
@Manfred: "My question: is being told not to receive Holy Communion a form of excommunication as the person in question is obviously outside the pale of the Church?"

Absolutely not, and quite a stretch in reasoning. Refraining from Communion is not the same as being "outside the pale of the Church" entirely, or excommunicated.

Just an example -

In every parish we see heterosexual couples in "irregular relationships" such as remarried civilly without annulment of prior marriage, or young people shacking up. They know they are consciously living in a state of sin, and yet they want to practice their religion. They come to Mass, they do NOT go up for Communion. Some have clarified this with their priests.

They are not excommunicated. That would not be a desirable action, as it pushes a sincere person away from the Faith rather than leaving the door open for their full repentance.
written by Achilles, October 01, 2012
Seriously Manfred, we are to take your word for it over John Paul II and Benedict XVI becuase those two men have led us into error? Becuase you have a wider Catholic vision than they do? Becuase you are a better philosopher than they were? becuase you are more Catholic than the Pope? This doesn't trouble you?
written by Mike, October 01, 2012
An "American Catholic" church is a contradiction in terms, but not one without precedent. One need but look to the utter irrelevance of "mainstream" Anglicanism for a clue of where such a schism would lead.
written by john o'neill, October 01, 2012
written by senex, October 01, 2012
A comment on a comment--of Richard Baker. In reading the comment on 'religious liberty' in the penultimate paragraph of Royal's article, I associated it with his comment in the 4th from last paragraph. The Church needs religious liberty to teach, practice and promote its message in the public square. But within Catholicism, religious liberty has a different connotation: a right with an obligation in conscience to accept the truth that the Church teaches. That acceptance cannot be forced, only proposed. But its knowing rejection brings consequences.
written by Mack Hall, October 01, 2012
Thank you, Mr. Royal, but in what context to you determine that Evelyn Waugh is a reactionary? In his immutable loyalty to the Faith or in his immutable loyalty to his Queen? Is a refusal to "evolve" (in the Dear Leader sense) reactionary? As Chesterton (I believe) once said, if something is true or real at ten in the morning, how can it be false at two in the afternoon? Just the same, if a truth is a truth in the 19th century, how can it not be true in the 21st?
written by Tom Hennigh, October 01, 2012
Article - excellent and timely. The accompanying comments: by and large mere sophistry!
written by Sue, October 01, 2012
"Give me the right to life and religious liberty."

Both parties deny the right to life to a subset of human beings. It's simply a matter of numbers, but the principle is the same for both parties.

The American Catholic Church that is pined for by the polled Bostonians already has a template, or model, in another country, China - it's called the Chinese Patriotic Church.

The headquarters and office staff for the American Patriotic Church have already been set up in the USCCB, and they have been working like a beehive to emulate their sister fake-church in china.

What I'd like to know is who are the underground clergy to work with.
written by Manfred, October 01, 2012
Susanna: Thank you for your comments. Remarrying without the benefit of an annulment and living as fornicators are mortally sinful but NATURAL, i.e., they are sins but not against nature. The aborting of an innocent child (in or ex utero) is MURDER and sodomy is UNNATURAL. The last sentence in the C.C.C. paragraph #2357 in describing homosexual acts states "Under no circumstances can they be approved." Both abortion and aberrosexual acts are INTRINSICALLY evil. That is the reason I inquired about the possibility 0f excommunication.
written by G.K. Thursday, October 01, 2012
Mr. Royal:

You had me until you quoted C.S. Lewis. Lewis was a great apologist for mere Christianity and a Church of England member. He would not have thought much of what you call "the Catholic Principal." Yes, I know you are only referencing him in a minor way, but it really is not helpful to quote someone in your argument, no matter how good an apologist he was, when he would not have accepted your main point.

One of the problems Roman Catholic writers have when writing about the RCC is simply addressing their audience. Who are these Roman Catholics? There are at least three "good definitions" of being a Roman Catholic:

1) Sacramental & Canonical: a person is RCC if he/she was baptised in the RCC (and has not renounced it).
2) Professing: a person is RCC if he/she self-identifies as RCC. They may or may not attend Mass on a regular basis.
3) Discipleship: a person is RCC if he/she earnestly strives to live as the RCC teaches.

Each of these are ways in which people talk about "being a Roman Catholic." The first is a sacramental and juridical reality. It is the broadest of all three "definitions". The second is how most Catholics think of "being a Roman Catholic." The last is the gist of the Belloc quote which appears in your post.

Which of these three types of Catholics grasp "the Catholic Principle"?

Thanks for a thought provoking post.
written by Mack Hall, October 01, 2012
One should never presume to speculate what someone who has died MIGHT have done or thought, but C. S. Lewis did a pretty good job of overcoming the poisoning of his Northern Ireland upbringing. And, too, the C of E in his time, while in itself flawed as a Protestant institution, was not nearly as strange and irrelevant as it has become.
written by Ed, October 02, 2012
Being well-educated, as Bostonians claim to be, means what? Does it mean that a person has an understanding of God, grace, love or faith? Does it mean he loves his fellow man?

As to “denominational mentality”, I believe the author is talking about a dying breed of Christian that aligns itself with the prevailing social mores of our American society – the mainline Protestants, but certainly not the Evangelicals. The Evangelicals take the whole Trinity much more seriously than do the Catholics, and, as laypersons, are much more educated on matters of scripture. (There’s that word “educated” again.) This would mean that Evangelicals can sin, transgress, and fall away as well as any other Christian. Hilaire Belloc’s words describe all Christianity as far as I can see, and I see quite well the Christian saga.

I thank the Roman Catholic Apostolic Church for the progress it has made in the past several decades to reverse its triumphal declarations of exclusivity and embrace humility and ecumenical inclusion. Popes John Paul and Benedict have labored to move the faith of Catholicism back into the mainstream of God’s living waters, and declare a faith that can meet the needs of America’s people, and do that without leaving the truth of God’s Word, nor ignoring God’s will.
written by Rick DeLano, October 02, 2012

"I thank the Roman Catholic Apostolic Church for the progress it has made in the past several decades to reverse its triumphal declarations of exclusivity"

>> You think the Church is reversing Her infallibly defined dogmas?

Do you have any evidence that such infallible definitions are reversible?

I can assure you that they are not.

"and embrace humility and ecumenical inclusion."

>> Humility, I suspect, means admitting that She has lied for millennia by declaring Herself to be the ark of salvation, outside of which no one at all can be saved?

"Popes John Paul and Benedict have labored to move the faith of Catholicism back into the mainstream of God’s living waters"

>> So the Catholic faith was outside of God's living waters before the last two Popes?

"and declare a faith that can meet the needs of America’s people"

>> The Faith as previously declared could not meet the needs of the American people?

"and do that without leaving the truth of God’s Word, nor ignoring God’s will"

>> How could She "leave" the truth, since you say that until recently She never had it?

No Catholic could credit these notions.

Actually, no rational person could.

Either the Church has always been the Church, and always will be, or else She never was, or ever will be.


written by Richard M, October 02, 2012
I thank the Roman Catholic Apostolic Church for the progress it has made in the past several decades to reverse its triumphal declarations of exclusivity and embrace humility and ecumenical inclusion."

Well, we can see how well that has worked, Ed. Where are the floods of converts?
written by Captain DG, October 02, 2012
I think you worry too much. The church moves slowly but still it moves! Even now it is moving back to a more faithful catechesis in America. I see increase in those Catholics who would get what you call the Catholic principle. I don't know if you can measure it yet in a poll but it is there. If you look too hard at this moment you will miss the birthing of the next. Take heart!
written by Karl, October 03, 2012
How, in the name of justice and truth, is a person SINCERE,
who remains with their adulterous partner?

If this was a sincere person he or she would cease the
adulterous liason and do everything in their power to
restore the valid marriage they are STILL CHOOSING to

The Catholic Church is DEAD WRONG in this approach
and is responsible for countless destroyed marriages and
lost faith and endless numbers of lost souls.

written by Achilles, October 04, 2012
Karl, that is quite a bold and damning statement that must be undergirded by an immemse structure of understanding and vision. Are you sure you are not confusing fact for feeling? Individual free will and corruption with Catholic Dogma?
Someone with wider vision even than you told me that "the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church". I don't think the Church is wrong about anything, but try to find one honest man in 3000 in the Church and you might be on to something.

P.S. Ed, your comments are wayyyyy off the mark.
written by Karl, October 04, 2012
I did not say Satan would win. He loses along with those bishops who continue, the vast majority of them I believe, to pave the road to Hell, as St. John Chrysostom said, with their skulls and who fail to act to bring maliciously abandoning spouses to repentance, rather than the current horror of giving them cover by welcoming them into the Church as they do the horrendous things they do.

No, I speak with and from experience, knowing many who have seen the disgusting behavior of our priests and our bishops, first hand, in support of adultery and all the crimes it entails.

I am much happier, ultimately, answering to God than to the recent Popes, whose misuse of mercy, has given haven to spouses who, more and more, behave like terrorists. I am convinced these men simply do not care or lack the courage to admit they do not really know what to do to help in wounded marriage. Yes, they may be on the continuum between not caring and not knowing but we who are faithful to our vows, as the Catholic Church coddles our spouses who are doing all they can to destroy us, in many, many cases, need help and have for decades of the decline in our culture.

There is no excuse for the behavior of our bishops, when in specific cases, such as those intensely studied for the nullity process, the Church knows in detail the specifics of the depravity that is in its face. These men know what is going on but ignore our pleas. It is scandalous and makes the child abuse cases, trivial, number-wise.
written by Achilles, October 05, 2012
Karl, who among us is not plagued by self-deceit? I know the betrayal of which you speak, but Aristotle might remind us all that our anger is only justified and righteous if we are angry at the right person, for the right reason and in the right amount. Who among us has a single motive? Are you so positive about your anger that you would speak so disrespectfully of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI? Are you so sure about your own motives as well as in complete possession of an understanding of these two great Popes that you dare to condemn them?

Karl, I appreciate your passion and your candor. I too am disheartened and would be in despair were it not for the mercy of God and the grains of Faith He has gifted me. We are all of us sinners, but there is a lot more to the rampant narcissistic sexual immorality than must be laid at the feet of bishops and popes. Do we not answer for our own sins? Ought we not pray for those souls whose skulls we conjecture may be strewn on the path to hell? Condemnation is not our calling in this life. Please take a step back, look into the perfect law of liberty, pray for the grace to be a saint, and if you can find it in your heart, please pray for a poor sinner like me. Peace be with you, Achilles
written by Karl, October 05, 2012
Of course, the bottom line is our choice. We are free to follow the teachings of the Church or to follow our whims.

I am not saying that either of the last two Popes would make the choices that marital abandoners would make and have made. I am saying, and stand by it, that their practices are failures and are detrimental to marriage, to spouses and to their children. These two men are making more attractive a nearly certain path toward Hell, by choosing to not canonically sanction, in public, malicious marital abandoners. They are bringing the judgment of God upon their flock, through their failure to adequately address and correct these errors, in public in a clear and effective manner. There is no understanding "out there", to a huge extent among Catholics, BECAUSE of the failure of these two men and their fellow
bishops and priests to govern the Catholic Church, wisely, regarding marriage.
But, the bottom line is our choice. I am making my choice to be faithful to a vow
my wife ignores. But, she has been encouraged, for more than 20 years, to remain
with her adulterous lover because the Bishops choose to do nothing to bring her
to repentance, nor have the Pope's, all of whom have been implored to do so, for
decades. She and her lover are openly welcomed as a married couple and have been for decades. This is the direct fruit of the failed practices of the Catholic Church, which encourage its teaching to be openly mocked and to be ignored.

These inactions are a tremendous scandal.
written by Achilles, October 05, 2012
Karl, my heart breaks for your situation. You have a tremendous cross to bear. There is the greatest shame incurred by your wife and her “lover”(it causes me pain to use that word with such an orc of an ordeal). I can’t imagine that anyone would sanction such hurtful, reckless and destructive behavior. The deliberate destruction of the family by feminism, big business, big government and public schools is a blow worse than death. I wish I had even an ounce of consoling or truthful advice. How many countless men have to endure something similar? And imagine the children at the hands of this diabolical tyranny.

In all truth, anyone who behaves such as your wife, as described by you, has violated Christ’s 2 commandments in such a horrible way as to have excommunicated themselves from the Body of Christ and moral Truth. I will pray for your transformation in Christ through your suffering and that your wife is given the grace to convert from her treachery to repentant sorrow.

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