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The Catholic Principle

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 books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.