Why SHOULD You Become (or Be) Catholic?

Someone once told me about a guy he knew who loved hanging out with Catholics.   Why? Because it was the best way to meet girls. So convinced was he of this that he soon became a Catholic himself. Whether he succeeded in meeting more girls, I don’t know. But the Church as a dating service seems a strange motive for conversion.

So why, then, should someone become Catholic? If Eros is not enough to justify running off to Rome – passion followed by popery, as it were – what about ethics? Is that a sufficient reason? Should one join the Church because one is in hot pursuit of social justice and therefore membership in an institution bent on serving the poor seems an obvious vehicle?

After all, solidarity with the poor and the dispossessed, particularly when exercised as a “preferential option” (to use the language of our bishops), is a constitutive dimension of the Gospel itself.

Hasn’t Pope Francis issued eloquent marching orders to this effect? To whom must the Church first turn, he asks in Evangelii Gaudium? Doubtless, she is obliged to carry the Good News to everyone, but who needs to hear it first? The answer is clear:

not so much our friends and wealthy neighbors, but above all the poor and the sick, those who are usually despised and overlooked, “those who cannot repay you” (Lk 14:14). . . .the poor are the privileged recipients of the Gospel. . . there is an inseparable bond between our faith and the poor. May we never abandon them. (48)

Here perhaps is the origin of that wonderful image of the Church as a “field hospital,” where all sorts of emergency interventions take place. Or to activate another image equally expressive, a bridge, over which the most destitute and dispirited are encouraged to cross. But never a wall that keeps people out.

Still, is that the best reason for joining the Roman Catholic Church? Shouldn’t you aspire to something higher? Even the wretched estate of one’s own neighbor, however pitifully he cries out for relief, cannot finally satisfy as a reason to join. Unless there is something already percolating through every pore of the Church’s life – intrinsic to the thing itself – the attraction falls short of ultimate satisfaction.

So what could possibly be within Roman Catholicism that justifies everything else? That trumps even considerations of justice?

View of the Tiber Looking Towards the Castel Sant’Angelo, with Saint Peter’s in the Distance by Giuseppe Zocchi, c. 1750 [Private collection]

The answer is quite simple. Truth. There can be no basis for belonging to the Church, forming your entire life to her nature and mission, unless the basic proposal of faith is true. If you were to dismiss (or relativize) the truth claims inscribed in the very constitution of her being, then it would be not merely wrong, but wickedly so, to convert or continue as a member. Get out as quick as you can, and if you still feel inclined to idealism – join the Peace Corps.

As Flannery O’Connor put it in a letter to a woman whom she had persuaded to become Catholic but decides she’s had enough: “The only thing that is going to make the terrible world we are coming to endurable is the Church. And the only thing that makes the Church endurable is that it is somehow the Body of Christ and on this Body we are fed.”

Unless you’re spiritually obtuse, the fact that God breaks Himself to become our Bread ought to mobilize you instantly to seek out the nearest Mass.

Joseph Ratzinger reminds us of one of the most arresting assertions from the time of the Church Fathers: Tertullian’s insistence that Christ never called himself custom. Instead, he called himself Truth. And in the most emphatic and exclusionary way: “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” (Jn 14:6)

Not being part of the customary furniture of the ancient world, Christ cannot be reduced to the mythos of the pagan state, or to the ethos of the Israelite nation. Only the Logos of God can account for the coming of Christ. Only the Word, the Self-Utterance of the Second Person, can with perfect adequacy speak the Father’s Name into the world. And in telling this truth, the Church succeeded in sundering Christianity from every competing creed on the planet.

You should be a Catholic not because you’ll meet more women (or men). Not because it enables you to advance social justice. But because you believe that the Church’s claims are true, and therefore binding on your life.

“Unless Christ be risen,” warns St. Paul, who was first blinded by God, then given the gimlet eye to see things clearly, “our faith is in vain, and we are the most miserable of men.” (1 Cor 15:17)

Who would not wish to sign on with a Church that ensures eternal life, anchoring its truth in the fact that Someone knew how to climb out of the grave? Christianity is not, as Ratzinger put it, “the option in favor of a spiritual ground to the world.” That was Platonism and, for all the offspring tagging along in its wake, it never saved a single soul. The Christian proposal is different. “(I)ts central formula is not ‘I believe in something,’ but ‘I believe in Thee.’ It is the encounter with the human being Jesus, and in this encounter, it experiences the meaning of the world as a person.”

Or, as Francis would say: “the privileged place of encounter is the caress of Jesus’ mercy regarding my sin.” To see the mercy of God upon the face of our sin is what moves us in the direction of the Church he founded, and in joining with her we complete our transformation in Him.

Who would not want to believe something like that? That the God of the Universe, no less, should lower himself to be born in Palestine, so that he may disguise himself as Bread and Wine?

If we make that clear to our contemporaries, we’ll hear much more often: Where do I sign up?

Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville. Author of a half-dozen books, including, most recently, Witness to Wonder: The World of Catholic Sacrament. He lives in Wintersville, Ohio with his wife and ten children.