Catholicism: What You’d Expect
From the perspective of the Catholic Church, ‘Christianity’ and ‘Catholicism’ are only distinct concepts due to the unfortunate appearance of heretical and schismatic sects, some of which have split off from the original Church while remaining close enough to Church doctrine to be considered broadly ‘Christian’. These groups, in the words of Jerome, ‘tear the robe of Christ’ by keeping some elements of divine doctrine while rejecting others. In their hands, the seamless weave of Catholic truth is torn and refitted according the private interpretations and preferences of man.
This is, admittedly, an offensive claim to make in an age of religious pluralism—but it should be easy enough to falsify. If all Christianity comes from the embodiment it first found in the Church, then we ought to expect that Roman Catholic distinctives be foreshadowed in other, more generally Christian doctrines. If we cannot find any kind of thematic or logical consistency with mere Christianity in the unique claims of Catholicism, then it weakens the case of the Church tremendously. On the other hand, if Catholicism aligns with what we know to be true of Christianity, then an inductive arrow pointing in the direction of Rome—while not iron-clad in deductive proofs—would present itself to the open-minded person.
There are seven aspects of Christianity that I think are both distinctive to the religion itself, and that are distinctively fulfilled in Catholicism. These are the incarnational, authoritative, exclusive, baptismal, developing, whole, and reviled nature of true religion. That list is my own, and I claim no special inspiration in its compilation. There may be other equally useful distinctives to consider. However, I believe that the list is useful in that any religious system which meets all seven criteria will almost certainly be considered Christian. My task, then, is to show that these seven things are also uniquely characteristic of particularly Catholic doctrines.
The first characteristic, which I will treat in this article, is the incarnational nature of Christian practice and theology. Contra early and modern-day Gnostics, Christianity has always held that God is the origin of physical as well as spiritual existence. Even more radically, Christianity teaches that divine grace has been made manifest through the physical realm. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). St. John the Apostle makes this fact the criterion through which true and false spirits can be detected: “Every spirit which confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God” (1 John 4:2).
Christ’s unimaginable assumption of human nature is the paramount example of Incarnation, but the principle manifests in other ways as well. Christ healed the blind with dirt and spit (John 9:6), a woman was healed by touching the robe of Christ (Matthew 9:20-22), and Peter’s shadow seems to have had miraculous power as well (Acts:14-16). All of this points to God’s strange delight in using fleshly things to grant His grace.
God, then, is deeply interested in the physical realm. He did not create the world in all its complex wonder for nothing, and He will not resurrect our bodies without purpose. He is interested in things of the Spirit, yes—but He has chosen to give our Spirits existence within the realm of the body. Therefore, it is not weakness on our part to desire sight, hearing, taste, smell, or touch. Quite the opposite; He would not have given us these things if He did not intend to bless us through them. Since we are spirits with bodies, He can and does give us spiritual food through bodily means.
The idea of an infinite God taking human form boggled the ancient philosophers. To many of them, the physical was a lower plane of existence, meant to be transcended rather than lived in. Plato bemoaned the imperfection of the physical world, and thus concluded that it was not our home. In a way, of course, Plato was right: this is not our home. What he missed, however, was what the Lord revealed to John in the final book of Scripture: that the Earth, along with the Heavens, would be reborn into perfection (Revelation 21:1).
In a similar way, Catholicism uneases Protestants precisely because it is incarnational—although other Christians, such as the Eastern Orthodox, have no such qualms. Many well-meaning Protestants urge us to consider baptism an outward form, not an actual communicator of Divine favor. They often recoil at the saintly relics kept by the Church and dismiss the Catholic impulse to, say, touch the dead body of a Saint in hopes of receiving grace. The same goes for Communion: at best, Catholic theology of the Eucharist is viewed as superstitious, and less reserved critics call it idolatrous. Even acts of Confession strike some Protestants as unncessarily physical—they prefer to regard Divine forgiveness as an entirely internal, spiritual phenomenon divorced from the external absolution of a Priest. We could go on to list Confirmation, incense, statues, and many other similar issues, but I think the picture has been sufficiently painted.
While each Protestant protest may have its own theological justification, I think that the underlying motivation for these objections is fairly explicit: Divine favor is not conferred physically. Rather, salvation and grace are matters of purely internal decisions.
This is a dangerous teaching that would as much deny the Incarnation as it would Catholicism, if applied consistently. Two seeds of truth exist in it, however. The first is that we are commanded not to respect the outward appearance of something, but to examine its inward value. “Man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). The second is that the flesh, having been corrupted by the Fall, needs regeneration by the Spirit: “It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail” (John 6:63).
Neither of these things mean that Divine favor is not conferred through physical means, as the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection ought to have taught us. The warning God gives Samuel does not mean there is no grace imbued in fleshly things, but that sometimes grace is imbued in the things we least expect. Communion is one such example. It seems outwardly absurd that a cracker and a little wine would be the cornerstone of God’s New Covenant. But God does not work in likely ways.
Further, incarnational theology does not deny that the Spirit must first work through the flesh to make it holy; on the contrary, it assumes that it must. The frail body that Jesus assumed in His Incarnation, although fleshly, was made perfectly holy by the power of God. Likewise, baptismal waters have the power to cleanse us from sin, not through a ritual washing of dirt off of the body, but through a spiritual washing of our conscience (1 Peter 3:21). The water and the Spirit work together to save man (John 3:5).
Therefore, incarnational theology makes way sacramental theology. God made us physically, and thus His grace is manifest to us through His role as creator. Furthermore, as our friend, He is deeply aware of our needs. We are beings who inherently need touch, taste, sight, hearing, smell, and speech. These mediums are routes to our soul. Of course God has reached out to man through baptism, the Eucharist, icons and visual arts, homilies and songs, incense, confession and liturgy. How else would He choose to give us poor humans the grace we need? Yet these means of grace are found most prominently in the physicality of Catholic practice and teaching.
As I already mentioned, this characteristic is not singularly definitive of Christianity and Catholicism; Orthodoxy has similarly embraced the Incarnation to its fullest. Even by itself, however, we can see that not all of Christianity is equal in its pursuit of the religion’s core doctrines. When we move to the next characteristic—Christianity’s authoritative nature—I expect that an even sharper contrast will present itself.
Photo by Ângelo Pereira and found here.