Just by your baptism, does that make you Catholic? OSV News photo/Gregory A. Shemitz

What makes you Catholic?

  • May 31, 2024

In the following text, regular Catholic Register columnist Deacon Andrew Bennett asks readers a question at the heart of a Church diligently, often with great difficulty, working to make its voice both heard and coherent amid the chaos of change and the cacophony of claims against it. In fact, Bennett’s question contains a complementary query that pinpoints the divisions within Holy Mother Church and her divide from the secular world. At the outset, he asks what it means to be Catholic. Yet as his argument unfolds, he asks what we must do to be Catholic. 

A lamp post is a post that has held, will hold or is holding a lamp. Even fallen over, it’s still a lamp post, or at least a remnant of one suitable for refurbishing. Is a fallen Catholic who has falls away from the Church in daily thought, word and deed likewise still a Catholic? Bennett acknowledges there is a choice of answer, though he appears to frame it as either/or not both/and. We at the Register think the question and its complement are critical. Perhaps most critical of all: What do you, our readers, think? We invite you to read Deacon Bennett’s column and send your responses to editor@catholicregister.org. Please use the subject line “Bennett Response.” We’ll print as large a selection of your answers as possible.

The Editor.

What does it mean to be a Catholic? Who defines membership in the Catholic Church? The answer to the second question is relatively easy. It is the Church itself that defines membership through the sacraments of initiation: baptism, confirmation and holy communion. One cannot be fully in the Catholic Church without being joined to Christ in baptism, sealed with the gifts of the Holy Spirit in confirmation, and united to the Risen Lord in the Holy Eucharist. 

The answer to the first question may seem to be equally as straightforward, but the realities of the Church in the world today make it unfortunately quite complicated.

“For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal 3:27). Our baptism marks us. It claims us. It changes us. Through it, we are joined to Christ in a way that cannot be undone. Even if we walk away from the faith, even if we apostatize, we cannot undo the mark of our baptism. At the same time, our baptism is not something we can ignore as it brings with it certain responsibilities foremost among which is the call to grow in faith, to strive to live a Catholic life. So, it is not sufficient to say that I am a Catholic simply because I have been baptized or because “I’ve got my sacraments.” 

To have received the sacraments is not like collecting Pokémon cards, filling out your Bingo card or checking off a “To Do” list. Sacraments mean something, something very profound, as they are means of salvation, of sanctifying grace. But, if you have never learned about salvation, or grace, or even Jesus Christ for that matter, then the sacraments aren’t going to mean much to you at all and they become “just something Mom and Dad made me do as a kid.” Sadly, this seems to be the disposition of many a Canadian Catholic today.

As The Catholic Register reported earlier this month, think-tank Cardus released a new survey report entitled “Still Christian(?): What Canadian Christians Actually Believe.” It analyzed the results of a survey of just over 2,000 Canadians, including slightly more than 1,000 Christians, who were asked to agree or disagree with a series of statements on Christian belief. The results were shocking, but to many of us not surprising. 

Among the findings, a mere 51 per cent of Catholics agreed that “there is one true God in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” with a further 21 per cent being unsure or unwilling to answer. Fifty-four per cent of Catholics agreed with the statement “Jesus had many roles such as a teacher and prophet, but He was not God.” A further 54 per cent agreed with the statement that “all religions including Christianity, Judaism and Islam, are equally true.” A minority of Catholics, 48 per cent, agree that the Resurrection of Christ is an historical event that actually occurred in the first century. Only 42 per cent of Catholics agree with the Church’s doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary and 69 per cent — more than two-thirds of Catholics — believe that the bread and wine in the Eucharist only symbolizes Christ’s body and blood. 

A shocking 77 per cent of Catholics agreed that you do not have to go to Church to be a faithful Christian. In every single one of these examples, a majority of self-identified Canadian Catholics believe something directly contrary to the teaching of the Catholic Church. Why is this?

Some will argue that the clergy are to blame because they have failed to effectively evangelize and catechize the faithful. Others will blame the failure of our Catholic schools to teach the faith clearly to our children and youth. There are those who will point to the decline of the family and the failure of Catholic parents to transmit the faith through example. Some will make a more subtle argument that while many Catholics do not really understand the faith, and perhaps rarely darken the doors of their local parish church, they are still in the fold given their baptism. 

This last position I find most disconcerting as it is willing to accept an incoherent faith as perhaps better than no faith at all. There are many baptized Catholics in our families, our schools, our cultural industries, our Parliament and legislatures who loudly profess their Catholicism but then exercise what we might call their own private judgment. It is this exercise of private judgment that exposes an incoherent faith in that certain teachings of the Church, such as on the moral evils of abortion and euthanasia or on the universal and objective truth of Christianity, are inconvenient for them. 

In his 2013 book Evangelical Catholicism George Weigel argues for a 21st-century Catholicism that is focused on mission and the living out of our baptism. This includes a rejection of private judgments that lead to an incoherent faith. Weigel writes, “There is no ‘private judgment’ in Evangelical Catholicism, which considers that those who deny to be true what the Catholic Church teaches to be true are in a defective condition of communion with the Body of Christ.” 

Is it easy to be a Catholic? No, it is not and Our Lord told us so. In one sense we all demonstrate incoherent Catholic lives, as we struggle through our pride, vainglory, avarice, lust and cowardice to conform ourselves to Christ. What is important is the goal of that Catholic life, of living out our baptism. Is it to strive to live an ever more coherent faith in keeping with Christ’s teachings as manifested in the Catholic Church, or is it to conform ourselves to what is convenient to our situation or what is the fleeting “truth” of the world? We have a choice. In the end, the truth exists whether we conform to it or not. 

“I am the way, and the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me” (John 14:6).

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