What Does It Mean To Be Catholic?

Simple Catholic Snapshots

How would you explain Catholic Christianity to an outsider? Could you even begin to concisely describe your faith? After a bit of struggling, here is what I think it means, and what it takes, to be Catholic.

To Be Catholic Means:

  • Be Validly Baptized With the Form and Matter of Baptism as Subscribed by Jesus Christ
  • Believing and Professing the Required Teachings of the Catholic Church on Faith and Morals
  • Participate in the Communion of the Church by Living a Sacramental Life of Obedience of the Faith

Simple Catholic Truths

The Problem of Common Ground

Recently, I have been discussing with some of my non-Catholic Christian friends what it means to be Christian. It sounds like a simple enough question, but a simple answer is much more difficult than first imagined. The difficulty as it turns out comes from finding common ground. Logically, it seems that all Christians must hold to a set of fundamental core tenants. Ideally then, it should be easy to just identify those beliefs and ‘presto’, we’ve taken a step toward unity. But not so fast!

Of course you say, being Christian means simply believing in Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Son of God, the Resurrected Savior of the world (Jn 3:16). Well, that might be a good start but (pun intended) the devil is in the details. You see, some “Christians” don’t believe that Jesus is God. Some don’t believe in the Trinity. Others say salvation comes from faith alone while many include some active participation as required. Some say that Baptism is purely a symbol while others say that Baptism and other Sacraments are means to our salvation. Some say that the Bible alone is the source of God’s revelation of truth where others include oral Tradition. You see the problem?… us “Christians” can’t even define what it is that makes us Christians. Us “Christians” can’t even clearly state what we believe and why we believe it. No wonder much of the world is looking from the outside and laughing at the chaotic bickering from within the brotherhood of Christianity.

The Solution:

If nothing else, these conversations revealed at least one thing that I needed to do. All Catholics, myself included, should be able to immediately and concisely define and defend what it is to be a Catholic. So, I set out to do exactly that. What I ended up with is actually pretty simple. To be considered “Catholic” there are three requirements:

Baptism

1.     Be Validly Baptized:

Baptism is the first Sacrament of Christian initiation (CCC 1213-1284). The New Testament uses various descriptors trying to communicate the essence of Baptism. Baptism regenerates and saves us (Ti 3:5, 1 Pet 3:21), forgives our sins (Acts 2:38) and is absolutely necessary for salvation (Jn 3:5). Baptism of course is symbolic, but it is so much more. It changes our nature, it initiates a personal relationship with our Father and makes our soul ready for more of God’s saving grace.

For Baptism for be considered valid, two things must be present (CCC 1238-1240). First, as with every Sacrament, the correct physical matter must be used and for Baptism this matter is water. The method of application is inconsequential – sprinkling, pouring or immersion – just that water be used. Second, the proper form must be used. For Baptism the proper form is the invocation of the Trinity. The words “I Baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” must be recited while applying three times the water for the Baptism to be valid.

Therefore, to be once again part of God’s universal (Catholic) family, to receive the life of God that leads to eternal union with God, we must be Baptized.

[For those interested in which other church’s Baptisms are considered valid or invalid by the Catholic Church you can click HERE for a good list.]

Belief

2.      Believe and Embrace the Essential Teachings of the Catholic Church on Faith and Morals:

As evidenced by my original discussions with non-Catholics, many “Christians” today hold significantly different views regarding the true saving message of the Gospels. I don’t doubt that all are very sincere in their convictions but the differences nevertheless remain. To reconcile these differences, we must return to the teaching and words of Jesus Himself.

It is clear from Scripture that the Father gave to Jesus Christ three offices: Priest (administer of liturgy and Sacraments), Prophet (teacher) and King (ruler). Also clear in Scripture is the fact that Jesus gave each of these authorities to the Apostles (i.e. in one sense His Church) to be used in His absence. For example, Jesus commissioned His disciples to teach (Mt 28:20), to hear confession – retaining or forgiving sins (Jn 20:23), and to rule the kingdom (Lk 20:28-30). In addition, Jesus established a physical Church upon Peter (Mt 16:17-20), giving him the keys of authority (Is 22:15-25) and protecting that Church from the effects of Satan.

With that as the background, we focus now on the teaching role of the apostles and their successors. Since they were commissioned to teach in Jesus absence they must have been protected from teaching falsely. In other words the teaching Church is the foundation of truth (1 Tim 3:15) forever. In fact Jesus confirms this when he says that those that hear/reject the Apostles, hear/reject Jesus (Lk 10:16). Any finally, Jesus promised to give the Apostles an Advocate that would always be with them (Jn 14:16) and that this Spirit of truth will guide them to all truth (Jn 16:13).

Now that was the (very) short version of the story of Christ founding and building his teaching Church but the conclusion is clear. Christ founded a physical Church, gave that Church the authority to teach without error, and guaranteed that Church to exist today! 

One point of clarification needs to be mentioned here. A Catholic is not required to believe everything the Catholic Church teaches. Only those items “infallibly” taught that pertain to faith and morals are binding on the faithful. In a later post I’ll explore what infallibly means but for now we should not confuse those (infallible) teachings of the Church on faith and morals that are protected by God from error and other teachings that might be simply guidance or opinion.

Wait!! you say. How can I tell the difference and what must I believe? An excellent question indeed, one that I asked myself when researching this post. It turns out that the teachings of the Church are presented in an order of descending certainty and theological importance. A teaching that is divinely revealed by God that affects our salvation is highest on the list whereas a suggestion for behavior or liturgical practice is lower. I’ll get into these differences on a later post but for now the teachings with the highest degree of significance are called Dogmas, followed by Doctrines and then Disciplines. An example of each is: Christ is God (Dogma), The Priesthood is Reserved to Men (Doctrine), and Married Priests (Discipline).

The differences and qualifications for each category can get complicated and of interest only to the scholar. Thus far, I have found over 250 Dogmas and Doctrines which I will write about in a future SCT post. (I suggest you subscribe to SCT using the front page dialog box so that you won’t miss that and any future posts). In the mean time, let me restate the second requirement for being Catholic:

As a true follower of Christ, I am obligated in faith to believe the infallible teachings of Christ’s universal (Catholic) Church on matters of faith and morals (Dogmas and Doctrines).

Life in Action

3.      Participate in the Communion of the Church by Living a Sacramental Life of Obedience of the Faith.

I’m assuming that once upon a time we were all validly Baptized. In addition, I hope that most Catholics understand and hold to the dogmatic and doctrinal teachings of the Church.

In Baptism we professed our faith (or our Godparents did for us) and that sacrament changed our soul and brought us into God’s family – as one body. As we grew older we began to understand more deeply and were called on to recommit ourselves and our lives to God. Baptism is the start. Understanding and believing the dogmas and doctrines of our faith is wonderful but we are still unworthy of being face to face with God. Believing is not enough…we must live the life of a Christian to grow in holiness.

Christ instituted the Sacraments as tools, used to deepen our loving relationship with the Father. As members of the Body of Christ, there is a unity that must be developed and this unity, this strength of the Body, is one result of the Sacraments. I’m trying to say that we must also “walk the talk” of faith. Being Baptized is great, believing the doctrines is great but we must go all in and be an active member of the Catholic Body of Christ.

Many people profess to believe but fail to accept the grace of God offered in the Sacraments. They hunger but for some reason don’t come to the Eucharistic table for nourishment.

Some are in pain, but for some reason don’t come to the Confessional for relief.

Some have walked away altogether, either from apathy, convenience or in sincere good faith looking for something different.

 

 

Whatever the case, being Catholic means living a life that is alive with the grace of the Sacraments and a personal unity with other members of the Body.

Worship together, minister together, study together, help one another… that is being part of the universal Catholic church.

 

 

 

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