When I consider the question, “Why be Catholic?” I know that most people expect an answer involving a specific Bible verse or a specific logical principle, but in reality the answer is so much bigger. Catholicism built the good parts of the culture we live in, and Catholicism continues to try to fix the bad parts, and to be Catholic is to be on the side of goodness and mercy in the world.
We live at a time when many claim to have no belief in God. If we take this atheistic worldview to its logical conclusion, then the human person has no ultimate destiny and is merely an intriguing cosmic accident. I do not believe that there are many true atheists even in today’s secularized world. Although many claim to be atheists and seem to wear this as a proud badge of independence from any system of belief, I simply can’t believe that many human beings have taken their atheism to its logical conclusion. It is simply not natural for human beings to reject the supernatural. Ancient nature religions testify to the innate sense of the supernatural that seems to be embedded in the human psyche. This common thread runs through every human culture, and it seems to testify clearly that even if God had never chosen to reveal Himself, human beings would still be seeking Him, even if blindly.
It is popular, in this current age, to blame many of the world’s problems on the Church and on religion in general. We’ve all seen bumper stickers that say that religion is the cause of all wars, and we know that on campuses around the world, it’s taken for granted that the Catholic Church is a stumbling block to human progress. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Catholic Church brought a radical new conception of humanity into the world, one which gave birth to human rights, universal education, and the conception of morality which everyone today uses without thinking about it.
Indeed, those who most proudly proclaim their atheism are often genuinely concerned about the state of their fellow man and try to reason and act according to the shared morality which we all inherit from the Catholic Church. They don’t realize it, but they are speaking the Catholic language of human dignity.
The world the Church was born into was a brutal and unmerciful place. The Roman emperors and their legions regularly killed thousands of people to show force and keep the Roman peace, the Pax Romana. At the fringes of the empire, warlord chieftains presided over violent societies. Everywhere, kings and rulers were declared to be gods whose word was absolute law, and might made right. Infanticide and torture and slavery were just facts of life.
In ancient religion, while man universally believed in and sought the divine through the expression of many religions, the gods they worshipped were typically unconcerned about humans or the human condition. The ancient pagan gods were often portrayed as narcissistic, concerned with their own conquests and jealousies, and were not usually interested in teaching mankind morality.
Into this world came the humblest group of people, a dozen Jews who were not royalty or warlords, not scholars or philosophers. They had a radical message: God has become man, and died for everyone’s sins, and thus every single human being has a destiny with God.
This understanding of humanity, this Christian anthropology, has created the world around us. It is the only true and complete understanding of mankind, and it is the key to the eternal happiness of every single person.
The very early Church, the Apostles and the followers of Christ who knew that He is risen, immediately began to act differently than the people around them. As just one example, historians inform us of the poor treatment of children in the ancient world, from outright child-sacrifice by many cultures to Roman and Greek practices of drowning unwanted children, or selling them into slavery, or exposure – placing unwanted children outside of the city walls at night to be killed by animals or weather. Strabo, a Greek author who lived at the time of Christ, wrote about the peculiar practice of the Egyptians who did not kill any of their children. It was literally “something to write home about” in the ancient world. These ancient pagans did not recognize value in the life of children who were not useful. The value of human life for them was not intrinsic, but was based upon usefulness. The Church, by contrast, knew from its beginning that the value of a human being comes from God.
The Church immediately began to teach this new anthropology, its understanding of the nature of humanity, which was in opposition to almost the entire world. In the Didache, a training manual for converts written in the first century, the Church teaches “thou shalt not procure abortion, nor commit infanticide.” The Roman world didn’t pay much attention, since Christianity was a disrespected and sometimes outlawed religion.
The Church acted to save infants when possible, and in some places, it was the special mission of deacons to rescue children exposed to the elements, and deliver them to Christian families for care. These children are sometimes referenced as “orphans” in early Christian writing.
Widows, orphans, the sick and disabled, these were the people who had no “value” in much of the ancient world. From its first days, the Church held a new understanding of human beings: all people have dignity and value given to them by God which cannot be taken away. Because of this understanding, the Church cared for the outcasts as important people, beloved of God.
This principle is beautifully demonstrated by St. Lawrence, Archdeacon of Rome in the year 258 AD. Ordered by the persecuting emperor Valerian to hand over all of the “treasure of the Church,” Lawrence brought the poor, the sick, the blind and the lame to the emperor and said, “Here are the treasures of the Church.” St. Lawrence was martyred soon after, and his act of holy defiance speaks to us of the real difference between the early Christians and the societies they lived within. Lawrence knew that every sick and disabled person, dismissed by Roman society as useless, had an eternal destiny with God; a value and dignity which nothing on Earth could take away.
Since Pentecost, the Catholic Church has had this mission, to boldly proclaim the real nature of mankind, and the Church has never ceased doing it. We continue this mission in our charitable works and social activities all over the world. Anywhere people are not valued for their intrinsic, God-given dignity, the Church is there, to care for those cast aside by the world.
Societies of the ancient world, using a conception of man based only in the present, often did not understand the moral teachings of the Church. Christians, recognizing their eternal destiny, made choices oriented toward eternal happiness with God. The ancient world marveled at the joy of Christian martyrs led to their death, and could not understand.
Modern Catholic moral teaching maintains the very same understanding, and its principles reflect the application of our Christian anthropology. Catholics, when faced with difficult moral decisions, are called to consider the eternal destiny of everyone involved, and not to reason merely from the present, earthly situation.
This makes many of our moral teachings unpopular in the world today. We desire that everyone make choices that will bring them to eternal happiness with God and the fulfillment of their destiny, even if it means their life on Earth is more challenging. So many issues come to mind such as abortion, contraception, marriage and divorce, and many others. In each of these cases, the world demands that the Church get on the side of people’s immediate happiness. Instead, the Church is always on the side of humanity’s eternal happiness.
The secret of the Catholic moral life, however, is that it is not merely the postponement of happiness until the afterlife. No, because it is rooted in a genuine anthropology, a true understanding of humanity, it often brings a special kind of happiness to our earthly lives as well. Our eternal happiness can begin here and now, if we orient ourselves to this particular kind of life.
What our Christian anthropology tells us is that we are made for our eternal destiny with God; it is what is natural for us. In doing what we are made for, we can experience real joy, even in hardship and suffering, and it is a kind of joy that comes from no other source.
This is the relationship God offers each person: surrender yourself to Me, the One who knows you best, and I will show you true happiness that surpasses anything the world can offer. One cannot help but be reminded of Christ being tempted by Satan, who showed him all the riches and pleasures of the world, and see that in fact this is exactly how we are all tempted as well. The only right choice is the one rooted in our nature, which points us to our eternal destiny.
And so this idea, that mankind has an eternal destiny which is all-important, has shaped the world around the Church. The Church, which at first rescued exposed infants by dark of night and took food to the hungry in secret, eventually came to be the conscience of the entire western world, and built the culture we live in.
Medicine, as a separate practice from religion, began in the Catholic Church. Hospitals began to be built in Europe and the Middle East after the Council of Nicea in 325 AD, and by the turn of the first millennium there were hospitals attached to most churches and monasteries. This Catholic dedication to the sick and suffering has never wavered, and today the Catholic Church remains the largest non-government provider of health care in the world, with around 40,000 separate facilities dedicated to health, including hospitals, clinics and nursing homes. It was the Catholic Church which invented the concept of medical care as a natural right for all people, specifically because of our belief that all people possess the same God-given dignity.
The Church invented the concept of education for all people, where previously education had been a matter of status for wealthy elites. Monasteries through Christendom became centers of learning, and in particular Ireland became known as the “Island of Saints and Scholars,” thanks to the educational efforts of monks there. Church councils in the Middle Ages decreed the existence of Cathedral schools and ordered the appointment of teachers for children who could not afford typical tuition. This was the beginning of what would become our modern concept of universal education. Modern government school systems are patterned after the Catholic educational system, and despite challenges brought in the last few centuries, the Catholic Church continues to operate the largest non-government school system in the world. The need to teach every child, everywhere, comes from our Catholic anthropology which tells us that every single child on earth is equal in dignity and destiny.
There are so many more examples in Catholic culture. Our art and music form a beautiful, universal meditation on our destiny and the incarnation of Christ by which we understand it. The concept of legal rights was born within the Church as a logical consequence of our conception of humanity. International law had its beginnings in the brave protests of Friar Antonio de Montesinos, Father Francisco de Vitoria and Bartolomé de las Casas against poor treatment of native Americans by Spanish conquistadors. It is only Christian anthropology which drove Catholics to see conquered peoples as humans equal in dignity to themselves. This was a radical shift in outlook, brought about by Catholic meditation on the destiny of all mankind.
In sum, the societal structures and moral conventions we have today which are good - our nearly universal respect for human rights, our condemnation of oppression and genocide, our willingness to defend the innocent against the unjust - and which so many people take for granted as “the way things ought to be,” was a hard-fought development in human culture brought about by the Catholic Church’s patient application of the fundamental truth of mankind over centuries. These developments did not come quickly or easily, but thanks to the Church they did come.
The Church which sent its first deacons out by night to rescue innocent children from a cold and merciless world has matured by the grace of God into the conscience of the entire planet. We are everywhere, caring for the sick and hungry, the oppressed and marginalized, the same as we have always done. We believe in human education and progress, in the arts and sciences, and in the equality of all people in their dignity. We do all of these things because we hold the true Christian anthropology, the only way to truly understand humanity.
We live in a world which often does not remember where these good things have come from, and too often thinks the Catholic Church is in some way a barrier to human progress. Let us all work together to help the world remember how these things came to be, and to help humanity see itself as it truly is:
One human family, with a God-given dignity and an eternal destiny.
And so, my answer to the question “Why be Catholic?” is: The Catholic Church best understands mankind, and can best show mankind the way to reach our destiny with God.
// This article by Bishop Joseph E. Strickland appeared in the May 2016 issue of the Catholic East Texas magazine. //
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