What Catholicism Is, and What it Isn’t
Living in the Bible Belt, I run across a lot of misconceptions about what Catholicism is. Of course, I ran across these things in Southern California too, so the problem isn’t just limited to the Bible Belt. Strangely, I’ve even seen Catholics display some pretty funny ideas of what makes one Catholic. I remember the year I decided to join the Catholic Church in 1999. I had an older woman, a co-worker, stop me and give me a little lecture about what a Catholic really is. She was a “devout Catholic” herself, or so she told me, and her admonition was as follows: “To be a Catholic means you have to pray the Rosary every day, and you have to cross yourself allot, especially when something bad happens, never look at the Eucharist when the priest elevates it (cause you could die) and you have to believe everything the pope says, even if he says the sky is purple, you have to believe it. Do you think you’re up for that?” I told her I didn’t think that’s what it meant to be Catholic, but she insisted. Actually, I think she might have been trying to talk me out of it. Whatever the case, while some Catholics may do these things, that isn’t what Catholicism is about. This essay explores what Catholicism really is, versus what it isn’t…
What Catholicism really is…
Catholics are Christians. However, the word “Catholic” comes from the ancient Greek way of saying “universal, whole and complete.” as in “that which is believed and practiced everywhere and by all Christians.” This is in contrast to ancient sectarian churches which followed the teachings of particular men (such as the Arians) or certain ethnic people (such as the Jewish Ebonites). In other words, “Catholic” was the ancient Greek way of saying non-sectarian or “nondenominational.”
Being Catholic is about being a Christian who subscribes to a certain set of very ancient beliefs and practices that were common to all Christians in antiquity and all the way into modern times. These beliefs and practices can best be summarized by the four C’s of Catholicism.
The four C’s of Catholicism are…
Creeds: Topping the list is “Creeds,” particularly the Apostles Creed and Nicene Creed in a practical sense. Catholics should memorize both, as the Nicene Creed is said at Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation. The Apostles Creed is part of regular devotions used by Catholics. We could throw the Athanasian Creed in there for good measure, though it’s not regularly used in Catholic liturgy and devotion. It is, nevertheless, solid Catholic doctrine. The Nicene and Apostles Creeds are the foundation of Catholic faith. To be a Catholic, one MUST subscribe to the tenets of these two creeds. Catholics are taught to memorize them at a very young age.
Councils: These are the ecumenical councils of the Church. The Catholic Church teaches that there have been 21 ecumenical council in all (22 if you count the Council of Jerusalem recorded in the New Testament), up to this point in history. The Councils help define what a Catholic really is, because these often exercise infallible judgments on matters of faith. However, while Councils are important, the average Catholic doesn’t usually spend a lot of time studying them, and that’s okay. The Councils help formulate the faith and are mainly designed for the benefit of the clergy, but they don’t always translate to the people in a pastoral form. That comes later in the form of another C for “Catechism.”
Canon: By that is meant the Canon of Scripture, which is more popularly known as “The Bible.” Catholics are expected to listen to the Bible read during Mass and other liturgical celebrations. The liturgy itself is filled with prayers and responses that come from Bible, and the Catholic Church encourages Catholics to read the Bible privately (or as a family), and spend time studying it, because it is the infallible word of God which is on par with the Creeds and the Councils. While there is no particular order to the three C’s, I have listed the Canon third here because the Canon of Scripture is dependent on the Councils. The Councils ultimately decided what the Canon of Scripture (The Bible) would be, meaning what books would be included therein, and in what order they would be included.
Catechism: The Catechism contains the teachings of the above three C’s in a parochial, or pastoral, format which is simple and easy to understand. So when you read the Catechism, you’re getting all four Cs. Through the Catechism, the Catholic will not only learn what to believe, but also how to live, including the necessity of receiving the sacraments and charitably caring for others. While Catechisms may contain infallible teachings, throughout, Catechisms themselves are not infallible documents as a whole. They are simply attempts to explain infallible teachings of the Church in systematic and pastoral ways, so as to make them easy to understand. Not all Catechisms are created equal. Some that came out in the 1970s and 1980s were quite horrible actually. This is one reason why Pope St. John Paul II corrected these misguided efforts with his own Catechism in 1992, which itself has since been amended and revised by later popes in imperfect ways. The best Catechism, originally written in the English language, for English-speaking Catholics, remains the Baltimore Catechism. First published in the United States in 1885, it wasn’t officially replaced until 2004 by the US Bishops Catechism. Nevertheless, the Baltimore Catechism remains a superior source of systematic Catholic doctrine. While Catholic parishes no longer officially use it, there is nothing stopping Catholic families from using it in their homes. An adult version can be obtained here. Youth versions can be obtained here: ages 0-6, ages 6-11, ages 12-17. Lesson numbers can actually be synchronized between the Adult version and version #1 and version #2 for children between ages 6-17. It’s an extremely effective Catechism series. It’s no wonder it was used for over 100 years. Unfortunately, many Catholic parishes started moving away from Catechism-based education for children back during the 1970s and after. Sadly, it shows. To correct this matter, Catholics parents should take matters into their own hands, using the tried and true Baltimore Catechism system.
What Catholicism Isn’t…
Pope Idolatry or “Popolatry”: You’ll notice in the four C’s above, the pope is not mentioned. That doesn’t mean he’s unimportant. On the contrary, the pope plays a key role in every single one of the above C’s. He assisted in the formation of the Creeds. He calls the ecumenical councils and presides over them. He “canonized” the Canon of Scripture (the Bible) in AD 405 and is charged with defending it today. He formulates catechisms, corrects them, and promotes them. He teaches and he settles doctrinal disputes. So as you can see, he plays a very key role in Catholicism, but he himself is not the focus of Catholicism. He is not meant to be a guru or some mystic whom Catholics follow around like lost, little puppy dogs. He has an important job in the Church, but it is a job nonetheless, not a status of perfection. He’s not God. He’s not an angel. He may, or may not, be a holy person. We’ve had bad popes in history. Some of them were scoundrels. Some were criminals. Some neglected their duties as popes. Others abused them. Popes are a lot like American presidents. Just as American presidents are important to the United States, the nation itself is based on the Constitution, laws and court decisions. Presidents play an important role in those things, and have a considerable amount of influence over them, but nobody would think that an American president defines America. The nation is bigger and more diverse than any one man could possibly represent. The same is true with popes and the Catholic Church. Some people get confused about the term “papal infallibility,” and misunderstand this to mean that the pope can never err. That’s not what the doctrine of papal infallibility means. Rather, it means that under very rare circumstances, when the pope very specifically invokes this charism, he can settle disputes in the Church permanently. That’s pretty much it. The last time a pope did this was in 1950, when Catholic theologians were debating whether the Blessed Virgin Mary was assumed (raptured) into heaven before or after she died. Pope Pius XII, invoking the charism of papal infallibility, settled this dispute forever, by stating it happened at the end of her life, and we cannot say with certainty whether she died immediately before or not. What we know for sure is she didn’t spend days in a tomb before it happened. That’s an example of papal infallibility used to settle doctrinal disputes. It hasn’t been used since. Such acts are a rare thing, and popes should never be mistaken for perfection. None of them are perfect. There have been many popes throughout Catholic history. Less than a third of them went on to become canonized Saints. More than two-thirds didn’t. People should keep this in mind. Just because a pope says something, that doesn’t always mean he’s right. Everything popes say and do publicly should be compared to the four C’s described above. That’s what the Catholic faith is based on, not the opinions or fancies of particular popes. Catholicism, true and authentic Catholicism anyway, is not pope-idolatry or “popolatry.”
Ethnicity: Here in the United States, Catholicism is sometimes confused with ethnicity, meaning that people think they’re obligated to be Catholic based on their ethnic heritage. “Well, I’m (Italian, Irish, Polish, Latino, etc.) so naturally I’m Catholic.” One hears this sort of statement all the time. It’s total baloney. Catholicism is a religion not a blood type. Nobody is “born” anything. We are “raised” in our religious traditions, and that’s entirely dependent upon the choice of our parents. Some of us choose our religious beliefs as adults. Nobody is “born” Catholic. We don’t come out of the womb making the sign of the cross. This mindset is actually very prevalent in Protestant countries in general, where the majority population is raised Protestant or non-religious. It’s associated with immigrants who often bring their Catholic religion with them into places like the US, UK, Canada, etc. The truth is, while ethnicity or nationality can play a role in whether or not one is raised Catholic, it doesn’t have to. For example; A good number of Latinos are now Evangelical and Pentecostal, not Catholic. The fastest growing churches in Latin America are now Evangelical and Pentecostal churches, not Catholic.
Family Obligation: A lot of Catholics think they have to remain Catholic because that’s their family identity. So they continue to identify as Catholic even when they no longer believe most or all of the Catholic faith. They might remain registered at a Catholic parish, and occasionally go to Mass, but they no longer subscribe to Catholic teaching on various issues. Historically, this was called “Cafeteria Catholicism.” In truth, however, these people are functionally Protestants in a practical sense. They may be members of Catholic parishes and cathedrals, but their belief system is Protestant in nature. In the United States, the typical Cafeteria Catholic subscribes to a belief system that is somewhere between Methodist and Episcopalian in doctrine. This comes from rejection of one or more of the four C’s of Catholicism. Roughly about half (50%) of all Catholics in the United States fit this description.
Making the Sign of the Cross: While Catholics do make the sign of the cross, making the sign of the cross doesn’t make you Catholic. Many Protestants make the sign of the cross too. These include: Lutherans, Anglicans and Methodists. The Eastern Orthodox and Coptic Christians also make the sign of the cross.
Praying the Rosary: While many (not all but many) Catholics do pray the Rosary, praying the Rosary doesn’t make you Catholic. Some Anglicans pray the Rosary, and the Rosary used to be a very common Lutheran devotion as well. Likewise, some Catholics don’t pray the Rosary at all, and they remain Catholics in good standing. The Rosary is not a required Catholic devotion, though it does come highly recommended from a very high authority.
Parish and Diocese Membership: Some people think being Catholic means being registered at a Catholic parish and diocese. While it is true that Catholics should be registered with a particular parish and diocese (or jurisdiction of some type), that doesn’t automatically make them Catholic. People leave Catholicism all the time, without ever bothering to remove themselves from the parish and diocesan roster. So, likewise, being registered doesn’t make you anymore Catholic than praying the Rosary or making the sign of the cross. Being Catholic means subscribing to the four C’s above. Having your name on a parish roster book is important for Catholics, but it doesn’t make you Catholic.
Receiving Communion Every Week: Some people look at Holy Communion as similar to “getting your ticket punched” at a sporting event. They think it shows that you’re Catholic. However, the Canon (Bible) explicitly says that some people receive communion in an unworthy manner, and when they do so they condemn their souls to hell for not taking communion seriously enough (1 Corinthians 11:27-32). If one of the Bible’s authors (St. Paul the Apostle) thought this important enough to mention, then it must be a significant problem. Receiving communion is a solemn act that must be taken seriously and worthily. Catholics should be conscious of no mortal sin upon receiving the sacrament, and should believe it really and truly is the literal body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ under the accidental appearance of bread and wine. Failure to believe in this transubstantiation (transformation of the substances), and be in a state of grace, is to receive communion in an unworthy manner, and condemn one’s own soul. People receive communion in an unworthy manner all the time. When I was an Evangelical Protestant, I received communion in a Catholic parish multiple times. I did’t know any better, and my ignorance was my excuse, but it did happen. The priest didn’t stop me ahead of time to ask if I was a Catholic. Nobody carded me in line to see if I was a member of the parish. Non-Catholics receive communion (illicitly) in Catholic parishes all the time. That doesn’t make them Catholic. Unworthy Catholics do the same. Receiving communion in a Catholic Church doesn’t make you any more Catholic than eating cat-food makes you a cat. What makes a Christian a Catholic is adherence to the four C’s above.
Telling Everyone You’re Catholic: Just telling everyone you’re Catholic, or that you were raised Catholic, doesn’t make you Catholic either. It doesn’t make you any more Catholic then telling everyone you’re a poached egg makes you into one. You actually have to subscribe to the four C’s above, and if you do, then you’ll end up doing all those things Catholics do anyway. You’ll go to Mass. You’ll receive the sacraments, but most importantly, you’ll believe the faith. That’s what makes you Catholic, not just telling people you are one.