By Dr. Andrew Thomas Kania
William O’Malley S.J. has written that there are some non-negotiables for people who wish to call themselves Christians; O’Malley lists four. First, is the belief that Jesus of Nazareth is Jesus the Christ, the Son of God. One cannot consider the man Jesus to be merely, a good man – for He was more than a man, He was God; and this Divine Nature has to be affirmed in order to be a Christian, a follower of the Christ – the Messiah. To call oneself a Christian, and not believe Jesus was God, is illogical. Second, to be a Christian one must believe in the salvific mission of this God made man. What was the purpose of Christ becoming one like us? Was it merely a Divine courtesy call, to let the world know that God was still out there? Of course not, the Prophets of the Old Testament laid the pathway for the Messiah. The second person of the Holy Trinity came to rescue humanity – by sharing in our human condition and through His resurrection restoring us to the fullness of grace. An individual must acknowledge this Mission, to be a Christian. Third, O’Malley emphasizes that to be a Christian one must also accept St. Paul’s example of taking on the values of the Kingdom of God, placing God, then self, then neighbour ahead of the values of the world. The Christian life speaks of an ‘interested’ service to others; a service not based on some romantic notion of altruism, but of a clear sense of solidarity with the human family, based on a love for a single Divine parent – God. Each life is sacred for it has its beginning with God. Finally, as a member of the Christian family one must participate, as family members do, around the table, serving within the community, and sharing the sacred meal. Every institution that exists, requires of the individual a responsibility to it. If one chooses to be a Christian one must be part of a Church life; in like manner that if one is a member of a sporting team – one is required not only to play the match, but attend ‘religiously’ the training sessions, and wear the correct uniform – and serve the interests of the club, by not bringing scandal to her. These four criteria characterize O’Malley’s Christian.
But O’Malley’s thesis seems to fall far short of what characterizes a Catholic; for although Catholics should affirm all four characteristics of O’Malley’s Christian, in addition to these, there are further marques of Catholicism.
The term καθολικός (katholikos), or in English, ‘Catholic’ is most often translated through the Latin to English, as meaning, ‘universal’. To Greek scholars from whose language the term ‘Catholic’ derives, such a translation stresses a centering around the ‘one’ (‘uni’), and loses much of the beauty of its original meaning; that is: ‘taking nothing away from the whole’. To be a Catholic, according to the Greek Fathers, is to be a follower of Christ, who accepts His teachings and those that derive therefrom through His Church – thus comprising the ‘Whole’.
So let us seek out the additional criterion for being a Catholic – marking out this ‘Whole’. First, a Catholic must acknowledge that Christ empowered His disciples, and they in turn, empowered others to lead their respective churches after them. This was the message of Pentecost; and it is from here that all the other marques of Catholicism are added – for without an authority, no teaching could be promulgated as Truth; the Church would not even have Sacred Scripture, if no authority could be given to establish canon. Apostolic succession should be seen as a marque of the Church’s authenticity. Second, a Catholic must revere the Scripture as the Word of God, and acknowledge that what the Church states as Canon, is indeed so. If one cannot agree as to Sacred Writ, then there exists no set text from which to live one’s life by, or to preach to the world. Before one ascribes that a text is indeed the Word of God – it is vital, that the individual acknowledge that someone has had the authority, by which to proclaim the text as such. To believe a text is Holy Writ, without questioning the very claim that it be deemed so, is a tenuous circumstance. Third, a Catholic should be able to state as true, the Church’s great affirmation of Faith – the Nicene Creed. Formulated as a counter to heresy, this Creed sets out plainly what a Catholic believes, hence it is always used during the celebration of the Divine Liturgy, as well as the Baptismal Liturgy. But as St. Athanasius reminds us, the mere reciting of the Creed does not separate us from Satan, for even he acknowledges its Truth; it is loving the tenets of our Faith that marks us out as Catholics. Fourth, Catholics are said to be a Sacramental people, and as such they must be unequivocal as to the place of the Sacraments, or Holy Mysteries, in the life of the Church and in their personal lives. The Sacraments or Holy Mysteries speak of an initiation into the community, a service to one another, and a healing. The Sacraments or Holy Mysteries are supernatural events that punctuate the life of a Catholic – marking out, as signposts the spiritual life. Fifth, as Catholics we understand the Truth of the adage: “the law of prayer is the law of belief”. Our Liturgical life – from the Catholic East through to the Catholic West, is a continual emphasis of where we stand with regard: transubstantiation, the use of sacramentals, the power of God to make things holy, the various prayers forms and their efficacy, the Church year, the use of art and music to appeal to the senses, and much, much more. Catholic belief defines Her prayer – Catholic prayer defines Her belief – there is an interplay and marriage of both. Finally, the Catholic Church, taking her authority from Christ through St. Peter, asks Her faithful to accept the Pope as the Head of the Church.
As one reads through the various criteria of being Christian and Catholic – one can see that every Catholic can adhere to O’Malley’s characteristics of a Christian, for what we loosely call Christianity today, is a subset of Catholicism. As one progresses down the list of characteristics of Catholicism, one sees that up until the last marque of Catholicism – only the Christian Orthodox can claim as much of the Whole as the Catholic Church does; for their dispute is with the Papacy.
To claim as some have done that Catholic Education should be defined as Gospel Spirituality, is a misnomer. The Gospels are part of Catholic Tradition, a vital, central part – but nonetheless, part of a broader Tradition. The Church established the canon of Sacred Scripture, but a Catholic believes in the Gospels, and in much more. The marques of being a Catholic require a respect for the whole of Sacred Tradition; and as such, we should always take strength as people not only of The Universal Church – but more so, as people who pray, and believe, in a Church that has taken nothing away from the Whole. In short, we belong to a Church born at Pentecost – breathing with the Spirit throughout the Ages.