Recently I was talking to a non-Catholic friend when I mentioned an acquaintance. “He’s a good man,” I said. “He’s a good Catholic.” My friend took offense. “Why do you have to say Catholic? Why not just say Christian? It seems divisive to insist on being Catholic.” It’s a good question. Why distinguish between Catholic and non-Catholic? Why not focus instead on what we all share?
To begin with, it’s important to recognize that the Catholic Church does celebrate what all Christians have in common. In fact, she even celebrates what all humans have in common (Christian or not) and rejects nothing that is truly good or beautiful wherever it may be found. There are elements of truth and sanctification in many traditions, and these are pointers towards our common origin and destiny in God. The Second Vatican Council took great pains to emphasize this point. (See especially the declaration Nostra Aetate.)
But if the Church rejects a narrow exclusivism, she also rejects a facile relativism. To the post-modern mind, one religious tradition is as good as another. Some Christians regard one denomination as good as another. The Catholic, by contrast, regards the fullness of grace and truth to be found in Christ and in the Church he established. In brief, it makes a difference what you believe, how you worship, and how you live.
I would like to focus on three respects in which the Catholic Church contains the fullness of Christian religion. The Catholic Church contains the fullness of truth, the fullness of grace, and the fullness of Christian holiness. These elements subsist together in a visible structure, a society, the Church, founded by Christ and given to us for our salvation. This Church will endure to the end, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. (Math 16:18-19)
Before Jesus ascended to heaven, he appeared to eleven disciples and charged them, “Make disciples of all nations, teaching them everything I have commanded you . . . I will be with you to the end of the age.” (Matt. 28: 16-20) Christ left a body of oral teaching, ritual, and example. He transmitted this tradition to authorized teachers, not to a text or a document. The apostles themselves appointed successors charged in perpetuity with the same task. (Acts 14:23, Titus 1:5; 2 Tim. 2:2, Titus 1:7-9) Thus, the Church hands on the fullness of apostolic teaching.
Christ demanded that his apostles teach, but also that they celebrate the sacraments. “Do this in memory of me,” he said. “Baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” he commanded. “Whoever’s sins you forgive are forgiven,” he promised. As Saint Paul wrote to Timothy (1 Tim. 4:14), we cannot neglect those gifts received by the laying on of hands. (Holy Orders, confirmation).
The Church’s sacraments are real means of grace. Scripture teaches we “abide in Christ” by eating his flesh, which is real food, and that by abiding in him, we can bear “much fruit.” (John 6:53-59) By baptism, moreover, we are “clothed with Christ,” we die with him and are raised again. (Romans 6; Galatians 3:27) When we confess our sins, St. James says, we will be forgiven and healed.” (James 5:15-16) In her seven sacraments, the Church fully transmits the means of grace.
The perfection of holiness is charity, the bond of peace. (Ephesians 4:3) Christian love demands agreement on all things. (1 Cor. 1:10) According to Christ, we cannot be perfect until we are one. (John 17:21) This unity in the faith is more than simple benevolence or good will. It is a visible unity that all men can see. The aim of the gospel is more than individual salvation. It is the reconciliation of all things in Christ. (Ephesians 1:10) Adhering in charity to the unity of the faith, the Church exhibits the fullness of Christian holiness.
We cannot enjoy the fullness of Christian faith without the fullness of truth, grace, and holiness. For that reason, Christ founded a Church with the power to teach, sacraments to heal, and a visible society in which to reconcile all men. He founded it upon the apostles and prophets, with Christ himself as the cornerstone. (Eph. 2:20) To one apostle, he gave “the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” He charged Peter with the care of his sheep. (John. 21:17) This society is more than an invisible association of the elect. It is a body from which one can be ejected and into which one can be admitted. (Mattew 18:18) The mystery of the Gospel, says Paul, is that we are to be members together in one body, the Church. (Ephesians 3:10)