“I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in Me and I in you” (John 17: 20-21).
These words from Jesus at the Last Supper reveal His desire that His Church express visibly the oneness that He shares with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Since God is one, so Christ wishes that His Bride, the Catholic Church, should externally reflect that particular attribute, among others, shared within the life of the Trinity.
This week, the Church begins her annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity which concludes on the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul the Apostle (25 January). Indeed, the history of the Church is a catalog of many men and women who have enriched her life by their conversion to Catholicism. Some of the more notable converts to the faith include, with respect to both the saintly and secular personalities: St. Paul, St. Augustine, Constantine the Great, Buffalo Bill, Chief Sitting Bull, Elizabeth Ann Seton, John Wayne, Norma McCorvey (“Jane Roe” of Roe vs. Wade infamy), and John Henry Cardinal Newman.
What is the point of Christian Unity in today’s religious culture that proclaims that it does not matter what religion or church a person belongs to—or even if they attend a church at all—because, as the phrase that is repeated so often and which contains absolutely no substance or value whatsoever: “We all believe in the same God, so what difference does it really make who or where you worship?”
It matters a great deal, in fact. The reason why people give such absurd statements like the abovementioned one is that the secular doctrine of political correctness has invaded the Church long ago. This doctrine says that one must not hurt someone else’s feelings by making them feel offended. Once someone states that he is offended, the “offender” retreats immediately into a defensive position. Such has been the position of the Church for at least the last fifty to sixty years—perhaps more. She no longer shapes society—her leaders are always trying to catch up to the latest secular trends because they cannot be seen as irrelevant and “behind the times.” Consequently, secular thinking too often shapes the Church today. What a shame and an embarrassment.
Cardinal Newman (1801-90) famously stated that “religion, as a mere sentiment, is to me…a mockery.” He could have been speaking about the situation as it is largely practiced today. Instead of knowledge and intellectual study of the faith, Catholicism is too often presented without the fullness of the truth in a misguided effort to make the faith palatable and acceptable to the faithful. We see how this has been working over the last five decades: thousands of Catholics continue to stream out of the Church annually. Faith is not mere feelings. The Apostles did not go to their deaths for a nice feeling that Jesus Christ rose from the dead and is God Almighty Himself. There is deep, lasting substance undergirding our faith. Instead of abandoning the study of the faith after Confirmation, perhaps if more of the faithful continued mining the truths of God and how they relate to their lives, they would be able to counter successfully the attacks against the faith and grow spiritually within it, while the clergy and religious might actually put into practice the virtue of fortitude robustly in teaching and defending the fullness of the Catholic faith authentically.
Whenever anyone states that a person can believe anything in any church, that individual makes a mockery of Jesus Christ and His work of redemption on our behalf. The Catholic Church alone is the full presence of Christ in this world, and she alone is the vehicle for His grace needed for our salvation. No individual person, no man or woman, has any right whatsoever to create his own “church” based on his own belief. Martin Luther, John Zwingli, Henry VIII, John Knox, Mary Baker Eddy, L. Ron Hubbard, and a whole host of people throughout history have been thoroughly misguided in creating anything like the one true Church of Jesus Christ. Only God Himself has any authority to create a Church. Only He knows how we ought to worship Him in this life. Only He can establish the structures needed to endure to give life to His Church—including giving His successors of the Apostles authority to bind and loose in this world. This fact may hurt people’s feelings, but salvation is not about comfortable feelings. Salvation is about truth, and Jesus Christ referred to Himself as The Truth (see John 14:6).
Even the Second Vatican Council, which has certainly not been interpreted as a cutting-edge conservative Council itself, states: “For it is through Christ’s Catholic Church alone, which is the universal help toward salvation, that the fullness of the means of salvation can be obtained. It was to the apostolic college alone, of which Peter is the head, that we believe that our Lord entrusted all the blessings of the New Covenant, in order to establish on earth the one Body of Christ into which all those should be fully incorporated who belong in any way to the People of God” (Unitatis Redintegratio, 3.5, Second Vatican Council).
Again, Vatican II is clear that the “sole Church of Christ [is that] which our Savior, after His Resurrection, entrusted to Peter’s pastoral care, commissioning him and the other apostles to extend and rule it…This Church, constituted and organized as a society in the present world, subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the bishops in communion with him” (Lumen Gentium, 8.2, Second Vatican Council as quoted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 816).
It is the height of a lack of charity, therefore, to want to keep people from possessing the fullness of the faith simply because their feelings might be hurt. Although non-Catholic Christians possess some elements of sanctification and truth within their communities by virtue of their legitimate Baptism, these communities by definition lack the fullness of God’s grace. For example, except for Orthodox Christians, all other Christian communities within Protestantism (including Anglicans and Episcopalians) lack the Blessed Sacrament received in Holy Communion. They lack Confirmation and the Anointing of the Sick, as well as absolution in Penance. Great deprivation exists within these communities among so many souls precisely because they do not fully belong within the one fold of the Good Shepherd Himself.
A genuine desire for Christian Unity involves, therefore, a true desire for conversion to the one true faith within the Catholic Church. Cardinal Newman also stated so perfectly that, “To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.” Through prayer, study, sacrifice, and honest discussion, the Church always prays that those Christians separated from her come to their true and lasting home.
What about the millions of Catholics who have left the unity of the Church either for a false “church” or for nothing at all? The Second Vatican Council is clear on this point, also: “The Church…is necessary for salvation: the one Christ is mediator and the way of salvation. He himself explicitly asserted the necessity of faith and baptism, and thereby affirmed at the same time the necessity of the Church which men must enter through baptism as through a door. Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse to enter it, or to remain in it” (Lumen Gentium, 14).
What about those Catholics who are fully incorporated sacramentally in the Church currently? Have they guaranteed their salvation? By no means, necessarily. Vatican II also teaches that the faithful, “even though incorporated into the Church, [if] one…does not however persevere in charity, [he] is not saved” (Lumen Gentium, 14). The Church exhorts us to be true members of her active life both in body and in heart which means that charity—love of God and love of neighbor lived in the truth of Jesus Christ—is the supreme commandment of our life.
Finally, right before John Wayne died of stomach cancer in 1979, he related to his grandson that he regretted not becoming a Catholic sooner in life. He said that he erroneously believed that he was “too busy” with his career to be concerned about his eternal soul. This idea is present in every age, one would presume, but it is even now much more accepted with families living fast-paced lifestyles regarding their careers or by focusing on their children’s ever-increasing hectic schedules. We take it for granted that God is never too busy for us when we call upon Him or need Him. But, what would happen if God directly said to YOU: “I’m too busy for you today; I’ll get around to you when I feel like it”?
May you have a most blessed and holy week!
Fr. Shawn William Cutler
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