With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on. -- William Morris

Monday, August 21, 2006

Defining Catholicism

Many years ago, while working with the Rites of Christian Initiation for Adults, I became very curious about what defined a Catholic. In particular, I reflected upon what the Church asks of those who seek to join her at the most profound and intimate level. Since then, I’ve had extensive discussions with theologians and canonists of various degrees of expertise. A common position is that Catholicism is defined by her teachings, in particular, by her dogmatic statements. That is, those elements of doctrine (teaching) which have been officially stated as crucial (dogmatic) to the Faith are often considered the definition of Catholicism. It makes a bit of sense, too, for definitions are typically a series of key points, and doctrine seems to state clearly the key points.

Another common understanding of what defines a Catholic revolves around the moral code. Catholics are among the groups of Christians who have quite a few rules and regulations on what constitutes appropriate behavior and what does not. The field of moral theology seems to be quite developed and quite important for Catholics. There are many who think the essence of being Catholic lies somewhere in the kind of life you lead, even more than the doctrine you profess. This, too, has a common sense appeal to it, for a definition is often a series of rules that describe how a thing is supposed to work.

There are, of course, the great many Catholics who feel somewhere deep inside them that they are Catholic and can’t really be anything else. Nevertheless, they don’t feel a need or really much desire to participate in regular Sunday Mass or other activities of parish life. Perhaps on great feast days or for important family celebrations they seek the larger Church community. Basically, their position is that they were raised Catholic, Baptized Catholic, even Confirmed Catholic. What has happened cannot be taken away. This has a very easy and comfortable feel to it, as well, for being Catholic is something being a man or a woman-it usually just happens to you, and there’s not much you can really do about it but accept it.

As an aspiring professional theologian, I cannot reasonably claim that doctrine is unimportant. The battles fought over creedal statements, even things we take as common sense Christianity (such as the Trinity or the Resurrection) were and continue to be a cause of disagreement and even martyrdom. The Creeds and the surrounding doctrine are important, but I do not think they define a Catholic at the very core of Catholicism. In a similar manner, the moral life is not the sum or defining characteristic of Catholicism. Not that one can disregard the Commandments and remain hopeful for eternal salvation, but rather, that one can genuinely hope to be changed, to find himself with a will that is united to God-this is the sphere of morality in Catholicism. Yet, even this kind of hope for a better existence does not define a Catholic. The case, as I see it, remains similar with the mentality of “once a Catholic, always a Catholic.” This perceptively and correctly understands what theologians have long called the permanent character of certain sacraments, but it still fails to grasp the heart of Catholicism as I have come to understand it. One need not understand the depths of the mysteries of the Church and the Resurrection, which depend upon the ultimate and primordial mystery of the Trinity, in order to be Catholic. The Church exists for the sinners to become saints. Sacraments are essential and often permanent, but they are not static.

I suggest that Liturgy is what defines Catholics. By “Liturgy,” we mean the public act of worship in which the community gathers and acts as the Body of Christ. The Creed, you will note, exists first and foremost as a liturgical reality. The most grave penalty for teaching contrary to orthodoxy (which literally means something like “proper worship”) is excommunication-to no longer be part of the Liturgical action. The source and summit of the moral life is the Liturgical action of gathering with the people of God and being nourished by the Sacred Scriptures and the Sacraments. Indeed, the Sacraments only occur within the context of Liturgy, however small that Liturgy may seem.

But the ubiquity of Liturgy as a theological theme is not why I think Liturgy defines Catholicsm. In the end, I think the ultimate theological formula for Catholics is the appeal to the theological virtues, the triad of Faith, Hope, and Love. Liturgy is the action of the faithful: Liturgy is the action of the hopeful: Liturgy is the action of lovers; For it is in Liturgy that we gather, sometimes even when we know not why. When we come to Liturgy, especially the Mass and the Eucharist, we say with our very presence that we genuinely want to experience the God who saves us, especially from our own deepest, most secret fears and failings. We say, by our presence in the pew, “I need not understand; I need not always enjoy; I need not even be certain; I simply must be. And I chose to be here with this community, in this place of worship, at this time of God’s presence.” This is both why and how Liturgy defines the Catholic.

Note that it is very much the same for how a lover is defined. A lover is not defined by expensive gifts or by profound understanding. A lover is defined by presence. A true lover is known by where he sits, stands, and kneels. This is something we know even without much reflection. To be friends, to be lovers is to be together. It is not necessarily to be happy or to understand. Lovers stand beside lovers and say “I cast my lot with you.” In Liturgy, we say to God, “I cast my lot with you,” and God says to us, “I cast my lot with you.” This, I think, is the meaning of being “God’s people.” This is how we follow Christ. This, I submit, is what defines Catholicism.

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  • At 8/22/2006 2:01 PM, Blogger Brendan Sammon said…


    Well done. The implications are many: if the essence of Catholicism is 'liturgical' (and let us keep it in its adjectival form so as not to close off permanently what precisely constitutes the liturgy as such, beyond those essential elements of course) and if Catholicism, in its mysterious - and thus not exhaustively knowable - eternal fullness, somehow illuminates the depths of human nature, then human nature itself is, in its essence, liturgical. In short, this will be the topic of a post coming soon.
    Well done.

  • At 8/22/2006 5:19 PM, Blogger The Lesser Thomas said…

    I agree wholeheartedly, Brendan. Human life must be Liturgical. Of course, we shouldn't stop our view at simply human life, but also see the grand scale of the cosmos as participating somehow in liturgy (to borrow obviously from greater thinkers than I in the history of our Tradition). In addition, and I'm waiting for the post from Andy on this becuase I know he's written elsewhere on the matter) we've also got a strong ground for a philosophical anthropology. Presence and action are always important categories in anthropology, but I think liturgy must shed some particular light on how they are important.

  • At 8/23/2006 8:58 AM, Blogger Henry Karlson said…

    Tommy, I think there is much truth in what you write in this nice short piece. Liturgical life is indeed a major part of Catholic life. One of the difficulties in the present era is that sacred, liturgical, time has been lost. A major aspect of the Catholic experience has been lost to the majority of Catholics living in today's secular state.

    However, I think what it means to be Catholic, what it means to be the the Church or Body of Christ, has many different angles and all of them together need to be observed, even if they cannot be harmonized. There is no one definable essence, but there are aspects of that essence which we can and must incorporate into the whole. The liturgical life certainly is one that is sorely overlooked.

    If we define this as the essence of Catholicism one can start to ask if other liturgical traditions therefore are Catholic? This is why I hold a mild caveat for what you said. Looking into the world religious traditions, I know many of them are ritual-based, and some of them I would say even cross over into a liturgical viewpoint (for example, many Native American traditions). Are they Catholic? I would not want to say no (as you would probably guess) but I would not want to say yes in the fullness of what it means to be Catholic.

    Florensky saw the problems of trying to define eccliasality which also reflects the problem of trying to define what it means to be Catholic: "Let it be the case that neither I nor anyone else can define what ecclesiality is. [...] Indeed, do not its very indefinability, its ungraspableness by logical terms, its ineffibility prove that ecclesiality is life, a special, new life, which is given to man, but which, like all life, is inaccessible to the rational mind?"

    Like Florensky, I think there are many angles to what it means to be the Church, and but at its root, the mystery remains over and above our attempts to define it. One angle I like to employ the most in my own theological observations is the notion of Catholic as universal and the implications of this. For example, I see the Church as the universal vehicle for salvation. However, it is more than this and indeed, it is a liturgical life and must be in order to fulfill its mission. With this you have provided a good analysis of what it means to be Catholic, and why theological knowledge and declarations are not at the height of what it means to be Catholic!

  • At 8/24/2006 2:33 PM, Blogger Brendan Sammon said…


    I entirely agree with you, but I think a liturgical approach to essence overcomes any exclusive definition, which in essence is what Tommy did.
    The only alteration I might suggest would be the use of the word 'defining' - a definition tends toward closure, while, as you rightly point out, the essence of Catholicism can never be defined (except apophatically, perhaps). Instead, it is an essence in perpetual expression, constituted by all members who live the experience of the Catholic narrative as a member of Christ's body in a particular, non-repeatable, time and place. This is why the Chruch is Christ's living, resurrected body and not some dead entity there to be fenced in.

    That Florensky quote caught my eye when I first read his work. Tserkovnost (is it?) is his notion of ecclesiality, which is a living thought, rather than a defined essence.

    I think, though, that because Tommy never went into any detail as to which liturgy he had in mind, he doesn't necessarily make that determined committment of elevating Catholic liturgy as such.

    But it does raise the very interesting question of the 'marks' (let's say) of true liturgy from its counterfeit double, or what we might call the 'dark liturgy'. Examples of this 'dark liturgy' abound: the Nazi rallies were very "liturgical," which is why they were so powerful; contemporary political rallies imitate a liturgy; as do business meetings et al. But in these cases, the beauty of the liturgy is often hijacked and prostituted for the cause of darkness, a much minimized 'good', or an evil.

    The point is that much like the issue of the 'subsistit in' during the Second Vatican Council, there must be a way to distinguish true and false liturgy. The fullness of liturgy must subsist somewhere in order for any recognition of liturgy to be recognized. Of course, this does not mean that such a fullness exhaustively defines liturgy, as if it no longer needed other forms to further bring out latent elements that remain hidden.

    Now, like you, I would not want to arrive at some mathematically logical norm for such a distinction. Instead, it would be much more aesthetic. I think I'll do a short piece on this topic.

  • At 8/24/2006 2:49 PM, Blogger Henry Karlson said…

    Brendan and I agree, which is why I hope it is understood that my comments are not to be seen as being a criticism of what Tommy wrote. Certainly when you see the post I wrote today, I actually follow through with the basic understanding Tommy establishes here when discussing the Orthodox understanding of the faith and that the Divine Liturgy is to be seen as the primary form of theology.

    I hope my comments are not seen as a rejection of what Tommy wrote, it is not. Rather, I wanted to go further with it and establish a caveat so others do not take the text in a reductionist form. It clearly is not meant to be, and the connection between liturgy as love shows this -- but I fear others might go that route without any caveat.

  • At 8/27/2006 4:22 PM, Blogger A.K. Schwarz said…

    Excellent comments and Tommy, a very enticing post. I can't give a long commentary now...maybe a future post. I believe the focus on liturgy is correct insofar as liturgy is not merely a human work nor merely a "celebration" of our belief but the very source and culmination of all that we are as children of God. It might help to specify what we mean by liturgy by focusing on "Eucharist" as the most particular center of what it means to be Catholic in the fullest sense (not a denominational term--thus, what it means to be a human called to communion with the Trinity). "Eucharist" is co-extensive with "liturgy," but "Eucharist" also helps add the important specificity of the priority of the divine Trinitarian life which has been revealed and communicated to us through Christ's Paschal Mystery. We partake in that life and mystery to the fullest extent in the eucharistic liturgy (i.e., the "Mass," the "Divine Liturgy," etc.) which culminates with Holy Communion. In the end, our eucharistic action has its significance only because Christ is the Eucharist--is our Eucharist. In the Holy Spirit, our praise and thanksgiving participates in the perfect praise and thanksgiving of the Son to the Father. We become Christ, i.e., the body of Christ which is the Church. Our doing receives its value by the prior (not in temporal terms) receptivity to the mystery that defines us from the very beginning. In other words, I think clarifying "liturgy" with "Eucharist" helps ground the "essence of Catholicism" more clearly in the mystery of being itself (the Trinity) and the central mystery of history (the Paschal Mystery understood in its broadest sense, including Incarnation and the sending of the Holy Spirit). The essence of Catholicism is dynamic yet permanent; this essence, though necessarily involving our action for fulfillment, remains always greater than just the sum of worshippers.

    This has become longer than I expected. The comments are not meant to be critical of anything said above but are intended to complement and possibly add further to the well-laid foundation.

  • At 8/30/2006 7:53 AM, Blogger The Lesser Thomas said…

    Much work is needed on both an understanding of "definition" as well as "Eucharist" or "communion." I'll have to reflect on this for a while.

    I'm hoping to see Andy pick up with some thoughts on human action and how love/liturgy force us to engage an anthropological theory that involves action as well as reflection.

  • At 8/30/2006 9:40 PM, Blogger A.K. Schwarz said…

    Tommy, I'll try to meet your request sometime in the near future (I may have to reflect for a while myself). Obviously, as you point out in your post, there is much richness to be pondered here: Eucharist as action (not only human), action as fully human when participative/communal (e.g., love and Eucharist), the significance of human action (revealing and formative of the person), eucharistic source and finality (end) of action, God is love (3 persons in one actus purus)...


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