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Who Is Catholic? The Awareness of Catholic Identity and the Universal Call to Holiness | Cynthia Toolin | IgnatiusInsight.com

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In a 1998 Gallup poll, [1] 46% of those who identified themselves as Catholic answered yes to the question, "Did you yourself attend church in the last seven days?" While the statistic cannot be taken as reflecting obligatory Sunday Mass attendance, [2] it can be used as the base for an estimate of this attendance.

The accuracy of this base is open to questioning because self-reporting is notoriously inaccurate. A person may not remember his behavior, or may lie to impress the researcher, or may not be willing to reveal religious behavior. A study by Hadaway, Marler and Chaves found that actual church attendance is approximately half of what people self-report. [3] They estimate that the Catholic attendance rate is around 25%. Assuming that Catholics attend Mass half as often as they self-report and using the Gallup statistic of 46%, actual attendance for Catholics may be as low as 23%.

An estimate for attendance at church within the last seven days for Catholics could thus range anywhere from a low of 23% to a high of 46%. It is not possible to attain a more accurate percentage, nor is it necessary. As Catholics, we are bound to participate in the Mass on Sundays and other designated days, unless we have a serious reason for not doing so or are dispensed by our own pastor. [4] With estimates of 54% to 77% of Catholics in the United States not attending, it is clear that a serious problem exists. [5]

A Proposed Distinction

Membership in social groups has different degrees of importance, or salience, to people. Take, for example, a married Roman Catholic Italian American insurance executive, who can be classified by marital status, religion, ethnicity and occupation. These classifications are probably not equally important to him: he may more highly value being an insurance executive and a married man, than being a Roman Catholic or an Italian American.

For purposes of illustration, a classification of four categories concerning membership within a group (from lowest to highest salience) is suggested:
1. a descriptive label, a category that expresses a person's characteristics with minimal or no effect on external behavior;

2. a social declaration, a category that expresses an external behavior that a person wants others to see;

3. a distinctive affirmation, a category that expresses self-definition and has a strong effect on external behavior; or

4. a definitive statement, a category that expresses what permeates a person's inner life and has a significant effect on external behavior. [6]
These categories can be applied to the religious status "Catholic." That is, being a member of the social group "Catholic" may be a descriptive label, a social declaration, a distinctive affirmation or a definitive statement. These suggested categories are mutually exclusive and are usually non-progressive.

A man for whom the status "Catholic" is a descriptive label might attend Mass only on Christmas and Easter, and for weddings and funerals. When asked about religious membership, he might say he is Catholic, but add a negative qualifier such as "I don't agree with most Church teaching, especially on sexual issues." He probably does not think much about being Catholic, and the status might be grouped with numerous other statuses of about equal importance, like sex, marital status, race, ethnicity, age, occupation, and educational attainment. A relationship with Christ is probably seen as irrelevant, if it is thought of at all, and the status has almost no effect on his external behavior. The status "Catholic" does have some salience for him; if it had none, he would not say he was Catholic.

If the classification "Catholic" is a social declaration, a man might attend Mass relatively often and might volunteer the information to others that he is Catholic. Such a person wants to be identified as Catholic by others. The reasons can vary widely--to receive social status as a God-fearing man, to please a spouse or potential spouse, or to gain acceptance into a community. The status of "Catholic" is important to him, but only because he wants others to see him as Catholic. His goal is not to have a relationship with Christ, but to be perceived as having one. Thus, his external behavior may be affected by the status, but it has no impact on his inner spiritual development.

A man for whom the status "Catholic" is a distinctive affirmation would probably rarely miss Mass, might be a church usher, and might belong to a Catholic organization like the Knights of Columbus or the Holy Name Society. The status of "Catholic" is very important to him, and has great impact on his external behavior. Such a person not only wants to be identified as Catholic by others, he strongly identifies himself as Catholic. It is one of the most important self-identifiers he has. However, this high salience does not mean that he has a relationship with Christ, nor that he believes Church teaching, nor that he lives a moral life. High salience of the status "Catholic" is not the same as, nor does it necessarily lead to, holiness. As Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger mentioned in his book Called to Communion, "There can be people who are engaged uninterruptedly in the activities of Church associations and yet are not Christians." [7]

The highest salience of the status "Catholic" is found in a man who can be classified in the category of definitive statement. Like a man for whom the status is a distinctive affirmation, his self-identity is strongly tied to being Catholic and his external behavior shows this. But unlike a man in the distinctive affirmation category, it is because being Catholic permeates his inner life. He is engaged in a relationship with Christ and is growing spiritually towards holiness. He loves Christ, and Christ's spouse, the Church--he believes Church teachings on faith and morals, and daily grows in a life of virtue and in obedience to God.

The estimate of between 54% and 77% of Catholics not attending Church every week can be interpreted as indicating that for these percentages (i.e., for the majority of Catholics), "Catholic" is a descriptive label. That is, these people say they are Catholic, but the status does not affect their behavior even to the point of attending Mass. The remaining 46% to 23% of Catholics, or those who do attend weekly, can be located in the categories of social declaration, distinctive affirmation, or defining statement. It is impossible to know the exact percentage breakdown for these three categories because external behavior does not necessarily indicate the state of the inner spiritual life.

The Universal Call To Holiness

High salience of the status "Catholic," then, is not the same as, nor does it necessarily lead to, spiritual growth or holiness. It is ironic that a person can identify himself as Catholic, and/or perform all the appropriate external acts of Catholics, and yet seldom if ever have a thought about God. A man may go to church for social status or companionship, from force of habit, or for a myriad of other reasons having nothing to do with God. Thus, answering the universal call to holiness means more than identifying yourself as, and acting in a manner appropriate for, a Catholic; it means a personal encounter and relationship with our Lord.

As Catholics, catechists and evangelists, we have as a goal helping people move toward this encounter with Christ. Pope John Paul II has stated, "[T]he definitive aim of catechesis is to put people not only in touch but in communion, in intimacy, with Jesus Christ: only he can lead us to the love of the Father in the Spirit and make us share in the life of the Holy Trinity." [8]

The central issue is to assist people to encounter Christ, to help them acquire an openness to and a longing for the indwelling of the Trinity in this life, and to hope of their true final end, enjoyment of the inner life of the Trinity in the Beatific Vision. To do this, the Church must be a teacher to all who have received the Sacrament of Baptism.

In Romans 10:15, St. Paul asks, "How are men to call upon him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher?" Then in Romans 10:17, he answers his own questions, "Faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ."

The Church, then, must teach; the Church must be missionary. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states:
God wills the salvation of everyone through the knowledge of the truth. Salvation is found in the truth. Those who obey the prompting of the Spirit of truth are already on the way of salvation. But the Church, to whom this truth has been entrusted, must go out to meet their desire, so as to bring them the truth. Because she believes in God's universal plan of salvation the Church, must be missionary (no. 851).
The Search for Truth

It is the nature of human beings to search for the truth, especially religious truth, and "to embrace it and hold on to it as they come to know it." [9] The fact that this is in human nature does not mean that the search for truth is an easy one nor that every man is capable of finding truth or of recognizing it when he sees it. A man may lack the innate ability or proper training to reason to truth; he may not have the inclination or the time to approach truth; he may be blinded to the truth from a life of habitual sin; or he may be confused by an array of truths he sees as equal.

The United States is marked by great diversity (e.g., culture, language, religion, philosophy, politics, world-view, etc.) and by an egalitarian attitude. The combination of diversity and egalitarianism may lead to an openness to other ways of thinking and acting, which is itself positive. It is important to learn about, and come to an understanding and appreciation of, the perspectives of our fellow man. But, unfortunately, this openness may also lead people to regard all other ways of thinking and acting as equally good and true. With respect to religion, this idea may lead a man to select the religion he feels most comfortable with or to combine elements of various religions into a new syncretistic one. Or it may lead him to avoid all religions and live a life of secular humanism.

Yet none of that is new. In the time of Moses, many people decided to worship idols instead of Yahweh, and some chose to worship both.

In Dominus Iesus, the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith addresses the existence of religious truth outside the Catholic Church: "God, who desires to call all peoples to himself in Christ and to communicate to them the fullness of his revelation and love, 'does not fail to make himself present in many ways, not only to individuals, but also to entire peoples through their spiritual riches, of which their religions are the main and essential expression . . ." (no. 8). The Congregation goes on to say, however, that this is the case "even when they contain gaps, insufficiencies, and errors." The Congregation makes explicit that although these truths come from Christ in the Spirit, they do not make the religions in which they are found equal to the Catholic Church:
With respect to the way in which the salvific grace of God which is always given by means of Christ in the Spirit and has a mysterious relationship to the Church--comes to individual non-Christians, the Second Vatican Council limited itself to the statement that God bestows it "in ways known to himself.". . . [I]t is clear that it would be contrary to the faith to consider the Church as one way of salvation alongside those constituted by other religions, seen as complementary to the Church or substantially equivalent to her . . . (no. 21).
And further, the Congregation adds:

With the coming of the Savior Jesus Christ, God has willed that the Church founded by him be the instrument for the salvation of all humanity (cf. Acts 17:30-31). This truth of faith does not lessen the sincere respect which the Church has for the religions of the world, but at the same time it rules out in a radical way that mentality of indifferentism "characterized by a religious relativism which leads to the belief that 'one religion is as good as another.'" If it is true that the followers of other religions can receive divine grace, it is also certain that objectively speaking they are in a gravely deficient situation in comparison, with those who, in the church, have the fullness of the means of salvation (no. 22). [10]
Thus, although religious truth exists outside the Catholic Church, and although those truths come from Christ in the Spirit, other religions should not be seen as complementary to, nor equivalent to, the way of salvation presented by the Church. This basic fact must be articulated to Catholics if they are to avoid the temptations of religious relativism and indifference.

A related point is that, since the fullness of the truth is present in the Catholic Church, Catholics do not need to look elsewhere to find it. All they have to do is learn their own faith. The Council Fathers, in the Unitatis Redintegratio no. 3, said, "[T]hrough Christ's Catholic Church alone . . . 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 our Lord entrusted all the blessings of the New Covenant . . ." That is, all the truths Christ wanted man to have for his salvation are present in the Catholic Church.

The difficult search for truth and the bewildering array of beliefs taught as truth, reinforce the need for the authoritative teacher of the truth, the Church. Without the Church's guidance, man can wander, hopelessly lost, through the maze of apparently equal truth-claims and never attain his goal. The Church has a duty and right to teach the truth, to catechize and evangelize, just as man has a right to seek it and hear it. As John Paul II has stated:

[I]t is certainly a duty springing from a command given, by the Lord and resting above all on those who in the New Covenant receive the call to the ministry of being pastors. On the other hand, one can likewise speak of a right: from the theological point of view every baptized person, precisely by reason of being baptized, has the right to receive from the Church instruction and education enabling him or her to enter on a truly Christian life; and from the viewpoint of human rights, every human being has the right to seek religious truth and adhere to it freely. . . [11]

Read Part Two of "Who Is Catholic?"


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