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


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]

The Teaching of Truth

According to recent surveys, Catholics say that Church dogmas are important to believe in order to have a Catholic identity. In "What is Most Central to Being a Catholic?," Hoge [12] concludes on the basis of a recent Gallup Poll that to Catholics, the core of the faith is the Creed and the sacraments. He cites the results of two other studies as support. Davidson, Williams, and Lamanna found that Catholics, especially those registered in a parish, say beliefs such as the Trinity, Resurrection, Incarnation, the Real Presence and Mary as the Mother of God, are very important to them personally. And a study by Dinges, Hoge, Johnson, and Gonzales found that among American Catholics 20 to 39 years old, three of the five "most essential elements to their vision of the Catholic faith were belief that God is present in the sacraments, belief that Christ is really present in the Eucharist, and devotion to Mary the Mother of God." The results of these studies can be interpreted as saying that the Church is successful in teaching Catholics things that are to be believed.

In matters of behavior, Catholics may know the moral teaching of the Church, but often do not agree with it. D'Antonio, in "Trends in U.S. Roman Catholic Attitudes, Beliefs and Behavior," [13] found that over three time periods (1987, 1993 and 1999) "the trend is clearly toward declining support for church leaders (pope and bishops) as the locus of moral authority in helping people decide what is morally right or wrong on five issues [remarriage without an annulment, practicing contraceptive birth control, choice regarding abortion, homosexual behavior and non-marital sex]."

A possible explanation for this dichotomy is that the Church has not been successful in showing the continuity between matters of faith and morals. To the extent that there is a crisis in the Catholic Church in the United States today, it can largely be explained by a lack of understanding of this continuity among the laity. This continuity needs to be clarified and emphasized to the Catholic population by the teachers of the Church. This responsibility rests primarily with the ministerial priesthood. [14]

The Problem at Hand

Given that the Church is the authoritative teacher of Christ's truth and that surveyed Catholics know dogmatic and moral truths (although they often disagree with the moral teachings), the question arises as to what the Church must teach.

To those for whom the status "Catholic" is anything less than a defining statement, the dogmatic and moral content of the faith must ultimately be taught in a way that is relevant to their lives as adult Catholics. Suggested here is that the faith of many Catholics is really the faith of children. Although our Lord wants his followers to have a childlike faith, he does not want them to have the immature faith of children. That is, faith should develop and mature as believers advance in years in the faith.

In order for Catholics to have adult faith that will nourish and enrich them, and enable them to thrive as they go through life, a number of things must be kept in mind.

1. An adult return to the basics
Catholics in the United States are well-educated and sophisticated men and women. The dogmatic and moral truths of the Faith need to be explained in a manner appropriate to well-educated and sophisticated people, who are, however, not well-trained in philosophical or theological methods. It is no longer sufficient to tell people that one thing must be believed and another not, that one way of acting is proper and another not. Foundational issues and key points in the development of arguments must be explained so that people can understand conclusions, see them as relevant and then apply them to their own lives. [15]

2. The goal of the Catholic life
The goal of the Catholic life is a lifelong, personal intimate relationship with our Lord Jesus. The goal is to live in such friendship with Christ that the three Persons of the Trinity will come and make an abode in the soul in this life, and bring the hope of attaining the Beatific Vision, our ultimate end, in the next life. It should be emphasized that this goal cannot be reached without living the moral life, so as to advance in holiness in the imitation of Christ.

3. The truth about man
The truth about what man is, articulated especially well in Gaudium et Spes nos. 12-18, must be expressed. Man is an individual and a social being; he is divided in himself, with others and with God, due to original sin; he has a conscience; he is tormented by pain and the dread of death; he is a unity, etc. Most importantly, man is made in the image and likeness of God, with a mind to know the truth and a will to love it. As St. Irenaeus said, "Man is rational and therefore like God; he is created with free will and is master over his acts." [16]

4. The primacy of the invisible
In creating the universe, God made the visible and the invisible, the corporeal and the spiritual. Man is a unity of both. The world that man knows through the senses is not all that exists. As Ratzinger emphasizes, there is a "Primacy of the invisible as the truly real, which bears us up and hence enables us to face the visible in a calm and relaxed way." [17] A proper hierarchy of values must be explained so that it can be instituted in the lives of individuals.

5. Growth in the spiritual life
How man grows in the spiritual life, and how that growth should be continuous throughout life, must be explained. Self-knowledge, a ready and well-prepared conscience which is never in opposition to the moral law or the Church's Magisterium, a holy indifference towards the things of this world, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and the types of prayer and progression through them are only some of the major components that need articulation and explanation.


Responding to the Lord's missionary mandate, the Church is called to teach the dogmatic and moral truths of the faith in a way that the laity can understand and apply to their lives. Through teaching, the Church will assist people to respond to the universal call to holiness: those who call themselves Catholic and/or live an outwardly Catholic life from force of habit, for status or companionship, or for other reasons not related to God. Those for whom the status "Catholic" is a definitive statement will grow further in holiness, as the Church reinforces her teachings with them, or explains nuances and subtleties of which they were not aware. In this way, they will be enabled to share the faith with others.

In the United States today, the dogmatic and moral teachings of the Church must be made understandable to an educated and sophisticated Catholic population untrained in philosophical or theological methods. [18] The Catholic laity needs to understand, at minimum, the basics of the faith, the goal of Catholic life, the truth about man, the primacy of the invisible, and growth in spiritual life, so that these teachings can have an impact on their lives. They need to understand that although other ways of acting and thinking contain truth, these other approaches are not equal or complementary to the truth found in the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church has the fullness of truth. Catholics need look no further than their own faith to satisfy the desire for truth that is natural to man.

According to Pope John Paul, catechesis as education "includes especially the teaching of Christian doctrine imparted, generally speaking, in an organic and systematic way, with a view to initiating the hearers into the fullness of Christian life." [19] If dogmatic and moral truths, as well as the continuity between them, are well taught, more of the laity will live a life of intimacy with Christ and the missionary mandate will come to fruition in many people.

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2001 issue of Catholic Dossier.


[1] George Gallup Jr. & Dee Michael Lindsay, Harrisburg, PA: Moorehouse Publishers, 1999.

[2] This statistic cannot be taken as reflecting obligatory Sunday Mass attendance because the question does not ask about Mass attendance, but about church attendance. The two are not necessarily the same. A Catholic could have attended a Protestant church service, or a wedding or funeral Mass. Also, merely because someone attended church in the last seven days does not mean he attends church every week.

[3] Kirk Hadaway, Penny Long Mailer and Mark Chaves, "What the Polls Don't Show: A Closer Look at U.S. Church Attendance," American Sociological Review 58 (December 1993), 741-752.

[4] Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 2180-2181.

[5] In a telephone conversation, a spokesman for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University suggests a statistic of approximately 34%, based on the annual National Parish Inventory and a random poll. Using this percentage, the estimate of those not attending could be even higher.

[6] As with all social phenomena, the salience of membership in these categories may range along a continuum; that is, it is seldom the case that the membership means the minimum or the maximum to a person. The core issue in this distinction is the salience of the social status of "Catholic" to a person. Prior to Vatican Council II, one of the most distinguishing characteristics of those who called themselves Catholic was attendance at Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation. This is still a good indicator of how important the status of "Catholic" is to a man; however it is an external behavior that cannot assess the state of the inner spiritual life.

[7] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Called to Communion: Understanding the Church Today (San Francisco; Ignatius Press, 1996), 145.

[8] John Paul II, Catechesi Tradendae, no. 5.

[9] Dignitatis Humanae, no. 1.

[10] The reasoning behind the passage includes the following point from no. 7: "[T]he distinction between theological faith and belief in the other religions must be firmly held. If faith is the acceptance in grace of revealed truth, which "makes it possible to penetrate the mystery in a way that allows us to understand it coherently," then belief, in the other religions, is that sum of experience and thought that constitutes the human treasury of wisdom and religious aspiration which man. in his search for truth has conceived and acted upon in his relationship to God and the Absolute. . . theological faith (the acceptance of the truth revealed by the one and triune God) is often identified with belief in other religions, which is religious experience still in search of the absolute truth and still lacking assent to God who reveals himself. This is one of the reasons why the differences between Christianity and the other religions tend to be reduced at times to the point of disappearance."

[11] John Paul II, Catechesi Tradendae, no. 14.

[12] Dean Hoge, "What is Most Central to Being a Catholic," National Catholic Reporter 36, (October 29, 1999), 13.

[13] William D'Antonio, "Trends in U.S. Roman Catholic Attitudes, Beliefs and Behavior," National Catholic Reporter 36 (October 29, 1999), 14.

[14] Cynthia Toolin, "Restoring Continuity: The Church's Urgent Task," Homiletic and Pastoral Review (August-September, 2001).

[15] One prime example that makes this point clear is the difference between artificial means of birth control and natural family planning. To understand the difference between the two in such a way that it impacts the lives of a married couple requires explanations of what man is, of the equal dignity of men and women, of true theological anthropology as opposed to the flaws of false humanism and false feminism, of the nature of marriage, of the unitive and procreative aspects of the marital act, of the development of an informed conscience, and of true freedom found in obedience to God as opposed to false autonomy, to name a few. Explanations of this type will have more impact than the statement, the Church teaches that using birth control is wrong.

[16] St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 4,4,3.

[17] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger says: "We now begin, to discern a first vague outline of the attitude signified by the word 'Credo.' It means that man does not regard seeing, hearing and touching as the totality of what concerns him, that he does not see the area of his world as marked off by what he can see and touch, but seeks a second mode of access to reality, a mode which he calls in fact belief, and in such a way that he finds in it the decisive enlargement of his whole view of the world. If this is so, then the little word 'Credo' contains a basic option vis-a-vis reality as such; it signifies not the observation of this or that fact but a fundamental mode of behavior towards being, towards existence, towards one's own sector of reality and towards reality as a whole. It signifies the deliberate view that what cannot be seen, what can in no wise move into the field of vision, is not unreal; that on the contrary what cannot be seen in fact represents true reality, the element that supports and makes possible all the rest of reality. And it signifies the view that this element which makes reality as a whole possible is also what grants man a truly human existence, what makes him possible as a human being existing in a human way. In other words, belief signifies the decision that at the very core of human existence there is a point which cannot be nourished and supported on the visible and tangible, which encounters and comes into contact with what cannot be seen and finds that it is a necessity for its own. existence." Introduction to Christianity (Ignatius Press, 1990, 2005).

[18] The process of teaching is aided by a renaissance of orthodox writing. Good, solid works written over the last century are almost too numerous to list, including those of the popes from Leo XIII to the brilliant Pope John Paul II. Also included are the documents of Vatican II and those that grew out of the Council, such as the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the writings of churchmen like Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger and Henri de Lubac, and of numerous lay men and women theologians dedicated to teaching exactly what the Church teaches.

[19] Catechesi Tradendae, no. 18.

Related IgnatiusInsight.com Links/Articles:

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Liturgy, Catechesis, and Conversion | Barbara Morgan
Understanding The Hierarchy of Truths | Douglas Bushman, S.T.L.
Why Do We Need Faith? | Joseph Ratzinger
The Source of Certitude | Thomas Dubay, S.M. | Epilogue to Faith and Certitude
The Crisis of Faith | Father John Hardon, S.J.

Cynthia Toolin is Assistant Professor of Dogmatic and Moral Theology at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut.

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