What Makes the Catholic Mind Unique?
THE SCANDAL OF THE PARTICULAR
“I wish I liked Catholics more.”
“They seem just like other people.”
“My dear Charles, that’s exactly what they’re not — particularly in this country, where they’re so few. It’s not just that they’re a clique…they’ve got an entirely different outlook on life; everything they think important is different from other people. They try and hide it as much as they can, but it comes out all the time.”
This snippet from Brideshead Revisited, the great Oxonian novel about friendship, the tensions of town and gown, and Christian transformation by Catholic convert Evelyn Waugh, reminds us that the Catholic “outlook on life” should be different. In fact, it should be unique, for the Catholic mind is called to see both Heaven and earth, divinity and humanity, differently, harmoniously. That’s what makes such an outlook “Catholic” and not “Jewish,” “Muslim,” “secular,” or even “Christian.” Yet, like poor Charles in Waugh’s novel, most people today do not see the uniqueness of the Catholic mind because most Catholics have ceased thinking — and, therefore, acting — as we have been called to do. Most Catholics think and act not much differently from the world we are missioned through the grace of baptism and confirmation to consecrate. Yet it need not be that way. As G.K. Chesterton said of the Church upon his conversion, “It is the only thing that frees a man from the degrading slavery of being a child of his age.”
What makes Catholicism unique? We could give myriad answers, as Christ’s Church is blessed in ways that no other group of humans could ever know. For the sake of brevity, I will highlight two of the most obvious answers. The first is Catholicism’s sacramental worldview, and the second is that the Catholic Church is the visible body our Lord founded when He established an ecclesia upon St. Peter’s apostolic acknowledgment (cf. Mt. 16:18).
It is important from the start to see that the Church is not a human invention; she is to be understood as a living body indistinguishable from Jesus Christ Himself. In fact, the Church is nothing other than the extension of Christ in every age and place until the end of time. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains:
Let us rejoice then and give thanks that we have become not only Christians, but Christ himself…. For if he is the head, we are the members; he and we together are the whole man…. The fullness of Christ then is the head and the members…. Head and members form as it were one and the same mystical person. A reply of St. Joan of Arc to her judges sums up the faith of the holy doctors and the good sense of the believer: “About Jesus Christ and the Church, I simply know they’re just one thing, and we shouldn’t complicate the matter.” (no. 795)
It is often said that a Catholic finds the Church and then Christ, whereas a non-Catholic Christian first surrenders to Jesus and then finds his church. If true, the above quote explains why: Catholics are to understand the Church as a Christic continuation, Jesus’ own mystical body growing and extending throughout every century and continent, making His sacrifice and salvation available to those who could not live in first-century Jerusalem. This is why a non-Catholic Christian can fulfill the Third Commandment by going to either a Methodist or a Presbyterian or a non-denominational “service,” but a Catholic can do so only by attending the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
I say this not out of a sense of superiority but the exact opposite: A Catholic’s obedience to the Church shows radical humility. The Mass I must attend, for example, nourishes me; I do not add anything to it. The teachings I am asked to adhere to judge me; I do not judge them. Only in this way is the holiness of the Christian the holiness of Christ; only in this way are the truths the Church teaches guaranteed not to be from the mind of man but from Truth Himself.
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