What is it about Catholicism? Universality, to start...
We often talk about how things are alike. We also hear praise of diversity as if it were of the highest worth. Often today, however, diversity is an expression of finding no underlying agreement about basic principles. Thus, it becomes a form of skepticism. All men are indeed created equal, but, if you look at them one by one, no one looks exactly alike. Yet, each one has a body, hands and feet, unless lost in some accident.
Thus, if we think about it, were everything exactly like everything else, we would not be able to tell one thing from another. Everything would blur into one undistinguishable mass. If we say that all nations or all religions are exactly alike, we will be surprised when we investigate them to see how different they are. It is something like St. Paul’s telling us that the foot is not the hand. To make it so or think that they are the same, would mean that we really did not have a body which, to be what it is, requires different parts doing different things yet belonging together for the action of the whole being of which they are parts.
What I want briefly to ask here is this: What is distinct about Catholicism, a faith that, while unique, is intended to be universal?
Its most obvious distinguishing mark in the public order is probably the position of the papacy. Catholicism is that religion in which a pope is a sign of its unity and governance. Recent popes have in fact been quite visible world figures. But the pope is an authority who is part of the whole of the Church. He is not the Church, but the Church, as it was founded, is not complete without this functioning office.
In that sense, the papacy is the oldest continuing organization in the world. There are older civilizations or cultures like the Chinese or the Jews. The latter’s endurance is probably not unrelated to the same reason the papacy continues. But no office is quite like the papacy in its preservation over time as an organized unity.
Now Catholics are not surprised at this continuity. Most have heard of the passage about the Gates of Hell not prevailing against the Church, though this does not necessarily mean that the Church will always prosper or always succeed in its mission in every locality. Nor does it mean that people will not break away from its unity at times.
Its mission, indeed, was to “go forth and teach all nations,” teach them not the authority’s own opinions but what the Lord sent them to teach. The Church is a body in which basic things are passed down unchanged, because, I think, nothing is found that is better.
Obviously, this founding mission is far from complete. The Church over the centuries has at least some presence in most lands of the world, even if, often enough, it exists under stress, civil sanctions, or persecution as we see in the Middle East, and even here of a different kind in America today. The Church was warned that this would likely be the case. We should not be too surprised by it, but take this opposition as a sign of the Church’s being what it was expected to be.
Faith and Reason
But in a broader sense, Catholicism is not distinct just because it has a pope to whom, with the bishops, its unity over the ages is entrusted. One of the fundamental things about Catholicism is what it holds to be true. And what makes Catholicism distinct from most other Christian sects and other religions or philosophies is that it considers itself to be solidly grounded in reason. Its “faith” is not opposed to or a substitute for reason.
The word “reason,” to be sure, can be defined in ways that are not accurate, complete, or sometimes not even “reasonable.” Revelation, as Catholics understand it, was not, like Islam or many modern ideologies, designed to explain everything we needed to know. Indeed, if we had no way independently to examine whether what it held was credible or not, we could not really accept this revelation as plausible. So we have minds and we are supposed to use them especially in our understanding of Catholicism.