Catholicism 101

This is the text of a talk I was scheduled to give as part of an Interfaith Conference on the WCU campus, Sept. 21, 2013.  Unfortunately the conference was cancelled at the last minute.  The anticipated audience for this talk was non-Catholic and/or non-Christian.  I was allotted 45 minutes to speak about any aspect of the Catholic faith I desired.  After considering many possibilities (the Church on human sexuality, the relationship between faith and reason, religion and science, etc.) I decided to use my time to show people what the Catholic Church understands herself to be in her own eyes.  I also wanted to address specific issues that may be of importance to the listening audience.  I therefore prepared approximately 20 to 25 minutes of lecture, to allow ample time for questions and discussion.  Following is the text of that presentation.


Catholicism presents us with an amazingly large landscape.  The word “catholic” means universal and the Catholic faith is truly all-encompassing in its scope.  Therefore it would be impossible to give a complete treatise on Catholic faith and practices in the time allotted and I am not even going to try. What I do want to do is to give just a brief overview by way of introduction as to what the Catholic Church believes about herself and her role in the world, and what makes Catholicism different from other forms of Christianity.


There are two doctrines which make the Christian faith unique among all other religions.  Those are the Incarnation and the Trinity.  The Incarnation is the belief that God entered into His creation and became Man.  The Trinity is the belief that God exists as three distinct Persons sharing the same Divine Being.  One God, Three Persons.  The Trinity is perhaps the most mysterious of all Christian teachings.  That’s not the topic of today’s talk.  But what we know about the Trinity we only know because it was revealed to us through Christ, the Incarnate God.  So I want to spend more time talking about this distinctive teaching, the Incarnation.

But let’s back up a bit first.

To put the Incarnation in context, we need to go back to the beginning.  According to Genesis in the beginning there was darkness and chaos, and then God said, “let there be light.”  And there was light.

This illustration is an artist’s concept of what the Big Bang might have looked like.  The Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe, by the way, was first proposed by a Catholic priest, Fr. Georges LeMaitre, in 1927.  He didn’t coin the term “Big Bang” himself.  That was actually used as a derogatory term by people who thought his theory was ridiculous and too influenced by his Catholic faith.

In any case, nothing revealed by modern science is incompatible with the Catholic view of creation, and that is that God created the universe ex nihilo, which means out of nothing.  I want you to appreciate how radical a concept this is.  You see when we human beings create, we can only create metaphorically.  We don’t really create so much as manipulate.  We can take something or several somethings and turn them into something else.  But we can never make something out of nothing.  We always have to start with something preexisting.

When we teach that God created the universe out of nothing, we don’t mean empty space, because even space is a thing with existence.  Time is a thing with existence.  We mean before that act of creation there was nothing at all, not even space or time.  Steven Hawking has declared that we don’t need God to explain the creation of the universe because gravity can explain how the Big Bang occurred.  I heard a seven-year old respond to that statement by asking, “Who made gravity?”

That’s a wise question.  Even gravity is a thing with existence.  Where did it come from?  Everything that has existence was brought into being through God’s will.  That’s what we mean by Creation.  In fact, one of the things we believe about the nature of God is that he is Being itself.  The Divine nature is existence.  When God revealed his name to Moses he called himself “I AM.”  When any of us use that phrase we need to finish it somehow.  “I am a human being.”  Which is to say, “I exist as a human being.”

But with God that “I AM” is a complete statement.  “I exist – period.”  “I am existence.”  Everything else that has existence, therefore, borrows that existence from God, whose nature it is to exist.  It is possible for me not to exist.  I could very easily never have been created.  You could not exist.  None of us has to have existence, and that is true of everything in the universe.  There is nothing inherent in our natures that says we have to exist.  But God cannot not exist.  His nature is existence.

So this God, who is being itself, and through whose will everything else was called into being and is sustained in its existence – we believe this God, at a certain specific moment in history, chose to enter into his own creation as one of his creatures – as a man.

We do not believe that he appeared out of nowhere in a flash.  We do not believe that he appeared as a pure spirit or an apparition.  We believe that he was born into this world in the same way you and I were. That he was conceived in his mother’s womb.  His body was nourished and sheltered within her body for nine months.  He was born wet and sticky just like any of us.  He was fed milk from his mother’s breasts. He had all the same human experiences that we do, learning to walk, no doubt skinning his knee, eating food, taking baths and all the rest.  It’s pretty mundane when you stop to think about it.

We believe that when he was grown he learned the carpenter’s trade.  He made things with his hands.  And when he began his public ministry around the age of 30 he continued to do things with his hands.  His first public miracle was turning water into wine.  He healed a blind man by taking dirt from the ground, spitting in it to make mud, which he then smeared on the man’s eyes.  A hemorrhaging woman was healed by touching his cloak.  These are all very earthy, very physical actions.

He gathered around him disciples, twelve of whom especially he imparted certain responsibilities.  He spoke of building a church that would endure for all time, and told Simon Peter that he would be the rock upon which the church was built. He told the apostles that whatever they bound on earth would be bound in heaven, and whatever they loosed on earth would be loosed in heaven.

He taught them to baptize people with water.  He breathed on them, exhaled air from his lungs, and said “whose sins you forgive are forgiven, whose sins you retain are retained.”  He told them that to gain eternal life they must eat his flesh and drink his blood.  People didn’t understand him because he was being so insistent and so literal.  Most of his followers left him then, except for the twelve.  Later on he sat down to his last supper with those twelve.  He took bread and wine, blessed it, said this is my body and this is my blood and commanded them to do this in his memory.

The next day he was tortured.  His body was beaten and abused.  He suffered a very painful death by crucifixion; but he rose bodily from death; and he Ascended bodily into Heaven.  None of this is ethereal. None of this is metaphor.  This is as real as it gets.

In short, Jesus is the physical manifestation of God and he practiced a very physical ministry, and established a physical church which he empowered to continue that ministry – continue the incarnation – until the end of the world.


One of the key elements of a Catholic world view – if not the key element – is this notion of sacramentality. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines a sacrament as, “an efficacious sign of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us through the work of the Holy Spirit.”  Another simpler definition of sacrament is “a visible sign of an invisible grace.” Yet another is “a sign which effects what it signifies.”

To give an example, we can use the American flag.  We all know this as a sign that represents our country. But it is not itself our country.  It is merely a symbol.  If I am standing in Moscow and I see the American flag it might call to mind our country but it does not actually make America present there.  I am still in Russia.

A sacrament, by contrast, is a sign that actually makes present the thing that is signifies.  So in Catholic theology, the Eucharist, our principle sacrament, does not merely signify Jesus’ body, but it actually makes present the reality of Jesus’ body.  The water used at baptism does not just metaphorically wash our sins away, but it actually cleanses us of those sins.

All of the sacraments of the Catholic Church work in this way, and there are seven of them.  Do we believe that God has to work in this manner, through physical acts and physical objects?  No, not at all.  We do not believe God is bound by his sacraments and put no limits on his grace.  But we do believe that he established these sacraments as the ordinary means by which he chooses to impart his grace to us.  And it makes sense.

God is the author of all that is, both visible and invisible, physical and spiritual.  He made us as both physical and spiritual beings.  We have bodies and souls.  It is only proper that God should minister to us both in body and spirit.  He is the creator of the material universe, so why shouldn’t he use material elements to communicate himself to us?

The sacraments are moments when heaven and earth meet; when time touches eternity.  They are occasions where God uses elements of the physical world he has created to fill our lives with his grace.  They are the means by which he heals us, forgives us, feeds us, and sanctifies us.  Jesus did not have to use mud to heal the eyes of the blind man.  He chose to.  God did not have to enter into his creation to be with us.  He chose to.

Jesus Himself is the ultimate Sacrament.  He is the physical sign of God’s presence among us, what Blessed John Henry Newman called the “icon of God.”  The Church he established is the continuation in time of the Incarnation.  Her role is to preserve the teachings of Christ and make the love and mercy of God known to all generations.  The Church is also, therefore, a Sacrament.

I want to read to you a quote from Fr. Robert Barron, a priest in the archdiocese of Chicago.  He writes:

I realize that an objection might be forming in your mind.  Certainly the doctrine of the Incarnation separates Christianity from the other great world religions, but how does it distinguish Catholicism from other Christian churches?  Don’t Protestants and the Orthodox hold just as firmly to the conviction that the Word became flesh?  They do indeed, but they don’t, I would argue, embrace the doctrine in its fullness.  They don’t see all the way to the bottom of it or draw out all of its implications.  Essential to the Catholic mind is what I would characterize as a keen sense of the prolongation of the Incarnation throughout space and time, an extension that is made possible through the mystery of the church.  Catholics see God’s continued enfleshment in the oil, water, bread, imposed hands, wine and salt of the sacraments; they appreciate it in the gestures, movements, incesnations, and songs of the Liturgy; they savor it in the texts, arguments, and debates of the theologians; they sense it in the graced governance of popes and bishops; they love it in the struggles and missions of the saints; they know it in the writings of Catholic poets and in the cathedrals crafted by Catholic architects, artists, and workers.  In short, all of this discloses to the Catholic eye and mind the ongoing presence of the Word made flesh, namely Christ (Catholicism pg. 3).

The Church is many things.  She is a mother.  She is a teacher.  She is a missionary.  She has been described as a field hospital for sinners.  But above all, she is a visible sign of an invisible grace.  The Church is a sacrament; she is the Incarnation of God made present to us today.

And what is the purpose of this continuation of the Incarnation?  The Church today has the same mission as her founder – to reconcile man to God.  And as God is the author of man, that reconciliation means, in essence, helping man to become who he was meant to be.

Conclave of the Second Vatican Council

Fifty years ago the Church sat down at the Second Vatican Council and thought about what her role in the modern world should be.  One of the documents issued by that council is entitled in Latin Gaudium et Spes, and in English, The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World.  I want to end my remarks by allowing the Church to speak for herself.

In that document, the Church says:

…not only does the church communicate divine life to humanity but in a certain sense it casts the reflected light of that divine life all over the earth, notably in the way it heals and elevates the dignity of the human person, in the way it consolidates society, and endows people’s daily activity with a deeper sense and meaning.  The church, then, believes that through each of its members and its community as a whole it can help to make the human family and its history still more human (40).

…To follow Christ the perfect human is to become more human oneself.  By this faith the church can keep the dignity of human nature out of reach of changing opinions which, for example, either devalue the human body or glorify it.  There is no human law so well fitted to safeguard the personal dignity and human freedom as is the Gospel which Christ entrusted to the church… (41).  

In a nutshell, the whole life, purpose, and reason for being of the Church is to present Christ to the world, which is to say to make Christ present in every place and time.  The Church does this not for her benefit, but for ours, just as her Lord came not to be served, but to serve.