I am a cradle Catholic. I was born a Catholic and chances are, I am going to die one. Of course, this doesn’t make me an expert on Catholic theology at all. But my parents, particularly my Dad is well-versed on Catholic theology, and I grew up in the kind of home where Catholicism wasn’t something you did on Sunday for an hour. It was and continues to be a part of my complex identity and something I educate myself on. So while I am not a formal expert on my churches’ history, I believe I know enough and experience enough, to purport a tenable opinion. However, I am always careful to say that I do not serve as a spokesperson for the church in any formal capacity, and certainly not with regard to matters of theology. I am, however, a thoughtful absorber and an informed layperson.
Catholicism is complex. There are many rules and orders and interpretations and practices that are well, complicated. And I feel the piece that I am responding to is not an accurate reflection of the complicated theology that is embodied in Catholic teachings and practices. This is not an attack on the writer of the earlier post but rather, a defense of my faith – which as a practicing Catholic, I feel obliged to do. And as a person who indulges in academic spaces as well as in writing for public consumption in matters of public culture, I also feel a responsibility to others and to knowledge itself. Matters of social and cultural importance ought to necessitate as much accuracy and diligence as possible.
In the first place, my experience since coming to the United States as to the labeling (or rather not labeling) of Catholics as Christians has been very confusing. Many times, Catholics are separated in social conversations from Christians. “Are you Catholic or are you Christian?” – is a question I never encountered until I came to the USA. And I assert that it is an erroneous question on the basis of history. Catholic history and traditions are ultimately the tradition that 99% of Christian denominations broke-away from, at least originally. The Reformation, lead to the creation of Protestantism, from which many non-Catholic traditions emerged.
But Catholics are first and foremost Christians, and as far as history is concerned, they were some of the first Christians. And we can say a lot about the church. We can talk about its good and bad, it’s need for preservation and it’s need for change; we can make arguments for either. And those of us who embody it as a part of our identity and do discern, will tell you no different. But over 2000 years of Christian tradition, is something that is and continues to be a part of the Catholic identity.
With regard to the differences between Catholics and Protestants, there are many. Sometimes it is hard to believe that the denominations fall under the same title indeed – Christian. But I was always under the impression, as a Catholic who also had the experience of attending a Protestant prep high school in the Pentecostal denomination, that Protestants more often than not, take a more literal interpretation of The Bible than Catholics.
In fact, to the best of my knowledge, one of the premises of the Reformation was the Sola Scriptura interpretation that its leaders harbored. Sola Scriptura means that everything that is needed for salvation and holiness is contained in scripture. This is why many a Protestant church is known as fundamentalist. To be clear, Sola Scriptura is not a denial that outside of scripture, there is no other truth but that all those truths are subordinate to scripture’s written words and by inference, literal interpretations. Of course, traditions have changed and not every Protestant church is premised on Sola Scriptura.
Catholicism, as well as most Orthodox traditions considerably argue against Sola Scriptura as the sole path to interpreting the bible and leading a life of holiness. The argument is that salvation is not found only in scripture despite the material importance of scripture. That knowledge and oral traditions are contained and conserved by practices in the church, which were indoctrinated since the time of St. Peter. And that is why some of our theology can change but some of it cannot. No pope, no priest, no layperson has the authority to change some things. Thus, truth is in scripture in Catholic teaching, but not all truth is in scripture. And there must be a devotion to seeking what is good and honorable and right at all times, in all places, in one’s life.
Catholicism, I reiterate, is complex. The core of the word means universal. Contrary to popular belief, it is not a one-size-fits-all faith. This is a culture that is vast and varied in its history and practices. And it is a history that has brought me both shame, and great pride. But like many others, I have always and continue to respect that the Church is a place that seeks the unanswerable questions of this life. And ultimately it seeks to give more dignity to persons or to have persons realize their dignity in its teachings.
We are a church of many beliefs and many people – a universal church. We are an institution that has our problems as one that is made up of imperfect human beings that have to carry out the teachings of a perfect Savior. And as a church, we fail sometimes. But we are a Christian church; that is the foundation. And our interpretations while complex, preserve our teachings and practices; teachings and practices that look to The Bible as well to the individual’s capacity to reason and to discern morality, to seek truth. We do not see them as mutually exclusive.
And we get it – we can be confusing in all our complexity. But this is why you can have a Democrat Vice President who is Catholic, and the former Republican challenger to his position, be Catholic as well. This is why you can have Catholics who are staunchly one thing or the other, or many who try to be moderate in all things. We’ve been around for a while – over 2000 years. So when it comes to saying who we are and what we believe: I think we’ve got this.