Common Wisdom: What Else Is There?

A young friend lately bestowed upon me a singular honor. Much to my surprise and delight, she asked me to be her sponsor when at the Easter Vigil she became a member of the Catholic Church. I had never had the privilege of standing in the post of sponsor, and I was as eager as Jana to savor the full flavor of the festivities.

A week or two before Easter, however, Jana suffered a case of jitters. A flood of doubts, once resolved but looming again at the last minute, arose to plague her. As best I could, I tried to do my part to dispel her butterflies. But I really was not needed. Jana’s own great faith, her high intelligence, and her determination to follow where she believed the truth was leading her shortly prevailed. She was aided, too, by the comforting solidity of the Dominican parish where she was to enter the Church; by the loving affirmation of a sister and brother-in-law who had preceded her in the move from the Evangelical tradition; and, perhaps above all at that moment, by the counsel of a wise and holy priest, extraordinarily schooled throughout his 83 years in the intricate mysteries of the human soul.

Jana’s excitement over her new life as a Catholic, shaken only momentarily by understandable last-minute doubts, brought to mind my own conversion from Methodism some 26 years ago. I have to admit I do not spend much time anymore thinking about my conversion. I have indeed thought about it, and I have written about it. But it happened so long ago that it appears now in retrospect to have been such a natural and providential step as to have taken place almost before memory. The more the formal event of conversion becomes subsumed into the whole context of a life the more it seems presumptuous and pretentious to dwell upon something that ought to have happened anyway as part of the soul’s normal unfolding.

Further, the move from nearly any Protestant denomination to Catholicism has never struck me as particularly startling or as cause for great comment. It is, after all, not a move from nothing to something but a transition from less to more. The Protestant already believes; he simply becomes a Catholic in order to believe more fully. As a Protestant he has survived on half the Christian tradition; as a Catholic he recovers the whole thing. Rather than turning his back on his Protestant branch, therefore, he gains sustenance not only from the branch but from the entire tree.

All the same, I recall that at the point of conversion the picture does not always appear so simple. Jana’s doubts brought to mind some of my own from years ago and caused me to think what, during this past quarter of a century, I have found to be the most convincing case for the Catholic Church. The most compelling case, I have found, does not rest on the fine points of theology. Doctrine, it goes without saying, is essential to catechesis; much of our current dilemma in the Church, I think, results from weak and improper formation. And yet, for one who is in doubt it is not especially consoling to go over once again the lessons of the catechism. It is much more rewarding to put the question in stark, simple terms: If not the Catholic Church, what else is left? As Walker Percy said in an interview in CRISIS shortly before his death, “What else is there?”

This question faces the Protestant, I suggest, as a choice of more over less. If a Protestant is not satisfied with his half a loaf, where else does he go for the whole thing but to the mother of all Christian faith, the Catholic Church? It is not that his Protestant church is untrue, for presumably every Christian church that honestly takes the name of Christian is founded in the truth of the Trinity and Incarnation. Yet though the Protestant church may contain truth, it does not embrace the fullness of that reality of Trinity and Incarnation. Once the Christian church embraced the fullness; then two things happened. On the one hand, various sects, proclaiming themselves more holy than the universal church, protested their right to select independently how God should be worshipped and how His reality might be reflected in the world; and, on the other, latitudinarian groups flattened all points of doctrine to a general love of humanity and a spirit of good will. In both cases the result was the same: a denial of an objective standard of truth outside one’s own mind or at most beyond one’s immediate group—in short, a manifestation of the modern problem of relativism wherein religion refers not so much to the objective reality of God but to each individual believer’s experience of Him. The Church becomes, then, not a church divinely instituted by Christ but a religious association.

The principle of integration, whereby believers are united in the common bond of a universal community of faith, becomes subverted by this principle of fragmentation, a divisive polarization that names every individual his ultimate authority for deciding what is real. Once launched, the principle of fragmentation never ceases to spawn ever more splits from the main stem of the Church.

In contrast to the principle of fragmentation, the principle of integration is founded on what the great historian Christopher Dawson called the universal spiritual society. Dawson, to whose books I return again and again with much profit and enjoyment, spoke of the two essential characteristics that distinguish the Christian faith and the Catholic Church: uniqueness and universality.

“The uniqueness of Christianity,” said Dawson, “is related to its divine origin, its historic revelation and its sacred or supernatural character. Its universality is related to its unity, its character as a visible society and its sacramental nature.” The summation of these characteristics is, as Dawson says, the four notes of the Church—unity, sanctity, catholicity, and apostolicity, described in the Creed as “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.”

The twin pillars of uniqueness and universality, by which the singular Incarnation of Christ has caused the faithful to unite through the sacraments to receive eternal life, is no more evident to a believer than when he is worshipping at Mass in one of the great churches of the world. In a St. Peter’s or a Notre Dame one is awed not only by the antiquity of the Church but also by its universality. One knows in the immensity of such a place that Christ died specifically for him, a lowly believer, just one of the millions of faithful who are the living body of the Church. And one knows, too, that the Mass said at that moment is the same Mass for him and for his family and friends back home, the same Mass in every corner of Christendom, the same Mass now and to the end of the world. What else, one may think, but this human and holy old Church—divinely revealed yet ingeniously suited to sustain each individual soul—is worth believing in?

For anyone who is having doubts, the Scripture readings of Holy Week, especially for Holy Thursday, and for the Easter octaves through Pentecost are consoling. At the beginning of Holy Week, when I knew Jana was troubled about the structure and authority of the Church, I suggested that she set aside theology books and sit down quietly with Jesus’ Farewell Discourses at the Last Supper, as told in John’s Gospel, chapters 14 through 17. I hope she took me up on my suggestion; for it seems so reasonable that Christ would deliver on His promise not to leave us alone after He left this world but would send His Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, to lead us. How better would He send His Advocate to us incarnate men than through the structure of a Church, of which He Himself is the head?

“When the Advocate comes,” Jesus said, “whom I shall send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who issues from the Father, he will be my witness, and you too will be witnesses, because you have been with me from the outset.”

John, chapter 17, the priestly prayer of Christ, is taken by the Church to signify the ordination of the priesthood. Jesus seems here to be praying, not so much for all believers, but for the very special band of men who had attended Him in His earthly ministry. These are His special friends, whom He now asks the Father to consecrate in their apostolic mission: “Consecrate them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world, and for their sake I consecrate myself so that they too may be consecrated in truth.” And then He prays for all of us: “I pray not only for these, but for those who through their words will believe in men.”

In the brilliant, breathtaking readings of the Easter octave, the most dramatic of the year, the Church comes alive in all its immediacy and intimacy. From every angle it explains the Resurrection. Over and over Christ impresses upon His followers that He is really alive. He appears to the women. He appears to Peter. He appears to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, where, significantly, they do not recognize Him until the breaking of the bread. He appears to a larger group of disciples and asks for something to eat. He appears to Thomas. In perhaps the tenderest scene of all, He appears to the disciples on the shore of the Sea of Tiberias, where He fixes breakfast for them.

Ascension Day marks the end of the Lord’s public ministry. Before He is so astoundingly whisked out of our sight, however, and before we are left with the disciples gazing up into the sky, we are told by Him to wait, not to leave Jerusalem but to go into seclusion to await fulfillment of the Father’s promise. Now, then, begins the original novena of the Church, the nine days of prayer in the Upper Room, waiting for the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. We, too, are there with Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, Simon the Zealot party member, and Judas son of James. There are some women in the company—and most important there is Mary, mother of our Lord. What a comfort she is to us all, soothing us in our fear when, day after day, we wait expectantly but the Spirit still does not come. This is a strange, bewildering time without our Lord. We pray constantly, living through this first week as the tiny, infant Church. And at long last, on the ninth day, comes Pentecost, a crashing, fiery descent of the Holy Spirit. From now on we are different. We are commissioned. We are in the final age of the Holy Spirit.

Before we enter the long weeks of ordinary time we celebrate two weeks of the high point of Christian liturgy and doctrine, both of which epitomize the Incarnation and the Resurrection—Trinity Sunday and Corpus Christi Sunday. It is fitting that this last feast—Corpus Christi—celebrates the gift that Christ has left us in His Church, the Eucharist through which we live His life with Him.

All through these weeks since Easter we also have been reading the Book of Acts, marveling at these ordinary apostles now transformed into tough-minded, faithful, fearless laborers for Christ. Not one is more vastly transformed than Peter; from an impulsive, fearful fellow guilty of the ultimate sin of denying our Lord he is changed into a mature, faithful rock of the Church. If Christ could transform into His most trusted vicar such a one as Peter, then what cannot He do for us?

In the Book of Acts we see a Church that, as Dawson describes it, is above all “a real society, not an abstraction like Humanity or an ideal like that of so many religious and political sects. It is a true society with its own visible institutions and objective laws and an intense consciousness of its social identity. So it was in the beginning and so it is today.” It is an institutional church of pope, cardinals, bishops, priests, religious orders, laity, and so on. It is also a Church ordained from on high and therefore animated by the Spirit. These 2000 years it has endured, with no sign of abating. I cannot imagine life outside it.

By

Mrs. Anne Husted Burleigh is a free-lance writer, mother, and grandmother who lives on a farm overlooking the Ohio River in Rabbit Hash, Kentucky, near Cincinnati. She has written two books: John Adams, a Biography, and Journey up the River: a Midwesterner’s Spiritual Pilgrimage. She has contributed to many publications, including Crisis and Catholic Dossier, and now writes for Magnificat.

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