Some years ago a recruit was undergoing basic training in the Army. He had no actual religious background, but when told to list a particular denomination, he identified himself as Catholic. The reason he did so was that all soldiers were required to attend church services of their choice each Sunday, and since no Catholic chaplain happened to be available, he—unlike his Protestant buddies—had the freedom to sleep in on Sunday mornings! Eventually a Catholic priest was assigned to the base, and when he began meeting individually with all his parishioners, the soldier-in-training admitted his reason for claiming to be Catholic. Father chuckled appreciatively and then invited the young man to consider joining the Church for real. The recruit thought about it and agreed; he took instructions, was received into the Church, and became a firmly committed Catholic.
There are probably almost as many different reasons for being Catholic as there are members of the Church, including varying degrees of chance, choice, and conviction. Some of us were born Catholic, others joined the Church later in life, still others left the Church at one point but then returned. We hear stories of persons who were born Catholic and who remained fiercely loyal to the Church throughout their lives. We read the accounts of people of great intellectual gifts and learning, or of great moral courage, who freely entered the Catholic Church, often at considerable personal cost—persons such as John Henry Newman and G. K. Chesterton in the past, and, in our own day, Scott and Kimberly Hahn, Marcus Grodi, and Richard John Neuhaus. Why? Catholicism is only one of many different Christian religions. What is it the Catholic Church offers to its almost one billion members that cannot be obtained anywhere else?
This article is my attempt to describe ten of the unique characteristics of the Catholic Church that set it apart from other Christian denominations. (Some of these characteristics, though not all, also apply to the Orthodox church, which, of all religious bodies, is among the closest to the Church in belief and practice.) Protestant churches are unquestionably accomplishing much good in the world, and countless individual Protestants are surely pleasing to the Lord and can look forward to a place in his Kingdom. Nevertheless, it is in and through the Catholic Church that the fullness of God’s revelation is to be discovered and experienced.
(1) Only the Catholic Church can trace its roots back to Christ Himself.
Within a few short years of the Resurrection, the followers of Jesus began calling themselves "Christians" (cf. Acts 11: 26), and by the end of the first century, the word "catholic"—meaning "universal" —was applied to the Church. The idea of different (and sometimes competing) Christian denominations would have been unthinkable to the early Christians, especially in light of Christ’s pronouncement on one shepherd and one flock (John 10:15) and his prayer that his disciples remain one (John 17:22). It was only human weakness and sinfulness that brought about the religious divisions that afflict Christianity today. The Orthodox church drew apart from Rome off and on over several hundred years, finally separating in the fifteenth century, and the various Protestant denominations date back no earlier than the sixteenth century. These churches can trace their roots back to Christ only through the Catholic Church. To put the matter rather bluntly: Why should anyone settle for an imitation when the original is available—especially when it comes to knowing and living the truths necessary for salvation?
(2) The Eucharist—the Real Presence of Christ—is not found in Protestant churches.
Jesus described himself as the bread of life, stating that whoever eats his flesh and drinks his blood will have life eternal (John 6:54). At the Last Supper he gave the apostles and their successors, the bishops (and through them, validly ordained priests), the power and authority to continue his sacrifice when he said, "Do this in memory of me" (Luke 22:19). The Catholic Church has been obeying Christ’s command for almost two thousand years, and whereas many Christian denominations see the Eucharist mainly in symbolic terms, the Church has consistently taught that it is truly the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ. Moreover, only Catholic and non-Catholic Eastern priests—because of their ordinations—have the sacramental power to consecrate the Eucharist. (Anglican or Episcopalian priests sometimes claim to possess this power, but Pope Leo XIII, after carefully examining this issue some one hundred years ago, concluded that the link of apostolic succession had not been preserved by the Church of England.)
Catholics are privileged to be able to receive the treasure beyond all price—Jesus himself—each time they attend Mass. It may be true that many Protestant and Evangelical congregations at times seem to offer a greater sense of fellowship and community, more dynamic preaching, and various activities and programs than the average Catholic parish. These things are all valuable and praiseworthy—but for a Catholic to give them a higher priority than the Eucharist is akin to Esau selling his birthright for a mess of pottage (cf. Gen. 25:29–34). If we truly understood what a wondrous gift the Eucharist is, none of us would even consider ever leaving the Church, and our example would attract many other persons to Catholicism.
(3) Unlike other Christians, Catholics have a fully sacramental understanding of God’s saving activity.
The word "sacramental" is here used in three different senses. First we have the incarnational sense, which means that God can be known and experienced in and through what he has created. Catholicism has always remembered that God looked upon his creation and pronounced it "good" (cf. Gen. 1:31). So instead of being suspicious of human activity and the material world, the Church has often encouraged people to develop and use their abilities and to do all things for the greater glory of God. It’s no surprise that some of humanity’s greatest art, architecture, and music has been commissioned and preserved by the Church.
The second sense of "sacramental" (used here as an adjective) refers to the Eucharist and the other six sacraments, which are visible signs and sources of God’s grace active in the world. God, as our Creator, is fully aware of our human limitations. Because human beings are both body and spirit, the Lord relates to us not only in an invisible, spiritual way but also through the use of human gestures and material items we can see and hear and touch and taste: bread, wine, water, oil, words, and so forth. Most Christians agree on the essential requirement of water for baptism, but Protestants are not consistent in treating as sacraments the other sacred actions Jesus gave to the Church.
Thirdly, the noun "sacramental" refers to a blessed item or gesture that, for those who have faith, can be an experience or source of God’s grace. Sacramentals of this sort include holy water, scapulars, crucifixes, medals, rosaries, ashes on Ash Wednesday, the Sign of the Cross, and so on. Sacraments, by God’s promise and power, are effective in and of themselves, whereas sacramentals depend on the disposition of the believer. Though much less important than sacraments, sacramentals can be a valuable source of grace and spiritual favor.
If Jesus was willing to humble himself by becoming human (Phil. 2:6–7), it’s logical to assume God would continue working in and through human beings and the material order he himself created. Catholicism, with its sacramental emphasis, has carried this truth through to its logical conclusion.
(4) Because of the Church’s magisterium, Catholics have the assurance that their beliefs are divinely revealed truths, not human interpretations and opinions.
Other than questioning the apostles on what they and other people believed regarding his identity (cf. Mark 8:27–29), Jesus never conducted a vote or an opinion poll, or said to his followers, "This is what I personally think, but you decide for yourselves what to believe." Rather, he came to proclaim God’s truth (John 18:37), and he entrusted this same teaching authority, or magisterium, to his Church (Luke 10:16). It is illogical to believe that Jesus, the eternal Word of God, would go to the trouble of becoming human, establishing the Church, and dying on the cross to save us from our sins, without providing a guarantee that the Church would continue to preserve and proclaim his teachings faithfully. Jesus followed his own advice by building his Church on the solid foundation of fidelity and truth (Matt. 7:24–25) and on the rock of Peter’s faith (Matt. 16:18–19). Not only does this divinely given teaching authority assure the Church’s pronouncements on faith and morals will be free of error, it also serves as a source and measure of unity. This is something all Protestant denominations lack, and the results are a matter of historical record. Once Luther and his colleagues established the precedent of protesting and rejecting the Church’s teaching authority, there was nothing to prevent later protests against their own self-proclaimed authority. The process of continually reinterpreting Scripture has reached the point where now, according to Oxford’s World Christian Encyclopedia, there are well over 20,000 Protestant denominations with their own—often contradictory—interpretations of the Gospel, each claiming to possess the true understanding of divine revelation.
(5) The Catholic Church, more than any other, gives fitting honor to the Mother of God.
A story about a small town’s efforts to create an ecumenical outdoor nativity scene illustrates this point. A Protestant minister said to the local Catholic priest, "We can include all the characters mentioned in the Bible, except we should leave Mary out. Otherwise, the scene will appear to be too Catholic." The priest responded, "I’ll agree to that—on the condition that you explain to everyone how the infant Jesus was born without a mother."
Catholics are indeed known for the honor they give to the Virgin Mary, and she plays an irreplaceable role in God’s plan of salvation. It is only right that we honor her (not worship her), for one of the Commandments says, "Honor your father and mother" (Ex. 20:12). If God wants us to honor our parents, how much more must he desire us to honor his Mother. The angel Gabriel declared Mary to be "full of grace" (Luke 1:28), making her worthy of our highest respect. Moreover, Mary herself stated that "all ages will call me blessed" (Luke 1:48). The Catholic Church is virtually unique in obeying and fulfilling this scriptural prophecy.
(6) More than any other Christian religion, Catholicism takes Scripture seriously.
This assertion will surprise those who assume that Catholics are ignorant of Scripture and that the Protestant belief in sola scriptura (accepting "the Bible only" as a source of religious teaching) makes them the only true "Bible Christians." However, history and logic are again on the side of the Catholic Church. It was the Church that, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, created the Bible as we know it (compiling the books of the Old Testament, and willing the books of the New Testament). And it was the Church that decided which of the many early Christian writings were canonical, or worthy of acceptance as scriptural. (Ironically, Protestant Bibles contain the same twenty-seven New Testament books as Catholics Bibles—a list decided upon by the Council of Rome in 382. Thus, the Protestant New Testament ultimately rests upon the authority of the Catholic Church.)
Moreover, none of the teachings of Catholicism contradict Scripture, and the Bible—at least implicitly but normally explicitly—supports all of the Church’s doctrines. Protestants reject many Catholic beliefs, but in doing so they must ignore or reinterpret what Scripture clearly says. For instance, the widespread Protestant understanding that the Eucharist is merely symbolic flatly contradicts our Lord’s words in John 6 ("My flesh is true food and My blood is true drink") and also the accounts of the Last Supper ("This is my Body . . . this is my Blood" [Mark 14:22–24]). Rejecting the authority of the pope is also a rejection of Christ’s words to Peter, by which he gave him the keys to the kingdom of heaven and the authority to bind and loose (Matt. 16:18–19).
To deny the reality of the forgiveness of sins through confession, or the sacrament of reconciliation, is also a denial of the words of the resurrected Jesus to the apostles (John 20:22–23), in which he gave them the power to forgive sins in his name. Disbelief in the teaching authority of the Church is also disbelief in our Lord’s command to teach and baptize all nations, and in his promise to remain with the Church always (Matt. 28:19–20). A further weakness of the Protestant position lies in the idea of sola scriptura itself. Nowhere does the Bible say that Scripture alone is the only source of divine revelation, but there are numerous references to Tradition and the teaching authority of the Church (Matt. 18:15–18; John 14:16, 14:25–26, 21:25; 1 Cor. 11:21; Eph. 3:10–11; 2 Thess. 2:15; 2 Tim. 2:2; 2 Pet. 3:16). Many Protestants are very good at quoting the Bible, but, in terms of its entire message, it is the Catholic Church that lives by it.
(7) The Church has survived and even thrived for almost two thousand years, in spite of every form of persecution, opposition, and difficulty.
Jesus promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against the Church (Matt. 16:18), and history records many examples of Satan’s vicious but unsuccessful assaults on the Body of Christ. The Church has withstood numerous heresies and schisms, along with fierce persecutions stretching from the days of Nero and Diocletian down to our own bloody twentieth century. Catholicism has weathered false prophets and antipopes, wars, civil disturbances, plagues, natural disasters, barbarian invasions, and societal collapse. The Body of Christ, though often wounded, has renewed itself after the attacks of Rationalism and the Enlightenment, the political intrigues of kings and princes, the brute force of mobs and dictators, the meddling of emperors, and even the disastrous rule of sinful or incompetent popes and bishops. No less a persecutor of the Church than Napoleon Bonaparte noted, "The nations of the earth pass away, and thrones fall to the ground; the Church alone remains."
The only parallel in history is that of the Jewish people—a people often singled out for persecution, scorned, oppressed, and exiled, yet miraculously preserved over thousands of years. Because the Jews are God’s chosen people, divine providence has worked in powerful ways in their behalf. Only this fact explains their miraculous ongoing existence. As the "new Israel" (cf. Rom. 11:17), the Church is also the beneficiary of God’s constant guidance and protection and will remain so until the end of time.
The four marks of the true Church are that it is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. I would humbly and unofficially suggest a "fifth" mark: the true Church is also opposed. Just as Jesus was a sign of contradiction and a stumbling block (1 Cor. 1:23), so his Church is a lightning rod for hatred, calumny, misunderstanding, suspicion, and opposition. Christ told his followers to expect the world’s enmity, since they were not of the world (John 15:18–19), and he warned them that some people would even claim to serve God by persecuting them (John 16:2). A present-day example of this is those Fundamentalists who attack the Church by identifying it as the "whore of Babylon."
As the great bishop and martyr Ignatius of Antioch noted, "Christianity shows its greatness when it is hated by the world." Anti-Catholicism has arguably had a stronger role in human history than any other prejudice save anti-Semitism, even in the United States. Catholics have suffered discrimination as immigrants along the Eastern seaboard; Catholics have been isolated and unwelcome in the Bible Belt and have been victims of the "No Nothing" movement and other organized opposition to the Church, including the Ku Klux Klan; and today certain political and social movements—such as the proponents of abortion—often appeal to anti-Catholic sentiments.
This is not to deny the historical fact that Catholics have themselves been guilty of grave sins against charity but to point out that the Church—precisely when it follows its Master most faithfully—is subject to some of the same hatred he encountered. Satan, possessing a cunning and intelligence far beyond human reason, sees his true enemy very clearly. His unrelenting attacks against the Church are a powerful indication of its vital importance in human history.
(8) Of all Christian religions, Catholicism has the most accurate and complete understanding of human nature.
This truth pertains to three areas in particular: reconciliation, ritual, and role models.
Reconciliation here refers to the fact that we are sinners in need of redemption, and that this process is an ongoing one. It is not enough to ask, as many Evangelical Protestants do, "Have you been saved?" This suggests that if we’ve been "born again," and have "accepted Jesus as our Lord and Savior," salvation is guaranteed, and little if anything further is required of us. Such an understanding not only contradicts Scripture, which speaks of the possibility of losing one’s salvation (cf. 1 Cor. 9:27; Phil.2:12–13, 3:10–12), but also human nature. We are imperfect human beings, never completely free of sin. As Scripture says, even the just man falls seven times a day (Prov. 24:16). We are constantly in need of forgiveness, and this is why Jesus established as a sacrament not only baptism, but also reconciliation. Other important spiritual practices promoted by the Catholic Church—prayer, fasting, devotions to the saints, acts of penance, and so on—are designed to aid us in our ongoing efforts to grow in holiness and to cooperate with divine grace in overcoming our faults.
Ritual refers to human customs and behaviors designed to facilitate social interactions and celebrations. These rituals include such everyday actions as shaking hands, saying "God bless you" when someone sneezes, and blowing out the candles on a birthday cake. Examples of Catholic rituals include blessing oneself with holy water, genuflecting before the tabernacle, and making the Sign of the Cross. Calvin and other Reformers were determined to "purify" their churches of everything they considered human traditions and accretions to the Gospel. They radically simplified worship and church architecture. But sociologists have come to realize that ritual is an inherent part of human culture and an important part of human life and social interaction. A society’s "rites of passage"—in which young people are given the chance to demonstrate their maturity and be accepted as adults—are just one example of this. Even most non-Christian religions recognize and respond to this basic human need. Catholicism—unlike many Protestant denominations—has never ceased doing so.
Role models are also a fundamental human need. Human beings are social by nature, and much personal growth and development results from imitating, consciously or otherwise, certain influential persons. The Catholic Church offers the saints as models worthy of imitation. The cult of the saints began when early Christians celebrated the anniversaries of martyrs’ dates of death as their "birthday" into eternal life. Local custom, and eventually official policy, gradually recognized and celebrated still other holy men and women as heroic examples of righteousness. Saints are not worshiped, but they are esteemed and honored, for they are part of the "great cloud of witnesses" (Heb. 12:1) whose lives testify to the truth of the Gospel and inspire those Christians still on earth to persevere in taking up their cross each day. Human beings, especially young people, require role models, and in opposition to self-centered movie stars, overpaid athletes, or promoters of cultural degeneration and violence the Church presents as examples those men, women, and children who can truly show us the way to eternal life and happiness.
(9) Catholicism reflects the nature of heaven more accurately than any other religion.
This can be seen in three different ways. First of all, the Church has a hierarchical structure; so does heaven. There are nine different choirs of angels, each with a different function and rank. Also, while all the persons in God’s kingdom are saints, some are even greater in holiness than others. The Virgin Mary, of course, is the most perfect illustration of this. Moreover, our Lord’s words about the least in the kingdom of heaven being greater than John the Baptist during his earthly life (Matt. 11:11) suggests that some of the saints are indeed ranked higher. At the same time, all are equal in the sense of fully sharing in the Beatific Vision (the joyous, all-encompassing contemplation of God) and in being perfectly happy.
Second, the Church is universal. More than any other religion, Catholicism is to be found in virtually every nation and culture, with members from every background and social status (as noted earlier, the word "catholic" means "universal"). Catholicism’s missionary outreach has covered the entire earth. In this, the Church imitates heaven, whose citizenship consists of "a great multitude, which no one could count, of every nation, race, people, and tongue" (Rev. 7:9).
A third characteristic of the Church that reflects the kingdom of God is that, in both cases, all the members are united as one while preserving their individuality. Each resident of heaven is completely absorbed in the contemplation of God, perfectly united with all the angels and saints in worshiping and praising the divine Majesty, while at the same time more fully alive and unique than ever before. In a mystical way, the Church’s worship on earth—most particularly, the Mass—shares in this ongoing heavenly liturgy. Furthermore, Catholicism has one central form of worship (the Mass and the sacraments) yet provides many different religious devotions, spiritualities, religious orders, and other opportunities to serve for those who are called to such a vocation. In this context, "one size" most definitely does not fit all, and Catholicism recognizes this truth even as it provides a sense of unity and purpose linking this world and the next.
(10) Because it is rooted in, but also transcends, time and history, the Church is able to help its members discover and live by God’s unchanging truth.
Other Christian religions have made significant changes in their moral and religious teachings—for example, ending their prohibition of artificial contraception. (Luther and the other Reformers echoed the Catholic teaching that birth control is gravely sinful, and this remained the Protestant position for 400 years. In 1930, the Anglican Church allowed certain "exceptions," setting in motion a process in which all Protestant denominations have come to regard contraception as morally acceptable. The Catholic Church, in contrast, has maintained its teaching on this issue for almost two thousand years.) Catholicism is well suited to be "behind the times" and counter-cultural. This is an important sign of its authenticity, for objective truth is often unpopular or considered irrelevant or outdated—and yet the genuine Church of Christ must proclaim it nonetheless. Moreover, the Church—because of its international presence and prestige—is a powerful political force in its own right, as demonstrated by Pope John Paul II’s role in the collapse of the Soviet empire and the liberation of Eastern Europe. Church officials are often able to work behind the scenes in mediating conflicts and defending the rights of the oppressed while remaining true to the Church’s otherworldly mission. Jesus prayed that his disciples would be consecrated in truth, for they are in this world, but not of the world (John 17:11–18). Through the Catholic Church, his prayer has been and continues to be fulfilled.
These, then, are ten important reasons not to settle merely for being Christian, but to seek the fullness of God’s revelation through the Catholic Church, the only true Church of Christ. These reasons do not imply that Catholics as individuals are perfect or sinless, or that they have always followed the teachings and spirit of our Lord. No, the Church freely admits the sinful and unchristian behavior of many of its leaders and members throughout history.
Neither are the ten reasons listed above a denial of the importance of working closely with our Protestant brothers and sisters, or of the truth that we have many important lessons to learn from them, especially in the areas of preaching and a personal commitment to evangelization. Members of the Church are sinful and holy, earthly and heavenly, and imperfect and incomplete—yet undergoing the process of sanctification. This process is one that must include each individual Catholic and one in which all other people must be invited to share.
Like the soldier in the story at the beginning of this article, it seems that many Catholics have gotten used to "sleeping in" and not taking their faith seriously. Now, however, the "Chaplain" has appeared, and he is calling each one of us personally. It is our duty not only to belong to and believe in the Church but to defend and promote it. As Jesus noted, much is expected of those to whom much is given (Luke 12:48). We as Catholics can alone rightly claim to have the fullness of God’s revelation and guidance. This is reason for us to rejoice and to renew our commitment to living and sharing the Gospel.
Rev. Joseph Esper has written articles that have appeared in Fidelity, The Priest, and Homiletic & Pastoral Review. He is author of After the Darkness: A Catholic Novel of the Coming of the Antichrist and the End of the World (Queenship Publishing, 1997).