Does Being Catholic Make a Difference?

Author: Rev. Ray Ryland


Rev. Ray Ryland

Does being Catholic make a difference in a person’s life? Does it make an eternal difference? At first thought, maybe not. Vatican II’s <Constitution on the Church> seems to point in that direction. Section 16 names several categories of persons outside the Catholic Church who can (not necessarily will) be saved. The list includes non-Catholic Christians, Jews, Muslims, those who seek the unknown God, even those who have no explicit knowledge of God. Persons such as these can be saved if they earnestly seek to respond to God and to love him on the basis of the best information available to them.

Some people conclude that if it is possible for such people to be saved, there is no point in being a Catholic. Yet there is more to consider. Start with our Lord’s command about moral and spiritual growth. "You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." (Matt. 5:48, RSV)

When I was a child someone gave me a statue of three little monkeys sitting side by side. Using their paws, one covered his mouth, another his eyes, the third one his ears. This was the well-known "speak-no-evil, see-no-evil, hear-no-evil" trio. In later years I sometimes thought of those monkeys when I read Matthew 5:48. Their message has merit, but is hardly an accurate commentary on our Lord’s command.

Consider the word we translate "perfect." In Greek <teleios> does not refer to abstract or metaphysical perfection. It is a functional term. To be perfect a thing must realize fully the purpose for which it has been produced. <Teleios> comes from the noun <telos>, which means purpose, end, goal.

"You must be perfect" means each of us must strive to develop his unique potential, under God, to the fullest possible extent. These words are both command and promise. The imperative is laid upon us who follow Christ, but we know that only the grace of God can bring about this process of sanctification.

Why this requirement for Christians to seek sanctification in this life? If heaven is our goal, why could not our Lord have narrowed the command to "become at least good enough to qualify for heaven"? Why not, unless the degree of fulfillment as a Christian which one achieves in this life has eternal implications?

Protestants always have criticized Catholic teaching on sanctification. On the one hand, they assume that striving for sanctification undercuts justification by faith. Sanctification is a "work," a contribution we try to make to our salvation. (Traditional Baptists reject the whole concept of sacrament for essentially this reason.)

On the other hand, in the Protestant approach to the Christian faith there is no real need for emphasizing growth in sanctity. Once you have accepted Jesus as Savior and Lord, your salvation is assured. Indeed, for the converted ("born-again") Fundamentalist, salvation is absolutely assured. At the moment of death, if you are "saved," Christ takes you immediately into heaven. And that’s it.

All beliefs have consequences. The Protestant lack of an imperative toward sanctity has had consequences. One was brought to my attention years ago, when I was a student at Union Theological Seminary in New York. One of the visiting professors was Douglas Steere, who was a Quaker. He was recognized widely as a leading Protestant authority on devotional theology, what Catholics call "spirituality."

Dr. Steere gave our class a lengthy bibliography (more than a hundred titles) and told us to read as much and as widely as possible. After two or three days’ work in the library with his bibliography, I went to his office. I told him that his course was very helpful, but, I said, "All these books (with a handful of exceptions) are Catholic books. I’m not interested in what the Catholics have to say about prayer. I’m a Protestant. I need some Protestant books to read."

He smiled as he acknowledged that practically all his sources were Catholic. "In all these years Protestantism simply hasn’t developed a literature on prayer. We all have to go Catholic sources to learn about prayer." Perhaps Dr. Steere suspected the Catholic

Church was on to something in its understanding of sanctification.

Let’s take a look at what the Church believes. The level of spiritual maturity we have attained at the moment of death is the level at which we shall be perfected through our experience of purgatory. It is the level at which we shall spend eternity. "For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive good or ill, according to what he has done in the body" (2 Cor. 5:10). A proverb has it, "As the tree falls, so it lies."

Our capacity for the Beatific Vision is determined forever at the moment of death. Capacities will vary. Take two containers, one large, one small, and fill each with water. They are equally full, but they hold different amounts of water. So will it be in heaven. There will be varying degrees of blessedness in the lives of the redeemed in heaven; they will be equally full, but with unequal amounts.

"In my Father’s house there are many rooms," Jesus assures us (John 14:2). Augustine says the "rooms" or "mansions" refer to different degrees of rewards in heaven (Tract. 67), and Thomas Aquinas concurs (<Summa Theologiae>, q. 18, a.2). In the following article Thomas adds, "The more one will be united to God the happier will one be."

The Council of Florence in 1439 taught that those who have incurred no sin after baptism, and those who have been cleansed of all stain of sin, will "clearly behold the triune God as he is, yet one person more perfectly than another according to the difference of their merits." The Greek version of the conciliar teaching ends with the words, "according to the worth of their lives."

In a "Letter on Eschatology," issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1979, we are reminded that, with regard to life after death, we "must firmly hold" two essential points. The first is that there is continuity "between our present life in Christ and the future life."

The <Constitution on the Church> (section 49) speaks of the life of the redeemed in heaven in these words: "All of us, however, in varying degrees and in different ways, share in the same charity towards God and our neighbors, and we all sing the one hymn of glory to our God."

At this point someone might say, "All I care about is getting into heaven. All I want is to have those pearly gates slam shut behind me and not in front of me." Sometimes a student will say, "All I want out of this course is a passing grade; I don’t care about anything else." If that student does get his passing grade, he will get little else out of the course. As for the man at the pearly gates, with that self-centered attitude he may well see the gates slam shut in front of him.

If spouses truly, deeply love one another, they yearn for, they work for, the closest possible union of life. Pity the poor spouses who say, "We don’t really work at our marriage any more. After all, we have enough love going to make sure we won’t split and divorce." Not only are they denying themselves the deep joy and fulfillment of marriage. They have set a collision course with unhappiness and even the break-up of their marriage.

Consider some of the Church’s teaching about itself. Jesus entrusted "all the blessings of the new covenant" to "the apostolic college alone, of which Peter is the head." "For it is through Christ’s Catholic Church alone, which is the universal help towards salvation, that the fullness of the means of salvation can be obtained" (<Decree on Ecumenism>, 3).

The next section of the <Decree> contains says "the Catholic Church has been endowed with all divinely revealed truth and with all means of grace. . . ." Does it not follow that anyone not in the communion of the Catholic Church does not have access to all divinely revealed truth and that the non-Catholic does not have access to all the means of grace by which Christ intends to nourish his people?

"Baptism," says the <Decree> (section 22), "constitutes the sacramental bond of unity existing among all who through it are reborn." Immediately it clarifies this statement by adding that baptism in itself "is only a beginning, a point of departure." Baptism is "wholly directed toward the acquiring of fullness of life in Christ." That fullness—and note the recurring adjective—is "a complete profession of faith, a complete incorporation into the system of salvation such as Christ himself willed it to be, and . . . a complete integration into Eucharistic communion."

This can only mean that sincere non-Catholics have not fully embraced the truth of the gospel. If a non-Catholic does believe all that the Church teaches but chooses to remain outside its communion, he is in grave peril of everlasting damnation. The Second Vatican Council teaches that "the Church, a pilgrim now on earth, is necessary for salvation: The one Christ is mediator and the way of salvation; he is present to us in his body which is the Church" (<Constitution on the Church>, 14). Then come these words: "Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it, or to remain in it."

These words from the <Decree on Ecumenism> can only mean that sincere non-Catholics have not been, and as non-Catholics cannot be, fully incorporated into "the system of salvation such as Christ himself willed it to be . . . ." Not having full access to all of Christ’s gifts to his people necessarily prevents a non-Catholic from attaining to the greatest possible degree of spiritual maturity, the deepest sanctification, in this life. The fact that an individual non-Catholic’s sanctity may—and in many instances probably does—greatly exceed that of many Catholics is irrelevant. The point is that the non-Catholic will not have developed in this life, by God’s grace, the capacity for the Beatific Vision he could have attained as a Catholic.

The <Decree on Ecumenism> speaks directly of the deprivation suffered by non-

Catholics. (This, of course, does not apply to members of the Eastern Churches, which have preserved the apostolic succession and all the sacraments.) Non-Catholics "are not blessed with that unity which Jesus Christ wished to bestow on all those to whom he has given new birth into one body and whom he has quickened to newness of life—that unity which the Holy Scriptures and the ancient Tradition of the Church proclaim" (section 3).

Most serious of all, non-Catholic communities "have not preserved the proper reality of the Eucharistic mystery in its fullness, especially because of the absence of the sacrament of orders . . ." (section 22). Therefore their members are not being fully fed as Christ intends them to be fed—on himself.

From time to time during my childhood in the Depression years, our family would want something, and in many cases need something, for which we simply had no money. My usual childish, impatient response was to ask, "Then what will we do?" One of my parents would always answer, "What will we do? We’ll do without! That’s what we’ll do." And the subject was closed.

Jesus Christ gives his Church incalculable riches for the benefit of all his people. What are non-Catholics to do about much—even most—of this treasure? They simply "do without" and through no particular fault of their own. But someone is at fault. You and I are at fault, for not witnessing more faithfully and zestfully, for making no effort to bring fellow-Christians into the fullness of their rightful heritage

The failure (dare I say "refusal"?) of Catholics to evangelize reminds me of a melancholy passage in Acts 19:1ff. The apostle Paul came to Ephesus and found there some followers of Jesus. He asked if they had received the Holy Spirit when they began believing in Jesus. Their answer was, "No, we have never even heard that there is a Holy Spirit." They had never heard of the greatest gift God wanted to bestow on them!

For non-Catholic Christians there are countless gifts which are waiting for them and about which they know nothing. One can imagine their responding to a forthright proclamation of the Catholic faith in a manner somewhat like that of those ancient Ephesians:

"We love Jesus, but we have ever heard we can literally receive him into our bodies, in his full humanity and divinity!"

"We know that on Calvary Jesus offered himself to the Father, but we have never even heard that he commands us to join him in re-presenting himself to the Father in every Eucharistic celebration!"

"We know that Jesus has spoken to us through Scriptures, but we have never even heard that he speaks to us today directly through the successor of Peter!"

Why have they not heard? Why are we not telling them? For many reasons, I suppose. Let me speak of one. It involves something we call "bugaboo."

A "bugaboo," according to Webster, is "an imaginary object of fear." Bugaboos are used to frighten people away from a duty or even an otherwise desirable opportunity. For decades, dissenting Catholics and lazy Catholics have used a bugaboo to inhibit or dilute authentic Catholic excitement about the Church and about the joy of being Catholic.

The bugaboo is a vague, trumped-up sin called "triumphalism." Repeatedly we have been told by these bugaboo-ers that if you say positively the Catholic Church is the one true Church, if you enthusiastically speak of the inestimable benefits and graces of being Catholic, if you aggressively seek to bring others—Christian as well as unbaptized—into the Church, then you’re being "triumphalistic."

The strategy of this bugaboo is to identify articulate, enthusiastic Catholic witness with self-aggrandizing boasting. It is a false identification. We know we can’t boast about the Church, because we didn’t invent the Catholic faith. All we can do is give thanks for our privilege and express that thanks in witness to non-Catholics.

On this point the Second Vatican Council speaks to each of us. "All children of the Church should nevertheless remember that their exalted condition results, not from their own merits, but from the grace of Christ." (The phrase "exalted condition" in context means being inheritors of all the riches of Christ in his Church.) In the spirit of Jesus’ words, "From him who has been given much, much will be expected," the Council issues a solemn warning. If the children of the Church "fail to respond in thought, word, and deed to that grace, not only shall they not be saved, but they shall be the more severely judged" (<Constitution on the Church>, 14)

Being Catholic makes a difference, an eternal difference. But what are we Catholics doing to help others share in our "exalted condition"?

Fr. Ray Ryland, a convert from the Episcopal Church, taught theology at the Franciscan University of Steubenville and the University of San Diego. He is now on the staff of Catholic Answers.

This article is reprinted from the May 1995 issue of <This Rock> magazine.