The Distinction

Over a year ago, I stumbled across a Christian website with a Q&A feature. The question that caught my eye – and made me feel a bit queasy – was, “How can Catholics call themselves Christians?” The instructor replied that, well, Catholics do believe in Christ. (Did you KNOW that people are surprised by that? How must you and I personally make our faith more evident?)  He then added his opinion that the major divergence between Catholics and other Christian faiths is in what we believe about the conditions of our salvation: that Catholics believe that both faith and good works are necessary for salvation, whereas other Christians believe that only faith is needed.

Now, as much as I enjoy actually getting paid (thank you) for promoting good works, that answer started me a’stewing. So I’m gonna rant about it for a while and see if that helps me simmer down a bit. Because, first of all, that is Not the Major Difference. No; the Major Difference is a twofold matter of Authority and Sacrament.

Every soul has an inborn need for leadership. Unfortunately, many people find their leadership in some pretty peculiar places: TVs, malls, mirrors, addictions, labs, self-declared prophets, and elsewhere. Ideally, though, Catholics willingly place ourselves under the gentle, perfect leadership of the truest authority, the Author of Creation, who – in the person of Jesus Christ – deliberately handed the Church down “to Peter alone, as first of the apostles, [and it was then] destined to be transmitted to his successors…. A charge destined to be exercised without interruption by the sacred order of bishops….that whoever listens to them is listening to Christ” (CCC 862). We believe that the mission of the faltering-then-forgiven Peter and his papal successors is, as Christ prayed for in Luke 22:32, “to keep this faith from every lapse and to strengthen his brothers in it” (CCC 552). So: our faith and its continuous line of leadership come from the one genuine, holy, traceable source. That’s a Rock-solid foundation, and a fundamental point of variation from the practices of our Protestant brothers and sisters.

Catholics also participate in the Sacraments – visible signs of the invisible reality of God’s boundless love for us, prefigured in the Old Testament and fulfilled in Christ and His bride, the Church. The source and summit of these sacraments is the Eucharist. Practicing Catholics come to deeply know that the Eucharist is the living presence of Christ, eternally sacrificed and always available for our consumption – and accompanying transformation — if we are properly prepared for such an astonishing grace. We accept that we can not fully understand, but still fully believe Jesus when He exclaims (picture the fire in His eyes!), “For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me” (John 6:55-57). Keep reading the passage: many followers turned forever away from the Lord when He said those words, but notice that He did not call them back to re-explain. He merely turned to the remaining ones to challenge them: You! Are you up to believing this? And who answered Him? Our first Pope. He said yes. With that humble authority as our guide, we choose to immerse ourselves in mysterious, sacramental Grace. That is the current major point of separation between the Lord’s flocks – a point which we pray will melt away as we all seek greater unity in Christ, and as we Catholics live lives and speak words which boldly declare to all that, yes, Catholics can dare to call themselves Christians.

Where does that leave the other apparent difference the website guy mentioned, the one about the relationship between good works and salvation? Stay tuned; I’ll write about how this is actually becoming a matter of unification next week!

-Marian Bart