In the modern world, where we shouldn’t presume to tell others what’s true and false, good and bad, or right and wrong, saying we’d all be Catholic if we really thought about it is sure to provoke scorn and ire. What about happy and generous Buddhists, Muslims, Lutherans, atheists? Didn’t this sort of close-minded thinking go by the board a hundred years ago? Isn’t this the problem with ISIS and Al-Qaeda, that they think they have a corner on the truth?
The novelist and essayist Walker Percy, who converted to Catholicism from secular humanism, once wrote a self interview in which he had the following exchange with himself:
Q: How is such a belief [in Catholicism] possible in this day and age?
A: What else is there?
Q: What do you mean, what else is there? There is humanism, atheism, agnosticism, Marxism, behaviorism, materialism, Buddhism, Muhammadanism, Sufism, astrology, occultism, theosophy.
A: That’s what I mean.
So, here goes. And yes, those with other belief systems share some of these things. And no, no other belief system embodies all of them.
• Catholicism insists that every person is created to be great, a hero, to rise above human weaknesses and mistakes, to be more than just a smart animal, and that becoming this hero has permanent significance.
• Catholics are convinced that heaven is a glorious adventure, not eternal boredom or conformity or mindless obedience, and if heaven is real, as Catholics believe, even the longest and most fruitful life on Earth is just a speck compared to life in heaven as your best self.
• What if hell—the misery of self-absorption and separation from your Creator—is real, and people actually go there, as Thomas Aquinas, Dante, C. S. Lewis, and others have described and depicted? For Catholics, hell is the willful rejection of the means the Creator gives us to get to heaven, where our Creator ardently desires us to be.
• Catholicism is anything but anti-intellectual. Brilliant men and women in every age and in every field have embraced Catholicism. Nothing about rightly understood Catholicism is incompatible with honest (versus speculative or ideologically-driven) science. Many of the most acclaimed scientists in history were believing Catholics; also true of art, music, literature, poetry, sculpture, architecture; you name it.
• Immersion in Catholic life offers the possibility of freedom from earthly enslavements: drug and alcohol addictions, sexual addictions, lust for things, the opposite of what the modern world tells us—that things and pleasure can make us happy while Catholicism is enslaving.
• Catholic tradition views Scripture as a thoughtful whole, as a rich and varied tapestry that reveals a merciful, just, generous Creator, and a roadmap (that is also a Person) for how we should live to get to heaven and stay away from hell. Two thousand years of Catholic deliberation have gone into distinguishing literal truth in Scripture from instructive and poetic storytelling. While Catholics reverence Scripture, they don’t believe the Bible is the sole source of Divine wisdom, or believe that everything in the Bible should be taken literally.
• Though suffering is terrible and meaningless in and of itself, Catholicism asserts that consciously and intentionally uniting our suffering to Jesus’ suffering bridges earthly and heavenly life, thus imparting profound meaning to suffering.
• While Catholicism holds firm and fixed beliefs, every race and culture in the world has found its own unique expression of Catholicism in art, music, prayer, and traditions.
• Catholicism, as practiced by intentional Catholics in high and low places, has always been countercultural, even downright dangerous, a life-changing and courageous adventure. Not just me saying it, look at the lives of most of the saints, including those who lived in periods when historians claim the Church had societies under its thumb.
• The only rational alternative to Catholicism is fatalism-hedonism. Fatalism meaning that only what we see, hear, and touch is real, and when these things cease, I cease, that because I come from the earth, and am someday going back to the earth, nothing has permanent meaning. Hedonism meaning that life ought to be as pleasurable, comfortable, stimulating as we can make it, because if life is plagued by illness, drudgery, and the exclamation point of death, why deny ourselves stimulation and pleasure, and why deny others these pleasures? Not nearly as heroic an adventure in this life as Catholicism and, if heaven and hell are real, a risky wager.
Back to the modern objection to definitive statements about good and bad, right and wrong, truth and falsehood. How many subtle and not-so-subtle suggestions have we heard that all religions are freedom inhibiting, anti-intellectual, and violence-prone, that Crusaders and ISIS jihadists are one and the same?
Let’s take this head-on by comparing Catholicism and Islamism: a world where the pope is the “servant of the servants of God” versus a world ruled by a caliph-dictator; abundant life after death versus nihilistic barbarism in this life so as to rule as tyrants in “paradise”; heroic and noble adventure in this life versus the destructive pursuit of domination; authentic freedom, meaning a balance between liberty and responsibility versus the rejection of freedom of conscience; intellectual and creative fertility versus anti-intellectualism and the smashing of creativity; giving suffering existential meaning versus imposing suffering as a means to enslave.
How similar do those two paths sound? Or how similar is the Catholic path to that of the fatalist-hedonist, to whom nothing we think, say, do, or create, has transcendent meaning, that sooner or later everything…everything is reduced to atoms?
That’s why we’d all be Catholic if we really thought about it.