What it really means to be a Catholic. Regardless.

Sometimes you can be too clever. And then you starve.

“Catholics”, observed G. K. Chesterton in The Thing: Why I Am a Catholic, “know the two or three transcendental truths on which they do agree; and take rather a pleasure in disagreeing on everything else.”

But what happens when many, even most, Catholics stop believing in those two or three transcendental truths? Or, taking it even further, people question the meaning of nearly every word, to the point that words are like Twitter handles, health care policies, or the career of Justin Beiber: here today, gone tomorrow, what can we say?

Those thoughts crossed my mind while reading Peter Manseau’s essay, “What It Means To Be a Catholic Now” (March 9th), in the New York Times. Manseau, who has a doctorate in religion from Georgetown, has written a couple of novels, as well as a memoir of sorts, Vows: The Story of a Priest, a Nun, and Their Son, the blurb for which offers this teaser: “His mother is a former nun; his father is a priest who never renounced his vows, but is considered a priest under suspension.” It sounds messy, and so I’ll probably not read it in my Sunday best. Whatever the case was with his parents, Manseau seems happily ambivalent about matters religious, and that ambivalence is on full parade in his Times essay:

Who is a Catholic? Is it a matter of baptism? Belief? Loyalty? Psychology? For some, the answer depends on tests of political purity. For others, who may no longer receive the sacraments but continue to identify with the faith, “once a Catholic, always Catholic” is not just a principle of canon law (semel catholicus, semper catholicus), but the diagnosis of a chronic condition.

For some, for others, for them, for Group A, for Group Z. One could play this game for quite a while, and some are happy to do so. Many who profess a sort of transcendent openmindedness like to point out that there is always someone who disagrees with this definition or that demarcation. Well, yes, but what do you mean by “disagrees”? Do they really disagree? What does it mean to “disagree”? Can we ever agree on what it is to “disagree”? And if we did, would we really be agreeing to agree about “disagree”?


The young Chesterton (fifteen year pior to becoming Catholic) stated, “An open mind is really a mark of foolishness, like an open mouth. Mouths and minds were made to shut; they were made to open only in order to shut.” At some point, we don’t argue about whether or not the stuff on your plate is really food or “food” or something undefinable, otherwise we starve. (Not “starve”, but really starve, whither away, and die. Period.) My only somewhat flippant point is that Manseau’s essay exhibits this sort of sophistic silliness, as if he is trying to will into existence a reality so complicated that he will be freed of any duty to attend to reality. He writes:

The Catholic version of this conundrum is no less fraught. To begin with, there are dozens of ethnically and nationally affiliated Catholic churches, all of which make an equal claim on the title, though many have moved in and out of schism with Rome. This landscape is further complicated by proliferating independent churches that make elaborate claims to the lineage of spiritual authority known as apostolic succession, and ultra-devout lay societies that worry over orthodoxy like a freelance Inquisition.

And yet, oddly enough, if you ask a hundred people what the “Catholic Church” is, 98 of them will have an answer of some value, while the two others will be a straight-up madman chanting “We will rock you!” and a lesbian deconstructionist writing a dissertation on 18th-century vegan recipes for transgendered Norwegians. Yes, of course there a number of groups and individuals making claims to being “Catholic” and “catholic” and “truely Catholic” and “mega-Catholic” and whatever. But this is like saying that since fifty different men might claim to be “basketball players” and “ballers” and “hoopsters”, we cannot know who are really playing for the Chicago Bulls.

I might be interested in what this or that person thinks is “Catholic”, but at the end of the day, I want to know what the Catholic Church says a Catholic is. When I was an Evangelical Protestant studying Church history and Catholic teaching, I was able, for some strange reason, to keep a reasonably clear notion in my mind about what was “Catholic” and what was not. This was true despite the fact that history is often raw and messy, and that theological debates are sometimes complicated and esoteric. And, strangly enough, when I became Catholic and told people, “I’ve entered the Catholic Church”, not one of them ever said, “Which one”? Perhaps their lack of confusion was due to a lack of education. (Most of them actually responded, “Why?” But that’s another story.)

St. Augustine, who knew a thing or two about competing religions and beliefs, wrote that “though all heretics wish to be called Catholics, yet when a stranger asks where the Catholic Church meets, no heretic will venture to point to his own chapel or house.” Granted, people are far more shameless now, but the principle still holds. The early Church fathers had to often explain and defend the characteristics of the Catholic Church, and they would appeal to a number of things: the historical and apostolic roots of the Church, the teaching of certain doctrines and dogmas, the authority of bishops and the pope, and so forth. This, of course, led to the four “marks” of the Church: One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic.

Manseau mentions canon law; he should have lingered there a bit longer, for the Code of Canon Law makes it quite clear what the Catholic Church thinks it means to be Catholic, even if in somewhat dry, juridical terms:

Can. 204 §1. The Christian faithful are those who, inasmuch as they have been incorporated in Christ through baptism, have been constituted as the people of God. For this reason, made sharers in their own way in Christ’s priestly, prophetic, and royal function, they are called to exercise the mission which God has entrusted to the Church to fulfill in the world, in accord with the condition proper to each.

§2. This Church, constituted and organized in this world as a society, subsists in the Catholic Church governed by the successor of Peter and the bishops in communion with him.

Can. 205 Those baptized are fully in the communion of the Catholic Church on this earth who are joined with Christ in its visible structure by the bonds of the profession of faith, the sacraments, and ecclesiastical governance.

Granted, the Middle-Aged Community of Reorganized Catholics For the Fourth Millennium might disagree. But does anyone really confuse the MACRCFFM for The Catholic Church?

Manseau looks East for some usable material:

Ancient grudges that make current schisms look like lovers’ spats are now part of the structure of the church, in which the Western and Eastern Rites maintain distinct traditions as remnants of bygone quarrels. The centuries-long spans over which previous rifts have been healed suggests that the fate of today’s breakaway churches will not be resolved anytime soon.

That is, to put it mildly, a warped view of the Eastern and Western rites of the Catholic Church. The first generations of Christians were not, of course, “Roman Catholics”, but were Catholics with varying ethnic and cultural backgrounds. And while the roots of the papacy were established in Rome early on, with Peter and his successors, the Church always had a diverse range of liturgical traditions. There is, of course, an essential difference between Tradition and traditions. All (good) Catholics, for instance, believe in the Trinity, the Incarnation, the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, and so forth. But the Church has always taken up various elements of ethic and regional traditions. But don’t take my word for it; just read what the Second Vatican Council had to say about it:

The Catholic Church holds in high esteem the institutions, liturgical rites, ecclesiastical traditions and the established standards of the Christian life of the Eastern Churches, for in them, distinguished as they are for their venerable antiquity, there remains conspicuous the tradition that has been handed down from the Apostles through the Fathers and that forms part of the divinely revealed and undivided heritage of the universal Church. …

The Holy Catholic Church, which is the Mystical Body of Christ, is made up of the faithful who are organically united in the Holy Spirit by the same faith, the same sacraments and the same government and who, combining together into various groups which are held together by a hierarchy, form separate Churches or Rites. Between these there exists an admirable bond of union, such that the variety within the Church in no way harms its unity; rather it manifests it, for it is the mind of the Catholic Church that each individual Church or Rite should retain its traditions whole and entire and likewise that it should adapt its way of life to the different needs of time and place. (Orientalium Ecclesiarum, 1, 2)

Etcetera and so forth. Manseau concludes:

Finally, Who is a Catholic? If the late priest and sociologist Andrew M. Greeley was correct in his assessment that “Catholics remain Catholic” because “they are loyal to the poetry of Catholicism,” the answer may be more a matter of language than belief.

The hold the church’s symbolism continues to have on many, practicing and lapsed, Catholic and not, is also the key to understanding both the opportunity and the risk Rome faces in the age of Francis: The poetry of faith remains open to interpretation. Though he surely did not intend it this way, “Who am I to judge?” would be a fitting motto for a papacy that saw a thousand Catholicisms bloom.

If you play your authority card and lay down “Fr. Andrew Greeley”, I have to think you aren’t too serious about this particular brand of poker. But that’s actually beside the point, since Greeley, in the quote above, assumes that people know what it means to be Catholic and what it means to talk about “Catholicism”!

In sum, Manseau has written a 1240-word-long essay about what it means to be Catholic that does not tell readers what it means to be Catholic, but does amply prove that he should both know better and should shut his mouth soon, lest he starve to death. 

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About Carl E. Olson 1200 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.