The Catholic Difference

We just happen to be Catholics, right? Does it make any difference what we are? Does being Catholic really, ultimately, mean much of anything?

“So the power of deception, which is over others’ minds (symbolized by the invisibility given by the Ring), is an essential component to the power over others’ bodies and lives and actions. Machiavelli and Hitler both understood that principle, that’s why they knew that propaganda was an essential part of war. The evil empire that controls modern world media knows that too, though its aim is not political conquest (like Machiavelli) or military conquest (like Hitler) but the far more apocalyptic spiritual and religious conquest of conscience, of soul.”

Peter Kreeft, The Philosophy of Tolkien (Ignatius Press, 2005), 181.


We live in a world of “just-happens-to-be.” That is, this man just happens to be a Mormon. That woman with the veil happens to be a Muslim. The man next door is a Baptist, and my boss says that he just happens to be an atheist. That young man is Chinese; the taxi-driver is from Ethiopia. My nurse is Russian, my doctor Irish, and my favorite restaurant just happens to be Italian. The fullback is black, the CEO is Japanese, and the man who mows my yard just happens to be from El Salvador.
And we just happen to be Catholics, right? Does it make any difference what we are? We are, after all, supposed to get along together, no matter what we hold. No “hate language” is allowed. Everyone loves peace. We are not to bother anyone in his “beliefs”. We are to tolerate most everything.

Again, do these varied identities make any difference? Or, perhaps, do they make all the difference in the world? The Shiites and the Sunnis seem constantly to fight over what appears to most of us to be quite insignificant issues. Yet to them they make a difference; they are life and death issues. The number of Protestant sects is given as anywhere from 20,000 or 30,000. They all differ from the Catholics, and, on some point or other of doctrine or practice, from each other. Hindus and Confucians just happen to differ, as do Communists and Capitalists. Some people call this situation “multiculturalism” and claim that it is a good thing. Others call it a mess, an endless confusion about fundamental issues of human living. One Supreme Court justice tells us that everyone has a right to his own view of the cosmos, whatever it may be.

Justice Ginsburg says that women should “choose” their own “destiny” But if we choose, it is not a destiny. If it is a destiny, we do not choose. Philosophers tell us that these positions just happen to constitute relativism.

While there was much anti-Catholicism in early American history, Catholics were said to have reached the mainstream in the latter part of the 20th century. That is, they did not seem to be different enough from anyone else to cause a stir. But, more recently, Catholics see themselves being singled out; they are becoming strangers in their own land. They are separated out because of a radical cultural change that they did not always notice. This separating out is not so much because of any specific doctrinal issue peculiar to Catholics but because of issues of reason and natural law concerning human life and family, the very pillars of civilization. Ironically, the attack on Catholics is an attack on reason. They are not persecuted because of their faith but because of their reason. The reason for this is that, in principle, faith itself is directed to reason at its best.

Ironically, Catholics today are different not because of any dispute about the Incarnation or the Trinity, as was the case in the early Church, but because of reason and its validity. Statistically, not a few people who say they are Catholic now accept the stances concerning marriage, abortion, contraception, single-sex marriage, and euthanasia that the culture not only embraces but more and more enforces as necessary to be present as participating members of the political order. These latter people still claim to be “Catholic”, even though they reject the rational grounds of faith. The Church itself excommunicates few (if any) on any grounds. These differences are not those of being unable or not wanting at times to practice the faith. Rather, they are statements about what the Church “ought” to hold but does not and never did. There is an implicit claim that the Church is “wrong”. But if the Church is wrong, it is not the Church and there is really no reason to stay in it on that hypothesis.


So what is the Catholic difference? Do we “just-happen-to-be-Catholics” as we might happen to be born in Philadelphia because our mother was there at the time? Or do what we hold and how we live because of what we hold make a difference in our very purpose for existing in this world?

In discussing this topic, one thing that we need to remember is that “bad” Catholics, sinners of various shades and hues, are still Catholic. To sin, as such, is not to renounce the faith. Rather it is to hope, at some time, that it is true so that, sooner or later, we can be forgiven. The press is fond of finding a Catholic politician, cleric, or writer caught in the web of some sin or scandal. This publicity is designed to show that all Catholics are hypocrites.

For Catholics themselves, however, if they do not sin when they might, all that they can say, with St. Francis de Sales, is: “There but for the grace of God, go I.” When Catholics sin, does it follow that they cease to be Catholics? Quite the opposite. When they sin is when they begin to realize most clearly the truth of Catholicism. Christ came to save sinners, not to stop human beings from sinning. He did not come to encourage sinning, of course, but to locate its real sources in our wills.

But it is one thing to sin, another thing, publicly or implicitly, to deny the very foundations of faith and reason. The sinner still believes; the denier does not.

The whole point of the Incarnation was that Christ, the Word, the Logos, became man so that our sins might be forgiven. He came to tell us what sin is, why and how we should avoid it. But He did not set up a determinist or coercive system in which it would be impossible for anyone to sin. Sins can be discouraged and forgiven, not prevented. God could have prevented man from sinning in only one way—by not creating him in the first place. A world in which sin was “impossible” would be a world in which no men existed in the first place.

What is at stake here is the whole purpose of God’s creating us to be the peculiar kinds of beings we are—free, mortal, human, and finite. God the Father in the Son and Spirit created the universe and us in it so that rational and free creatures in this world could actually love Him and return to Him. I say “return” in the sense that the ultimate origin of each unique person, including each of the aborted, is in the mind of the Creator. It is in this sense that we read in the Psalms that God knew us before we were in our mother’s womb.

Perhaps one further point should be made here. Sins do not implicate only us. We are not isolated and totally autonomous beings, though much of modern thought is based on the notion that we are—that we have no origins in anything bur our own will and choice. We are social beings. We are born in and live in the context of others. Sins affect good people and bad, just as good deeds touch both the good and bad. Innocent people suffer from our sins, just as we can suffer from the sins of others. Bad people do not only affect bad people. Good people also influence the bad. We might think that there is something wrong with this arrangement. It is what Adeimantus meant in the Republic when he complained that good men are punished and bad men rewarded and praised in this world.

But if we think about it, the only way in which we could prevent our acts from hurting or helping others would be for us to be locked in a cage in which nothing could happen to anybody but us. However, since our nature allows the freedom also to sin and to do evil, we have to account for it. We do this by laws, force, exhortation, forgiveness, repentance, suffering, and even death. The response that God makes to man’s sin is not to take away his freedom, nor is it to destroy him. Rather it is to send His Son into the world, where He suffered and died for these same sins. In other words, He sought to convince us of sin by showing us the consequences of our sinful deeds. We are, for the most part, reluctant to relate what we do to what Christ suffered and died for.

God, in other words, provided a response that would, at the same time, respect the sinner’s freedom, explain what sin is, and provide a remedy of forgiveness on condition of the sinner’s repentance. The remedy involved each person in his particular life, which is where the sins occur. In this sense, all “social sins” as they are called—all theories that maintain that some corporate entity is responsible for evil not ourselves—are in reality personal sins or they are not sins at all. There is no way to correct things automatically or corporately without first involving the sinner. This is where the drama of the world lies: not in the rise and fall of nations, or in the structures of this world, but in the souls of each existing person.


We are usually reluctant to give up our own ideas about the truth of things, even when we suspect that they are wrong. Charlie Brown’s little sister, Sally, did not like school. She did everything she could think of to avoid it. She is pictured going out the front door early one morning only to see a few snowflakes falling. She immediately goes back in the house relieved. She sits on the couch to tell Charlie, already with cap on ready for school, “No school today; it’s snowing.” As Charlie turns to have a look, she continues: “It’s a regular blizzard. Everything is closed. Buses aren’t running. Power lines are down all over the city. It’s the worst blizzard since 1806.” Next we see Charlie on the front steps. Barely a few snowflakes are falling. He goes back to Sally. “Here’s your lunch pail, let’s go.” In the last scene, the two of them are headed to the bus. Charlie tells her; “Mom says that you could have stayed home in 1806” But Sally, unaffected by both facts and authority, midst the same few flakes, mumbles: “I can’t see where I am going.”

When we are wrong about the facts, we often insist on our theory rather than the facts because of what we want. Sally just wanted to stay home, so she invented the blizzard. Therefore, she was not going to see anything but the greatest storm since 1806. What does this story have to do with the “Catholic difference”? We do not “just happen” to be sinners. And the Incarnation did not “just happen” to occur. The world itself did not “just happen” though there is chance in it, that is, there are many things that do ”just happen.” Chance is itself part of a universe in which free and necessary actors cross purposes. But choices have results. So do accidents. If I win a lottery, I am much richer. If I run into a speeding truck, I am dead. These are real accidents but also real events in a world that is itself under God’s providence.

So, in conclusion, what is the Catholic difference? The difference is that Catholicism provides a coherent, logical, and true description of what our lives are about, of their importance, and of their consequences. By insisting that our thoughts and actions are of transcendent significance, it makes us realize the truth of that famous comment of C. S. Lewis: “I have never met a mere mortal.” Or to put it another way, the doctrine of hell means that, at any moment, each of us can do something that merits eternal damnation. The life we lead may be delightful or grim, but it reaches eternity. This teaching is not primarily intended to frighten us but to teach us of the enormous importance of each human life and the way we affect one another. We are judged in this context.

The Catholic distinction, in short, is that it holds this account of our purpose to be true. It is a truth addressed to our reason. It is a truth we did not give to ourselves, but one given to us as a gift, a gift of light. Kingdoms rise and fall. We may even be in them as they rise or fall. But the narrative of the importance of each of us remains the same in all regimes. We are not mere mortals. No lasting city is found among us. All men die no matter how long they live. And all are promised resurrection according to God’s graces and their choices of how they lived their live. We have been offered mercy and forgiveness, but not a free ride in which we will be all right no matter what we do. The Catholic difference is that, in the end, no other difference counts.

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About James V. Schall, S.J. 180 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019) taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until retiring in 2012. He was the author of over thirty books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. His of his last books included On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018 (Ignatius Press, 2018) and The Politics of Heaven and Hell: Christian Themes from Classical, Medieval, and Modern Political Philosophy (Ignatius, 2020).