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What makes us Catholics?

Prayer, love and forgiveness are not enough in themselves

By on Monday, 16 April 2012

At Mass yesterday morning – Divine Mercy Sunday – we were all given the little cards devised by the Department for Evangelisation and Catechesis for the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales. On one side is the famous quotation from Blessed John Henry Newman that starts “God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another…” On the other side are several precepts that “as a Catholic I am called to [practise]”.

They include prayer, forgiving others, loving my neighbour as myself, celebrating the sacraments regularly, using the gifts I have been given wisely and sharing with others “the joy of knowing Jesus Christ.” Apart from the mention of the sacraments (which High Anglicans would also accept) there is nothing in this list that is specifically Catholic rather than generally “Christian.” They are high general ideals and if we Christians did live them properly we would change the world.

But what gives a Catholic identity? A member of the Ordinariate would immediately answer: obedience to the magisterium, the teaching authority of the Church. So perhaps I would have added to the list above: “Loyalty to Rome.” That was what Saints John Fisher and Thomas More lost their heads for, after all. Their opponents who followed the new Protestant faith would have agreed to everything listed on the little cards. Mention of Rome gives a certain hard edge to the other precepts, almost a suggestion of divisiveness. Perhaps that is why it was not included.

Not to carp, I was glad to see at the top of the list the one about “sharing with others the joy of knowing Jesus Christ”. This is something that we Catholics are not generally good at; we leave it to the evangelicals to want to share the fervour of Christian faith. We can get preoccupied by “truth” at the expense of “charity”, forgetting that they are both sides of the same coin; the one depends on the other. In this connection I had lunch the other day with an elderly convert. He had written a book about the Second Vatican Council and exposed the unsoundness of liberal theologians such as Karl Rahner. He confessed to me, “I was shocked when I realised I had actually begun to hate Rahner himself, rather than his ideas; the sinner as well as the sin.” This is the temptation of orthodoxy.

“Use the gifts I have been given wisely”; again, this needs more emphasis. At my school, it was A level grades that were emphasised; if you didn’t get the grades it was assumed you didn’t have the gifts. That’s why Newman’s quotation is so important: it tells whoever reads it that they have a specific gift, a task, something entrusted to them that they alone can perform. It catapults one away and above the trappings of scholastic success. I only discovered it in middle age and it was a revelation to me.

Another Newman quotation I love is, “To live is to change and to be perfect is to have changed often.” It is meant in the context of a Christian life, of course. Another convert friend asked me recently what being a Christian meant; I answered “Metanoia”; the requirement to change often, always more in the direction of Christ. As I type this I have noticed an article in the current Sunday Telegraph magazine. The headlines run: “How to change your life in a week.” Apparently this can be done by a yoga retreat, a macrobiotic diet, an ayurvedic detox, digestive healing and an anti-aging week in Tuscany. They all look so simple – and quick. Not cheap though: the Tuscan venture costs £1,650; the guilt of spending so much on myself – even in the Tuscan sunshine – would cause me stress. Conveniently, a “stress-busting week” is also on offer.

With all these possibilities, who would sign up to being a Christian? Loving one’s neighbour is hard work; so is forgiving one’s enemies; so is regular Confession. Yet like St Peter I am inclined to say, “Where else would I go?” I have put the little card, signed, in my handbag.

  • Lindi

    Looking again at my little card I think the six points go to the heart of what it means to be a Catholic.But they need to be teased out – eg.’ Celebrate the sacraments regularly ‘ ( I would have used a capital S !) . We are asked to come to Mass every Sunday and a few other days in the year , not once a month , which is ‘regular ‘ . As for Confession , I think it has gone out of the minds of most Catholics let alone their hearts - so sad  as that fits in with ‘Forgive as I have been forgiven ‘.

  • Cestius

    I havn’t got a little card yet – s’not fair!

  • ms Catholic state

    Good point….the cards are not specifically Catholic (almost).  I think that can be worked upon.  But it is a good start.  Let’s hope there are lots more cards…..and new improved ones. 

    Catholicism is really in the doldrums.  Even my own priest is lamenting the decline in the parish on the parish website.  But the greatest decimator of Catholics is contraception, as growth tends to be mainly by procreation rather than conversion for every religion.  If Catholics had shunned contraception we would make up almost half the population by now….and legalised abortion would have been banned.  Instead it is Islam that is making rapid growth. .

  • Realist

    Well, you have got the exhortation at the top of the little card, and you could just major on that - “sharing with others the joy of knowing Jesus Christ”. For me, for many years a sinner unsanctified rather than a ‘sinner being sanctified’, it is very difficult to move to the judgmental stance involved in extolling the virtues of Christ, but, as C S Lewis explained with his tennis analogy, practice makes perfect; and acceptance of the truth in the old adage, ‘The truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable’, can also help.

  • South Saxon

    I wish the wording on the card had been different. We, the laity, do not “celebrate the sacraments” – our priests do. We receive the sacraments or the benefit thereof.

  • Benedict Carter

    What makes us Catholics (other than our baptism) is adherence to ALL the teachings of the Church on faith and morals and at the same time being in communion with the Holy See. 

    I haven’t seen this card handed out as I live abroad, but it seems to me to be the usual airy-fairy stuff of nu-Church which isn’t specifically Catholic at all. 

    If one rejects any teaching of the Church on faith or morals, one is not a Catholic. 

  • Andi

    Am I the only Roman Catholic, who thinks the first line should be either I am a Christian or I am a follower of Christ. You can’t be a Roman Catholic if you are not a Christian and this is the first issue to overcome if you talk to others. Catholics do not stress their Christ centric lives.  An opportunity missed IMHO. God Bless

  • Benedict Carter


    The words “Catholic” and “Christian” are synonymous. 

    Any “Christian” element in the non-Catholic denominations are the elements that are Catholic. The rest of their content is made up and not of God. 

    Church              Year             Founder                Where Established
    Catholic              33            Jesus Christ                 JerusalemOrthodox           1054        Schismatic Bishops     ConstantinopleLutheran            1517          Martin Luther                GermanyAnabaptist         1521          Storch nr Munzer          GermanyAnglican            1534           Henry VIII                     EnglandMennonites        1536         Menno Simons             SwitzerlandCalvinist             1555           John Calvin                 SwitzerlandPresbyterian       1560           John Knox                    ScotlandCongregational    1582          Robert Brown                 HollandBaptist               1609            John Smyth               AmsterdamDutch Reformed  1628         Michaelis Jones              New YorkCongregationalist 1648             Puritans                MassachusettsQuakers             1649           George Fox                  EnglandAmish                1693         Jacob Amman                 FranceFreemasons        1717      Masons from 4 lodges        LondonMethodist            1739    John & Charles Wesley       EnglandUnitarian             1774        Theophilus Lindey            LondonMethodist Episcopal 1784     60 Preachers                BaltimoreEpiscopalian       1789          Samuel Seabury             USAUnited Brethren   1800        Otterbein nr Boehn          Maryland

    etc. etc.

  • Just Sayin’

    One has to be neither Catholic nor High Anglican to desire to celebrating the sacraments regularly.  Calvin wanted to celebrate the Eucharist at least weekly.

  • JabbaPapa

    Not true !!! The sacrament of marriage, to start with, is provided by husband to wife, by wife to husband, and the officiating priest is simply a participating witness at the ritual where the sacrament is bestowed on the couple by the couple. And by God. To celebrate that sacrament is, put simply, to fill your married life with the Christianity of the sacrament on a daily basis.

    As for the Eucharist, even though only the priest can consecrate the Essences, and only the ordinary or extraordinary ministers may distribute them, the Eucharist is a celebration with the whole Congregation. And with the Christ.

    You could certainly quibble with the wording — but the intention behind the words is most clear !!

  • theroadmaster

    The commonalities between all Christians are to be found in a belief in central truths like the birth, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ,the Trinitarian Godhead and the Last Judgement.  But there are particular  theological, sacramental, philosophical and liturgical modes of thought and being that have a 
    profoundly “Catholic” stamp on them, which mark them out from the practices of other Christian Faith groups.  The mixture of Faith and Reason(Fides et Ratio) brought to bear on discerning the Divine realities of our Universe by the Church, since the time of the Good Doctor St Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century.  The indispensable nature of the Eucharist, which offers real spiritual food in the transformation of the essences of bread and wine into the life-transforming body and blood of our Lord, Jesus Christ, in the theological and sacramental life of Catholicism.  This is the act of Divine Grace at work perfecting nature which is very typical of the sacramental view that the Church has developed in relation to God using organic natural materials to manifest His bountiful Providence.  The veneration(hyperdulia) that Catholics and indeed Eastern Orthodox Christians have rightfully bestowed on Mary, the Blessed Mother of our Lord, since the earliest Christian centuries.  Latterly we have had a great body of work authored by popes on social justice based on biblical principles, which go back to the groundbreaking papal encyclical, 
    “,Rerum Novarum”(1891), written by Pope Leo X111.   This is not an exhaustive list, but it demonstrates those distinguishing marks of the Faith which has formed countless millions of adherents over 2 millennia.

  • Deacon Chris

    Dear Mr
    Carter – while none may doubt your expertise in the field of Islamic Art, it would
    appear that your knowledge of Church History is sadly unbalanced. However let
    me first congratulate on the absolute truth contained in your second assertion
    (counting the erudite “Bilge” as the first); “The words “Catholic”
    and “Christian” are synonymous.
    “  However, were you to be more accurate
    and, dare I say, honest, your use of the term Catholic is misleading. From the tone of the rest of your latter it
    is clear you are not referring to the undivided Church envisaged by the Church
    Fathers when they drew up the Creeds, but rather to that part of it owing
    allegiance to the Bishop of Rome, ie the ROMAN Catholic Church. It is indeed
    sad that such unChristian chauvinism should surface in such a place – while some
    here seek to find common ground with other Christians, you snub them.

    Secondly, I do not know sir what sources you used to develop your list
    of mythical Church founders, but as a Church Historian for nearly forty years,
    all I can suggest is a decent refresher course. Your list raises more questions
    than it answers. For instance, if Jesus Christ founded the (Roman) Catholic
    Church in Jerusalem, why is that the Bishop of Rome holds precedence over the
    Patriarch of Jerusalem? Again, I am sure you will find no agreement from His
    Holiness Pope Benedict XVI or any other serious historian to your outrageous
    suggestion that the Orthodox Church was founded by “schismatic bishops” in 1054.
    “The Orthodox Church was founded by our
    Lord Jesus Christ and is the living manifestation of His presence in the
    history of mankind. The most conspicuous characteristics of Orthodoxy are its
    rich liturgical life and its faithfulness to the apostolic tradition. It is
    believed by Orthodox Christians that their Church has preserved the tradition
    and continuity of the ancient Church in its fullness in contrast to
    denominations which have departed from the common tradition of the Church of
    the first 10 centuries.”(

    One should
    not therefore be surprised when you trot out the oft-quoted and even more
    oft-disproved tale of Henry VIII founding the Church of England, or your
    confusion over the genesis of the Anabaptist tradition (which includes the
    Mennonites and Amish), who owe their origin to the teaching of Ulrich Zwingli
    in Zurich (see

    “The Dutch Reformed Church (in Dutch: Nederlandse Hervormde Kerk or NHK) was a Reformed Christian
    denomination in the Netherlands. Growing out of the Roman Catholic Church, it
    came into being the 1570s … It was one of the many new churches established
    across Europe during the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. While the
    Dutch Reformed Church was based in the Netherlands, other churches holding
    similar theological views were founded in France, Switzerland, Germany,
    Hungary, England, and Scotland. The theology and practice of the Dutch Reformed
    Church, and its sister churches in the countries named, were based on the
    teachings of John Calvin and the many other Reformers of his time.” (

    And so on.
    Might I humbly suggest a slightly wider reading list than just The Catholic
    Encyclopedia ( which seems to be your major

    As one
    Catholic to another might I suggest that in this day and age none of us is
    truly serving the advance of the Gospel or the mission of the Church by
    spreading ignorance and party-spirit. Adherence to the “faith once delivered to
    the saints” should be what unites us. Peace be with you.

  • Alan

    Your list is all very clever, but the Orthodox, whom you say began in 1054, actually claim to be just as authentically “original” as we (Catholics) do.  In their eyes, we are the schismatics, and it is really just an accident of geography that the Papacy happened to be located in Rome rather than Constantinople, say.  If the latter had been the case, we would be in precisely the position the Orthodox are today.  I am not arguing for joining the Orthodox Church (as my niece, for example, has done) but simply pointing out that they are just as much Apostle-derived as we are.

  • Benedict Carter

    Deacon “Chris”, a Church historian of which Church? Surely not of the Catholic Church: if the clergy are as badly educated as you appear to be, then …. but after Vatican II, all is possible, as we see on a daily basis in all the parishes. 

    There are so many errors in your post I truly don’t know where to start first.

  • WSquared

    I’m not English or Welsh, so I haven’t any recourse to these little cards.  But in terms of the very good points you make about Catholics needing to stress Catholicism’s Christocentrism, how about something like this:  “Share with others the joy of knowing Jesus Christ Truly Present”?

    Indeed, I’m not sure that those cards are explicitly Christocentric– and centered on the True Presence– as they stand.  All of the Sacraments are in relation to the Eucharist;  the Body of Christ, which is necessarily conformed to the life of the Cross.

    Perhaps second should be “Participate in the Sacramental life of His Church” before “Pray”?  Or maybe the crux of the matter comes down to what we believe, and not just what we are called to do.

    These cards are going to be a work in progress, it seems.

    I’m glad that there’s a Crucifix on the card, though, which is a good start.  Enough Catholics barely understand why we emphasize the Crucifix and not just an empty cross (or– Heaven help us– one of those new-fangled “Ressurexifixes” that show a resurrected Jesus obliterating the cross, or somesuch).

  • WSquared

     Perhaps this can be factored into what goes onto these cards in the future.  Again, I think the problem may well be that they emphasize too much what we are called to do (which is fine;  nothing wrong with that), but the Catholic belief in salvation is also (and more so) about what Christ has done and is doing for US through the Sacramental life of the Church.

  • Parasum

    “What makes us Catholics?”

    ## Not what we do, but what God does.

  • Parasum

    “Perhaps second should be “Participate in the Sacramental life of His Church” before “Pray”?”

    ## That would imply a (false) distinction between the Liturgy and the life of prayer, since the Liturgy is the Prayer of the Church gathered as a worshipping body.

    “Pray” has the advantage of being sufficiently general to include the Liturgy, without being confined to it.

    “All of the Sacraments are in relation to the Eucharist;  the Body of
    Christ, which is necessarily conformed to the life of the Cross.”

    ## True – but is that obvious ? It may not even be obvious to some that the Church is subject to Christ, & can’t do any old thing it likes; yet if it’s not Christian, what is the good of it. If a more basic point is not obvious, will a less basic one be ? Maybe.

  • Parasum

    The sacraments are the public worship of the *whole* Church – not of a tiny caste within it.  If only priests were the celebrants, ther would be a paltry 405,000 (or so)  celebrants, rather than several hundred million. The laity & the priests have different functions in the celebration of the sacraments – but both groups worship, both groups are celebrants, because all alike, priests or laity, are members of Christ the High Priest, the “True Worshipper of the Father” [cf. John 4]. 

  • ms Catholic state

    I think it is good that the emphasis is on what to do as Catholics.  Many Catholics think it is enough just to be Catholic, and this is despite many years at Catholic schools.
    One attraction of Islam for converts is that it stresses how to act as a Muslim.  Many people like the structured and active approach of Islam which express their inner beliefs.  Catholicism should stress how we act as Catholics too, and not just what we internally believe. 

  • WSquared

     Many Catholics think it is enough just to be Catholic, and this is despite many years at Catholic schools.

    …”many years at Catholic schools” is sometimes part of the problem if they are “Catholic in name only” and are thus teaching rubbish. 

    If you’ve not ever seen Fr. Robert Barron (director of and creator of the “Catholicism” documentary series) critique “dumbed-down Catholicism,” it really is worth a listen:

    If we teach “bristling complexity” in all other intellectual disciplines but reduce the Catholic faith merely to “subjectivity” (and sentimentality), thus forgetting that Faith and Reason go hand in hand and allow us to fire on all cylinders, then we should not be surprised that nature hates a vacuum.

  • Deacon Chris

    Carter. Thank you for your kind courteous and generous response. My expertise
    in Church History is in the field of Historical Theology of the Eastern and
    Western Catholic Churches, with particular reference to the Medieval and Early
    Modern periods. My Honours degree in History is from the University of
    Melbourne, and I have a postgraduate qualification in Religious Education.
    Badly educated? Perhaps not. Professional definitely and I hope also
    charitable. If however you are referring to which denomination of the One Holy
    Catholic and Apostolic Church I worship with, then I fail to see the relevance
    of the question (Romans 3:3-5). My comments were based on a question of
    historical accuracy not dogma. I find it quite sad how many presumptions you
    were prepared to make on the basis of so little evidence, but as the old saying
    goes “never let the facts get in the way of a good story.” Please feel free to
    start on any “error” you like: I am prepared to offer objective evidence for
    each of my points – perhaps you might do me the professional courtesy of the
    same thing. (2Tim 2:24,25) Peace be with you.