The world's oldest and largest institution, the Catholic Church, is not limited to any particular class, race, or nation. With its geographical and cultural spread, it reaches out to all humanity. It lives up to its attribute, 'catholic': that is to say, it is worldwide and universal. It embraces all nations. A Catholic can join St Augustine of Hippo (354—430) in saying: 'I exist in all languages: my language is Greek, my language is Syrian, my language is Hebrew. My language is that of all peoples, for I exist in the unity of all peoples' (Enarrationes in Psalmos, 147. 19).
'Catholicity' belongs, of course, among the characteristics of the Church confessed by all Christians in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed which is derived in its full form from the First Council of Constantinople (AD 381). Used at least sometimes every year by all Christians when they celebrate the Eucharist, this Creed declares a common faith in the 'one, holy, catholic,, and apostolic Church'. That is the confession of many Protestants when they profess the Creed each Sunday, whether or not they meet for the Eucharist. Some people would prefer us to give this book the title of Roman Catholicism. After all 'Catholics' are those Christians who are in communion with the Bishop of Rome; they accept the authority of the Pope who lives in Rome and presides over the diocese of Rome. Nevertheless, when one speaks or writes of 'Catholics' or 'Catholicism', people almost invariably understand a reference to Roman Catholics. That surely was the presumption behind the request that we should write a book on 'Catholicism', and not one on 'Roman Catholicism'. At the same time, we appreciate the motives of some readers (e.g. some Anglican readers) who will add 'Roman' whenever we write of the Catholic Church and Catholicism, and who object to the Roman Catholic Church calling itself or being called 'Catholic' tout court. In any case, many elements of Catholic Christianity are found beyond the Catholic Church—a point to which we will return below. What is characteristic of Catholicism need not be always uniquely Catholic. Greek, Russian, and other Orthodox Christians share, for instance, the same range of seven sacraments.
Any claims by the Catholic Church to be the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church are contested by Orthodox Christians; their rival claims need to be heard by Western Catholics such as ourselves. In what follows, and especially in the chapter on the nature of the Church, we aim to reckon seriously with the force of the Orthodox position. Likewise, five hundred years of Protestantism have raised radical difficulties and alternatives for anyone who endorses the Roman Catholic claim to embody Christian and Catholic identity. We want to express a nuanced confessionalism, address historical issues as fairly as we can, and acknowledge critical, post-Reformation challenges that face Catholicism.
We write this book 'from the inside', as those who have been born into Catholic families and have tried to serve the Catholic (and wider) community as ordained priests and teachers of theology. Knowing the institution intimately, sharing a common faith, and identifying with the deep values of other Catholics, we hope to be able to understand and explain Catholicism competently, but without becoming biased and defensive. Some 'insiders' behave like that, but certainly not all. When it comes to music and drama, insiders who have years of study, experience, and personal commitment behind them help us to be more accurately informed about and skilfully guided through musical and dramatic compositions. In such areas detached outsiders may be able to communicate a wealth of facts, but at times the value of their judgements can be doubtful.
We draw encouragement here from The Meaning of Revelation (New York: Macmillan, 1960), in which Helmut Richard Niebuhr dedicates a chapter to the distinction between 'internal' and 'external' history, or history as lived from the inside and history as merely viewed from the outside (pp. 43—90). He illustrates clearly the advantages enjoyed by those who write history as they have lived it from the inside. Yet we must remain alert to reflections on Catholicism coming from 'outsiders'. To be sure, they may examine or want to examine Catholics as a purely historical rather than a spiritual phenomenon. Nevertheless, they sometimes pick up what insiders may not see very clearly if at all. An observer of genius such as Alexis de Tocqueville (1805—59) discerned forces that would remain central to life in the United States. We all need to join Robert Burns (1759—96) in the prayer, 'O wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us to see oursels as others see us!'
At points in this book we will relate the Catholic Church not only to other Christian communities but also to Judaism, Islam, and other world religions. But we cannot stop constantly to identify what is common (and what is different). Otherwise this book would become hopelessly long and far exceed the limits assigned to us. Nevertheless, we gladly acknowledge that such a detailed comparison and contrast would be eminently worthwhile, a valuable project for a team of experts.
In writing this book we want to be useful not only to our fellow Catholics but also to other Christians and to interested adherents of other faiths. Any evaluation of Catholicism presupposes some knowledge, but one must admit that it is not always there. Early last century an eminent Protestant scholar, Adolf von Harnack (1851—1930) deplored the ignorance of the majority of non-Catholic graduates about Catholicism:
I am convinced from constant experience of the fact that the students who leave our schools have the most disconnected and absurd ideas about ecclesiastical history. Some of them know something about Gnosticism, or about other curious and for them worthless details. But of the Catholic Church, the greatest religious and political creation known to history, they know absolutely nothing, and they indulge in its regard in wholly trivial, vague, and often directly nonsensical notions. How her greatest institutions originated, what they mean in the life of the Church, how easily they may be misconceived, and why they function so surely and impressively: all this, according to my experience, is for them, apart from a few exceptions, a terra incognita [an unknown land]. (Aus Wissenschaft und Leben, i (Giessen: Topelmann, 1911), 97)
Von Harnack's judgement may have been excessively pessimistic. But what of today? A century later would he reproach non-Catholic (and, for that matter, Catholic) graduates from contemporary high schools, colleges, and universities with knowing little more about the 'unknown land' of Catholicism? Our own hope is to guide some of them through what may still be largely a terra incognita.
History has always been central to the life of the Catholic Church. The sense of being a Catholic has constantly involved retrieving a two thousand-year-old story. How should one construe the ups and downs, the fulfilments and disappointments of Catholics through the centuries? The first two chapters of this work offer an extended tour of that history. Then follow chapters that describe the central beliefs of the Catholic Church (Chs. 3—6), its sacramental life (Ch. 7), its constitution and mission (Ch. 8), and its moral doctrine (Ch. 9). The book will close by summarizing certain basic characteristics of Catholic Christianity (Ch. 10) and expounding some lively issues confronting the Catholic Church and its future (Ch. 11).
In telling the story of Catholicism, as so often elsewhere, every attempt to generalize is beset with enough exceptions to break the rule. But some generalizations will find much support: the coexistence from the very beginning of holiness and sinfulness; the recurrent tensions between the local community and a worldwide institution; and the Catholic Church's challenges to prevailing cultures along with widespread assimilation of them.
We begin this book both fascinated by its challenge and daunted by the enormous task it involves. Inevitably we will need to be constantly selective. Also we plan to give a certain preference to signs of grace rather than evidence of scandalous failures. In doing that, we are not aiming to produce a sanitized version of Catholicism and thus further some propagandistic agenda. Rather it is because we have long been convinced by a principle to which Aristotle repeatedly appealed: one should judge the nature of something from its best examples. Moreover, piling up stories of sinful failure always leaves the reader with the nagging question: if the Catholic Church is that bad, how on earth has it managed not only to survive but also to grow and flourish? Is the only explanation that the Holy Spirit has kept it going and spreading, despite its awful sins and deficiencies?
With deep gratitude we record our warm thanks to those whose expertise, suggestions, corrections, and questions have enlightened us when writing this book: Don Bolen, Ian Breward, Marcel Chappin, James Conn, Francisco Egana, James Gobbo, William Henn, Jerome Hall, Brian Johnstone, Dorothy Lee, Giovanni Magnani, Margaret Manion, Hilary O'Shea, Maev O'Collins, John Radano, Francesco Paolo Rizzo, Philip Rosato, Jared Wicks, John Wilkins, and several anonymous advisers for the Gregorian University and for the Oxford University Press. We dedicate this work to the students and professors of the Gregorian University's faculty of theology. The translations from the Bible are our own.
Gregorian University, Rome
2 June 2002
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