What's So Good about Catholicism?

U.S. Catholic, May 1994 | Go to article overview

What's So Good about Catholicism?


Almost all practicing Catholics have been challenged on why they belong to such a flawed institution, but says Father Richard Rohr, O.F.M., "it's the forgiving nature of the church that a lot of people can't understand. They're insisting on perfection ... That's impossible."

Rohr is the author of numerous tapes and the book Near Occasions of Grace (Orbis, 1993) and frequently lectures to church leaders around the world on scripute and spirituality. He is also a founder and animator of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

"I believe that Catholicism is probably as good a benchmark of the maturity with which humanity is meeting God at this point in history as anything," says Rohr. "We're still selfish. We're still in denial. But the maturity of the church is probably where we're at as an evolved humanity."

Is there a Catholic identity?

Yes, Catholics tend to emphasize the similarity between God and the world as opposed to the difference between God and creation, which is what Fathers David Tracy and Andrew Greeley mean when they talk about the analogical imagination of Catholics. Everything is a metaphor--it's just that different minds look at things differently. And Catholics tend to take the view Saint Bonaventure had that "everything shows the vestigia Dei"--the fingerprints and footprints of God. There is no absolute distinction between the sacred and the profane. There is not natural and supernatural. There's only one world, and it's the supernatural. The analogical imagination gives one a sense of belonging to the universe.

Now most people wouldn't articulate it in this way, nor do they need to. But you'll see this worldview in the simplest Italian peasant--let's romanticize now--who can feel that his having a bottle of wine and making love to his wife and taking care of his fields is pleasing to God. He believes that this is God's world and God has created him as part of it, and this is good.

So this peasant appreciates life and loves God. How does that lead him to

loving his neighbor?

It leads him to loving his neighbor because there is one world, and it's God's world. Catholicism takes the Incarnation of God to its logical conclusion. When you take the Incarnation seriously--that God really became flesh in this world and thus flesh is no longer abhorrent--then the political, economic, and mundane are really no longer secular. Even if it's on an unconscious level, the Incarnational mind-set leads to immediate connections with the political, the social, the practical. What you have in Catholicism, despite all of the preoccupations with orthodoxy, the pope, and doctrine, is a tremendous appreciation for the poor, for redemptive suffering, and for the essentially tragic nature of human life.

Do you think most Catholics appreciate this identity?

I'm very much a Vatican II priest, but I do think more people appreciated these things in the old church than they do now. More of us got the Catholicidentity and the visual and symbolic imagination of the world through literature and ritual and studying the lives of saints. There's almost been a danger that the post-Vatican II theology has been too sleek and spiritual, too clean and right. The old church pulled you into the struggle--into the mystery of things--and then confronted you with the cross in a way that refused to be scandalized by it. That, I believe, is a very healing and transformative way to live in the world.

Great Catholicism is a human trinity of embodiment, soul, and spirit. When it is doing well, all three parts respect and defer to one another: spirit calls us to transcendence, universal meaning, and God; soul allows us to take the now, the human, the exception, and the flaw as part of the plan; and both come together in concrete, sensate incarnations. Full, rich church is always a repetition of Transcendent Truth ("Father"), Specific Encounter ("Jesus"), and Amorphous Mystery ("Holy Spirit"). …

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