Catholicism is not simply another “religion … the sacrifice of the cross (the Mass) is not something that a natural religion could or did figure out. It had to be made known to man by God himself.


I. A brief, accurate statement of what Catholicism means is difficult to come by. The classic creeds, no doubt, already do this well enough, and with authority. Catholicism is not simply another “religion.” In fact, in one sense, it is not a religion at all. The word “religion” technically refers to the obligation that man has towards the gods in the natural order. It is an aspect of justice. In this sense, we have many “religions” or ways of fulfilling this natural obligation. Men have long been perplexed about which is the “right” way. Catholicism would maintain that no “right” way could or did exist because it needed to be made known by God himself. In this sense, the sacrifice of the cross (the Mass) is not something that a natural religion could or did figure out. It had to be made known to man by God himself.

Catholicism is the Church founded by Christ, who was, and is, the Son of God. Catholicism does not have any problem with reason, that is, with what it can know by its own powers. Indeed, it affirms that. Still, the central reality of Catholicism is not the result of purely human initiative, even though its founder was indeed human. His ultimate origins as a person, however, were in God. In fact, he is God as the Word, the Second Person of the Trinity of the one God. The explanation of who Christ is cannot be complete without knowing who his Father is, and who is the Spirit. He makes this perfectly clear himself.

Yet, Catholicism is an historical religion. It is not simply myth, or a concoction of some gnostic mind. It is founded on an event, put into the world as the completion of an earlier revelation to the Jews, of the one God. By authoritatively keeping present in the world what Christ is, did, and taught, Catholicism informs man who man is, what is to be the ultimate purpose and destiny of each human person who ever has existed, or will exist in this world. This truth is not taught in arrogance, but in obedience. It does not make up, but articulates, what it has heard and seen. In this sense, revelation stimulates the human mind to know what it is, what the truth is, precisely by being obedient to the knowledge that is faithfully given to it in explanation of what man is.

Catholicism is often explained in the public order by “bad” Catholics. It is surprisingly difficult to be “objective” with regard to Catholicism. There is reason for this. If it is true, it logically demands a way of life in conformity with this truth. If one does not live it, or only parts of it, he will necessarily explain his life, not in terms of what the faith teaches, but in terms of what he thinks will justify the way he lives. One can, of course, be a good Catholic and still be unable to comprehend all of its dimensions.

Moreover, a Catholic approach to God, and to his manifestation to us, intends to be universal, both in its willingness to consider all alternate positions, and in its concern that everyone at least hears what has been revealed. The fact is that at almost any time in history, including in our own time, it has been exceedingly difficult to come across a true and objective statement of the truth to which Catholicism witnesses. This difficulty is itself foreseen and acknowledged by the faith itself. It is, indeed, one of the reasons for a papacy within the structure of the Church.

II. We can look on Catholicism from its cosmological side, and from its redemptive side. We need to do both. The two are related, of course. Only one universe exists in which the events that constitute its core took place. The world or cosmos did not, and could not, produce itself out of nothing. And while there are chance events in the world as part of its very structure, these events are themselves ordered into a providence that reveals a purpose. The first question thus becomes: “What is this purpose for the existence of a world that cannot and does not explain itself by itself?”

The age of the present cosmos seems to be about 13.7 billion years old. It began with an event—sometimes referred to as the “big bang”—in which all its subsequent order appears to have been contained. However, while there are “determined” things in the cosmos, it is not deterministic. This beginning event could not explain itself. It was obviously itself the result of an intelligence, existing before it, that fashioned its overall purpose.

The size of the cosmos is not itself the most important thing about it. The most important thing about it is that its inner order could be understood by finite intelligence existing within the world. However, this inner-worldly (human) intelligence did not occur immediately in the act of creation. Yet, certain constants and principles existing in the world give every indication that the cosmos was created so that within it, an intelligence—other than God’s—might also exist. This fact would lead us to suspect that the intelligence within the world was itself related to the intelligence that is found outside the world at the time of its creation.

This issue of extra- and inner-worldly intelligence suggests that the being that caused the universe stands outside of it, and does not need it. If he needed the world, he would be part of it. This is a first principle of Catholic intelligence. The world that exists does not explain itself, but it has an explanation. The purpose of the universe, and what goes on within it, then, is itself a reflection of the inner life of the Godhead. In Catholic terms, this is the Trinitarian life. Since God is complete within himself (this is what Trinity means), and does not need the world, the world must exist by non-necessity. That is, it need not exist. But if it does exist (as it does) its explanation must lie in this “non-necessity” that would not insist on a God who needed a world for something that he lacked. It is one thing to “need” a world; it is another thing to cause it to be, for reasons having nothing to do with need or necessity.

The initial purpose of God was to associate with himself other beings who could ultimately understand and love him. But to do this, God had to elevate man to a status higher than would be normal to a purely natural and rational being. To love God as he is, face-to-face, is not “natural” to man, but “supernatural.” That is, it requires God’s grace, in addition to man’s own natural powers. Yet, it is to this higher purpose, or end, that each human person is ordered. This is also why no one can find rest or contentment in anything less than God, no matter how good it may be in itself.

One further “requirement” was also needed. In order for beings, who were not themselves God, to know and love God properly, they had to do so freely. Thus, we might say that even before the creation of the world, in the inner workings of the divine reflection on what was possible outside of itself, God took a risk. He could not create the universe he wanted unless he oriented the whole universe to the destiny and purpose of those rational creatures. They would appear within the universe, and could freely respond to God’s love. The risk was, and presumably known and taken, that such unusual creatures—we now call them “men”—might also reject him.

III. Thus, if in point of fact, some, or all, rational beings did so reject him, God had also to place within the universe a “counter-plan,” whereby the rejection could be freely restored so that the primary end of creation could still be achieved. This “plan” is often called “salvation history.” This second element, of restoring what was once lost, explains why, within the universe, we find not only a creative side working within it to keep all good things in being, but also a redemptive side to respond to human sin. The kind of redemption we know within the universe, consequently, is already present in the possibility of the universe before it is created. The universe we live in is, therefore, one that continues to manifest a “fall” that seems to plague man’s freedom, so that man does what he would not do (by chance or misunderstanding), or doing what he ought not do.

As we also now know, within the universe is a divine response to man’s misuse of his freedom. This misuse, as we learn from the description of the Fall, as well as from our own experience, is basically a preference of one’s own will and scheme of life for that which God has initially offered to us in our creation, namely, to choose eternity within the inner life of the Godhead. The divine purpose has the advantage of being what we really want, but also has the disadvantage of not being exactly “our” choice. This is why we need faith to understand that what God offers us is better than anything we could imagine for ourselves. This divine response, however, could not, and did not, take away that freedom that God saw necessary for any proper love of anything for it to be real.

Thus, the Incarnation and the Nativity, the Redemption in the life of Christ and its reality, are the divine responses to our freedom. This freedom, as we have seen, is absolute on the part of God. He does not want friends who are “forced” to love him. In this, God is like man. This is why the Redemption, as we know it, did not follow the triumphal pattern of a king who conquers the world, but rather that of a humble, good man who appears in an existing society, in Jerusalem, but is rejected, and finally crucified. This is a pattern already found in Plato. What it does is to respect the freedom of those who are offered a way to repent their sins. It is not surprising that the earliest words in the Gospels are: “Repent, your salvation is at hand.” But these words are invitations. They do not “force” anyone to repent.

Repentance has something peculiar about it. It is, as I have said, a “counter-plan.” We were not intended in the beginning to die. Death thus became, as the Holy Father states in Spe Salvi, both a punishment and a freedom from the cycles of this world that simply go on and on. What Christ brought into the world, therefore, was a way for man freely to restore what he lost, or was confused by, through his sins. Repentance means simply that we acknowledge that our sins are sins, that we see the consequences of our own acts, and acknowledge them. But it also means that we realize that sins are not just personal matters, but really affect others.

This is why it makes sense to realize that Christ died for everyone. The aberration of any sin touches everyone else in a way. When Christ died for our sins, we acquired the possibility of restoring what we caused to go wrong. If we refuse to do this (and we can refuse), God will not “force” a human being to be free. He will be allowed his choice. This is the price that God pays for creating us to be free to love or reject him. The drama of Catholicism is situated within this narrative, a narrative in which we all live, whether we believe in creation/redemption or not.


Fr. James V. Schall, SJ About Fr. James V. Schall, SJ

Fr. James Schall, SJ (1928–2019), was long a professor of political science at Georgetown University, a thinker of wide learning, and an author extensively published — including, happily, here at HPR.