The one question to ask when considering the Catholic Church
When did church shopping become an actual thing, anyway? Certainly, it's a recent cultural phenomenon, and one I am all too familiar with. As millennial Christians, we tend to search for our spiritual home much like the savvy consumers we've been groomed to be. We explore various options in search of what most suits our interests, and makes us most comfortable. We might even come up with a list of qualities we want in a church with questions like, "Do I agree with the mission statement? Do I enjoy the style of music and preaching? Do I fit in? Are the children's programs excellent? Is the atmosphere pleasant? Is the coffee fair-trade?"
When these are the types of questions we're asking, we’ll usually find (at this point in history, anyway) that when it comes to the Catholic Church, there are so many reasons to look elsewhere. We hear it all the time: “I love [insert specific aspect(s) of Catholicism here], but I don’t agree with [this, that and the other].” And then there are the conspiracy theories, rumors of heresy, hypocritical legalisms, corruption in the ranks of the leadership, and even just the fact that Catholic culture seems so out of touch at times. I know this, because I’ve been that Christian. I've said these things, and I've spent a lot of time with a lot of other Christians like myself. For a while, I wandered aimlessly with no spiritual home, because no organization can meet the demands of the church consumer mentality for long. Eventually, due to the involvement of human beings, there are always disappointments. So it seems that consumerism is just not a sustainable approach to finding something that is meant to be eternal.
Eventually, my own spiritual explorations took a turn when the questions I asked shifted in focus. I was considering many brands of Christianity, and visiting several different types of congregations, including Catholic ones. The Catholic Church had never been on my radar before, because of reasons previously listed, but as I was sifting through all the many different moral teachings and theologies, asking all of my deepest existential questions, I realized there was really only one question that needed to be answered in order to find what I was looking for.
Is this really the Church? Not just a church—The Church?
In other words, while all of these different versions of the Christian faith claim to be more right than the others, the Catholics audaciously claim to be the original Church started by Jesus Christ Himself. So are they? Does this Church really have the authority it claims to have in matters of faith and morality? Or no?
Asking this question changed the terms of the seeker's quest. Instead of asking, “Do I agree with everything this body of faith teaches?” One asks, “What is the evidence for or against this Church’s claim to authority and authenticity?”
When our inquiries becomes directed toward this end, we readily discover what we're looking for: the unbroken chain of faith and authority extending from Christ to today. We learn about Saints throughout the ages who have consistently brought Christ’s light into our dark world. We find out about documents from the earliest generations of Christians that agree with today’s Catholic faith—even ones like the Didache (pronounced DIH-duh-kay) that predates the New Testament canonization. We discover how the official cannon of the New Testament itself—which all of Protestantism is based on—came into existence by vote of Church Councils about 400 years after Jesus established the Church through His Apostles, that Christianity relied on Apostolic Tradition before the possibility of relying on the New Testament, that the authority of the New Testament is completely dependent on the authority of this Apostolic Tradition which is still continuous and active in the Catholic Church today, and to undermine the integrity of the Apostolic Tradition of the Church is to undermine the integrity of the New Testament as well, whether intentional or not. That's when we start to realize that all of Christendom unknowingly relies on the authenticity of the one holy, catholic and apostolic Church.
This is the point when the attitude shifts from, “I don’t agree with this teaching or that one,” to “I don’t understand this teaching or that one.” Because we start to realize that maybe there really is authority in these matters, and that maybe this authority is not actually our own egos. So then, we try to understand. We seek out the reasons for why the Church teaches what she does, and we find that her explanations are brilliant. ...BRILLIANT! Because faith and reason are not mutually exclusive concepts; they both belong to and glorify God, so reason is very much incorporated into the Catholic faith. And we realize that we probably never would have considered these reasons had we still simply been searching for the Church of the Cozy and Unchallenged, or the Church Where I Am Boss... had we never asked the right question—is this The Church?
To all my fellow Christians who are not presently members of the Catholic Church, and may now be irritated and/or offended that I seem to be undermining the authenticity of your faith, please allow me to explain by way of limited analogy how that is not the case. I am no more discrediting your Christian identity than I would ever discredit my own identity as a member of the Filipino people. It's in my blood, and I was raised in a Filipino family with dried sticky rice constantly stuck to the bottom of my socks. I ate fish with bones for breakfast, rice as the base for every meal, played sunka with my cousins, sang karaoke in my living room long before it was ever cool, and even though I'm not fluent in Tagalog, the sound of the language is as familiar to me as English, and I can speak it some. Every Christmas, my big, Filipino family gets together to eat lumpia and pancit and laugh as much and as loudly as possible. We're the real thing! But as Filipino as I am, the fact still remains that I have never actually been to the Philippines. I'm part of an extension of the Filipino people, but I have no first hand experience of what it's like to be a Filipino citizen. So my experience of my own cultural roots are limited. I am Filipino by blood and heritage, and while I am not a native of the Philippine Islands, I still owe who I am to that country.
Similarly, in the Old Testament, there were generations of Israelites born in exile who lived all their lives as foreigners, and longed to return home to the land of their ancestors. Contemporary Christians who convert to Catholicism are a lot like these Israelites. We make our way home only to be met with the bitter-sweetness of discovering where we truly belong, and discovering that there is a lot of work to be done on account of our extended absence. So we dig in and get to it, because after all, it may be a fixer-upper, but it is our home.
[Cue Lion King soundtrack]
This is not to say that all of our questions suddenly disappear by finding the Catholic Church to be the spiritual home of all Christians. There are still, and always will be, oh-so-many questions. But in the answer to this one, we figure out where to go with the rest. All other questions and doubts come into better focus, and they don't scare us anymore, because we realize that other seekers have been asking the same questions throughout all of human history, and within the wealth of Catholic understanding, there are unparalleled insights regarding every other question we could possibly ask. We find Truth. And we no longer have to grip our personal understanding as if it might escape us if we lose some aspect of it. Instead, we are free to let go as the faith grips us instead, because it is bigger than we are, and we are not in control of it. Our personal reasoning leads us to share in the great collection of understanding that reaches outside of our own experiences, and into the shared experience of all those who always have and always will belong to Holy Mother Church.
The point of finding a church is not to find what appeases us; the point is to find Christ, the person He really is, and the people He is really calling us to be.
“Seek and you will find, knock and it will be opened to you,” Jesus said. But I will warn you. If you ask the right question, you just might find the right answer, and it just might change everything forever.