The Chosen

I started this series of essays to celebrate signs of hope in Catholicism. My last reflection (“A Larger Sense of Church,” May 19) touched on the way Catholic laypeople can learn from their Protestant and Orthodox neighbors. Such conversations also, I think, help Catholics appreciate what we have to offer others, the blessings we already enjoy.

Among these blessings is surely the fact that Catholicism is as much a culture as it is a religious affiliation. In this respect, Catholics resemble Jews more than they resemble Protestants. To be sure, there have always been converts to Catholicism, individuals who have made a choice, just as there were always proselytes within Judaism, drawn to its almost inexhaustible riches of tradition and its generous vision of God’s world. But most Catholics, like most Jews, sense that they have been chosen by a tradition more than they have chosen one. They belong before they have chosen; in fact, they belong even when they have not chosen; they belong even if someone else says they don’t belong. The challenge for many Protestants is to find a church that looks like them; the challenge for most Catholics is to accept their active place within a church that has many more people unlike than like them.

The resemblance to Judaism has to do with understanding religion as a matter of shared practices. While Catholics, like Jews, know that they think differently from one another on any number of points-being catholic, after all, means having a unity that assumes diversity-they nonetheless follow the same observances without having to discuss or debate them. We genuflect before the Blessed Sacrament, make the sign of the cross, say the blessing before meals, attend the Eucharist, fast during Lent, and do a thousand other shared practices simply because that is what Catholics do. These shared practices, deeply (if irrationally) satisfying to the soul, hold us together even when we disagree on the meaning of Scripture or on a difficult moral discernment. Our Protestant neighbors don’t enjoy that sort of cushion.

Catholics and Jews also share a positive appreciation for law as an instrument in the ordering of a community, and for expressions of the spirit beyond the strictly religious, including all the wonderful ways in which art and literature and music elevate mind and heart to the Creator through human creativity. Neither tradition has felt it necessary to choose between authentic humanism and true religion, and both have, for the most part, resisted impulses toward a holiness bereft of beauty.

Finally, Jews and Catholics share the sense of inheriting a very long story that, however contentious and marred by sin, also offers a wide set of possibilities for the future. Jews and Catholics understand that God’s work in history is sometimes slow and rarely meets impatient human expectation. At their best, Jews and Catholics temper their optimism about the present with an irony shaped by their historical awareness.

There are, to be sure, drawbacks to cultural Catholicism. We are sometimes too patient with error and sin. We sometimes lack a passion for social justice in our own day, and are too slow to change even when God calls us to change. On occasion we may think we are being religious when we are simply being aesthetic. Cultural Catholics can be mediocre.

On balance, though, I think we have it good, and I am glad that we have more defining marks than simple fidelity to Scripture. I am pleased that becoming a saint takes a lifetime rather than an impulse. I rejoice that law and gospel can inform one another, am delighted that Athens and Jerusalem and Dublin can dance together, am pleased that the editor of First Things and the editor of Commonweal can share the cup at the altar even on days when they divide over secular and religious politics, am impressed that both St. Benedict of Nursia and Pope Benedict XVI know the difference between terce and sext, and which Psalms are said at each. I like the fact that Catholics and Jews have so much to talk about, even when we find it hard to talk. So when I am told that Catholicism is as much a culture as it is a religion, I always remember to say, “Thanks.”

Published in the 2006-06-16 issue: 

Luke Timothy Johnson is emeritus Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at the Candler School of Theology, Emory University, and a frequent Commonweal contributor. Among his many books are Among the Gentiles: Greco-Roman Religion and Christianity (Yale) and Prophetic Jesus, Prophetic Church (Eerdmans).

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