From time to time the question arises in some people’s minds as to what it really means to be a Catholic. It seems there are various interpretations in answer to this question, especially in view of the actions or statements of candidates running for or already serving in public office who claim to be a “devout Catholic.” I wonder just what they are really thinking when their self-styled Catholicity pits itself against the actual teachings of the Catholic Church in which I grew up, studied about intently and have served for over a half-century (I was ordained a Deacon in May, 1970). To help answer this question of “Catholicity,” it would be wise to seek out what the Second Vatican Council’s own definition is of what it means to be fully a member of the Catholic Church. In Vatican II’s “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church” (“Lumen Gentium”), the council actually taught that: “They are fully incorporated in the society of the Church who, possessing the spirit of Christ, accept her entire system and all the means of salvation given to her, and are united with her as part of her visible bodily structure and through her with Christ, who rules through the Supreme Pontiff and the bishops. The bonds which bind men to the Church in a visible way are profession of faith, the sacraments, and ecclesiastical government and communion.” (# 14) This understanding of Church in Vatican II is essentially a teaching about what we call “communion.” There’s a lot to unfold in that concise statement, and it would be well worth every Catholic’s effort to read the entirety of “Lumen Gentium.”
But, here let me focus on just the three elements which bind people to the Church: profession of faith, the sacraments, and ecclesial government and communion. Those who are fully incorporated into the Church profess the same faith. This is the basis for our common understanding of the meaning and interpretation of divine revelation, contained both in sacred Scripture and the living tradition of the Church. We profess this at Mass every Sunday in the Creed, along with fellow Catholics all around the globe in various languages; we stand united in the profession of this same Faith.
But what the Church believes and teaches is made more explicit than just the words of the Creed itself; it also includes the entire body of Catholic doctrine. Elsewhere in Lumen Gentium (see # 24 and 25), it is made clear that the authentic teachers and interpreters of the faith is the body of bishops in communion with the Pope. Guided by Christ’s promised gift of the Holy Spirit, they present the fulness of Catholic belief on matters of faith and morals. These teachings are beautifully and authentically presented for us in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
Secondly, we all share the same sacraments, participating actively in the sacramental life of the Church. This means especially a common baptism, the gift of the Holy Spirit in Confirmation and regular participation in the Holy Mass and worthy reception of the Holy Eucharist. This includes the grave obligation to participate in Holy Mass on all Sundays and holy days of obligation (unless exempted, for a time as we are now, by our bishop). Also, when we have sinned, especially mortal sin, we must avail ourselves of the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation. The other sacraments (Anointing of the Sick, Matrimony and Holy Orders) are administered according the circumstances of one’s own life. The point is that all Catholics believe in and receive the same sacraments. It means that we also accept and abide by the discipline and practice of the Church with regard to the actual celebration of the sacraments. We celebrate in unity according to the mind of the Church. A recent incident about the question of sacramental validity of priestly ordination in Detroit brings this to mind (you may want to Google the item).
Finally, all Catholics fully incorporated into the Church accept the authority of those Christ has placed in our midst to govern us, and also maintain full communion with the same. Many of us (especially we Americans), may not like to hear words like “govern” or “rule.” It seems to go against our sense of independence and liberty. But, that is the way Christ founded his Church. He chose Peter and the other apostles to lead the Church; and their successors, the Pope and the bishops, weak as they sometimes are – like Peter – continue to fulfill that mandate throughout the ages down to our own day.
In that text from Vatican II, it says that Christ rules the Church, but He does so through the Pope and the bishops, who are especially endowed with a spiritual grace and power through ordination — through the “laying on of hands.” Real Catholics maintain a true, genuine and loving communion with those structures of Church governance – with those commissioned by Christ to lead us. Though the Church is of divine origin, it is also a human reality that needs order and governance in order to fulfill her divine commission to proclaim the Good News of salvation, to help bring others to life in Christ, and to shepherd us to the Kingdom of Heaven.
Vatican II had a lot more to say than what was just mentioned here, including the active participation of the laity in the life and mission of the Church, in communion with their pastors. It also teaches a lot about how the bishops are called to exercise their role in a collaborative relationship with the clergy, religious and lay faithful. I hope that you will someday read the Vatican II documents for yourselves, rather than rely on what the uninformed say they think Vatican II taught about being a real Catholic.