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How to Be an Authentic Catholic

Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

Not too many years ago this would have been a strange title for a lecture, “How to be an authentic Catholic.” The reason is obvious. Catholics were Catholics. They were not Protestant, or Mormons, or Jehovah’s Witnesses.

But much has happened in the last thirty or so years. Nowadays there are so many people who call themselves Catholic but really are not. There are books published and periodicals; there are conferences given, and symposiums sponsored; there are religious programs and celebrations sponsored, - and all professedly Catholic. But so many of these are Catholic only in name and not in reality.

In plain English, a revolution has taken place. The revolution is a revolution in morality and in doctrine. Our Holy Father wrote the encyclical, The Splendor of Truth because, as he said, a flood of errors in our day either distorts or denies the Church’s moral teaching. Notice it is errors in doctrine that undermines moral practices. As the Pope makes clear, it is no longer a question of limited or occasional dissent. It is a systematic calling of Catholic moral doctrine into question on the basis of certain anthropological and ethical presuppositions. What is the root of these erroneous presumptions? The root is to detach human freedom from its essential and necessary relationship to Truth. We return to our title for this conference, “How to be an Authentic Catholic”. The answer is obvious. To be an authentic Catholic we must know the truth, live the truth, and suffer for the truth. The truth, of course, is the teaching of Jesus Christ.


Know the Truth

To know the truth is to believe what the incarnate God told us about ourselves and our purpose for existence. Christ could not have been clearer. We are human beings who live here on earth for a short time in order to prepare ourselves for a heavenly eternity. Nothing in this world has any value except as a means of leading us to our heavenly destiny. We are to use our free wills to choose what Christ told us we must do and avoid, at any cost, what he forbade.

On Mt. Sinai, God gave the chosen people the Ten Commandments through Moses the prophet. But when God became man, he personally taught his followers that the Ten Commandments were to be understood as He explained them. The fifth, sixth, and seventh chapters of St. Matthew’s gospel are a compendium of what Jesus called the New Law.

It is one thing, however, for Christ to have revealed the moral truths of Christianity. It is something else for us to know them. To know this truth we must submit our minds to the divine mind of the Son of God who became the Son of Mary. This is not as easy as it may seem. We must choose to tell our minds to believe. It is easy enough to believe what is easy or pleasant or satisfying to our natural inclinations. It is hard when we are told to believe what is demanding on our human nature.

In His Sermon on the Mount, Christ told us that we are to be meek and merciful under provocation. He told us to control not only our actions but even our thoughts. He ordered us to control our eyes and not look at everything we see. He told married people they are to be two in one flesh, that Christian marriage cannot be dissolved by any human power. And the beatitudes, I don’t say warn but actually promised His followers to expect to be culminated, persecuted, and even hated by the world for their fidelity to His name.

Every human being is a believer. My favorite definition of man is not that of Aristotle who defined man as a rational animal. I prefer to define man as a believing animal.

But what a difference between believing what you like and believing in that you are to do what you strongly dislike.

All of this is locked up in what is the first condition in being an authentic Catholic. An authentic Catholic submits his mind in accepting everything that Christ taught us. We must do to please him in this life and possess Him in the eternal life for which we were made.


Live the Truth

There is no substitute for knowing the truth that Christ told us to believe. But knowing this truth by faith is not enough. We must put it into practice authenticity in the Catholic religion is not only a matter of faith. It is also and especially living what we believe. From the dawn of Christianity the followers of Christ found that their contemporaries did not like the moral practice of believing Christians. I will never forget the inscription etched on stone in Pompeii. Remember Pompeii was destroyed by volcanic eruption in the year 70 A.D. The inscription reads, Christiani delendi Sunt (Christians must be exterminated). For 300 years, the pagan world of the Roman Empire did everything in its power to destroy Christianity. This has been the history of the Catholic Church ever since.

I wish to be very clear. To live up to Christ’s moral demands is not easy on selfish sexually preoccupied human nature. But that is not all to live up to the moral precepts of the Savior is to irritate, antagonize, and arouse the opposition of one’s contemporaries.


Suffer for the Truth

We are now in a position to answer the hardest question on How to be an Authentic Catholic. To be an authentic Catholic means to pay dearly for one’s loyalty to Jesus Christ. It is impossible to exaggerate; shall I use the word “expensive”? It is not just to call oneself a Catholic or be considered a Catholic but to be a Catholic.

As we said in the beginning of this conference, we are now living in a world that has literally destroyed each person. Anyone’s free will is now considered the norm of morality.

Those who challenge this new paganism are faced with a difficult option. Rather they conform to this philosophy and they are faced with the prospect of martyrdom.

To the best of my knowledge, never in the history of the Church, has any Pope spoken and written more clearly about the need for martyrdom than has Pope John Paul II. The reason is obvious. He has no illusions of what it means to be an authentic Catholic on the eve of the third millennium. He quotes from Sacred Scripture to show that Jesus Christ was the primary witness for looking for the truth. Christ was followed by Steven and the apostle’s children and by now twenty centuries of men, women, and even children who laid down their lives rather than deny or compromise Christ’s teaching on mortal sin.

The Holy Father asks how martyrdom is a witness to both God’s holiness and men’s personal dignity. He answers: martyrdom witnesses to God’s holiness by testifying to the grace that God gives the martyr. He also testifies to man’s personal dignity because our highest act of virtue is to suffer martyrdom rather than disobey a divine moral law.

The Vicar of Christ finally asks is there such a thing as a living martyrdom. He answers without qualification; yes we are living martyrs when we love the difficulties of this world for the sake of eternal rewards. For the last time, therefore, we ask how are we to be authentic Catholics? We answer: to be an authentic Catholic we must love the Cross-because we love the God who became man.

Anyone who thinks that this is rather pious rhetoric or mere poetry is living in a dream world. Thank God, you and I know better. One last word: the more dearly we love Jesus crucified, the more Catholic and the more happy we shall be.


Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica






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