What is ‘Catholic Enough?’

A discussion among practicing Catholics occurred in a social media group, inevitably landing on current divisions between Catholics — those who would describe themselves as “orthodox” vs. the “more progressive;” those who pronounce themselves “proudly cafeteria” versus those who identify as “proudly traditionalist.”
For Christians in touch with their own failings, it seems pointless to be “proudly” anything, and yet the stink of pride eventually attaches to most of us, no matter how pure our practice.
That led to questions about what “purity” means in a fallen world, and debate on following all the “rules” promulgated by the church in the face of Christ’s own teachings. For instance, is Jesus’ story of the Prodigal Son — in which he depicts the father running toward the imperfectly contrite son, even “while he was still a long way off” (Lk 15:20) — contrary to the mandate that we all be in a “state of grace” before we may approach Christ in the Eucharist?
It is good that such conversations happen, good to see people still actively wondering. Wonder grounds the work of better-knowing God.
Still, after lengthy exchanges, someone finally wailed, “How can any of us ever be ‘Catholic enough?’”
That cri du coeur is worth pondering in prayer: What is “Catholic enough?”
The answer might be as simple, and as difficult, as “love moving without limits, yet unchained to human excess.”
As any parent will tell you, rules matter. Honest parents will admit that sometimes love requires carefully reconsidering even the most entrenched and principled of family rules.
Does that touch the modern church? Some Catholics fear any “development of doctrine,” while others clamor for it.
Perhaps we should read St. John Henry Newman’s “On the Development of Doctrine,” wherein he makes helpful distinctions between principles and doctrine: “Principles are abstract and general, doctrines relate to facts; doctrines develop, and principles at first sight do not; doctrines grow and are enlarged, principles are permanent; doctrines are intellectual, and principles are more immediately ethical and practical. Systems live in principles and represent doctrines. Personal responsibility is a principle, the Being of a God is a doctrine; from that doctrine all theology has come in due course, whereas that principle is not clearer under the Gospel than in paradise, and depends, not on belief in an Almighty Governor, but on conscience” (Chapter 5.2).
As a both/and church, we entwine with the supernatural and the world — “all things visible and invisible.” Does this contribute to our branching away from each other, aligning with factions rather than working the faith together? We want to embrace the (mostly undiscussed) supernaturality of the church, but instinctively wish to serve humanity in humane ways.
Both efforts can be taken up in good faith but brought to extremes, weighing too heavily in one direction or the other. The thudding end to extremism is, well, pride.
It is entirely possible to become prideful as a Pharisee, preening as we follow all the rules while also overworking the supernaturalism — and yes, the urge and action toward prayer is supernatural, as in the inspiration to serve.
I knew someone who prayed a full Rosary every day, reciting not just the Fatima prayer but also the prayer to St. Michael at the end of each decade and calling it “necessary.” It made me wonder how often we proclaim our faith while not trusting that prayer can be both simple and “enough.”
Did pride cause my acquaintance to deem a powerful prayer as inadequate to the world’s needs? God knows. But if we offer prayer yet don’t trust God enough to believe that prayer is both efficacious and plenty, then what are we really offering?
Is prayer without trust part of our pride?
On the other hand, I know people so committed to the world-service side of faith that they’ve become detached from the supernaturalism of prayer. I was sneered at once by an ardent “social justice” Catholic who called Eucharistic adoration “a medieval relic, too passive in the face of so much human need.”
“Yet it supports the work you do,” I argued.
Were we both prideful? Again, God knows?
A both/and church is a Martha-and-Mary church of “being” and “doing.” We broken humans constantly forget that, leaning one way or the other. It’s a tricky but necessary thing to take time to sit quietly before the Lord while also putting your time and talent into service for Christ’s sake. If we all worked on that, there might be less discontent and distrust between Catholics, and fewer questions about whether we’re doing Catholicism “correctly.”
The crucifix shows us right and left — justice and mercy; the worldly and the supernatural — borne on the horizontal beam from which Jesus spreads out his arms. His body — our Eucharist — fills the vertical beam, grounded, yet heavenward.
Jesus is the balance. He alone is what keeps either side from crash-landing. Perhaps when we habitually join our crosses to his, questions of purity and perfection will become moot.
Because there is nothing purer or more perfect than being in balance with Christ.
Elizabeth Scalia is editor at large for OSV.