Why Be Catholic? 5: Perfection
Anyone with aspirations to human perfection ought to investigate Catholicism seriously. This is, in some ways, an extension of the second number in this series dealing with personal freedom, for freedom is essentially the ability to pursue one's proper end, which is also the path to perfection. But here we approach things from the point of view of perfection itself, and we find that no other religion or philosophical system presents such an all-encompassing understanding of human nature and the means by which it may be perfected. Catholics call this perfection “holiness”, but by whatever name it answers a deep need of the human person to be in full possession of himself so that he might direct himself toward the Good.
The nature of the Good is a perennial human question which has occupied the attention of every philosophical and religious tradition. Christianity has a particularly cogent understanding of the Good in relationship to the whole man, not only because Christianity is revealed by God (a separate argument) but because it builds upon and enriches both the spiritual wisdom of Judaism and the remarkable natural wisdom of classical philosophy. All three traditions understand that, ultimately, it is a proper integration of all human faculties which enables a person to pursue the Good. That is, the Good for man is necessarily rooted in integrity. Christianity also provides the most complete knowledge of the end toward which man must strive, namely God Himself.
It is a natural human instinct to strive for perfection; we are all impatient with our weaknesses and limitations. The deepest form of happiness derives from the successful integration of our faculties and our own ability to direct them in a unified way toward our proper ends. The satisfaction of doing this far exceeds mere material pleasure, as nearly every philosopher and spiritual leader has asserted, no matter how many other errors their systems may embody. Catholicism too recognizes this claim, further recognizing that man is a composite being of body and soul who finds himself without complete integrity owing to sin, and who finds a solution in Divine grace which will repair and perfect his nature.
The Judaeo-Christian tradition is very nearly unique among the world’s religions in its insistence that we serve God by living rightly, that striving to do good is the key to both imitating and pleasing God. This is summed up in the Christian commandment to love. Thus are the spiritual and the ethical uniquely joined in Christianity. They are even more fully joined in Catholic Christianity by the Church’s insistence that we are made holy not by grace alone but by continual cooperation with grace in the effort to understand and do God’s will. Although God’s will is generally learned only by degrees, it is most fitting here to capture its essence in relationship to the human impulse central to this discussion, using a formulation we have seen before: “You are to be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect” (Mt 5:48).
Now the entire Catholic economy is ordered toward this goal. Through her Scripture and Tradition, her governance and her sacraments, the Catholic Church alone teaches, rules and sanctifies to effect the perfection of man through union with God. The sublimity of the Church’s doctrine and her mighty charitable works alike testify to her perfecting power over mind and heart.
Each sacrament provides a special grace of perfection: Baptism, to initiate us into the life of Christ and incorporate us into His Church; Penance to restore us when we fall; Confirmation to impart the gifts of the Holy Spirit; the Eucharist to transform us in Christ Himself; Matrimony to sanctify the family, ensuring generations to come; Holy Orders to spiritually nourish all God’s people; and Anointing of the Sick to strengthen us for the final stage of our journey to God.
Similarly, each doctrine and spiritual counsel is architected to illumine our minds and hearts, to help us battle our own weaknesses, to trust in God, to learn to love day by day. As many times as we fall, the Church lifts us up a little higher through her understanding of human nature, her forgiveness, her ability to nurture, direct and guide. Thus can Catholics, more easily than others, be brought to the perfection which at once marks the unique integrity of the human person and secures his greatest happiness.
Anyone who doubts that the Catholic Church possesses the greatest understanding of perfection and the greatest ability to achieve it in her children need only study the lives of the saints. In every age, these extraordinary men and women demonstrate the heights of both human accomplishment and human happiness. Indeed, the holiness of so many of her members is a great motive of credibility for the Church. In the end, Catholicism alone can fully satisfy that innate thirst for perfection through which Christ, now that He has been lifted up, draws all men to Himself (Jn 12:32).
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