Why Be Catholic? 1: Revelation
There are plenty of reasons to be a Catholic, and the mix of motivations can have as many variations as there are people. For me, however, the very first reason that comes to mind is that Catholicism is the only religion in the entire world that has a logical and consistent approach to the problem of Revelation.
Authentic religion, if it exists, must be either natural or revealed. Apart from ideas made up from whole cloth, human reason and intuition can supply a certain amount of religious information: The fact of God’s existence, the certainty of creation, man’s imperfection and dependence, the obligation in justice to honor the Creator, even the significance of man’s yearning for immortality and his sense of something greater than himself. This is natural religion; it has been all but universal throughout history, though it is frequently mixed with ideas from other sources which may be more or less corrupt.
The only possible way to get beyond this primitive religious state is for God to reveal Himself to men. If God has done so (or were to do so in the future), this would demand assent because of God’s own authority. After all, God is the only one who perfectly knows either Himself or His works. Therefore, the first requirement for accepting an alleged revealed religion must be the presentation of significant and compelling evidence that it has in fact been revealed, that God alone could be its author. What will suffice? Some would argue that a certain sublimity of doctrine would be a strong indication, but clearly the most powerful argument would be that the revelation in question was corroborated by signs and wonders that only God could perform.
Among all the religions advanced throughout the centuries, only two have credible claims that the revelation on which they are based was accompanied by such signs and wonders: Judaism and Christianity. Few other religions even make such a claim, and those that do refer only to the alleged experience of one or two persons. Religions that purport to be revealed without advancing such a claim fail the first essential test of authenticity, and religions that essentially privatize this claim—by restricting “evidence” of God’s involvement to a very small number of people—cannot present a credible argument for their own authenticity. If revelation, and the signs and wonders that testify to it, are not both clear and public, then its claims are worthless.
Now the difference between a believing Jew and a believing Christian is that the Christian accepts certain signs of public revelation which the Jew rejects, chiefly (but not only) the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, whom Christians believe is also the fulfillment of all that was promised by God to Israel. At the very least, it should be obvious that the evidence of this further Revelation through Jesus Christ is as strong and as public as the evidence for God’s earlier Revelation to the Jews. In the absence of bias, there is no reasonable basis for accepting the former and rejecting the latter. Therefore the more reasonable position is to regard Christianity as the stronger—or more complete—claimant to the best that Revelation has to offer.
But among Christians themselves, there are significant differences in the matter of Revelation. All Christian groups agree that their font of Revelation, Jesus Christ, has long since returned to the Father, yet most Christian groups provide no means of assuring later generations that they will receive the same Revelation that the first generation received. As John Henry Cardinal Newman pointed out, this is a terrible deficiency. It is inconceivable, Newman noted, that there should be such a vast difference between the first generation of Christians and ourselves as that they should have had a living infallible guide and we have not. This would amount to a third dispensation, a religion so different from what was revealed in Christ that it can scarcely be considered part of the same Covenant with God.
In the end, only the Catholic Church offers a clear and consistent approach to this problem of retaining the purity and completeness of Divine Revelation after the fact. Because Revelation depends on the authority of God revealing, the Catholic understands that God, Who completed and perfected His Revelation through Jesus Christ, must also have instituted an ongoing principle of authority by which the veracity of that Revelation could be guaranteed after Christ completed His work on earth. As I noted at the outset, Divine authority is the keynote of authentic Revelation. The Catholic Church claims that just such authority persists in Peter and his successors—an ongoing guarantee by Christ Himself that our grasp of Revelation will remain authoritative over time.
One can, of course, argue for and against the truth of this belief. My point here is that anything less abandons the Christian claim to special Revelation, squandering it in endless human confusion, rendering it useless. Even the Protestant reliance on the Book provides no guide to the Book's interpretation, as the incessant splintering of Protestantism itself attests. Because a principle of authority is essential to Revelation, and because only the Catholic Church makes a clear and consistent claim to such authority, something very important follows. What follows is not that the Catholic Church must be right, but that the Catholic Church is the only religion which advances a credible claim.
It is this character of the Church as the sole rational exponent of the necessary principles of authentic Revelation which causes her to stand out among all other religions. To me the inescapable conclusion is simple: If any existing religion fully represents Revelation, it can only be the Catholic Church. As soon as one becomes aware that Christian Revelation is authentic, the road to truth does not end until it reaches Rome.
Originally posted March 10, 2009.
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