When I began this column, more than a decade ago now, I chose the title “Mere Catholicism” with a particular vision in mind, one that I don’t know if I’ve ever really explained, and one that Pope Francis’ visit has called to mind.
It’s an obvious reference to the book “Mere Christianity,” by the Protestant C.S. Lewis, a work of apologetics in which he tries, as best he can, to focus on the core doctrines that various kinds of Christians, Catholic and Protestant, have in common — a “common denominator” version of Christianity.
I meant something like the opposite. If “mere Christianity” is the bare bones, “mere Catholicism” is full body and soul. Mere Catholicism is Catholicism in full, taken on its own terms, and nothing but. Thus it is Christianity in its fullest expression.
As a then-new convert, I was discovering the richness of the whole body of Catholic teaching, doctrinal, social and moral, and I was moved by the conviction that within the matrix of this teaching were the answers the world was seeking to all of its problems.
I even had an idea — one of those that sometimes goes unfulfilled — of writing a book about it: how, in the last place the world would want to look, linger the most profound answers to all its deepest questions. “Mere Catholicism” was the title I had in mind. The idea was simply to propose those answers to the world.
Maybe it’s true that anyone who lives a life of the mind has only a few big ideas, and this conviction of “mere Catholicism” remains one of mine.
At the heart of it is the conviction that the whole package goes together. All of the myriad facets of this priceless gem of our faith are beautiful in their own right, and it’s easy to see how different people become enamored of a particular one of them and long to gaze at it for a lifetime.
There are people smitten by the beauty of the Gospel of Life, and others deeply in love with Christ in the poor, and still others drawn to liturgy or contemplative prayer — and many other things more.
Far from being in competition or conflict, if all of these things are rooted in the whole, and especially rooted in the Trinitarian life of the living God, it forms a beautiful symphony, or better still, a beautiful piece of polyphony, individual melodic lines weaving in and out of each other and supporting and balancing each other to form a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts, because it is bound up with the divine.
This is the vision I think Pope Francis has brought to America. As he points out so frequently, it’s all connected — the dignity of the poor, the care of our common home, the right to life, an economy of inclusion.
We cannot coherently advocate the social teaching of the church on the environment and the economy while rejecting its foundation in the right to life and the dignity of the human person and the holistic vision of conjugal marriage that forms the basic cell of any society. The reverse is also true — we cannot be coherently pro-life and pro-family while at the same time being indifferent to an economy that so fiercely undermines those values.
Still more: Separated from their spiritual root, from the living Lord crucified and risen, none of the social and moral teachings of the church, beautiful and true as they are, can really be alive or give life.
It either all connects together or it falls apart.
But this is to state the matter negatively. Stated positively it’s this: Mere Catholicism, sought in all its fullness by people dedicated to becoming saints, will set the world on fire — on a holy fire that does not destroy but gives life, the holy fire of the Holy Spirit.
This is the joy of the Gospel. This is the New Evangelization.
It was all in place before Pope Francis, 10 years ago when I named this column. Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI taught the exact same comprehensive vision, as anyone who bothered to read them knows.
Indeed, it was there long before that — long before I was born, before anyone reading this was born, before our great-great-great-great grandparents were born. It has been there since the Incarnation, since the Resurrection, since Pentecost.
In God’s plan, we each get to discover and live it anew, in all our fallenness and brokenness, in our fits and stumbles, in our own time and place.
In his divine providence, God has brought us this pope and this trip. In his gentle way, Pope Francis has proposed not a disjointed series of arbitrary doctrines but this great polyphonic harmony — this “mere Catholicism.”
The invitation for us is clear enough.
Kyle Eller is editor of The Northern Cross. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.