What might be unique about Catholicism?
In 2011 The Concord, Luther’s student newspaper asked me to write 300 words from my personal perspective on what is unique to Catholicism. A student was searching for that piece and couldn’t find it, so I’m putting the text here:
It’s hard for me to identify what’s unique about Roman Catholicism, because almost anything I can think of is shared with at least one other form of Christianity.
A vertical hierarchical focus in creative tension with a horizontal and global sensus fidelium? A clear embrace of physical practices? A spirituality that takes seriously the everyday mysteries of life? These are all elements that can be found in other Christian communities. I think what I would say is that there are certain elements of Christianity that Roman Catholics have tended more than others: a deep devotion to sacramentality, a genuine engagement with the Incarnation through bodily practices (including a fierce commitment to social justice), an awareness of how ritual can be freeing, and a profound respect for Mary, the Mother of God.
One of my favorite novelists, Fr. Andrew Greeley, once wrote that Catholics are unique because we see the “ultimate lurking in the ordinary.” When you combine that creative imagination with a clear conviction that God’s grace pours out in infinite forgiveness and reconciliation, than you have a potent recipe for witnessing to Christ in the everyday-ness of Creation, and for a lived connection to the Communion of saints. That imagination gives us room for festivals and shrines, litanies and rosaries, not to mention being at least a partial catalyst for the creative work of artists such as U2, Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, and Lady Gaga.
So what is unique about Roman Catholicism? I guess I’d say a sacramental, incarnational imagination.