I remember clearly my feelings on leaving the Anglican Church to become a Catholic. It was a trepidation–the knowledge that I was launching out into the deep in a way I never had before. It was an awareness of what I call the impossibility of Catholicism.
Here was a religion that (in theory) held to the high standards of Christ the King. I am still astonished when I stop to consider what is expected not only of the clergy and religious, but of all the baptized.
All of us are called to chastity, charity, repentance and forgiveness. Each one of these is impossible to the unregenerate person. How is one to achieve chastity? To be faithful to one woman or one man in marriage-?-to not use artificial contraception? to eschew pornography, resist masturbation? How is a man to do this? And not just avoid fornication and adultery, but he must also have a pure heart and not lust in his mind. It’s impossible.
Or charity. How is one to love others self sacrificially? It goes against the foundations of the way we are wired.How is one to give of one’s hard earned wealth? How is one to listen to the tiresome complaints of others? How is one to bite one’s tongue and never speak ill of others, judge others or condemn others? Who can meet this standard?
The same applies to repentance. Who is truly penitent? Are we penitent or just afraid we’ll get caught or ashamed of what we’ve done? Who truly believes they are wrong not right? And forgiveness? Who can truly say they have forgiven those who have harmed them?
And yet these impossible standards are insisted upon. Think how these standards have changed the human race! Everyone –even hedonists and atheists–assume that sexual self restraint of some sort is necessary. We assume that helping others sacrificially is a good thing and that saying “Sorry” and forgiving others is a noble, humane and righteous thing. These standards are the direct inheritance from the Christian faith, and all the world’s headlines when someone violates these standards proves how fundamental they have become.
Yet, in human terms they are impossible. What is this strange religion that demands sexual continence and marital fidelity? What is this unworldly creed that calls men and women to give to the poor, house the homeless, give succour to the sick, heal the brokenhearted and set the captives free? Who dares to call humanity to repent, to say sorry and to forgive others? It is an impossible religion.
But with God all things are possible, and that is why, through the church, humanity has been transformed. It has taken two millennia and the work is not finished, but in the lives of the saints and the accomplishments of Catholics down the ages we can get a glimpse of what is possible.
Ordinary men and women have been deified–by the mysterious workings of grace they have been changed from the inside out. They have built cathedrals, schools, hospitals and built families, cured diseases, educated the ignorant, healed the sick and transformed the world.
Becoming a Catholic, I felt, was to join in this impossible religion. It was a step away from a bland, human centered religion that merely accepted the status quo to join a church that called me to a rigorous and dazzlingly difficult destiny.
It was as if I was leaving a hike in the foothills to attempt to scale Mt Everest.