From time to time the question arises in some people’s minds as to what it really means to be a Catholic. It seems there are various interpretations in answer to this question. The topic of this column is sparked to some extent by the subject of my last column on the Pew Research study of Catholic faith in the holy Eucharist. As was pointed out, the Catholics polled by that study were of varying degrees of practice of the faith. Also, some recent local events in parishes of the Archdiocese of Portland seem to raise the same question of Catholic identity.

To help us answer this question of “Catholicity,” let us turn to the Second Vatican Council’s own definition of what it means to be fully a member of the Catholic Church. This is taken from Vatican II’s “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church,” “Lumen Gentium.” It seems best to see what the council actually taught rather than rely on interpretation. I use here the official English translation available on the Vatican’s website:

“They are fully incorporated in the society of the Church who, possessing the spirit of Christ, accept her entire system and all the means of salvation given to her, and are united with her as part of her visible bodily structure and through her with Christ, who rules through the Supreme Pontiff and the bishops. The bonds which bind men to the Church in a visible way are profession of faith, the sacraments, and ecclesiastical government and communion.” (LG, 14)

That is the ecclesiology (or way of understanding the Church) of Vatican II. It is essentially an ecclesiology of what we call “communion.” There is a lot to unfold in that concise statement, and we can only touch on the high points here. It would be well worth every Catholic’s effort to read the entirety of “Lumen Gentium.”

I would like to focus on the three elements which bind people to the Church: profession of faith, the sacraments, and ecclesiastical government and communion.

Those who are fully incorporated into the Church profess the same faith. This is the basis for our common understanding of the meaning and interpretation of divine revelation, contained both in sacred Scripture and the living tradition of the Church. We profess together at Mass every Sunday the same creed. Along with fellow Catholics all around the globe in various languages we stand united in the profession of this same faith.

But what the Church believes and teaches is made more explicit than just the words of the creed itself, but also includes the entire body of Catholic doctrine. Elsewhere in Lumen Gentium (especially sections 24 and 25), it is made clear that the authentic teachers and interpreters of the faith is the body of bishops in communion with the pope. Guided by Christ’s promised gift of the Holy Spirit, they present the fulness of Catholic belief on matters of faith and morals. These teachings are beautifully and authentically presented for us in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Secondly, we all share the same sacraments, participating actively in the sacramental life of the Church. This means especially a common baptism, the gift of the Holy Spirit in confirmation and regular participation in the Holy Mass and worthy reception of the Holy Eucharist. This includes the grave obligation to participate in Holy Mass on all Sundays and holy days of obligation. Also, when we have sinned, especially mortal sin, we must avail ourselves of the sacrament of penance and reconciliation. The other sacraments (anointing of the sick, marriage and holy orders) are administered according the circumstances of one’s own life. The point is that all Catholics believe in and receive the same sacraments. It must be noted that we also accept and abide by the discipline and practice of the Church with regard to the actual celebration of the sacraments. We celebrate in unity according to the mind of the Church.

Finally, all Catholics fully incorporated into the Church accept the authority of those Christ has placed in our midst to govern us, and also maintain full communion with the same. Many of us (especially Americans, perhaps) do not like to hear words like “govern” or “rule.” It seems to strike against our individual liberty and independence. But that is the way Christ founded his Church. He chose Peter and the other apostles to lead the Church, and their successors, the pope and the bishops, continue to fulfill that mandate throughout the ages down to our own day.

Again, the text from Vatican II quoted above says that Christ rules the Church, but he does so through the pope and the bishops, who are especially endowed with a spiritual grace and power through ordination — through the laying on of hands.

So Catholics maintain a true, genuine and loving communion with those structures of Church governance — with those commissioned by Christ to lead us. The Church is of divine origin but is also a human reality that needs order and governance in order to fulfill her divine commission to proclaim the Good News of salvation, to help bring others to life in Christ, and to shepherd us to the Kingdom of Heaven.

Vatican II has a lot more to say than what was just spoken of here, including the active participation of the laity in the life and mission of the Church, in communion with their pastors. It also teaches a lot about how the bishops are called to exercise their role in a collaborative relationship with the clergy, religious and lay faithful. I sincerely ask all of you to read the documents of Vatican II for yourselves, especially “Lumen Gentium,” rather than rely on what someone says Vatican II taught. They are inspiring documents and teachings.

God bless you all!