Thinking Catholic

About this article

"Thinking Catholic is a mind-set, an attitude of the heart, a bundle of insights and presumptions and priorities that are derived from faith." Exploring the concepts of stewardship, lifelong learning, reflection, and prayer, this engaging article offers suggestions on how to achieve this state of being and thinking Catholic.

Thinking Catholic is a mind-set, an attitude of the heart, a bundle of insights and presumptions and priorities that are derived from faith.

In our American society people used to agree that abortion was criminal, that divorce was bad, that sexual activity outside of marriage was wrong, that homosexual behavior was not natural. Today, all of these things are not only acceptable in our culture but also looked upon as rights that no one can take away.

That's the message that is conveyed to us over and over again in popular music, movies and TV. All we have to do is read the daily papers (and their advertisements) to realize that the values many people hold are not Christian values.

We are bombarded with invitations to buy, to enjoy, to use up, to throw away and then to buy again. There seem to be few voices that tell us the purpose of all this buying and using up.

If we are to maintain our Catholic Christian faith in the midst of all this madness, we have to be able to maintain our equilibrium. We have to have something inside of us that helps us keep our balance when everything around us seems to be sliding toward dissolution.

We need to know what God expects of us and why. We need to understand that the real demands of our faith are not the whims of a difficult God, but guidance about authentic growth and development.

The early Greek philosopher Socrates thought that nobody ever does evil willingly. If people really knew what was right, he maintained, they would never do wrong. Subsequent reflection has rejected this position, now known as the Socratic fallacy. People know what is right, but they do wrong anyway because the wrong seems more immediately appealing or profitable, or because the reasons given for avoiding wrongdoing don't seem to be persuasive in all circumstances.

Knowledge Is Not Enough

Something more than knowledge seems to be called for. This "something more" is what I call "thinking Catholic." Thinking Catholic is not just a matter of knowing what Christ and his Church teach. Thinking Catholic is a mind-set, an attitude of the heart, a bundle of insights and presumptions and priorities and directions that are derived from faith, which strengthen and vitalize the practice of faith. Catholic thinking is like a hidden file in a computer program that may never appear on the screen but that governs the whole operation of the program. If it is not there, things just are not going to work.

The people who think Catholic maintain their sense of equilibrium in a crazy world. Those who do not are sucked into the whirlpool, no matter how much they may have been taught about the Catholic faith and practice.

These insights, presumptions and priorities that lie in the heart of the faithful believer are concerned with God and the world, with life and living, with suffering and sin, with the individual and the family and with society at large. They involve our attitudes toward happiness, toward knowledge and the arts, toward the inconsistencies of human existence. Thinking Catholic includes our attitudes toward Christ and prayer and the Church.

Thinking Catholic may vary from individual to individual, but it includes some essential features common to all faithful believers. It is not a collection of separate items like tools in a toolbox, but rather a blend of energies, each of which influences the others, like the various flavors in good wine.

We Are God's Guests

God wants us to enjoy what he has created. God wants us to have a good time at this celebration of his goodness and love. It's O.K. to laugh and talk and sing along with the music. It's O.K to applaud. It's O.K. to "ooh" and "aah" at the gifts that God gives his guests. It's O.K. to encourage others to enjoy them with us. To do otherwise would be to imply that God didn't do a very good job in expressing himself in creation. It is enchantment with the wonder of God's creation that makes people like Saint Francis of Assisi so attractive.

Of course, we have to enjoy the celebration appropriately. It's God's party, not ours. We are guests in somebody else's home. We are not free to turn what God has provided for us into purposes that God didn't intend. Unfortunately, from the beginning the first human participants in the celebration tried to take it over and push God out of the way.

We take God's gift of speech, for example, and use it to hurt others. We take the strength and ingenuity that God has given us and use it to make wars or to impose injustice on others.

At one point, the world got so bad that God sent his own son to get things back on track. Jesus came to announce the coming of the Kingdom of God, a state in which everything is under God's loving control once more. One of the images that Jesus liked to use to describe the Kingdom was a banquet, an ordered gathering in which everybody is having a good time. The Kingdom began with Jesus and is still with us. The celebration hasn't ended.

Sharing In God's Creativity

God has enabled us to take the raw materials of creation and turn them into medicines and statues and automobiles and houses and computers. God has given us the capacity to discover the complexity and beauty of creation and to share our discoveries with others in words and pictures and music. God has gifted us with the ability to learn how to grow crops and raise animals and even make whole new varieties of living things for our well-being and enjoyment. What God saw as good in the beginning was only the beginning.

Most important of all, God has invited and enabled us to participate in the creation of ourselves. We begin as helpless infants. But as time goes by, we begin to make decisions and choices for ourselves. The helpless infant becomes a rocket scientist or a farmer or a doctor or a concert violinist or a priest. The dependent baby grows up to become a parent, passing on and shaping the gift of life in new human beings.

We can use the potential that God has given us to turn into thoughtful and generous human beings. We can be grateful and attentive to God, consciously aware of the goodness and love around us.

But making good choices can be very demanding, thanks to our limited perspective and the selfishness that comes with our fallen human nature. Becoming a good human being takes at least as much effort and practice as becoming an Olympic athlete.

Lifelong Learning

Thinking Catholic is not something that comes to us automatically. We have to learn it. If we are lucky enough to be born into a family of people who think Catholic, we learn the fundamental lessons from our parents, and our brothers and sisters. Our basic attitudes about the world, about God, about prayer, about the meaning of effort and suffering, about success and failure, about possessions, about the Church all come to us through our families. We learn most of these lessons unconsciously, just by watching and listening to those around us.

As we grow to maturity, what we have learned in our families is both supplemented and tested. We go to school. We make friends and find activities outside our family. Eventually we get a job. Sooner or later we are on our own. In all these circumstances we are learning. And what we are learning either strengthens or weakens what we learned at home.

But as we launch into individual independence, new challenges arise. They may have to do with our work or with our personal relationships or with our ambitions. Our previous experiences may have taught us the principles, but now we are faced with how to apply the principles to these specific circumstances.

If we have learned the fundamentals of thinking Catholic at home, we at least have a foundation. If we have not, then the task of acquiring sane and sound attitudes toward the world and the Lord and the meaning of our human life is more demanding.

But, whatever our personal circumstances, thinking Catholic is something that has to be learned and something that we have to keep learning throughout our whole lives.

Thinking Catholic presupposes a certain fund of informational knowledge, truths about our heavenly Father and Jesus and the Church and the world and standards of behavior. But if we don't go beyond that, our faith will become irrelevant to what goes on in our lives day by day. Merely "knowing" that God loves us won't make much difference if we are unable to see what that means when we fail an exam or lose our job or get a promotion or fall in love with somebody. '

Probably everyone who thinks Catholic would give his or her own list of attitudes and habits that contribute to maintaining faithfulness and sanity in the course of our lifetime. The little list that follows offers some of the things that I have found important in my own life.

Looking for the Lord. The handiwork of the Creator is everywhere. The love of the Lord Jesus is everywhere. The action of the Spirit is everywhere. But we have to learn to see it, and in order to see it we have to become accustomed to looking for it. Those who think Catholic try to be attentive to the presence and action of God in every aspect of their lives--in the successes and the failures, in the joys and the sorrows. Whatever is going on, they ask themselves, "Where is the Lord in this?"

Responding to the Lord. God does not call on us to be spectators in our lives. We are participants, and in order to participate appropriately in our lives, we have to respond to what the Lord asks of us. Thinking Catholic means looking at the circumstances in which we find ourselves--our individual circumstances and the larger circumstances of the world around us--and asking ourselves, "What does the Lord look for from me here and now?"

Being grateful to the Lord. If we are aware that the loving Lord is the principal actor in our lives and that the Lord is interested in us and in our world, then we will necessarily be inclined to thank the Lord. Somehow or other, God is always blessing us. Somehow or other, gratitude is always appropriate. "What can I thank the Lord for now?"

Nourishing the life of the Lord in us. Life involves the expenditure of energy, and energy needs to be replaced. We can't live our whole lives on the fund of faith and practice that we may have received in our childhood. We have to keep replenishing the fuel supply. This means a lifetime of learning about the Lord through Scripture and the teaching of the Church. It means regular participation in the celebration of the sacraments. It means consistent contact with other persons of faith. Our society is big on following a healthy diet. Thinking Catholic means being attentive to getting proper spiritual nourishment.

Reflection and Prayer Required

All this could be reduced to two basic requirements for thinking Catholic: reflection and prayer. Reflection means consciously looking at our lives from the perspective of the Lord. Reflection is particularly important because there is so much noise and glitter in the world around us that we can easily lose track of what's important unless we are accustomed to looking beneath it all for the reality that lies at the heart of things.

Prayer means lifting our selves and our lives and our brothers and sisters and our world up to the Lord, maintaining constant contact with the sources of meaning and energy.

Thinking Catholic is a habit, and habits are acquired by practice, until they become second nature to us, and then continuing the practice so that the habits don't gradually get replaced by other, less healthy ones.

Learning goes on our whole life long, consciously or unconsciously. And if we are not learning to think Catholic, then we are learning something else.

Surviving in a Crazy World

We live in a crazy world. It is a world that makes promises of happiness that it can never deliver, a world in which many look on human life as a commodity to be used rather than a gift to be respected, a world that denies the reality of evil, a world in which the principal virtue is selfishness. It is a world that cannot look much beyond the here and the now, a world that can find meaning only in the satisfaction of immediate wants and needs. The craziness is all around us. There's no avoiding contact with it. Yet this is the world in which we are called to live.

The only way to avoid being infected by the craziness is to have different values and different goals--healthy, true and realistic ones, consciously and firmly held. What's needed is a whole different mind-set, a fundamentally different way of approaching the challenges and opportunities of each day. Anything less than that will not be enough to keep us faithful to what God has called us to be.

When all is said and done, thinking Catholic means having faith. In this context, faith is not a series of propositions we accept with our minds. Nor is it a kind of mindless assumption that somehow everything is going to turn out all right. It is, rather, an understanding of and a response to the way things really are, an understanding that involves deeply held convictions, a response that includes the gift of our very selves to an adventure whose origins and goals are beyond our own making.

Thinking Catholic means accepting what God has told us about himself and about us, that whole complex of revelation offered by Jesus and proclaimed by his Church. But what we accept is not merely intellectual information. What God offers us is basic truth about who and what we are, where we have come from and where we are headed, truth about the significance of our corporate human past and about the value of every moment of the present--basic truth that helps us make sense of literally everything. God offers us meaning, and that makes the difference between wisdom and madness.

What It's All About

Because what God offers us is not mere information, we cannot assimilate it with simple assent. For example, "I believe that there are three persons in God" and "I believe that the Battle of Waterloo took place in 1815" are not the same kind of material. Merely "knowing" what God reveals to us is not enough. We have to understand the significance of what God is teaching us.

This understanding is so rich and complex that in a whole lifetime of attentiveness we can only begin to grasp it. The conviction that accompanies real faith demands practice in looking for the Lord. It requires a consciously acquired habit of mindfulness.

But faith is more than understanding. It is also response. It means giving our hearts and minds to participation in the project for which God made the world, the project in which God has called us to collaborate. The response involves gratitude as we become ever more aware of God's presence and action in our lives. It involves patience as we try to tease out the significance of what is going on around us. It involves the joyful gift of our talents and our resources in executing the role that God has assigned to us. Above all, it involves love, the will to give back to God in proportion as God has given to us.

Like the discovery of meaning, the response to meaning also requires a whole lifetime of practice. Our response is much more than keeping a set of rules. It is rather learning to act consistently with who and what we are. As our awareness of who and what we are matures, so does our response.

Just as our lives are God's gift to us, so is our faith. Left to ourselves, we have no way in which to find meaning in the apparent jumble of the world around us. Just as it is the Lord who provides the revelation, so it is the Lord who enables us to grasp it and to answer it.

To have and to practice faith, to understand the world and its meaning and our part in it, to grasp the value of my human life and of every human life, to be aware of the presence of God in what goes on with us and around us, to savor our relationship with Jesus and with the brothers and sisters of Jesus in the Church, to see how it all fits together in a coherent vision, to accept it joyfully and confidently as God's gift and plan for us, to respond to it all with love on our part even as it is offered with love on God's part: That's what thinking Catholic is all about.

Saint Paul wrote a long and complicated letter to the Christians of Rome about the meaning of faith. Toward the end of the letter is a long section about putting faith into practice. At the beginning of that section, Saint Paul urges his readers: "Do not conform yourself to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect" (Romans 12:2). This summons is also addressed to us.

Faithfulness in a crazy world is not easy. It never has been. It is not something that follows automatically from being a member of the Catholic Church. The renewal of our mind to which Saint Paul invites us requires attention and effort.

Yet faithfulness is not just an ongoing struggle against heavy odds. It is an enterprise of eager confidence. We are called to live in an awareness of the profound meaning that God has put into his creation and to respond energetically and enthusiastically to that meaning with the resources that God has bestowed on us so generously. We are called to deal with things the way they really are. That's what constitutes faithfulness. That's what constitutes sanity. That's thinking Catholic.

The Most Rev. Daniel E Pilarczyk is archbishop of Cincinnati, Ohio, and a past president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. His published works include Twelve Tough Issues: What the Catholic Church Teaches--and Why from Saint Anthony Messenger Press.


© Copyright St. Anthony Messenger Press. This article was published with the permission of St. Anthony Messenger magazine, which provides study guides to accompany many of its articles. You can access these guides by going to the magazine's Links for Learners page. Teachers will find a wealth of other resources at the St. Anthony Messenger Press web site by clicking on this link:

Published January 1, 1998.