I recently met a man, about sixty-five years old, who, after I told him what I do, related this story: “When I was in Catholic high school, I asked one of the brothers, ‘How do we know that of all the religions in the world Catholicism is the right one?’ This question had been bugging me, and I was anxious to hear his answer. He replied, ‘We don’t know. We have to take it on faith.’ His response completely deflated me.”
After we parted, I wondered how I would have answered that question. Of course, there is no external, rational standard by which we can assess religions, or many other claims that are not empirically verifiable. But that does not mean that we cannot judge religions or determine their truth. What we need is a “first principle,” an agreed upon foundation and starting point, from which we can evaluate the truth of religions. This principle ought to be intrinsic to the nature and purpose of religions themselves.
For this first principle, I propose that we judge religions by how well – or not – they promote human flourishing. This approach does not exclude God nor reduce religion to a this-worldly, self-help modus operandi. Rather, if we can agree on the Judeo-Christian doctrine that all human beings are created in the image and likeness of God, then, as St. Irenaeus put it, we can say that “the glory of God is man fully alive” – and acting according to his true purpose.
On this foundation – one that people of all creeds can agree on – I state that Catholicism is the true religion because it most truly protects, nourishes, and develops the human being in his fullness. We can substantiate this claim by looking at Catholicism in three dimensions that are common to all religions: what it is, what it commands, and what it promises.
Our experience of Catholicism begins with human nature. We know we were created good, because God is incapable of doing wrong or evil. Yet each day we face and commit a host of wrongs that painfully remind us that we are limited, finite, and fallen from what God intended us to be. Try as we might, we cannot fully overcome or atone for our failures on our own; and even when we may be progressing nicely on our own, we encounter depressing situations when bad things happen to good people.
Rather than leave us on a carousel of mediocrity and misery, God intervened directly in human affairs. He revealed himself slowly over time, until, perhaps fed up with our inability to take the hint, he willed to come directly to us as a man. The incarnation of the Son of God had two chief effects for human beings: it atoned for the sins that we were not strong enough to atone for ourselves, and it provided us with the example of how to live along with the grace of the sacraments to carry it out. Catholicism, then, is a religion of hope: in the midst of our poverty Christ, out of love for us, “became poor although he was rich, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” (2 Cor 8:9)
Since our redemption is inherently tied to the example Christ set for us, the commandments of Catholicism stem directly from its very essence. Elevating the prohibitions established by the Old Law, Christ gave one commandment: to love one another as he loved us. This love, therefore, is no mere sentimentality or vague promise for peace: it is the complete sacrifice of oneself for the good of another, and it is seemingly counterintuitive to our fallen nature and to the ways of the world. But we often can find (in those who live this commandment to the full) a genuine joy that the world itself cannot provide.
This joy is the promise that Catholicism offers to those who embrace her doctrine and commandments. It is the joy of union with God, a far cry from the dreary claim of seculariststhat “by happiness we need mean only less of pain.” But paradoxically, Catholicism holds that authentic joy only comes with and through pain, suffering, persecution, and even rejection. All religions prescribe ways to deal with suffering; only Catholicism promises that suffering leads to redemption.
Of all religions, Catholicism cuts closest to the heart of what it means to be a human being. Its doctrine, laws, and promises meet us where we are, prevent us from exacerbating our situation, and bring us to God, the ultimate end of our existence, not via Easy Street – a route foreign to human nature – but via Calvary. In the cross we find redemption, and with it, the truth of our humanity.
Detractors will point to the sins of Catholics over the centuries as evidence to the contrary. But abuse does not negate the use: in fairness, we ought to judge all religions by their claims and by their saints, and not by those who fail to live up to their calling.
But perhaps in sinners we see the ultimate truth of Catholicism – not, of course, in the horror of their deeds, but in their internal cry of desperation. And there to save Adam is Christ, “the final Adam, [who] by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear.” (Gaudium et Spes 22)
David G. Bonagura, Jr. teaches classical languages at St. Joseph’s Seminary, New York. He is the author of Steadfast in Faith: Catholicism and the Challenges of Secularism (Cluny Media).