Recently, I was engaged in a conversation with Dr. Peter Kreeft at a dinner event. Someone had just asked him about his thoughts on the “Catholic perspective.” His response was memorable. “The claim that the Catholic Church makes upon the world is far too strong for it to be merely a perspective,” he said. “In fact, the Catholic Church claims to encompass reality itself.” Rather than being a single way of looking at the world among many, the Catholic Church claims that it encompasses reality per se, as it truly is. Perhaps we would be inclined to agree with Dr. Kreeft. Yet, on the other hand, it is not unlikely that this claim makes us balk, for it seems that there are so many things outside the realm of the Catholic Church: politics, the economy, etc. Indeed, the Catholic Church’s claim is a strong one. But this begs the question: if we don’t believe the Catholic Church is most truly real, what is? The answer to this question is of the utmost importance, for the answer we give to it forms the premise upon which our entire lives will be built.
When we honestly ask ourselves “what is most real?”, our answer will likely be the thing that influences our lives the most. If politics is the center of our lives, then politics would likely be the “most real.” The most significant events of our lives would be watching the presidential debates, fighting political battles on Facebook, and checking political news first thing in the morning. If the stock market is central to our lives, then the market would be “most real.” The most important events in our lives would be watching the market’s fluctuations assiduously, attempting to follow the laws of the market in order to get rewarded by it, and reading the newest article by the priests of the market (wall street investors). If a desire for comfort shapes our lives, then perhaps Amazon and door dash and Television are most real. We would spend our time browsing for gadgets to make our lives easier, ordering pizza right to the living room chair, and watching all 74 episodes of that new season on Hulu. In light of all this, we must ask ourselves a further question. Is the thing that we think is most real actually the most real? What if the Church really is most real?
If we want to understand what it would mean for the Catholic Church to be the most real, we ought to recover the vision of reality presented in medieval Christendom. I say this not out of nostalgia, but because their understanding was comprehensive and timeless and arguably true. If you go back and read primary medieval documents, they commonly begin “In the Church…” This indicates that everything that happened was conceived of as happening within the Church. Politics and economics and philosophy and history–all of these things happened as part of the life of the Church. By Church, I don’t mean a building with four walls and a floor. Rather the Church is the Bride of Christ, and He is her head. Christ is the Logos, the Word, the Reason, and the Order from which all of reality flows. The Church is Christ’s revelation to the world, the manifestation of the reality of the Logos in all things. The Church is the mystical body of Christ, which includes those souls in heaven (the Church Triumphant) those souls in Purgatory (the Church Suffering), and those souls on earth (the Church Militant). The medieval vision held that the Catholic Church encompassed all of reality, including heaven and earth, spirit and matter, time and eternity, good and evil. The Church was conceived of as the “playing field” upon which everything else occurred.
To develop this idea, let us return to the house analogy which I used in my last article. If we recall, the house itself was representative of all of reality. The first floor was the temporal realm, the realm in which we are now immersed. The second floor was the realm of heaven, the place where we will be one with God, the place in which our perfect fulfillment is found. What we must understand is that the Catholic vision holds that the whole structure, including both the first floor and the second floor, is the Church. In its entirety, the house is the Church. Reality is the Church. All the things we are tempted to think are most real–politics and the state, economics and the market, Amazon, and pizza and Netflix and the comforts they offer–we find on the first floor of the house. They are within the Church. In observing the house, we must point out something new: the first floor is connected to the second floor via a beautiful spiral staircase. This staircase represents the sacramental life of the Church whereby we receive grace and gradually make our ascent from the first floor to the second floor. Looking down from the top of the staircase, the steps appear very broad. This is because God’s grace is sufficient for us to make the ascent. Yet looking up from the bottom of the staircase, the steps appear very narrow. This is because we often forget about God’s grace and fail to participate in it and allow it to help us up the stairs. Because we are always forgetting about grace, Christ’s words make sense when he says, “Small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life” (Matthew 7:14). But if we look at it through God’s eyes, we must remember that Christ promises us, “My grace is sufficient for you” (2 Cor. 12:9).
We must ask ourselves the question: “Is the Catholic Church the most real?” And if it is, what does that mean for our lives? Indeed, if the Church is the most real–if history is salvation history; if the world is a book authored by God himself; if our end truly is heaven; if life really is essentially a struggle between fallen human nature and grace toward the salvation of souls or their damnation–then it is right and just, our duty and salvation, always and everywhere to praise God and live our lives for him. If the Church is the most real, Catholicism ought to be the source and center of our life. Participation in the sacraments, entering into the Liturgy, and conforming to Christ through the Eucharist–these are the ways in which we must live if the Church is to be most important in our lives. If the Church is the most real, we must strive to ascend that spiral staircase though it is arduous. With the help of God’s grace, let us begin!