top of page
  • Writer's pictureMichael Martin

Catholicism isn’t a Religion, it’s a Field

If you can define Catholicism, you probably have no idea what it is.

A friend of his once described the great Irish writer James Joyce as a Catholic. Joyce thought this not quite accurate: “You allude to me as a Catholic,” he responded. “Now for the sake of precision and to get the correct contour on me, you ought to allude to me as a Jesuit.” People think they know what “Catholic” means. I wonder if anybody does.

As a Byzantine Catholic, I have been admonished I don’t know how many times by my Roman Catholic brothers and sisters who don’t quite seem to think Eastern Rite Catholics are as Catholic as those inscribed into the Latin Rite. Surely, a rite with a married priesthood, without a theology of Purgatory, and that doesn’t include the filioque in the Creed can’t really be Catholic. And the Copts—don’t even get me started on the Copts! They don’t include the words of institution, so how could they have a valid Eucharist? We Byzantines (and our brother Copts) do get points from the SSPX and their ilk for liturgical street cred (to us, even the Tridentine Mass is a modernist innovation), but their understanding of the Eastern Rites, in general, tends to be at best superficial and aesthetic. And to be fair, the Eastern Orthodox—with whom we have much more in common liturgically and theologically—don’t really get us either.

My point, however, is not to prove the validity of the Eastern Rites of the Catholic Church (because what would be the point?) but only to show that one can be Catholic without being “Catholic.” And, anyway, nobody really knows what it is to be Catholic.

I have had more than a couple of run-ins with Neothomists who accept the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas as the definitive expression of All Things Catholic. And while I like St. Thomas and appreciate Scholasticism, suggesting that St. Thomas is the centerpiece of Christian faith is absurd. (And, let’s face it: he blew it on the Immaculate Conception.) Scholasticism is a fine body of knowledge: but let’s not make a religion out of it. And it really is bad form trying to make it cohere with Eastern spirituality. Whatever. I suspect many of the postmodern Neothomists—quite a few of them young men in their twenties with an affinity for birettas, religious trivia, and high ceremony, from what I can tell— are attracted to Scholasticism because the rules are clearly defined and laid out. Like in the military. This is also the psychological profile for those attracted to radical Islam, incidentally.

Some people, in fact, are so Catholic that they feel entitled to call out the Pope as a heretic (which is apparently something the same group of crusaders do every couple of weeks). This is not just an innovation since the papacy of Francis, but goes back until at least until the time of John XXIII or whoever that guy was before him. But now that the internet has given everyone the illusion of an opinion that counts, the hubris of internet safety emboldens many to do that which they would never have dreamed was their business in earlier ages. And in public. The only problem is that nobody really knows what it is to be Catholic.

There are others, of course, who equate Catholicism with a project of social justice. They are not wrong. But there is nothing necessarily Catholic about social justice activism. Lots of atheists, agnostics, Buddhists, Sikhs, etc., do a fine job of furthering those aims. They don’t know what it is to be Catholic, to be sure, but neither do those self-identifying as Catholics engaged in this noble quest.

This is why I would like to propose that we stop calling Catholicism a religion. It’s more like a field, as in physics: gravitational, magnetic, cosmological. Or perhaps we could say it’s like John Keats’s notion of negative capability, the ability to be “capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Catholicism, that is, is not a system. It’s the Presence of God. Christ never gives a definition of the Catholic Church, only that it is. “In my Father’s house there are many mansions.” And a house is never defined by one room.

If you can define Catholicism, you probably have no idea what it is.

This is a re-post from my old blog.

Michael’s latest books are an edition of The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz and Transfiguration: Notes toward a Radical Catholic Reimagination of Everything. He can be reached at See also The Center for Sophiological Studies' available courses.

441 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page