What is the Catholic thing? What makes Catholicism, among all of the competing philosophies, ideologies, and religions of the world, distinctive? I stand with John Henry Newman who said that the great principle of Catholicism is the Incarnation, the enfleshment of God. What do I mean by this? I mean, the Word of God—the mind by which the whole universe came to be—did not remain sequestered in heaven but rather entered into this ordinary world of bodies, this grubby arena of history, this compromised and tear-stained human condition of ours. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14): that is the Catholic thing.
The Incarnation tells central truths concerning both God and us. If God became human, without ceasing to be God and without compromising the integrity of the creature that he became, God must not be a competitor with his creation. In many of the ancient myths and legends, divine figures such as Zeus or Dionysus enter into human affairs only through aggression, destroying or wounding that which they invade. And in many of the philosophies of modernity, God is construed as a threat to human well-being. In their own ways, Marx, Freud, Feuerbach and Sartre all maintain that God must be eliminated if humans are to be fully themselves. But there is none of this in the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation. The Word does indeed become human, but nothing of the human is destroyed in the process; God does indeed enter into his creation but the world is thereby enhanced and elevated. The God capable of incarnation is not a competitive supreme being but rather, in the words of St. Thomas Aquinas, the sheer act of being itself, that which grounds and sustains all of creation, the way a singer sustains a song.
And the incarnation tells us the most important truth about ourselves: we are destined for divinization. The church fathers never tired of repeating this phrase as a sort of summary of Christian belief: Deus fit homo ut homo fieret Deus (God became human so that humans might become God). God condescended to enter into flesh so that our flesh might partake of the divine life, that we might participate in the love that holds the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in communion. And this is why Christianity is the greatest humanism that has ever appeared, indeed that could ever appear. No philosophical or political or religious program in history—neither Greek or Renaissance or Marxist humanism—has ever made a claim about human destiny as extravagant as Christianity’s. We are called, not simply to moral perfection or artistic self-expression, or economic liberation, but rather to what the eastern fathers calledtheiosis, transformation into God.
I realize that an objection might be forming in your mind. Certainly the doctrine of the incarnation separates Christianity from the other great world religions, but how does it distinguish Catholicism from the other Christian churches? Don’t Protestants and the Orthodox hold just as firmly to the conviction that the Word became flesh? They do indeed, but they don’t, I would argue, embrace the doctrine in its fullness. They don’t see all the way to the bottom of it or draw out all of its implications. Essential to the Catholic mind is what I would characterize as a keen sense of the prolongation of the Incarnation throughout space and time, an extension of it precisely through the mystery of the church. Catholics see God’s continued enfleshment in the oil, water, bread, imposed hands, wine, and salt of the sacraments; they appreciate it in the gestures, movements, incensations, and songs of the liturgy; they savor it in texts, arguments, and debates of the theologians; they sense it in the graced governance of Popes and bishops, they love it in the struggles and missions of the saints; they know it in the writings of Catholic poets and in the cathedrals crafted by Catholic architects. In short, all of this discloses to the Catholic eye and mind the ongoing presence of the Word made flesh, namely Christ.
Newman said that a complex idea is equivalent to the sum total of its possible aspects. This means, he saw, that ideas are only really known across great stretches of space and time, with the gradual unfolding of their many dimensions and profiles. The Incarnation is one of the richest and most complex ideas ever proposed to the mind, and hence it demands the space and time of the church in order fully to disclose itself. This is why, in order to grasp it fully, we have to read the Gospels, the Epistles of Paul, the Confessions of St. Augustine, the Summa theologiae of Thomas Aquinas, the Divine Comedy of Dante, John of the Cross’s Ascent of Mt. Carmel, The Story of a Soul of Therese of Lisieux, among so many other master texts. But we also have to look and listen. We must consult the Cathedral of Chartres, the Sainte Chapelle, the Arena Chapel, the Sistine Ceiling, Bernini’s Ecstasy of Ste. Teresa; the church of the Holy Sepulchre, Grunewald’s Crucifixion, the soaring melodies of Gregorian chant, the Masses of Mozart, and the motets of Palestrina. Catholicism is a matter of the body and the senses as much as it is a matter of the mind, precisely because the Word became flesh.