My Beautiful Brothers
Updated: Sep 24, 2018
Thoughts on some of the most valiant and virtuous men I know. If the call to Catholicism applies to them, what does it mean for us?
I have the great blessing and privilege to be a U.S. veteran. If someone were to ask me the one thing, the absolute most singular difference I could share with them between military service and almost everything else, the answer would be easy. I would say it’s the depth of the family-like bond which exists between service members. In generations that have served in wars together, this connection is perhaps even greater.
After our time in service, we miss those connections, so we find ways to interact with one another. We re-create things that remind us of what we once excelled at. We compete in sports for the service-disabled, we forge adventures like crewing sailboats together, we volunteer together in disaster relief, or we find any other number of excuses to find and support each other. Through these things, I am lucky to still have many brothers. I want to tell you about some extraordinary ones.
One brother of mine is the strongest man I know. He has led a life of exemplifying the honorable and selfless values of the Marine Corps by volunteering for every long deployment, every difficult and miserable and thankless job that he could seek out, and embracing it for our sake. When he became a father, he made his children his absolute priority, and now that he is recently diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s), a disease that for unknown reasons is rampant among the veteran population, and left to face it alone by a break in his family, I see him deal with his failing body and his limited life expectancy with a bright attitude of humor and kindness and concern for others that leaves me awestruck and humbled.
Another brother is perhaps the most heroic. He’s a Navy Corpsman, who has rushed into and won firefights to save his patients more times than he could possibly count and has done just as much to build hospitals and humanitarian efforts in the same countries where he fought. He’s also staggeringly intelligent, a member of some of the most elite tactical groups, and even while battling through the consequences of a number of combat injuries, is the kindest and most humble person you’re likely to meet. He would do anything to help anyone at any time, no questions asked.
Another brother is the most brilliant. Because of that brilliance, he sacrificed a huge part of himself to do a job in a previous generation’s war that few others could accomplish, and few others could understand the consequences of accomplishing. His was a silent sacrifice, and even having made it, he lives a life of being the most exemplary father and human being.
What’s my point here? Is it just to sing my brothers’ praises? Yes, it’s partially that, because I love them. But loving them is actually my problem. I worry about their salvation.
There is no arguing about whether these are “good people.” The case here is extreme, because few of us could ever dream of living up to the standard they set. They’re not just good, they’re absolutely heroic. However, the question is, do I believe that “being a good person,” even an extraordinarily good one, is the criteria for getting past the pearly gates?
That’s certainly what the general understanding of society has boiled down most Christian religions to teach. If we hold to the cartoon concept of a Christian heaven, we think “good people go to heaven and bad people don’t.” But then, while we rarely meet the standard of these men, we all with relative certainty judge ourselves to be “good people” no matter where we might actually fall objectively.
If I bought into that, my heart would be lighter. Unfortunately, I don’t pick my beliefs based on whether I like them or not. Instead, I want truth, and there is something exclusively true and necessary in the Catholic Church. My brothers probably wonder how and why I can make the claim.
Tragically, these beautiful men are sometimes hurt when the “big questions” arise in discussion, and I bring up issues of Catholicism and salvation to them—concepts like mortal sin and the necessity of the sacraments. My conscience and my love both bind me to do this. This is blog post is my attempt to explain.
The slightly-more-theologically-advanced version of “good people go to heaven” that parts of society tell us is true is “people who believe in Jesus go to heaven” and “people who don’t, don’t.” I want to explore this as equally problematic. But first, more about my brothers. You might find your thoughts and feelings similar to theirs.
My first brother was raised in the LDS church and does not practice that faith. He does not believe in any “organized religion,” and one of his main complaints is that he feels “judged” by them (and tragically, probably by me). He loves God and believes in Jesus, and he feels that this individual relationship, without any church or institutional formality, is all he needs.
My second brother is a baptized Catholic. I believe his was a battlefield baptism of sorts, where his catechesis happened quickly. He knows what the sacraments are, for instance, but does not feel that he has a true obligation to attend weekly Mass if he is busy or if the nearby congregation is rude or hypocritical. He too loves God and believes in Jesus and has a devotion to the Blessed Mother.
My third brother is Jewish, but was raised by a family that didn’t particularly practice their faith. He was thrown out of a religious education class for asking a question as a child by a thoughtless and rude rabbi, and that was the end of his exploration of his faith. He describes himself as “spiritual,” and wonders about his mortality, but is vehemently against “organized religion.”
Again, these are three of the most ethically upright men one is ever likely to encounter in this life, and they are certainly more virtuous than me. So, how can I possibly “judge” them by saying I am concerned for them? And yet, the heartbreaking fact remains that they feel judged by the Catholic teachings that say that each of those perspectives is not what God established for their salvation.
First, as an aside, let’s talk about judgement. People take great offense in our society at feeling judged. However, we seem to be lumping a variety of different things under the same word. Certainly, God gave us the intellect to judge right from wrong and to judge actions as such. He clearly expects us to exercise "good judgement." If I am about to step on the gas pedal and I think it’s the brake, I would very much appreciate it if someone “judged” my action as wrong and informed me before we hit a wall. It would be a terrible friend who said “well, I didn’t want to judge,” and let us both end up with concussions.
There is another kind of judgement, however, that really is reserved for God alone. While we can judge actions that we can observe objectively, only and omnipresent and omniscient God could possibly judge the subjective motivations of someone’s heart and therefore the state of their soul. Only God can know the endlessly complex web of influences, some beyond the control of the individual, which have impacted a person’s choices and therefore might lessen their culpability for any action they take. That’s the kind of judgement we can’t do.
Therefore, I can not judge my friends who neglect Mass or reject the Catholic Church in the sense of claiming certainty that their souls are in jeopardy. God may understand that this is all due to things beyond their control. However, I would be a terrible friend if I didn’t observe the externals and warn them that it sure looks like they are doing things that are quite dangerous.
So why is it so dangerous to reject what my friends keep calling “organized religion?” To simply rely on one’s own relationship with God or rely upon being “spiritual?” To actually be a Catholic and consciously choose to miss Mass? (That one might be the one that scares me the most!)
Let’s tackle the “organized religion” problem first. Again, this is an issue of lumping diverse things into a single category, then rejecting the category. If you want to follow Christ, and have a personal relationship with Him, an excellent starting place is to do what He said.
“If you love me, keep my commands.” (John 14:15)
If you’re among those who believe that the bible is the Word of God, you’ve got a great starting point, because Christ explains a number of things in very plain language. One of those extremely clear, plain-language statements is that He establishes a Church.
“You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18)
Note that He didn’t say anything along the lines of, “I will somehow reach out to every soul individually and each one will understand my teachings and what I ask of them differently based on their individual relationship with me with no objective measure or standard, and they’ll all be right even if they all completely disagree.” Jesus in his mercy was very clear about not leaving us in that kind of confusion.
Instead, He established an institutional Church. Something immensely solid and enduring, built upon on a Rock, who was Peter, the first Pope. Christ himself established the Catholic Church. He clearly intended an “organized religion,” if you will, although different from all the other organized religions that tend to get lumped into that category, because of the authority on which it was founded and the succession it maintains.
The Catholic Church was the Christian faith for the first 1500 years of its existence (aside from tragic schism with Eastern Orthodoxy). All the other “organized” Christian denominations came about because people started imagining that Christ somewhere did say that long crazy quote I made up a moment ago about “each one will understand my teachings and what I ask of them differently based on their individual relationship with me… and they’ll all be right even if they all completely disagree.”
My brothers often say “how do you know what teaching is right, because it’s all just based on what man says?” Here we have that answer. Yes, all other denominations after the Catholic Church are some derivations of “what man says.” They just keep splintering into the thousands every time someone decides they don’t like a certain idea or like a different one better. However, Christ himself gave the Catholic Church authority to teach His truth, which isn’t up for people to decide upon liking or not.
You might actually believe this without knowing you believe it. For instance, if you happen to believe that the Bible contains divinely revealed truth, then you have some belief in the authority of the Catholic Church to have communicated it. Remember that the Bible didn’t fall complete from heaven, nor did Jesus hand anyone a copy. For the first centuries of Christianity, there was no canonical Bible. The assembly of the scriptures into what we know as the Bible was the work of the Catholic Church.
Thankfully, Christ didn’t say “read the Bible, which will be completed a few hundred years from now, so sorry to all you people who might live in the interim, and also to everyone who can’t read, but when you get it, you’ll know how to live my teachings.” He did say, “on this rock I will build my Church.” Through Peter, the apostles, and their successors, Christ gave His Church the authority, which was valid even prior to the Bible (and necessary to make sense of it), to teach His truth.
At this point, my brothers might say, “Aha! But then you are dealing with men’s teachings!” Here, however, there is a profound difference between the teaching of the institutional Catholic Church and any other church established by men. The difference is that the Catholic Church contains the living continuation of apostolic authority preserved from error, the way you may already believe the Bible is preserved from error.
Think about it—if Christ didn’t leave us with a teaching authority preserved from error, what would He be doing to us 2000 years later? Making sure nobody knew with certainty how to get to heaven? How to interpret His Word? (Contradictory interpretations can’t all be true.) He wasn’t trying to set us up for failure by sowing confusion. In fact, sowing confusion is pretty much the earmark of His enemy’s work.
There are great theologians and apologists who explain the transmission of apostolic authority, the role of infallibility (what it is and what it isn’t—it doesn’t mean the actions of our leaders are unerring, as clearly we have seen), and the teaching authority of the Church much better than I do. If you’re interested, I advise you read these explanations from them, perhaps on ewtn.com, catholicanswers.com, on crediblecatholic.com. I’m just sharing these things, probably poorly and crudely, because most of my brothers don’t even know this line of thought exists and distinguishes the Catholic church from all other Christian denominations and truly all other religions.
Nevertheless, these are the facts on which I stake my soul, and there is so much more to it! Christ established sacraments in His Church to give us the supernatural help we need to live the life he calls us to. I sincerely don’t know how it’s possible to live the life He asks of us without these graces. It would be like trying to run a marathon in the desert without water, but even more impossible. Please hear again the admiration I have for my brothers who I’ve written about here, as I don’t know how I could lead anything close to a virtuous life without these graces.
Again, like in the establishment of the Church, Christ was extremely clear in the establishment of the sacraments. He comes to us in the Mass in the Holy Eucharist. He says, quite clearly of the sacrament,
“This is my body… This is my blood.” (Mark 14:22-24, among other places)
and He tells us:
“Amen, Amen I say to you. Unless you eat of the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink.” (John 6:56)
Do you see why I am afraid? I do not want men as incredible as my brothers, and as incredible as you, dear soul who may be reading this, to not have the gift of eternal life. Christ’s life—His body and blood, soul and divinity—is present in the Catholic Church at every Mass for us to receive. It is only in the Catholic where both the truth and authority exists for the Eucharist to become what God instituted. (For a great article exploring the above scriptures click here.)
However, amazing as their effort and success in virtue is, I see my brothers reject these gifts which God holds out to them—the path and the tools he has given them to see them safely home. God gives us so much and asks so little, even simply that we receive the gifts he offers and participate in the sacraments. It literally takes less than an hour a week, and yet some of us say this is not worth our time?
Finally, to my brilliant third brother, who like many today calls himself “spiritual but not religious,” I realize that these thoughts relating to what God instituted may not be meaningful to you. However, if you call yourself “spiritual,” then I assume you believe that you have a spirit. If that is the case, then you must have some concern for its fate. If you do not, please know that I truly do. God is not withholding the gift of faith from you that would make all the rest of this make sense. Please just ask Him about it.
My beautiful, valiant brothers, if you love Him, or even if you don’t but simply hope for eternal life for your soul, even if not as much as much as I do for you, then ease your sister’s heart and keep His commandments. Know that God Himself established an institutional church, an organized religion unlike all others. Participate and receive the gifts he longs to give you—particularly the gift of Himself!
Our good Lord Himself could hardly bear the tragedy of such great men failing to fulfill their eternal destiny. I can not bear the thought now, and it is at that price that your persistent little sister will continue to pester you and pray for you. Heaven would be so much poorer without you.
Stay Catholic, my friends!
PS. I realize that the first question I might get, during this time of scandal over sexual sins and turmoil in the Church, is how I can believe or advocate belief in an institution whose members are capable of such terrible evil. That’s actually the principal point this blog seeks to address. My brothers, recently scandals have also come to light exposing the degree of sexual victimization within the U.S. military, which has a rate of rape and harassment perhaps higher than any other institution for which such records are kept. (Some statistics say 32% of women in the military report assault, and 80% report harassment.)
Knowing this, however, does not cause me to lose faith in the institution of the military and its purpose, nor has it caused me to lose faith in my good brothers. It also did not cause me to leave the military, because of my commitment to its actual purpose. Similar sins will certainly not cause me to leave the Church, though I am heartbroken for the victims in both cases.
I am not remotely surprised that any institution that involves humans incorporates human evil. The same goes for the Catholic church. God has always used humans in His plans for us, and we have always messed up. He does amazing things and keeps His promises anyway, like those he makes about the Catholic church and His plan for our salvation.
I would never say “we should abandon participation in the military because there is a sexual scandal.” That would be wildly dangerous and nonsensical. It would be even more so to make that argument about the Catholic Church. If the institution that protects the safety of our mortal lives is important, how much more so is the institution that insures the safety of our immortal souls?