Please Pass the Ontology

A philosophically-minded young friend recently sent me a fine rant, after having watched a presidential candidates' cattle call on CNN. The discussion had focused on religion.

Several candidates, who identified themselves as Catholics, had indicated that their Christianity was rather easily bracketed when they put on their hats as public servants. "Does ontology mean nothing to these people?" my friend asked. "Do they even know what it is?"

Well, no. They don't. And that's a problem.

By "ontology," my correspondent was using the technical vocabulary of philosophy to re-capture an image once familiar to generations of Catholics from the Baltimore Catechism, the image of an "indelible mark" imprinted on the soul by certain sacraments. This image of the "indelible mark" was intended to convey a basic truth of Catholic faith: that the reception of certain sacraments changed the recipient forever, by conferring on him or her a new identity — not in the psychological sense of that overused term, but substantively. Or, if you'll pardon the term, ontologically.

Baptism is a sacrament with what we might call ontological heft. To become a Christian through baptism is qualitatively different from becoming a citizen, a member of the Supreme Court bar, a Detroit Tigers fan, a collector of vintage Volvos, a bourbon drinker, a member of the Democratic or Republican parties, a lifelong student of Dante, or a trout fisherman.

When one becomes a Christian through baptism and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, one is changed in a fundamental way. As St. Paul taught those rowdy Corinthians, one becomes a "new creation" (2 Cor 5: 17).

That ontological change in baptism (and I swear that's the last time I'll use the o-word) incorporates a Catholic into the Church. The Church is not incidental to our identity as new creations in Christ; we don't "join" the Church the way we join the Rotary, the Kiwanis, the American Association of University Women, the A.M.A., the American Legion or my beloved Society for the Restoration of Lost Positives ("ept," "ert," etc.).

Being a Catholic Christian engages who-I-am in a substantively different way than any other aspect of my "identity" — not because I think that's the case, or because I feel that's the case, but because that is the case: objectively, not subjectively. Baptism has real effects; it changes us forever.

 So when a candidate for public office avers, on the one hand, that his or her "membership in the faith community" is deeply personal, or a matter of "my relationship with Jesus," and then suggests that being a Catholic Christian is a compartment of life that can be hermetically sealed off from first principles of justice (i.e., the principles involved in abortion, euthanasia and embryo-destructive stem-cell research), we're dealing with a confused camper — one might even say, a camper with a severe identity-crisis.

That most Catholic politicians don't understand this is obvious: that's why, were the entire Catholic contingent in Congress to be replaced by Mormons, Capitol Hill would certainly lose some good people — but the social doctrine of the Church and the Church's teaching on the life issues (both of which involve publicly accessible moral truths, not sectarian "positions") would have a better chance of implementation.

The politicos aren't alone, however. How many Catholics in the United States understand that their baptism made them a "new creation"? Decades of faux-catechesis, in which the only "indelible marks" to be found in religious education classrooms were made by magic markers on felt banners, have left us severely weakened in our self-understanding, such that too many Catholics imagine their Christianity to be the religious variant of their membership in other voluntary organizations. Thus the challenge posed to the official teachers of the Church — especially bishops and pastors — is a massive one.

Given the campaign calendar, we'll soon be embroiled in another round of the religion-and-politics wars. Reminding all Catholics about what baptism really does to us would be a good place to begin calling the office-seekers to account.

George Weigel


George Weigel is an American author and political and social activist. He currently serves as a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Weigel was the Founding President of the James Madison Foundation.

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  • Guest

    Several years ago a Catholic lawyer met with my husband, also a Catholic lawyer, and asked if my husband would support him in a bid for the state house.  My husband asked, "How will your Catholic faith inform your decisions?"  Response, "It won't, I keep religion separate from business."  Then my husband asked, "What's your position on abortion?"  Response, "I'm pro choice."  Well then, says my husband, I can't support you.

    I then contacted my priest and a Catholic friend of mine and relayed the conversation to them.  (the candidate had been pumping hands at mass regulary and had used the church mailing list.)  My priest gave a homily telling people to educate themselves about the candidates.  My buddy, a combat Marine from the Korean War days, sent out a flurry of emails regarding the candidate.

    The guy lost and my husband ended up changing his practice area and moved his office to another town.  (basically, he was blackballed by the good old boys).  It was definately worth standing up for truth and as a side benefit, our wallet is fatter too!

    Yes, we are integrated persons: body and soul.  Baptism regenerates the soul, ontologically speaking, and the actions of our body reflect the rebirth.

  • Guest

    Right on, Elkabriker's hubby!   

    Recently, I read paragraph 1792 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church: "Ignorance of Christ and his Gospel, bad example given by others, enslavement to one's passions, assertion of a mistaken notion of autonomy of conscience, rejection of the Church's authority and her teaching, lack of conversion and of charity:  these can be at the source of errors of judgment in moral conduct."     Para 1791 of the CCC teaches:  "This ignorance can often be imputed to personal responsibility.  This is the case when a man 'takes little trouble to find out what is true and good, or when consceince is by degrees almost blinded through the habit of committing sin.'  In such cases, the person is culpable for the evil he commits."

  • Guest

    Patty, that's helpful.  It's always important to keep looking for the plank in your own eye.  Even St Paul says that he must guard against losing his own soul while evangelizing others.

  • Guest

    Our Bishop's (and Priests) must present the Church's position on "Abortion, Stem Cell Research, et al", more forcefully.  I know that as a Church we don't want to get involved with "political" issues, but the above stated or "moral" issues and on these we must raise our voices.  Catholics on the whole need to be reminded, constantly, of what it means to be "Baptised".  I am dismayed at our "Catholic Politicians" willing to support, even by silence, issues that our Church has deemed immoral. 

  • Guest

    The USCCB addressed the matter of Catholic politicians' responsibilities to integrate faith and politics in a response to a 2006 statement from some Catholic politicians in which the misguided politicos appealed to some kind of fictitious "conscience clause" that would allow them to demur from Church teaching on abortion (all the while insisting that Catholic social teaching would govern their approach to issues like health care, immigration, poverty, etc.). The bishops' response has appeared on this board before but it is worth repeating.

  • Guest

    It is interesting that politicians say that their faith is not a factor in their political decisions. This seems to only apply to voting about abortion and other Pro-Life topics. Most democrats consider themselves the party which helps the poor and downtrodden. Don't they realize that they are following the teachings of Jesus Christ when they do that? In Mt 25 Jesus says that we are to "feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked,…etc"  When I vote to help the poor, I am following my faith. When I vote to stop abortion, I am following my faith.

    Maybe they just don't know what their faith teaches. Maybe their faith is more influenced by what will get them the support of their party, than what Jesus says.

  • Guest

    May I insert a "side-track" here?  Almost immediately after I reverted to Catholicism, I was put to work assisting in RCIA.  Since my theology was still somewhat "informed" by my previous 20 years in Fundamental-Evangelical Protestantism, I was still working on my own issues while supporting the teachings of the Church in class. 

    Still thinking of baptism as "the outward sign of an inward work" (and not the way Catholics mean it!), I was leading a discussion on something (I forget what–doesn't matter), and realized that I wasn't getting my point across.  I sat on the edge of a desk, sighed, and had a thought (which the Holy Spirit obviously gave me!): "how many of you have been baptized?"  About half the hands went up.  I looked at them and realized that those who had been baptized were the ones who understood what I was talking about; those who hadn't (yet) were the ones who didn't have a clue!  (I looked over my shoulder at the Deacon, and he was grinning from ear-to-ear!)

    One of the Gifts of Baptism is the ability to understand "the things of God".  One may or may not act on that ability, but it's there because of baptism.

  • Guest

    Behind every good Catholic lawyer is a good Catholic wife.

  • Guest

    the inability to "see" contradictions has alot to do with seeing religion as a value but really not believing in God. Sexual practice has alot to do with that, and not just because people are blindly addicted to sin, but because we are complex and cannot put things into words. As Newman says, everyone has reasons, but not everyone can give reasons.

  • Guest

    Please note, the "United States Catholic Conference of Bishops" is already at a loss of the True Faith.  If they assert "ontologically", oh, that "o" word, that a Catholic ("catholic" ?) bishop is first and foremost a member of the United States, and not first and foremost a member of the Church founded by the Son of God, my God, it's no wonder they're lost, "o" or not.  No wonder they can meet some weeks ago and vote to leave it up to each bishop to decide for himself whether to offer Holy Communion to an abrasively brash pro-death (please, don't ever use "pro-abort") politico.  If memory serves me correctly, (at 69…), these wolves in sheeps' clothing "happen" to appear in plush motel/hotel accommodations.  Gosh, don't you think Jesus missed the point by placing Himself in a hovel?

    Still, I pray for the whole pilgrim Catholic Church, including my wolf, er, shepherd, Michael Driscoll of Idaho.


  • Guest

    The USCCB pronouncement is both cowardly and deceitful, which is something I have come to expect. What is needed is a strong and clear condemnation of "Catholic" politicians who actively promote policies that are anathema. These men and women must be reminded that such service to sin is deadly to their souls, and the statement of this mortal threat should be both forthright and forceful. Instead, the USCCB statement is tantamount to complicity in the same manner as their infamous response to the refusal of sacraments: "It should be up to the individual bishop to decide."

    There should be a clarion denunciation of these men and women and their political policies from every pulpit in the nation. There should be no single corner in which they could hide themselves from the harsh light of Truth. To do less is a failure of the shepherd to care for his flock.

    Alb —-"Jealousy is the tribute mediocrity pays to genius." –Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen.