Catholicism: What Else is There?

Catholicism has never been intellectually more coherent or - ironically - culturally weaker.
by James V. Schall, S.J. | Source:
For born Catholics, familiarity with their faith can produce an inattentiveness to its inner coherence and its transcendent meaning. To be a “born” Catholic is no doubt one thing; to see why remaining a Catholic makes intellectual sense is another. Yet, the function of the human mind is to know what it holds and why. The most dangerous thing we can do, as Chesterton remarked, is to doubt the capacity of our mind to know and to state, as true, what it knows.

What is unique about Catholicism, and on this uniqueness it stands or falls, is its claim to be true. Many philosophies and religions likewise claim to be true. Indeed, even the claim to be true implies that the function of the human mind is itself to be critically examined especially when it comes to religion. The mind, the locus of intelligence, is to know the truth and to know that the truth can be known. Dominant philosophies in recent years, contrary to earlier religious and intellectual debates, have not argued the particular issue of Catholicism’s claim to be true together with the evidence for this claim. Rather they have doubted the capacity of the mind’s knowing anything to be true. They have denied that the very purpose of the human mind is to discover, define, and establish what is true. Refusing to take a chance that something might in fact be true, it is best, they seem to think, to make it impossible for anything to be true. That way, any position can be held with no responsibility to test it other than with power or desire.

Catholicism’s claim to be true is not proclaimed in a kind of vacuum. It is a concrete faith. Catholicism’s intellectual side has manifested a serious attempt, according to time and place, no less so today than ten or fifteen centuries ago, to meet the arguments that reject, on whatever basis, its truth. The new Catechism is in part a record of these controversies and of the way the Church has responded to arguments against its own claim to truth. Any alternate version of either Christianity, religion, philosophy, or science that would claim to undermine Catholicism’s own self-understanding as essentially true has been and is to be examined and responded to in terms intelligible to the matter at controversy.

In part, this intellectual effort to account for the possibility of differing versions of truth is due to the faith itself in its very content. We are told that we are to know the truth and that this same truth, nothing more, nothing less, will make us free. This is the claim we make about ourselves, so if we are logical and honest we must affirm this truth. This is not arrogance, nor any lack of respect for the views of others. Rather it is taking seriously what others claim to be their positions and the reasons for them. We must also clarify in what sense we are free because of this same truth.

ONLY THE VATICAN DID NOT COMPROMISE

Secondly, Catholicism is in its very constitution a missionary religion. Evidently all men need to know something that, without it, they do not know already about their human lot. All nations are to be taught. Whether we like it or not, this missionary effort puts the faith before the nations. Almost always, this missionary effort, which arises from the intrinsic structure of the faith itself, will confront and challenge the nations. The nations have varying political religions and laws that themselves claim to oversee the content of truth or practice allowed for their own citizens.

The Cairo Population Conference reports stated, strikingly, that the Vatican’s position was the only one from among the nations that in principle maintained that abortion was always and everywhere wrong. All others compromised, including the so-called Catholic and democratic nations. Catholicism can, at first sight, wring its hands that it is in such a minority position. Surely it cannot be right and the rest of the world wrong. Yet, in this opposition, Catholicism is implicitly asked to follow the morality of the rest of the world on the dubious principle that so many political “nay” votes cannot be wrong.

THE CHURCH: A MINORITY OF ONE

And yet, the history of the nations may well be inevitably leading to this sort of paradox, that no one is willing to acknowledge truths that are scientifically and rationally obvious and verifiable. The Church, especially when it is a minority of one, is a dangerous opponent. For in such a case different criteria of truth are clearly at work between the Church and the nations. The Holy Father’s recent and brilliant Encyclical, Veritatis Splendor, spells this issue out as clearly as it has ever been analysed in the history of religion and philosophy. In Christian literature, at least, it is by no means inconceivable that the time will come, or perhaps has already come, when the nations will officially and publicly reject what is true, in spite of the evidence of truth itself. When the nations collectively “boo”, as they did at Cairo, those few who present the truth, not of faith but of life, we can be sure of some ultimate issue.

On Saturday, April 3, 1779, Boswell visited Samuel Johnson. “I mentioned my having heard an eminent physician, who was himself a Christian, argue in favour of universal toleration,” Boswell wrote. He maintained “that no man could be hurt by another man’s differing from him in opinion. Johnson. “Sir, you are to a certain degree hurt by knowing that even one man does not believe.” What, we ask, was Johnson’s meaning here, that we are “hurt” by knowing that even one does not believe?

Samuel Johnson’s rejoinder to Boswell is indeed quite surprising when we read it today. We all accept this “universal tolerance” as the only “democratic” attitude to religion. All are equal. We dare not hint that it makes much difference what we believe. Religious or philosophical diversity of opinion, we are led to understand, makes not the slightest difference in reality. Our mental faculties thus are of little worth. Our mental faculties thus are little worth. They can conclude to nothing, the opposite of which might not be equally true. We are so “tolerant” that nothing counts for anything. The only theory we are not tolerant about, of course, is the one that maintains that it does make a difference what we think, what we hold to be self-evident or true.

Since, in practice, we uphold nothing as true, almost all things are permitted. When all sorts of dire things follow from this view, as they inevitably do, we are necessarily tolerant or conciliatory about these results. We maintain that not merely are someone’s ideas of no consequence, but no one’s actions are of any consequence either. As in the case of AIDS or abortions, we systematically deny that actions have consequences. We have in principle evaporated the world of any meaning or inner coherence.

Johnson’s point was, no doubt, that thoughts are the origins of our actions. When he said that we are hurt when even one man does not believe, he merely alluded to that very delicate bond with which we are all bound together in truth and goodness. We are told in revelation that we are not even to think on certain things that, if we do them, disorder our souls. The way to respond to ideas and thoughts is not to minimize their importance but to see to it that our thoughts and actions are right and true. We are not to be so naive as to think that no relation exists between what is wrong in the world and the rightness of what we think we ought to do or be.

I bring this passage of Johnson up because Catholicism in particular finds itself in a very unusual position today. I would be presumed to be brash if I were to propose that Catholicism has no intellectual enemies worthy of it anywhere on the modern scene. But this circumstance seems to be in fact the case. The situation is doubly paradoxical, I think, because from within the Church itself, this situation is hardly admitted. In fact its very truth is rejected or ignored by many Catholics, particularly intellectual ones because it involves recantation of well publicized positions.

RELIGION IS SELDOM DISCUSSED

If we take a look at the modern popes, moreover, particularly John Paul II, we can see in Catholicism a concerted and systematic effort to explain itself in the context of the available alternatives to it. We have a Pope who is himself a major philosopher. We find papal commissions devoted to discussions with all the major and minor Protestant bodies, with Jews, with Muslims, with scientists, with social science, with the Orthodox, with eastern religions, with non-believers of varying sorts. Thus, and this is my thesis here, Catholicism has never been intellectually more coherent or, and here is the irony, culturally weaker.

What do I mean by this irony? To explain my meaning, I harken back to a passage from the letters of the novelist, Flannery O’Connor. She was responding to a friend who was apparently scandalized about so many sinners in the Catholic Church, including in high places. Evidently, in Flannery’s friend’s mind, this fact was a reason for disbelief of Catholicism, rather than a reason for its need. Obviously, with the recent spate of scandals throughout the clergy, we know that great shock exists in the population. There is and ought to be the greatest unease on our part that such things happen.

As an aside to this point, I have noticed that in many Masses, priests drop the washing of the fingers after the Offertory, as they apparently are now permitted by the rubrics to do. Yet, I have thought that, if we, both priests and laity, read the prayer that the priest says at this moment and listen attentively to the words he is supposed to say, “Lord, wash away my iniquities and cleanse me from my sins” — this part of the rubrics is one of the last things that should be dropped. For what we are in need of is not merely few sins, but more clear statements of what sin is, something that, in part, John Paul II wrote the Catechism and Veritatis Splendor to show us.

Years ago, I remember reading an observation of the British historian Christopher Dawson. He remarked that if we were in the most important cities in the world in the year 4 B. C., and we happened to read the morning paper, we would have found there no account of events that took place in a little town outside of Jerusalem called Bethlehem. I have often pondered this remark because it suggest the radically differing criteria about what is really important to us, about the difference between what we think of our world and what God thinks of it.

Even if we had been in Jerusalem on that Passover some thirty years later on which Christ was crucified, we would have probably found at most a brief notice about three criminals being crucified under orders of the Roman governor Pontius Pilate. Some gossip might possibly have also been recounted about certain strange activities in the Temple that required its veil to be repaired. But all in all, not much would have been reported about the most important thing ever to happen to our race. This quiet way is, no doubt, the way God acts. The history of the City of God takes place alongside of and within the history of the nations.

To continue this mode of reflection, even the Gospel accounts of the end of the world similarly suggest that we would mostly not recognize what was going on at the end times. Not merely do we not know the day or the hour, but we do not know how to read the signs of the times that might indicate that certain prophecies or conditions are being fulfilled. People will go on marrying and giving in marriage, quite perplexed that anything should interfere with their ordinary lives.

No doubt, many things happen in our lives about which it is good for us not to know too much. We really would not like to be born knowing the definite day and hour of our death. That we do not know the day or hour is in fact a blessing that enables us to go on and participate in the activities of this world. We do not want to know ahead of time who we will meet, know, or love in our lives as this prior information would take the adventure out of living.

One of the things we rarely discuss in polite company any more is religion. Actually religion is seldom even preached any more. What is mostly preached, on objective analysis, is a kind of bland socialism or social concern in which the purpose of religion is mainly to make the world better. Just what the word “better” means in such a view is itself something so ill-defined that “better” can mean precisely establishing things that were once considered to be definitely evil or disordered. Part of the reason for any lack of discussion about the truth of religion is that we really cannot discuss any fundamental differences seriously. We prefer not to disturb anyone. It is not to be done, of course, except for serious and mutual search for the truth.

The ecumenical movement itself, as it popularly has worked itself out, has become in many ways not so much a serious confrontation with religious differences and the importance of these differences but a kind of good fellowship in which everything is left as it was. If something is true, however, and it can be shown to be true, then we need to change our minds about it. We need to do something about our errors, about our lives based on them. I do not mean to disparage custom or historic ways of human living. But they need testing. This is why the Apostles were to be fishers of men and to go forth to all the nations.

ATMOSPHERE OF UNLIMITED TOLERANCE

What is almost a forbidden topic today is that of the truth of Catholicism. The atmosphere of unlimited tolerance has brought it about that it is impolite under any circumstances to suggest that truth makes a difference in our lives and in our regimes. We pride ourselves, as I said, in thinking that differences of views about truth, including religious truth, make no difference. Just before he died, the novelist Walker Percy wrote a short essay about these religious beliefs. Percy was, to recall, a medical doctor, a philosopher, a kind of sage. He was concerned that words mean something. He felt the need to give brief and terse replies sometimes to frequently asked, but not altogether neutral questions. “However decrepit the language and however one may wish to observe the amenities and avoid offending one’s fellow Americans” Walker Percy wrote, “sometimes the question which is the title of this article (‘Why Are You a Catholic?’) is asked more or less directly. When it is asked just so, straight out, just so: ‘Why are you a Catholic?’ I usually reply, ‘What else is there?’

Ever since I came across this terse remark of Walker Percy, I have wondered about it. Percy admitted that he was being a bit flippant in making it. None the less, he was quite serious. We live in a time of the decline of ideologies. The passionate debates about Marxism are now quiet. The search is on for a new religion but it is not allowed to be Catholicism, which is supposedly proven to be simply wrong or out-of-date, however little evidence there is that this is so.

The newest candidate for “what else?” is, surprisingly, Islam itself, which is making serious inroads, even in the West. The Muslim claim is that they will grow rapidly in population and will become numerically and thus politically dominant over a demographically declining Western population caught within the logic of its own theories about the relative insignificance of incipient human life. At least one answer to the question “what else is there?” then, is Islam.

Paul Johnson, in an essay I have often cited, asked, after the fall of Marxism, whether “totalitarianism was dead?” He thought that in fact the same intellectual theories that gave rise to Marxism were at work in the West under different guises but to the same purposes. The notion that the ever increasingly powerful state should control the economy and society in the name of some sort of world common good has reappeared in the form of ecology and environmentalism, almost always embracing positions directly opposed to Catholicism. If we follow carefully what is said about animals, about trees, about the carrying capacity of the earth, we will begin to suspect a neo-pagan religion is at our doorsteps. It is taught everywhere in the schools and campuses. In it, individual human beings are subsumed back into a kind of abstract species and become functions of its own closed system. Ecology is propounded in the name of science but almost every one of its premises is shown to be scientifically questionable. It is a new act of faith that refuses to correct itself in the name of reason. It is itself very apocalyptic while being a harbinger of precisely those things in this world of which religious apocalypse at its best warned us.

One could go on, I suppose, listing the sundry alternate proposals that claim, in one way or another, a superior or higher understanding of man, nature, or cosmos than Catholicism. What the recent proposals have in common has been called variously their “gnostic” or “anthropocentric” first principles. Essentially, all can be reduced to some form of denial that there is a transcendent destiny to each human individual. What substitutes for this personal transcendence is usually some form of world state in which its power becomes in effect unlimited. No order of nature or man is claimed to exist so that whatever we will is alone to have a claim on our energies and choices.

To be sure, the older philosophic attractions remain. Plato and Aristotle continue in their unChristianized forms and to that extent represent, in my view, something rather healthy. But the temptation of the philosophers remains very narrow and has behind it a long history of response, especially within Catholicism. In this sense, Thomas Aquinas remains important and active among us.

THE PROBLEM IS SPIRITUAL

The particularly Catholic and contemporary response to all of these alternatives can be found most clearly and persuasively presented in John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus, in the Catechism, and in Veritatis Splendor, among other places. What is fascinating, in my view, is that the Church has taken great pains to articulate most clearly just what it holds about itself, this in the light of the various alternatives be they from other religions, from science, from ideology, from philosophy. My initial premise was Catholicism has taken all the alternatives seriously, examined them, agreed with what was reasonable and sensible, and shown its own unique claim precisely in the light of the best thought of our time.

This large-scale reworking or representing of the specifically Catholic position is largely unknown, I think, not because it is not available, but because there are political and moral reasons not to examine and consider it. For it does involve a questioning of how lives are lived and states ruled. I have often wondered why in the media, in the universities and schools, in computer on-line services, and in bookstores, in what is claimed to be the most uncensored of all societies, it is almost impossible easily to find those documents, books, and arguments that simply state this intelligible and articulate account of Catholicism in relation to “what else it there?” I think that at least one of the answers is that many knowingly choose not to know. That is to say, the problem is no longer really intellectual but moral and spiritual. From all we know about the faith itself, in its own self-understanding of itself, this possibility is not unanticipated.

What else is there? It still appears that what is not considered or admitted in some honest and sober manner is precisely Catholicism’s understanding of man, God, and world. This response begins with the folly of the Cross, with the answer to our personal disorders and to our refusal to accept the wisdom that is in fact there and splendidly articulated in our time. Indeed, so bound are we together, we are indeed “hurt” by one man who does not believe. We do live in a world in which the alternatives to Catholicism are known and carefully examined by it. We do live in a world that has failed to find God by pursuing its own wisdom, a world that has ended up with nothing but its own choice. This is what “else” there is. The question remains, no doubt, simply “do we want it”?

Reprinted with permission from Homiletic and Pastoral Review. All rights reserved.



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