Sunday, July 01, 2007

On Being Catholic

Peter Laurie wrote a little piece that I appreciated in something called "The Nation Newspaper" (I don't know what its pedigree is, but it's the news media, so who really cares when it comes to religion writing).

I liked Laurie's piece because it forms a nice example of apologetics of liberal Catholicism. I liked it in particular because such apologetics usually have two main features: a heartfelt, honest expression of self, and a bitter screed against the evils of the 'premodern' elements of Catholic tradition. And Laurie's piece is content to focus on the former.
The wonderful paradox of Catholicism is the eternal tension between orthodoxy and dissent. I live that paradox, filled as I am with certainty constantly beset by doubt.
Laurie is not really an innovator when it comes to seeking a public answer to the question: "If you dissent from the Catholic Church, why not just join a church that agrees with you?" I admit there is a certain temptation to wish that liberal Catholics would all do just that, clergy and laity alike; but that temptation really doesn't stem from charity and is probably at least a venial sin.

But there are, in fact, two questions that conservative Catholics have for liberals: the more common "why not join another another church?" and the rarer, "why not embrace the Spirit-inspired teachings of the Catholic Church?" The implicit modernity that lurks inside the souls of even us conservatives makes the first question is easier to ask than the second. We don't really believe that a liberal Catholic would--or even could--change his beliefs any more than we would change ours. If there is a cognitive dissonance that bothers us about liberal Catholics, we take the more prudential path toward resolution: inviting them to part company with us.

Perhaps that sometimes happens; liberals get fed up and leave, perhaps more often than they stay anonymously, or worse, become agents to "change the Church from the inside." But I really doubt that the invitation to leave is necessarily more effective than the invitation to convert would be if more Pope-believing Catholics had the cojones to ask it. And the reason I say that because the option to convert has an entirely different foundation than the option to stay, or leave the Church. The latter can be justified or argued based on comparing a series of pros and cons; authors like Peter Laurie and Gary Willis (Why I am a Catholic) and Fr. Andrew Greeley (The Catholic Imagination) can explain their continued loyalty by giving you a list of things they like. But the former, the option to convert, has one and only one foundation.

My son, the great scholars of the Torah with whom you have argued wasted their words on you; as you departed you laughed at them. They were unable to lay God and his Kingdom on the table before you, and neither can I. But think, my son, perhaps it is true. -M. Buber, quoted by Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, p. 46.
Perhaps I am taking this quote out of context; after all, Buber and Ratzinger are both addressing atheism, and I am only addressing the matter of Catholics who disagree on points they themselves consider small, even niggling. But I don't believe so. Liberalism is a kind of atheism; it is an atheism of the Church, it is the belief that God is absent from doctrine and that the Magisterium is not really the sacramental Head of the Body of Christ. And so to move from being a dissenting Catholic to an orthodox one I believe truly is a conversion; one more ultimate and radical, even, than Laurie's own conversion from atheism to liberal Catholicism. To be orthodox; to give up, finally, one's cherished right to disagree, and to see the formation of opinions to be itself within the realm moral culpability, is something that hangs on Faith, more than argument.

The only argument that some people would need, but perhaps are not receiving is: "Maybe it is true." Time, perhaps, to stop asking liberal Catholics to leave the Church.

Now I've already revealed a little bit of an extreme opinion. Yes I do believe that dissenting Catholics and orthodox Catholics are doing two essentially different things, different in kind and not just in degree. - a Catholic online dating service I confess to making use of since leaving the seminary - asks its new members to answer whether they believe seven 'controversial' doctrines. This allows members to find people of like values, if indeed this is important for them. A search criterion allows members to find matches that agree with "all", "most", or "some" doctrines.

What goes under the radar of most people is that there is potentially a world of difference between someone who follows "all" the teachings vs. someone who disagrees with even one. And that difference likely lies in the answer to the $64,000 inquiry, "why are you a Catholic?"

It is perfectly understandable that, given the cultural atmosphere, certain dissenting Catholics would feel the need to defend their association with the Catholic faith; a sort of apologia pro vita mea, albeit one whose most basic principles are different than Newman's classic. One shouldn't expect the answer to speak of salvation, for example. But we might expect a lovely litany of the natural goods of the Church.

Many things attracted me to Catholicism: its long history of intellectual and spiritual achievement; its spirited defence of the dignity and sanctity of life; its preferential option for the poor and vulnerable; and its rich liturgical culture.

I also liked that it's a church of sinners for sinners. It's not a church of the "elect" or of the "saved". Every day your relationship to God through Jesus begins anew.

It's also a church in the world and for the world, especially since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). Catholics tend to be "worldly" in the best sense.

This Catholic outlook was beautifully summed up by Pope John XXIII in his opening address to Vatican II when, dismissing the Curial voices of gloom and doom who saw nothing but evil in the world, he urged the church to engage with the modern world, not in a spirit of condemnation, but in a spirit of compassion and joy.

Hope is an exemplary Catholic virtue; hope that human beings can rise above all intrinsic weakness and external shackles to build a society conducive to human flourishing.

I've also experienced in my travels the marvellous diversity within unity of Catholicism: the wonder of a Creole Mass in Haiti; the beauty of indigenous Masses and unique devotions to Mary in Africa, Latin America, and Asia.

I'm choosing to live in the apartment I've selected because of its lush, forested scenery, the kindness of its managers, the reasonable rent, and the ideal location. But given these criteria, and the ones listed by Laurie (and Willis, and Greeley), I could as scarcely expect everybody to live in the same apartment as they could expect everybody to become Catholic. A mountain of natural goods does not a reason to convert make. This is what von Balthasar would call "Aestheticism" - the attempt to, or belief that one has succeeded in "reaching" God by means of an accumulation of natural beauties. At best a naive romanticism; at worst a presumptuous idolatry.

And thus my radical thesis: one who belongs to a religion because of a series of reasons has not, in the main, converted. (Incidentally, I include here those who incidentally agree with the magisterium on all things, and yet see these agreements as the substance of their Catholic identity).

I sound like I'm channeling Kierkegaard here. I'm really not, but I would like to move on to the main reason I started writing.
For me, as for most Catholics, the church is not a club you join. Catholicism is as much a way of life as a religion, even for someone, like me, not born into it.

Hence, despite the numerous scandals and crises that have beset the church, most Catholics steadfastly remain.

Hence, going to church for most of us is rarely an expression of piety. It's just something that Catholics do. The casual dress of churchgoers shows that it's not something apart from our everyday life. The Eucharist is the core of our faith.

People who know me know I love to dissect, and this here is one juicy slab of beef. As always, the first question one must ask is, "What, precisely, do you mean when you utter these words, 'way of life', 'club', 'expression of piety', 'not something apart from our everyday life', and 'core of our faith'.'?

Perhaps Laurie is making the Reform Jewish distinction between "orthodoxy" and "orthopraxy"; Catholicism is the business of going to church in your shorts and sandals, not an indicator of your opinions. Or maybe he is distinguishing between a pietistic, compartmentalized, hypocritical, aloof, "churchy" atmosphere, and a Catholicism which is, I'm sure he would agree, "integrated" into daily life.

Far be it from me to disparage the exalting of the ordinary. Daily life is the rich soil of sanctification - just ask any Opus Dei member. Moreover, I've witnessed my share of self-righteous "churchiness" to know that this is, in fact, a legitimate concern and one that should be shared by orthodox Catholics as much as liberals.

But somewhere in all the above "I-like-being-Catholicness" is an off-key note. What exactly does Laurie mean when he says that Catholicism is not a club?

Of course, those are words I can get behind. Catholicism isn't a club; it is not a "free association of like-minded individuals" gathered for a common purpose, nor is it exclusive in any a priori sense. As Francis Cardinal George once told an ecumenical meeting of Christian leaders, "To be perfectly honest, I want you all to be Catholic;" the same words could be legitimately said by any Catholic to the whole world. The only thing the Catholic faith excludes is sin, while embracing sinners. (there is a very catchy T-shirt slogan floating about, "Fear Only God; Hate Only Sin"; gotta get me one of those).

Yet somehow I gather that Laurie means something other than all of this. The "club" that he is repudiating is not the club of the "free association of like-minded individuals"; indeed, what he describes as his reasons for being Catholic sounds keen on precisely such a religiosity. No, the aspect of "club" that Laurie here rejects is the fact that clubs logically imply a distinction between members and non-members.

And here we see what "being Catholic" for Laurie really means. It means doing Catholic things. Just as building things makes one a carpenter, and stealing things makes one a thief, being a Catholics means going to church; "just something people do." Here Laurie follows the canon of liberal Catholicism par excellence: what makes one a Catholic is experience.

Blagh. This thing has devolved into a mess as the night winds down. Sorry.


Rusty said...

WOW Lot of stuff there Jeff.

There was a rather long response I once heard to that question give by a liberal.

I've never been able to find it but here it is summed up. Maybe you'll have better look tracking it down than me.

To sum it up:

Conservatives and traditions keep fighting to UNDO female alter servers and V2 even when the Magistratum has allowed it.

It went on to state that MAYBE God was trying to inact massive changes but the Conservative Popes and Cardinals and the like are fighting such changes tooth and nail.

But of course that gentleman said it alot more clearly and in more detail should I ever find the article I'll pass it along.

Jeff said...

The argument is familiar enough to me that I doubt the need for a review. Liberals who use the argument are, in a sense, not "deists" because they don't deny that God (in the Holy Spirit) is active in the world and in history. But the notion that the Holy Spirit acts in the Magisterium of the Catholic Church in a manner unique, priviledged, even, sare we say, sacramental - this is the worst impiety.

The liberal argument is that it is more pious to believe that the Holy Spirit "blows where he wills", with a special stress on the windiness of the whole affair. Liberal Catholics take after Ockham's delight in stressing the *dischord* between the work and freedom of God and the activity and understanding of man. Broken down into logical patterns, what arises is a generalized prejudice, not merely against "authority" or "institution", but in the end all difference, order, hierarchy, drama, ritual, and otherness, whether "artificial" or "natural".

Note how little pedigree even the word "nature" carries in liberal circles, especially when it implies something resembling givenness or order.

The notion that conservative popes and bishops have been stifling the Spirit - represented, of course, by democracy in spiritualized versions of Lockian governmental theory - makes the Spirit appear rather weak, doesn't it? As if the Spirit was nothing more than the will of the Proletariat enacting a necessary progress of Reason in a historical dialectic. Ah, all of a sudden, not only am I channeling Kierkegaard; my theoretical opponents are channeling Hegel!

Matt of CG said...

"Chide our weak ones with equity, but only to circumcise their hearts." That's a great point, Jeff!

Rusty said...

Sorry for the late replay.

Only thing I'll add is something many Conservatives in the Catholic faith have stated the same thing.

Only it being Liberals holding back the Holy Spirit and in one extreme case the reason there is a shortage of clergy and holy orders is because they have been "contracepted" out of existence.

It seems to just go back and forth...

Jeff I swear to you man, somedays when I watch those debates I have to double check to make sure I'm listening to Catholics and not a member of any of the other faiths I've known.