I’m preparing a big “why-I-am-a-Catholic” essay, and some of what follows might make it into that. Let’s consider some incorrect models of how the Catholic mind works.
- The Latin Averroist model. Liberals and utilitarians think they have a monopoly on “reason”, so they imagine that insofar as Catholics think at all, we must be led to liberal, materialist conclusions. We hold back from those conclusions because of a contrasting mental habit called “faith”, meaning “belief in crazy things for no reason”. Little needs to be said about this model here. In fact, Catholics do not have two independent modules in their heads labeled “reason” and “faith”. There are some truths that we only know through revelation, but we apply the same rules of logic to revelation as to any other source of information, and we apply the same spirit of reverence in approaching God’s self-revelation in nature.
- The popecentric model. Catholics are to blame for this one, with all of our boasting about having an authority to save us from the perils of “private interpretation”. The idea is that the basis of all our beliefs is the idea that whatever the pope, or more generally the Magisterium, says must be true. There are, of course, many problems with such a model. First, why would we believe that the pope is always right? I suppose this could be taken as a fundamental axiom, but it seems like a very strange and ad hoc one. Alternatively, we could defend the authority of the Church and the pope via an interpretation of Scripture, in which case we are on the same epistemic level as the Protestants. And indeed we are. Defining Catholicism as “whatever the Pope says” means Catholics would have to comb through two millennia of Church documents before being sure what the Church’s teaching about anything is, which of course we never feel the need to do. No matter how much smoke the dissenters try to throw up, everybody knows what the Catholic teaching is on the number of Persons in the Trinity, the Real Presence in the Eucharist, the moral status of contraception, the Divine inspiration of the Bible, etc. And how do we know this? Sure, we can point to official Church documents, but none of them created these teachings. Their authority seems stronger than any particular official affirmation of them; such teachings manifest the Church’s positions but cannot create them by administrative fiat. We seem to be confronted more with what Maistre would identify as the Church’s unwritten constitution. If anything, Catholic teachings on faith and morals feel more assured than belief in papal infallibility, so the latter can’t be the basis of the former.
- The two-tier Christian model. In this model, Catholics are first convinced (somehow or other) to be mere Christians, and then further arguments are adduced that Catholicism is the right way to be Christian, while Protestantism is the wrong way. In fact, most Catholics think of Catholicism as default Christianity. Like the Orthodox, it has a continuous historical lineage back to the apostolic Church instituted by Christ. Thus, if one is convinced Christianity is true, the natural first assumption is that Catholicism is also true; what needs arguing is that the Catholic Church is not the legitimate successor to the apostolic Church as its unbroken historical chain suggests. Therefore, Catholics often don’t trouble with coming up with reasons why Protestantism must be wrong. We would be happy for it to turn out that the Reformation was just a big misunderstanding and that Lutheran theology, when properly understood, is perfectly orthodox. Our natural assumption would then be that the Lutherans should drop their rebellion and submit to the historically prior Church. If Protestants want to understand our attitude to them, this complacency is important to get across. Catholics feel a great deal of confidence as the default Christians, and we tend to imagine that the burden of proof should always favor us.
- Third person thinking. Catholics are taught that faith is a supernatural gift. Thus, the ultimate answer to the question “Why is X a believing Catholic?” is “because the Holy Spirit has infused the gift of faith into X”. On the other hand, if a Catholic is asked “Why do you believe Catholicism is true?” it wouldn’t be any kind of answer to say “Because the Holy Spirit gave me faith to believe it.” This is the difference between a cause and a reason. The Holy Spirit’s action may be the cause of your faith, but it isn’t a reason for it. With all the badmouthing of apologetics and “proselytism” going around, many Catholics have gotten the idea that it’s somehow impious to have reasons for one’s beliefs. Still, reasons we must have. As I said, I’ll share my reasons later.
- The atheist’s priors model. Reasons come it two types. Natural theology and natural law purport to establish necessary truths via philosophical reasoning. On the other hand, there are portions of the Catholic faith that are certainly non-necessary. The Incarnation, for example. The statement “God became Man” was false before around 0 AD, so there’s no way that one could prove its truth through a priori reasoning. It’s just not that kind of truth. Contingent truths are always matters of probability. The error is in thinking that the correct way to evaluate this particular probability is the way someone with modern, naturalist prejudices would. Recall Bayes’ theorem: P(A|B) = P(B|A)P(A)/P(B). Here, A is “Jesus is God” while B is the historical record–witness of the Apostles and the like. Everything depends on the prior probabilities P(A) and P(B), which we can only evaluate on a given set of assumptions about how the world is. Thus, we really have P(A|C) vs. P(A|M), where C and M are the general metaphysical presuppositions of Catholics (or, rather, pre-Catholics) and materialists, respectively. It certainly changes one’s estimation of how crazy the Gospel claims are if one both believes in God and has some sort of reason to believe that the Incarnation is the sort of thing that God would wish to do. I’ll argue that Catholics (and pre-Catholics) do have such a reason, so we quite legitimately evaluate the same evidence as the atheists differently. We’ll also tend to evaluate P(B) = P(B|A)P(A) + P(B|~A)P(~A) somewhat differently because of our different attitudes toward past generations. Materialists tend to assume that ancient people were gullible and excitable, so some such story like the Gospel gaining traction would not be an unusual occurrence [i.e. P(B|~A) relatively high]. After all, there are other major world religions that we don’t claim began with a valid revelation, so unjustified religious crazes with fantastical origin stories do happen. The Christian can reply by pointing to unique features of the Christian story to push P(B|~A) down, but I think the main issue is the previous one. We see a greater-than-human logic to the Incarnation, which reasonably raises for us its probability of being true.
- The legitimacy of faith in what is not certain. But how can one make a commitment to that which is only probable? The quick answer is that everybody does it, so it must be possible. Even atheists organize their lives around uncertain facts. More deeply, this particular choice, of whether to accept that Jesus Christ is God, poses a profoundly ultimate existential choice. It is true that the truth is not necessary; one must choose to accept it. It is sufficiently probable that one can accept it, that is as something one can really believe rather than just deciding to pretend to believe by an act of will. But even the evaluating of probabilities was no mechanical act; it depended on one’s deepest intuitions about how the world is. Another man would have evaluated them differently. Now one’s core metaphysical intuitions say that this is just the sort of thing one should have been waiting for, and the choice is a choice to believe that the world really is that way. Indeed, if Christ is who He says He is, then the world is much more “that way” than one could even have imagined. Nebulous and abstract ideas about the spiritual depth of the physical world become shockingly concrete. There is good reason to believe, but the choice is still a very personal one, because these reasons all go back to one’s fundamental attitude and perspective on the world, which differ from person to person.
- The conceivability of what one doesn’t believe. What does it mean to have faith in the Church, for example that infallible teachings will never contradict? It doesn’t mean we regard such a thing as inconceivable–we can conceive it quite well. If it did happen, we wouldn’t invent extravagant explanations to deny that it had happened. In this case, Catholicism would be proven wrong. But to be a believing Catholic means that I am confident that it will not be proven wrong. To cite an analogy I’ve used before, for a man to believe in his wife’s faithfulness doesn’t mean that if he caught her in bed with another man he would deny the obvious; it just means that he’s sure that this won’t happen.
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