Notes on the Catholic mind: some false models

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.

23 Responses

  1. How is 3 a false model? Vis a vis the Protestants, it seems like a pretty accurate description of the Catholic mind. Vis a vis, say, the Coptics or the Eastern Orthodox, it is mistaken, but you only specifically referenced the Protestants.

    This is probably a point on which I am particularly susceptible to error since this “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” is an excellent summary of how I came to be Catholic.

    Seven also seems a little odd to me. Do you actually believe this: “If it did happen, we wouldn’t invent extravagant explanations to deny that it had happened.” We might not exactly invent “extravagant” explanations, especially if prosaic ones would do. When the Fifth Lateran Council condemned Conciliarism, overturning two prior councils’ teachings, did everybody conclude “Oh well, I guess Catholicism is false, then.” No, instead, one of those councils got to be a not-council and the other one’s relevant decree got to be interpreted away into vestigial near-nothingness.

    What we in fact do when the Church appears to contradict Herself is to deny that any such thing happened and start hunting for escape hatches.

    To take a more contemporary controversy, the Catholic Church appeared to teach something very like the alleged heresy of Feeneyism for a very long time. “Extravagant” is, if anything, an understatement of the interpretive legerdemain necessary to make those pre-Trent expressions of extra ecclesiam nulla salus consistent with even fairly rigorist current interpretations of that teaching.

    Do unbaptized babies go to Hell to burn, to Limbo to chill, or to Heaven to exalt? Is it is or is it ain’t intrinsically evil to lend money at interest? Etc.

  2. It is intrinsically immoral to lend money at profitable interest, whenever “lend” implies a full-recourse loan as opposed to a lease or a non-recourse investment in common property.

    Anything and everything can warrant further explanation and clarification. Positivism is false. I think what is usually going on is that modern people find a non-positivist world to be nonsensical — thus postmodernism, when the positivist realizes that his world view reduces to a senseless power struggle and yet he continues to refuse to give it up.

  3. Hello DrBill,

    I think your experience is atypical. Only in Protestant-dominated countries would one argue from Christianity to Catholicism rather than confronting them both as a package deal, and Protestant–>Catholic conversions, at least those not done for the sake of a marriage, are rare. Those born into the faith definitely see Catholicism as default Christianity. Now, one could say that people born into any Christian sect would feel the same way, but I think we’re more justified.

  4. Pascal points out the limitations of reason in a much misunderstood passage, “We know truth, not only by the reason, but also by the heart, and it is in this last way that we know first principles; and reason, which has no part in it, tries in vain to impugn them. The sceptics, who have only this for their object, labour to no purpose. We know that we are not dreaming, and, however impossible it is for us to prove it by reason, this inability demonstrates only the weakness of our reason, but not, as they affirm, the uncertainty of all our knowledge. For the knowledge of first principles, as space, time, motion, number, is as sure as any of those which we get from reasoning. And reason must trust this knowledge of the heart and of instinct, and must base every argument on them. The heart senses that there are three dimensions in space and that the numbers are infinite, and reason then shows that there are no two square numbers one of which is double of the other. Principles are intuited, propositions are inferred, all with certainty, though in different ways.”

  5. I believe the case is stronger than that. As Mgr Ronald Knox asked, “Why did those who anathematized Nestorius come to be regarded as “Catholics” rather than those who still accept his doctrines?… . If you ask “Who are the Orthodox?” you will be told “The people who hold the Orthodox Faith.” If you ask them how they know it is the Orthodox Faith, they say “Because it is held by the Orthodox Church.” And the Nestorians will say exactly the same of themselves and who is to choose between them? Each say that they have the consensus fidelium behind them, and if you ask who the fideles were, you are referred back to the very formula which the consensus fidelium was to prove. But if you ask a Catholic “What is the Catholic Faith? ” and are told it is that held by the Catholic Church; if you persevere, and ask what is the Catholic Church, you are no longer met with the irritatingly circular definition “the Church which holds the Catholic Faith” ; you are told it is the Church which is in communion with the Bishop of Rome.”

    In other words, the Catholic has a real test, rather than a vicious circle.

  6. Speaking from a non-Roman Catholic perspective (but someone who got close to becoming a Roman Catholic – both directly and via the Anglican Ordinariate) I have come to regard MP-S’s ‘real test’ as something of a snare for intellectuals. I mean the reduction of the Church to a clear and authoritative leadership/ administrative structure.

    This reduces all problems to understanding /obedience to this structure.

    Of course, a person can choose to make this the sufficient core of his faith – but will soon find that there are all sorts of anomalies which any serious Catholic Christian seems bound to feel.

    One example which struck me personally was SSPX. When I discovered how corrupted by Leftism was the mainstream RCC, I thought hard about joining SSPX, and actually attended a mass locally. SSPX seemed very obiously much true-er than the mainstream RCC, yet it fails the MP-S test.

    I really don’t believe there is a simple test – I think matters just are complex and deceptive, and there is (here and now, in the West) no alternative nor substitute for the discernment of the heart (in response to prolonged prayerful consideration) – I don’t mean to decide every little thing, but in discerning who is a legitimate authority wrt problematic matters.

  7. Or maybe you’re right, and these are only “errors” as describing my own mind.

  8. Hello Mr. Paterson-Seymour,

    I’m glad you brought that quote up. While the historical claims of the Christian faith don’t for me occupy the role of first principles, in the sense that I could get by without the Incarnation more easily than without space or the presumption that I am not dreaming, my first principles are involved in why I embrace those claims. To give my ultimate reasons, those principles must be brought to light.

  9. brucecharlton

    What I mean by calling it a “real test,” is just this: Everyone claims scripture is on their side. The Nestorians of Syria and the Monophysites of Armenia and Egypt each claim that they alone are faithful to Apostolic tradition. So do the Orthodox. By what criterion do we choose between them?

    Now, it is perfectly possible to avoid the question-begging assumption of defining the faithful by examining their tenets, or the Church by its teaching. After all, the Edict of Thessalonica of 380, which stands in pride of place at the beginning of the Codex of Justinian, did so very neatly, by referring to “that religion which from then to now declares itself to have been delivered to the Romans by the divine Apostle Peter, and which is now professed by the Pontiff Damasus and by Peter, Bishop of Alexandria, a man of apostolic holiness.” Suitably updated to refer to living authorities, it is a test remarkably easy of application; just what one would expect of the criterion of a divine message, intended for all, regardless of learning, capacity or circumstances.

    I confess to being deeply suspicious of the appeal to tradition. Clement of Alexandria (150-215) Tertullian (160-220) St. Cyprian (200-258) Firmilian (died 269) St. Basil (330-379) St. Athanasius (296-373) St. Cyril of Jerusalem (313-386) Optatus (4th century) St. Ambrose (337-397) all denied the validity of heretical baptism, all taught that the baptism of heretics “does not heal, does not cleanse, but defiles.” So did the Synods of of Iconium and Synnada (235). But Stephen I, pope from 254 to 257 had thought otherwise and his view was adopted 150 years later by St Augustine and the North African bishops and the Novatianists and Donatists were condemned as heretics for denying it. Roman teaching appears innovatory, just as often as it appears traditional, but the Church always came round to Rome’s way of thinking. Coincidence?

  10. Glad to read this, and looking forward to reading the essay if you make it available.

    On the second model, I am not aware of anyone who would claim “whatever the pope, or more generally the Magisterium, says must be true.” The person I can think of most likely to say this is George Weigel, and I can’t picture even him saying it. This may mean either that I don’t know Weigel very well, or that I’m very sheltered in general and haven’t encountered the Catholics who would claim everything the pope says is true.

    If my observations are to be trusted, I think it is more a misapplication of prudence and perhaps piety that drives the phenomenon you are covering here. The misapplication may go so far as to term it scrupulosity. Its energy is not pointed at asserting truth to the pope’s statements, even if he’s obviously contradicting the truth, so much as giving them due reverence, whatever that should mean. There is a fear among the faithful of sinning in not giving due reverence to the pope, and it at least feels irreverent to call him a liar or at least incompetent, even if it might be true. They also sense that piety requires that they try and squeeze something delectably spiritual out of even the most insipid homily given by the current pope. This is not because they necessarily expect great spiritual insights to pour forth from his mouth but because they feel the need at least to make every effort to encounter them if they do. If at least feels impious not to pay any attention to what the pope is saying, even if he perchance is saying nothing that is worth listening to.

  11. I don’t think any Catholics would claim model #2 as their own way of thinking. However, there are many non-Catholics who take that as their model of Catholics thinking.

  12. I understand – thanks

  13. But the SSPX is a good counter-argument to this. They are clearly doing a better job of keeping and living the faith than the Vatican II Church.

  14. And the Armenians will claim that the SSPX have innovated on the apostolic tradition that they have faithfully preserved; so will the Assyrians, The SSPX will retort that their doctrines and practices are legitimate developments, not innovations.

    Now, by what standard are these rival claims to be judged?

    As Blessed John Henry Newman pointed out, “It is much to be feared, from what travellers tell us of the Greek priesthood and their flocks, that both in Russia and in Greece Proper, they are more or less in this state,—which may be called the proper disposition towards heresy and schism; I mean, that they rely on things more than on persons, and go through a round of duties in one and the same way, because they are used to them, and because in consequence they are attached to them, not as having any intelligent faith in a divine oracle which has ordered them; and that in consequence they would start in irritation, as they have started, from such indications of that Oracle’s existence as is necessarily implied in the promulgation of a new definition of faith.”

    Once admit that the unity of the Church through time is the unity of a living organism, then growth, change, adaptability can be admitted, without compromising its identity and the continuity of the Roman communion can be demonstrated as an historical fact, without entering into the question of doctrine at all, just as the continuity of the city of Rome itself can be demonstrated, from Romulus’s hut on the Palatine to the modern city, Italian from Latin, its civil code from the Digest and so on.

  15. Michael Paterson-Seymour:
    …without compromising its identity and the continuity of the Roman communion can be demonstrated as an historical fact, without entering into the question of doctrine at all, just as the continuity of the city of Rome itself can be demonstrated, from Romulus’s hut on the Palatine to the modern city, Italian from Latin, its civil code from the Digest and so on.

    Well said. I’ve never related at all to the whole “figure out doctrine and then backtrack from your personal conclusions to find the true Church” model. I’m an arrogant SOB but I’ve never been under the illusion that I am so special and unique that that could even possibly make any sense. I could never be a Protestant of any sort. When I was younger I figured the Orthodox were the only claimants beside Roman Catholicism with an even slightly credible claim to be the true Church; and the older I get, the more that just looks like youthful ignorance.

    Either Roman Catholicism is the true Church founded by Christ, or Christianity is false. There is no third-way reasonable (in my view) possibility.

  16. Bl John Henry Newman has a passage of such beautiful sustained irony that I cannot resist quoting it: “I began myself with doubting and inquiring,” you seem to say; “I departed from the teaching I received; I was educated in some older type of Anglicanism; in the school of Newton, Cecil, and Scott, or in the Bartlett’s-Building School, or in the Liberal Whig School. I was a Dissenter, or a Wesleyan, and by study and thought, I became an Anglo-Catholic. And then I read the Fathers, and I have determined what works are genuine, and what are not; which of them apply to all times, which are occasional; which historical, and which doctrinal; what opinions are private, what authoritative; what they only seem to hold, what they ought to hold; what are fundamental, what ornamental. Having thus measured and cut and put together my creed by my own proper intellect, by my own lucubrations, and differing from the whole world in my results, I distinctly bid you, I solemnly warn you, not to do as I have done, but to accept what I have found, to revere that, to use that, to believe that, for it is the teaching of the old Fathers, and of your Mother the Church of England. Take my word for it, that this is the very truth of Christ; deny your own reason, for I know better than you, and it is as clear as day that some moral fault in you is the cause of your differing from me. It is pride, or vanity, or self-reliance, or fullness of bread. You require some medicine for your soul; you must fast; you must make a general confession; and look very sharp to yourself, for you are already next door to a rationalist or an infidel.”

  17. Looking forward to the essay.

  18. Me too.

    and Protestant–>Catholic conversions, at least those not done for the sake of a marriage, are rare

    For some reason I find it funny when people convert directly to Catholicism without going through Protestantism.

  19. I’m curious – why’s that?

  20. What do you mean?

  21. Samson J

    I can assure you that, in France, it is very common for people to convert from atheism or agnosticism to Catholicism. In fact, Catholicism is seen as the default religious position and any other as scarcely meriting consideration.
    In part, this is historical; in part, because, as Virgil Nemoianu has pointed out the most original and prominent thinkers of contemporary France seem to function within Catholic horizons: the philosophers René Girard, Pierre Manent, Jean-Luc Marion, Rémy Brague, Chantal Delsol, along with the writers Michel Tournier, Jean Raspail, Jean D’Ormesson, Max Gallo, Denis Tillinac, to say nothing of celebrities such as Juliette Binoche, Gerard Depardieu, and Anouk Aimée – to name only a few.

  22. I’m curious – why’s that?

    I’m a little hesitant to answer this (especially BEFORE Bonald has even produced his essay!), because I am super-sensitive to the fact that I don’t want to create a Cath-Prot firestorm. But in short, I guess I would say it has to do with the fact that unlike what Bonald says above, I of course regard mere-Christian Protestantism as “default” Christianity.

    I can assure you that, in France, it is very common for people to convert from atheism or agnosticism to Catholicism

    Interesting, thanks for sharing that.

  23. Yeah, it seems to me that the “default” mode of Christianity will vary from culture to culture, that an atheist->Christianity convert in Russia would most likely go Orthodox; in Italy, Catholic; in the USA, Protestant; etc. How the conversion happens probably also mediates this somewhat. I had neither respectable Catholic nor Protestant friends to try to lure me into their respective faiths so my conversion, when it happened, came about mostly as an unintended result of my readings in philosophy, and it seems like almost all the respectable philosophy these days is being done by Catholics.

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