What is distinctive about the Catholic mind, that Catholics believe things that no one else believes? Identifying specific differences is not hard; what is tricky is figuring out which one is the ultimate cause of all the others. For example, many would say that the authority of the Pope is what makes Catholicism unique, and hence we are called “Papists”. However, the papacy is for Catholics a conclusion rather than an axiom. We accept it because we see the modern hierarchical Church as the historically legitimate development of the Apostolic Church. But looking at the same historical and scriptural data, Protestants and Orthodox see corruption rather than development. What underlying difference causes us to read the data so differently? Again, one could cite specific dogmas that are distinctive to the Catholic faith: the assumption of Mary, Purgatory, the filioque, the immorality of contraception, etc. But why do Catholics believe these things when others don’t?
What do you say Catholics have too much of?
On what authority are the above dogmas based? Depending on the issue and who one asks, one will get an appeal to Tradition, to reason (or, in the Catholic-speak I prefer, to natural theology and natural law), or to ecclesial authority. And indeed, Catholics are noted for their distinctive attachment to all three of these, as we are often accused of corrupting religion with our blind adherence to the past, our unscriptural rationalism, and our unfettered authoritarianism. This is a rather odd thing in itself, don’t you think? I mean that the Church should go (or at least be seen as going) so over the top on all three things. For, on most people’s understandings, these three things are entirely independent. We would thus expect them to contradict each other at times. Tradition is understood as uncritical acceptance of inherited practices, justifiable if at all only on prudential grounds (“established practices must have some adaptive value…”, etc). Not being able to make any sense of classical metaphysics, “reason” to the modern ear means scientism and utilitarianism, while the picture of authoritarianism is just lawlessness at the top. Putting these things together should make an incoherent muddle, but actually the Catholic worldview is strikingly coherent and interconnected. In fact, the Catholic understandings of tradition, natural law, and authority are very different from the non-Catholic ones. These three things are seen more as different manifestations of a deeper underlying principle than as autonomous and antagonistic principles. The success of Catholicism in creating a coherent worldview should be taken as a sign that our understanding of these principles is the better one.
The Church also goes overboard in other areas, according to her critics: she is excessively ritualistic, hierarchical, and dogmatic, they say. Once again, the intriguing thing is that these are seemingly independent ingroup-identifiers. Why should a single organization feel the need to over-emphasize all three? If correct belief is the important thing, why bother so much over rituals and obedience, and vice versa. (Catholics, of course, will see in this criticism a case of the perverse “if distinct, then opposed” modern mentality.)
What do you say Catholics have too little of?
To avoid the impression that Catholicism is just religion to excess, imagine asking the Church’s critics what Catholics have too little of. In the first place, they will say freedom. In their different ways, liberals, Jews, Protestants, and Orthodox will all say that Catholics’ relationship with God is over-regulated, that stifling and unnecessary uniformity is being imposed from the top. But why are such constraints not only unnecessary but bad? Here we come to the crux of the matter. The intuition is that such formalities are ill-fitted to genuine spiritual life, and everybody agrees that Catholics are not particularly “spiritual”. Pretty much every opponent of the Church defines itself in some way or another as the more spiritual alternative to Catholicism. Let’s accept that and try to make sense of it: on the “religious” versus “spiritual” divide, Catholicism is most people’s idea of the high religion/low spirituality extreme, while they all compete to fill the other extreme.
What the heck does this really mean, though? When some New Age hippie claims that he’s “spiritual but not religious”, what is he getting at? (I won’t ask what he literally means by it, since conceptual clarity is not to be expected from that sort of person.) Obviously “spiritual” is being opposed to dogma, to ritual, and in fact to anything public and non-subjective. The ideal of spirituality is unmediated communion of the private soul with ultimate reality. Now, doctrines, ritual, ecclesial membership, and authority are intrinsically public. Even to express religious beliefs in language is to give them a sort of public existence, an existence outside of one’s mind. In the “religious” vs. “spiritual” dichotomy, the public world is seen as less spiritually significant than the private world, and indeed often as a totally meaningless interplay of material and biological forces. Public acts are “formalities”, empty of meaning but for the contingent spiritual acts that sometimes accompany them. From the “spiritual” perspective, authentic religion is a matter solely of feelings and authentic morality is a matter solely of intentions. Consider a man who feels guilty after having committed a wicked act; seeking to purify himself from moral defilement, he dumps water on his head. A silly superstition to think this would do any good, right? After all, what God really wants is perfect contrition, and this is an entirely spiritual–i.e. private, mental, and unscripted–act. Such is the spiritualist’s case. Of course, Protestants and Orthodox are in many ways closer to Catholics than they are to “spiritual but not religious” hippies, but they also in their own ways accuse Catholicism of slighting the subjective sphere, of being the overly-objective (ritualistic or rationalist) variant of Christianity.
Given that one can have spiritual Christianity, why would anyone choose carnal, superstitious Christianity? Let me for a moment speak for myself. When I probe into my psyche, what I find is not Descartes’ repository of clear meanings, but a house of mirrors and fog. My own true feelings and intentions are never clear to me, and my capacity for rationalization is boundless. I doubt that I have it in myself to be perfectly contrite; nor could I ever know if I had succeeded. My motives are always mixed and unworthy, and my intuitions are too unreliable to base something as important as a relationship with God. Although I’m as much driven to find meaning and authenticity as the next man (at least I think I am–not that I really know or care), for me this drive takes the form of a quest to get out of my own head.
The public world, on the other hand, is suffused with the Logos, filled with intelligibility, meaning, and purpose that human minds find rather than invent. We confront this extra-mental intelligibility in the objectivity and beauty of mathematics, in the precision and simplicity of the laws of nature, in the intrinsic teleology of living organisms, in our apprehension of the beauty of the natural world. The human world, too, is imbued with an order we find rather than create, despite the fact that we are its subject. The basic goods of human nature are not a matter of choice, and they color bare biological facts like sex, kinship, and death with unchosen meaning. We may rebel against those meanings (as our age has chosen to do), but we don’t have the option of starting from a blank slate where our acts have only whatever meanings we give them. Even our imaginations seem to participate in universal forms unchosen by us, as seen in the recurring archetypes and symbols that inform the worlds’ mythologies. At the level of human aggregates, too, we see neither chaos, a mere mechanical balance of strife, nor consciously engineered structure; rather we see emergent order in the form of communal identities, authority recognized as legitimate, and the inherited traditions of peoples. Such things do, of course, emerge from a history of human acts, but they are, and must be, bigger than any particular conscious choices of individuals or even communities themselves (which, after all, are constituted by these things).
The above examples of “public meanings” may seem very different. Some may be surprised that I count mythic symbolism as an aspect of objective reality, or that I say that nations cannot be engineered into being when we Americans are proud of our “Founding Fathers” for supposedly doing just that. However, all these things are bigger than the individual human mind in a way that pure human artifacts are not. For a speech, a short story, or a corporate logo, we can ask what the author was thinking when he made it and what he meant to convey by it. For things discovered rather than purely invented, or for emergent rather than consciously engineered order, we cannot even in principle hope to thus get to the bottom of the thing and find a human idea or perspective. This makes public meanings not less intelligible than private meanings, but more. Our minds can absorb their truths partially, but because there is a lack of fit between the truth grasped and the mind grasping, our contemplations are never exhausted, never “hit bottom”. This same “lack of fit” provides an opening for us to transcend the limits of human rationality. Ironically, the very unintelligibility of matter–its ambiguity–in making things less than spiritual, at the same time makes it possible for material beings to be vehicles of the more than (humanly) spiritual.
God Himself is the author of public meanings. The order of the cosmos speaks to us, and yet it is no creaturely intelligence speaking, but God speaking in the truths of His creation. And when we participate in objectively meaningful acts, God Himself speaks through us.
My deepest sense is that real meanings are not what is inside my head, but what is outside of it. The task is to appropriate these objective meanings, to allow them to inform the soul. On its own, my soul is just a chaotic jumble of desires; its purpose is to receive order from outside rather than impose it. A true, good, and authentic response to the order of the world would be complete receptivity, a response to things as they really are and not as my internal jumble of desires and fantasies color them. Thus, when I want to really make contrition to my Creator, I am not left to my own internal devices. I can appropriate the symbols of the public world and speak with a depth of meaning beyond my native power. The superstitious man in my example above had the right idea. He knew that, in his wretchedness, no attempt to make things right by his own spiritual purity will suffice. To ascend to God, he must in a sense lay aside his very self, approach God’s throne as an archetype rather than an individual, and speak only with the pure words that God Himself gives him. Water is a universal symbol of formlessness, purification, and rebirth. This symbol is not our creation, but His, and in His words He places great power.
I am a Roman Catholic, and dumping water on people’s heads is one of the most important things my Church does.
I don’t expect you to be convinced yet; this is only part 1 after all. However, you can already begin to see the advantages of carnal, superstitious religion (of which, remember, Catholicism is the exemplar). It promises escape from the prison of subjectivity. It promises to reconcile reason, natural, tradition, and authority, so that the compatibility of these indispensable guides becomes clear. Most importantly from a Christian point of view, it allows a natural appreciation of the central facts of salvation history, for although many Christian sects boast of their spiritualism, spiritualism itself is problematic for the Christian story. If the private soul is everything, how could we justly be condemned by Adam and justified by Christ, justified what’s more by a physical–not merely spiritual–sacrificial event? It is to this question that I will turn next.
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