The Catholic perspective, Part I: escape from subjectivity

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.

Against spirituality

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.

Public meanings

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.

Catholic authenticity

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.

42 Responses

  1. Excellent presentation. I consider myself a Greek Catholic and since I’m technically a Catechumen right now, the Catholic Church does as well.

  2. Beautiful reflections, Bonald. This essay is saturated with wisdom and truth.

  3. […] loyalty.  I’m giving my own answer as a series at Throne and Altar; the first instalment is here.  Since this is an ecumenical site, I thought my old blog would be a better place for it, although […]

  4. Thanks.

  5. But the Catholic church rather abruptly changed its rituals, changed them in ways that made the ritual’s endorsement of ancient beliefs rather ambiguous.

    So I don’t see that the actually existent Catholic Church has any of the qualities that you attribute to it. Its current ancient traditions are newly minted, and its previous ancient traditions casually discarded.

  6. This perspective seems to also apply to Orthodox Judaism. Just thought I would mention that.

  7. This is the best thing I remember reading all year.

    When I first started reading this blog a few months ago, both the caliber of writing and the subject matter–though not necessarily the content–reminded me of Robert Pirsig and his Metaphysics of Quality. (I don’t know how you feel about Pirsig, but I intend that comparison as a serious compliment.)

  8. Permit me to add my voice to those who are complimenting you on this post, Bonald. Looking forward to reading more.

  9. You suggest that the Church might not be all those wonderful things her enemies accuse her of? What a sad thought! It is certainly true that most of the Church’s leaders despise her traditions and work to undermine them. From this, we can reassure ourselves that dogma and ritual belong to the essence of the Church rather than just being a Tridentine policy. For to the extent that leaders succeed in reforming a parish or religious order away from the normative Catholic past, to that extent the parish or order is destroyed. Mass attendance, baptisms, and vocations dry up, all because it becomes impossible to see what the point is of reformed Catholicism. That Catholicism still exists at all is only because the reform is still incomplete.

  10. Thanks! Welcome to Throne and Altar.

  11. nuh-uh.

  12. Curious now about whether you’ve read Pirsig (in particular: “Lila,” the follow-up to “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”) and what you think of his Metaphysics of Quality. Some of what you wrote above reminded me of the hardware/software analogy and also of the four levels of value presented in “Lila.” (The Wikipedia article probably does a better job describing this than I can:

  13. As a nonbeliever I am positively fascinated by how pragmatic and down to Earth and socially well functional the Catholic value system is. I realized the whole Humanist premise is false: if there is no Heaven let’s build one on Earth, first I realized it is not possible and with that I ceased to be a liberal, and when I looked into what works instead I found Catholic values often provided very functional ideas. I realized it’s not a bunch of people who gaze in the sky and forget about this world, rather a bunch of people who have a good pragmatic understanding how human society ticks.

    Actually I find it weird that you and generally the Orthos often ignore the most functional, most sensible Catholic idea ever: Distributism.

    Even in sexual matters, after I read deeper into Manosphere sources I concluded that Catholic sexuality makes sense in 95% of the topics.

    The big, really big exception for me is contraception. As a married man, I can see absolutely no sensible this-wordly, common-sense explanation why it was a bad idea tha we used contraception until we were prepared for kids, and why shouldn’t we do it again once we have enough kids. I also don’t see how contraception wouldn’t make sense in places with lots of overpopulation and poverty: for example the slums of Mexico City clearly could be made better by having fewer mouths to feed in the future. What is so wrong about poor people having 2-3 kids max?

    This is a huge exception for me – I can explain almost every Catholic sexual more in a common-sense or even scientific way – for example that homosexuality is narcissistic and unmasculine, or premarital sex harms everybody except alpha males – both women in the long run, and beta males in the shorter run. But contraception just cannot.

    BTW I would say perhaps one fault of the Catholic Church is too much intellectualism. I debated this with Kristor and we just don’t understand each other – you guys think _words_ are _real_! As in, you really believe that when we say something it’s not a clumsy, faulty way to somehow handle this chaotic, crazy reality we are “thrown in” (Heidegger) but you really think sentences, statements are not just fragile models, but explore the real, true properties of things! I just cannot really handle this properly, I cannot even debate with it because this kind of intellectualism goes against every grain of my being – I learned to value a grain of experience more than a ton of theory and logic, and cannot possibly think the world is really logical or words and sentences can be really, truly true and just not our desperate attempts to handle a reality that was never really meant to be mapped by linguistic constructs…

    But this theoretical criticism of too much theoretical thinking is not so important at the end – I know you guys have lots of practical ideas, see Distributism, and I am trying to explore and learn and use them.

  14. … I sometimes feel that Chesterton talked about me when he said the reason the Church often suppressed skeptical Reason with dogmas ultimately they were protecting Reason itself, because one day unbounded skepticism would start doubting Reason itself. This is precisely how I feel – I have no faith in God _because_ I have no faith in Reason, because for Reality to have an Author it should look like a logical construct, and not this chaotic mess which it looks like to me.

    I mean, just one random example of the many samples of reality being chaotic and messy, how should we think about violence? OK the standard rule is it’s OK when used for protection only. Defend your country but don’t want to conquer another one. Okay. Except that our instincts and our history, traditions and literature even modern movies teach us to admire conquerors because of the _glory_ they represent, even when they cannot really be justified as just wars, such as Caesar, Alexander or Pizarro, or the many heros who conquered a new homeland for their people and generally vanquished the locals who lived there. We think on one hand that unprovoked aggression is wrong and unjust, and on the other hand deep in our bones we feel there is something glorious, manly and exciting about how the Inca empire fell to Pizarro even though he had no just reasons for attacking them, it was just mainly greed. In a rational, logical universe we would not feel so contradicted…

  15. That’s because your understanding of violence is incomplete. Violence is legitimate in more cases than simple protection from the violence of others, this is just the most simple and clear cut case.

  16. Contraception is actually a very good example of the Catholic mind at work, because it is ultimately wrong not for consequentialist reasons, but because of the intrinsic meaning of sex and our proper attitude to God “speaking” through it, two themes that I’ve already introduced. I may discuss this some more in part 4 of this series, although I won’t want that one example to overshadow everything else.

  17. I’m afraid not–it’s awful how little I’ve read.

  18. Yes, except that my impression is that the Orthodox Jews aren’t so dogmatic.

  19. Shenpen, I am a practicing Catholic, albeit one whose politics are considerably further to the left than Bonald’s. I strongly believe that artificial contraception is wrong, but I also believe that it would be a good idea if people in general (not just poor people) have no more than two or three children. Of course, this means that both men and women would be expected to remain celibate and chaste virgins until a late marriage (late 20s-early 30s) and then, once a couple has had two or three children, abstain from sex during the wife’s fertile periods until she reaches menopause.This might be unrealistic for most people — certainly, in this highly-sexed society, it seems that way — but it is possible, if people have faith that abstaining from sex before marriage and periodically after marriage pleases God far more than using contraception either before or within marriage.

  20. From a purely sociological POV, birth control severs the cultural link between sex and procreation which leads to the severing of sex and marriage,and even of marriage and children, giving rise to the modern sexual dystopia and the destruction of family life.

    In reality, the results are worse than that if you look at the actual effects on the human person of persistently disordered sex.

  21. “We think on one hand that unprovoked aggression is wrong and unjust, and on the other hand deep in our bones we feel there is something glorious, manly and exciting about how the Inca empire fell to Pizarro even though he had no just reasons for attacking them, it was just mainly greed. In a rational, logical universe we would not feel so contradicted…”

    On the contrary, you have just proved that you have a single innate understanding of “goodness” by which you judge both aspects. If you did not, no contradiction could exist.

  22. Bravo! Stupendo!
    This was excellent Bonald! Yet more proof that your decision to start posting on your old blog was a good idea.

    Now I’m very much looking forward to these next installments! BTW, how many installments do you think this series will have in total? Or is this something you plan on continuing for a long time?

  23. First of all I’d like to say what a great post this is. This is the first time I’ve read Bonald, well done sir!

    I totally agree with Josh’s reply. In addition to what Josh states, I think an issue that many married couple have with the Catholic position on contraception, even among Catholics, is that they are focused on themselves while the Church is concerned with the broader culture and all humanity. While a specific married couple can certainly maintain a strong marriage while using contraceptives to manage fertility, there is absolutely no doubt the tremendous evil that contraceptives have enabled in the broader culture.

    There is absolutely no evidence anywhere that contraceptives have much of any impact in reducing fertility or sexually transmitted diseases, mainly because of the spotty actual use of them. The only contraceptive that would reliably work is forced sterilization. The best way to reduce fertility is through education of woman and inclusion into economic participation. Just look at the dramatic fall in fertility in societies such as Iran where huge modernization including education efforts were employed.

  24. Yes the difference is in dogmatism, not in how much, but in where focused. Catholicism is dogmatic about belief but not action. Orthodox Judaism is dogmatic about action but not belief. At least Catholicism, unlike some other forms of Christianity, ties action to belief where action is an expression of belief. But Orthodox Judaism makes action central and belief only a means to action. For Orthodox Judaism, what matters is the action, not the belief.

  25. Thank you, Manwe.

    Right now, the plan is for five parts:

    1: Introduction (this post)
    2: on the Atonement
    3: on the Sacraments
    4: on vocations to marriage and the priesthood
    5: on Last Things, mostly purgatory

    I expect the next installment to be the most difficult one to write.

  26. Sounds interesting! I will eagerly await each subsequent part!
    Another thing Bonald, have you ever read/heard of Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira (I have not read everything on your blog so perhaps you mentioned him, and I missed this?)? A fine Catholic reactionary if ever there were one! Here is a brief wiki article on him (in case you are not aware of him):

    I mention this because I was reading an article by him a few days ago and it reminded me of this blog. Here it is:
    I think it’s worth the read, and encourage others to read it as well.
    And here is a brief bio of him from the website I pulled the above article from:

  27. Whoops, sorry about that! The last link was not to a bio of the good Professor, but is still interesting anyway.

  28. Sorry to keep posting links here Bonald, but after just reading this post from The Remnant Newspaper website, I thought I just had to mention it here.
    Funny, sad, amd true. But with hope creeping up in the end.

  29. Very thoughtful analysis. You may want to go one level deeper, to the most fundamental diagreement in philosophy–between realism and idealism. From Luther onwards, Protestants have sided with nominalism, and thus not only with the subjectivity but also with the arbitrariness of thoughts, signs, and language, with respect to reality. The French revolutionaries, communism, the Nazis, Heidegger, post-modernists, actually all movements of modernity, have in some way built on nominalism. Since Aquinas, Catholic thought has developed around realism (in Aristotle’s if not necessarily Plato’s sense). Catholics believe that symbols, pictures and rituals refer to something objective outside of us, whether present or past. Angels are not states of mind, feelings of joy, or signs of God’s grace, but actual, real beings, as Aquinas indeed described them. Nor is the Eucharist an act of remembrance or a mere sign but the reenactment of the Last Supper by which bread and wine change into the Body and Blood of Christ. Can all Catholics easily believe this? Certainly not. Catholicism is ontologically challenging but utterly clear. However, Catholics are aided by two other specificities of their faith: (1) trust in the thruthfulness of the tradition through which the deposit of faith has been handed down; and (2) acceptance of the faith as a system from which no part can be severed without making the whole collapse. Catholics cannot prescind from traditionalism and integralism as two forms that are intrinsic to their religion. The Protestantization that is currently being imposed upon the Church attempts to do do exactly that. The public forms of religious expression Bonald discusses flow from the objectivism of our faith, which is not a “Jesus plus I” relationship, but the living out of a revealed truth which transcends our individual minds and which must therefore be understood through the Church as the community of believers, the saints included. It works best, of course, if religious meaning is handed on through an entire society, but here we enter the realm of wishful dreaming: Throne and Altar!

  30. “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.”

    Beatifully written. You have the gift of articulating and explaining ideas in ways that are both precise and just seems right or natural. As a person with a low-church Protestant upbringing your writings have been instrumental in influencing me towards traditional Christianity. Looking forward to the next article in the series!

  31. Thank you. I hope I won’t disappoint.

  32. Hello Catholicus,

    I basically agree with all of this. Thank you for laying it out so nicely in a comment.

  33. […] the most important new thing on the internet is part II of my series on Catholicism, connecting part I‘s discussion of the power of natural symbols to the doctrine of the Atonement and setting the […]

  34. This was fantastic and I can’t wait for the next article. I do agree with Shenpen that Catholics should take another really close look at Distributism.

  35. Thank you. The second part is here:
    The third part is about half written.

  36. I really liked this. But it’s very important that you distinguish between “dogma” and “doctrine”. It’s a very important distinction, as you probably know. When I saw the first paragraph and saw that you called the teaching on artificial conception “dogma”, I puckered. You should know that’s doctrine. You should know that, when Paul VI issued “Humanae Vitae”, that he did so against the advice of the commission he established to make a recommendation. You should know that the first US bishop that was laicized (James Shannon) was so because he disagreed with it, not from a theological perspective (although I would argue the reasoning behind it is flawed), but from a pastoral perspective.

    Dogma and Doctrine are very different. Dogma says Jesus rose from the dead, Mary was bodily assumed into heaven, etc. Doctrine says we need to have a celibate clergy (which wasn’t so until 1365, and exceptions have been made ever since). Doctrine says that people who have been remarried can’t receive communion (which can be accepted by the local bishop). There’s a HUGE difference.

    What frightens me is when Catholic bloggers portray dogma as doctrine. It’s not fair to our Church.

  37. There is absolutely no evidence anywhere that contraceptives have much of any impact in reducing fertility

    Oh please, the radical drop in fertility among certain groups, and not just white people from rich countries, shows that contraception does indeed reduce fertility.

  38. Dan, you’re mistaken there. Although dogma and doctrine aren’t identical, the term you’re looking for is discipline. Clerical celibacy is a discipline, not a doctrine.

  39. Both the resurrection and the immorality of contraception are important truths known with absolute certainty. I see no value and much possibility of mischief in drawing unimportant distinctions between them. Also, I point out that it is never pastorally correct to fail to tell one’s parishioners that they are engaging in mortal sin.

  40. Well, I would still think that overall structural economic factors are much more important than the mere presence of modern technologies for fertility control.

  41. Many other Catholics know Moral Theology better than I ever will. So feel free to check what I’m telling you.

    Although I forget why the Catholic Church teaches that it’s always immoral to contracept artificially, I remember two problems that Prof. Janet Smith mentions in her lecture called “Contraception: Why Not?”
    First, if an artificial contraceptive fails, the mother may get the baby aborted. Second, some contraceptive medicines pills cause abortions.

  42. Doctors abort some babies when artificial contraceptives fail. Some artificial contraceptives kill them, too.

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