Bad Catholics from the Past and Bad Philosophy
In my previous post I related that when I began to investigate how I might explain and defend the Catholic faith, I found that sometimes I agreed with skeptical critiques of distinctively Protestant beliefs, yet I was very convinced of the inadequacy of physicalist explanations of nature in general and of the human mind and rational behavior in particular. But I also found that I agreed with (mostly Protestant) Christian defenses of the belief in God and Jesus, yet wondered why Protestants, who made such extensive use of the Catholic tradition were not themselves Catholic. The debate over the truth of Christianity, at least in the United States, has been going on more heatedly in recent years in terms that pitted secular, scientifically-minded skeptics against Bible-believing Protestant Christians, who each, in different ways, are opposed to Catholic belief.
What this dynamic between Protestant Christianity and secular skepticism shows is not that religion and science are irreconcilable or that reason is inherently opposed to faith, but that both the modern understanding of faith and Christianity on the one hand, and of reason and science on the other are severely diminished and impoverished, and that back in the 14th century their shared flaws were baked into the systems of thought that have continued down to our own day. The opposition between secularism and Christianity (in a predominantly Protestant form) is, historically, at least partially the result of moral shortcomings for which people have, with some justification, always faulted the Catholic Church, and led, in the first place, to the division in Western Christianity between Protestants and Catholics. Precisely against such abuses and decadence of the Church of the middle ages, reformers such as Martin Luther sought to restore true Christian faith in, and worship of, God from the neglect of which led to church abuses. How they justified their reform, however, was to employ bad philosophy (which, also owing to ecclesial decadence, gained widespread currency in Europe).
Luther’s initial objections were to the practice of the selling of indulgences, but his theoretical and theological positions emerged arising from his personal spiritual upheaval alongside a novel reading of Scripture that was shaped and hardened by the manner in which the Church authorities in the 16th century confronted his critiques. The Protestant reformers, consequently, ended up opposing not just the sale of indulgences, but the reality of purgatory, along with the authority of the pope and bishops to discern true doctrine, by instead grounding their reforms in an autonomous authority of the Bible. To varying degrees reform-minded Christians denied the necessity or efficacy of the Catholic sacraments like baptism, Eucharist, confession and the ordained ministerial priesthood, a rejection which continues to our own day.
In undercutting the theological bases of the system of indulgences, knowingly or not, Luther and the first Protestant reformers embodied and utilized radically novel philosophical ideas (called nominalism, which I will shortly describe). This via moderna (“modern way” as nominalism was called) was forged over the prior 200 years from before the arrival of the Black Death, during the time of the Avignon Papacy (along with the subsequent Western Schism when there were two and sometimes three claimants to the papacy). These historical calamities of the 14th and 15th centuries, it should be noted, also help explain how these calamitous ideas became widely accepted. These ideas, as wielded by these reformers, emphasized God’s all-powerful, sovereign ability to act beyond human convention or comprehension, and thus provided a theoretical alternative to the Church they sought to reform or now oppose. For reasons I will discuss anon, nominalism begins with a recognition that each individual material thing is singular and unique, created individually by God who is in no way bound by what he has created, but who in his omnipotence is completely free to act and command as he wills. Supposing that each individual thing in its uniqueness has no necessary relation to any other, God’s will is not revealed through nature or any sort of natural law, but can only be known as he reveals it in Sacred Scripture, i.e., the Bible. God reveals that a debt of eternal punishment is due for human sinfulness, but similarly reveals that the sacrificial death of His Son satisfies that debt when He gives the sinner the faith to trust in Jesus’ sacrifice. Thus, the Protestant reformers looked to sola scriptura, Scripture alone, to discover what is necessary for sinful human beings to be saved from the punishment we deserve, which salvation comes through sola fide, faith alone, the subjective conviction and trust one discovers within oneself to accept the salvation offered by God in Christ through sola gratia, God’s free, unmerited grace or gift.
Ironically, the very same radically novel nominalist principles innovated and championed in the early 14th century also ultimately gave rise to modern experimental science in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, and the skeptical, secular attitude toward religion in general and Christianity (including Catholicism) in particular eventually became a sort of modern default intellectual position following the Wars of Religion throughout the 17th century. Nominalism, again beginning with a recognition that each individual material thing is singular and unique, claimed that therefore there are no essential natures of the things by which they are related to each other, and that the ability of human reason to treat things as belonging to identifiable and distinguishable classes derives from our ability to class them together under various concepts which we invent and label with “names” (nomen in Latin, hence nominalism) according to our own convention. Instead of knowing the objective universal natures or essences that things have in themselves, all we can truly know are what we observe of them through our senses, that is, their outward appearance and behavior. Thus, by repeated and controlled observation of the quantifiable aspects of things (like weight, length, distance, speed (distance over time), etc.), science confirms or refutes the theories it has devised to predict future behavior based on past observation. But the theories are mere human contrivance, educated guesses about how things will behave, and deemed “true” to the extent that they make accurate predictions.
After 500 years, these two inheritors of nominalism, Protestant Christianity (just in proportion that it embraces Bible-alone and faith-alone) and secular skepticism (grounding itself in empirical science), owing to a single common philosophical foundation, find themselves, especially in recent years, opposed not only to each other but to Catholic belief as well. There is, however, (and at one time, was dominant in the Christian West) a richer, fuller and truer understanding of the inherent rationality and sacredness of the world, but this was ruptured in the 14th century. These modern approaches to the world that emerged are laboring to achieve the coherence thinkers of the previous centuries realized, but with intellectual resources that are shadows of their classical selves. The richer, fuller and truer understanding of the world persists, however, in the Catholic grasp of God, the world and the place of humans within and between them. By contrast, both Protestantism and secularism are attempts to cope with the havoc wrought by nominalism, but since they are each built (at least partially) on the denial of the reality of objective natures which is the actual structure of reality, neither can provide a coherent picture of the world and moreover are constantly in conflict with each other.
This pre-modern, Catholic tradition from which nominalism arose and against which it reacted does not suffer from this breakdown. It is known variously as inherent realism or moderate (as opposed to extreme) realism or Scholastic realism and is found especially well-developed in the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas, grounded in philosophical insights of Aristotle. This recognition of the reality of objective natures does not merely posit, but discerns, that universals are, indeed must be, inherent throughout reality. Instead of viewing human concepts as useful mental contrivances, it recognizes that human rationality is fundamentally how we are in conformity with the rational structure (logos) of the natural world. Thus, from the side of the order of nature, inherent realism admits the power of reason to conclude to God who created the natural world according to his reason (Logos, the Divine Word), and who can be known through the analogy and participation running through this structure. Similarly, it recognizes that problem of evil depends on this analogical/rational structure since the disorder of evil depends on an underlying rational order of nature.
Robert Barron, in the essay “The Metaphysics of Coinherence,” from his book Exploring Catholic Theology, identifies this pre-modern insight as a recognition that reality shares in the in-dwelling of intelligibility precisely as created ex nihilo by a transcendent God, and as Augustine and Aquinas would argue, the “first principles and operations of the mind are nothing but a participation in the reasonability of the divine Logos, which became incarnate in Jesus.” Likewise, maintaining this Catholic sensibility “means holding to the radical intelligibility of being. If God has made all creation through the Logos, then all existence must be stamped with form, the mark of a knower” (p. 37). Indeed, as Barron notes, the young Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope-emeritus Benedict XVI) saw in this insight a means whereby one can conclude to the reality of God:
the universal intelligibility of nature, which is the presupposition of all science, can only be explained through recourse to an infinite and creative mind which has thought the world into being. No scientist, Ratzinger said, could even begin to work unless and until he assumed that the aspect of nature he was investigating was knowable, intelligible, marked by form. But this fundamentally mystical assumption rests upon the conviction that whatever he comes to know through his scientific work is simply an act of re-thinking or re-cognizing what a far greater mind has already conceived.“Einstein and God.” See also Cathholicism, pp. 67-9.
In his book Catholicism, Barron goes so far as to identify the mystery of the Incarnation as the essential, most distinctive characteristic of Catholic belief. He explains that while other Christians “hold just as firmly that the Word became flesh,” what is “essential to the Catholic mind is . . . a keen sense of the prolongation of the Incarnation throughout space and time, an extension made possible through the mystery of the church” (p. 3).
As I hope to show, the co-inherent metaphysical relationship works in the other noetic direction, too. Since existence is stamped with form or objective essential natures, nature can lead one to God as creator and rational orderer, and that when He became man in Jesus, his Incarnation extends and is prolonged in the life of the Church according to co-inhering created forms. From the side of Scripture and salvation, too, the Catholic inherent realist insistence on the reality of essential natures underlies the supernatural revelation and manifestation of God (since it is also an analogical manifestation of His reason) into the world He has rationally structured. Indeed, one can find in the Scriptures themselves, we Catholics believe, that this co-inherence of divine intelligibility in the world is also revealed. As the prophet Isaiah declares:
For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, my thoughts higher than your thoughts. Yet just as from the heavens the rain and snow come down and do not return there till they have watered the earth, making it fertile and fruitful, giving seed to the one who sows and bread to the one who eats, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but shall do what pleases me, achieving the end for which I sent it.Isaiah 55: 9-11. Many other Scripture passages could likewise be adduced along this theme.
In this way, Catholic theology which is built upon metaphysical co-inherence undergirds and staves off the incoherence to which Protestantism subjects Scripture: revelation itself can go beyond the Bible alone, and so can offer more rational understandings of (according to an analogical, symbolic rationale) even the apparent violence and questionable morality in Bible, of Christ’s atonement (without invoking penal substitution), and of grace as the manner in which human beings become sharers in God’s being, along with other distinctively Catholic elements: sacraments, apostolic authority and magisterium. There is, in fact, a consonance of the Divine (Logos) with human reason (logos) and the rational order (logos) objectively inherent in the world which together are at work in establishing the reliability and historicity of Gospels and Jesus’s resurrection, along with Christ’s establishment and sustaining of His holy bride, the Catholic Church.
So far, these claims about the truth of co-inherent realism, along with the unique capacity of Catholic belief to rationally articulate God’s plan of salvation in Jesus according to this truth, are mere assertions on my part. They explain why I am Catholic, why I think other people are not, and why I think everyone, including you, should be too, but I admit, they still stand in need of a compelling case being made for them. Thus, in the presentations which will follow, I will make arguments for Catholic beliefs, and as I said, that the Catholic Church is the ordinary means by which we sinful people can achieve union with God through Jesus. These arguments will address God’s existence and goodness; how his goodness is not undermined by natural or moral evil, but in fact presupposed by, and manifested in, remediating evil; the historicity of Jesus, along with His claims to be God’s own Son as attested through His resurrection; Jesus founding of His Church in the 1st century AD and that it contained the distinctive marks of the Catholic Church: a teaching authority which together with Sacred Scripture preserves and hands on Who Jesus is and teaches, the sacraments He instituted to provide the grace to sustain this Church and to ultimately fit us for that eternal loving embrace of God forever which is the Beatific Vision mentioned earlier.
First, though, I need to show more completely what nominalism is, and that when it supplanted the Scholastic and Thomistic synthesis from which it sprang, it gave rise to and lives on in Protestant Christianity and modern secularism. Next, I will argue for the truth of inherent realism (i.e., the objectivity of essential natures) and how it accurately depicts the very structure of the physical universe which thereby makes sense of scientific rationality, as well. This understanding of the intelligible structure of the universe is the ground and framework for the arguments alluded above and which follow: for God’s existence, His goodness and other attributes, His revelation in Jesus Christ and foundation and configuring of the Catholic Church. The arguments for these Catholic beliefs are not new or unique to me, but what I hope will be helpful will be the highlighting of how the most coherent approach to Catholic belief depends on inherent realism, and that what in fact is the rational structure of reality can only be explained and as it were completed in the Catholic vision of God, revelation, sin, Christ, redemption and ultimate Beatitude.
An implication of this approach, however, is that it departs from advocating for “Mere Christianity” as proposed by C.S. Lewis (in a book of his of the same name) which is nearly universal in modern attempts to explain and defend Christian beliefs. Lewis proposed that an clear-eyed assessment of a person’s objective moral state and the evidence for God and Jesus would lead him to accept the truth of doctrines all traditional, historical and orthodox Christian denominations hold in common: that God is One, a Trinity of Person, that the Divine Son was born on earth in the person of Jesus Christ, and that Christ died to save all mankind from their sins and rose bodily in His resurrection. The particular Christian denominations are various ways believers have found they need to live out Mere Christianity.
I suggest that offering a rational defense of what is common to all Christian denominations requires an at least implicit recognition of the truth of inherent realism, which I contend, is incompatible, to more and less degrees, with any form of Christianity but the Catholic faith. If a Christian can successfully argue for the spirituality of the human soul, the existence, goodness, power and knowledge of God, the existence of Jesus, the reliability of the gospels in attesting to His resurrection, then that Christian should also accept the foundation of the Catholic Church endowed by Christ and the Holy Spirit with the magisterial authority which produced, canonized and authoritatively interprets Scripture, and which has continued for nearly 2000 years to administer sacraments to confer sanctifying grace whereby people are saved and share in God’s divine life. If one values rational inquiry, especially as far as offering a rational defense of Christianity, I contend, one ought to be Catholic.
So, to sum up, besides not truly knowing about the Catholic Church (sometimes owing to bad Catholics), the reason why not everyone is Catholic is nominalism (also the result of bad Catholics). Since nominalism is false, everyone, including you, should be Catholic. This might be a bit of an oversimplification.
Here is the plan for subsequent posts in which I hope to make the compelling case for being Catholic:
- Reason and Reality: how we conform ourselves to the inherent rational structure of reality.
- Evidence for the Existence of God: the source of nature and rationality.
- God and Evil: Nature disordered and in need of redemption.
- The Life, Death and Resurrection of Jesus: the rational evidence for His eternal origin and end.
- Jesus’s Redeeming Life and Death: restoring divine order out of the disorder of evil and sin.
- The Catholic Church: proclaiming the redeeming life of Jesus through Scripture and Tradition.
- The Catholic Church: sharing in the redeeming life of Jesus through the Sacraments.