If it is true, as I have claimed, that a compelling case can be made that you (or anyone) can find ultimate fulfillment in knowing and loving God, who is all good and deserving of all your love, by living your life as a committed Catholic, it may seem perplexing that anyone is not Catholic (at least of those who have heard about the Church and been able to join it). Growing up Catholic, imagine my surprise when, around the age of ten or twelve, I came to realized that, in fact, not everyone is Catholic.
As it turns out, for a great many people, the Catholic Church is strange and, in some sense, repellent. To be sure, the Catholic faith has many and varied odd observances: processions with statues of the Virgin Mary at many and various shrines to her honor, archaic ceremonies and rituals, ministers dressed in the aristocratic attire of bygone centuries, funny hats of elaborate and elevated shapes, sacred meals, ceremonial washings, various kinds of anointings with holy oils. To outsiders, and to not a few insiders as well, the Catholic trappings can seem confusing and more than a little out of date. And this is to say nothing of the content of her teachings which many find magical and repressive. In the minds of many, especially since the 16th century, the Catholic church seems only to be a hollow religious institution engaged in empty formal rituals conducted on the mistaken belief that such practices will please or appease God and earn a place in heaven, perhaps after a shortened stay in purgatory. Or worse, many believe, the Catholic church to be a criminal enterprise existing to financially exploit the gullibility of believers, or at the worst to physically and sexually abuse children.
Now these crude caricatures do not portray an accurate picture of the Catholic Church, and those who are repelled are not really repelled by the Church as it truly is. As should be apparent to anyone whose knowledge extends beyond such caricatures or salacious headlines, the Catholic church viewed in its entirety is not inherently evil, but as I said, is the means of attaining union with an all good God. Sadly, however, many terrible atrocities have been committed by Catholic officials and ordinary members, and the vast majority of decent, faithful Catholics share in the outrage at such atrocities. Perhaps it stings more deeply among us Catholics, coupled as it is with shame and horror that our fellow members failed of the much higher ideals which we believe Jesus calls all of us to. When confronted by the evil which Catholics have done, sometime in the name of Jesus and His Church, we must admit that, sadly, these Catholic leaders have been just as bad as the worst of their culture’s and era’s non-Catholic contemporaries. All who are horrified by this evil share in common the belief that professed followers of Christ should act and be expected to act according to a higher moral standard. Those outside the Church, no less than those of us within it, who denounce these evils all believe that there is a standard of moral goodness and decency that many, many Catholics failed to live up to. My presentation of the Catholic faith here will not have much more to say about those Catholics who fall horrifically short of the ideals any decent person believes in, but I will instead focus on those ideals, the ideals or standards of common decency, as well as the ideals peculiar to the Catholic faith, and especially how those former ideals are metaphysically grounded so as to flower in the latter.
In one sense, it is understandable that critics of the Catholic Church should focus so much (I would say excessively) on the moral failings of her members, especially of her officials and clergy. How could an institution which produced such depraved members, members who rose to positions of leadership and power, and who used that power to such depraved ends? What gives force to this question is the implicit expectation that the officials who fall so short of any ideal of human decency, much less of any lofty or exalted Christian ideals of self-denial, self-sacrifice and disinterested love for those in their care, could not possibly be the product or an instrument of a God who is supposed to be all good and deserving of all love. It is certainly understandable if someone, laboring under such an implicit assumption, should reject the Catholic Church out of hand as an institution worthy of respect, admiration or emulation much less one attractive to join. It is certainly true that Jesus calls Catholics to higher ideals and better behavior, and indeed instituted the Church to teach them these ideals and equip and strengthen them for that behavior. Given her healing mission, it has been suggested, that since only the sick need a doctor, one should expect sinful people to be associated with the Church, seeking to receive, but also being the instruments of, God’s remedy for human sinfulness. I think this suggestion is too accepting of the moral weakness and failings of Catholics, clergy and laity.
This suggestion, though, does highlight what is, in fact, the primary thing the Catholic Church has going for it, namely that it is the instrument of God’s remedy for human sinfulness, and that He, not the sinful people who belong to the Church, is real and really at work in it. And the witness of those on whom the remedy has had its intended effect, namely holiness and conformity to an all good God, i.e., the witness of the saints, is evidence of the effectiveness of the medicine. That, and the fact that the Church still stands and carries on in spite of the corruption and horrible mismanagement of her leadership over the centuries. In spite of this checkered history, my presentation will focus on Catholic arguments for the reality of God, for Jesus as God’s Son and for His establishment and continued sustaining of the Catholic Church.
The Main Alternatives to the Catholic Faith
Besides, or in addition to being repelled by (I would argue) caricatures of the Catholic Church, there are thoughtfully considered (as opposed to emotionally motivated) alternatives to being Catholic, and the main ones that one finds in the United States are also the historical result of bad Catholics. Part of the reason I think I have stayed Catholic is that these alternatives never struck me as attractive or compelling.
The Catholic novelist and writer Walker Percy published “Questions They Never Asked Me,” an interview with himself where he asks and answers questions he always wished he had been asked. In this fictional exchange with himself, he reflects on how Catholic belief is possible given the alternatives to it:
Q: How is such a belief [in the dogmas of the Catholic Church] possible in this day and age?Walker Percy Interviews Himself
A: What else is there?
Q: What do you mean, what else is there? There is humanism, atheism, agnosticism, Marxism, behaviorism, materialism, Buddhism, Muhammadanism, Sufism, astrology, occultism, theosophy.
A: That’s what I mean.
Q: To say nothing of Judaism and Protestantism.
A: Well, I would include them along with the Catholic Church in the whole peculiar Jewish-Christian thing.
Q: I don’t understand. Would you exclude, for example, scientific humanism as a rational and honorable alternative?
A: It’s not good enough.
Q: Why not?
A: This life is too much trouble, far too strange, to arrive at the end of it and then to be asked what you make of it and have to answer “Scientific humanism.” That won’t do. A poor show. Life is a mystery, love is a delight. Therefore I take it as axiomatic that one should settle for nothing less than the infinite mystery and the infinite delight, i.e., God. In fact I demand it. I refuse to settle for anything less. I don’t see why anyone should settle for less than Jacob, who actually grabbed aholt of God and would not let go until God identified himself and blessed him.
Q: Grabbed aholt?
A: A Louisiana expression.
Q: But isn’t the Catholic Church in a mess these days, badly split, its liturgy barbarized, vocations declining?
A: Sure. That’s a sign of its divine origins, that it survives these periodic disasters.
This sentiment has always struck me, as a Cradle Catholic (one who stayed), as right on target: besides the Catholic Church, what else is there? It may not be perfect or completely satisfying, but no alternative, including the alternative of nothing, is better. Moreover, as the result of no little study, I have come to realize that these alternatives gave up some fundamental insights into the structure of reality which the Catholic faith retains. Consequently, I hope that seeing this for yourself, you too will stay (or become or become again) a practicing Catholic.
What I came to see is that the shortcomings of popes, bishops, monks, friars, nuns, priests and Catholics in general (of the kind we mentioned above) gave rise, in different ways, to the main types of alternatives to, and theoretical rivals of, the Catholic Church. Specifically, Protestant Christianity, with its emphasis on the Bible and personal faith in Jesus, is the most common religious alternative to Catholic belief and practice in the United States. But, grounded in a modern, scientific view of the world, the skeptical, secular opposition to religion in general and Christianity (including Catholicism) in particular is also prevalent in this country. Indeed, much of the discussion in this country about the truth of Christianity (implicitly, it is supposed, covering beliefs shared with Catholicism) is carried on against supposedly scientifically grounded skeptical and secular critiques. Yet in the dynamic of their critiques and replies, each participant, curiously, at various points faults the other for their departure from a rational appraisal of the world. Each of their respective departures, I will argue, betrays the inadequacy I sensed in their positions, and by a kind of intellectually implicit default, kept me in the bosom of the Catholic Church. As we will see below, I found something consonant with Catholic belief both in the critiques and arguments of each side of this debate as I sought a more comprehensive presentation of the Catholic faith.
The back and forth between skeptics and Christians plays out according to well-established themes and critiques. Secular skeptics, in the name of science, reject specific Christian claims which they contend are supremely irrational. Starting with more literal readings of the Bible by certain (though, to be fair, not all) Christians, many skeptics decry its seeming denial of what reason has discovered of the very old age of the earth and human society through archaeology, evolutionary biology, chemistry and astronomy. Likewise, these critics of Christianity shrink in horror when the Bible (mostly in the Old Testament) seems to advocate wholesale destruction of people and barbaric violence, such as in the stories of Noah’s flood, Abraham’s (near) sacrifice of his son Isaac, the slaughter of various tribes of ancient Palestine, among many others. These critics are doubly horrified if Christians should claim that this violence is not horrific owing to God’s prerogative to determine what is morally good and acceptable according to his sovereign will, and that these apparently evil acts are no such thing owing to the simple fact that God’s commanding them renders the actions not evil, but good. Skeptical critics resist such a justification of the apparent double-standard in Biblical morality precisely because it defies common and rational standards of right and wrong, standards the skeptic must ground on some notion of objective morality which itself rests on notions of human dignity.
(It should be noted, however, that Christians frequently do not grant that God arbitrarily determines Biblical morality either for Himself or for humans but instead they admit that God’s moral precepts revealed in the Bible have an objective basis. As with cases to be discussed below, this is an extraordinarily rationalist approach for Biblical Christians to take.)
When it comes to the central importance of salvation coming through Jesus’ death on the cross, secular critics likewise denounce the seemingly arbitrary and brutal requirement that someone die (especially God’s own Son) so that the rest of us may be pardoned (an idea known as penal substitution). If the God of the Bible is all powerful, surely He can simply choose to forgive sinners without having to demand anyone’s blood, least of all His own Son’s. In this, again, the secular skeptic is appealing to a natural and rational notion of justice.
On the other hand, countering more radical secular critiques of the life and miracles of Jesus, Christians marshal evidence and arguments that, perhaps surprisingly, they claim are similarly rationally grounded. Skeptics, for instance, critique Christianity by denying that the story of Jesus presented in the Bible is historically reliable, least of all the claims that He rose from the dead, and in extreme cases, they even deny that Jesus was a real, historical person in the first place. Against these claims, in order to demonstrate the historical truth underlying their faith, Christians, who otherwise lay so much stress on the Bible, argue on the basis of reason for the historicity of Jesus and his resurrection. Bringing forward arguments based on contemporary ancient sources, the nature of religious ideas and practices current in 1st century Palestine, the psychology of the apostolic witnesses among other forms of historical evidence, Christians appeal to rational arguments based on the reality of objective natures of human community and communication. We will in time examine and evaluate such arguments, but it is remarkable that Christians seek to engage skeptics on the ground of reason and nature.
Going deeper, when it comes to belief in God as such, skeptics exult in the empirical deliverances of modern science and the view that reality is completely explained (or in principle explainable) naturalistically, that is, in terms of exclusively material and physical features of the world. In critiquing the very coherence of the notion of God, secular skeptics point out supposed inherent difficulties in reconciling God’s alleged attributes: omniscience, omnipotence and omnibenevolence. For example, skeptics argue that God’s omniscience and omnipotence seems to be contradicted by His apparent inability to foresee or prevent his creature rebelling again Him, or that the pain and suffering He apparently enables seems logically incompatible with His supposedly being all-good. With regard to the problem of evil, though, skeptics seem especially conflicted, for their physicalism must require on the one hand that the everything is ultimately the result of mindless, purposeless necessary physical and material constituents and forces, and yet that the evil (human wrongdoing no less than natural disasters and diseases) are a falling short of the way things should be, are supposed to be. Christians similarly employ arguments based on the reality of the objective nature of goodness, knowledge, freedom and evil to offer answers to these charges of logical incoherence. And when critiquing arguments for the existence of God as cause of the existence and intelligibility of the world, Christians again champion the ability of reason to find an objective, natural basis for discovering a transcendent cause of the universe. Secular skeptics, however, deny the rational need for such a cause despite the fact that their whole confidence in science hangs on a relentless search for causes, and by rights this search ought to extend to the very foundational features of a rationally ordered and intelligible universe.
Finally, secular skeptics, precisely in their assertion of physicalism, undercut the very possibility and reliability of the rational enterprise. For, insofar a physicalist considers a human being to be nothing more than a process of interaction of material constituents or as the result of a purely physical evolutionary process, on the one hand, she must see each person’s every physical state (including their scientific conclusions) to be determined by necessary physical laws. Yet, the physicalist must also trust that she has arrived at this supposed scientific conclusions by logically related universal concepts. It is supremely difficult to see, on physicalist grounds, how a scientific conclusion could be the result of brain chemistry and of valid logical reasoning. In this way, the very rational nature of physicalism as a theory thus militates against its truth.
Thus, when I began to investigate how I might explain and defend the Catholic faith, I found that I agreed with skeptical critiques of distinctively Protestant beliefs about the Bible, morality, and Jesus’ atonement, yet I was very convinced (from my doctoral studies) 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 historicity of the gospels and Jesus’ resurrection, (certain) explanations of evil, and (certain) arguments for the existence and nature of God (especially in the forms given by St. Thomas Aquinas), yet wondered why Protestants, who made such extensive use of the Catholic tradition (Early Church Fathers and scholastic saints) were not themselves Catholic.
So, what is behind this conflict? Strangely, ironically, both the Protestant Christian and the secular skeptic who engage in polemics against each other, share a number of assumptions: Both value rationality but invoke it at different times: the secularist in favor of old earth, evolution and common sense of decency and justice; the Christian in favor of the historical reliability of the gospels, in theodicies to explain evil, and in arguments for God’s existence. Biblicist show distrust of reason by asserting the need to rely on revelation to know God’s creative action (and the history of life), what is morally good as pleasing to Him, and that His love is (counter-intuitively) revealed in Jesus’s sacrificial death. Secularist show their distrust of reason (to my mind) by inventing ad hoc explanations of gospels, offering rather contrived explanations of the resurrection of Jesus and rise of Christianity, but also by adopting of physicalist criteria of empirical knowledge, which undermine the foundations of science itself. Both view reason as coherence of the material world, but are varyingly skeptical about it providing an avenue beyond the material. Protestants ground themselves in a “given” by holding to God’s sovereign, inscrutable will manifested in the Bible; secularists focus on the incontrovertible “given” evidence of the senses and so are resolutely empirical. Both of these opposing positions, however, focus on such “givens” because of a philosophical upheaval in the 14th century, which contributed to, or at least was exacerbated by Church corruption of the sort we briefly alluded to before.
It is this upheaval and its relation to historically bad Catholics that we will examine next.