Quodlibets: Catholicism as a Common Good

A phrase that picks out one of the more surprising aspects of reflection on our faith is odium theologicum: theological hatred. Alas, this isn’t used to speak of the particularly keen disdain that the theologian feels for moral evil. Rather, it points to the depth to which intellectual rivalry can bring one. An opinion is disagreed with, then the holder of it is seen as disagreeable, until finally he is held in contempt and hatred. See how these Christians hate one another, so to say.

One of the more memorable Belloc anecdotes tells of the author standing at the back of a strange church during Mass, the door handy for a quick getaway, and being urged by the usher to take a pew. Urged once, twice, again, Belloc finally burst out, “God damn it, leave me alone.” Whereat the usher quickly apologized: “Oh, I’m sorry, sir. I didn’t know you were Catholic.”

It is a trick most of us imperfectly learn, distinguishing the opinion from its holder, the sin from the sinner, and when the matter under discussion is important, our anger is easily aroused by one who speaks in a way that seems to play fast and loose with serious things. Obviously, moderation in opposing error is no virtue. Thank God we have models here, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Ambrose, Newman, Frank Sheed. None of these men was inclined to pull his punches when criticizing a false doctrine. Yet how impersonal they could be about it.

This impersonality is a two-way street. Not only were such men capable of distinguishing an error from the holder of the error, they did not confuse their own persons with the truth they were defending. That is, they were not defending the truth as if they owned it, as if it was theirs in some peculiar way.

The knack is to see truth as a common good, not a private good; as ours, not mine.

When others take exception to our judgments, we can respond as if it were an attack upon our person. Love me, love my opinions, or vice versa, really, so that dislike for what I say is taken for a slur on my character.

Well, I suppose in a sense it is. If someone suggests that I have been guilty of a fallacy in what I have said, the criticism goes indeed to what I said, but scarcely leaves me untouched. Arguing badly, illogically, is something I ought to avoid and, when I do not, the fault is more than logical. That’s why the instinctive first reaction is to reject the criticism. That is why we all have the unfortunate tendency to defend a position as much because it is ours as because it is true. Indeed, the fact we said it may come to seem a powerful sign of its truth. We become all too easily instances of a type Aristotle noticed: the man in the grip of a theory.

All this is familiar enough in academic circles. It is even more noticeable in day-to-day discussions of practical matters, political matters, for instance. There are good reasons for not wanting politics brought up at gatherings which include passionate partisans. Politics — and religion.

It looks as if “theological hatred” is not confined to the rarefied atmosphere of the campus nor to professional theologians, and good hostesses know it. Those of us who, within the limitations of our status, discuss this matter of Catholicism, its doctrine, the import of that doctrine, permissible variations within the common doctrine, and positions that quite simply fall outside the pale — we are in special need of clarity about the distinctions adumbrated above.

The task is to love the faith as ours, to discuss it always in such a way that one’s manner and style will not prove an impediment to others, always to prefer the catholic and common to our particular angle of vision.

A common good is one that is mine but more than mine — ours. Some things are simply mine, proper goods: my portion of a meal, my health. Some are mine and ours, like the good shared by members of the same family or political community. St. Augustine’s favorite example of a common good was truth. How can you own geometry? How can you begrudge knowledge of it to others? The faith is preeminently a common good.

It is because most theologians and philosophers and journalists seem always to be scoring against someone that such a writer as the French theologian Paul Toinet stands out in remarkable contrast. I have come to think that he is one of the best of post-conciliar theologians, although of course my handicapping may entail a handicap of another sort. Still. Toinet is remarkable for the clarity of his own position, the incisiveness of his criticism, and the charity of his style.

Shortly, his magnificent commentary on the Credo of Pope Paul VI, La foi transmise, will be available in English, and readers can see for themselves what I mean.

The reminder that one ought not treat Catholicism as a private possession may seem on the order of reminding oneself to breathe. It’s more like a wake-up call, and one we all need. Even those of us who edit and write for Crisis.

Not to mention all those other guys.

By

Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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