Why Be (or Continue to Be) Catholic?

On a recent book review TV interview program called Q/A, Ross Douthat, author of To Change the Church, was asked about his own beliefs. He responded quite frankly that he was a Catholic. When asked why, Douthat replied that, as far as he could see, a divine intervention did take place in this world around the time and appearance of Christ. He added that the essence of this intervention has been best preserved down the subsequent ages by the Catholic Church. This sensible view is one that many Catholics would also accept as valid. Indeed, probably the best way to see the divine intervention spelled out step by step is in Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth. After reviewing most of the scholarly literature on this topic, Benedict concluded that the evidence seems to show that Christ was “who He said He was.”

But few are much concerned with an intellectual understanding of the facts of the matter. Something else is going on today. Not many really seem to worry about the truth of these issues, though that is where the real drama lies. Freely to assent to truth is the heart of what it means to be civilized. In a way, however, our culture is beyond truth. We make up our own universe; the Supreme Court tells us this is our “right.” Such a development, wherein we impose our ideas on reality rather than let reality instruct us about what it is, usually means to opt for one or other current fantasy or ideology that is custom-designed to explain away things that we choose not to accept, no matter what the evidence.

Many millions of words have now been written about the meaning of the Irish abortion vote, one foreshadowed by a similar change in Quebec decades ago. In both cases, areas that had been proudly Catholic for centuries, suddenly decided to ditch its tradition in order to join the secular world, with its principles and practices. A radical change in these cultures had already taken place, as Plato would say, in the souls of the citizens of these areas. From this viewpoint, the change was not so surprising. Human order is built on fidelity to tradition and principle. It is not immune to change as if it were a material object. Indeed, reasonable change is part of its stability.

Likewise, many Catholic churches, orphanages, hospitals, and schools in Europe and America have closed. Muslims are willing to move into these edifices if allowed to do so. Many famous churches have long been national monuments or museums under government support. I read somewhere that, regarding the visiting of churches in Dublin, that the only people there were American tourists, often looking for their ancestors. While there are signs of life in various areas of the Church, a survey of the whole, to be frank, is rather bleak. Whether Scripture or tradition gives us many grounds for expecting anything too different is doubtful. Christ himself asked the disciples whether, on his return, they thought there would be faith on earth (Luke 18, 7-8). This passage is always a testimonial to the powers that are in constant opposition to what Christ put into the world.

In the past several years, I have perceived a noticeable loss of intellectual acumen that the Church had gained with John Paul II and Benedict. Many are upset by this lack of depth, especially more recent converts who came into the Church with the help of the vigorous thinking we still see from these two popes. But the main reason for the decline of Church membership is the desire to be like the rest of modern society. Many want Catholic teaching to be viewed and interpreted through a modern lens.

We no longer speak of “heretics” today. Instead, everybody is nice, with a “right” to his own opinion. Nothing is held as definite, precisely so that nothing binds. This freedom of opinion leads to everyone having mostly the same opinions, increasingly enforced by authority. Things that once seemed unchangeable are now changed or expected to change in the near future. The clergy and the bishops are not much help, as they seem—to many at least—to betray the same symptoms.

II.

In the light of these comments, and in spite of scandals and confusion in Rome, we still need to ask: “Why should we continue to be Catholic?” Much of the controversy that swirls around the Holy Father has, at its origin, the feeling that certain basic—once thought non-negotiable—principles and practices have been revoked or at least implicitly allowed to pass away. Under the aegis of finely-tuned “mercy” and “discernment,” a method has been developed that was hoped would justify this accommodation of the Church to that modernity and those of its principles that everyone seems eager to embrace.

Recent remarks and decisions, often coming from Archbishop Luis Ladaria, the current Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith, however, have been more careful. We have seen a firm statement that women cannot be priests. The German formula for interfaith communion at a wedding is set aside. A renewed interest in the centrality of doctrine appears in CDF documents. These are welcome signs. However, the dubia are still not answered. Good Catholics are still seen as rigid. The papacy often appears to act in the public eye like a political party of the left. Christianity is seen mainly as a force to lead sundry crusades over ecology, poverty, and immigration, yet such initiatives are difficult to square with good economics, science, and politics.

Not a few have also pointed out that an indirect papal input in the various pro-abortion and gay marriage votes in Ireland and Portugal occurred with Catholics being advised to deal with more “important” things. Their enemies, to give them credit, do not think these issues are among the lesser important things. Many wonder whether the Church does not now see itself as simply a socio-political movement instrumental primarily in curing our temporal ills. The irony is that the methods recommended in these areas have almost invariably, when tried, made things worse. We do find considerable talk of sanctity and holiness, but again, this is often of an activist kind. The contemplative life, the life that is needed to keep our souls in touch with the transcendent, seems to be minimized.

III.

Let us ask again: “Why be, or continue to be, Catholic today?” The only sensible reason is that what the Church teaches is true to its immediate origin in divinity itself. Has the Church on any major issue contradicted its own mandate? This is a delicate point, as only the Church believes that it is the sole depository of this mandate.

In thinking about these things, I again take my cue from the “heretics” who refuse to leave the Church but stay in it to transform it, as they say, into their image of modernity. In the end, they can find no place else to go. They are already wrapped within modernity’s orbit. The effort from within to transform Christianity into modernity, to align its basic premises with those of the modern world, may seem like a plausible, shrewd tactic, and many have already made this transition.

Catholics who remain in the Church and see the Church no longer consistent with its founding purpose often find themselves perplexed. Practically no one is excommunicated for holding any position associated with modernity. They see people, in apparent good standing, in the Church, who accept and practice most of the aberrations of modern social living. Indeed, it seems like we have two Churches holding contradictory views within the same Church. The usual division between liberal and conservative is practically useless as a way to understand the difference. The issue is a matter of truth, not interpretation.

To many, both inside and outside the Church, there seems to be much ecclesiastical confusion. Upsetting new interpretations constantly appear. Previously, many considered the Church wrong, but no one thought it did not hold or articulate what it affirmed on basic points of practice and doctrine. The primary argument that the Church teaches the same things over time does not seem valid for many any longer. The same things are no longer being taught and affirmed in all dioceses, schools, seminaries, and institutions. Various attempts have been made to explain how the Church can be both loyal to its tradition and, without contradiction, accept the basic premises of modernity.

For instance, Jesus was said to look at current events and see what needed to be changed, and so he changed things according to what was needed at the time. “Loyalty” to tradition thus means doing the same for our time. First we do what needs to be done; then we develop a theory to justify it. The word “discernment” has come to mean the ability to read almost directly into temporary things or situations the action of the Holy Spirit. On the basis of what we think we discern, we can act with confidence that we are not following our own wills but that of the Holy Spirit.

Or we can say that we do not know exactly what Jesus said or did, and that he really did not lay down basic principles that needed to be maintained over time to protect the authenticity of his teaching and revelation. He was merciful and compassionate, and the best we can do is to read the “signs of the times” and accommodate ourselves to where the Spirit, in mercy and compassion, is leading us. This approach would allow us to put aside our “absolutes” and embrace the pastoral changes that the culture has already put into place.

However plausible these positions may seem, if indeed they do seem plausible, they clearly avoid facing the central issue of whether a definite revelation in Christ was to be maintained for the good of man down the ages in spite of persecution, disagreement, and other cultural conditions in other eras.

Can we continue to be Catholic today? Only if one thing remains true and upheld. Only if the same teachings and practices that were handed down and guaranteed down the ages remain the foundation of the Church. This revelation in all its ramifications is what best explains human meaning and destiny. If the substance of this revelation is not upheld, the question is no longer a merely human problem of whether or not to be loyal to a tradition. It is the breakdown of revelation itself since it is no longer credible on its own terms. The guarantee of Christ is to be with us till the end, with the central teachings and practices of his life at the center. If this content and sequence is not maintained in a living way, i.e., in a thoroughly nuanced but plain way, we have no reason still to be Catholic.

What is unusual about our time is not its opposition to or rejection of the truth of this revelation. Adversaries have been found in every era. What is new is the worry that radical changes have been made in an official way that would cause us to doubt the integrity of the original revelation. At least some of us can still affirm with Douthat that a divine intervention did take place in Christ and that it is best preserved in the Catholic Church. The same intervention also gives us the criterion for judging when the latter is not credible—namely when the Church, as guardian of revelation, clearly changes its own truths instead of uphold them before the nations down the ages. This is why contemporary writers like Douthat carefully watch for changes that take place in Rome.

(Photo credit: CNA / L’Osservatore Romano)

Rev. James V. Schall, S.J.

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Rev. James V. Schall, S.J., taught political science at Georgetown University for many years. He is the author of The Mind That Is Catholic from Catholic University of America Press; Remembering Belloc from St. Augustine Press; and Reasonable Pleasures from Ignatius Press. His newest books include A Line Through the Human Heart: On Sinning and Being Forgiven (2016) and On the Principles of Taxing Beer and Other Brief Philosophical Essays (2017). His most recent books are Catholicism and Intelligence (Emmaus Road, 2017) and The Universe We Think In (CUA Press, 2018).

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