Don’t Question My Catholicism! When Debate Is Legitimate, and When It Isn’t

Often heated debates turn upon subtle misunderstandings which are hard to spot right away. This is especially true in religious and philosophical matters. As an example, take a situation in which someone is offended because he thinks that somebody else is accusing him of a lack of orthodoxy in his particular religious faith. Let’s assume that the religion in question is based upon a basic doctrine demanding an adherence to objective, non-subjective standards of right and wrong, good and bad, and so on. The trouble begins when A drops some hints that B is not in conformity with the doctrines and/or practices of their religion. B responds by rejecting such allegations as being a presumptuous and arrogant attitude on the part of A. In opposition to A’s statements, either direct or implied, B asserts that he rejects A’s brand of religion X, whatever it happens to be.

A then reiterates his position, claiming that he has no intention of judging B’s personal state of mind, motives, intelligence, goodwill, and so on. His comments refer only to what is publicly observable, what B has openly said or done, or failed to say and do. On this basis alone there appear to be some serious discrepancies between what should be the case and what is the case. Nor is A judging B in the biblical sense of condemning B to some form of divine punishment or eternal damnation. His only point is that B is not living up to certain standards which would justify his being called a good member of religion X. This does not mean that someone who seems or appears to be doing so is in fact doing so. It may in fact be the case that many who superficially appear to be faithful are not, and will find themselves more severely condemned for their secret sins than the others. But this is all beside the point.

B is still not satisfied. He doesn’t think that A should be criticizing him at all. It is not for A to attempt to impose his brand of the product upon someone else. B resents being treated by A, at least implicitly and indirectly, as somehow inferior to A. B sees the situation as a clash of wills between two equals, neither one of whom should have the effrontery to accuse the other of wrong-doing. It does no good for A to protest his innocence in this matter by claiming that he can still love B even while pointing out B’s lack of orthodoxy.

B has a hard time understanding the distinction and continues to take A’s critique in a personal way. There are parallels, though, which might help the cause of understanding. A asks: Is it not possible for someone to love his country while simultaneously disliking its present leadership? It may even be the case that the very reason someone rejects the present prime minister or president is because he does so love his country and sees the present leadership as doing it great harm.

This is something B can understand, but thinks that it works against A’s case rather than in its favor. Why can’t B love his church while disagreeing with its leaders and their interpretations of its main purposes and doctrines? If this is possible then A should not use the current doctrines as a measure of B’s orthodoxy precisely because it is possible for B to be a good church member even though he rejects many of its doctrines for whatever reason he deems right and proper. This does not mean the rejection of the church as a whole, of its very existence, or even of the fact that it requires leadership, has a well-established hierarchy, and has a right to speak out on issues of personal and group behavior, and so on. Let the leaders speak out, but do not think that they can speak for all the members of the church, especially the more educated and circumspect members.

A’s response to this is that it’s precisely on the border between the personal and the collective that the analogy begins to limp. A can understand the importance of love in a relationship, whether between persons or between a person and an organization. A is all in favor of love; he loves love. However, when love gets to the point of becoming so vague, ambiguous, and directionless that it covers over everything like a thick coat of molasses, then something has gone wrong.

It’s possible to love an individual person while objecting to his beliefs and deeds only because the former is not identical with the latter. In one and the same individual being there is a real distinction between potency and act. B, as a human being, is not the same as his internal or external actions, even if, over a long period of time, these become “second nature” to him.

But how can this apply to a collection of individuals? Does the group possess a reality greater than the members which make it up? Is there some sociological soul common to the whole organization? Is there a substance to the church which can exist independently of its members, so that it is possible for the members to run contrary to the “body” of the church and still remain faithful, loyal, and in love with it? A doesn’t think so, but apparently B does.

B is taken aback by A’s position. Are we to identify the church with its leaders? If so, then what status can all the laymen have? Are they inferior and second-rate? B cannot accept such a situation and finds it hard to believe that A could entertain such a view, one which seems to follow necessarily from A’s failure to separate the Indians from the chiefs. B insists that he can love the church even while rejecting the views of its leaders precisely because the leaders are not identified with the church. For this reason, A cannot assume that the members must accept the views of the leaders as law. Love can exist without the law, and might even be better off without it.


A Neo-Pagan Reformation

It is not uncommon today for some people to claim that the only way to love the church is to remove oneself from its “institutional” structure and proceed to criticize it from an external, “objective” position. In effect, one must become a rebel, a non-conformist, a Protestant, even while being careful not to call one’s self by such a title. In the past Protestantism meant a revolt against the pope because of his laxness and failure to maintain Christian ideals in practice. The shoe is now on the other foot; we are now in the middle of a more or less neo-pagan Reformation in which the pope is under attack for being too rigid. Strangely enough, orthodox thinkers in the Church today often find themselves more in agreement on many points with the more biblically oriented Protestants of today than with their brother and sister Catholics.

In the process of claiming to be a “good” rebel one is also, of course, relieved of many of the disciplinary and moral obligations imposed by the teaching authority of the Church, such as attending Mass, rejecting fornication, abortion, homosexuality, and so forth. On the surface of it, the existence of this sort of shadow religious society would seem to be especially convenient and self-serving for those who want an excuse for a moral holiday. Yet we need not assume this to be the case. The important point is that even assuming the highest degree of sincerity on B’s part, his approach still fails in love.

Those who choose to live in this shadow church, explains A, mistakenly think that there is some basic contradiction between the Church hierarchy, which possesses the God-given duty to continue to teach authoritatively the message of Christ until the end of the world, and the honest, humble desire for servantship, covenant, a loving community, and a respect for the prevalent spirituality of the common people. In fact, though, there is no such contradiction. Even while admitting that the structure is open to many possible abuses because of its human element, the fact remains that institutionalized authority is the divinely inspired means for gaining the goal of personal salvation, not the negation of it. One cannot love the mission of the Church without also loving the one, true, catholic, and apostolic means for the completion of that mission.

A points out to B: Let’s define love as the willful choosing of what we see to be good. Where possible, this means willing the well-being of someone or something, including ourselves, that we recognize as good. Where it is not possible to improve the well-being of someone, such as God, it means adhering to God’s commands, choosing to please God rather than someone or something else, including ourselves. The greater the love, the greater the desire for the welfare of the object of one’s love. It may even prove necessary to suffer and die in order to protect the well-being of the loved one. For this reason alone, if for no other, B should restrain his heterodoxy. It can only cause division and scandal in the Church, the integrity and unity of which B, if he really loves the Church, should be willing to protect with his life.

B is not impressed by all this. Because B does love the Church he wants to do what is best for it, and this might mean disagreeing with its leaders, even in public, in order to bring about a more perfect organization in the future. This argument becomes the stronger if it can be shown that such action has actually produced changes in the past. If popular upswellings have been responsible for bringing in new forms of worship or doctrine in the past, then why not in the present and future? The leadership proposes and the membership disposes. Vox populi, vox Dei.


Dissent as Vitality

From B’s viewpoint, the presence of diversity within the religious group might even be regarded as a sign of vitality and health. A society in which there is a great variety of different foods, work and play possibilities, outlets for creative energies, economic developments, investment opportunities, literary and scientific investigations, and so forth, is a vital and healthy society. Likewise for the cultivation of the individual person, both in mind and in body. A body, for instance, with a variety of exercise patterns, food choices, and so on, is a vital and healthy body.

A is willing to go along with this up to a point. So long as B continues to emphasize the integration and harmony of the bodily parts the analogy works very well. But what happens when the list of activities begins to include items which tend to tear the body apart? A healthy body is healthy only as long as the many and varied activities contribute to one and the same goal. As soon as the diversity begins to operate on a more fundamental level, the coordination necessary for vital activity is destroyed. Instead of a vital condition we would then have a violent vibration leading to death. When the head goes in one direction while the legs run off in another direction, and the torso and arms fly off in still other directions, we definitely do not have a lively and healthy body.

As A points out to B, this is exactly the kind of situation produced by heterodoxy within the Church. Given the dire consequences, dissidents cannot be accorded equal respect with the orthodox, even though, because of our love and respect for them as human persons, the leaders of the Church might desperately desire to do so. In all cases, the love and passion for the well-being of the Church, and the ardent desire to preserve its essential religious message in a pure and unadulterated form, must take precedence over the strong urge and sincere wish to avoid conflict and any well-meaning attempt to please everyone.

Every religious coin has two sides. For a real integrity of personhood we must have both the will and the intellect in harmony with one another. A great love, however passionate, is blind without knowledge. A great knowledge, however exact and true, is cold and dead without a burning charity. Without a true and certain objective measure to guide it, a deep love and consuming passion can easily turn ugly and destructive. Those with a love of war and a passion for the beauty of bloodshed — and there have been many such people in the world — can claim a sincerity and moral integrity equal to anything the lovers of peace and harmony can claim. In such a world the passionate pessimist has as much right to believe and act as does anyone else. In such a world only the passion and death of Jesus Christ can show us the true meaning of love: an intellectual assent to the truth of God’s word, and obedience to God’s will, even unto death. The Christian message is that changing the rules in order to make life easier for ourselves is not true love.

As a social institution the Catholic Church is very much like other social organizations. This means that it is more than a loose and haphazard collection of members. It is not a collective in which individuals lose their importance. Like a nation or “a people,” the members are the Church; nevertheless the Church is given its form and structure by something more than the average desires of its members. Even while constantly vibrating with many differences and variations, it is the membership which must fit into the animating pattern and principles rather than vice versa. Like the living body, the elements that compose it must conform to it in some very fundamental way. Even if you eat too much ice cream, the ice cream turns into you rather than vice versa. It’s the same with a nation or a church. The individual members must freely consent to accept the pattern.

When someone loves his country he means more than the craggy mountains, the sand dunes, the pretty little lakes, the deep green forests, and other parts of its landscape and geography, although this is certainly a part of it. A country is established by a way of life, a whole set of predictable modes of behavior, usually embodied, sooner or later, in a written constitution. Once established, the fundamental law of the land cannot be drastically altered without also destroying the nation. Citizens may have the right to try amending the constitution, but no one can rightfully attempt to alter the whole structure and system without destroying the very identity of the nation.

The situation is very much the same with respect to the Church, except that in the case of the Church an element of divine dictate is added to the human element. In the beginning the Church was a small, structured nucleus of disciples around Jesus Christ. But around this kernel there was a large mass of ambiguous, amorphous, undeveloped protoplasm. The whole history of the Church has been one of overall growth and better definition. In time the tree of life stood out more and more exactly outlined against the sky. Over the centuries its trunk expanded, and its thick roots sunk deep into the soil of the world’s societies. Its whole internal life of sacraments, prayer, and administration became more sharply etched and delineated. Its teachings became more clearly defined, and its forms of public worship more formalized and predictable. Despite many hesitations and set-backs, a hierarchical structure blossomed in a colorful, cross-cultural array of beautiful rites and rituals very much in keeping with the body-soul nature of the human person.


Two Kinds of Authority

Freedom should also be in keeping with man’s psychosomatic nature. Every act of rational choice requires at least two factors, namely, freedom and objective standards. Both are necessary, but neither one alone is sufficient to bring about a truly rational choice. Both factors represent authority in a certain way. The independent, objective measure acts as an external authority, while our own ability for self-determination acts as an internal source of authority. Both together are required for a single act of rational decision-making.

This has some important practical consequences. To talk about the need for independent measures of good and bad, right and wrong, just and unjust, is to talk about the need for authority. In practical terms this means that in a large number of human activities it is not proper to bear witness to ourselves, when it comes to stating what we are and what we can do.

For instance, someone cannot simply claim to be an expert in, say, Raman spectroscopy and expect to be taken at his or her word. Just as the practice of a particular science requires, on the theoretical level, adherence to a certain set of standards and procedures, so someone who claims to be a practitioner of a given science must be backed up in his or her claim by some independent, unbiased, and honest authority sincerely attempting to enforce exactly those standards required to make sure that someone who claims to know Raman spectroscopy does indeed know the subject. These days the usual seat of such authority is in the educational system. A university, for instance, will back up such a claim by giving a degree in that area at one level or another. Such a degree, or some equivalent, is needed to make the individual’s claim credible.

Likewise in political philosophy. How do we know that someone is a citizen of a certain country? Can someone be a citizen of a given country simply by claiming that he or she is a citizen of that country? The answer is, of course not. Where there is a fixed and stable authority governing a country, our claim to citizenship must be backed up by the proper authority in that country. In order for our claim to citizenship to be credible, we must have the approval of the nation’s government. And, generally speaking, the more clear, careful, and continuous is its control over things such as birth certificates, passports, and the like, the more credible is the claim to citizenship on the part of the individual, provided, of course, that he or she possesses such documents.

The same holds true in religious matters as well. It is not credible for someone to claim to be a member of a given religious body or church when all he or she has to back up such a claim is his or her own word for it. Where there is a long-standing authority representing that religious organization, such a claim, to be credible, must be supported by the authoritative representatives of that organization.

This would also be the case with respect to subgroups and subsidiary operations within the larger organization. For example, an educational institution cannot credibly claim to be, say, a Roman Catholic school or college, when it lacks the approval of the local bishop, and ultimately of the pope. Likewise for any smaller units of operation within the school, college, institute, center, publications department, and so on. The more continuous and complete the control the greater the credibility.

In all these cases we see the need for viewing rational choice as a two-way street. Neither the free agent nor the objective measure can impose its claims upon the other without the consent of the other. It makes no sense for a university to try imposing a science degree upon someone who neither wants it nor is willing to work for it. Similarly, not only must the government want to make someone a citizen but that someone must also want to be a citizen. In religious matters the same pattern must be maintained. Assuming there is a religious authority in the first place (if there isn’t then all rules are off and anyone can say and claim anything he or she cares to), it cannot force its religion upon an unwilling subject, any more than someone can force his or her way into a church without the cooperation of the objective measure, even though he or she might, with great subjective force, honestly and sincerely wish to do so.

We can see, then, that there is an exact parallel between freedom and objective standards, on the one hand, and freedom and authority, on the other hand. Just as there is no necessary contradiction in principle between freedom and the existence of independent measurements to which those free acts must conform on the theoretical level, so there is none between freedom and willingly submitting to the wishes of the rightfully constituted authority which represents those standards on the practical level. This is highly significant for both personal peace of mind and for social and political harmony. With respect to the latter, it provides a reasonable way to avoid the extremes of “left-wing” and “right-wing” politics, hyper-individualism and collectivism, and so forth. Instead of saying either freedom or God, conscience or authority, temporality or eternity, we can say “both,” and really mean it.

Authority does not rule out the existence of private autonomy, human freedom, personal self-identity, and individual dignity. Being “authentic” and “true to yourself” does not mean being untrue to God, the Church, your husband or wife, your parents or children, or your promise to take out the garbage. The existence of objective ideals to be achieved, and our freedom to achieve them, are complementary rather than antagonistic aspects of our existence, an existence which is oriented towards action, life, and life lived more abundantly. In this context, orthopraxis (right practice) is greatly enhanced by orthodoxy (right speaking).

Neither must we reject the role of authority on the practical level in our quest for justice for all. Justice and mercy must always go together to produce true equity and fairness, and an authority which defends eternal truths while encouraging us to use our freedom properly can be a great help. As much as we require a hard-headed approach to truth and justice in the name of reason and truth, we require a soft-hearted approach to sinners in the name of faith and love, in order to become what we already are in the hierarchy of nature, human nature, and divine nature.

According to this constitution of things, ordinarily the parishioners must obey their priest, the priest the bishop, the bishop the pope, the pope the Christ, and the Christ the Father. It is like an army under the absolute monarchy of God, yet one not intent upon death and destruction but upon life-giving self-sacrifice and service. This is the voice of the people and the will of God speaking through the ages. Within this structure there is a tremendous amount of room for all sorts of variations and modifications, but not, however, in major moral matters, doctrine, and discipline. Accept it or reject it, like it or not, this is the Church that must be sincerely loved if one is to love at all. Any other approach is comparable to genetic defects in the body which, if accumulated and not counteracted, will sooner or later kill the organism.

Getting back to basics, although the situation is complex, the fundamental A, B, C’s of the case is that A has the better part of the argument. A’s position — insisting upon the need for both the intellect and the will acting in concert — provides a basis for a really robust Church. In order to love well we must love wisely as well as passionately. This means that the combination of a “good” Catholic and an “I will not assent and serve” Catholic is impossible. Sadly, though B honestly wants to love the Church, he is bereft of the objective measure of the magisterium needed in order to direct the believer’s passion along productive paths (and for which no amount of enthusiasm can substitute). Without such an objective measure, B cannot really love in a fully human fashion.

Today the discrepancies between the teachings of the Church on the one hand, and the words of those who are at least nominal Catholics on the other, have reached discreditable and scandalous proportions. The time seems right for a combination of divine and human action to restore some semblance of integrity to the Body of Christ. A new reformation and a real renewal is required. The way things are going, sooner or later the doctor must operate in order to save the patient, and even though he does so with extreme skill, diplomacy, and all due respect for the basically uncorrupted humanity of the heterodox person, the results are still bound to be painful. In the end, though, the patient, perhaps only a remnant of her former self, will survive, and be the healthier, more progressive, and more prosperous for it.


  • F.F. Centore

    At the time this article was published, F.F. Centore was professor of philosophy at the University of St. Jerome in Ontario, Canada.

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