Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Why I Am Not "Still a Catholic"

Happy New Year! Did you get any Chesterton books for Christmas? I didn't!

I'm going to do something I've never done before and cross-post something from my other blog, Irish Papist. To compound the sin, it doesn't even mention Chesterton. I simply thought it was mildly Chestertonian in its approach. Apologies to any non-Catholics or non-Christians who read this blog and who think I'm taking an abominable liberty...here goes anyway...

I often browse the religion shelves of bookshops, and there is a particular title, recently published, that always makes me grit my teeth. It is Remaining a Catholic After the Murphy Report.

As a matter of fact, there are a whole genre of similar books. Recalling the title Why I am Still a Catholic, I looked for it on Amazon just now and found that several books of that title have been published. There is also an Irish book called What Being Catholic Means to Me, which—though its title is unobjectionable—contains essays (written by various luminaries) pregnant with the whole atmosphere that reeks from a title like Why I am Still a Catholic.

What is that atmosphere, you ask me?

I think the word “supercilious” sums it up best. Though perhaps I would be better off being blunt and calling it pride. I haven’t read any of the several books called Why I Am Still a Catholic, and I may be maligning all their authors, but the title suggests that the authors believe the Church is lucky to keep them, that the Church doesn’t quite deserve their continued loyalty, that their refusal to apostasize is a sign of heroic forbearance and patience and sacrifice.

Would anyone write an article called Why I Still Love my Wife, or Why I Still Love my Children?

Permit me here to make the ritual protestations of horror at clerical child abuse. Of course, outrages such as those chronicled in the Murphy Report should be a source of lacerating shame for the Irish hierarcy and laity. But, equally of course, they don’t make a whit of difference to the truth or falsity of the Church’s doctrine, any more than a doctor abusing his patient would make medicine a pseudoscience.

And yet, although I think the damage that sex abuse has done to Irish Catholicism is grossly overstated—to be blunt, I think it is often little more than a flag of convenience for those who were lukewarm in their convictions already—I have some sympathy for those whose faith is sincerely shaken by these outrages. I can understand (though I do not agree with) the reasoning by which someone would decide that the Church cannot be infallibly guided by the Holy Spirit if some of its anointed ministers have perpetrated such horrors. Of course, to think this is to forget that God’s church is made of living stones, that He never abrogates human freedom for the sake of His designs, and that even one of Our Saviour’s closest disciples committed an unspeakable betrayal.

Still, as I say, I have some sympathy for those who feel this way, for those who would describe themselves as Still Catholic because of the abuse scandals.

What really irritates me is those who forgive the Church, not for the failings of some of its members and ministers and hierarchy, but for its very doctrines and Tradition and character. Those, in other words, who forgive the Church for being Catholic.

I have a confession to make. A confession that might shock those people who declare, with a virtuous air, that they are Still Catholics despite the Church’s “negative view of sex”, or its “homophobia”, or its “rigid hierarchical thinking”, or its supposed "pomp and splendour".

I like pretty much everything about the Catholic Church. I don’t “struggle” with accepting any of it.

I like that the Church allows us an opportunity for loyalty, humility and deference, in a world where advertisers and politicians and psychologists and spiritual gurus of all stripes compete to flatter us, and to assure us that our problems are not our own fault, but the fault of The System, or Society, or our parents, or some other culprit.

I like calling a priest “Father”, submitting to the wisdom of the Magisterium, and accepting that one lifetime and one blob of cerebral tissue isn’t enough to attain timeless Truth.

I like that the Church insists on celibacy for its priests, and that there are men who are willing to witness to their faith in Christ by making such an enormous sacrifice. I admire any man who does so, even those whose orthodoxy leaves something to be desired.

I like that the Church is willing to defy our era and declare unabashedly that homosexuality is wrong—not because I sit in judgement on those who are attracted to their own sex, or because I doubt that many people are born this way, or because I think that they are bad people. But because I don’t think anybody really believes that romantic love between two men is on a par with romantic love between a man and a woman, or that there is not something unique and timeless and sacramental in the harmony of opposites that is the love between male and female. I always suffered from the cognitive dissonance that our era imposes on us by having to pretend otherwise, by having to rebuke an all-but universal moral intuition as an irrational phobia. I suspect I am not the only one.

I like that the Church prohibits contraception. It seems grotesquely incongruous to me that the lifestyle of sexual liberation—which purports to be so wild and unfettered and heady and, above all, natural—can ultimately rely upon little pills and latex sheaths. It is the Church’s teaching on sex that is really romantic and heady—the acceptance that lovemaking is reserved for those who have crossed the Rubicon of marriage, who have committed to each other irrevocably, and who do not grudge the natural consequences of their love’s consummation—those, in other words, who are giving it everything. The world’s ideal of sex seems lily-livered and puny compared to that of Catholicism.

I like that the Church ordains only men to the priesthood—not because I think women are any less wise, or less capable of heroic virtue, or less competent than men in any other way, but because I feel sure God made us male and female for a reason—a reason that goes far deeper than biology, a reason of cosmic significance. I am content not to understand that reason. No, more than content—I am happy to feel the weight of the mystery.

I like that bishops wear mitres and carry croziers, that priests wear chasubles, that many churches blaze with colour and splendour and ornament, and that even the plainest will contain some fragments of visual poetry—statues, tabernacle, altar. We live in a utilitarian age, one that draws a ruthless line between function and beauty. Soldiers wear khaki, workplaces are monstrosities of glass and concrete, and suburbs full of identical houses stretch for mile upon mile upon mile. Our discussions, in boardroom and parliament and newspaper columns, resolve around efficiency and cost-effectiveness and usefulness. Everything has been streamlined. Utilitarianism has carried all before it—everywhere except in the Catholic Church. Within its cathedrals and chapels and oratories, beauty still has a serious purpose, beauty still matters, beauty is indispensable.

“How can a Church preach the doctrine of Christ while luxuriating in splendour and ostentation?”, its critics ask. Well, one reason is that the poor, too, crave beauty and ceremony and grandeur—and where else will they get it, where can they actually participate in it, except in a cathedral, or on a pilgrimage to the Vatican?

I like that the Church mediates between God and me. Some people think we should take a direct line to God and we shouldn’t need anybody coming between Him and us. I don’t. I think God likes mediation. He could have invented us all from nothing, but instead we all have mothers and fathers who gave us the gift of life, and lines of ancestors stretching back untold millennia. I prefer it that way. He could have made us self-sufficient monads, but instead He contrived this world so that we need to get food and knowledge and company from others—very sensibly, I think.

Christ chose to appear to a particular group of people at a particular moment, so that the vast majority of Christians would receive their knowledge of him from others. Even when he spoke to Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus, he didn’t simply cram him with all the knowledge he would need. He sent Ananias to induct him into the Christian fellowship, and to restore his sight.

Why do we cherish stories, like The Karate Kid, about masters and disciples? Because we recognize there is something uniquely tender and touching and joyous in that bond; because we feel growth and discovery and flourishing should not be something impersonal, but something that happens between individuals. We even feel that it means more when it is a difficult, tentative process. The Karate Kid learning his stuff from an old book would seem somehow less meaningful.

I like that the Church requires a spoken confession of sins to a priest, even though I find this incredibly difficult and embarrassing and intimidating. God forgiving my sins through a wordless, silent, invisible process seems somehow banal and anti-climactic. That they should be forgiven at all is astounding and gratuitous enough. How could I wish for it to be any easier? And—though confession is a mystical sacrament and not a psychological coping mechanism—where is the catharsis in a purely mental confession?

I like saints. I like reading about Marian apparitions. I like relics. I like shrines. I like feasts. I even like fasts (especially when they’re over).

I like homilies. I like candles glowing before shrines. I like the poetry of names like Jesus and Ezekiel and Isaac and Melchizedek.

I like ritual, for its own sake—I believe ritual expresses something, enacts something, that mere words or thoughts never could. I've noticed that people tend to make rituals of the things they love—even if it’s something like sitting down to a cup of tea and a coffee slice before opening their favourite magazine each week.

I liked John Paul the Second. I like Pope Benedict the Sixteenth even more.

I even like the penumbral, cultural aspects of Catholicism-- things that aren't strictly Catholicism itself but that seem imbued with its spirit. I like little devotional magazines with covers showing cornfields and daffodills and stone walls, magazines that mix meditations on the Gospels with household tips and trivia about The Great Wall of China. I like gently-coloured hoIy pictures. I even like programmes like A Prayer at Bedtime. I don’t like any of those things ironically or knowingly, nor do I consider them kitsch. I like them for what they are.

I like thinking of all the millions of very different men and women, all over the world and all through the centuries, who spoke the same prayers that I speak today, who meditated upon the same mysteries of the Rosary, who recited the same Creeds, who partook of the same Eucharist. I cherish the spiritual communion with all those souls. I don’t see how watering down that continuity makes the Church, somehow, belong more to The People.

No doubt the Still Catholics who trudge reluctantly to Mass and who call for radical “renewal” in the Church would consider me otiose, complacent, brainwashed. They might even call me a sheep.

But I don’t mind that too much. After all, Our Saviour never used that comparison as a slur, did he?


  1. Good article.

    Describes how I feel too.

    I think that many ex-Catholics and 'lukewarm' Catholics have a passive mindset where they expect Catholicism to entertain and inspire them but they themselves do not have to actively engage. They don't want to make any sacrifice or accept any discipline.

    Then Jesus said to his
    disciples, “Whoever wishes to come after
    me must deny himself, take up his cross,
    and follow me.

    Martin D.

  2. Many Catholics today seem to be repelled by the words of (recently-beatified) Cardinal Newman: "Certainly, if I am obliged to bring religion into after-dinner toasts, (which indeed does not seem quite the thing) I shall drink, -- to the Pope, if you please, -- still, to Conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards." I embrace those words, because they seem to me to embody the spirit of Christian liberty. But they have to be understood in light of Newman's view of conscience as a "messenger from God" rather than a mere assertion of self-will. Catholics should make every effort to inform their conscience, to the limit of their ability, and if they find themselves in disagreement with the teachings of the Church, should take the matter to God in prayer and humility. But if, after all of that, they remain in disagreement, they should follow their conscience.

  3. I'm not sure it's true that most Catholics are compelled by those words. I hear them quoted an awful lot!

    I don't think you're wrong, though. The Catechism says: "A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience. If he were deliberately to act against it, he would condemn himself. Yet it can happen that moral conscience remains in ignorance and makes erroneous judgments about acts to be performed or already committed." As far as I can see, this is exactly what you're saying. Thanks for your comment.