A person who does not believe in God cannot speak for Catholicism
There is only one reason to hold a belief, and that is because one is in love. Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman said as much when he wrote in his Oxford University addresses: “We believe because we love.”
The New York Times has a regular feature called The Stone, which it calls a “forum for contemporary philosophers on issues both timely and timeless.” The Stone has various contributors, one of whom is Professor Gary Gutting of the University of Notre Dame. This past weekend on The Stone–Holy Saturday, in fact–Gutting published a piece entitled, “On Being Catholic”. In it he does not quite give reasons for the hope that is in him, as St. Paul would put it. For Gutting has no hope in Our Risen Lord, because by his own account he has no belief in him. Nonetheless, Gutting endeavors to sketch his reasons why a “reflective and honest” intellectual such as himself can actually believe in Catholicism.
But wait. Didn’t I just say that Gutting has no belief?
Indeed I did. These are deep waters, Jeeves. Try to hang on.
Gutting affirms that his Catholic education–eight years with the Ursuline nuns, twelve years with the Jesuits–has left him with three “deep convictions.” First, that it is “utterly important to know, to the extent that we can, the fundamental truth about human life.” Second, that this truth “can in principle be supported and defended by human reason.” And third, that the “Catholic philosophical and theological tradition is a fruitful context for pursuing fundamental truth, but only if it is combined with the best available secular thought.”
Nothing wrong with these convictions. All three of them can be found confirmed, for example, in John Paul II’s encyclical on the relationship between faith and reason, Fides et Ratio. But Gutting then goes on to say: “Careful readers will note that these three convictions do not include the belief that the specific teachings of the Catholic Church provide the fundamental truths of human life. What I do believe is that these teachings are very helpful for understanding the human condition.”
So the teachings of the Church are “helpful” in understanding the fundamental truth about human life, even though they do not actually “provide” that truth. When it comes to the Church’s “theistic metaphysics,” Gutting says he is “agnostic” about it taken literally. That means he can neither confirm nor deny that God exists and is the first cause and creator of all that is. The “historical stories” of the Bible about how “God has intervened in human history to reveal his truth”? Those are best understood as “parables”–including, presumably, the Gospel accounts of Jesus of Nazareth.
Gutting, in brief, is not a Christian, the distinguishing feature of which is belief that Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of God. Gutting is not even sure about God Himself. What, then, does he believe?
He believes in the “ethics of love” that can be found in the Gospels apart from their very “helpful” but unfortunately false metaphysical backdrop. Like so many philosophes before him, Gutting would have us savor the “moral teaching” of the Gospels apart from belief in the supernatural, much as Thomas Jefferson clipped the stories of Christ’s miracles out of his Bible in order to make the Gospels more suitable to his enlightened palate.
For Gutting, Christianity’s understanding of supernatural reality is no more than a “superb intellectual construction that provides a fruitful context for understanding how our religious and moral experiences are tied to the ethics of love.” Again, Christianity is “helpful,” “fruitful,” but nevertheless not true.
Gutting is well aware that his gutting of Christianity provokes the question: if this is what you think about Catholicism, why not become an ultra-liberal Protestant or Unitarian? What’s the point of calling yourself a Roman Catholic when you don’t believe what the Catholic Church teaches? “My answer,” he avers, “is that Catholicism too [like ultra-liberal Protestantism and Unitarianism] has reconciled itself to the Enlightenment view of religion.”
This extraordinary claim he justifies as follows:
First, by claiming that the Church recognizes that individual conscience trumps magisterial teaching. “The official view still maintains that a conscience that rejects the hierarchy’s formal teaching is objectively in error. But it acknowledges that subjectively individuals not only may but should act on their sincere beliefs.”
Second, by claiming that the Church is in fact quite accepting of what he himself calls “dissident” Catholics. “Church leaders have in effect agreed that the right to follow one’s conscience includes the right of dissident Catholics to remain members of the Church.”
For these reasons the Catholic Church, on Gutting’s account of it, is quite open to turning itself into an asparagus bed of heterodox views.
But Gutting’s justification is wondrously ill-informed and dangerously misleading.
The Catholic Church, first of all, manifestly does not teach that an individual should in any and all circumstances act on what his conscience sincerely holds. Gutting would do well to ponder more deeply the discussion of erroneous conscience in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 1790-94 (which draws upon the discussion at Gaudium et Spes, paragraph 16). True, in paragraph 1790 we read that “A human being must always obey the certain judgments of his conscience.” But in paragraph 1791 we go on to read that we are morally responsible for making sure that the certain judgments of our conscience accord with the moral law. Conscience can be in error, and an erroneous conscience at times is the result of a morally culpable degree of ignorance. Interestingly, among the possible root sources of a morally culpable conscience the Catechism lists, at paragraph 1792, “assertion of a mistaken notion of autonomy of conscience” (emphasis added).
Gutting is likewise in error on his second point, about the Church’s acceptance of dissident believers. Without doubt the Church is always waiting with open arms to reconcile those who confess to deliberate rejection of her teaching, just as the Church is tireless in instructing those who, through no fault of their own, require a deeper formation of conscience. But it is simply false to describe the Church, as Gutting does, as a philosophers’ garden of lassez-faire rationalism. Church leaders at times are too complacent in allowing publicly held heterodox views to grow wild–in particular the heterodox views of intellectuals at Catholic colleges and universities. But this is a moral failure on the leaders’ part, not the official position of the Church–which a reading of the Catechism’s teaching on conscience makes clear.
Gutting actually gives a third reason for espousing his notion of enlightened Catholicism. He argues that those who, like myself, would appeal to the Church’s hierarchy to justify their positions, are vulnerable to the accusation that their arguments are circular, because it is the very authority of the hierarchy that dissidents like Gutting contest.
Which brings us back to the theme of love with which I began. As we learn from St. Thomas Aquinas, Christian belief is an act of the intellect assenting to divine truth by command of the will moved by God through grace (see Catechism, paragraph 155). The command of the will is paramount when it comes to faith, for in confronting revealed truth the intellect has reached the limits of its natural powers. And because an act of the will is an act of desire or love, belief itself is an act of love. This is why Cardinal Newman says we believe because we love.
Our assent to the truth of the Gospel, however, is no mere assent to a proposition. The divine truth we assent to is identical with the person of Christ. Christian belief in its essence is love for Christ.
Accordingly, when Catholics submit to the authority of the magisterium they do so out of love for Christ who established it, and who, in union with the power of the Holy Spirit, continues to sustain and direct it. Gutting professes admiration for the Christian ethics of love, but he cannot bring himself to love the Source of that ethic: Christ himself. Sadly, love for the person of Christ is nowhere mentioned in Gutting’s perverse apologia for Christianity. For this reason, he sees faithfulness to the magisterium as a piece of irrationality, a begging of the question as to who has power in the Church. There is indeed an assumption made by Catholics when they adhere to the magisterium. But it is the assumption of love, the belief that the Beloved himself is speaking through the instruments he has chosen.