Those who distort the Church’s social and moral teaching to render it unliveable are not more “radical” Christians, but rather the Gospel’s most dangerous enemies.
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The fervent discussions provoked by the pope’s recent interview have goaded Catholics around the world to think more deeply about what they believe and why. And that is all to the good. For me, the concerns raised by the interview dovetailed with what I happened to be reading: a work by the brilliant Catholic convert from communism, Leszek Kolakowski, Religion If There is No God, which considers the flashpoints between faith and reason throughout the history of the West. Between the pope’s call for an integral faith that avoids moralism and the tensions that Kolakowski recounts between the likes of Tertullian and Augustine, Abelard and Aquinas, Pascal and Descartes, I have been forced to dig deep and answer some fundamental questions for myself. I’d like to pose them here, to invite some deeper reflections among my fellow believers. In the spirit of my recent Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Catechism, I’ll put them in question and answer form.
Q: Why are you a Christian?
A: Because, out of all the worldviews I’ve ever encountered, the Christian one seems most attuned to human flourishing on earth. It makes the most sense of life, fosters juster societies, promotes the dignity of the person, restrains and undermines tyrannical systems of government, and encourages virtuous conduct, generosity, and kindness. While their record is far from perfect, Christian societies reflect all these values much more clearly than any other. That tells me that those people are on to something.
Q: What are they “on to”?
A: A truthful explanation of who man is, what he’s here for, what’s wrong with him, and how to fix it. Or rather, Who had to come here to fix it, and what we should do in response.
Q: OK… even assuming all that, does that prove that Christianity is true?
A: It’s hard to see how you could prove that a religion is true. I’m not sure that anyone who didn’t meet the resurrected Christ has ever had the kind of “proof” you’re talking about – and even they could have questioned themselves. If Christ appeared to a roomful of atheist psychiatrists today, I doubt that they’d all convert. More likely, they’d put themselves on medication to suppress hallucinations.
Q: But haven’t you had personal religious experiences that serve for you as evidence?
A: As it happens, I have. But so have Muslims and Buddhists. Such things are not proofs but clues. They could all be delusions, wishful thinking, the neurological side-effects of having an Irish-American mother. As Kolakowski points out, there is literally no sign that God could give us which would be so “big” and miraculous that it could prove the vast array of unlikely, even paradoxical assertions entailed in Christian faith. A skeptical scientist who saw the sun dance at Fatima could find a dozen less implausible explanations than “it’s a miracle! The Virgin Mary appeared here in Portugal.”
Q: So why choose the Catholic Church?
A: Because it has the prior claim, continuity with Christ, a powerfully convincing intellectual account of what the Gospels mean and what they don’t, and a record of faithfully passing along apostolic beliefs – however unattractive to the culture that surrounded it. Also it has produced by far the best body of art, literature, architecture, and music. I’m not sure beauty will save the world, but it makes the place much more liveable.
Q: What could convince you that the Catholic Church isn’t true?
A: Should a pope (per impossibile) get up one day and teach ex cathedra… let’s say… that Mary had NOT been assumed. Or if he solemnly denied any dogma or doctrine that had previously been solemnly affirmed by the Church.
Q: What would that prove to you?
A: Here’s what it would not prove: that Jesus isn’t God, that the sacraments are invalid, or that life is a meaningless series of incidents that winks out at the grave. It would prove instead just one thing: that the pope is not infallible, hence Vatican I wasn’t valid, and hence that the Eastern Orthodox have been right for the past 1,000 years. That might ruin my day, but it wouldn’t wreck my life. Perhaps I would walk down the street to that nice Greek church I’ve been passing for 40 years, pray in front of their icons and eat baklava after the liturgy rather than donuts.
Q: Is there anything that could convince you that Christianity isn’t true?
A: Yes. If I came to believe that in fact what Christians teach did not foster human flourishing, that it made earthly life unbearable, and hence was in fact not in tune with the human nature it claims that God created “good.”
Q: Give me an example.
A: OK; let’s say the Church took literally Jesus’ words about cutting off your hand if it causes you to sin. Every teenage boy on earth would look like Captain Hook – and the more enterprising ones would castrate themselves, becoming “eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven.” One of the Church’s most central functions, I think, is letting us know when Jesus was using hyperbole, and when he wasn’t.
Q: But your example is just absurd.
A: Is it? One of the most brilliant men in Christian history, Origen, made this mistake and castrated himself. More broadly, for hundreds of years, our monks and theologians had a very hard time seeing how marriage could really be holy – witness the relentless pressure monastic confessors often put on pious couples to “live as brother and sister.” Pascal would famously call marriage unworthy of Christians, and convince his sister to drop the man she loved. While it’s often the theological left which calls attention to this anti-sexual heritage (which never rose to the level of doctrine), Pope John Paul II alluded to it as the reason he needed to articulate the Theology of the Body.
Q: But no one takes such ideas seriously now.
A: Don’t be so sure. I talked for two hours to one of the most famous popular theologians in America, and this subject came up. I mentioned the passage where Jesus appears (at first glance) to be saying that it would be better if everyone were celibate, and pointed out that Christ obviously couldn’t have possibly meant that literally, since it would destroy the human race in 70 years. You know what the theologian said? “Well, I could envision Christ issuing a prophetic call on the human race to live one final generation of holy witness, to be crowned by the Second Coming.”
To that I responded: “No, if Jesus had called on the human race to die out, that would prove to us that he wasn’t the Messiah, but some false prophet who was the enemy of our kind.”
There are other strands in the Gospel that could be wrenched out of context to distill that kind of poison, and if the Church were to start prescribing the stuff, we would know that her message was false.
Q: Such as?
A: Pacifism. Throughout her history, the Church has not taken Christ’s command to “turn the other cheek” as a call for Gandhian non-violence – for fathers to watch their wives be assaulted, their daughters raped, their neighbors robbed and pillaged, or their countries overrun by neighboring tyrants. That kind of non-violence is profoundly evil, because it is incompatible with decent human life. It denies the most fundamental human drives, implanted by God: to preserve one’s life and that of your loved ones, to be free, and to keep the fruit of your labors. Any faith that taught us to mortify such drives would be fundamentally Gnostic; it would teach that our human nature, and hence that Creation, is evil to its roots.
Q: So you’re saying that if some future pope embraced Franciscan poverty and called on every Christian to practice it… ?
A: He’d be calling for mass starvation, of the sort that Stalin imposed in the Ukraine. Some of St. Francis’ followers did exactly that – demand that every Christian live like a friar. These “spiritual Franciscans” were anathematized by the pope – a fact that deeply affirms my faith in the papacy. Likewise, if (again, this is a crazy hypothetical) a pope asserted that every Christian was bound by monastic obedience and that he had to treat his local pastor’s commands as the voice of God, that would create a totalitarian theocracy that we would be right to reject.
Q: What if the Church called on the wealthier nations to open their borders wide to everyone who wished to move there?
A: With the outcome that these newcomers could vote to impose their religion on the Christians, or to use the modern redistributist state to confiscate their property and tax them into serfdom? That’s what happens when one civilization conquers another, either by war or other means. Any Church that taught that would prove itself Gnostic by denying people’s right to preserve their heritage, keep their freedom, and pass on to their children the fruits of their labors. It would die out like the Shakers, and deserve to.
Q: So you’re saying that the content of the Church’s moral message, and what she teaches about society and politics, is not some secondary question.
A: For me, and millions of other thinking Catholics, they are vital reasons to believe. And so we need to talk about them, to swat down misconceptions and counter new teachings that pretend to be more “radical” embraces of the Gospel, but which really are ancient heresies of a toxic and Gnostic sort.
Q: Is that why you sound so angry sometimes when these issues arise?
A: It is. When someone claims that Christian faith demands something life-denying – that it calls for mass celibacy, total pacifism, the end of private property, or anything else that would cripple or kill off the species – they aren’t attacking my politics, but my faith. The Church is the servant of the Father who created us, and hence the friend of the human race. Those who claim that she is a civilizational suicide cult are saying (though they don’t mean to) that Pontius Pilate was right.
John Zmirak is the author, most recently, of The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Catechism. His occasional writings are collected at The Bad Catholic’s Bingo Hall.