An old friend and mentor of mine, Ernan McMullin, was a philosopher of science widely respected in his discipline. He was also a Catholic priest. I don’t know how many times fellow philosophers at professional meetings drew me aside and asked, “Does Ernan really believe that stuff?” (He did.) Amid all the serious and generally respectful coverage of the papal resignation and the election of a new pope, I often detect an undertone of this same puzzlement. Can reflective and honest intellectuals actually believe that stuff?
Here I sketch my reasons for answering “yes.” What I offer is neither apologetics aimed at converting others nor merely personal testimony. Without claiming to speak for others, I try to articulate a position that I expect many fellow Catholics will find congenial and that non-Catholics (even those who reject all religion) may recognize as an intellectually respectable stance. Easter is the traditional time for Christians to reaffirm their faith. I want to show that we can do this without renouncing reason.
Since I am one of those who reject all religion, I am certainly interested to hear what Gutting has to say. There’s something about Roman Catholicism, at least as presented by its leaders, that I have always found especially indefensible. It is already hard to believe the theological teachings about Jesus that are a part of Protestantism no less than Catholicism. But Catholicism then adds an extra level of dubiousness, by teaching that its leaders are singularly capable of interpreting scripture, that the Pope can speak infallibly under certain circumstances, that its moral teachings are definitive, and so on. I was looking forward to Gutting’s effort to make an acceptance of such beliefs seem intellectually respectable.
Alas, I was destined for disappointment. Gutting defends none of those things. In fact, what he defends is a very theologically liberal form of Catholicism. Indeed, what he defends seems like little more than a sort of vague, cultural Catholicism. I have no objection to cultural religion, as readers of this blog are aware. My atheism did not stop me from participating in two Passover seders last week. But it does seem like a bit of a cheat to say you are going to make Catholicism seem intellectually respectable, and then not address any of the reasons people ever thought it wasn’t respectable.
Toward the end of James Joyce’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” the protagonist, Stephen Dedalus, rejects the Roman Catholic faith he was raised in. A friend suggests that he might, then, become a Protestant. Stephen replies, “I said that I had lost the faith . . . but not that I had lost self-respect.” Factoring out the insult to Protestants, I would like to appropriate this Joycean mot to explain my own continuing attachment to the Catholic Church.
Factoring out the insult to Protestants? There’s not much left of the quote after you do that.
I read “self-respect” as respect for what are (to borrow the title of the philosopher Charles Taylor’s great book) the “sources of the self.” These are the sources nurturing the values that define an individual’s life. For me, there are two such sources. One is the Enlightenment, where I’m particularly inspired by Voltaire, Hume and the founders of the American republic. The other is the Catholic Church, in which I was baptized as an infant, raised by Catholic parents, and educated for 8 years of elementary school by Ursuline nuns and for 12 more years by Jesuits. For me to deny either of these sources would be to deny something central to my moral being.
The Enlightenment and the Catholic Church? Yes, that needs some explaining. But first let me explain my attachment to Catholicism. My Catholic education has left me with three deep convictions. First, it is utterly important to know, to the extent that we can, the fundamental truth about human life: where it came from, what (if anything) it is meant for, how it should be lived. Second, this truth can in principle be supported and defended by human reason. Third, 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. (The Jesuits I studied with were particularly strong on all three of these claims.)
At this point you might suspect that it’s a pretty liberal version of Catholicism that Gutting is going to defend. I have never heard a Pope or a Bishop say that Catholic teaching needs to be supplemented with secular thought. In fact, I thought the whole point of Catholic teaching was to protect us from the utter corruption of secular thought. As for speaking stirringly about the effect of Catholic education on his upbringing, that makes me understand why he might see himself as culturally Catholic, not why he would defend the intellectual respectability of Catholicism.
Moreover, it sure seems to me that, to the extent that we can know anything about where human life came from and what it is meant for, it is science, and not Church teaching, that will show the way. As for how life should be lived, I would say that is something everyone has to work out for himself. If we are looking for a fruitful context for investigating that question, a Church that claims exclusive insight into absolute truth does not come immediately to mind.
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. Here I distinguish three domains: metaphysical doctrines about the existence and nature of God, historical accounts from the Bible of how God has intervened in human history to reveal his truth and the ethics of love preached by Jesus.
Okay, now he’s just messing with us. The Church itself seems quite certain that its teachings represent nothing less than the fundamental truths of human life. If you’re not defending the Church’s special authority to hold forth on such questions, then what, exactly, are you defending?
You might have noticed that Gutting is being awfully vague about what he actually believes. What, exactly, does it mean to say that the Catholic philosophical and theological tradition provided a fruitful context for pursuing fundamental truth? To judge from this latest paragraph, he does not find it so fruitful that it actually leads to fundamental truth. So what then? And if it’s just bits and pieces of Jesus’ teachings that you like, well, you can have those without the baggage of the hierarchy.
This vagueness is one of the reasons I sometimes sympathize with fundamentalists over more moderate believers. With the fundamentalists, you are simply never left wondering about what they believe and why they believe it. By contrast, moderate, intellectual defenders of religion, like Gutting, frequently find it difficult to express themselves with any clarity.
The ethics of love I revere as the inspiration for so many (Catholics and others) who have led exemplary moral lives. I don’t say that this ethics is the only exemplary way to live or that we have anything near to an adequate understanding of it. But I know that it has been a powerful force for good. (Like so many Catholics, I do not see how the hierarchy’s rigid strictures on sex and marriage could follow from the ethics of love.) As to the theistic metaphysics, I’m agnostic about it taken literally, but see it as a superb intellectual construction that provides a fruitful context for understanding how our religious and moral experiences are tied to the ethics of love. The historical stories, I maintain, are best taken as parables illustrating moral and metaphysical teachings.
Traditional apologetics has started with metaphysical arguments for God’s existence, then argued from the action of God in the world to the truth of the Church’s teachings as revealed by God and finally justified the ethics of love by appealing to these teachings. I reverse this order, putting first the ethics of love as a teaching that directly captivates our moral sensibility, then taking the history and metaphysics as helpful elucidations of the ethics.
So, Catholic teaching has been a powerful force for good, except on the subject of sex and marriage where they have mostly gotten it wrong (and have thereby contributed greatly to human misery, I would add). He’s agnostic about “theistic metaphysics.” He thinks the Bible’s stories are not true as history, but teach moral lessons that he finds congenial. And he uses his own views about ethics as the guide to how he understands the Bible, in direct contravention of the usual approach. This, recall, in what was meant to be a defense of Catholicism.
As for, “…but see it as a superb intellectual construction that provides a fruitful context for understanding how our religious and moral experiences are tied to the ethics of love,” I can’t even imagine what that means.
Gutting has anticipated my objection:
Of course, I can already hear the obvious objection: “What you believe isn’t Catholicism — it is a diluted concoction that might satisfy ultra-liberal Protestants or Unitarians, but is nothing like the robust tonic of orthodox Catholic doctrine. It’s not surprising that so paltry a ‘faith’ doesn’t conflict with the Enlightenment view of religion.” My answer is that Catholicism too has reconciled itself to the Enlightenment view of religion.
Reconciled itself to the Enlightenment view of religion? Seriously? I think at this point it is fair to say that Gutting is not defending actual Catholicism as presented by Rome, but rather a fantastical, made-up version of Catholicism he finds more congenial. I had no idea that the Church was so tolerant and accepting of those who dissent from their teachings. How does Gutting defend this remarkable idea?
First, the Church now explicitly acknowledges the right of an individual’s conscience in religious matters: No one may “be prevented from acting according to his conscience, especially in religious matters” (“Catechism of the Catholic Church,” citing a decree from the Second Vatican Council). 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.
So you may follow your conscience, but if your conscience leads you away from Church teachings then you are wrong and that is it. Moreover, I would add that if you fail to meet their most recent definition of what constitutes a Christian, then you will burn in Hell for all eternity. That is not the Enlightenment view of religion.
Second, the Church, in practice, hardly ever excludes from its community those who identity themselves as Catholics but reinterpret central teachings (and perhaps reject less central ones). The “faithful” who attend Mass, receive the sacraments, send their children to Catholic schools and sometimes even teach theology include many who hold views similar to mine. 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. They implicitly recognize the absurdity of the claim that a dissident who has been raised and educated in the Catholic Church and has maintained, with the Church’s implicit consent, a lifetime involvement in its life is not “really” a Catholic.
I’m delighted that the Church “hardly ever” excludes those who defy their teachings (though they certainly reserve the right to do so at their whim). I do seem to remember the Church threatening to withhold the sacraments from Catholic politicians who dissent from their teachings, so forgive me if I’m less impressed than Gutting by their open-mindedness.
Gutting goes on for a few more paragraphs, but I think we have seen enough. In the end, I have no idea what it is, exactly, that Gutting wants me to find intellectually reasonable about Catholicism. He mostly rejects all of the parts that people find offensive; such as the claims of exclusive authority, the ludicrous teachings on sex and marriage, claims of having unique insights regarding the truth about humanity. What’s left seems like little more than a vague fondness for the Bible, some appreciation for the work of Catholic philosophers, and the after-effects of many years of Catholic schooling. There’s actually very little in his essay that could not have been written by a secular humanist. I fear we shall have to look elsewhere for a proper defense of Roman Catholicism.