Friday, May 29, 2015

Things I like about the Catholic faith

When I was in boarding school, I went to World Youth Day in Toronto.  It was strange riding the subway with all these "normal" people, just going to work and completely ignoring the GIANT BIG DEAL that I felt WYD was.  Often we got curious questions, or commentary on the Pope from the commuters.  I remember a friend of mine responding to one of these people by saying, "I love being Catholic, it's the best!  Of course, I'm biased."

I was annoyed ... being Catholic is objectively better, of course!  It has nothing to do with being biased!

Now I admit ... of course I'm biased.  I'm biased the way you are biased in liking your mother better than other mothers.  The fact that you love her most doesn't preclude her also being objectively better.  But it would be silly to pretend that your profound emotional attachment isn't part of the reason you think she's the best.

Which is one of the reasons why, in all my searching, I'm not considering other religions.  I have heard the argument, "What makes you so sure, out of all the possible contradictory religions, yours is the right one?"  Well, in the case of Catholicism, pretty good -- 1/3 of the world's population is Christian and Catholicism is far and away the largest denomination.  But apart from that, if I didn't have the strong emotional attachment to Catholicism that I have, I don't know why I'd bother with religion.  Just like, if my mother died, I would not go find a new one.

Anyway, I was thinking in Mass yesterday, what are all the things I love about being Catholic?  Why is it such a great religion, which seems to work well for so many people?

First on the list would have to be respect for human life.  Its position is uncompromising and involves a positive duty to do what you can to defend the innocent.  The theory of self-defense (including capital punishment and just war) is a rigorous, careful way to make sure that we do not justify atrocities out of fear or aggression.  (I mean, two thousand years of serious ethical thinking is bound to turn up some good stuff.)

Its views on property are balanced and rational too.  Yes, property is a right, because we need it to live and because it best serves human ends when it's stewarded by individuals.  But no, it is not an absolute right -- charity is not some optional extra but a positive duty.  I've contrasted it with everything from communism to radical anarchism and it still seems the most sensible way to look at it.

Yeah, and even the sexual morality.  To some it seems excessive, especially in a world where contraceptives exist.  But considering what a massively important thing sex is -- how it is the way we create new people, and has lots of emotional baggage attached to it for that very reason -- I think sacralizing it a bit can be helpful.

With regard to general morality, it has an objective and a subjective morality, so that it can steer clear of those two pitfalls of relativism ("it would be wrong for me to murder, but if you don't feel that's bad, it's okay for you to do it") and legalism ("it doesn't matter if you killed him while you were having a psychotic break and thought he was Satan, you're still going to swing for it").  Instead something can be objectively wrong, and yet you might not be culpable.  (And this is why I have little patience for people demanding this or that church teaching should be changed because they can't follow it, or because there is a situation where someone would not be capable of following it.  If you really can't follow it, you're not culpable for not following it!)

When it comes to the interior life, it provides you with clear maps and vocabulary for navigating all the different things your soul can be up to.  Everything from Introduction to the Devout Life to The Interior Castle -- so much that you can use to work out what is going on inside.  It's funny reading Protestant stuff and thinking "Don't they even know what scrupulosity is?"  That sort of thing.  We've been around the block a few times; we know the pitfalls.

Ritual.  Like I said, I love ritual.  The Catholic Church knows how to do it right.  Things repeat daily, weekly, and yearly and give life such a beautiful pattern.  There's a sense of rightness when you come into a church and cross yourself with holy water, exactly the way you have thousands of times since before you can remember.  And when you are aware of your union with the people who have been doing the same thing for generations, and are doing the same all over the world at this moment, it's that much deeper.  There's a reason there are traditionalists.  Tradition speaks to something very deep inside people.

Along with that, there's the involvement of the senses and emotions.  Reason is enough for some people, but others really want smells and bells, choirs and tears.  The Catholic Church knows how to put on a good show.  And because of that, of course, it's responsible for scads of beautiful art, architecture, and music.  (Palestrina, need I say more?)

It has something for everyone: Catholic theology appears to have no bottom, so smart people who are into that sort of thing can keep delving in there forever.  But there's also room for popular piety.  There's a reason Catholic missionaries are a huge hit while Protestant missionaries get massacred by angry natives -- Catholics (at their best) do not attempt to take from people their popular piety.  They just roll the sky god into our God, the goddess into Mary, and make new meanings of old holidays.  It's all good.  Some people can work out how many angels are on the head of a pin, others can splash holy water on their family members and decorate their living rooms with icons.  There's even a neat system for working out which miracles to believe in and which not to -- because people are always going to troop around after amazing things, and it's nice to be able to sort out the ones that might be harmful.  (Not that anyone listens, cough cough, Medjugorje.)

In that vein, there are a lot of subcategories under Catholic.  If you're an introvert, you can be a hermit.  If you care a lot about the poor, there are orders for that too.  Unlike some evangelical denominations, there's no assumption that everyone's going to be married -- you should discern if you're called to it, and if you aren't, there are other options.

It isn't literalist about the Bible.  And thank goodness, seeing all the crazy stuff that's in there.  99% of arguments on atheist websites do not apply to the Catholic Church, and one reason for this is that a lot of it is just finding contradictions in the bible.  That is no news to any of us.  We KNOW the bible is full of weird stuff!

In the same vein, there's a longstanding attitude that knowledge about the created world is good, and that we should work on finding out more.  Sure, when an apparent conflict arises, there's some fuss about it for awhile, but eventually the Church does come around.  And the general pro-science view of faith and reason being both essential has led to some good philosophy and also to quite a few Catholics becoming scientists.  (A personal favorite is Father Gregor Mendel.)  And the Church is also open to psychology -- if a spiritual practice isn't good for people psychologically, that isn't taken as a reason to condemn the field, it's taken as a reason to condemn the practice.

It changes in response to evidence, unlike fundamentalist religion, but it has some hard points that aren't capable of change, unlike progressive religion.  That protects it from a lot of pitfalls the others suffer.  When Noah's Ark failed to be dug up, eventually an understanding arose that the Flood may have been in some sense symbolic or mythical.  It didn't bother people, and most people didn't fixate on the Ark still being out there somewhere.  When evolution became the consensus opinion of scientists, the magisterium was right there out there to say, "Here is what you can believe about evolution that doesn't interfere with any of our dogmas."  That's the sort of thing you can only do if you have a magisterium.

It has the guts to make falsifiable claims.  "Our religion has taught the same exact things for 2000 years of history" is the sort of thing you can look up.  Of course 2000 years is a lot to get through, and even if you find a conflict, someone is going to tell you it doesn't mean what you thought, but the boldness of a statement like that is pretty impressive.  Another falsifiable claim is the way it takes on the concept of faith in the first place.  You do not have to have faith that God exists; you should be able to demonstrate it.  That was pronounced at Vatican I.  It's only once you've seen the proofs for Catholicism that you can make a leap of faith for whatever parts you can't demonstrate.

Surely there are more, but these are the things I think of when I sit in church wishing to be a part of it all.  There's no end of good reasons why, as religions go, Catholicism is the one to pick.  Can you think of any I missed?


Laura said...

I would add--the Church's respect for women. I suppose it doesn't have a perfect track record. Women have been marginalized around the world for centuries, and Catholic women aren't an exception. But when you look at the terrible ways women are treated in, say, Islamic culture, or even fundamentalist "Quiverfull" Protestant culture, or pagan culture, or Confucian cultures, Catholicism looks pretty good! . . . We've had female heads of state and female doctors of the Church. . . . Plus, the whole idea of women having an option to remain single via the religious life is an exception to the general rule throughout history of women being chattel to be married off. . . I'm overgeneralizing terribly here, but I think the point still stands. . . . Even more broadly, the poor treatment of women throughout history is a symptom of "might equals right," since men are physically stronger. The Church (generally, not always!) has been a civilizing force calling people to rise above "might equals right."

Belfry Bat said...

I really like that the Church emphasizes that, ever since the close of Scripture, the whole of Her teaching has been not only unchanging but also public; there are no "inner secrets".

Sheila said...

Laura, I agree for the most part. The Church did lead the charge on protecting women for a long time. Though now the secular world seems to have a lead on that ... many Catholics are afraid of feminism, though in my opinion they shouldn't be.

Enbrethiliel said...


The Communion of Saints and the Mystical Body of Christ!

Life would be less wonderful without these additional family members and friends, who have already "finished the race" and are rooting for me to join them. =)

A non-Catholic man once asked me how I could stand being asked to live up to Mary's example, when no other creature could ever equal her. Isn't it an impossible (and therefore, an unreasonable) ideal?
I tried to explain that imitation of Mary is not a contest among people in individual vacuums, but something that we help each other do and that Mary herself helps us do. There's a sense in which the only ideal is to be "in the game." Years later, a blogger friend would share St. Augustine's insight that the woman of Proverbs 31 is not a single capable individual who makes the rest of us look bad, but the Church Herself, who looks good only because those of us who are weak are held up by those of us who are strong.

Unknown said...

It doesn't matter how much people enjoy being Catholic, the bottom line is that Catholics believe some of the weirdest things and are incapable of understanding that it's all made up. The virgin birth, made up. The miracles, made up. Ressurection, ascension, Assumption, made up, made up and made up. Transubstantiation, made up. Heaven, Hell, Purgatory, made up, made up and made up. Catholics are blissfully ignorant of the fact that just about every unusual thing they believe is made up.

Unknown said...

Having said what I said yesterday, I do have to admit that this world would be like a paradise if everyone were a devout Catholic. It is probably the one worldview that would cure most of our ills if it were universally adhered to. That is the case whether it is based on fact or on fiction.

Sheila said...

Yes, and that's the tough part of it! Is it worse to believe things that seem goofy from the outside, or to act badly to others? I gladly tolerate the nutty beliefs of any religion if its practitioners are moral people.

But if you use your beliefs to act like a jerk, I don't care how great or rational they are -- I have no tolerance for bad behavior. And unfortunately I have never seen a religion or philosophy that had no bad apples ... human nature, I suppose.

Unknown said...

"Is it worse to believe things that seem goofy from the outside, or to act badly to others?"

Acting badly is worse than believing goofy things. I still prefer to seek real truth and not be hoodwinked into falling for fantasies and superstitions.

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