By Gary Gutting
Note: This article was first published March 30, 2013 by The New York Times.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Those who think of themselves as the conservative “core” of the Church maintain that the faith of such “liberal” Catholics is nonetheless seriously defective because it deviates significantly from the hierarchy’s authoritative views. But liberal Catholics like Hans Küng argue that the conservative view itself is defective. Conservatives appeal to the authority of the hierarchy to justify their position, but this appeal is circular, since the nature of hierarchical authority is part of what liberals contest. And Küng and other liberals plausibly argue that the early Church’s structure was closer to the more democratic arrangements they favor than to the monarchist model of the Middle Ages.
The reasonable description of this situation is that there is deep disagreement within the Church about how its core doctrines, including those about the hierarchy’s authority, should be understood. With the Second Vatican Council, the hierarchy began a move toward the liberal position, which the successors of John XXIII have tried to reverse. But history shows that Catholics play in a very long game, and there is no reason to give up hope for a new blossoming of the liberal buds.
Critics outside the Church will ask how I adhere to an institution that has so many deep flaws. My first response is that the Catholic tradition of thought and practice is the only stance toward religion that, in William James’s phrase, is a “live option” for me — the only place I feel at home. Simply to renounce it would be, as I said at the outset, to lose my self-respect — to deny part of my moral core.
My second response is that the liberal drive for reform is the best hope of saving the Church. Its greatest present danger is precisely the loss of the members whom the hierarchy and the rest of the conservative core want to marginalize. I’m not willing to abandon the Church to them.
Gary Gutting is a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, and an editor of Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. He is the author, most recently, of “Thinking the Impossible: French Philosophy since 1960,” and writes regularly for The Stone. He was recently interviewed in 3am magazine.