This, in brief, is how some people see an attraction to Catholicism. We are complex human beings who have squarely on our shoulders the responsibility of being faithful to a long and arduous quest for truth that involves much searching, reflection, and exercise of our consciences, minds etc. But some of us are weary and broken. Worse still, some of us are lazy. And so we are attracted to an institution that can do our thinking for us. We can give up a God-given mandate to search and rest on our laurels while we let an all-powerful system take care of the rest. The more heroic stance is the one that remains tentative, open, and uncertain, whether this is in the secular realm or in regard to faith – for instance, many justifications of Anglicanism suggest this openness is one of the merits of it.
What I want to ask is whether this is a valid critique. Are people like me – with a deep attraction to Catholicism – simply lazy copouts? Or is there another side of the story? I suggest the latter, and here’s what I propose. People who make this charge have a fairly strong sense of self, what their self is, how it does it’s thinking. This sense of self in fact is not something that has come naturally to post-lapsarian humans. The self that we are called to pay attention to, to exercise, to depend on rather than authority, is a self built over the past two thousand years of Christian history. It is a self that owes its origins to the Christian salvation of the self that had been corrupted in Eden. And it seems we are all too happy to throw out all these trappings – all the props that contributed to making this self – and suggest that it is on this self we solely depend, and any other dependence is weakness.
Of course, as many of us know, this sense of self is very quickly collapsing with the collapse of what might be called Western Christendom. Please note I am not here making a judgment about what ought to be done about this or trying to say we should just go back to “the good old days.” I do think though that this concept of self is weakening – has indeed grown very weak – and so we are left in all sorts of postmodern crises of identity.
As someone very closely attuned to such crises of identity, it is very hard for me to identify with those who simply want me to take responsibility and forge on as an individual, embracing uncertainty over allegedly cheap certainty. Why is this hard for me? For one, I know what mental illness is. It makes one wonder what exactly one’s self is. It is profoundly disturbing to find that you can’t always trust what you think is the “I” doing the thinking, and I know how often I mistake mental illness for the true voice of this “I”. I suppose in a sense this has also allowed me to see how this works even in cases where mental illness is not involved. People often think they are asserting themselves, being radical and heroic individuals etc. And they are so often not aware that something other than the “I” is doing their thinking for them. There are an infinite amount of cross-pressures – to borrow a term from Charles Taylor – that masquerade as their selves. As we know from the Eden story, rebellion itself is the oldest of clichés. And so, when people lionize the heroic individual self forging its way toward truth, I can’t help seeing, not individual heroes, but mass-produced sophists. It is very rare when an individual – a real philosopher – breaks out of this, and usually when they do, their highest realization is that they really don’t know anything at all, and their end is a cup of hemlock. Modern people though, not liking the taste of either self-doubt (real self-doubt, not the fashionable half-hearted kind) or hemlock, are quite content with sophism producing a tentative non-committal attitude toward the rest of faith and the world. In my opinion, this lack of faith – not only in religion, but even in very basic human relationships – is one of the most grievous losses in the modern world.
To put it another way, modern society suggests that, at the end of the day, the complex “I” that I am must always remain on top and in control. To trust (at least when it comes to religion – I say nothing about nation states…) is a form of weakness, and though we may admit that there are some areas where we have to trust, it is important to keep such areas at a minimum. There is no place for throwing ourselves into something as a last ditch effort when all else seems lost – because we know ourselves to be strong and not lost. Would that I were lucky enough to be this strong. Actually, no. I am glad I am not, because this sounds a little to me like a description of hell.
To come to my point, most people assume that I am looking for something that my self recognizes as good, true, noble etc. They imagine me here, sitting in my armchair, surveying all the candidates and taking notes. But this is not the case. The case is much more like that of a dying man on a battlefield – I am doubting that he will interview his doctors to see which he gets along with, or which has the best bedside manner. No, the one thing he cares about is whether it is a doctor who can save his life. You see, I am not looking for something for myself; rather, I am looking for something that will root and sustain the self I am, a self-fast fading in the backwash of postmodernity, the self that is simultaneously the most mysterious and deadly thing we encounter as humans. It is not so much that I want to be Catholic. It is more that it is only within Catholicism that I can conceive of preserving and saving a self that even has the capacity to say “I want…” to anything.
Why Catholicism? Because of two things: obedience and catholicity. As far as I can tell, obedience and trusting others is the only way out of a self so ingrown it can no longer see itself. This, for instance, is why Anglicanism is hard for me. Yes, I can, as people like Chinglican and others say, be as Catholic as I want within Anglicanism. Yes, as Catholic as I want to be, excepting my need for boundaries and obedience. The Anglican church is quite happy to let me be as Catholic as I want, but it is also quite happy to let me be as hellish as I want. There is a terrible reality behind the idea that one can be oneself as an Anglican; perhaps one can, but one can also be oneself in hell. People balk at the power and authority the Catholic church claims. But such people, I suggest, do not understand – really understand – the power of sin and its entanglement with the fallen self. Sin is not so little that we can face it on our own.
But why the Catholic church? After all, there are plenty of churches everywhere happy to make me obedient (for instance, why not Mark Driscoll’s church?). My answer depends on catholicity. I want to be subject to all the saints in the room. This, indeed, is the difference between the Catholic church and a cult (because cults demand obedience too). The Catholic church in its ideal form is a mechanism for making all the voices of the saints (present, past and future) heard in a society that wants to confine meaning to the present moment. It is the widest possible jury of my peers. Unlike a cult, which generally depends on a particularly charismatic person who draws people away from their historical moment into his own world, the Catholic church draws the modern world itself into a crowded room of saints. As a Protestant, I have always considered it important to pay attention to what the Christian across from me says when we are doing a Bible Study – I may disagree with him or her, but we are both Christians, and I should at the very least be troubled by our differences. But how much more when we are reading the Bible with saints? Shouldn’t we be just a little troubled that those Christians we encounter from the past differ from us in some areas? Not that we can or should go back, or that we should automatically assume that Christians in the past got it all wrong and we get it all right. But we should be troubled, for they are Christians and we are Christians.
And yes, to anticipate the question, a lot of Protestants actually do think like this. They do look at as many saints as possible. But what they lack (as far as I can tell) is the mechanism for processing this tradition and the call to obedience so necessary as a safeguard against the waywardness of the self. You see, for the past number of years, I have been such a Protestant, trying to engage as deeply with a fully catholic Christianity as I can. But the task is daunting. I have spent some six years just looking at Gregory the Great, and I still cannot say I have “mastered” him – not that that would be a wise thing to say under any circumstances. But if it takes me so much time to even begin to think through the work of a single Christian from the past – indeed, a space of time that was only available to me on account of academic funding – how can I expect to process the rest of tradition? And how can I invite others to this burden when they probably have even fewer resources and time than I have been blessed with?
The temptation in this situation will be obvious: to play a game of cherry-picking exegesis with tradition. Pick the sexy saints, the Francises and the eminently quotable Augustines, and make a coat of many colors to match our moods. Again, here is where the whole issue of the self comes in. It will be much quicker and expedient to salvage what we like and abandon the rest. For all the claims that Anglicans make about tradition, I cannot help but see the Anglican church (where it is dealing with tradition, which is not everywhere) as one picking up “retro” scraps of tradition here and there and making it into hipster garb – it is flashy, but I prefer the seamless robe of Christ.
In contrast, the Catholic church is cursed with the burden of tradition – and I say this in the same way that I would say that humans are cursed with community and love. The Catholic church cannot think about something for a moment but there is a stutter from the past, a hiccup, something that must be considered. It makes for very slow processes of thinking and complex ones, but for my money, the complexity is something that reflects the complexity of reality, not an undue multiplication of entities without charge. As most modern people point out, tyranny would be easier – embrace what is progressive, what is winning etc. – but if we are going to listen to all the Christians in the room of history, who in turn are tasked with listening to all the people in the world, things are going to get messy and complex and yes it will take a while to think about things. That is the price of listening and loyalty – not just to those who exist in the present moment, but to those who have gone before us and will come after us.