In Doubtful Things Liberty

One often hears about the supposedly monolithic or totalitarian character of the Catholic Church.  You know the drill.  The Pope tells everybody what to think.  Catholics all have to believe exactly the same thing.  Freedom of thought is anathema for Catholics. Et Cetera.

I heard much of this and believed it—till I got to know Catholics.  Then I discovered the truth of Chesterton’s remark: “Catholics agree about everything.  It is only everything else they disagree about.”

The reality of Catholic (and biblical) teaching is this: There are a few cosmic truths upon which the Church absolutely insists we must agree if we are to claim the name of “Catholic”.  These are more or less summarized in the Creeds and in the few dogmatic teachings of the Church pertaining to such matters as, say, the Real Presence in the Eucharist, the Immaculate Conception and so forth.

Beyond this, not only does the Church not demand we march in lock-step, she positively encourages a sort of loony diversity that is much more like a garden of wildflowers or a really crazy zoo in which the keepers are the ones who cage themselves (by means of poverty, chastity, and obedience) so that the strange and exotic creatures called “the faithful” might roam free.

Indeed, the curious fact of Catholic life is that that most of the Church’s disciplinary might has been exerted over the centuries, not to keep everybody towing the party line, but to make sure that people who marched to the beat of a different drum did not get hammered by those whose vision of the Church was too narrow.  The first instance of this, of course, takes place in Acts 15 when the circumcision party centered in Jerusalem took it upon themselves to insist that Gentiles could not be authentic Christians if they did not keep the ceremonial laws of Moses.  The Church rejected this position decisively. 

Since that time, the temptation again and again in the history of the Church has been for some faction or other to decide that some pet cause is not merely a pet cause but an Essential Truth of the Faith that must be held by all on pain of heresy.  The pet causes vary with the time and place, but the impulse to expand an enthusiasm to a dogma remains the same.  Whether it be vegetarianism, cards, dancing, Harry Potter, tobacco, the charism of tongues, theories of predestination, the divine right of kings, or political theories about democracy, Christians have always been tempted to take some merely earthly thing and try to assert that all Christians must believe or do exactly as they do or face expulsion from the ranks of the Truly Faithful™.  Not a few have expelled themselves upon deciding that they and they alone were the Truly Pure Remnant while the “so-called Church” had fallen irretrievably into error and sin.  This attitude is nicely summarized by Garrison Keillor, who remarked of his Puritan ancestors that they came to the New World seeking the freedom to be harsher with themselves than English law allowed.  It is a pattern that stretches from the Donatists to present-day Sedevacantism.

The reality is this: the Church does not teach “In the evening of our lives, we will be judged by our attitude to Harry Potter.”  Paul never said, “Now abide faith, hope, and love, these three.  But the greatest of these is tongues.”  Jesus never proclaimed that when the Son of Man comes in his kingdom, he would say to the sheep on his right, “I was a Republican and you voted for me”.  Nor shall he say to the goats on his left, “Woe to you, for you drove SUVs and did not recycle!”

This does not mean that merely human things don’t matter.  Nor does it mean they all matter equally.  It means that they are contingent things related to the Essential Thing (God) but they are not God himself. 

So, for instance, the Essential Thing says “You shall have no other gods before me.”  Therefore, idolatry, witchcraft, divination and the occult are forbidden, as the Church clearly teaches.  But it does not follow that, since rumor has it cards have their origins in tarot, playing cards is therefore divination.  Still less does it follow that if you don’t demand your spouse stop his weekly poker game, you are implicated in the sin of idolatry.

This sort of attempt to narrow the Faith has played out literally millions of times in the history of the Church since Paul battled the circumcision party.  Happily, the Church has not changed in its love of liberty either and continues to guarantee its members the right to be eccentric just so long as they are orthodox.

Copyright 2007- Mark P. Shea