Defending The Catholic Faith, But Not The Pope. A Conversation With Mary The Catholic Graduate Student

Mary is a Catholic friend of mine. She was recently a graduate student in theology at a prestigious Catholic school. Previously we debated the Church’s attempt to have its schools and charities be exempted from laws requiring that they provide health plans that cover contraception. That was a vigorous three part debate: “Should Catholic Employers Be Exempted From Paying For Health Insurance Covering Contraception?”, What Are The Limits of Church Authority in the Public Sphere? and “Must (or Can) the Religious Engage in the Secular Sphere ‘Non-Religiously’?”

Below I ask her to defend her faith and her Church and to attack the pope. She was obliging in all requests. The interview below was done as part of a blogathon to support the Secular Student Alliance. Please donate to this worthy organization! And see more links to the many diverse conversations from the blogathon, updated throughout the day, at the blogathon conversation table of contents.

Daniel Fincke: You once said to me that you came very close to being an atheist—maybe even “tried” to be one?—but found you could not. What did you mean?

Mary: Like a lot of people raised Catholic, my faith started to die. I found it extremely hard to believe (for obvious reasons). There would be times where I’d be at a funeral or something and I’d just think, this person is dead and that’s it. And I’d say, “Ok that’s it, I’m done with this. I’m not going to Church anymore, I’m not doing any of it. I don’t believe this.”

But that was always a deeply unsatisfying feeling. Like I had decided that I was going to go on as an unbeliever but it just wasn’t true. So then I was one of those people who believed but hated the Church or believed but just did the “rituals” because I liked them. It wasn’t until my senior year of college that my faith started to really mature as I understand it today.

Daniel Fincke: What happened at that point?

Mary: Well one of the things that had sort of kept me interested in Catholicism in general was studying historical theology. Some writers, particularly Gregory of Nazianzus, were just really beautiful to me. And I’d think like “I really don’t want to give this up, I love this” you know that stuff. But I took Liberation Theology in the second semester of my senior year and it literally lit me on fire.

Which, I think actually, is one of the goals of Ignatian education. For the first time I actually learned something about the Church that made it look good, really, really good. It seemed like an institution that really cared about human dignity and respect and embodied reality – which I loved. After learning about and sort of developing a relationship with Oscar Romero I knew I’d never consider atheism again. It was something here to stay.

Sort of ironically, my turn toward more serious faith and a more public and permanent commitment to Catholicism coincided with a sharp turn toward liberalism, which infuriates my family.

That’s why I never really count myself among “liberal Catholics” as you often describe them in your blog. I was very conservative before I became a more serious Catholic. My liberalism is a direct descendent of my faith.

Daniel Fincke: So what are the points of difference between liberal Catholics as I characterize them and as you understand yourself?

Mary: I guess it’s that I don’t think that I have liberal values that I conform my faith to, but that my liberal values are informed by my faith.

Daniel Fincke: But you do recognize that your faith has factions concerned more with preserving the past and others more concerned with progressing towards an improved future and that those align in with some analogy to our public debates about, at least, sexuality and all related issues, right?

Mary: Of course. Yes. I guess what I mean is that I don’t normally feel that need to make the apology that Catholicism “can be good if you just ignore x, y, and z” because it was experiencing Catholicism that made me liberal. If that makes sense.

Daniel Fincke: I understand that focusing on some aspects of your faith could make you liberal. But you belong to an explicitly hierarchical and patriarchal institution. I don’t need to tell you about the misogyny of the Church’s public face. You can understand why atheists sense some cognitive dissonance here, no?

Mary: Yes, of course. The structure of the church, particularly it’s patriarchy is beyond problematic. If I were to use religious terms, I’d call it sinful.

Daniel Fincke: So of all the institutions to believe God is especially guiding, it’s one that has, at its very structure, for two thousand years, a sinful form of governance. How do you square that? What can possibly disconfirm this belief? And if it cannot be disconfirmed, how is it not a prejudice borne of identity and not reason?

Mary: I’ll go with the last point first. My religious ties are not “reasonable” as you would understand it; meaning I don’t base them on what I found most believable or what seems most factually to be true. It is an emotional experience above all and identity is a huge part of it. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing. If there’s one thing studying a lot of feminist criticism has taught me it’s that the tyranny of “reason” that took over after the Enlightenment did it’s own fair share of damage to the world, especially women. So I’m not worried about my faith being a rational choice. Faith is not rational it’s a choice to believe in something beyond reason and that’s why I’ve always hated “proofs” of Gods existence.

I guess if there was one thing that could make me believe that God doesn’t guide the Church it would be a Church run equally by men and women that is enshrouded in a hot bed of secrecy and cover-up that still managed to do awful things. If the Church existed as I think its meant to be and still really sucked, then maybe I could be led to believe it’s not God-guided.

And to be fair, I don’t think it’s always been sinful for 2,000 years. When the Church first started it would have been considered rather pro-woman compared to the institutions surrounding it. It’s the lack of embracing the dignity, and most important PLACE, of women that makes it sinful today.

Daniel Fincke:  Relatively better for women is still light years behind where we should be. If God were to intervene in history why do so just to help people make incremental progress that is indistinguishable from unaided progress? Why wait 2000 years to have women’s rights and opportunities advance and let His own believers be the people most likely to be trying to put the brakes on that progress?

And reason is not to blame for whatever abuses the Enlightenment era West did. Reason is the principle that has helped the Enlightenment self-correct. And it was self-correcting from millennia worth of supernaturalistic and patriarchal thinking.

I can say we should fulfill the Enlightenment ideals better than the Enlightenment itself because the principle of the Enlightenment itself is one of constant critique and reevaluation. But for you to say you can fulfill the Church’s ideal better than the Church itself is to ally with an institution that is much much bigger than the ideals you want to highlight and historically has usually been antithetical to them in practice and in theology.

Mary: In practice the Church may be antithetical to what I’m saying, but in theology it is not. “Building the kingdom” is something we’re all taught as Christians and the idea that we are never quite where we should be and should always be seeking perfection is also a huge part of Christian theology. The sin happens when people stop recognizing that continuously striving for perfection means opening your mind to changes and influences that might reorient your experiences. So, I don’t agree that Christian theology rejects the notion of an idealized Church.

And I agree that we can’t use the excuse that the Church treated women very well in antiquity as an excuse not to criticize it now. I simple mean to say that patriarchy has not always been an evil in the Church. It is an evil now.

Daniel Fincke: So what are some of your theological arguments you would give the pope to show him where he is wrong were you given the opportunity. He may well be reading, we don’t know. This may be your shot.

Mary:  My first argument, and this is maybe not theological, is just because you’re in your 80s and your from Europe does not make the 80-year-old man, European man experience normative. Europe is not Catholic anymore. Let it go. Instead, focus on places that are booming with Catholics – most of them poor. Africa has the fastest growing Catholic population, most of whom come from poor countries in the sub-Sahara. The majority of the world’s Catholics are in Latin America and of them, the majority are poor. Asian countries, even in China, are experiencing an increase of conversions to Christianity and Catholicism. Oh and I almost don’t need to mention that most of these are women. These are the experiences that the Church should care about, these are the languages we should be trying to understand and the liturgies we should be learning. Instead, the current papal administration is languishing and heart-broken that Europe has all of those beautiful, old white-people European Churches but no one goes to them. Yes, that’s sad. Boo hoo. Now move on.

So my first theological argument would be “Where two or three are gathered in my midst, there am I.” Meaning, the Church is where people are. So whatever the historical preference for Rome, Latin, Western Europe, men, etc. etc. The Church should be thriving and embracing where faithful people thrive and embrace. It seems terribly problematic that men in ermine cloaks sit around trying to re-Latinize everything and inform women that they don’t belong in “traditional administrative roles” in the Church. Yawn. Grow up. I know it’s hard being an old European white man whose head of a global church, but really you’ve gotta get over it.

I think many, many of the Church’s modern problems stem from Euro-centrism (or we might call it Occidentalism). No matter how hard Catholic theology tries, it’s always writing as if the North American or European experience is normative and our numbers disagree. That’s not where the word’s majority of Catholics are.

For example, Eurocentrism throughout the middle ages and the modern period accounted for Churches and governments working often in tandem. (This applies to both Catholics and Protestants). But I don’t think that’s it’s ever good to have a unified Church and State. If the Church is worried about running the state, how can it truly worry about souls?

I think that the separation of church and state principle was really liberating for the Church in a lot of ways. It certainly cut back on the murder of “heretics” and holy wars. But the separation of church and state is always associated with the secularization of Europe and no one in the Church wants to relinquish the “jewel of Europe” status that the Church used to have. But why? Was having political power and giant Churches and lots of tax-free money really the best the Church can do? Is that really the image of Scripture? Protecting that beloved status and the privilege and the tax-exemption; protecting that power and status that is associated with the Church in a pre-secularized Europe explains the silencing and censoring of nuns, the systematic cover up of sexual abuse, and the lack of concern for things like the issue of translation between Western and Eastern world views. Try explaining the Trinity to someone from China.

Then my next theological argument is that the current argument against women in the priesthood is heretical. But I don’t know if the inns and outs of that would interest your readers.

Daniel Fincke: Of course! Catnip for my readers!

Mary: I’m especially disappointed in the women arguments because Ratzinger is such an accomplished theologian who writes such beautiful theology and the arguments against the women priesthood are so facile as to be amusing. But they’re not amusing because they actually exclude over half of Catholics from participating fully in the Church.

I’ve heard two arguments. The one is barely theological and the other attempts to be but in attempting to be it gets heretical. The first is this: Jesus picked all men to be his Apostles! And so we can’t pick women because Jesus didn’t! I’ve actually heard this line delivered as if the person saying it were truly apologizing: like “I’d love to make women priests, but Jesus didn’t select any himself! We can’t go against Jesus!” This argument is so mind-blowingly bad that most of the trained theologians I know who don’t support the fame priesthood just avoid it altogether. Jesus also chose all Jews and we can assume he chose men who are circumcised. Does this mean that all priests should be Jewish converts who are circumcised? We can assume that some of Jesus’ Apostles were married, should we only be choosing married men? I mean really, it’s a horrible argument. It’s like when I was younger and I didn’t want to let my sister go out to play with her friends while I was babysitting because I knew that I’d have to get up off of my lazy butt every 40 minutes or so and make sure she was still there. I’d say, “Well when Richie watched me he never let me go out.” It’s facile and stupid.

It also has historical problems. In the Catholic Church everything is about being the “Successor.” So the Pope is the successor to St. Peter and the vicar of Christ. Bishops are successors to the Apostles, etc. etc. We know that Jesus chose male apostles, but we also know that he chose men and women to be his disciples and to carry about his ministry. But priests don’t become successors to the apostles unless they become bishops, so even if we were going to accept that stupid “Jesus only chose men as Apostles” argument, we still couldn’t justify excluding women from the priesthood, only from being a bishop.

The second argument, formulated by Pope John Paul II, is the heretical one. This says that it’s not about who Jesus chose or whatever, it’s about ontology. He essentially said that it is ontologically impossible for a woman to be a priest because she differs, at her fundamental core, from a man. And whatever magical dust exist at the fundamental core of men is what permits them to perform Sacraments and excludes women.

The problem with this argument (besides the fact that it doesn’t actually capture human experience since there are people born with both genitalia) lies in both soteriology (the theology of salvation) and the very essence of God. First of all, according to Catholic theology, Christ saved humanity. Human kind and the act of his death redeemed the human essence – that which was lost after the sin of Adam and Eve. If the fundamental essence of men and women is different, then how did women get saved? Some Catholics will answer “Through Mary!” but that’s not actually the Churches teaching and it’s heresy-lite. The truth is, if men and women are ontologically different, women weren’t saved during the Passion and Resurrection. Oops.

The other problem is that our human essence – so what I’ve been calling our fundamental human core – has been defined through the tradition as what God made in his image. So that great human thing about all of us, humanity before sin, humanity as it was meant to be, is us made fully in God’s image. If the core essence of man is different than the core essence of women, then only men have God’s image. Or, if you would suggest that men and women were made in God’s image, you’d have to say that God – who is perfectly one in essence – had two essences to dole out and create images of. That’s problematic.

No matter what why you approach the ontology argument it really fails. I think it takes 6th grade philosophical thinking for a man to look at a woman and a giraffe and say “what makes me similar to the girl is that she is also a human and the giraffe isn’t.” But the ontological argument says that there is a female humanity and a male humanity. Not true. Neither logic, nor science, nor the Church’s theology supports it.

Then my next critiques would be more for the US Bishops than the Pope in general. First, all human life is valuable and deserves to be protected. You can not decide arbitrarily that unborn life is the most precious human life and that you’ll push at the pulpit but you won’t push for the end of the drone program that kills innocents or the end of economic exploitation of the poor. That is hugely disappointing from the US Bishops. Where is the annual march on DC against the death penalty? Why didn’t they speak out against the Iraq War? The Iraq War was formally declared unjust by the Vatican and according to Canon Law is supposed to result in the national bishops calling on all Catholics to refuse to serve – but that never happened.

Then I’d remind the US bishops that Thomas Aquinas, whose Summa is the real authoritative text for Catholics even though Catholics act like its the Bible, was condemned after his death. So something being new, innovative, containing “radical themes” does not automatically disqualify it as revelation. That is at the heart of the issue with Beth Johnson and the LCWR – what they write and think isn’t what was “already there.” And while there have been plenty of theologians that simply rehashed the arguments of people before them, the ones that the Church especially admires were new and innovative and not to recognize that is to be blind to tradition.

Second, you don’t have the monopoly on revelation. Being a Bishop is special, I recognize it as a sacrament and I believe that bishops have a teaching authority. Still, you cannot say that Beth Johnson doesn’t receive inspiration from the Holy Spirit. You don’t corner that market and I think the bishops’ handling of the raping of children proves that they don’t corner the market on revelation.

And my final argument would be that “chalice” is a bad translation in the liturgy and needs to go.

Daniel Fincke: What do you mean?

Mary: In the new translation of the mass, they changed the word from “cup” to “chalice” because the Latin word is “calix” and there is this new translation principle that calls for formal equivalence. The problem is that in English people hear “chalice” and think of a gold cup with jewels on it, but the bible tells us that Jesus drank out of a “poterion” (not a kulix!) at the last supper – and a poterion was, by definition, a simple drinking vessels. Thus, if we’re really trying to get authentic we should be calling it a cup, not a chalice. I think it just sounds bad and leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I hate hearing it. But that’s just something minor. It’s not actually that important.

Daniel Fincke: You mention the pope not focusing on the Third World as a good thing. But to atheists it looks like a continuation of everything that was bad and exploitative about imperialism to see what the Church does do there.

I see the Church’s interest in the Third World as exploiting illiteracy and political instability to give an option that in the first world, where people have a higher standard of living, they increasingly need and want the Church’s authority much much less. Don’t you see the drift of progress? Increased knowledge leads to less religion, not more. And supernaturalistic religions are obstacles to the kind of free thought and progressive values that lead to the good things both you and I care about. This is why beliefs should be a matter of conscience and not accepted without evidence. I’ll give you the final word, in reply to these theses of mine.

Mary: In any missionary activity, motive and exploitation need to be a constant concern of the people sending the missions AND of the people doing the missions. In my case, I was speaking more about catering to Catholics who already exist. So I didn’t necessarily mean that the Pope should be evangelizing the Third World, but that he should be ministering to Catholics where they are – and that tends to be the third world. In terms of Catholic missions, the trend has historically been to Europeanize (through education, language training, etc.) people and to remove a lot of the elements of their own culture from their religious and liturgical experiences. When most Catholics were in Europe, this was understandable but not defensible. But with the majority of the world’s Catholics not being from Europe, how can we defend not more fully embracing their cultures? How can we justify “a mission to evangelize Europe” when we still have serious language and culture barriers with people of our own faith. Here is just one quick example of how this has been a problem. Monogamy in general in a lot of countries in Africa has been very hard and celibacy has been really hard to teach to African priests.

The idea that a priest can’t have sex with a woman is something that really just hasn’t translated the way we want it. I meet plenty of celibate African priests, but they’re all educated in Europe and North America and “inculturated” if you will. But a priest having sex with a consenting partner isn’t the worst thing that’s ever happened in the history of the world – but priests coercing nuns to have sex with them is. There was a group of priests in Africa who told the mother superior of a convent that they had to be allowed to have sex with the women in it or else they’d turn to prostitutes and get HIV. Some of the nuns who were coerced or manipulated into having sex left the convent in shame (or were kicked out) and became prostitutes!

This is the sort of cultural issue we should be dealing with – we should be learning how to work through this. Instead, we’re pissed off that people treat European churches like museums. It just seems really, really misplaced.

But I think the missionary question is an important one. No doubt missions have been historically exploitative, many are today, and many run the risk of being so. With Catholicism, which is ritualistic (my word for superstitious ), might seem like an especially big culprit because it can easily fall into exploiting a lack of education to turn people from believing in certain spirits or demons and turning them instead toward bread that turns into God. In theory, that’s really problematic, but in practice I’m not 100% sure if missions have actually been the cause of the spread of superstition and I think the reason why is education.

Most successful missions have established places of education that are usually founded on the European model and go through a standard course of science, philosophy, math, literature, etc. As far as I understand it, religious missions are often more responsible for the imposition of European culture and values than they are for the spread of superstition.

If I just think of several big Catholic centers where missions were successful – Philippines, South America, Mexico, Nigeria etc. I usually associate those places with a Europeanized cultural elite, usually Europeanized by the religious mission, and huge centers of learning that are Catholic. In that sense, the mission, whether it intended to or not, spreads free-thinking, analytical thought, love of learning etc. Unfortunately, it sometimes tends to wholesale sell the “West is Best” model of historical and cultural development, but I think that’s improved in the last 75 years or so.

Of course, I could be wrong about all of this. I’m not familiar enough with missions and their success, especially not modern ones, to know whether or not the Church has exploited people and made them more superstitious. If I were made aware of any of that actually happening I would be worried.

In any event, exploitation in missions is always a really big problem. In many ways, you are a missionary, or an evangelist, for atheism. You see it not just as a privilege, but as a duty, to inform people about atheism and to beg them to question what they’ve always accepted. But you don’t, to my knowledge, take people much less intelligent than you and easily impressionable and simply say, “God isn’t real and you have to believe it.” In other words, if there were a person who was very easily impressionable and could either believe that God exists or not believe in God, I don’t believe that you would simply say “don’t believe in God” and move on. Instead, you’d be concerned with teaching that person how to question, how to understand, etc.

That is the way that any mission should work out, really. Missionaries are people who are so enthusiastic about their faith that they want to tell people about it. If you go into a mission with the idea that “this village is not Christian and when I leave it will be” then you’re already being exploitative and you should go home. And if the missionary ever thinks to herself, “this person is really superstitious, it should be very easy to replace his bird deity with Jesus” then that mission is also exploitative. Of the people that I know who are missionaries, though, that doesn’t seem to be the way it usually works out. But, again, I can’t be 100% sure.

And, just one last thing, I also think it goes the other way. Instead of heading into the mission thinking of what you can offer the people there, why aren’t you thinking about how that mission can change your own church or beliefs? I think that’s really important, especially for Catholics. We have all of this tradition and doctrine and ritual behind us and we often act that the rest of the world should be privileged to belong. But we should be learning from people and learning about what the Church is and what it’s identity should be.

The interview below was done as part of a blogathon to support the Secular Student Alliance. Please donate to this worthy organization! And see more links to the many diverse conversations from the blogathon, updated throughout the day, at the blogathon conversation table of contents.

  • ‘Tis Himself

    For the first time I actually learned something about the Church that made it look good, really, really good.

    I’m sure it was a fluke and as soon as the hierarchy finds out about whatever it was, they’ll stomp on it most thoroughly.

    It seemed like an institution that really cared about human dignity and respect and embodied reality – which I loved. After learning about and sort of developing a relationship with Oscar Romero I knew I’d never consider atheism again. It was something here to stay.

    The Catholic Church cares about human dignity? When did that happen?

    Right now the Vatican has ordered an investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. The nuns have been paying too much attention to combating poverty and social injustice and not paying enough attention to combating contraception and same-sex marriage.

    I won’t bother discussing the Church’s official policy of supporting and protecting child rapists other than to point out the Church is more concerned with its prestige and dignity than with the welfare of children.

    One of the reasons why I discarded Catholicism was it became obvious to me the Church was interested in one thing and one thing only, its own authority. Individual Catholics may care about human dignity, but as noted above, if they care too much, then the Church will slap them down.

    When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a Communist. -Dom Hélder Câmara

    One of the people calling Archbishop Câmara a Communist was His Holiness, Pope Paul VI.

    Mary may remain a Catholic because she thinks the Church cares about people. Reality has told me the exact opposite.

    • http://skepticalmath.wordpress.com skepticalmath

      Mary may remain a Catholic because she thinks the Church cares about people. Reality has told me the exact opposite.

      Exactly. Notice that what made the Church look so very very good to Mary wasn’t, of course, any action it took that, y’know, helped people or did anything to improve quality of life or whatever, but a theological movement (really just a re-interpretation of the story of Christ) that was itself explicitly admonished by the Vatican in the 80s.

      So, sure, cool that this movement within the church exists and whatnot, but to say that it made the Church itself look good? Good enough to outweigh all that actual, objective bad? Including the Church explicitly criticizing this movement? Seriously?

  • Deepak Shetty

    My religious ties are not “reasonable” as you would understand it; meaning I don’t base them on what I found most believable or what seems most factually to be true. It is an emotional experience above all and identity is a huge part of it.
    Sigh. Weep.
    I find a couple of things interesting though – When Mary tries to argue for women priests , why on earth is she using reasoned arguments? Her religious ties are not reasonable after all.
    Ratzinger can just ask her to have faith.

    And while she does like to say that her religious ties are not based on what seems most factually true – I wonder how much truth there is in that statement (I can write a moving story about Jesus and his pet bunny – hint: the bunny dies but will she not care about the facts then and accept my story?)

    • Arturos

      That is what makes her criticisms a little puzzling. It seems strange to worry about the Church’s internal logic when she didn’t care about what was reasonable in the first place. :

      Oh well. There’s something admirable, though quixotic, about trying to change the Catholic Church from within. She’s got my vote for Pope.

    • Deepak Shetty

      @Arturous

      about trying to change the Catholic Church from within.

      Shrug – I don’t know. The most potent weapon they have is actually quitting. The Vatican has demonstrated repeatedly that they don’t particularly care what the lay people think otherwise they would have amended their stance on contraception awhile ago.
      Just a couple of weeks ago a Catholic priest was boasting about how Catholics number 1.8 billion and I think people like Mary should really stand up and say that their version of what constitutes being a Catholic probably has no resemblance to what the priest thinks a Catholic is.
      Besides there are other questions to Mary. Does she go to church regularly? What does she do when the priest preaches things that she disagrees with?

      On the other hand , in the short term , people like Mary are the only hope for change.

  • http://www.thelosersleague.com theschwa

    and it literally lit me on fire.

    OMG! How serious were the burns? 2nd or 3rd degree? Did she require skin grafts? Was she hospitalized?

  • http://cfiottawa.com Eamon Knight

    So I’m not worried about my faith being a rational choice. Faith is not rational it’s a choice to believe in something beyond reason….

    …and I could pretty much quit reading right there (though I didn’t). I played the “believe because it makes me feel good” game far too long; I am now uncompromisingly interested in how the universe actually is. So: bravo for compassionate, humanist, religious liberals, and I’ll happily march with y’all in the Pride Parade, pro-choice demonstration, etc — but you’re still being silly about a significant chunk of your worldview. You don’t get the Atheist Seal Of Approval.

    Ditto on the other interview with the Methodist.

  • Sgaile-beairt

    Didnt see anyone else pointing this out so just wanted to add, as a feminist, I take STRONG exception to anyone claiming that rationality per se is anti-feminist. This “alternate (ie secret feminine) ways of knowing” is gender essentialist claptrap….or gender Gnosticism if you prefer!!