Catholicism and Free Thought

One of the favorite bats the anti-Catholics like to hit us with is the idea that Catholicism, because it is a dogmatic religion–must therefore stifle free thought and free speech.

“How nice for you” the condescending Anglican will say to the convert, “Now you’re a Catholic you won’t have to think anymore.” Or, “It must be nice to be a Catholic and have such ‘certainty.’” This is said with a snuffling, cynical laugh because by ‘certainty’ they mean that you have become a mindless moron–a Kool Aid drinking cult member following the demands of your leader in white without thinking.

Another jab is, “Of course there are some folks who need that kind of certainty.” The subtext here is, “You’re not really smart enough to think things through yourself, and you are probably emotionally and socially insecure and immature so you need to belong to a mutual self love group which offers it’s members certainty in all things.”

Like every heresy this is partially true. There certainly are cults that offer their members mind numbing ‘certainty’. There are emotionally insecure and immature people who need to belong to such cults. We have to admit that there are some Catholics like that, and there are sadly, some Catholic sub-groups–religious orders and religious communities and movements in which members have sometimes behaved like this.

However, abuses do not undo right uses. The greatest response I know to the charge that “You Catholics all thoughtlessly follow your leader, believing and doing whatever he tells you” is that “You clearly don’t know very many Catholics. The vast majority take little notice of what their leader tells them and have scant understanding of either the dogmas or the moral teaching of their church.”

But that is to make a cynical response. Instead there is a more reasoned argument, and it is this: Let us ask foundational questions. Either there is such a thing as truth or there is not. If there is no such a thing as truth, then every man may think what he likes and the world is absurd. If there is such a thing as truth, then because we are creatures who use language both in thought and speech, then we must be able to put that truth into words.

We put that truth into words in many different ways. We tell stories, we write poems, we discuss and debate and reason our way into truth, and one of the ways we express the truth is through propositional theological statements. These statements or resolutions are not the whole truth, but they state the truth in a propositional way as precisely and completely as is possible. This statement of truth we call dogma.

If this process is possible at all, then a church (which is founded to proclaim and live the truth) must in some sense be dogmatic, and if it is at all dogmatic, then it must be in the business, at least in a minimal sense, to declare that dogma to be necessary. If the dogma wasn’t necessary, then it wouldn’t be dogma. In other words, that church must have the authority to say, “This particular proposition is true. That means you must believe it if you belong to this church because the church lives to proclaim and live the truth. It can’t be true sometimes and not at other times. It can’t be true for me and not for you. If it is true, then it is true always and everywhere for all people whether they understand it or not.

Now this is something solid–something real. It is a rock on which to build. Without such a thing as dogma (and the authority to declare a belief a dogma) the church is built on shifting sand of subjective personal opinion. This rock on which to build does not suppress free thought. It may seem to suppress free thought because, by virtue of declaring some things true it must necessarily declare other things to be false. To say, “My apple is red”is  also to say “My apple is not blue.”

Totally ‘free thought’ is like playing tennis without a net. Totally ‘free thought’ is free, but it is not thought–it is an expression of opinion or an exclamation of emotion. Dogma, therefore, empowers free thought. It does not suppress it. This is because dogma provides the fixed point upon which free thought can be based. Dogma is demanded not because it gives all the answers, but because it gives the foundation upon which to ask the right questions. Dogma gives thought wings because it gives thought a structure.

Even when a person dissents from church teaching and denies the dogma they are still affirming the necessity for dogma, otherwise what would they have to rebel against? Even the person who kicks a rock proves that the rock exists. Indeed, it is arguable that it is the person who kicks the rock who is most affected by the rock, for by kicking the rock they have hurt their foot. Therefore even the ‘free thinker’ who rejects dogma proves the reality and solidity of that dogma.

Therefore dogma gives thought structure. It not only gives thought a structure, but dogma, combined with tradition, give a person a context and structure for a unified world view. There are corridors in the mind, shelves of knowledge which are catalogued, galleries of works of art to enlighten and libraries of the great minds from the past to illuminate, biographies of the wise and righteous to guide and correct the free thought. Catholicism, rooted and nurtured and flourishing within the Western classical tradition provides a unique and irreplaceable structure in which truly free thought can flourish.

Without this structure and context the ‘free thought’ is simply a jumble of impressions and emotional reactions conditioned by a scrap of propaganda here, a bit of education there and a swirl of sentimental reactions and personal opinions thrown up by popular culture and conditioned by a shallow educational experience.

Dogma provides that structure necessary for real thought. If we take the creed as an example, some free thinkers may find it restrictive–an antique formula for a dying religion. It is a straight jacket, a set of blinders, a cage for the mind. Think rather that it is a ladder on which to climb. It is the stairway on which to ascend, it is the map for the journey.

But it is the climbing, the ascent and the journey which matters most.

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  • Gillimer

    The greatest displays of rigid "certainty" I ever encounter come from "liberals"

  • George @ Convert Journal

    The truth argument is could be well illustrated comparing a scientist to a magician.

  • Andy Milam

    I have been talking about the same things over at my blog. http://www.traddyiniowa.blogspot.comReligious freedom is not so much the ability to just accept what another says and live with it, no…that is religious tolerance. Religious freedom is assenting to the truth of the Church as it has been taught from time immemorial. The truth is the truth, regardless of one's interpretation of it. To know the truth and assent to it is truly freeing, because it does not limit one to trying to "figure it out." He now knows the truth and can move on to something else while accepting it. That is authentic freedom.I suspect though that there are many who will disagree. I suspect there are many who will say that the truth is what I make of it and that the truth based upon principles, but that those principles can change over time. Those who say that say it incorrectly. The truth is based upon a development and an understanding of basic knowledge which cannot change, because it is the prime answer. When we find the answer in the Church's teaching we find the prime answer and that answer does not change. It can be developed, but the base remains the same and any development must be in line and consistent with that prime answer.Man is fallen, we know that. But man is also capable of rational though illumined by faith. When one approaches the solution of a question with faith, he does so in a way that allows himself to be freed from any and all bonds which are not freeing, but rather hindering.True religious freedom doesn't come in spite of the Church, it comes because of her. That is where we will find the solace that is needed to help man attain heaven.

  • justrobnj

    "Merely having an open mind is nothing. The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid." – G.K. Chesterton

  • Lucia Villagomez Giavatto

    Awesome article Fr. Longenecker! I have a question: Why is St. Dominic in the picture of the article? Are you a Dominican O.P. perhaps. Thanks you and God continue to inspire and Bless you on what you do and you do ir very well!!

  • Shaughn

    Tsk. Another pot shot fired across the bow.But!In Rome's defense, it's been my experience that questions and freedom of thought (outside of extremely parochial settings) are encouraged so long as they are within the context of obedience, and so long as people in a position of authority (e.g. clergy) do not exercise them in a way that misleads the faithful.For example, it's perfectly acceptable for a layperson to question (that is, ask) why Rome considers artificial birth control verboten from a position of obedience. It would be more problematic for clergy to do so publicly, and I'm sure it would be problematic if the people in question did so from a position of disobedience. Questioning from a position of obedience suggests truth-seeking. Questioning from a position of disobedience suggests license-seeking.

  • Fr Longenecker

    I just wanted a picture of someone reading and thinking and this one came to mind.

  • S. Ellis

    The problem that many self-proclaimed "free thinkers" (who themselves may suffer from their own narrowness of thought) is not the idea that the Church says something is true, but the absolute certainty it demands. That is to say, it does no good to respond to these types of individuals, "but something must be true!" Many would agree. But the Church does not put forward its truth claims as the scientist does, or the historian, or indeed as any other source of knowledge does, as something possibly fallible, subject to revision, open to inquiry, and always free to scrutiny. The Church puts the Faith out as something ultimately beyond question, and moreover teaches that such questioning, if done from truly critical motives, is ultimately sinful:"Voluntary doubt about the faith disregards or refuses to hold as true what God has revealed and the Church proposes for belief. Involuntary doubt refers to hesitation in believing, difficulty in overcoming objections connected with the faith, or also anxiety aroused by its obscurity. If deliberately cultivated doubt can lead to spiritual blindness." This is the basis of the condemnation of dogmatism, not simply the truth claim in general. It criticizes more the mindset that faith demands such certainty that all the questioning it allows is less the form of true inquiry and more of the form, "here is the answer from the answer manual, now figure out how to get it." Theological works such as the Summa Theologica are ingenious, well crafted, and often have moments of brilliance; the biggest problem from all of them is they lack suspense. When Aquinas asks, "does God exist," we all know the answer he will arrive at before he starts. That is what is condemned.

  • Paul Rimmer

    It must be nice, though, to have such certainty, now that you are Catholic.I don't say that with smugness, but rather mourning something I once had, that is now lost.

  • Jim J. McCrea

    Those who say that adhering to Divine Revelation in the Catholic Church destroys freedom of thought would be like those who say that upon seeing a table, that it imposes on your judgment the fact that it *is* a table destroys your freedom of thought in that you are no longer free to judge it as say a computer or a banana.

  • S. Ellis

    Jim:"Those who say that adhering to Divine Revelation in the Catholic Church destroys freedom of thought would be like those who say that upon seeing a table, that it imposes on your judgment the fact that it *is* a table destroys your freedom of thought in that you are no longer free to judge it as say a computer or a banana."No, Jim, that would be to suggest that the content of faith has empirical confirmation, which it does not (in fact, St. Thomas Aquinas explicitly says as much in the Summa; after all, it wouldn't be faith any more if we could see the table). It's more like someone saying that they know what is in a locked room that no one can get into because they heard from a guy who heard from a guy (and so forth for almost two thousand years) that someone once came out of the room and said what was in there. I think given this far more pertinent metaphor you can see why some people are skeptical about the dogmatic nature of the Church's claims and how it might just limit free inquiry.

  • Jim J. McCrea

    In response to S. Ellis, there is a misunderstanding there as to what faith is.It is not a collection of notions past on from ancient times, through a series of fallible links, so that all we get is a remote impression.Rather, solid history, authority, and logic provide a foundation upon which the Holy Spirit illuminates us with certain truth. The truth is certain, not just because the logic is sound, but because it is by the authority of God Himself illuminating the intellect for those with the faith of the Catholic Church.Faith is not the forced suppression of doubt or believing without the proper evidence, but the opening of the eye of the intellect to the light. Faith is an objectively real light given by God and the intellect's response to it.One's freedom, in that case, is not bound, but one is eminently free, because these truths are divine and infinite, and so it is not like being bound to a finite thing.With that, vast areas of philosophical and theological inquiry are opened up, as the mind is then truly free to roam. As Fr. Longenecker has said in his article, dogma provides the fixed point upon which free thought can be based. Catholicism is an infinite deductive system. What is more free than that?The idea that accepting dogma by Divine Revelation destroys free thought is to subscribe to a false alternative – that false alternative is *heteronomy* vs. *autonomy.* With heteronomy an alien principle is imposed upon oneself contrary to the grain of one's mind. With autonomy, one is self-directing. To avoid heteronomy it is often thought that one must embrace autonomy. But there is a third and middle way – a principle is given by an authority, but you embrace it as your own and internally agree with it because you can see its intelligibility. That is the true Catholic stance towards dogma.And that analogy of the table imposing itself as a table on your mind is valid. Although faith and empirical evidence are different, they have a commonality in that they impose a truth naturally and organically on the mind.

  • Scotty Ellis

    Jim: You wrote: “The truth is certain, not just because the logic is sound, but because it is by the authority of God Himself illuminating the intellect for those with the faith of the Catholic Church.” I hope you will note the circularity of your logic. The claim that the faith is based upon the authority of God Himself illuminating the intellect is itself part of the content of that faith (a fact noted by your addendum, “for those with the faith of the Catholic Church). In other words, the “certain truth” of the faith is founded upon an acceptance of the certain truth of the faith. The other “evidences” you note, such as history and logic, are certainly interesting in their own right, except that 1) there is no such thing as an infallible history, and the content of history itself, inasmuch as we have reason to believe it, only reveals that there was indeed a man named Jesus whose followers, through a variety of quite identifiable social and historical causes and events (and not a little bloodshed) eventually gave birth to one of the monumental religions of human history, and 2) that the organization of the Roman Catholic Church, as well as numerous other Orthodox Churches, maintain a credible line of priests, doctrine, and continuity with the organization founded by those followers. As for logic, while most of the Christian faith is internally consistent, there is absolutely no logical argument for why a non-Christian should believe the faith that does not require previous assent to the faith. So, while the insider who has already accepted the circular argument from authority is content with a “certain truth,” the outsider is in the position to note casually the fallibility both of the history and the logic under-girding these statements.

  • Howard

    I like the way George @ Convert Journal said it.

    The “free thought” complaint against Catholicism is exactly the same one which is laid against real scientists by the UFO and Bigfoot crowds — and, for that matter, the “young-Earth creationists”. Science, the results of which they use and even trust with their lives every day (TV, computers, cars, drugs, …) is nevertheless completely untrustworthy because of the massive conspiracy to hide the existence of space aliens / sasquatch / evidence that contradicts evolution. Not only that, but by failing to embrace their favored position, we scientists betray the true essence of science, which they learned in a 9th-grade general science class. (This is similar to the people who insist that they know the true essence of Christianity better than practicing Christians, despite having never made the slightest attempt to really, you know, learn what Christianity is really about.)

  • Scotty Ellis

    Though I agree that there is some similarity between the two complaints, the primary difference is that the scientist may respond by pointing to reality itself. First, the scientist does not deny that bigfoot exists as an “absolute truth,” but only notes that the evidence for his existence is scant and that we thus have no reason to believe in his existence. Second, the scientist can defend his assertions by pointing to an independent observable reality which the objector can view for himself; there is no “you must believe to understand” clause, no circular acceptance of authority.

  • Richard

    I am amazed anyone thinks of Catholisims as anything but a horrible religion with unquestioning dogmatism. You are either so dogmatic you believe in anything the church says or you have followed/watched your leaders murder and kill for 2000 years without questioning the faith.

    Most recently 10,000 to 20,000 boys in Holland and Belgium between 1945-1985 were sexually abused by priests and monks. 11 of which where castrated to cure HomosexuIity. Of the 11 one was castrated for reporting a Priest had molested him

    Then there is the 267 counts of child molestation against a priest in Germany recently reported. 3?boys where molested over a number of years. The priest was an advisor at one time to the current Pope.

    The sexual abuse continues through to this day and yet you see no outrage by the rank and file of the church and only apologies from the leaders. What an outage!! The men that abuse children need to be hunted down and punished to the full extent of secular law.

    Count the number of people that where killed because they disagreed with the church through burning, hanging, or beheading them, the crusades, inquisitions, and killing of people that would not convert and the number of killings is staggarring.

    The church has killed or abused an amazing number of people in the name of God. Where is the shame in you for this type of history. No you foget this part of the religion even up to today.

    The hypocrasy is beyond belief. Yet every week end millions of Catholics attend church as if it a bastion of love and holiness. This is absolutely crazy. A thinking person would have abandoned this vial religion eons ago. Unbelievable!!

    Remember Hitler was a Catholic and has yet to be ex-communicated.

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    Hello Richard, Thank you for your comment. Without question there have been wicked Catholics who have done terrible things–sometimes even in the name of their religion.

    However, if you wished to do honest research into the issues you have raised you will find that things are not quite so easy as you suggest. Instead of simply swallowing anti-Catholic propaganda why not go on your own quest to discover if the claims of Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church are true?

    Finally, to be fair, do you not have to place next to all the terrible, hypocritical Catholics the great number of good, holy and wonderful people who follow the Catholic faith?

    Furthermore, wouldn’t you need to do this as a way of evaluating any group of people who follow some special interest? In addition, you would want to do a fair assessment of their statement of belief–not just whether they always lived up to it.

    So, for example, if you wanted to judge whether America was a great country would you judge it only by the corrupt politicians, gangsters, drug addicted movie stars and serial murderers? I don’t think so. You would have to also take into account the great and good Americans and study the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

    So why not put your prejudices on one side and do the same for Catholicism?

  • Ray

    Would you please tell me why the Pope himself has not removed Bishops and Priests from their positions or has moved them when he has knowledge of them committing abuse. This is one reason why Catholics are leaving the Church they grew up in. What do you think Jesus would of done if any of His apostles would of committed these acts?

    Does he not know that he is looked down upon by not setting the standard of what is right and what is wrong?

    Math: 23 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weighter matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving others undone.