Suicide or Catholicism?

Evelyn Waugh

Evelyn Waugh has been mis quoted as saying, “There are only two choices: suicide or Catholicism.” I believe what he really said was in a letter responding to a friend who asked why, if the Christian faith was supposed to make you happy, Waugh was such a miserable character. Waugh replied, “If it weren’t for my Catholic faith I would have committed suicide long ago.”

However the thought (and the misquote about it) raises an interesting question–one linked with a more erudite and balanced expression of the same idea. In his Apologia Pro Vita Sua Bl. John Henry Newman wrote,

I came to the conclusion that there was no medium in true philosophy between atheism and Catholicism, and that a perfectly consistent mind, under those circumstances in which it finds itself here below must embrace either the one or the other.

Newman’s key phrase is “a perfectly consistent mind”. It is very difficult for many people to think the whole matter through with a “perfectly consistent mind.” Their mind is cluttered up with negative expressions of Christianity, bad examples of Christians they know, poor theology and ignorant Christians. They are further confused by the shallow propaganda pumped out by the atheists and secularists. They also have not been trained to think logically and clearly. Their thoughts are clouded by sentimentality, lack of discipline and they are unable to prioritize their thought. Read more.

About Fr. Dwight Longenecker
  • Jim

    Accusing atheists of not thinking logically and clearly? Pot and kettle thing going on, perhaps?

    • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

      Did you take time to read the article or just jump to a prejudiced conclusion?

  • Greg Cook

    Thanks for the succinct and vigorous apology for the Faith, Father. At some point, I’d be interested in your thoughts on Eastern Orthodoxy. God-willing, in the near future I will be received into the Catholic Church from the Orthodox Church. I was born into mainline Protestantism, became an Evangelical as an adult, and through study of history (thank you, John Wesley!) became convinced of the reality of historical Christianity. At the time (late ’90s) I could not quite accept Catholicism and so became Orthodox. Over the past few years (thank you St. Benedict and Bl. JP II!) I found I could only appreciate the fullness of the one faith as a Catholic. Praise God for how the Orthodox have defended Tradition, but sadly it’s been at the expense of open-ness to the world.

  • http://www.aclerkofoxford.blogspot.co.uk/ Clerk

    In the interests of accuracy, what Evelyn Waugh actually said was in response to Nancy Mitford asking him how he reconciled being a Christian with his famously unpleasant behaviour: according to Mitford, in a letter written in 1950, “He replied rather sadly that were he not a Christian he would be even more horrible (difficult) & anyway would have committed suicide years ago”.

  • http://www.treesforlunch.blogspot.com JD Curtis

    Check out Vox Day’s blog entry from today.

  • Ruth

    I am an Evangelical, conservative Christian. As someone who is examining Orthodoxy and Catholicism, I find that there is a great pull on my heart towards these historical Christian faiths. However, I have two questions:
    1) How can I trust that the authority given to the Catholic/Orthodox Church can be safely trusted? In other words, in Catholicism especially, the Church has added to its teachings over the centuries based on lay practice. How do I know that 10 years down the road, it will not “cave” to the homosexual agenda, or declare Mary a co-Redemptrix because of petition?
    2) How can I know which of the two is THE Truth: Catholicism or Orthodoxy? I find that I understand and appreciate Orthodox theology better. But, it is very foreign to me as a Westerner in its practice. How did you choose between them?

    • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

      Thank you for your question. Can you give an example of how the church has “added to its teachings based on lay practice?”

      Eastern Orthodoxy has Catholic truth and Catholic orders but has abandoned the authority of the successor of Peter. It’s not that they are wrong–but that Catholicism with the authority of Peter has retained more of the ancient faith.

      • Oregon Catholic

        Father, My thinking is very similar to what Ruth has written. While the eastern-ness of Orthodoxy is unfamiliar it also seems much closer to the theology and practice of the early Church and somehow more trustworthy and less tainted by the power abuses that have plagued the Roman Church throughout the ages, especially during the age of monarchy.

        While the See of Peter is certainly missing with the Orthodox, how do you reconcile or weigh the other problems with the western Church in the balance?

        Can the current See of Peter even be said to be valid since the time that the line of papal succession no longer included the bishops of the eastern Church? I’m not convinced the schism, which included fault and human pride in both Churches, didn’t invalidate the future bishops of Rome as the legitimate successor to Peter.

    • http://industrialblog.powerblogs.com IB Bill

      When I sought to convert from Protestantism, Orthodoxy and Catholicism were my two choices as well. I asked myself the same question — which one is the truth?
      I reasoned that they recognize each other’s holy orders and the validity of each other’s Eucharist. Thus, they are both Christ’s Church, despite the official separation. I found that this particular line of reasoning is more of a Catholic one than an Orthodox one, and so, along with other, practical reasons (the “foreignness” you mentioned and the fact that there are so few Orthodox churches in the U.S.), I chose Catholicism.
      But I love and revere the Orthodox faith and their Church, and won’t say a bad word about them. Their theology is particularly beautiful.

    • OneTimothyThreeFifteen

      Hi Ruth.
      There’s no better, although there could be longer!, answers to your Q2, than Fr L’s reply to you, below.

      As to your Q1, on how you can trust that the Catholic Church won’t make a volte face on the issues you mention, I would suggest a book like Mark Shea’s, By What Authority?. However, if you’d like a more theological answer, then any book (not written by Hans Kung or his followers), on the Magisterium would answer it and, once this is understood, one then sees the impossibility of such a turnaround on these matters.

      That said, for me, like many, it’s ‘trying on Catholicism for size’, and going to Mass that’s the clincher. But be warned, the experience may be varied!

      For example, last week I was in Chicago, and the priest was desperately trying to sound cool and hip, and it seemed like he was trying to make it ‘relevant’ and entertain us. It was cringe-making! But, last November I was in Indianapolis, and the reverence of the priest and his clear love of the Lord shone out. (I am from England, so these were Masses were ‘off turf’.) The second type of Mass (i.e., Indianapolis) is the one where one senses one is participating in something beyond oneself, an act of true worship, and one gets to experience the ‘Catholic Thing’. This is the sort of Mass you would need to attend if you’re not to think Catholicism is just liberal Episcopalianism with a pope.

      I would heartily recommend Fr L’s book, More Christianity, if you want an engaging and truly Catholic insight into the Catholic way of being and writing. In other words, he doesn’t ‘proof-text’ counter-arguments to Protestant ‘issues’, but writes simply as a Catholic about the fullness of the Faith.

      Another excellent book is Christian Smith’s, How to Go From being a Good Evangelical to a Committed Catholic in Ninety-Five Difficult Steps.

      Christian Smith is a well-known and highly-respected Sociologist of Religion in the field of young people and Christianity. He was also a very committed Evangelical who became Catholic recently.

      In that book, he poses 95 ways Catholicism and Catholic practices are misunderstood by Evangelicals. It is not a book of apologetics, trying to prove the Catholic position, but trying to show how to be Catholic, one doesn’t have to change one’s theology so much as the way you approach it and view things. It’s a change in mindset rather than belief, and he covers things like baulking at the idea of Mary, etc., or how we take Scripture completely seriously and literally, but not literalistically, in a very Evangelical-sensitive way.

      He also starts by addressing issues many Evangelicals are beginning to question within their own framework, like feeling rootless through ‘church shopping’ for the perfect church, fragmentation and disunity, the drive to be ‘relevant’, cultural accommodation, and dismay at many Evangelicals/Evangelical Congregations now accepting homosexuality, abortion, ‘Bible studies’ often being more about what each participant thinks it means ‘to them’ than any real study, etc…

      Hope that helps.

  • MT

    Excellent analysis that coincides with nearly everything I’ve been reading lately. Linking Protestantism ultimately to Atheism is not nearly the leap that many people might think. That one break in the faith, that rejection of authority, that falling away from truth in a thousand directions, has given rise to nearly every destructive, synthetic replacement philosophy that has been attempted for 500 years. Atheists are just more “perfectly consistent” than present-day Protestants. Presumption and despair, nihilism, desolation, and perhaps suicide, are just more “perfectly consistent” atheism. So the choice is ultimately between two things. Chesterton said that if a man were to live for a thousand years, in matters of philosophy, he would have only two choices: The Catholic Creed or Eastern pessimism. Nearly every atheist I know, if he gives credence to anything “religious,” it is always something Eastern.

    The carpe diem , “eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die” religion that follows from rejecting Catholicism, rationalizes happiness, and thereby destroys it. Rationalizing happiness turns eating, drinking and merrymaking into a medicine rather than a sacrament. It is ultimately choosing between these two views that we have before us. Or, as Chesterton writes, “‘Drink, for you know not whence you come nor why. Drink, for you know not when you go nor where. Drink, because the stars are cruel and the world is idle as a humming-top. Drink, because all things are lapsed in a base equality and an evil peace.’ So he stands offering us the cup in his hand. And at the high altar of Christianity stands another figure, in whose hand also is the cup of the vine. ‘Drink,’ he says, ‘for the whole world is as red as this wine, with the crimson of the love and wrath of God. Drink, for the trumpets are blowing for battle and this is the stirrup-cup. Drink, for this is my blood of the new testament that is shed for you. Drink, for I know of whence you come and why. Drink, for I know of when you go and where.’”

    • Mike Blackadder

      MT this is a really awesome comment. Chesterton quotes are like gold.

  • Rey

    blown away, thanks for the article. :)

  • Jack

    This is not dissimilar to what the late Fr. Alexander Schmemann said, “The Holy Trinity or Hell–there is no other choice.”

    \\ God-willing, in the near future I will be received into the Catholic Church from the Orthodox Church.\\

    I hope it’s into an Eastern Catholic Church.

    • Greg Cook

      No: It is into the Latin Rite. As someone baptized in a Protestant church I am considered Latin under the canons. This is my wish, too. While I deeply appreciate the East, I am culturally a westerner. I also find the monastic-derived practices of the East (fasting, lengthy services, standing, etc.) too much for me. I look to someone like St. Gregory (first Pope by that name) as a model: he spent time in Constantinople and knew and appreciated the Eastern liturgy, but was still rooted in the West. But I hope in some way to be an ambassador for better understanding between the two.

  • Sean Harrison

    Immediately thought of Jacques Maritain when I saw the title. : ) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jacques_Maritain

  • Hannah

    Reminds me of what the Misfit said at the end of A Good Man is Hard to Find.

  • Scott Elliot

    “We are left with Judaism or Christianity, but we needn’t choose between Christianity and Judaism, but we must choose a form of Christianity which claims and can show that it is in direct continuity with Judaism.”

    Why exactly does Judaism fall out of consideration again? The above sentence doesn’t make so much sense to me, as modern-day Judaism is also in “direct continuity with Judaism.”

  • Korou

    “If the personal is greater than the impersonal, how would it be possible for the greater to be devised from and dependent on the lesser? How could a rational person (a human being) come forth from an irrational, impersonal force? How could a rational world be created by an irrational, vague force? Can the lesser create the greater? No.”

    But the greater can be devised from the lesser; and there’s nothing strange about a rational world being created from an irrational one. The theory of evolution answers this just fine. Where did rationality come from? From evolving responses.

    “Therefore we conclude that God is personal. God is rational.”

    We can conclude no such thing. Faulty thinking.

    • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

      The theory of evolution is subject to the same criticism–that the rational cannot develop from the irrational, the greater cannot come from the less nor can what is ordered develop randomly. Thinking is not faulty simply because you say it is–where is there any proof that rationality or the capability for abstract thought came from ‘evolving responses’?

  • Korou

    Thinking in general, no. The thinking of a particular person on a particular issue certainly can be, if you can show that he’s mistaken.
    You said: “How could a rational person (a human being) come forth from an irrational, impersonal force?”
    Do you accept the scientific evidence that humans have evolved from other forms of life which were incapable of rational thought? That our ancestors could not think rationally in the way that we can and, far back enough, could not think at all?

    • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

      I am not convinced that the theory of evolution explains completely the origin of the human race.

    • Mike Blackadder

      Karou, I understand your argument on a mechanical level – ie. in the language of evolution theory, but there is something wrong with what you are proposing here. There are two possible explanations with regard to the occurrence of rational thought. First, either we were created (whether or not via complex means) to think, or thought (and other complex elements of our nature) occur as the aggregate of many simple things all going on at once. For example, the stock market as a whole is very complex, and even exhibits certain characteristics, but we know that it is actually the culmination of many simple transactions interacting in complex ways.

      The problem is that if thought is like the stock market, and actually occurs as a result of lesser things then like the stock market, the perception that we are whole beings is only an illusion. In that case we are ultimately not responsible for our thoughts to the point that we can not possibly have any free will at all. I’m not saying that this is impossible, but it does get me off the hook for not being convinced that I was created by irrational forces – because I have no choice but to think what I think right?

      • Korou

        A very interesting idea! Doesn’t that also mean that it’s impossible for anyone to change anyone’s mind about anything, because if their mind could be changed then it would change?
        In any case, maybe we really aren’t responsible for our thought because the subconscious is really in charge. You think you’re coming to a decision rationally, but actually you’re deciding to do something just because you want to do it, and are rationalising it to yourself. Don’t you think?

  • Mike Blackadder

    Father Longenecker, thanks for your thought provoking article. I especially like the link that you draw between Protestantism and Atheism.
    I think that you might be missing (or did not emphasize) a critical question about the nature of God-omnipotence. Whether or not He is rational, if God is not omnipotent, then it does not necessarily follow that He created us deliberately or that He would remain concerned sbout our existence. This would be more consistent with an atheist or possible pagan conception of God. Existence as we know it is characterized by finite things which are by definition transient and subject to change over time. Whether or not greater more complex things can come about as result of simpler more basic things, the notion that existence itself is characterized as a finite thing is untenable.

    If we do not remind ourselves that God is infinite (or rather when we dare to consider that our conception of God can possibly do justice to His actual nature) we are sometimes drawn into atheism through wonder at greater finite things (whether it be greater understanding of the universe, subatomic particles, unifying theories of physics, evolution). This is just another more complex version of worshipping the Golden calf. When we seek out the Face of the infinite God in devotion to the Truth, what did we expect to find? We won’t find or prove God in this manner, and we are fools to worship a lesser thing, when it is irrational to conceive of how a finite thing could have spontaneously occurred from nothing or existed perpetually.

  • Korou

    In that case to prove God’s existence you need to disprove the theory of evolution, which wasn’t in your initial argument. So you’re going to have to say something like, “God must exist because it is impossible for rationality to come from irrationality, despite what the theory of evolution says, for these reasons…”

    • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

      The theory of evolution does not demand atheism. There are many theists who also believe in the theory of evolution.

      • Korou

        I didn’t say it did; but you said that the theory of evolution being true would invalidate your proof of God’s existence.

        • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

          I’m sorry I’ve lost the thread of this conversation…I wish you all God’s blessings!

          • Korou

            Never mind, I’m sure it’ll be sorted out in another thread one day.

  • Korou

    By the way, since I’m not a Catholic I don’t feel comfortable calling you “Father.” What else can I call you?

    • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

      Why not step outside your comfort zone? Do something adventurous and call me Father anyway. However if you are too timid to do that or simply afraid to move beyond your comfort zone you may call me Dwight.

      • Korou

        Thank you, Dwight, but you’re neither my father nor my Father.

  • Korou

    …so I feel it wouldn’t be appropriate.

    • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

      That’s ok :-)

  • flyingvic

    It seems to me that a lot of this argument is simply too clinical, too cut-and-dried, as if human beings, rational human beings, are entirely subject to the demands that human logic makes upon them, their lives firmly set in a direction they have no other choice but to take. So, Father, you describe the descent of Protestantism into Atheism as if it was logically inevitable.

    I think that this seriously undervalues the fact that as human beings there is so much more than mere rationality in our make-up: we are creatures with feelings and emotions and instincts, all of which, alongside our mental processes, help to guide our judgement and decision-making. We are body, mind and spirit, and our lives are not dictated by logic.

    Protestantism into Atheism? At the moment I am trying to cope with someone whose involvement with satanism is linked with Roman Catholicism. Almost any links are possible in these matters, contrary creatures that we are, but none are inevitable.

    • OneTimothyThreeFifteen

      ‘…we are creatures with feelings and emotions and instincts, all of which, alongside our mental processes, help to guide our judgement and decision-making. We are body, mind and spirit, and our lives are not dictated by logic.’

      Yup. Totally agree.

      But to me, Fr L’s not talking about us, he’s proposing an argument. Any number of empirical examples don’t gainsay what he has written. We can all find empirical examples which supposedly disprove anything. So, it seems to me, your example of the Satanist is simply a non-sequitur, because you’re proposing an empirical counter to a rational argument.

      It’s a bit like me saying ‘Catholics teach that the Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life’, and you saying, ‘I know a Catholic who doesn’t believe that’, and then claiming that somehow, it disproves what I am asserting. It doesn’t. But it would prove that you are embodying the very Protestant principle which Fr L is outlining as problematic.

      In other words, empirical arguments are evidence to the Protestant – like Ronald Knox’s quip about the smugness Methodists feel when they announce one’s umbrella is more likely to be stolen from outside a Catholic Church than a Methodist Chapel – which he was arguing is probably true as a point of fact. But it proves nothing about the truth or falsity of Catholicism itself – which was his point – but the Methodists thought otherwise. The Methodist position was rather like arguing that the presence of thieves in the Church disprove the authority of the See of Peter, or that, in a survey, 8 out of 10 Catholics reject the Church teaching on contraception, so it is false. (How often do we see this in the secular media which uses the same criteria?)

      We disagree on the criteria by which truth can be judged, and so using the Protestant criteria, leads, and must lead, to Relativism in the end, irrespective of how many ‘Catholic-like’ Anglicans, or dogmatic, authoritarian, strict pastors/congregations anyone cites as ‘proof’ of it being otherwise.

      This point has been made in Called to Communion’s latest post on Called to Communion by Jeremy Tate:
      Why Evangelicals Are Getting High – A Response to Rebecca VanDoodewaard
      http://www.calledtocommunion.com/2013/08/why-evangelicals-are-getting-high-a-response-to-rebecca-vandoodewaard/

      The question isn’t one of how many strict Reformed Protestants become Catholic, although at first glance it appears to be so (which can be measured empirically), but the change in what’s considered the criteria of Truth within Christianity, of those converts.

      As he says, ‘Even if Rebecca’s thesis were true, it would do nothing to disprove the substantive arguments presented by Catholic apologists, nor would it do anything to patch over the gaps in Reformed teaching on authority.’

  • Jon

    But I remember so well a Monsignor and good friend ,saying: if I didnt have the belief of heaven , suicide would be my only option”. Was that his belief or was he using that as education?

  • Big Al

    Great article. As a convert to Catholicism, I came to a similar conclusion. I had read a quote once and cannot remember where so cannot credit the author. But it went something like this, “imagine a small town with an intersection. On each corner is a church. A baptist, pentecostal, methodist and presbyterian. Each says that their only authority is the Bible but each offer a different interpretation of a verse. Question: which interpretation is true? And how do you know? And that is the problem with Protestantism. I concluded that if I could find out what Christian believed in the first century, those taught at the hands of the Apostles, that would be the test for what is true. The patristical writings led me to Catholicism.

  • Rebecca

    Thank you, Father, for that outstanding analysis. I have thought about many of those things as I have been drawn towards Rome.


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