My old pal David Sessions, who was raised in a fundamentalist Christian household and is now an atheist leftist academic, has written an interesting blog post where he argues that if you were raised Catholic and no longer believe in the faith, you should still go to church, lol, because even though there is no God, the Catholic Church, what with all its deep institutional, philosophical and cultural resources, can still be a source of positive political change, something which he apparently feels is important for reasons that are unclear.
There are some annoying features to the post. It is steeped in a pseudo-Marxisant vulgate and the attendant, suffocatingly dreary monomania that sees everything through the lens of political-ideological struggle. It shows a distinct lack of awareness of at least the possibility that all those fine, impressive things at the Catholic Church might exist and be sustained by people who do so because they believe in the God revealed in Jesus Christ, so that an atheistic Catholic Church might not be capable of playing even the reduced political role he envisions for it. There is the requisite flippant disregard for Catholic doctrine.
But I still like the post. After all, I’m not going to begrudge anyone calling on people to go to church, for whatever reason.
But the post nonetheless gets at an interesting and important topic, which is that of Catholic “dissenters” who claim a Catholic identity while nonetheless dissenting from some key doctrines.
Now, I won’t lie, and I’m not proud of this, but I sometimes feel a grating annoyance at”Mater si, Magistra no” Catholics. If you believe the Catholic Church to be of God, then why don’t you accept its teachings? And there is even, sometimes, the feeling that if they so dislike everything about the Church, then they should just leave.
But, of course, that’s ridiculous, and pretty much the opposite of what the Gospel is about.
When I became more involved in US Catholicism, this constant problem of “dissenters” was somewhat baffling to me. Here in France, the Church is small, but robust (and growing!). Our only “dissenters” are few and grey-haired and dying. Who are those people? I kept wondering. Why are nuns going on busses? What is going on? And then a friend pointed out the obvious: in France, all those people just left.
And this points to one of the most endearing, and vital aspects of Catholicism. In the Bible, election is never about a private piety that allows one to escape from this world to go to a place called Heaven; rather it is about a national membership in God’s chosen people. Once you are born into the Church, we’ve got you. You can take the Catholic out of the Church, but you can’t take the Catholicism out of the Catholic. People still feel drawn, attached to the Church. It is their home.
When I did catechism in my parish, the kids were really tough. In part, this was because I was the only man teaching catechism, so they gave me the toughest kids. But there was more. And over time, I realized why: I live in a well-off area, and so all of the parents who are regular Mass-goers send their kids to Catholic school, and that’s where they get their catechism. The kids who do their catechism in the parish are the kids whose parents don’t go to church. No wonder these kids don’t care about catechism if their parents proclaim through their behavior that faith is irrelevant. But waitaminute: if these parents don’t care about the faith, why are they sending their kids to catechism in the first place? But that’s the magic of the Church. In every Catholic, there is something there, a tug, a pull, some sort of draw to the faith, no matter how deeply buried. And it is something that can be built on, nurtured.
Sessions mentions Gary Gutting, the Notre Dame philosopher who identifies as an
atheist agnostic and a Catholic. Is Gutting a good Catholic? No. But then again, neither am I. Who am I to judge… We are all on a journey, and none of us are perfect, and in all of us is the perfection of our nature by grace incomplete.
In my experience, growth in orthodoxy (and holiness…though I know much less about that) comes not through argument or being convinced, it comes through personal conversion, and that is a work of the Holy Spirit. We should never forget what the Church precisely is not: a political program. Instead of policing people for ideological conformity, we should seek to welcome everyone into the mystery of the Church, and truly see them as human beings, full of gifts, loved and called by God. Balthasar is right: in the end, love alone is credible. Love alone will make us credible. Failing that, we should still do it if only because it’s easy to remember. The Holy Spirit will do the rest…