Every so often one hears conservative Catholics (or conservative Christians generally) say that people whom they consider insufficiently orthodox should just leave, because it’s the “honest” thing to do. Most recently, the Patheos blogger Mindy Selmys has announced that she is leaving the Catholic Church, and has been applauded for her “honest apostasy” on the website of the conservative Catholic periodical Crisis. Now for starters, I don’t think people leaving the Catholic Church but remaining Christians should be referred to as “apostates,” but that’s a separate issue. The question I want to tackle here is this: at what point does it become legitimate, or even obligatory, to leave a particular religious community due to doubts about its teachings? When does loyalty become dishonesty? Or, to put it the other way round, when does honesty become a kind of pathological restlessness that makes faithfulness to a community impossible?
One basic point that needs to be made to clear the ground: when speaking of the rational bases for religious faith, we are always talking about varying degrees of probability. Absolute certainty, while subjectively possible (for some people–not for me), is not possible on a purely rational basis. When I speak of probability I don’t mean a mathematical probability that can be calculated, but a judgment, based on numerous factors, that a particular claim is more believable than another one. The rational basis for faith is a judgment of the relative probability of one explanation for the evidence (of all kinds) versus another.
In the case of Catholicism and other religious communities that require adherence to particular doctrinal claims, there are three things that need to be balanced:
1. The basic claim that Catholicism as a whole is true and authoritative.
2. The authoritative status of the particular doctrinal claim. I.e., the claim that a particular doctrine is a genuine, authoritative part of Catholic teaching and cannot be questioned without questioning Catholicism as a whole.
3. One’s doubts and difficulties about the particular claim. Or, to put it propositionally, the statement “this doctrine is false.”
These propositions: “Catholicism is true,” “Catholicism authoritatively teaches X,” and “X is false,” cannot all be true. Thus, we will inevitably judge the least probable of the three points to be false. In some cases this is an easy judgment, while in others the three may be very close to each other. Obviously one’s faith will be more secure if proposition 3 is far behind the other two (and one’s unbelief will be secure if point 1 is far behind). But in what follows I want to look rather at the dynamics that arise from different orders of relative probability for these three items, regardless of how close to each other they may or may not be. Obviously this analysis assumes that they are relatively close–otherwise the analysis isn’t needed.
The first possibility, yielding a very secure faith (at least with regard to the doctrine in question), is the order 123. This means that I am most confident that the Church is true, and secondarily believe that a particular teaching is a necessary part of Catholic faith. Since I’m more confident of these things than I am of the truth of any arguments against the doctrine in question, I can quite reasonably dismiss these arguments, even if they are strong enough that I would believe them in the absence of my faith in the authority of the Church. Furthermore, even if I did come to believe that the arguments were true, the new “loser” among the three claims would be the claim that the teaching is a necessary part of Catholic faith. I would thus become a “faithful dissenter” (ordering the items 132) rather than abandoning Catholicism. (More about faithful dissent later.) That’s why this is a particularly stable situation to be in.
However, holding to all Catholic doctrines in this order is unstable in a different way. The attachment to the Church is secure, but the attachment to any particular doctrine is in principle dispensable. If all doctrines are seen as dispensable, then one’s faith comes to have no really secure content _except_ faith in the authority of the Catholic Church itself. The second kind of solid, secure Catholic faith is one in which the items are ordered 213. In this case, I am more convinced of the proposition “if Catholicism is true, then X doctrine is true” than I am of the proposition “Catholicism is true” in the first place. My faith in the Church, in other words, depends indispensably on certain key doctrinal claims and is subordinate to these claims. The most obvious example for me would be the resurrection of Jesus. I would be disturbed by a Catholic telling me that he/she is more certain of the teachings of the Church than that Jesus rose from the dead. A Catholicism that no longer proclaimed the Resurrection would have ceased to be itself. Hence, 213 is a healthier ordering in this case. But if one held to all ostensible Church teachings in this order, then one’s faith would tremble any time the arguments against a particular teaching started to look convincing. So the most solid faith actually seems to be one in which some very basic doctrines are held more firmly than one’s faith in the overall authority of the Pope, while the others aren’t.
But what if one becomes convinced that a particular doctrine really is false? Obviously the easiest situation is one in which one is more certain that the doctrine is false than that it is the genuine, permanent teaching of the Church, but more certain yet that the Church’s claims as a whole are true. When one holds this position (the order 132) with regard to a teaching that _appears_ to be Church teaching at this point (the impossibility of ordaining women, say), then one is clearly justified in “faithful dissent.” The 132 dissenter will argue that what appears to be Church teaching really isn’t. This will bring claims of heresy and even dishonesty, but it appears, when we put things in terms of the relative probability of the three propositions I have identified, to be the most honest way to proceed. It would be absurd to abandon the Church, which one is convinced is true, because of a teaching which one is convinced is false. Obviously the more the Church insists on this teaching, the more difficult the situation will be, and a 132 dissenter may be forced out of the Church against his/her will. But there is nothing at all dishonorable about such a stance. And it’s unlikely that things will go that far. Because the 132 dissenter is _most_ fully convinced of the overall authority of the Church, there’s obviously a decent possibility that if the Church insists strongly enough, the 132 dissenter will rethink the question of whether the doctrine under dispute is true. So, for instance, there are people who might have supported women’s ordination before John Paul II’s authoritative statement on the subject but then ceased to do so. Others might change their minds if an Ecumenical Council or an unquestionably ex cathedra Papal statement ruled on the subject.
But what if the person is _more_ convinced that the doctrine is false than that the overall authority of the Church is true? Such a person–a 312 dissenter–would still be justified, I believe, in remaining in the Church. The 312 dissenter still believes that the Church is true. But that belief now depends on the conviction that 2 is false: that in fact, the Church does not permanently and solemnly teach the doctrine in question. With regard to women’s ordination, this would be someone who hangs on in the Church solely on the grounds of a conviction that eventually the Church will listen to the Spirit and ordain women. The same increasingly authoritative pronouncements that might bring a 132 dissenter in line would drive a 312 dissenter out of the Church. But as long as the propositions remain in the order 312, the dissenter remains justified in remaining in the Church, however difficult his/her position.
Finally, there are two orderings of the propositions that do make it impossible for a person to remain a faithful Catholic: 321 and 231. Here the last proposition in order of probability, and hence the one rejected, is the overall authority of the Church. The difference between these, however, is that 321 is a position more open to reconsidering whether the doctrine is authoritatively taught, while 231 is more open to reconsidering whether it is false. Obviously as with 123 and 213, the reasonableness of each position will depend very much on the doctrine in question. If someone leaves the Church because of the rejection of women’s ordination, it’s reasonable to be a 321 dissenter open to being persuaded that in fact the Church may not be permanently committed to this position. But it would be foolish for a Catholic to try to persuade someone to move from 231 to 321 on the doctrine of the Trinity or the Resurrection or even the Real Presence.
There’s another way to pair these six possible positions, by which of them turn into which if the last two items were switched. 123 and 132, as I noted above, easily turn into each other. So do 312 and 321, unsurprisingly–a person who is convinced that a doctrine the Church appears to teach is false may easily become someone who no longer believes in the Church at all. But the interesting pair is 213 and 231. These easily turn into each other as well. That is why, as I suggested, holding all Church doctrines in the order 213 actually makes for a rather brittle faith. Some of the most frustrating conversations to have, as a Catholic or (as I was for a long time) a Catholic sympathizer, are with people who are convinced that some relatively questionable issue, perhaps something that occurs in apparently authoritative form in the past but from which the Church seems to have moved away, really is the permanent teaching of the Church and thus justifies rejecting the Church altogether. Yet these folks share basic assumptions with the most traditional Catholics.
I find this numerical way of looking at the question helpful–this line of reasoning played a big role in pushing me into Catholicism, because I couldn’t honestly say that I was 321 or 231 on any issue. (Of course, there’s a big difference between “what justifies remaining in the Church” and “what requires one to join the Church.”) I think it’s also very helpful in checking the impulses many Catholics seem to have to question why other people remain in the Church, Yes, of course some people may be 231s or 321s who remain in the Church for reasons other than conviction (such as the alleged statement by a feminist theologian that she remained because that’s “where the copying machines are,” or the more honorable reasons deriving from the pull of community or family). But more often than not, they are 132s or 312s. They are already in a lot of internal conflict. To add to that conflict is cruel. To drive them out of the Church is, from a Catholic point of view, arguably the kind of behavior that makes one’s neck worthy of a millstone.