Playing the Indian Card

Monday, May 23, 2016

My Five Favourite Things About Being Catholic

Catholic Link
recently challenged its readers to list the five things that make them happiest about being Catholic. If anyone out there is wondering why I am Catholic, I too have my reasons. I was raised Catholic, so there's that. On the other hand, I studied world religions for some years, so it is not as though I just signed on without thinking about the issue. My adherence to Catholicism is not at all a rejection of other faiths. I have warm spots in my heart, in particular, for Judaism and Buddhism. But in the end, I do figure, if God wanted me to be anything else, he would have had me born into that tradition. Assuming God loves us all, and all equally, he would not put some of us in a significantly worse position in trms of salvation. Once you start out on one path or another, switching paths sets you back; you have to start at the beginning again, learning it all anew. Unless there is something definitely wrong with the tradition you were raised in, it seems unwise to switch. And one more thing: switching faiths can easily be a way to dodge the hard bits. I think I see this again and again, among those who do. They dislike something about their tradition, usually something it requires them to do that goes against their perceived self-interest. So they switch to another faith that does not require it. Then, if they sincerely get involved in their new faith, they soon find that it requires something else that seems to go against their self-interest. The process continues, and no spiritual progress is made.

But that is not exactly the question. It is, what makes me happy about being Catholic. And I am happy about being Catholic. Here are some reasons.

1. Upon This Rock.

Most academic disciplines are subject to fashions; they are trendy as can be. For twenty years, one theory is dominant, and then it is supplanted by another. Do we get any closer to truth? It sure does not look like it.

If so, in the quest for truth, the whole thing ends up being a waste of time. And the quest for truth is what we are here for.

The hard sciences might at first look better. They certainly seem to be building something. But what? All we know is that we have a model that produces results closely resembling the truth. Is this truth? Philosophically, we do not really know. And everything in science is properly a theory, subject to being overturned at any moment. What seems true now may be disproven tomorrow. Moreover, the useful subject matter of science is trivial. It can only deal well with physical objects. It is entirely possible, philosophically, that the physical world as a whole is an illusion, or nothing like what we perceive it to be.

So we are building on sand.

Philosophically, the only way we can know anything as truth is divine revelation. Only God knows for certain what is true. Therefore, you need at least a claim of divine revelation to have any hope of discovering truth. Moreover, if there is a God, he would have done this. It is simply a matter of where it is.

So if a body of truth is not at least claimed to be divinely revealed, it is of no known value.

The Catholic Church does claim that its truth is divinely revealed. Of course, a claim is not proof, and other bodies claim the same for their truths.

However, if God loves us, he would not have hidden the truth. He would have put it out there in plain sight. Catholicism is the most obvious vehicle: the biggest denomination, indeed organization of any kind. Moreover, its doctrines have not changed for two thousand years. Or more, for much of it, if you include what is revealed in the Old Testament. These truths have in the meantime been endorsed and clarified and extrapolated from by the best minds in Europe.

So with Catholicism I am standing on a solid rock, something the gates of hell have never prevailed against.

Protestantism, to the extent that it differs from Catholicism, propounds doctrines only five hundred years old at most, and even in those five hundred years, they do not seem to have held up well. Protestantism keeps fragmenting into novel doctrines, and established Protestant groups keep discarding or changing doctrine. Judaism, Hinduism, or Buddhism can claim to be older than Catholicism, but their doctrines are more diverse and internally debatable.

As an intellectual enterprise, in the end, Catholicism is the only game in town. Anything else is wasting your life.

2. One Holy Catholic Church

When I go to a Catholic mass, in Canada or just about anywhere else, I meet people of all ethnicities. The point used to be even stronger, back in the days when the Mass was in Latin wherever it was. But even so, Catholicism is transnational in a way no other religion is, with the possible exception of Islam. If you are a Jew or a Hindu, I have a pretty good chance of guessing your ethnicity. So too if you are an Anglican, or a Lutheran, or a Mormon. The orthodox churches are organized by nationality: Sofia has Bulgarian Orthodox churches, of course, but also a separate Russian Orthodox church and a Romanian Orthodox church. Within US Protestantism, there are “black denominations.” But if you are Catholic, you could be Italian, or Irish, or Polish, or African, or Filipino, or Peruvian, or Lebanese, or anything else, at just about equal odds. And we all attend the same mass, together.

Ethnicity and nationalism is, on the whole, a pernicious influence that divides us. Religion ought to be an antidote, promoting the brotherhood of man. Catholicism most clearly embodies that ideal.

Most other religious, in practice, segregate by ethnicity, implicitly and by example making religion and universal brotherhood secondary to politics and tribalism.

Almost as disturbingly, telling me your religious denomination often tells me something about your income, education level, or class. Telling me you are Anglican or Episcopalian says one thing; saying you are Pentecostal or Jehovah's Witnesses says sometyhinge else. Catholicism seems uniquely untethered to a class. It appeals equally, it seems, to aristocrats and peasants. And either are equal in worship. If you say you are a Catholic, similarly, I cannot tell whether you have a Ph.D., indeed, are one of the greatest minds of the ages, or mentally deficient. Good Catholics might be either. This is a kind of proof of Catholicism. God loves us all. His own religion would not favour the very bright, but would have all they need at the same time.

3. Join the Club

The Catholic Church is the largest human organization of any kind, and the oldest. As a human being, why would you not want to be part of it? Stay out, and you are out of the human mainstream; you are not part of the conversation. Stay out, and you are in a way rejecting the largest single proportion of your fellow men, living and dead. Are they all wrong? Are they all damned? It almost amounts in itself to misanthropy.

4. A Reliable Moral Guide

Back in the early seventies, one after another, human institutions seemed to be bowing to the sexual revolution and accepting, or even endorsing, abortion. I am sorry, but this was always obviously a moral wrong. Pope Paul VI and the Catholic Church appeared to be the only voices clearly and loudly saying this was not okay—as it obviously, to my conscience, wasn't. I knew at the time that they would suffer for it, and they have ever since.

By this, the Catholic Church demonstrated to me that it was a reliable moral guide, and perhaps the only reliable moral guide available in the social sphere. Everyone else, including other denominations, seems to be primarily about politics. They wait to see what the polls say, and reshape their own positions in light of them. If the majority was in favour of Jew-burning, they would soon be for Jew-burning. So long as the money kept dropping on the collection plate.

Only the Catholic Church seems to sincerely believe what they are saying, and to be bringing God's message to man.

It is ironic that Catholicism keeps getting knocked for supposedly not speaking out strongly enough against Hitler, or against slavery, or against the Spanish Inquisition, or this or that, when historically, they were invariably the lone group speaking out against any of these things. No doubt, eventually, they will be condemned for not speaking out strongly enough against abortion.

But there are pastoral reasons they are not more forceful than they are, as well. The Church is not here to end sin, which is not possible, but to forgive it. The important thing is to be a reliable moral guide.

5. Oh Ancient Beauty! Too Late Have I Loved You!

Plato had it right when he enumerated the three essential objects of human life: the true, the good, and the beautiful. As perfect being, God must combine in himself perfect truth, perfect goodness, and perfect beauty. We tend to forget door three. But a being that is not perfectly beautiful is not perfect.

Have you not had an aesthetic experience? Is there any thing you know closer to a direct experience of the divine?

And yet, a good proportion of the world's religions not only overlook beauty as an aspect of the divine; they actually condemn it. Protestantism, especially Calvinism, Islam, Judaism to some extent. This has to be wrong. Aside from denying one third of the divine nature, it gives the Devil, as has been said of Milton, all the best lines. Beauty untied from morality and truth, agreed, exerts a dangerous glamour. But the obvious solution is not to untie it from morality and truth; it is to bind all three tight.

Catholicism is not alone in its appreciation of beauty—Hinduism and Taoism are also strong in this regard. But Catholicism has a pretty good track record in the arts. You get Michelangelo, Leonardo, Donatello, Caravaggio, all those ninja turtles. You get Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin, and the boys. Western art stacks up very well against art from any other part of the world, and Western art is paradigmatically Catholic. Even in majority Protestant countries, art is mostly the Catholic contribution. Name a famous English poet: discover another Catholic. Pope, Dryden, Yeats, Shakespeare, the Celtic fringe: poetry in English is almost always a Catholic avocation. When Milton is not giving choice lines to the Devil. Name a famous German composer: discover another Austrian, which is to say, another Catholic.

The lack of beauty is a critical deficit in, for example, American culture. All those cities with ugly names, laid out in a sensible grid pattern, or worse, spaghetti roads to reduce traffic, each home identical to the next, everything with only practicality in mind. (On the other hand, greatest American visual artist: Andy Warhol. Catholic. Best American playwrights: Tennessee Williams, Eugene ONeill. Catholics. Best American novelist: Ernest Hemingway. Catholic. And just get startedd on actors and directors...). Much of English culture too seems deliberately ugly. When I was young and living in Catholic Montreal, the thought of moving to Protestant Ontario seemed a fate worse than death. It still does, actually, aside from the distinctively Irish and Highland Scottish settlements, which are indeed beautiful. And Catholic. But Oshawa, Brampton, Sudbury, Scarborough, Kitchener? Surely any fully human heart recoils.

One annoying symptom of the failure to appreciate beauty is the eternal complaint that the Catholic Church is “rich,” and all that art should be sold off to help the poor. As if the only purpose of art is as a financial investment.

Sinulog 2012

The Philippines is pretty poor. But Cebuanos live for the annual Sinulog festival, during which teams dress in wildly colourful costumes and perform dances in the street. I have seen it. It is so beautiful, it brings tears to your eyes. The intent of the fiesta is religious, in celebration of the Christ Child, and it is indeed an intense religious experience.

God made man in his own image, and formed him out of clay. Which is to say, forming things out of clay is acting in God's image, fulfilling his design for us. We are to take the raw materials he gave us, the clay of the material world, and create; he is a creator God.

If we are not doing this, then we are, as Milton has been accused of being, “of the Devil's party without knowing it.”

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