Tuesday, December 20, 2011

What Should We Do With the Liberal Catholic?

Apologies for the lack of posting recently—not that I think the internet desperately needs my outpourings, but because even the worst Catholic blog, if fairly regularly updated, must serve as a counterweight to the mighty tidal wave of liberal-left-secularist-progressive blogs, tweets, Facebook pages and goodness knows what else on the Irish internet. The logic is a bit like turning up at a public meeting to lend your lungpower to the right side. It doesn’t really matter what you say as long as you say it loud enough to be heard, and maybe even drown out the other side a little.

Incidentally, and on a biographical note, I have a visitor coming from America soon, a Catholic lady from Richmond, Virginia. Richmond is a small city, and Catholics are in a minority there, but it boasts at least two big churches that are packed out at every Mass. One of them, St. Benedict’s, is sure to delight the hearts of the traditionally-minded; long Mass, lots of Latin, deacons, altar servers in vestments—some of the female worshippers even wear headscarves. And, incredibly, it’s a young parish, with tons of young families and twenty-somethings to be seen.

I’m wondering what she will make of Ireland’s religious life; the strong contrast between the Catholic legacy everywhere to be seen (churches, shrines, streets named after saints, the Angelus bells broadcast on state radio and TV) and the tepid practice (before all the Sunday Masses were amalgamated into one, my local church had as little as nineteen worshippers at the earliest Mass).

But that’s not what I wanted to consider in this post. I wanted to wonder aloud—how should we treat liberal/progressive/left/dissident/cafeteria Catholics?

I have an admission to make. When I’m listening to the radio, or watching TV, or reading a newspaper, or even surfing that ole internet, and I find myself attending to someone giving their opinion about the Catholic church (as everybody does sooner or later), there are certain key words and phrases that make me stop listening. One is “clericalist mindset”. Another is “authoritarian”. Then there are “homophobia”, “reclaim the Church”, and “backward-looking”.

As soon as those catchphrases are used, I’m pretty sure I know what the person is going to say, and I know where the train of thought is going. Into heresy; into the dereliction of dogma and onto the broad, easy path that so many fossilized and perishing human creeds have trod already; into indifferentism and irrelevance.

Nor is this true only of challenges to dogma. I used to read the column of Nuala O’Loan in the Irish Catholic before I heard her, on radio, making the case for women priests. Since then, I skip over her column. Doesn’t she know that Pope Benedict has explained the Church’s stance on female ordination is irrevocable?

But is this right? Should I really stop listening to someone just because they have sounded my liberal alarm on one issue? Might they not have something interesting to say, aside from their errors?

I think there is a danger of the enthusiastically orthodox—like me—mistaking orthodoxy for holiness. The game of “spot the heresy” can become a little too gleeful, a little too self-congratulatory—even a little too pharisaical, perhaps. It is probably the case that the majority of Ireland’s practicing Catholics knowingly go against Church teaching in some way, and I am absolutely sure that thousands upon thousands of them—if not most of them, if not all of them—are closer to the Kingdom of Heaven than I am.

One thing I am always struck by, when reading the writings of Pope Benedict XVI, is the irenicism and calmness of the supposed “Panzerkardinal”. He does not denounce atheists or agnostics or secularists, and has even (I hope I do not misrepresent him) suggested that the dynamic between faith and doubt is part of the human condition; he draws from Protestant theologians and Protestant Biblical scholars; he quotes spiritual writers from other religions, such as Gandhi. Even his recent comments on condom use by homosexuals, utterly distorted as it was by the secular media, show how “edgy” he is willing to be.

I think there is truth in what Chesterton said; when you know where the line is, you can go as close to it as you like. Perhaps the truly orthodox are the least impatient with heresy, the least prone to a “siege mentality”. In any case, liberal Catholics are a presence in Irish life that cannot be ignored; unfortunately, even amongst the clergy. Name-calling and polemics are not going to get us anywhere. I think we have to be nice to the progressives, if we are ever going to win them back to orthodoxy.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

In Case Anyone is Interested...

Why I'm Catholic

There are some fine conversion stories on this site, from many interesting and estimable people, although the latest is by an Irish guy with a dodgy beard and an unpronounceable name. You can just skip that one.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Anyone for Postmodernism and New Age Spirituality?

In a (very fine) article in this week's Irish Catholic, Father Pat Collins writes: "I have found that a growing number of people don't even believe in Heaven or Hell. As faith has weakened in these and other ways, many Catholics have adopted New Age and occult beliefs and practices".

I don't doubt Father Collins's pastoral experience, and I note he mentions "many Catholics" specifically, rather than "many people" in general. But the passing reference reminded me how frequently, in articles by Catholics, "New Age spiritualities" and "neopaganism" are mentioned as rivals to Christian faith. They are often reeled out in a list of contemporary rivals to the Faith, one which also tends to mention postmodernism and pluralism.

I often wonder if we are fooling ourselves about these things. Of course, we all know that there are neopagans and Wiccans out there, just as there are postmodernists and people who believe that all religions are different stained glass windows through which the same divine sunlight shines.

But I think these elements are, to be blunt, insignificant-- both in quality and quantity. How many pagans do you know? How many people do you know who would even use the term "postmodern", except ironically? How many dabblers in different world religions? Very few, I imagine.

Now, how many people do you know who-- either vocally or implicitly-- treat all religious belief, all spiritual assumptions, as so much baloney?

I may be wrong, of course, and perhaps I'm simply reading my own preoccupations into the world around me. But I really do doubt the importance of these supposed opponents. I am a Chesterton fanatic, and of course I think there is truth in the aphorism so often attributed to Chesterton (though it doesn't appear to actually occur in his works), "When people stop believing in god, they don't believe in nothing, they believe in anything". Rightly understood, I think that is bang on the money. But typically-- in our age at least-- the false idols they flee to are not spiritual or religious in nature, at least not ostensibly. They nearly always claim to be the purest rationalism; to be stoutly scientific, as did psychoanalysis and Marxism and libertarianism. In other words, the believers would themselves be unlikely to use the term "believe". In their own minds, they have jettisoned faith for evidence and cool, calm evaluation.

I think of the words of C.S. Lewis:

When grave persons express their fear that England is relapsing into Paganism, I am tempted to reply, 'Would that she were.' For I do not think it at all likely that we shall ever see Parliament opened by the slaughtering of a garlanded white bull in the House of Lords or Cabinet Ministers leaving sandwiches in Hyde Park as an offering for the Dryads. If such a state of affairs came about, then the Christian apologist would have something to work on. For a Pagan, as history shows, is a man eminently convertible to Christianity. He is essentially the pre-Christian, or sub-Christian, religious man.

I believe Christians like the idea of New Age Spirituality, because it's an easier target, and it seems more congenial. We like the idea of postmodernism, because it's so obviously nonsensical, so quickly "desconstructed"-- even something of a straw man. These antagonists, I think, are a little like the nobodies that would be so often thrown into the ring with Hulk Hogan and other WWF stars.

When it comes to the struggle for souls, I fear the real rivals to the Faith are much more formidable and much more hostile. At the moment, bestriding the Western world like a collosus, is philosophical materialism, which tends to be attended by libertarianism and scientism. Its assumptions are utterly different to those of the Catholic religion; there is little for the Catholic to grab hold of, so to speak. If the materialist believes in human equality, we can ask him where he gets his belief from. But many materialist and scientistically-minded people do not believe in human equality, or believe in it simply as a legal fiction. If they believe the cosmos is intelligible, we can ask them why that should be so, but this seems like an obscure point of metaphysical wrangling to most people. If they believe in morality, this is also an Achilles heel. But many philosophical materialists don't believe in morality, at least not in any meaningful way. They might think it's nice to be nice, they might even be willing to die for the things they care about, but they would deny that moral principles are anything but a human construct.

To be sure, most philosophical materialists wouldn't use that term for themselves. They are simply the increasing number of people who don't believe (they claim) in anything; who believe in "science", or "rationality", or "the modern world".

Of course, looming on the horizon like a stormcloud are the ever-strengthening forces of Islam, which I fear will use the weapons of demographics and fanaticism rather than ideas. (I am rather surprised that Islam has not begun to win Western converts in any great numbers; surely it is only a matter of time, given Europe's current state of spiritual limbo?) Beyond that, I sometimes fancy that the Mormons will be the great twenty-first century rival of the Catholic Church. But I admit that is speculation.

If only we really did have pagans and postmodernists to worry about!