My Long and Winding Road to Catholicism – Part 5
Editor’s note: this post was originally published more than five years ago on a now defunct blog. It was originally published pseudonymously. I have done some editing to clean up the bits that I wanted to keep anonymous. I’ve also updated it a bit to reflect how my thinking has evolved over five years. But the vast majority of this text is untouched.
If you made it through the last installment, you’ll see that I have a pretty long list of issues with Christianity. But over time, I’ve come to realize something. Many of these issues aren’t actually issues with Christianity itself, but rather issues with protestantism.
I’m going to go through this in roughly the same order as the last post, so for some it might be helpful to pull them both up side by side.
Catholic dogma is that Jesus wasn’t just a man, but he was also a God. Also that he rose from the dead on the third day after his Crucifixion and ascended bodily into heaven after that. OK. I’ll admit it – I still have issues with that. But you know what? I can accept it, if not outright believe in it. As I said before, it’s a powerful story. I’m willing to just take it as a premise that can’t be proven and go from there. The only church that would call itself Christian that might not ask me to believe that is the Unitarian church, and that’s just kind of pointless. So OK, I’ll bite… but only if I can accept what follows.
As for the bible… the Catholic stance is that the bible is inerrant (without error), but only when it’s properly understood and interpreted by the church. Now, this may at first seem to open a can of worms of its own. But the church’s position basically is this: Jesus was part of an oral society. He taught orally. He instructed his apostles to teach orally. The scriptures of the New Testament were written down much after the fact in order to capture the oral Tradition of the church. The church itself has maintained that tradition, person to person, for 2000 years.
You know what? I can buy that. Unlike the literalist stance, it matches with the known history of the documents we have today. Is the modern tradition of the church a perfect recreation of the traditions of 2000 years ago? I doubt it. It’s basically a 2000 year old game of telephone. I’m pretty sure that it’s not exactly what Jesus was teaching. I doubt the church would argue with that. They’d probably say that the teaching has evolved, guided by the Holy Spirit, to match the times. Fair enough, I can get behind that. I’m pretty solidly convinced that nobody else is going to be closer to what Jesus actually taught. This is where the idea that Catholics aren’t as big into the bible comes from. It’s not that they don’t honor it. They just claim that the bible captured church traditions rather than being the source of church traditions. Along these lines, they say that some parts of the bible were meant to be taken literally and some were meant to be metaphor, and the oral tradition of the church, handed down priest to priest for 2000 years tells us which was which. To me, this makes infinitely more sense than taking the bible literally. If you believe that the Holy Spirit really has guided the church, then this is pretty pure. Myself, I’m betting that the telephone game has distorted it somewhat… but I’m willing to live with that.
The Catholic church does not preach predestination and never really has. It’s a Protestant idea that came primarily from John Calvin. Free will is, in fact, very important to Catholic dogma in general. This is a big plus to me.
Likewise, the Catholic church doesn’t really have this idea of “being saved” simply by believing in Jesus. It’s not enough. You also have to make a true effort to live a good life, free from sin and doing good deeds. This is a very good social construct, as it encourages people to actually live their morality rather than skating by just because being a believer is good enough. Points here.
Even in the watered down form you find it in modern America, Catholicism asks something from its members. Catholicism doesn’t allow divorce (although it’s far too easy to get an annulment these days, especially in America… but it’s still better than the protestants). Catholicism expects you to confess your sins regularly, a painful but powerful act (and probably the single part of Catholicism that I have the most trouble with). Catholicism expects you to do penance for those sins. Catholicism expects you to actually give up something for Lent, to contribute to charity, to show up to Mass regularly and on special holy days. Yes, there are lots of “bad Catholics” who don’t do these things. But the church still has the balls to stand up there and tell you that you should. It’s better than most. However, Catholicism also doesn’t ask so much of you that it’s absolutely draconian. None of this really will crush you. And… it expects you to fall short.
The Catholic church has had its issues historically with science. Yes, we all remember Galileo. But we mostly remember the story wrong, and that’s our loss. The real story is far more interesting and dramatic (the short version: Galileo and the Pope were frenemies, and his punishment wasn’t religious it was mostly personal). The modern church is very friendly to science, with one big caveat: science is there to tell us how the world works, religion is there to tell us how to make moral judgments about it. As a philosopher, I find this exactly right. Science is fantastic for finding out factual info. It provides no guidelines on its own for morality. My sister-in-law’s uncle is a Catholic priest and a physics teacher [Editor’s note: sadly, this man – who was a major influence in my conversion – has since passed away]. The church views these as compatible, and I approve.
The Catholic church is extremely consistent with its views. They’ve had 2000 years to practice and some of the biggest powerhouses in the history of philosophy to help them get it right. Most of the argument that people have with their views can fall into two categories: coming from a different set of first principles or letting their rationalization hamsters run loose because they don’t want to agree with the church. I doubt that there’s any other sizable organization on the planet that’s as consistent as the church. To be honest, I’m a little bit in awe of it, especially considering its raw size (there are over a billion Catholics in the world). Is it perfect? No. But it’s pretty good.
The Catholic church supports big families. If you’re going to claim birth control is a sin, you kind of have to. Works for us, since we have a big family. The support network is nice – and you can’t find it in many other places these days. I don’t think I really need to explain this one.
The Catholic church more than any other Christian church except perhaps the Orthodox churches maintains a high degree of ritual in what it does. Excess ritual is often associated with paganism and cults, and for good reason. But the rituals capture us because they speak to something fundamental in the human psyche. Even if you believe that the Mass and the Eucharist are a bunch of hogwash, the rituals associated with them are pretty useful as a kind of meditation period – much like the rituals that Buddhist monks go through, only in larger groups. Indeed, all of the seven sacraments serve as pretty powerful rituals to accomplish specific purposes within the human psyche. Baptism as a ritual helps cement your status part of the tribe. Confirmation serves as a rite of passage (something modern western society is sorely lacking). Making marriage a sacramental ritual emphasizes the importance the church places on family. I find this extremely useful, even if a part of me does think it’s all a bit irrational.
Christianity itself could, to some degree, be called the biggest cult of personality of all time – if you consider the big man, JC himself, to be the alpha at the top. But he’s been elsewhere for about 2000 years, and in that time the church has become a large bureaucracy. I’m not overly fond of big bureaucracies… but they’re better than cults of personality. The church has a lot of rules in place specifically to prevent it from becoming too much of that. 2000 years of history will help you figure out that kind of thing.
The church doesn’t claim it’s getting “closer” to the original teachings of Christ. It claims they are the original teachings of Christ, and always have been. They certainly have a better claim to it than anybody else.
This installment has been a response to a bunch of negative ideas about Christianity. The next installment will focus more on positive traits of the church that I find very appealing.
The Whole Series
- My Long and Winding Road to Catholicism – Part 1
- My Long and Winding Road to Catholicism – Part 2
- My Long and Winding Road to Catholicism – Part 3
- My Long and Winding Road to Catholicism – Part 4
- My Long and Winding Road to Catholicism – Part 5
- My Long and Winding Road to Catholicism – Part 6
- My Long and Winding Road to Catholicism – Part 7