Hannah and Papa J

Hannah and Papa J

Monday, June 29, 2015

The most difficult thing about being a Catholic

Dear Hannah,

Throughout my life I've heard many people say I don't know what it feels like to be black in America.  Aside from the fact that nobody has ever proposed the opposite, that black people have no idea how it feels to be white in America, what I have never heard anyone say is that I don't know how it feels to be Catholic.  I admit I don't know how it feels to be Catholic because I am not a Catholic; but I imagine that if I was, right now would be a difficult time to be one.  And this is because you never really can be too sure what Papa Francesco is going to say next.

This leads me to believe that one of the most difficult things about Catholicism has got to be being obedient to the Catholic Church.  It's only fair to disagree that it's the most disagreeable church to belong to; and if uncertainty about Papa Francesco is an issue, Catholics can take heart that Mormonism has undergone several suspicious (but agreeable) changes since its inception, and nearly every Mormon -- excepting the FLDS -- has been forced on some level to accept them.  But the reason Mormons have been forced to accept them is the same reason the Catholic has been forced to accept Papal encyclicals: because the fundamental principle upon which the church is based is the authority of God Himself -- or, at the very least, the claim that the leadership is speaking for Him.

This places Catholics and Mormons in a very difficult position.  Unlike with most Protestant denominations, to deny the authority of the church is to deny the veracity of the religion: a moral disagreement -- a procedural disagreement -- a doctrinal disagreement means either a forfeiture of reason and of conscience, or a forfeiture of faith.  And most of us, if we have any respect for God Himself (or what we believe to be God Himself), are willing to admit that He exists beyond our understanding -- that our very conversions are a surprise, and if a surprise, then a testament to our ignorance.  Nothing, after all, could testify to our ignorance any more than saying I believe in something that I used to believe was nonsense.   And so many of us, being awed in the possibility of revelation, and being humbled in the recognition of our shortcomings, have been swindled by men too comfortable in their own understandings, and too certain of their own divinity.

And so we excuse the swindled and blame the swindler, but we have a much more difficult time excusing a bigoted hypocrite.  It's easier to pardon the man who embraces his religion with a bit of restraint, because a bit of his religion is always a bit of if and not is; and we appreciate that when he wavers in faith, he allows others to do the same out of sincerity.  But the man who attests without any reservation the veracity of his religion and asserts without any exceptions its authority must leap into the hands of his God wholeheartedly, or he must rebel against usurpers passionately.  What he cannot do is claim to take the whole and leave some in part, while simultaneously condemning others for their lack of sincerity.  It's almost enough to make us admire that American tribe mentioned by Montaigne (if I remember correctly), who took every prophecy seriously, but killed the prophet who prophesied falsely. 

And so when we consider that many prominent Republican Catholics openly disagree with the recent papal encyclical, we're forced in some measure to pity and to regret them.  We pity them because, not being Catholics ourselves, and thus refusing to recognize the divine authority of the Catholic church, we see conscience and reason struggling against an authority we already believe to be illegitimate.  And we regret them because they profess religious allegiance to someone they can't even consider an actual prophet, whose decrees they believe to be steeped in an error too-entirely-human

Our leftist Catholics were predictably elated.  The Republicans who'd arrogantly arrogated religion almost entirely to themselves, as almost belonging to their political party, have suddenly found the Christian religion more partially hostile.  But the leftist's elation, being consistently devoid of understanding, is due less to his success, and far more to his stupidity.  And this is because, if the Republican Catholic has a problem with the Pope over global warming and redistribution of wealth, the leftist has a problem with traditional marriage.  In other words, neither side believes the Pope entirely and both claim him mindlessly; and as a testament to our alternating acceptance of every religious principle except the one about honesty, everyone admits the hypocrisy of everyone else except himself.  But good sense and the light of reason suggest that if men are willing to profess their admiration of Christ's servant the Pope, that they would at least prove their admiration of Christ Himself, and look at the log in their own eye before pointing out the speck in another's.

My advice, as always concerning religion, is to take it seriously and do it right -- and if you can't do it with your whole heart, you ought to be upfront about the reason why.  If anyone is going to be a Catholic, he ought to be a damned good Catholic; and if he has a serious problem with the authority of the Pope, he ought to just admit what everyone else with common sense already knows.  And that is that if you want to be a Christian, but you believe God has given you the Bible and the Holy Spirit and the light of reason to figure things out for yourself, you should be honest and admit that you're actually a Protestant. 

Your father,


  1. Your analysis supposes that it is incumbent upon a Catholic to agree, or at least not to disagree, with whatever any papal encyclical says. Where do you get that supposition?

  2. I asked people whom I considered to be serious and informed Catholics whether papal encyclicals were something to be taken seriously.