The St. Peter Principle: a review of Why I am a Catholic by Garry Wills
(Jeffrey Hart, August 12, 2002, National Review)
Edward Gibbon was a historian of staggering knowledge. When a new scholarly work appeared, he tells us, he took a stroll in his garden. He reviewed in his mind the subject of the book and what he already knew about it. Then he skipped those parts and read only the remainder, an approach that saved much time. For many books, he probably read only the table of contents.
That, of course, was Gibbon. Before opening Why I Am a Catholic, however, I decided to try that great man's approach: I organized in my own mind what I consider to be the established reasons for being a Catholic. I reduced them to four propositions:
1. The Catholic Church is the fullest expression of Christianity as rooted in the entire Bible from Genesis through the New Testament. Christian departures from Catholicism strike me as diminishments, Reformation amounting to subtraction.
2. An institution that has evolved over time, especially over a very long period of time, surviving many vicissitudes, enjoys a presumption of validity. It has lived with us. It is the result of experience and reflection, the latter by minds agreed to have been towering, as well as by the collective mind of millions. It deserves an overwhelming presumption in its favor as over against the prescriptions of individual idealists who, in comparison, are but the flies of a summer and whose visions possess either no actuality or no continuing existence. Jacques Maritain was right when he began his late masterpiece, The Peasant of the Garonne, by thanking God for the visible Church. Yes, thank God -- literally -- for the visible Church. I am even beginning to develop a fondness for the smell of candles, bad sculpture, and very dubious architecture.
3. The Creed is absolutely fundamental, as Mr. Wills masterfully explicates, and the institution of the papacy is necessary to protect the Creed from homemade opinions. The papacy guarantees the unity of the Church against what John Dryden characterized as a "downhill Reformation" into sects and schisms and eccentrically inspired individuals. As Matthew Arnold said, the Protestant principle is "individual judgment"; yet the vast majority of people cannot do the hard intellectual work that validates the analogical formulations of the Creed. As a result, unusual homemade religions proliferate.
4. That the Church has had imperfections should not be viewed as dispositive evidence against it. God writes straight with crooked lines; this is true throughout the stories recounted in the Bible, and -- as Garry Wills illustrates abundantly and very informatively -- it is equally true of the history of the papacy. Father Andrew Greeley was correct when he said that "If you can find a Church that is perfect, by all means join it; but realize that, when you do, it has ceased to be perfect."
If only it weren't for the sacraments...
Posted by Orrin Judd at November 1, 2002 10:27 PM
Yeah, I know exactly what you mean. I have way too much affection for the Catholic Church for a Jew: its one of the rocks upon which western civilization is founded; its survival over millenia is impressive; John Paul comes second to President Reagan in deserving credit for the fall of communism; and its theology is intricate, coherent and fascinating. Of course, the zealots, inquisitors and oppressive colonialists are a turn-off but I might even be able to get past them if it weren't for one flaw . . .
. . . and the superstitions. The distaste, or
worse, for sex. Etc.
I left the church when I was 15, when we
were taught that a saint (I forget which now)
had, as a mark of honor from God, started
floating around the altar during Mass, instead
of walking. I asked the teacher if we were
supposed to believe that literally, and she
I decline to worship a god who is so silly.
Much later, I realized that my real objection
to the church stemmed from something else,
the teaching that religious vocations were a
superior state, that if weren't given the grace
for that, that we could fall back on marriage
and family. I was fond of my parents and
objected to second-class status for them.
That was me as an ignorant teenager. I am
less ignorant now than I was then and
consequently have many, many more reasons
to object to Catholicism or any other form of
Christianity. They can be summed up, though,
that no self-respecting person would worship
the god described in the Bible -- any part of
Self-respect is the sin of pride.
Harry -- I'm sorry you were fed so much misinformation as a youngster. No Catholic has an obligation to believe in any miracle or private revelation, even ones authenticated by the Church. The Church does not teach that religious vocations are superior to lay ones; for those whom God calls to religious vocations they're superior, and for those called to lay vocations the latter are superior.
Perhaps you are giving the views of other human beings too much weight in your decisions about God? In this world we see as through a glass, darkly; no one has a perfect grasp of the truth; you must be both skeptic and synthesizer and reach the truth yourself. The Church has also been engaged, socially, in this synthetic act for two thousand years. Why not let the best teachings of the Church, rather than the worst teachings of individual church members, be the ones you engage intellectually?
Because I'm an atheist. And I got there by
the method you propose.
The concept that what I was taught by
priests and bishops was not from the church
sounds rather like the bleating of the
"Muslims" (I hate that word but Orrin is
so sensitive) that their scriptures and their
religious leaders do not describe their religion.
This is Neo-Platonism, which I also hold against
Anyhow, I had a very good Roman Catholic
education, thanks to the Bishop of Nashville
who said that Catholic parents who did not
send their children to Catholic schools were
guilty of mortal sin. Talk about marketing
Religion is what religious people do.