Confessions of Faith and Reason

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Confessions of faith – or confessions of reasons for having faith – seem to be more and more common in recent times. A few weeks ago we had Daily Telegraph columnist and blogger, Tim Stanley, telling us “If you have to choose between being liberal and being Christian, choose Christian”, and going on to explain why.

More recently we had Ross Douthat, columnist with the New York Times, in the wake of hostile Catholic and pseudo Catholic reaction to his expressed concerns about the Synod of Bishops, feeling the need to explain to us “Why I am a Catholic”.

This is good. Catholics need clarity. These upfront declarations are giving us some of this clarity.

Stanley’s reflections were on the back of the revelations about ex-bishop Conry’s pitiable affair and subsequent fall, coupled with the then-approaching aforementioned synod on the family.

He observed the prevalent temptation to focus on the human, sometimes frail aspects of the Church and drew on the wisdom of a priest-blogger whom he admires greatly, Fr. Alexander Lucie-Smith, who urges us to do the opposite.

Fr. Lucie-Smith’s sentiments on the issue, Stanley observes, apply to all Christians (and Jews, and Muslims etc): while the secular world obsesses about political division within the Church, what really matters is the “theological reality” of its mission.

In this mission, the priest says, One needs to distinguish… between a group of people who are united sociologically (for want of a better word) and a group of people who are united in Christ, which is a theological reality. Unity in Christ is something we are always on the way to achieving, if we were not constantly impeded by our sins. Thus we should be in a constant state of repentance for our sins, in that they frustrate the unity that Christ prayed for and which He bequeathed us on Calvary.

Stanley adds: The Catholic Church will always have its troubles. The solution is prayer and putting one’s faith in the Holy Spirit.

The Reformation is, of course, he continued, a reminder of the fragility of the Church. The resilience of Catholicism in Britain today shows its ability to withstand anything – and grow from strength to strength. Its greatest threat is a general decline in belief (aided by the mistakes of clerics) and the emergence of a new anti-religious consensus that discourages commitment to the divine. But perhaps it’s best not to think of this as a crisis but as a challenge to believers. 

This was written in the same week that Louise Mensch made her confession of a conflicted faith in a moving piece in The Spectator about her own struggle to reconcile her private and spiritual life – and her deference to Catholic Church teachings on the sacraments of marriage and the Eucharist.

Stanley remarks on how difficult this is to do, and to talk openly about, in this liberal world in which we now cohabit with people embracing all sorts of heterodoxy. But do it we must – and if we are to be true to our beliefs about what really matters, we really only have one choice. He quotes Fr Lucie-Smith again:

If you have to choose between being liberal and being Catholic, choose Catholic… This is the true fault line: those who believe in the Body of Christ and our vocation to belong to it through baptism, and those who believe the Church needs to catch up with the world, and other such dreary clichés. St Paul had to put up with a lot of them, because he writes: “Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect” (Rom 12:2). 

Stanley concludes: Pray to have the strength not to conform but to be who you truly are. Which is a sinner saved by Grace.

Ross Douthat, for his part put his confession in this nutshell:

I am a Catholic for various contingent reasons (this is as true of converts as of anyone else), but on a conscious level it’s because I am a mostly-faithful Christian who is mostly convinced that Roman Catholicism is the expression of Christianity that has kept faith most fully with the early church and the words of Jesus of Nazareth himself.

That’s a pretty useful nutshell, although it doesn’t make any reference to the vital role of grace in that “because”.

He elaborated a little on the basis of a point made in a talk by Cardinal George Pell, – recently of Sydney and now of the Roman curia, — that the search for authority in Christianity began not with pre-emptive submission to an established hierarchy, but with early Christians who “wanted to know whether the teachings of their bishops and priests were in conformity with what Christ taught”.

This, Douthat said, is crucial to my own understanding of the reasons to be Catholic: I believe in papal authority, the value of the papal office, because I think that office has played a demonstrable role in maintaining the faith’s continuity, coherence and fidelity across two thousand years of human history. It’s that role and that record, complicated and checkered as it is, that makes the doctrine of papal infallibility plausible to me.

There is a wealth of ignorance about the Faith of the Catholic Church out there. The more conversations like this that we have the better chance there is that we will escape from this pit and will become Catholics who will be who they “truly are”. A source of that liberating truth is the Catechism of the Catholic Church, a source with the stamp of approval of that Magisterium in which the early Christians, and later Christians like Douthat, Stanley, Mensch et al, found and continue to find reassurance that what we believe is “what Christ taught”. Why would you choose anything else?

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