No Man's Land?
On Easter Sunday, a headline on the New York Times's homepage read: "On Being Catholic." This was followed by a teaser: "Can reflective and honest intellectuals actually believe in the churchs teachings?" A Catholic might find the question mildly irritating, especially that incredulous "actually." But a Catholic might also find it enticing. After all, the headline itself suggests that the answer to the teaser's question will be some kind of yes.
Enticed, I clicked on the link and found a short essay by Gary Gutting, a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame (and a contributor to Commonweal). The essay is well worth reading—it is characteristically lucid and incisive—but it doesn't exactly answer the question put by the teaser.
Gutting argues persuasively that's it possible for a reflective and honest intellectual to be a certain kind of Catholic without shame or self-deception. This kind of Catholic believes some of the church's teachings but not others, and some of the ones he believes may require a bit of reinterpretation. This kind of Catholic finds his moral imagination directly captivated by the Church's "ethics of love," quite apart from the metaphysical claims that are supposed to support it. In fact, he or she may be agnostic about some or all of the Church's metaphysical claims, and may consider its historical claims, as related by Scripture, to be no more (and no less) than helpful parables reinforcing the ethics of love. According to Gutting's accommodating definition of Catholicism, one could presumably still be a Catholic while believing that the story of Christ's Resurrection is a parable. One could even remain a Catholic while claiming to be agnostic about the Trinity or, for that matter, the existence of God. (Gutting, who has thought a lot about agnosticism, would likely add that where there is certainty, no faith is required, and that where there is uncertainty, there is also a kind of agnosticism, even if it isn't always recognized as such.)
Gutting knows there are lots of people both inside and outside the Church who would say that what he is describing isn't really Catholicism. A reflective and honest intellectual outside the Church might ask Gutting, "If that's all you believe, why not just become a Unitarian and be done with it?" Gutting answers:
[T]he Catholic tradition of thought and practice is the only stance toward religion that, in William Jamess phrase, is a live option for me the only place I feel at home. Simply to renounce it would be...to lose my self-respect to deny part of my moral core.
And to the conservative Catholic who would ask Gutting the same question, he replies:
The faithful who attend Mass, receive the sacraments, send their children to Catholic schools and sometimes even teach theology include many who hold views similar to mine. Church leaders have in effect agreed that the right to follow ones conscience includes the right of dissident Catholics to remain members of the Church. They implicitly recognize the absurdity of the claim that a dissident who has been raised and educated in the Catholic Church and has maintained, with the Churchs implicit consent, a lifetime involvement in its life is not really a Catholic.
Of course, many people have left the Church precisely because they became agnostic about its metaphysical claims or could no longer read the gospel narratives the way Catholics have traditionally read them. Some of these people have backgrounds very similar to Gutting's: they were raised in Catholic families, attended Catholic schools. The Catholic faith had always been a basic part of their self-understanding, and the Catholic Church had always been their community. Did their decision to leave the Church necessarily involve a loss of self-respect? Surely such a person would say that, far from his having to accept a loss of self-respect, it was intellectual and moral self-respect that obliged him to leave the Church, to admit to himself and to others that he no longer believed what he had been taught to believe—and what others might reasonably assume he still believes if he continued to present himself as a Catholic. But maybe the likelihood of misunderstanding isn't the most important consideration here. Maybe it's more important to stand your ground, wherever it is, even if people on all sides are telling you it's no man's land.
Gutting makes it clear that he is speaking only for himself, but he also says that his essay is not "merely personal." He is trying to "to articulate a position that I expect many fellow Catholics will find congenial and that non-Catholics (even those who reject all religion) may recognize as an intellectually respectable stance." Fair enough. It's certainly true that Gutting's example is a good answer to someone like Daniel Dennett, who seems to believe that, while unbelievers like him are quite comfortable admitting doubt, those who go to church are either brittle zealots psychologically incapable of tolerating uncertainty or cryto-atheists psychologically incapable of making a clean break with such an important part of their past. Say what you will of Gutting's position, but if he isn't tolerant of uncertainty, it's hard to imagine who could be. Dennett would perhaps answer that he has no problem with Gutting's particular set of beliefs—only they aren't really religious. To which Gutting could simply reply that Dennett has no more authority to decide what counts as religion, or who as religious, than conservative Catholics have to decide who counts as "really" Catholic.
This leaves two questions. The first is the one put by the teaser I mentioned earlier: "Can reflective and honest intellectuals actually believe in the churchs teachings?" If not all of its teachings, then at least the ones that most people, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, would expect every Catholic to believe—in short, the creed. Gutting argues that it's both possible and honorable for a person who doesn't believe some of these things to call himself a Catholic. The harder question for manymay be whether it's possible for an orthodox Catholic to be a reflective and honest intellectual. I have little doubt that most readers of "The Stone" (the NYT's philosophy blog, where Gutting's essay appeared) would consider a man of Gutting's beliefs to be reflective and honest, if not right. I am much less sure they would afford the same respect to, say, the Times's own Ross Douthat.
As it happens, Douthat is a convert to Catholicism, which brings me to my second question. Whatever the strength of Gutting's argument for remaining a Catholic if that's the only religious tradition one has ever known, it does not appear to furnish an excuse, much less a reason, for becoming a Catholic. Borrowing a phrase from Charles Taylor, Gutting insists on the value of preserving respect for the "sources of the self," which in his own case include the Catholic theological tradition. I wonder whether he believes that someone from outside that tradition, who owes it no gratitude or loyalty and has been taught to understand himself without it, could ever have sufficient reason to join the actually existing Catholic Church.
About the Author
Matthew Boudway is an associate editor of Commonweal.