Monday, February 19, 2007

Why I Am A Catholic

In my Blogger profile and elsewhere on the Net, I call myself "a husband, a Dad, a pro-life geek, and a Catholic" — today I'll post a bit on that last term. Hint: if you don't like long blog articles with copious quotes, skip this one. Otherwise, settle in for a while and make yourself (un)comfortable, there's a bit of ground to cover.

Let me be clear about what I mean by "Catholic" — I belong to the Roman Catholic Church. I attend Mass every Sunday unless I'm ill, I occasionally serve as a lector, and I receive the Blessed Sacrament if I'm not in a state of mortal sin (for which I avail myself of the Sacrament of Penance). For those of you who don't understand what "Roman Catholic Church" means, the Wikipedia definition may serve as a useful starting point:
The Roman Catholic Church or Catholic Church ... is the Christian Church in full communion with the Bishop of Rome, currently Pope Benedict XVI. It traces its origins to the original Christian community founded by Jesus Christ and led by the Twelve Apostles, in particular Saint Peter. The Catholic Church is the largest Christian Church and the largest organized body of any world religion.[1] According to the Statistical Yearbook of the Church, the Church's worldwide recorded membership at the end of 2004 was 1,098,366,000 or approximately one in six of the world's population.[2]

So, it seems there's quite a few of us. Are we just a bunch of superstitious, anti-science rubes who worship with strange rituals and commit idolatry? Let's see. I'll start by introducing one of my Catholic heroes, Fr. Stanley Jaki:
The Reverend Father Professor Stanley L. Jaki OSB (b. Győr, Hungary 1924) is a Benedictine priest and Distinguished Professor of Physics at Seton Hall University, New Jersey since 1975. He is a leading thinker in philosophy of science, theology and on issues where the two disciplines meet and diverge. After completing undergraduate training in philosophy, theology and mathematics, Father Jaki did graduate work in theology and physics and holds doctorates in theology from the Pontifical Institute in Rome (1950), and in physics from Fordham University (1958). He also did post-doctoral research in Philosophy of Science at Stanford University, UC Berkeley, Princeton University and Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton. After post-doctoral research, Father Jaki was Gifford Lecturer at Edinburgh University (1974–76), Fremantle Lecturer at Balliol College, Oxford (1977), Hoyt Fellow at Yale University (1980) and Farmington Institute Lecturer at Oxford University (1988-1989). He was awarded the Templeton Prize for furthering understanding of science and religion in 1987.
Fr. Jaki wrote in The Origin of Science:
To the popular mind, science is completely inimical to religion: science embraces facts and evidence while religion professes blind faith. Like many simplistic popular notions, this view is mistaken. Modern science is not only compatible with Christianity, it in fact finds its origins in Christianity. This is not to say that the Bible is a science textbook that contains raw scientific truths, as some evangelical Christians would have us believe. The Christian faith contains deeper truths — truths with philosophical consequences that make conceivable the mind's exploration of nature: man's place in God's creation, who God is and how he freely created a cosmos.

In Christ and Science (p. 23), Jaki gives four reasons for modern science's unique birth in Christian Western Europe:

1. "Once more the Christian belief in the Creator allowed a break-through in thinking about nature. Only a truly transcendental Creator could be thought of as being powerful enough to create a nature with autonomous laws without his power over nature being thereby diminished. Once the basic among those laws were formulated science could develop on its own terms."

2. "The Christian idea of creation made still another crucially important contribution to the future of science. It consisted in putting all material beings on the same level as being mere creatures. Unlike in the pagan Greek cosmos, there could be no divine bodies in the Christian cosmos. All bodies, heavenly and terrestrial, were now on the same footing, on the same level. this made it eventually possible to assume that the motion of the moon and the fall of a body on earth could be governed by the same law of gravitation. The assumption would have been a sacrilege in the eyes of anyone in the Greek pantheistic tradition, or in any similar tradition in any of the ancient cultures."

3. "Finally, man figured in the Christian dogma of creation as a being specially created in the image of God. This image consisted both in man's rationality as somehow sharing in God's own rationality and in man's condition as an ethical being with eternal responsibility for his actions. Man's reflection on his own rationality had therefore to give him confidence that his created mind could fathom the rationality of the created realm."

4. "At the same time, the very createdness could caution man to guard agains the ever-present temptation to dictate to nature what it ought to be. The eventual rise of the experimental method owes much to that Christian matrix."
So, science as we know it became possible because of Christianity. But wait, there's more.

Fr. Jaki also writes in The Gist of Catholicism:
From the prolific use which Saint Augustine made of the word Catholic against the Donatists it should be enough to recall the following points. One is about the method which travelers should use in finding the right church. They are instructed to inquire about the church that carries the label catholic. Augustine would not have specified that method had the Arians succeeded in their effort to wrest the label “Catholic” from the orthodox. “Even the heretics,” wrote Augustine, “call catholic church only what is in fact a catholic church.”1 Augustine also explicitly states that “catholic” cannot exist in separation from “Roman.” He warned: “You should not believe that you teach catholic doctrine, unless you also teach that it is taught by the Roman Church as something to be believed.”2

Luther, in this connection too, revealed his defective reading of Augustine when he charged the papacy with the crime of buying with money the tie between Christian and Catholic. Further, it was not justified to keep referring to Augustine and at the same time brandishing the Bible as the sole source of truth. For Augustine had already stated a crucial point: It was about the unique, indispensable role of the Catholic Church, which for Augustine was inseparable from the Church of Rome, in vouching for the credibility of the Gospels.3 Present-day Evangelicals, who want even less ecclesial structure than the “mainstream” Protestants, may take note. Lutherans in particular may recall with profit, that it was one of their number, Adolph Harnack, who came to a conclusion which surely must have been a hard pill for them to swallow. According to Harnack the Christian Church was unmistakably Catholic already in the middle of the third century, showing distinct similarities with the modern Roman Catholic Church.
Meanwhile, Thomas Woods writes in How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization:
The Church also played an indispensable role in another essential development in Western civilization: the creation of the university. The university was an utterly new phenomenon in European history. Nothing like it had existed in ancient Greece or Rome. The institution that we recognize today, with its faculties, courses of study, examinations, and degrees, as well as the familiar distinction between undergraduate and graduate study, come to us directly from the medieval world. And it is no surprise that the Church should have done so much to foster the nascent university system, since the Church, according to historian Lowrie Daly, "was the only institution in Europe that showed consistent interest in the preservation and cultivation of knowledge."
So G. K. Chesterton wrote in Why I Am A Catholic (which inspired this blog post):
The Bible by itself cannot be a basis of agreement when it is a cause of disagreement; it cannot be the common ground of Christians when some take it allegorically and some literally. The Catholic refers it to something that can say something, to the living, consistent, and continuous mind of which I have spoken; the highest mind of man guided by God.

Every moment increases for us the moral necessity for such an immortal mind. We must have something that will hold the four corners of the world still, while we make our social experiments or build our Utopias. For instance, we must have a final agreement, if only on the truism of human brotherhood, that will resist some reaction of human brutality. Nothing is more likely just now than that the corruption of representative government will lead to the rich breaking loose altogether, and trampling on all the traditions of equality with mere pagan pride. We must have the truisms everywhere recognized as true. We must prevent mere reaction and the dreary repetition of the old mistakes. We must make the intellectual world safe for democracy. But in the conditions of modern mental anarchy, neither that nor any other ideal is safe. just as Protestants appealed from priests to the Bible, and did not realize that the Bible also could be questioned, so republicans appealed from kings to the people, and did not realize that the people also could be defied. There is no end to the dissolution of ideas, the destruction of all tests of truth, that has become possible since men abandoned the attempt to keep a central and civilized Truth, to contain all truths and trace out and refute all errors. Since then, each group has taken one truth at a time and spent the time in turning it into a falsehood. We have had nothing but movements; or in other words, monomanias. But the Church is not a movement but a meeting-place; the trysting-place of all the truths in the world.
This "trysting-place of all the truths in the world" is rife with scandal, corruption, and venality — as much a Church for sinners (even the former abortionist Bernard Nathanson) as it is for Saints. If you're so inclined, you can read Nathanson's conversion story. Now, if the Catholic Church was merely a human invention, instead of the Church that Christ Himself founded, it should have long ago imploded from the gross iniquity of its members. But it has not only survived for over 2000 years, it's actually growing. And even if it might shrink in the future as its more nominal adherents fall away, it won't implode.

Here's an example of why:
During the 1990s, J. Budziszewski rose to prominence as one of the leading intellectual lights among Evangelical Christians in America. A political theorist with a special interest in the natural-law tradition, he was highly sought as a speaker at conferences organized by groups such as the InterVarsity Fellowship and Campus Crusade for Christ. A principal theme of his many talks to American campus groups is captured in the title of his 1999 book, How to Stay Christian in College.

For some Evangelical Protestants, then, it came as a jolt when, on Easter Sunday 2004, Budziszewski was received into the Catholic Church...


Some years ago, during a long conversation with a Catholic friend who knew of my attraction to the Church, I indulged in a bit of bellyaching. "I can’t call this an objection to Catholic doctrine," I said, "but you can’t deny the flat tonelessness of the language coming from some of the liturgical reforms. Besides, the Church puts up with forms of popular piety that are utterly inconsistent with its own teachings." My example was an urban Catholic church I knew that displayed the motto "MARY, SAVE US" in enormous letters. I said, "You know, I know, and the Church knows that Mary doesn’t save us. Mary points to her Son. Jesus saves us. So why is this tolerated?"

My friend leaned back and answered, "All of this is true. These are real problems. The Church knows about them. But in 200 years they’ll all be taken care of."

It was a preposterous reply, and on another evening, in another mood, I might have considered it glib. That evening, though, it struck me that my friend was viewing things from the perspective of the Church. As a Protestant, I realized that I had a much shorter timeline and that much of what I considered wisdom might actually be impatience. The mystery of the endurance of the Church through the centuries sank in a little deeper.
Certainly there are serious challenges to the growth of the Catholic Church: other Christian churches, Islam, the secularization of the industrialized world, and so on. But don't let growth rates fool you. The important thing to reflect on is: which Christian church can actually be traced right back to the Apostles? The same Church that decided which books belong in the Bible.

And if you note what date it is today, the year is 2007. According to the Gregorian calendar. Even the very basis for our 21st-century computer date calculations was formally established by the Catholic Church, almost five centuries ago. Fancy that.

This quote from G. K. Chesterton sums things up nicely:
The difficulty of explaining "why I am a Catholic" is that there are ten thousand reasons all amounting to one reason: that Catholicism is true. I could fill all my space with separate sentences each beginning with the words, "It is the only thing that . . ." As, for instance, (1) It is the only thing that really prevents a sin from being a secret. (2) It is the only thing in which the superior cannot be superior; in the sense of supercilious. (3) It is the only thing that frees a man from the degrading slavery of being a child of his age. (4) It is the only thing that talks as if it were the truth; as if it were a real messenger refusing to tamper with a real message. (5) It is the only type of Christianity that really contains every type of man; even the respectable man. (6) It is the only large attempt to change the world from the inside; working through wills and not laws; and so on.


Like many college-bound people, I went through an agnostic period in university — I never could quite manage becoming an atheist. After much reflection however, I understood the full import of what Ivan Karamazov (of Dostoevksi's The Brothers Karamazov) said: "If there is no God, everything is permitted." And that sent a chill through the core of my being. Thus began my journey back into the Church of my youth.

If you're interested in coming home, trust me — you're not alone.
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