I had the rare opportunity yesterday to engage two acquaintances, of whom I am quite fond and for whom I have considerable respect, in conversation about issues surrounding – what shall we call it – theological conservatism. We began by discussing the Papacy and the possibility of Irenaeus’ list of pope’s being an a posteriori reconstruction, and I tried to set the whole conversation in what seem to me to be the most appropriate terms; I suggested that ultimately the claim that “Peter was not the first Pope” or that “there was no Pope in the beginning of Christianity, but that it was an office which existed later by convention” entailed logically the following proposition “that Catholicism is false.” I suggested that all good reasons to think that Catholicism is true act by extension as good reason to think that Peter was the first Pope, etc. It seems that both of my interlocutors were not so ready to follow this logic, and suggested instead that we ought not strive towards theological consistency with such violent tenacity. In other words, citing examples of Catholics who live with the contradictory tensions between their faith and their personal beliefs, they suggested that I also ought to consider admitting inconsistencies. This, as one might imagine, started a very long and enjoyable discussion about presuppositions and the commitment to consistency, and ultimately the commitment to orthodoxy. Both of these interlocutors were self identifying Catholics, but when I pressed (or rather was pressed and expressed) the point about consistency, both seemed compelled to unhappily admit that neither of them are ‘Catholic’ in the way which I intended to defined it (that one is a Catholic just in case one believes all, or else at least does not explicitly reject any, of the Catholic Church’s teachings). The conversation took us all into many areas, and it is, I think, unrealistic to think that I will be able to capture and convey the whole breadth and depth of the conversation in a simple short recapitulation. That, then, not being my intent, I will simply point out in passing one very provocative suggestion which was put to me in the midst of this exchange.
It was suggested at one point that the desire for consistency intellectually naturally leads to the desire to impose uniformity on or in the world. This itself being dangerous, the interesting objection was precisely that it is immoral in some degree to aim towards this consistency in the strictest intellectual sense, instead of living with the problem of contradiction. Often examples cited by way of analogy made appeal to ideologies which lay at the foundation of harsh dictatorships. The word fundamentalist, as I recall, was used, though I think that term is so pejorative and plastic (that is, it can mean just about anything or anyone, and it doesn’t imply much other than a poor character) that it is without practical utility.
I had made the point that I am academically animated by the same things which animate me as a person, and those just happen to include being Catholic; that is to say, having the conviction that Jesus Christ really is who he said he is (or at least really is who he is presented to be by the Catholic Church to the world), and that the Catholic Church is really truly his body. We discussed in light of that everything from scriptural inspiration and inerrancy to typology, to evolution and the relation of science and theology, to political history and ecclesiology. All in all the conversation was very worth having.
By way of further reflection, it occurred to me that, at bottom, I accept that I am animated by what G.K. Chesterton calls the “Romance of Orthodoxy” in his book “Orthodoxy.” In other words, that I am in love with the Truth, which I recognize to be perfectly represented in the Catholic Church by extension of its being reflected perfectly in the person of Jesus Christ. However, I felt as though the implication of the conversation for me may have just been that, since I was adopting rigid presuppositions and imposing them on the world, I was not genuinely engaging academia, let alone genuinely engaging the human experience.
In response, I thought about the Catechisms’ definition of the purity of heart, which includes sexual continence, sincere charity, and a love of truth or, by extension, love of orthodoxy.
The sixth beatitude proclaims, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” “Pure in heart” refers to those who have attuned their intellects and wills to the demands of God’s holiness, chiefly in three areas: charity; chastity or sexual rectitude; love of truth and orthodoxy of faith. There is a connection between purity of heart, of body, and of faith:
- The faithful must believe the articles of the Creed “so that by believing they may obey God, by obeying may live well, by living well may purify their hearts, and with pure hearts may understand what they believe.”
It seems to me that one can take this point about loving orthodoxy even without taking Catholicism to be true. Consider, for instance, that a Muslim who is in love with Islam is, in fact, engaging the human experience in such a way that they manifest a love of orthodoxy. They, like Christians, are enamoured with what they take to be the truth. In fact, if a person of that kind of genuine faith (and I cannot consider anything less to be genuine faith at all) were to come to the conviction that the religion they previously thought to be true, was in fact false, that person could no longer entertain the same joyful playful love of truth and orthodoxy. Thus, perhaps this can be taken as a point about the human experience and the way we engage it: If one fails to be animated by a love of orthodoxy and manifest genuine faith, then somehow (to that extent) they are failing to be adequately human at all. That is to say, without the love of orthodoxy one cannot realize the end of human life, which is sanctity. I think both my interlocutors would have agreed that the purpose of life was ultimately sanctity, but it seems very obvious to me that love of orthodoxy and commitment in genuine faith to what one dares to believe is the truth is naturally a necessary ingredient for the purity of heart. It seems to me obvious, of course, that this whole argument is predicated on the presupposition of a Theistic anthropology, but so be it; I see no reason to be uncomfortable with that at all, and my interlocutors would not have been either.