The ties that bind us to the Catholic Church
Western People 7.09.2021
James Joyce, probably Ireland’s most lauded novelist, famously rejected Catholicism, the religion of his youth. In the autobiographical, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the main character Stephen Dedalus (Joyce) explained his renunciation to a friend. The friend had suggested that Stephen, after rejecting Catholicism, might become a Protestant instead but Stephen replied, ‘I said I had lost the faith . . . but not that I had lost my self-respect’.
To interpret this exchange as a slur on Protestantism would be to miss the point entirely. Stephen’s intention was not to disparage Protestantism but to make the point that the faith he (Joyce) was raised in could never be supplanted. (If Joyce had been raised a Protestant, the presumed insult might be to Catholicism).
The writer, Anthony Burgess, a wandering Catholic, once put it very succinctly when he wrote: ‘We are faithful to the bread of our youth’.
I thought of Burgess and Joyce the other day when I read an interview with Boy George, once (and still) a pop star, and once a cradle Catholic who has converted to Buddhism. George, whose real name is O’Dowd, and who grew up in London with his Irish Catholic parents, explained that while he had opted for Buddhism, his Catholic culture would remain the heart-beat of his life.
What ‘self-respect’ means in this context, and what Stephen Dedalus (Joyce) meant, is that there comes a point in life in which we decide what makes most sense to us – how we can be faithful to our deepest selves?
It’s a question, I suspect, that many people in Ireland – especially Catholics – are asking themselves now: can I be faithful to the faith of my youth? Another way of putting it is: how can I reconcile the Catholic faith I grew up in with other values that I have come to accept as an adult?
Many of us went to schools with a marked Catholic ethos. We went to Mass every week. We made our First Communions and Confirmations. We served Mass. We accepted the broad outlines of a Catholic culture and now to jettison all of that seems to deny a reality that is part of the scaffolding that holds our lives together. It can seem a bridge too far. Not owning our Catholicism is a bit like a Mayo native cheering for Tyrone next Saturday.
While few Mayo people will be conflicted in who they support in Croke Park, many Irish Catholics are conflicted over the effective discarding of their faith. It’s a dilemma that many experience, that many resist confronting but that hangs around the neck of Catholic Ireland like a bad smell. Particularly, I think, when some ardent, well-meaning Catholics are telling them that they’re either a-la-carte Catholics or not really Catholics at all.
Recently, I came across an article in the New York Times written by Gary Gutting, a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. A committed Catholic, Gutting identified from his Catholic education three convictions that continue to sustain his attachment to Catholicism.
The first is the importance of knowing, to the extent that we can, the fundamental truth about human life – where it came from, what it’s meant for, how it should be lived.
The second was that this truth can in principle be supported and defended by human reasoning.
And the third was that Catholic philosophy and theology provide a fruitful context in the search for truth but only if they are combined with the best available wisdom in today’s world.
Gutting is not saying that the teachings of the Catholic Church provide the fundamental truth about human life. What he is saying is that Catholic teachings are ‘helpful’ for understanding the human condition.
It’s a key distinction because it encapsulates what we call ‘watching for the signs of the times’ – the importance of the Catholic Church recognizing the wisdom that comes from what we sometimes dismiss as ‘the secular world’. It is part of the lived reality of adult choice in today’s world.
Usually, in the past, convincing the young about Catholicism – what we call apologetics – tended to start with proofs for the existence of God. Then we moved to seeing the Church’s teachings as revealed by God and, finally, we pointed to the ethic of love that Jesus represents in the Scriptures.
Gary Gutting turns that movement upside down. First, focus on the love that Jesus represents; then look at the wisdom coming from the long history of the Church that helps to elucidate that love. And then accept that we can no more ‘prove’ God exists than anyone can prove God doesn’t exist.
Turning the old strategy upside down and starting with the love of Jesus makes sense to many Catholics today. What would Jesus say? is often the first question when Catholics ask in pondering dilemmas. What does the Church say? is the next question. And the resolution, if such there is, comes from asking whether what the Church says throws light on what Jesus says.
I’m aware that this may seem an overly simplistic view and that it‘s vulnerable to the objection that it’s not orthodox Catholicism and that it’s a diluted form of Catholicism that can end up justifying anything.
But I believe it fits, as a number of factors off-set the judgemental dismissal of very traditional Catholics of more liberal Catholics ‘not being at all Catholic’: (i) the Catholic Church now formally accepts the primacy of the individual conscience; (ii) the Church now rarely if ever excommunicates those who question or reinterpret church teaching; (iii) there are different views in the Catholic family on its central and particularly less central teachings and, (iv) there is a developing consensus that the best hope for the Church is the reform Pope Francis is leading and that (from the surveys) most Catholics seem to welcome.
Which is why Catholics today need to realise that they belong to the Catholic family, even if some Catholics take it on themselves to tell them they are not really Catholics at all.