Thursday, March 31, 2011

Catholicism and sanity

There are not a hundred people in America who hate the Catholic Church. There are millions of people who hate what they wrongly believe to be the Catholic Church—which is, of course, quite a different thing.
Abp. Fulton J. Sheen

Last week, when I had that attack of writer’s block, my good friend Larry sent me an email reply. Here it is, in part:

… [Y]ou are attracting readership because you have strong spirit in your writing and you have passion for the subject matter. There is a lot going on in the world. “Scary wrath of God stuff”; maybe what your readers need is some comfort (perhaps a new perspective wouldn’t hurt you either). God is with us always; I am reminded of the poem “Footprints”. He carries us in our time of need. … Catholicism has been providing this confidence to parishioners for centuries. This is the one thing that sets it apart from other Christian ideals.

Larry does have a point. I did say, in reply, that there are two sides to the doctrinal coin; as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, God’s mercy is meaningless if we deny God’s justice. However, a steady diet of “scary wrath of God stuff” does tend to beat the joy out of anyone.

One point that Msgr. Charles Pope, Fr. Robert Barron and Fr. Bill Casey all make is that the better part of two generations of Catholics have been lost due to bad catechesis. But as Fr. Barron also says, the full story of human redemption is also lost, not just on Catholics but on the larger society as well; in Europe, both Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI have pretty much said that we have to start all over again, as if the year were 811 rather than 2011.

The very problem with presenting an attractive picture of Catholicism is in its depth and breadth: it’s like trying to present a huge mosaic one tile at a time. Especially in this electronic medium: I could spend the rest of my life writing 1,000-word essays on various aspects of Catholicism daily, but no single essay would do that aspect full justice while closing off all objections.

As immense as the task is, though, it’s one that vitally needs done. As Dr. Peter Kreeft argues, the loss of dogmatic Christian faith in our culture and the rise of irreligiousness, even atheism, is concurrent with a rise of despair: “Suicide among pre-adults has increased 5,000% since the ‘happy days’ of the ’50s. If suicide, especially among the coming generation, is not an index of crisis, nothing is.”

Why is this so? I think “Simian”, a secular humanist who pops up on Stacy Trasanco’s Accepting Abundance, can give us a clearer picture:

But does there have to be a philosophical reason why disasters happen?  Morality and purpose is a human construct that helps us to live as a coherent society.  To say that scientists cannot answer the philosophical question why is to ask a question to which there is no logical answer, nor need there be.  No higher entity controls the activity of tectonic plates.  It just happens because of the physical make-up of the Earth.  Nature is disinterested in the outcome.

Exactly. When the answer to “why” is “there is no answer, nor does there need to be an answer”, despair follows. Shit happens, and there’s not a damned thing you can do about it. The universe doesn’t give a rat’s ass about you; to create a purpose for your own life is to admit your life has no intrinsic purpose. Might as well eat a bullet as to go on schlepping through a meaningless, purposeless life.

Furthermore, the culture wars are largely about “our understanding of man and his relationship to truth and reality”, as Miami Abp. Thomas Wenski recently stated in a Miami Sun-Sentinel post. “One side … holds that anyone can essentially create his or her own reality. This side holds for a radical autonomy by which truth is determined not by the nature of things, but by one’s own individual will. The other side holds men and women are not self-creators, but creatures. Truth is not constructed, but received and thus must reflect the reality of things.”

Ironically, in his mendacious reply to Abp. Wenski, Brandon K. Thorp not only demonstrates the truth of Abp. Sheen’s famous comment but, as Tom Peters notes, also that self-created truth necessarily means a loss of contact with objective reality—the textbook definition of insanity.

The late, great “street-corner theologian” Frank Sheed wrote:

If we saw a coat hanging on a wall and did not realize that it was held there by a hook, we should not be living in the real world at all, but some fantastic world of our own in which coats defied the law of gravity and hung on the walls by their own power. … Seeing God everywhere and all things upheld by Him is not a matter of sanctity, but of plain sanity …. To overlook God’s presence is not simply to be irreligious; it is a kind of insanity, like overlooking anything else that is there.[1]

If there is comfort in Catholicism, it’s not simply in the “pie in the sky when you die” of Heaven, but in the inherent dignity and value it grants to us as children of God. There is a purpose to our lives; we do matter to Someone out there, enough that that Someone has reached out to us, given us a way to live, and even pitched his tent among us (Jn 1:14), entering the human story as no other god before or since.

That is where I believe I have to work from now on: not simply editorializing the madcap activities inside the asylum, but drawing pictures of what lies outside, showing them to the inmates, and inviting them to step outside with me.

[1] Sheed, Theology and Sanity (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), pp. 24-25.