The rationale of a brittle Church

Why it may be good for the Church to be brittle

Bruce Charlton comments on the “brittleness” of the Catholic Church.

I feel that with the RCC it is all or nothing – to be viable it needs to be authoritarian, heavy-handed, and anti-individual; and any attempt to reform the undesirable aspects will just smash it.

I agree, although I used the word “fragility” instead.

I do think we should be careful in deciding what is and is not “desirable”.  Vulnerability is per se bad, of course.  Then again, falsifiability is a virtue in a belief system; we don’t want our theories to be “flexible”.  That the Catholic Church can hypothetically lose or sabotage its credibility is a testament to its current clarity.

A Catholic apologist could say that Christ wants the Church to have one particular teaching and to operate in one particular way and that He arranged things so that the Church will fall apart if either is modified.  An institution with more social capital, more sociological attractiveness, could presumably turn that capital to other purposes and still function.  I’ve said before that it is a credit to Christianity that it dies so quickly when it is liberalized.  That the universities have–at least on the surface–prospered so well under political correctness says something uncomplimentary about academia’s real driving force, or that of we its denizens.

Lastly, we could entertain the possibility that the truth is not what we humans would prefer it to be, that popular belief systems have been “optimized” to human wishes to such a point that the truth, whose attractiveness is constrained in ways falsehoods’ are not, is quite unpalatable to modern men given the alternatives, and can only be imposed as dogma during our impressionable years.  Not that an authoritarian religion is particularly likely to be true, but rather that only an authoritarian religion might be true.  After all, Catholicism is predestination without assurance of salvation, moral rigor without the compensating pleasures of self-righteousness, being “deep in history” but always on the losing side, and who wants that?

Authoritarian spirituality

The Church’s authoritarian, “anti-individual” character (which I agree she has) is often taken to be the opposite of personal spirituality, but even the oppressed have their subjectivity, and we can consider that being subjected to an authoritarian Church fosters its own distinctive kind of spirituality.

The spiritual value of hierarchy has been elucidated in Matthew Levering’s Christ and the Catholic Priesthood, which I reviewed here.  To quote my summary,

Levering bases his position on the writings of Dionysius the Areopagite and Thomas Aquinas.  As he explains, the essence of hierarchy is “looking upward” — lower things ordered to higher things, and ultimately to God.  Its purpose is to communicate God’s gift of Himself to us through teaching the truths of salvation and (above all) through the sacraments.  The hierarchy is meant to mediate divine gifts to mankind.  Mankind’s role is fundamentally receptive, and a visible hierarchy makes this aspect of our relationship to God manifest.  Elected officials in a democracy represent the populace whose creatures they are, while a priest should represent Christ Whose gifts he passes on.  By manifesting our receptive role, hierarchy teaches us humility.  Of course, God could communicate grace to a soul without mediation, and sometimes does so, but working through humans provides an opportunity for us to share in the Trinitarian life of receiving and giving.

I would now add something to this, that there is a particular spiritual value for people like me in Vatican II clericalism.  Catholic intellectuals will often get the idea that they have “gifts” that they would like to put “at the service of the Church”.  The Church’s teachings are right, they think to themselves, but the arguments need work.  Surely, they think, God is calling me not just to be an ordinary Catholic but to save the Church from her enemies by doing what I do best–building systems, arguing, writing, mobilizing groups in the public sphere.  To such, the Vatican II Church teaches quietism.  No longer do we attempt to win the world through philosophy, apologetics, culture, or force of arms.  I am not particularly intelligent, but I have all the usual vices of the intellectual class.  What makes me most happy is discovery and argument, to find a new land and to see my enemies driven before me.  Prayer is boring; fighting temptation is tedious; the reflecting on how I usually end up succumbing to temptation is depressing; fasting makes me hungry.  How nice it would have been if God had wanted me to do something more exciting.

Such was my wretched vanity when I started blogging.  I would of course have admitted that God has no need of my services, but the Church has taught me more–that He has no use for such services. God has no use for any “intelligence”, any “creativity”, any “fighting spirit” I may imagine I have.  What God wants is for me to shut up and sing “Gather us in” like everybody else.  Why should I imagine that I am any different?  I have said before that the doctrine of the Church’s indefectibility is ennervating because it removes any sense that the Church’s continued existence is our responsibility.  And it is.  The Church stifles our initiative for our own good, because humility is the most difficult and painful virtue to learn.  I should not have written about things that are above me, and I should be grateful for a Church that ignores me when I do.

The crumbling manifest

In fact, it’s remarkable how little Catholicism has going for it, humanly speaking. Strictly speaking, there is no inertia in the social world.  Each Sunday, people have to decide to go to Mass.  While the churches are emptying at an astounding rate, the real marvel is that people keep coming at all.

I am aware of enormous amounts of effort, talent, and money aimed at making me believe in diversity, but no effort even in my parish to make be believe in Catholicism.  The propaganda this billion-strong religious body has produced is markedly inferior to propaganda I see to buy Geico auto insurance, and even the theory of evolution has more zealous evangelists.  Many have complained that the Catholic Church doesn’t “do” parish community like the evangelicals do.  Don’t expect to get to know the people in the pews next to you.  (We like to blame our priests, but this one is the laity’s fault, is it not?)  There are arguments in the Church’s favor, but you must search hard to find them.

The Church refuses to cater even to the uncommon tastes of the reactionary.  Her liturgy is informed by the tackier holdovers of the 1970s; the sense of engaging in something ancient or mysterious is discouraged as far as possible.  Catholics suffer low status from being “out of step with the modern world”, but those of more virile character who would like to pick a fight with the modern consensus or stand up for their tribe will find no encouragement.  Like conservatives more generally, Catholics seem to have a vocation as the caboose at the end of the train of Progress–forever despised, forever apologizing.

Not a pleasant arrangement.  We don’t get to be glorious victors or even romantic losers.  But God is not concerned with allowing us to live out such fantasies.  Perhaps it would not be good for us in an ultimate sense if we could, and He knows this.  We are to settle ourselves in the unglamorous role He has made for us and hopefully learn some humility.



17 thoughts on “The rationale of a brittle Church

  1. Pingback: The rationale of a brittle Church | Reaction Times

  2. Pingback: The rationale of a brittle Church | @the_arv

  3. God willing, I will soon be more boring still, and on my tombstone they will write “Here lies Bonald. He never had an original thought.”

  4. This is an interesting argument, but since an argument is precisely what it is, it may be more than a little self-defeating. In abjuring intellectualism, you’ve exhibited the intellectual’s characteristic monomania and taken a single idea too far. You have been given gifts that you might certainly abuse, but the parable of the talents suggests that burying those talents is not the way to escape the danger of abusing them. Never speaking is not the best cure for the habit of speaking out of turn. The best cure is learning to speak when there is “a call” for you to speak, and to hold your tongue when there is “no call” for you to speak.

    I agree that there is a danger that clever and witty Catholics may lampoon the Church because this is an easy way to exhibit their cleverness and wit. Criticism is very often the mask of pride. Since intelligence is a virtue, picking holes in things everyone else likes is a special sort of “virtue signaling.” But God didn’t give you a brain just to hold your ears apart. Pointing out that the Music Issue is full of dreck is not utterly different than pointing out that the toilet in the men’s room is full of you know what. You would never say “who am I to question the wisdom of a backed-up toilet!”

    I daresay I am a good deal more frivolous than you are, so these may sound like grooming tips from a pig, but I would say that you have used your talents wisely, and that you should continue to do so. You have the good fortune to be obscure, since this means there is little danger you will imagine your apologetics compensate for other vices and omissions. You are doing something important by the simple fact of your being, publicly, a successful academic physicist and a conservative Catholic. Satan would like young men to believe that this is an impossible combination.

    • Hi JMSmith. In fact, I think you’re a pretty good model of how a Catholic intellectual should operate. You write about things you know well and have researched. Your posts refer to underlying theological and philosophical issues, but you don’t presume to write a treatise on these. (If you did, I’m sure you’d do the proper research first.) I don’t recall you ever being as disrespectful to the pope as I’ve been.

      I’m afraid blogging does not encourage discipline in speaking only in turn. We all have lots of opinions that we know we have no business broadcasting. Throwing them out on a personal blog is fun, makes the blog more active, gains readers, makes the unimportant blogger feel important.

  5. The Good in its three aspects (the Truth, the Virtue and the Beauty) is fragile, because it is narrow. For each truth, there are one thousand lies (for example, the statement “Washington is the capital of America” produce lots of lies changing “Washington” for anything else). For each virtue, there are one thousand vices (for example, the behavior “I have sex only with my wife” produce lots of vices changing “I” or “my wife”). For each beautiful thing, there are one thousand ugly things (take the Mona Lisa and start changing figures or putting spots over it).

    • My comment was incomplete and then, I had urgent things to do. Since The Good is brittle, the Catholic Church is so. If a movement is very flexible, it means that it can thrive in a cesspool of lies, vices and ugliness (such as today’s world).

  6. What is the point of talking about the “authority” of the priesthood when as a practical matter they have no power to discipline anyone? They are just as much a slave of public opinion as your local assemblyman.

  7. “Catholics seem to have a vocation as the caboose at the end of the train of Progress–forever despised, forever apologizing.”
    This is due to the sheer incompetence of the people in charge. If you want to turn it into a mystical thing, I guess you can, but I’m skeptical.

  8. I can’t agree about the Catholic Church’s propaganda being inferior. It certainly hardly seems so to those of us who believe it in opposition to all the lies we are fed constantly from other sources. Catholic propaganda has the disadvantage of being true and beautiful, grave debilities in this modern world.

    • My more pious colleagues will tell you to pray and fast. They’re probably right, but I won’t say it because I remember how it used to grate on me. “We’re under attack. How is me being hungry going to accomplish anything?” I believe I fell prey to a subtle form of the urge to “change the world”. As I’ve written before, one should not try to change the world, because one will make it worse. My writings probably led more people away from the Church than toward it, if they had any effect at all, which is thankfully unlikely. Don’t change the world; let the world change you. There is a reason Christian morality is directed only at God and one’s neighbor. The neighbor is not all of humanity; the neighbor is the person at hand.

      • I think I mostly understand your point. It’s certainly true that most attempts to “make the world better” have achieved the opposite. Getting around the idea that you aren’t an exception to that is a major exercise in humility and patience.

        However it would seem to me like helping our neighbor is still a form of “changing the world”, even if a more modest way of doing so.

        But that also segways into “seek ye first the kingdom of heaven, THEN these good things will be added, unto thee.”
        Doing as we should anyway is the only way to fix things.

        Also, am I reading correctly, are you going to stop writing? That would be disappointing I only found you blog a few months ago.

      • I plan to stop writing about theology, to refrain from strongly criticizing the pope, and to be more discreet regarding my doubts about Thomism.


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