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That’s Why I Could Never Be a Catholic

by David Mills via Aleteia.org

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Note to my Protestant friends: When you begin an item with “This is why I could never be a Catholic,” you slightly undermine your point simply by saying it. It tells us that “Should I enter the Church?” is a question you feel you must answer —and answer definitively in public too. When someone assertively answers a question no one is asking, we suspect that he doth protest too much.

Perhaps he feels guilty about not entering the Church. I made such statements at the point my mind and heart were both beginning to push me toward the Church. The great Newman did as well. It’s not unusual. When you’re being drawn to what seems to be the edge of an abyss you dig in your heels and yell “Nooooooo!”

Now, maybe that’s unfair. The speaker may be the victim of aggressive Catholic friends, the kind whose response to hearing you have a terminal illness would be, “Great, now you can become a Catholic,” followed by “You’re going to be in enough pain when you die, don’t add more by dying a Protestant.” Catholics like this make you want to put up a sign saying “Leave Me Alone.” I understand that.

In either case, we’ll take your declaration as a compliment. No one starts random notes with “This is why I’m not a United Methodist,” much less “This is why I’m not a Unitarian.” They might start one with “This is why I’m not a Southern Baptist,” because the SBs share something of the Catholic Church’s weight and seriousness and cultural marginalization. Methodists, however, no. Unitarians really definitely no.

The real problem with this unintended compliment is what usually follows. The Catholic Church the writer won’t enter doesn’t exist. Before my Protestant friends object, I’m not saying that you don’t have reasons to remain Protestants. I’m saying that the kind of person who suddenly declares that he can’t enter the Church usually doesn’t have good ones, or at least that he doesn’t give them.

I think of an old friend’s recent “This is why I can’t ever be a Catholic” moment. He’s a very smart and unusually reflective man. He reads lots, including good Catholic works. He’s not even anti-Catholic. And his declaration that he could not become a Catholic was followed by this explanation. Although the pope

is supposedly infallible when speaking ex cathedra, Catholics are stuck having to defend the silly and false things the current pope says. Papists must get back aches twisting around trying to prove the pope didn’t mean what he said. To be a good Catholic one must be a hermeneutical gymnast, as when he said that even atheists can get to heaven by doing good deeds and gays have gifts to share with the church. Just dumb.

When I protested, my friend responded by insisting that the Catholic is “forced to defend dumb things the pope says — even when he isn’t speaking for the church.” He also added a criticism of the idea of the Magisterium that made a trainwreck of the argument, but that I’ll leave for another time.

You throw up your hands. A few minutes reading the Catholic press would show that Catholics of all sorts, including conservatives, have no trouble criticizing the pope. You will find very few aching backs. Search the web for “John Paul II Curran” or “Benedict Kueng” for other examples.

I should note, while I’m at it, that what people criticize as attempts to prove the pope didn’t mean what he said are almost always attempts to get people to listen to what the pope actually said, and not the major media’s misreporting of what he said, or else attempts to explain to people who don’t know the context or the terminology that a statement doesn’t mean what they think it means. This takes some care, but care is not twisting.

Of course, the Catholic will feel hesitant to criticize the Holy Father in public, as one would hesitate to criticize one’s own father in public. The Catholic will also first ask himself what the pope has to say to us that we need to hear, even if he said it badly. He will give the pope the benefit of the doubt. He will generally say, with regard to the Holy Father’s statements, “Who am I to judge?”

This is a disposition to authority my friend, a political and cultural conservative, would admire. And I think that if he weren’t talking about the Catholic Church he’d recognize it as such. Respect and deference are very different from being forced to twist yourself into knots trying to rewrite the pope’s statements. The people who might do that (were it needed) might do it from a natural sense of filial protectiveness, of the Church and her pope. That also my friend should admire.

Typically for this kind of statement, my friend is just wrong about the facts. The pope didn’t say that even atheists get to heaven by doing good deeds. Catholic Vote has a good explanation with links to others. He only said, quoting Brian Kelly, “there can be, and is, goodness, or natural virtue, outside the Church. And that Christ’s death on the Cross redeemed all men. He paid the price so that every man could come to God and be saved.”

And if he had said something like what my friend thought he’d said, he would have been saying only what the Church teaches in sections 846-848 of the Catechism. More to the point, given my friend’s allegiances, he would only have been saying what C. S. Lewis, a writer my friend admires, said at the end of The Last Battle, when Aslan explains why a warrior who had worshipped a false god was found in heaven (the passage is found here ). That’s not dumb, even if one disagrees with it. The Catholic wouldn’t need to twist himself into a pretzel to explain that idea, had the pope said it.

The Catholic Church isn’t that hard to understand. The Church herself has created a huge paper trail of authoritative documents designed to declare and to teach. Thousands of people have answered every possible question and their answers are only a google search away. There are some difficult questions, the senior seminar questions, but at the 101 and 201 level, and even at the 301 level for people as smart as my friend, the questions can be answered with just a little effort.

And yet very smart people I like and respect make a hash of the Church’s teachings and then use that confused account to justify their refusal to enter the Church. Serious people, people of integrity do this. They have lots of good reasons to reject the Church’s claims, given their beliefs, yet it’s often the bad ones they use when vexed into bursting out with “That’s why I’m not a Catholic.” It’s baffling.

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