One of the hardest things in discussing Catholicism with most people, I find, is that they don't usually quite grasp the nature of Catholic belief. I don't mean that they do not know what Catholic doctrine is; that is also true, but is a separate and much simpler problem; I mean that the kind of belief Catholics espouse is unfamiliar to them -- whether in the sense of not having experienced it themselves, or of not expecting it of an institutional Church.
Honestly, by now, everybody expects you, guys.
Dorothy Sayers, who wrote a good deal (if half-incidentally) about Christian belief, ran into the same difficulty, and composed a short catechism indicating much of the problem. Take the following selections, for instance:
Q.: What is the doctrine of the Trinity?A.: "The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the whole thing incomprehensible." It's something put in by theologians to make it more difficult -- nothing to do with daily life or ethics.Q.: What is meant by the Atonement?A.: God wanted to damn everybody, but His vindictive sadism was sated by the crucifixion of His own Son, who was quite innocent, and, therefore, a particularly attractive victim. He now only damns people who don't follow Christ or who never heard of Him.Q.: What does the Church think of sex?A.: God made it necessary to the machinery of the world, and tolerates it, provided the parties (a) are married, and (b) get no pleasure out of it.Q.: What does the Church call sin?A.: Sex (otherwise than as excepted above); getting drunk; saying "damn"; murder, and cruelty to dumb animals; not going to church; most kinds of amusement. "Original sin" means that anything we enjoy doing is wrong.Q.: What is faith?A.: Resolutely shutting your eyes to scientific fact.I cannot help feeling that, as a statement of Christian orthodoxy, these replies are inadequate, if not misleading.*
I feel rather as Miss Sayers did, and, while the particularly American difficulties in the early twenty-first aren't exactly the same as those of Great Britain in the middle of the twentieth, they are closely related in both fact and genesis. It is a tragic irony that those nations which were thought to be, and in some ways were, beacons of Christian belief a hundred years ago, should have retained only the most degraded and nonsensical rags of what they once knew -- a more difficult prospect for evangelism than the merely unreached (which is why the dicastery for the New Evangelization was set up).
The difficulty is, people tend to think of Catholic theology, and Christian theology more generally, as a list of things one has to accept to be "part of the club." This misconception isn't helped at all by the massive number of Christians, Catholic and Protestant alike, who also believe it. Indeed, the contemporary debate between evangelical and mainline Protestants, and between traditionalist and progressive Catholics, takes place wholly within this sphere. Evangelicals and traditionalists, legitimately concerned with the meaning and identity of the "club," wish all of the regulations to remain entirely the same; while mainliners and progressives, legitimately concerned with the openness and catholicity of the "club," want the rules relaxed or even dispensed with to expedite the functionality, inclusivity, and retention rate of the club. Both are right in their way, and both are mistaken.**
The rightness of each lies in what it is trying to defend. Conservatives, so-called, are perfectly right to treasure the theology, ethics, and ritual that the Church has maintained for so long. Meanwhile liberals, so-called, are perfectly right to be concerned about the tendency of Christians to be mere sticks-in-the-mud over trivialities or licit cultural differences, and to scandalize those outside by prioritizing rightness over love. (There are other theological debates that cut across and inflame the divide, of course, but these need not detain us.)
Where both sides, and many outside the faith, go wrong is precisely in thinking of the Church as something like a club, and of Christian doctrine as the terms of membership. That isn't it at all. What the Church professes to have is not a list of rubber-stamped ideas, like a political platform or a manifesto; what the Church professes to have is revelation -- that is, personal contact with the Maker of the cosmos, and His own instructions on what reality is and what's to be done about it.
In other words, as a Catholic, I value the Church because she tells me facts I couldn't have found out for myself, and gives me tools for dealing with those facts; I'm not simply accepting anonymous verbal formulas, and insisting that human happiness consists in repeating those formulas after saying "I believe that". For example, part of the reason that I ultimately converted had to do with the Catholic spirituality of the Blessed Virgin Mary. I found, in my own heart, and throughout religious history, a need for a "Great Mother," a spiritually maternal power; this need was, naturally enough, filled in most pagan societies by the worship of goddesses like Isis, Cybele, Hera, or Shakti. But if man is in the image of God, I reasoned, then the basic needs and impulses of the human heart -- however contaminated by sin -- are essentially in accord with reality; they reflect something of reality, even if they do so imperfectly. Evil and the devil cannot create, they can only distort, so that this longing for a "Great Mother" was precisely a reflection of something real and good. Returning my gaze to Christian history, it was precisely the Catholic and Orthodox traditions that did justice to this need, and did so with the only plausible candidate, the Mother of God. I accepted this as a mystery because I had already accepted it as a fact, and I accepted it as a fact because I had discovered it as a fact.
A few writers -- Dorothy Sayers, Ronald Knox, Walker Percy, Flannery O'Connor, Charles Williams -- have succeeded in conveying this corrected approach to Christian belief. The Catholic Church teaches, not "Say such-and-such and you will be saved from hell, because for some reason God is a real stickler about saying such-and-such" but, "Reality is this kind of thing" -- and the necessary way of dealing reality is, therefore, built into its nature, not into any arbitrary divine fiat.***
This, incidentally, is one of the reasons that Catholicism can combine its adamant belief that it possesses the fullness of divine truth, with the thesis that those who are not professing Catholics can nevertheless be received into eternal fellowship with God. It isn't at all a matter of indifference to the truth. It's more like being able to climb a mountain without a map: it isn't a good idea exactly, and you'd do well to get a map and heed it, and if you deliberately go against a map you've got then you're going to hurt yourself; but it is, nonetheless, possible to reach the top without one. The Church's concern with truth -- from the great essential mysteries, like the Trinity and the Atonement, to the minutiae of imperfect contrition and the wording of the liturgy -- is wholly practical.
Now, the importance of any of this to a given person hinges on whether that person does, in fact, trust the Catholic Church. Plenty of people very naturally don't, for a multitude of reasons. However, I don't intend to argue the Church's trustworthiness in this series, not because the subject isn't important, but because I happen to be writing about something else at the moment. What I want to lay out is what the Church does, in point of fact, teach and believe. Her grounds for doing so I propose to leave aside, simply because doing both at once is probably beyond my powers, and has a tendency to muddy explanations. I may pick that thread up again later; we'll see. For the present, I want only to state what Catholic doctrine actually is, not in academic terms, but in terms of the reality that those academic terms were chosen to describe.
*Taken from Creed or Chaos?, "The Dogma Is the Drama," pp. 33-34. It is an outstanding collection of essays, and I warmly recommend it to everyone, particularly to inquirers into Christian beliefs, and to catechists and teachers of religion.
**Fortunately, I see round everyone and never make mistakes of any kind whatever.
***Especially since all the available evidence suggests that God drives a Toyota.
I'm not sorry.