|photo by Brian Lam|
The Catholic Faith is a house of cards.
Anyone who doesn't see how precariously it is arranged is not looking at it closely enough. In Book II Chapter 7 of The Fellowship of the Ring , Galadriel says to the heroes, “The quest stands upon the edge of a knife.” If they stray even a little from the path, their mission will fail. The very existence of the Catholic Church stands on a precipice so thin that it is literally miraculous that it hasn't all come crumbling down.
Why does the Catholic Church find itself in such a dangerous situation? It is because of its doctrines. I'm talking about those things that the Church says must be believed in the area of faith and morals. I'm not talking about uncertain things like if all dogs go to heaven. Nor am I talking about positions the Church proposes in the areas of science, politics, art, etc. We are confined only to faith and morals. And we are only talking about the definitive things. Human traditions are not a part of this. For example, priestly celibacy is almost universally mandatory, but the Pope could overturn this any time he wanted. He could say to himself, “I'm only 85. I can still get with the honeys!” We are not talking about these kinds of things, but only those things that the Church says are definitely true.
It is also important to understand a difference between the Catholic Church and most other groups and organizations. Most of us are registered as a part of one political party or another. But I would venture to say that very few people will accept every single part of their political party's platform. I've met Democrats who are pro-life and Republicans who are anti-death penalty. I was a registered member of the Star Wars Fan Club, but that didn't mean that I blindly accepted everything George Lucas had done with the series as perfect (though I am a passionate defender of the prequels). I am a member of a family, but I don't do go along with everything the family says (of course Fredo Corleone maybe should have). We don't like to be labeled and boxed into corners.
Many of us try to do the same thing with our religion. I have met Catholics who are pro-choice or say they don't believe in hell. They apply the same principles of their other associations with their membership in the Catholic faith. Being Catholic is another aspect of their social identity, along with being a Democrat or a Rotarian or a Cleveland Sports fan (which indicates that this person is also a masochist). But herein lies the major problem: Being Catholic doesn't allow for this.
St. Augustine said that membership in the Church is determined by baptism. But St. Thomas Aquinas makes an important point about faith in The Summa Theologiae II-II.Q1.2. He makes clear that faith is an assent of the will to certain truths. In other words, having faith means claiming certain beliefs as being true. Being a Catholic means believing the truths of the Catholic faith. This means ALL of the truths of the Catholic faith.
Sometimes I will have a student ask if they can be a good Catholic and believe in X (insert here something that the Church has declared definitively incorrect like reincarnation, euthanasia, an only symbolic Eucharist, Mary not being Immaculately conceived etc.). My response is to say this:
“Ask me if I'm an atheist”
“Are you an atheist?” the student asks.
“Yes,” I reply. “Now ask me if I believe in God.”
“Do you believe in God?”
At this point they look at me sideways.
“What's the problem?” I ask.
“You can't say that,” they respond.
“Because atheists, by definition, don't believe in God.”
And what is it that Catholics, by definition, believe in?
Here is where things get dangerous. The list of beliefs that the Catholic Church holds to be true is not small. There are the common creeds that we recite at mass and baptisms, but there is much more. There are things that are popular such as unconditional love, salvation, eternal life, and guardian angels. There are also things that are not so popular including hell, the sanctity of unborn life, the prohibition on divorce and remarriage (without annulment), holding marriage to be only between 1 man and 1 woman, a general prohibition on the death penalty, a ban on all torture, condemnation of artificial birth control, and no women priests. Between these two lists, you cannot choose one and dump the other. Why not?
The essential beliefs are proposed to us by the authority of the Church. To be sure, since God is rational, there are logical supports for holding the doctrines. But the reason why we must believe them as Catholics is not because of some long philosophical debate but because the Church has presented them to us as true. For example, CS Lewis, who was not a Catholic, found many logical reasons for the belief in Purgatory. But the reason why must believe it is because the Church invokes its authority to tell us that the belief in the doctrine of Purgatory is true. Whenever the Catholic Church holds out to us something that they say must be believed, they do so based on the authority that they have. And by virtue of that authority we believe.
But if we say that we do not believe in this or that doctrine, it cannot leave the rest of the beliefs intact. When the Church teaches us that hell exists it appeals to its authority. If this belief is rejected, then that rejection implies that the Church's authority is wrong. Again, we're not talking about temporal policies or human traditions. We are talking about things that are essential. For example, John Paul II wrote in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis:
“Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church's divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church's faithful.”
John Paul II promulgated this teaching by invoking his authority. To reject this teaching is to reject the Church's Teaching Authority. But this authority is the basis of all the other Church doctrines. To borrow a metaphor from CS Lewis, rejecting any essential Church doctrine is like sawing off the branch of the tree that you are sitting on. It leaves you with nothing.
Let me put it another way. The Catholic Church says that it speaks for God. If it, when invoking this power, speaks something in error, then it is obvious that the Church cannot speak for God since God cannot make an error. Every time the Church proposes this or that doctrine, it sticks its neck out to the world. Each doctrine is carefully arranged and placed in the great order of the Catholic Faith. But if even 1 of these is removed, the whole Church falls apart. Take out a card and the whole house falls. Remove hell and heaven goes with it.
Going back to CS Lewis, he was someone who believed in several Catholic doctrines, like Purgatory, without himself being a Catholic. He never converted. A lot of ink has been spilled trying to explain why this was, but I once read Lewis make the point that the Catholic Church doesn't just give you a list of doctrines to accept and that's it. It also requires someone to pledge that they WILL believe any and all other new doctrines the Catholic Church might propose in the future. (I'm sorry but I cannot find the exact quote, but I will keep looking) In other words, being Catholic means trusting Church to never make essential error and that any definitive teaching that the Church presents must be true. This takes great faith, and Lewis could not bring himself to do it because he saw in the Church flawed men. Lewis saw that The Catholic Church is a house of cards, and though it may not have fallen yet, but because men are fallible, it will fall.
And here is the great miracle. It has not, nor ever will fall. The house may be a house of cards, but it is built on the Rock. Jesus said the Peter that he was to be the Rock on which He would build His Church. He gave Peter the keys to the kingdom. This does not imply that the popular image of Peter as standing before the pearly gates letting only those on the list inside, like he's the bouncer of Club Paradise. So what does it mean that Jesus gave him the keys?
Let's say King David needed to negotiate something with an approaching army but he could not leave Jerusalem. David would then take the keys to front gates of the city and give them to his ambassador. When the foreign king would see that the ambassador held the keys to the kingdom it meant that he spoke with the same authority as King David. Peter and his successors all the way to Pope Benedict VXI, speak with the authority of Christ. It is on the word of the Church's teaching authority that we believe that baptism washes away sin, that the bread and wine become Christ Our Lord, and that God is Love.
It all stands or falls on the things that the Church teaches as definitively true. If even a single one of those teachings is false, then none of the other teachings can stand. The Catholic Church stands on the edge of a knife. But only God can prevent it from falling down.
And that's the whole point.