by Carl E. Olson | Catholic World Report blog
Sometimes you can be too clever. And then you starve.
"Catholics", observed G. K. Chesterton in The Thing: Why I Am a Catholic, "know the two or three transcendental truths on which they do agree; and take rather a pleasure in disagreeing on everything else."
But what happens when many, even most, Catholics stop believing in those two or three transcendental truths? Or, taking it even further, people question the meaning of nearly every word, to the point that words are like Twitter handles, health care policies, or the career of Justin Beiber: here today, gone tomorrow, what can we say?
Those thoughts crossed my mind while reading Peter Manseau's essay, "What It Means To Be a Catholic Now" (March 9th), in the New York Times. Manseau, who has a doctorate in religion from Georgetown, has written a couple of novels, as well as a book, Vows: The Story of a Priest, a Nun, and Their Son, the blurb for which offers this teaser: "His mother is a former nun; his father is a priest who never renounced his vows, but is considered a priest under suspension." It sounds messy, and so I'll probably not read it in my Sunday best. Whatever the case was with his parents, Manseau seems happily ambivalent about matters religious, and that ambivalence is on full parade in his Times essay:
Who is a Catholic? Is it a matter of baptism? Belief? Loyalty? Psychology? For some, the answer depends on tests of political purity. For others, who may no longer receive the sacraments but continue to identify with the faith, “once a Catholic, always Catholic” is not just a principle of canon law (semel catholicus, semper catholicus), but the diagnosis of a chronic condition.
For some, for others, for them, for Group A, for Group Z. One could play this game for quite a while, and some are happy to do so. Many who profess a sort of transcendent openmindedness like to point out that there is always someone who disagrees with this definition or that demarcation. Well, yes, but what do you mean by "disagrees"? Do they really disagree? What does it mean to "disagree"? Can we ever agree on what it is to "disagree"? And if we did, would we really be agreeing to agree about "disagree"?
The young Chesterton (fifteen year pior to becoming Catholic) stated, “An open mind is really a mark of foolishness, like an open mouth. Mouths and minds were made to shut; they were made to open only in order to shut.” At some point, we don't argue about whether or not the stuff on your plate is really food or "food" or something undefinable, otherwise we starve. (Not "starve", but really starve, whither away, and die. Period.) My only somewhat flippant point is that Manseau's essay exhibits this sort of sophistic silliness, as if he is trying to will into existence a reality so complicated that he will be freed of any duty to attend to reality. He writes:
The Catholic version of this conundrum is no less fraught. To begin with, there are dozens of ethnically and nationally affiliated Catholic churches, all of which make an equal claim on the title, though many have moved in and out of schism with Rome. This landscape is further complicated by proliferating independent churches that make elaborate claims to the lineage of spiritual authority known as apostolic succession, and ultra-devout lay societies that worry over orthodoxy like a freelance Inquisition.
And yet, oddly enough, if you ask a hundred people what the "Catholic Church" is, 98 of them will have an answer of some value, while the two others will be a straight-up madman chanting "We will rock you!" and a lesbian deconstructionist writing a dissertation on 18th-century vegan recipes for transgendered Norwegians.