Saint John Henry Newman

It’s rare that we get good news from the Church these days, so cherish it when it comes! Cardinal Newman, the great English convert of the 19th century, whose return to Rome sparked something of a Catholic renaissance in that noble, yet obstinate island kingdom, is now declared a Saint. 

Cardinal Newman is one of those writers whom I regard as something of a personal spiritual master – though alas, I haven’t read as much of him as I would like – along with St. Francis de Sales, Dietriech von Hildebrand, and Professor Tolkien. What I mean is that his approach to spirituality, his understanding of the world, and his insights are of the kind that fit especially with my own personality and make the most sense to me. This, incidentally, is one of the glorious things about the Communion of Saints: there are so many and they are all so unique that if one doesn’t make an appeal to you, there are always others who will. The transforming power of Christ can be expressed through an infinity of personalities; in one it leads to the recklessly joyful abandon of a St. Francis, in another the intense focus and genius of a St. Thomas, and in still another the energy and regal authority of a St. Lewis.

St. John Henry Newman (not to be confused – though I’m sure he will be – with St. John Neuman, Bishop of Philadelphia) was more of the St. Thomas school; a crushingly brilliant scholar and masterful writer, he found his way into the Church through careful study of the early fathers and church history, along with his perceptive understanding of the flaws in Anglicanism and Protestantism. The account of this journey he laid down in his masterful autobiography Apologia pro Vita Sua, then later presented a fictionalized account of his experience in Loss and Gain: the Story of a Soul, both of which I have read and highly recommend, not only for their spiritual and theological insights, but also for the beautiful portrait of a now lost world of manners, intellect, and peace: the world of the middle and upper class England of the early-to-mid 19th century. Newman was as much a part of that world as St. Thomas was of the Medieval, and his example and ideas of gentlemanly behavior are, perhaps, as important a witness as any other to us today.

Loss and Gain mostly amounts to intelligent young Englishmen sitting around holding intellectual discussions. For me that’s enough to make it interesting, but I suppose it’s an acquired taste (though there is a very funny scene near the end where the hero is besieged by advocates for fashionable new religious communions, apparently figuring that if he’s considering Rome he must be up for grabs). Apologia is definitely worth reading both for the insight into his own life and for the brilliant argumentation on display (it was prompted by a slanderous attack by the Reverend Charles Kingsley, author of Westward Ho!, who was a virulent anti-Catholic and accused Newman of being secretly in the employ of the Roman Church all along. Seeing the Saint destroy his accusations is a delightful exercise in proper argumentation).

Alas, I’m not in a position to give a really good overview of St. John Henry Newman’s life or works: I’ve read (or listened to) several, but he is a great river and I can’t claim to have explored more than a few stretches. Suffice to say, he is an ornament to the Church, and his kind of clarity and intellectual insight are desperately needed today.

I shall let him have the final word:

“[T]here is no medium, in true philosophy, between Atheism and Catholicity, and…a perfectly consistent mind, under those circumstances in which it finds itself here below must embrace either the one or the other.”
-Apologia

Lead, kindly Light, amid th’ encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on;
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Lead Thou me on;
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.

I was not ever thus, nor prayed that Thou
Shouldst lead me on;
I loved to choose and see my path, but now
Lead Thou me on;
I loved the garish day, and spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will; remember not past years.

So long Thy pow’r has blest me, sure it still
Wilt lead me on,
O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till
The night is gone,
And with the morn those angel faces smile,
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile.

Ora pro nobis.

At the Everyman, Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus

The Everyman asked me to tackle the question of salvation outside the Church, following Bishop Barron’s infamous interview with Ben Shapiro. Fortunately, I’d just been reading up some on the subject.

This one’s probably gonna generate some controversy; if you have a comment, please either leave it at the ‘Everyman’ site, or under this post.

The reason for this is inherent in the Christian claim. Christ came to save mankind from his sins, and by His saving death and resurrection He has opened a path to Heaven for those who follow Him. Salvation, in other words, is the exception, not the rule; we are not naturally directed to heaven. “wide is the gate, and broad is the way that leadeth to destruction, and those who enter through it are many,” says the Lord (Matt. 7:13). Christ is not, as His Excellency said, the “privileged route” (whatever that means), He is the only route.

Our Lord is very clear on this: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6), “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me” (Matt. 10:37), “To as many as believed in Him, He gave power to become sons of God” (John 1:12) and so on.

Christians, amid the heresies and schisms of the first few centuries after Christ, taught from very early on that there was one Church, which alone was the Body of Christ on Earth. Membership in this body is an essential part of following Christ, and hence there is no salvation outside it.

This is a hard saying (though not quite so hard as it seems, as we’ll see), but as with many of the hard sayings of the Catholic Church, it ultimately comes down to the question of whether the Church is what she claims to be, namely, the Bride of Christ and His instrument upon Earth. If she is, then of course there can be no salvation outside of her, since there is no salvation apart from Christ.

Go here to read the rest.

Why I Am a Catholic:

compassion

The Reasons:

I am tempted to answer as Walker Percy did: what else is there? The alternatives all seem to me grossly inadequate. This is true speaking both philosophically and historically: that is, both the competing worldviews and the alternative explanations for the figure of Christ.

Philosophically, I have never heard any good atheist answers to the argument from contingency (everything in our experience derives its being from another source and cannot sustain itself, but if that were true of everything, nothing would exist, so a self-contained, eternal, uncreated being must exist), or a good explanation for human morality (why we have the experience of “I ought” and “I ought not”), or for the experience of beauty (why do such disparate things as music, a woman’s face, a mountain, an ocean, a bird, a poem, and the night sky affect us in much the same way), or for the universality of religious belief among the cultures of mankind. In short, any purely materialistic belief system must be false because it runs contrary to the experience of mankind.

Agnosticism, the belief that man cannot possibly know the truth about God, seems to me irrational. If man came from God, then there must be, however faint, a likeness or kinship between God and man, meaning that God can, to an extent, be known by man. If not, then the agnostic has to come up with a workable explanation both why not and why all the millions of people who claimed to know God throughout history, including many of its best and brightest, were mistaken, but the agnostic is not. To say that man cannot possibly know God or know the truth (which is more or less the same thing) seems to me to be an attempt at evasion rather than a real cogent position. Besides, there’s no reason to believe we can’t know something until it has been definitively proven that we don’t.

First, I believe in God. It seems to me that our experience both of the world and of human nature can’t possibly be explained absent the divine. Such difficulties as arise of positing that God exists and is good (i.e. the problem of evil) seem to me to be only problems of perspective; when dealing with something infinitely far above us, it will of course seem as if there are contradictions, but having good reason to believe in God’s existence and goodness on other grounds we can trust that these are illusory. The problem of evil, therefore, can be accepted as a problem that is accounted for by the premise, much as the lack of stellar parallaxes was accepted as a problem that was accounted for once Newton’s laws provided a workable context for Kepler’s model of the solar system. We admit the problem exists, but say that it is due to a lack of knowledge rather than being a serious contradiction.

I believe that Jesus Christ was and is the second person of the Trinity, the only begotten Son of God, true God and true Man, come to Earth to bring the forgiveness of sins to mankind. Like with God, I don’t see a cogent explanation for the figure of Christ that does not accept His claim to be God. The event of the Resurrection is the insurmountable obstacle; either it happened, or it didn’t. If it did, Christ is who He says He is. If it didn’t, then an explanation is needed for how and why the event was faked in a manner convincing enough to successfully bring about the conversion of the Roman Empire.

Moreover, the witness of the Saints and the Church seem to me conclusive: if Christ was a fake or fable, He’s the most successful and effective fake in human history. Lives are noticeably improved by following Him. His followers do great good for the people around them and humanity in general. The saints are striking examples of human excellence in all its forms and are admired even by atheists.

People sometimes talk as if it were easy to explain away Jesus as a simple preacher who was divinized by his ignorant and/or conniving followers. Such explanations are pathetically inadequate (not to mention transparently false to facts) to explain the Christian phenomenon. As far as I can see, the only explanation that covers all the facts is the one that Christianity itself proposes: that Jesus was the Son of God and that He founded the Church to be His instrument on Earth and to bring His Word to all nations. This explanation accounts not only for all the good the Church has done, but also all the evil, as the Church is explicitly an institution made up of fallen human beings in need of God’s mercy and nothing in the Christian religion claims that those who follow Christ will never sin, make mistakes, or act out of ignorance. The Christian view accounts for the whole of the observed facts, while the non-Christian view only accounts for part of them.

This brings me to the fact that, as a Catholic, I find I can account for pretty much everything that comes my way. Not that I can explain everything, but I can see how it could be explained without resorting to either flat denial or contradiction. From social conditions to historical events to scientific discoveries to ghost stories, I can more-or-less see how everything has its place in the Catholic worldview. Yes, science too: no matter how far down physics explores, below the electron and into the deep sub-atomic, it can never touch religious faith. No matter how minutely you examine the wall of a house, no matter how deep into the architecture and structure of the beams and nails that make it up, you are never going to seriously affect the question of the architect’s identity. Exploring the structure of God’s creation strikes me as a very wonderful thing to do, but I find the idea that, in so doing, you can somehow disprove God’s existence to be ridiculous.

As a side note, when it comes to evolution I reject the natural selection model as laughably inadequate (though it may account for some things: no one ever said there had to be only a single engine), but I think whatever does drive evolution will prove to be as ‘scientific’ as anything else (i.e. there will be a clear trail of physical events leading one to another). The question doesn’t affect my faith one way or another.

Thus far I have not found a single really concrete fact or truth which openly contradicts my faith. In addition, I find most modern objections to Christianity are moral rather than philosophical or historical (the only grounds I think Christianity can adequately be attacked). That is, people object to it on the grounds that Christian belief forbids certain practices that the modern world considers sacred rights (mostly related to sex). Even if I didn’t personally object to the practices being so guarded, there would still be the problem that to find a belief inconvenient to your lifestyle does not prove that it is false, only that if it is true, your lifestyle is an improper one. To reject a belief system for no other reason than because you want to violate it seems to me insane.

The fact that Catholicism demands that I often act contrary to my own desires and inclinations I hold to be one of the proofs of its validity. A belief system that doesn’t place any demands on me beyond what is already in my mind or which flatters my own desires looks very much like a mere justification on my part.

Now all this is a reason why I am Christian. Why am I a Roman Catholic?

Once one accepts Christianity as true, I don’t think there can be a really cogent reason for being Protestant. The Protestant system is too new, having emerged in the 1500s, largely on account of an intellectual lightweight named Martin Luther and a more rigorous, but equally irrational theologian named John Calvin. Its chief precepts have no basis in the writings of the early Church Fathers and its sola scriptura doctrine is itself ascriptural and illogical (if scripture alone is authoritative, by what authority was scripture defined?). Moreover, most Protestant churches lack the structural characteristics that the Church had even in Biblical times, indicating that they lack any kind of continuity with the Church of the Apostles.

Once Protestantism is rejected, there remain the Catholic, Orthodox, Coptic, and Anglican churches. Anglicanism is rejected at once both because of its shameful origins (a church that exists because a king wanted a divorce) and national character (by what possible reading of Scripture could a local monarch be given authority over the Church of Christ?). Perhaps it might have been possible to be Anglican when England ruled a quarter of the planet, lending a kind of universality to it, but even then it was obviously a national church. The Church of Christ must be a universal institution and can never be nationalized or subject to any human nation.

Of the three remaining, a similar problem emerges with the Copts and Orthodox; they are too localized and insular. Indeed, the Orthodox Church had its origins in a similar (though far less blatant) nationalist effort to the Anglican: the Emperor ruled from Constantinople, so Constantinople must be a great Holy See (though even so they remained in communion with Rome for many centuries, until some unfortunate incidents around the time of the Crusades). But in any case, neither the Orthodox nor the Copts have ever showed the kind of universality that the Romans have in sending missionaries to the far corners of the globe and exercising authority over Christians from innumerable different cultures. Though I would say that they both are branches of the true Church, just stubbornly independent ones.

Thus I think that, once one accepts the truth of God one must accept the truth of Christianity, and once one does that, one must be a Roman Catholic. I can conceive of one who is born into the faith remaining Orthodox or Coptic without contradiction, but other than that I can see no cogent reason for not being Catholic.

The Benefits

In addition to all of the above, the benefits of being Roman Catholic are, of course, excellent (as might be expected from the truth). The one I find most useful is that it shields you from the parochialism of modernity. In a field where one can profitably turn to advice written in the fifth, eighth, twelfth, or sixteenth century it is hard to conceive of the modern age as being the pinnacle of the human intellect it claims to be. The trap that so many contemporaries fall into of viewing our ancestors as either villains or children is eliminated for the faithful Catholic. The idea that, say, Richard Dawson is more intelligent than Augustine of Hippo or Thomas Aquinas simply because he happened to be born later is laughable.

The Catholic, assured that mankind is fallen and the world is a vale of tears, is typically defended against the lure of Utopia and the temptation to do anything and everything, however absurdly impractical, in an attempt to eliminate some great perennial evil. The idea of stealing from everyone to eliminate poverty, or of throwing away all weapons to eliminate war, is seen for the insanity it is. The answer to poverty is to give generously to the poor man and provide an opportunity for him to better himself. The answer to war is to win the one you’re fighting, show mercy to the conquered, and do your best to avert the next one. These things are not going to go away no matter what we do and attempts to eliminate them wholesale always have disastrous consequences (e.g. a concentrated effort by the world’s great powers to never have another war led directly to the most destructive war in human history).

Christianity is an incredibly open and varied religion. Barring sin, just about everything mankind can do can be turned to the glory of God. A Catholic can be a miner, a musician, a politician, a farmer, a soldier, a priest, a police officer, a writer, an artist, a businessman, a housewife, a beggar, an aristocrat, a scientist, a scholar, or a sailor without any kind of impediment to his faith. Every field of human endeavor is open to the Catholic as a means to give glory to God, and just about every one has done so. Every kind of personality can be turned to Christ, even very prickly and unpleasant ones (rudeness isn’t a sin). A Catholic can be irritable, blunt, and rude like, Hillare Belloc, or open, friendly, and charming like G.K. Chesterton. The Church accepts all kinds.

Because Christianity gives life a real end goal and some fairly straightforward criteria for meeting it: believe in Christ, receive the sacraments, confess your sins, forgive others, do your duty. Everything else is a matter of style. He who keeps the commandments can dispense with convention. As a Catholic I am far more free to be myself than I am as a millennial.

As a Catholic, I am free to apply the normal rules of skepticism, evidence, and belief to everything. For instance, I don’t have to accept the word of scientists as of gods because I know scientists are fallen men and that science itself is not the final word on reality. I can thumb my nose at the zeitgeist and declare that diversity is absurd, tolerance only a limited virtue, and that expecting someone not to have sex if they can’t handle the consequences is not a human rights violation. Once I have my faith in place, I am free to question everything, including the most cherished assumptions of the current age. That’s how I came to conclude that Imperialism was a legitimate form of foreign policy, that there is no fundamental difference between ‘homosexuality’ and any other form of temptation, and that the notion of equality is effectively meaningless when applied to human beings. These ideas run directly contrary to the surrounding culture, but because I know, through my faith, how limited that is I’m able to look beyond it and examine questions more (I hope) objectively.

So, the canard that religious dogma limits thought is almost the exact opposite of the truth: once religious dogma is in place, the mind has a scope to explore beyond the current climate of opinion and entertain ideas that would otherwise be unthinkable. Mere ‘open-mindedness’ only leads to conforming to ideas are in the air at the moment. Of all people the self-styled free-thinker is most a child of his own age.

A popular idea is that, freed from Christianity, one is freed from guilt. That’s not true. Freedom from Christianity allows a man to more effectively deaden his conscience to a particular beloved sin, but not to all. And if he does commit what he still regards as a sin, or if someone else does, then he finds that what he’s really been freed from is not guilt but forgiveness. The agonistic or the atheist has no mechanism to forgive the really sinful. He can excuse, but he can’t forgive. Hence the fanatical hatred of secularists, hedonists, communists, and so on for those they regard as evil. Their only recourse is to declare a sin not to be sinful, but that only takes you so far. As a Christian, I may count more things as being sinful than the average man, but I have a remedy for it. I can be unsparing in my assessment of myself because I know that anything I account as evil is not incurable or beyond forgiveness. In other words, a secularist can’t admit to being a bad person, because in his worldview there is no remedy for that. I can because I know Christ came to call sinners to repentance. Every time I go to Confession I wonder how non-Catholics can stand to live without it; I certainly couldn’t.

This, I think, is one of the things secularists really fail to understand; lacking a mechanism for forgiveness themselves, they assume that when a Christian says that something is sinful, they mean that a person who does this should be shunned and punished and destroyed (because that’s what the secularist thinks should happen). But the Christian thinks that a person who has sinned should repent and be forgiven, and that they will be much happier if they do. If I say homosexuality is sinful, I don’t mean that I hate and shun anyone who has committed that sin, only that I think they ought, for their own sakes, to repent and be forgiven for it. Christians don’t dismiss people as being unworthy of life or irredeemably evil: secularists do.

Catholicism is a wonderfully human religion. Surrounding the core, unchangeable dogmas is a whole wonderful palace of devotions, sacramentals, pious legends, history, folk practices, books, art, and so on. It gives you something to grab onto (literally), something to look at and enjoy while you praise God. It’s a religion that has weathered real life for two millennia and has the scuffs and scars of something that’s been used hard and endured. This isn’t something made up in a college classroom by ivory tower academics; it’s something that’s been out in the real world living, suffering, rejoicing, and fighting with real people for thousands of years. Its roots go all the way back to the beginning of recorded history with Abraham. It’s been tried and tested as thoroughly as any human institution or philosophy can be and has endured. In short, it works.

So, that’s the summary version of why I am Catholic. To summarize the summary, the reason I’m Catholic is because it’s true.