Egopapism and the Arlington Five

The Catholic Diocese of Arlington, Virginia has recently drawn national attention because it has asked its catechists to sign a profession of faith that asserts that they believe the catechism that the Church has commissioned them to teach and are committed to the Church as the guardian and custodian of that faith.

In short, they are being asked to admit that they are Catholics and that they believe in Catholicism. This, apparently, is so controversial that five out of the 5,000 diocesan catechists (including parochial school teachers) have resigned over this request. Five, by the way, is the number of popes that have served the Church over my lifetime.

At least one of the five catechists, Kathleen Riley, who is 52, is, like me, a Catholic child of the 1970s (I am 51), which means that we were part of the first generation of Catholics who were spiritually and intellectually formed “in the spirit of Vatican II.”

There was, of course, nothing wrong with Vatican II; its deliverances were a natural development of prior Church teachings. The problem was with how these changes were implemented and understood by clergy and religious who had a different agenda in mind.

As I noted in my 2009 memoir, Return to Rome, the lack of theological seriousness that flowed from this agenda is what pushed me and many others into the arms of Evangelical Protestantism.

When I was in Catholic high school, to provide but one example, I took a mandatory religion class in which Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach was one of the required texts. This was fairly typical of the catechetical infidelity that dominated the era in many parishes and schools in the United States.

Instead of introducing us to great Catholic literature, we were given this sort of tripe (from Bach’s book): “We can lift ourselves out of ignorance, we can find ourselves as creatures of excellence and intelligence and skill. We can be free! We can learn to fly!”

That’s quite a descent from “for You have formed us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in You,” or even, more contemporaneously, “the modern critics of religious authority are like men who should attack the police without ever having heard of burglars.”

Ms. Riley is a computer scientist. Because she is trained in computer science, and is a professional in the field, she can speak authoritatively on matters concerning computer science. This is because computer science, like numerous other fields of study, is a knowledge tradition.

Over time that tradition, like all others, develops standard practices, ways of assimilating new discoveries and insights into already established understandings, and a hierarchy of expertise that grounds the authority of those in the profession.

Buy it. Read it. Teach it.

If, for example, a non-expert such as myself were to tell a computer science authority, such as Ms. Riley, that I feel in my heart of hearts that the operating system of the iMac on which I am writing this essay is “no different” than the most recent version of Microsoft Windows because it seems to me that they “do the same things,” I would suffer no injustice if she were to correct me.

If I were to complain that her correction violates my autonomy or “right to dissent,” she would, I hope, gently tell me that in fact she had contributed to my intellectual flourishing by imparting the truth to me.

She would insist that if I continue to harbor any doubts about the deliverances of computer science that there are established means by which I may voice my dissent and perhaps change the trajectory of the discipline.

I can, for example, submit articles to peer-reviewed publications and deliver papers at professional conferences. If the leading lights in the profession, its authorities so to speak, do not find my arguments compelling or too inconsistent with the body of knowledge that the profession considers nearly indisputable, then perhaps I should reconsider my dissent and begin to reflect on the possibility that the flaw lies with me rather than with the profession.

All that the Church is asking the Arlington Five is that they treat the Church’s theology and its development with as much respect and deference as Ms. Riley expects others to treat the knowledge tradition about which she is an expert.

Just as she and her peers correctly require those who dissent from the dominant understandings in computer science to offer their case within the confines of practices, an established body of knowledge, and methodological constraints that have developed over time for the good of the profession, the Church requires those who dissent to offer their case within the confines of practices, an established body of knowledge, and methodological constraints that have developed over time for the good of the Church.

So what are the Arlington Five’s arguments? How do they ground their dissent, and how is it consistent with, and a natural development of, the deliverances of the Church’s theological tradition?

To simply say – without any regard to argument, precedent, or established norms of theological engagement – that “the Holy Spirit gives us the responsibility to look into our own consciences,” as Ms. Riley asserts, is in fact to embrace an anti-intellectual and fundamentally irrational position.

The Arlington Five, like many American Catholics and Protestants, have assimilated a contemporary understanding of theology that is intrinsically hostile to the faith they claim to embrace. It is an understanding that sees theological beliefs as irreducibly personal, private, preference driven, and non-cognitive.

This is not intellectual freedom. It is solitary confinement in an egopapist prison.


Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy & Church-State Studies, Baylor University, and 2016-17 Visiting Professor of Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Among his many books is Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith (Cambridge University Press, 2015).