I would not call myself a “good Catholic,” and if Pope Francis were to look into my case, he would find many flaws. I guess this because I’ve heard what he has to say about similar people. Nor am I sure of my judgment about him. He has spoken many novelties, and given many “surprises.” Yet for all I know, there is within him the most unchallengeable faith, though it may outwardly appear as heterodoxy.
But here is the biggest surprise. Orthodoxy and tradition are themselves sustained by habits of the spirit that we can’t understand. We judge a man’s beliefs unfairly, when we imagine that he is just like us.
Perhaps my own most cranky opinion is that all Catholics, and beyond them all religious persons of all creeds, are heretics.
This would be the inevitable consequence of trying to think as God thinks, in terms that by nature and supernature are not God’s speech, and cannot be.
Anyone who, for instance, has ever tried to translate merely human poetry into another language – say, into English – will have discovered the impossibility in this.
We may make one flight of poetry into another – rarely. But in this case, we are translating from something that lies beyond the reach of any translator. We may communicate the sense of the original, except, we touch only one moment in a kaleidoscopic whole.
What I may say for myself is that I don’t intend to be heterodox, or in any other way to mistake the truth. I am, with great difficulty, trying to convey true meaning, and when I can’t, at least some other form of truth.
This, in our human world and living, is the faith that is possible for us.
By contrast, the descent into politics promises a life of ease. When we are advancing, or even defying, environmental instructions, or synodal arrangements, or other questions of policy, we are dealing with simple things. Even a Marxist can get the principles of Marxism right, and much other political philosophy besides. His only task is to be objective; and I’ve seen fairly radical university professors accomplish this.
But I’m approaching the reasonable at its most glib. Two and three make five, and we can know that. Property can be owned by an individual, a corporation, or the state. The penalty for murder may be hanging or a military medal, but whichever, the perpetrator generally knows what’s coming. Justice, for him, will be getting the reward he was promised. His victim might have expected the same.
The moral law was given to us, in Catholicism and in other religions, in neat, trim political terms. You do this, you get that, in this world, by the Lord’s Commandment, except, the legal conclusion isn’t the Lord’s.
In my view, Christianity alone presents moral error not as something relative, as who did it to whom, but as finally mysterious and unaccountable. There are circumstances in which something that is accepted as a grave crime, becomes suddenly the right thing to do. War and sometimes street life present puzzles like this.
Politics is the modest equivalent of war. It invites, in its nature, a kind of moral corruption in which what should never be done to another without cause, is given an arbitrary cause. The politician may argue that he did something in order to improve the economy, or hasten success, to be on the right side of history; whatever.
The rules for personal goodness do not apply when politics comes into play. The chance of being fair usually does not exist, for it will slow the advancement of progress. The clearest moral laws will come into question, when something can be gained by questioning them.
For instance, the traditional in all religious outlooks still think not only that marriages should be performed exclusively between men and women, and normally between one of each, but that there ARE men and women, from birth, as it were. To doubt this is to slide the world into chaos, and overturn many long-settled things: a fanatical act.
I still instinctively trust Jesus Christ, and look beyond him for detail to the Scripture, to the Fathers of the Church, to the scholastics and contemplative poets and philosophers, for indications of what my religion commands. I have always been a little skeptical of bishops, and other Church officials when they state opinions that are more an expression of political fashion than of religious authority.
My religion trumps my politics, therefore.
This outlook cannot change very much, over time, and has not changed fundamentally over the historical time of the Church; it gives me some confidence. It is a view of the world that can be reconstructed, and has been reconstructed after history’s disasters.
Sin has ever been a controversial topic, and indeed when drawing any line against evil, one is sure to excite opposition from those practicing the evil.
For in religion, as in science, there are many truths about the cosmos that we cannot see, and will not be able to see in this life. We are left with metaphorical descriptions. The Bible itself must, in many passages, be read il-literally. An intelligent reader will guess what they are and, as he matures, guess more correctly.
And he will be suspicious of politics, of the methods of politics and the limitations of political judgment, inside the Church or out. He will not be willing to make politics the ground for his judgments of good and evil, nor allow politics to tell him “what must be done.” Some degree of human judgment is generally necessary, to distinguish acts profoundly sane from acts profoundly insane, but the ability to distinguish goes beyond caste and creed.
For this is where politics – things concerning the polis – require religious tradition. A people, however many thousands or millions are considered as a group, must seek the protection of God in this way.
*Image: The Tribute Money by Bernardo Strozzi, c. 1630-35 [Museum of Fine Arts Budapest]
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John Horvat II’s Imagining a Heretical President
W.H. Auden’s The Fall of Rome