The Logic of Belief

I heard recently about a woman who went to an RCIA class who, upon being told that the Catholic Church taught abortion is wrong, promptly left, announcing: “I can’t believe the Church prohibits abortion.”  One suspects there are other, more fundamental teachings she likely couldn’t “believe” either.  Abortion is just the tip of the iceberg. Wait till she gets to the Resurrection of the Body.

One reaction to this story would be to argue that, if the Church’s insistence on opposing abortion alienates people, perhaps it would be better to de-emphasize that teaching since it is no longer in harmony with “the spirit of our age.”  If you run a store that sells a certain style of clothing, and no one likes that style anymore, you stop offering it. In business, you offer what attracts customers and avoid things that alienate them.

Except the Church isn’t a business.  That will seem laughably naive to some, but let’s just say, the Church, in its essence, is not a business.  And the laity are not “consumers,” buying a product.

Yes, the Church accepts money because the Church needs money to keep its operations going. But consider another institution that needs and accepts money: a school. What would we say about a school that said, “Kids don’t like math, so let’s just stop offering math”?  Don’t we assume the school has a responsibility to teach its students things they might not “like”?  Perhaps, then, we should admit the Church has an analogous responsibility: to teach and to do what is in the best interests of her members, even if they don’t always “like” it – and even if it doesn’t always make her “popular.”

But there is something deeper involved here as well because the Church’s opposition to abortion is based on divine revelation and the Church’s view of the human person as revealed in and through Jesus Christ.  Understood this way, to say, “I can’t believe what the Church teaches about abortion” is to say, “I can’t believe the Church’s teaching about the human person based on divine revelation.”  That’s fine, but then you’ve defined yourself as “not Catholic.”

If that seems too radical, consider the case of someone who says any of the following. “I can’t believe that the Church teaches: (a) that Jesus was (is) the Son of God Incarnate; and/or (b) that an Incarnate God could die; and/or (c) that Jesus rose bodily from the dead; and/or (d) that the faithful, after they die, also rise bodily from the dead.  Plenty of people throughout history haven’t been able to accept these teachings, but the Church has generally understood that it would make no sense to identify itself with “the Body of Christ” if it stopped insisting on these things.


What would these people be affirming if they recited the creed in which these things are explicitly affirmed?  Instead of saying “I believe. . .” they would have to, in all honesty, begin: “Some people used to believe. . . .”  To say, out loud, before God, and in front of a crowd of people, “I believe x,” when you don’t really believe “x” could hardly be considered honest.

What needs to be made clearer to people, therefore, is that the Church’s moral teachings are based on an understanding of the human person as revealed in and through the person of Jesus Christ.

For this reason, if a group were to claim, “We like Christ, but we think the body is evil, and only spirit liberated from the body is good,” the way the Manichees and other gnostic sects in the early Church did, then the Church would have to say (and did say), I’m sorry, but no.

So too, if someone says, “I like Christ, but I think a person can have recreational sex because that’s just something you do with your body, and the body is not bound up with your intentions or your true identity,” then the Church would also have to say no, explaining that the Incarnation reveals to us the intrinsic connection between the body and the soul.

Just as Christians can’t logically claim, “I love God but hate my neighbor,” so too they can’t logically claim, “I love God Incarnate but hate the flesh.” Or “I love the Risen Christ but reject the bodily resurrection.” These aren’t just other doctrines from which one can pick and choose; they are affirmations intrinsically connected to our faith in Jesus Christ who is the Incarnate Son of God and Risen Lord.

Just as the Church can’t simply de-emphasize her teaching against lying, even though plenty of people lie, or against hating one’s neighbor and meaningless fornication, even though plenty of people like doing those things, so too the Church can’t simply de-emphasize any of the teachings based on her understanding of the human person derived from God’s self-revelation in Christ.

Granted, the more the members of a culture are drawn to things that the Church is convinced are destructive of authentic human flourishing in preference to the things the Church believes are conducive to that flourishing, the harder it will be to convince them to be “Catholic.”  So too, the more devoted Nazis you have in a culture, the fewer actual Catholics you’ll have – that is, unless you falsify the Gospel to accept them.

But it does no one any good to lie about what the Church teaches or about the obligations and prohibitions that follow from accepting faith in Jesus Christ.  If a woman wants to kill unborn babies more than she wants to be Catholic, all one can say is, “I’m sorry. We love you.  But there’s no way we can let you say you accept the Catholic faith in Jesus Christ when clearly you don’t.  It’s a basic law of non-contradiction: you can’t affirm and deny the same thing at the same time.  That’s not a law we made up; it’s just basic logic.  And we must insist on that basic logic, otherwise, our words become empty, meaningless gibberish.”


*Image: The Resurrection, Cookham by Sir Stanley Spencer, 1924-7 [The Tate, London]

You may also enjoy:

Howard Kainz’ What Will We Do in Heaven?

Brad Miner’s Heavenly Bodies

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.