Reflecting on Practice: The Catholics

I’ve been writing about some Catholics authors lately – people like Loisy and Blondel, and some of the documents and encyclicals issued by the Vatican – and I feel that in the interest of transparency, we should maybe stop to talk about my attitude towards Catholicism more broadly. I’m not Catholic myself, although as I’ve said many times now, I try to be as neutral as possible about different authors and religious traditions, so that regardless of your personal beliefs, you can still find some useful or valuable information on this site. You shouldn’t have to be religious or even share my beliefs to learn something interesting. Especially because – you know, when I was younger, I’d look around for things to read about Christianity, blogs or websites or whatever, and a lot of the stuff I found maintained very strict cultural boundaries. It sat within an established tradition, and the arguments and conclusions were essentially a form of cultural transmission. That is, you’d see Catholics saying ‘Here’s what Catholics believe, and here’s why we’re right to believe it (and why everybody else is wrong)’ – and every other denomination was doing the exact same thing. And that’s great for Catholics talking to other Catholics, Catholics looking to confirm each other in their beliefs and maybe develop their collective historical and theological understanding – and maybe some outsider is even converted by accident – but it’s all very much in-house conversations. It’s Catholics talking to other Catholics, or conservatives talking to conservatives, or whatever else it might be. Patheos is the worst offender on this front – if you’re not familiar, Patheos is a website pitched as the public square for religion. It’s a bunch of different voices and traditions all hosted within one website, and it segments its writers by denomination or, perhaps more pointedly, by political opinion. And you get what they’re trying to do, they’re trying for some interdenominational dialogue or whatever, but it’s a solution presented in the terms of the problem – it reinforces and solidifies the boundaries that it’s supposedly trying to transcend.

So when I write about Catholicism – or anything else – I try to be open-minded. I try and pass on the information from these different writers in as neutral a way as possible, so that you can learn and understand even if you don’t agree. I’m especially trying not to write gammy Protestant shit, where I line up every Catholic writer against my own Protestant norms and shake my finger every time they fail to measure up. I don’t really think that’s something I do – for instance, on a few different occasions, I’ve found Catholic arguments much more sympathetic and compelling than the Protestant counterparts. I argued that one of Luther’s core arguments about the Bible was just wrong and dumb, especially compared to the Catholic alternative. At the same time, the Catholics sometimes do dumb shit, and I am going to be frank about that. I think excommunication is gross. I think it’s a political tool wielded by a self-interested religious hierarchy that’s deeply invested in protecting its power. Those criticisms are gonna come out. But – even then, in fairness, I do try to offer some level of critique of most ideas. Even if I think something is a good idea, I still try to critique it. I look for edge cases and boundaries, the ways it can go wrong. Maybe there’s a little more bite in my criticisms of the Vatican, but you know – end of the day, Catholicism is worth learning about. They deserve our curiosity as much as anyone.

From that perspective, even though the structure of an article might not be that different, there are certain tensions that are maybe more noticeable. It’s worth thinking about how those manifest on a broader scale. In this case, a lot of the Catholic writers who I’m writing about have been censored or excommunicated by the church. Loisy was obviously excommunicated, and some of the upcoming figures – Henri de Lubac, Yves Congar – had texts banned or were barred from publishing. Even Karl Rahner – I don’t think he had anything banned, but he wasn’t allowed to publish without explicit permission from the Vatican. They’re all Catholics, all major Catholic thinkers, and yet all of them fell under a level of opprobrium and hostility from the Vatican. Each of them speaks to a gap between the authority of the central hierarchy and the life and thought of the body of believers. They were condemned or punished, but they’re still Catholics. They still warrant the name – even Loisy, who was excommunicated, was writing at the time as a Catholic thinker. His work still bears that label. And – you know, it’s not like I’m running a rogues gallery. All of those guys went on to have significant roles in shaping the Catholic faith. It’ll just be something to keep in mind going forward – none of this stuff exists in a political vacuum. The texts don’t, and I don’t either. I’ll still try and be relatively neutral, but it’s charged stuff – we have to be aware of the stakes, of the pressures and points of conflict. They’ve always existed, but maybe now they’re a little sharper, a little more obvious. I feel like I’m doing my due diligence, and being open and transparent about the situation – I’m probably going to slag the Vatican for being shit – but I’m also going to try and engage with these different writers on their own terms. They deserve our curiosity, even if not our allegiance.

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