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An angry Moralistic Therapeutic Deist decides he can make up his own religion, call it Roman Catholicism, and demand, via the pages of the Boston Globe, that everybody else join him in his self-deception. Excerpt from Charles Pierce’s piece:
And that structure existed not only in the opulence of the Vatican itself, but also in the minds of millions of Catholics, like myself. It still exists in the former. It has no influence in the latter, not for me, nor for many others like me. The institutional Catholic Church, for me, has no concrete form, no physical structure, no hierarchy except that of ideas. Even my attendance at Mass is largely contemplative, the priest presiding in a supervisory capacity, his authority dependent wholly on the primacy of my individual conscience. For it’s not really about celibacy, or female priests. It’s about the source of the authority exercised by a hierarchical priesthood based in Rome.
It is possible, I have come to realize, that I’ve grown up to become an anti-Catholic Catholic.
Well, at least he admits it. What he’s saying is that he’s someone who identifies as a Catholic but who hates the things that define Catholicism. He goes on to say that he remains a Catholic because “the Gospel matters.” Well, it matters to Protestants too; they have the Gospel without Catholic claims for authority. What Pierce has done is become Protestant without leaving the Catholic Church. Except Protestants, at least in theory, recognize an authority outside of themselves, namely, Scripture. Not Charles Pierce.
Here’s the stomp-my-feet-like-a-13-year-old-girl part:
As far as I’m concerned, it no longer has the moral authority to do it, because that moral authority no longer comes from ancient ceremony or historic tradition, but from the individual conscience of each individual Catholic. The Vatican can beg. It can plead. But it can no longer demand.
Which brings me to the most fundamental rule of my Catholicism – nobody gets to tell me that I’m not a Catholic.
Those of my fellow Catholics who remain loyal to the institutional structure of the Church don’t get to do so. People who talk glibly of “cafeteria Catholicism” don’t get to do so. People who seek to coin Catholic doctrine into political advantage – be they left or right – don’t get to do so. No priest gets to do so, and no bishop, either, and that especially means the bishop of Rome himself. No pope can tell me I’m not a Catholic.
Hey Charles — you’re not a Catholic! Man up and admit it. You are a Catholic by birth and cultural identification, but you have ceased to believe as Catholicism teaches. Why do you lack the courage to be what you are: a non-Catholic Christian? Catholicism is far more than a set of propositions, but it is at least a set of propositions to which one must assent to call oneself a Catholic. I am not a Catholic any longer, and I don’t call myself Catholic — even though I probably believe far more of what the Catholic Church teaches than Pierce does. If I called myself Catholic now, without qualifying it as “fallen-away”, I would be lying to myself. Look, I know it’s extremely painful to leave the Catholic Church. It was the most difficult thing I ever did in my life. But if one cannot believe, or one will not believe, why stay? I’m not talking about the Catholics who struggle with this or that aspect of the Church’s teaching. I was one of those Catholics too, and I suspect most Catholics are. That’s normal. I’m talking about people who stand there and say with pride, anger and defiance that they don’t believe this stuff anymore, but they want all the privileges of being able to call themselves Catholic.
Diogenes points out the bleeding obvious :
If the teaching authority of the Church is wholly dependent on my conscience, then the Church has no authority to teach on topics on which my conscience is not engaged. If I’ve never really given any thought to the monophysite controversy, then the Church has no right to teach on that question. Which means, naturally, that the Church can only teach me the things that I want to be taught.
That’s certainly a comfortable understanding of authority. But is it workable? Try transposing the same model of authority to other institutions. (“No, sergeant, I won’t come to attention. I don’t want you issuing any marching orders today.”) Nope; won’t work. It’s possible–indeed proper–to say that the claims of authority are limited by the demands of your conscience. But to say that authority is wholly dependent on your conscience is to say that there is no authority over you at all.
Again, I just don’t get people like Charles Pierce. What he argues is completely untenable. A Catholicism in which you have no obligation at all to believe what the Church authoritatively teaches, or to act as it prescribes, is not Catholicism at all. At all. It’s one thing to say that you struggle to accept this teaching of the church intellectually, or have trouble living that teaching out. Everyone does, even the saints. But it’s entirely another thing to say you don’t have to try, and that that’s okay, because you are your own pope. If you don’t believe this stuff, but like to come by the church for the music, or the camaraderie, okay, fine — that’s between you and your priest, and God. But to reject the Church’s authority entirely, as Pierce does, but to still call yourself a Catholic in good standing, is either hypocrisy, or insanity — the insanity of the solipsist.
But it’s the way of the world today. From Pierce’s piece:
“I think everybody does that, even if they know it or not,” says Ron DuBois, a former instructor at the Maryknoll Seminary and currently a trustee for the lay organization Voice of the Faithful, who lives in Braintree. “I have my own theology. I do have a doctorate in philosophy and I’ve done a lot of my own reading. I think it’s an ongoing process by anyone who really thinks, especially in our country, with our emphasis on political democracy and a tradition of questioning authority.”
I would guess that Ron DuBois is correct, and that most American Catholics are Moralistic Therapeutic Deists, making their own therapeutic religion up as they go along. Catholic evangelist, teacher and apologist Sherry Weddell says that what sociologist Christian Smith identifies as MTD in his study of American youth is exactly what she has found in talking to Catholic adults around the country. Shoot, most American Christians are. The idea that there should be any sort of connection between theory and practice is evaporating, and has evaporated. In the old days, when people rejected the authority of a church, they at least understood that ideas — and repudiating ideas — had consequences. Now they want it all, no matter how illogical or ignoble it is.
I have been asked to contribute an essay to a forthcoming collection predicting the future of American Christianity. I’m going to say as the Catholic Church is going, so are all our churches going: into the solipsism of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. And if you say there’s anything wrong with that, Charles Pierce is going to hold his breath until you give in. Hey, I understand why Pierce is furious at the institutional church. Who wouldn’t be? But you cannot reason your way from despising the bishops and the institution to deciding that you can believe whatever you want and call yourself Catholic. The thing is, people like me can stomp our feet and point out how ridiculous the Piercean position is. But the future belongs to the Pierces. Not for the long term, because there’s no there there in MTD Christianity, and if that’s all there is to it, most people would rather do as Europeans do, and stay at home on Sunday morning. But the incoherent, irrational thing that is MTD Christianity is the last gasp before the final decline of the thing.
“The latest Reformation is taking place in people’s minds,” Pierce writes. I don’t doubt him. Seriously, I don’t. The first Reformation was an attempt — tragic or heroic, depending on your point of view — by Christians who were fed up with the corruption of the institutional Church to purify Christianity. This Reformation, whether Reformers like Pierce realize it or not, will kill it. It is not a thing of the mind; it is a thing of the mindless.
UPDATE: One more thing. You may be wondering why this gets me so worked up. I’m not Catholic any longer, and besides, what business is it of mine what a writer in Boston thinks about the Catholic faith. I’ll tell you why. What Pierce professes and proclaims with pride is the great enemy of all Christianity in our day. If people come to believe what he believes, Catholicism is over. Christianity, in any meaningful sense, ends. His point of view on truth and authority destroys the possibility of knowing truth, as a Catholic or as anybody else. There is no truth, only opinion. It is a trap and a prison. He might believe it makes him free today, but if that sets him free, he has no grounds to tell the anti-Semite Catholic, the racist Catholic, and what have you, that there’s a thing wrong with their Catholicism, or that they are being untrue to the faith. Because he has already declared that the only authority they answer to is their own conscience. He believes in sentimental anarchy. We are fighting for the possibility of hard, but liberating, truth. That’s not nothing.