Doctrine and the solidity of Catholicism

One thing that draws me to Catholicism is that it works and is built to last. I’ve mentioned the Tridentine mass as an example of something characteristically Catholic—whatever the state of affairs or your frame of mind, it works when you approach it. That’s a sign that it presents a sort of universal form of our relationship to God, and it’s the reason it’s lasted as long as it has and still hasn’t been effectively replaced by the New Mass. (It seems to me that as long as the Church retains the New Mass it will remain in crisis, but that’s a side comment.) Here are other examples:

  • Contraception. Sex is unruly, and to keep it sane and social it must be integrated with normal and productive human functioning. Let it go its own way and it goes mad. Sex is physical, we are physical, so the integration must be physical as well. It can’t just be a matter of having the right attitude since we can’t define the significance of our actions at will. Still, sex is not only physical and not only functional in a biological sense. So where do you draw the line?

    It seems to me the distinction the Church draws, between sexual acts that fail to produce new life because of some feature of the situation (the parties are too old, or sterile, or it’s the wrong time of the month) and those that fail to do so because of an intentional change by the parties in the act itself (contraception, coitus interruptus, whatever) is the right one. Even if modern thought finds something odd about the distinction between essential and accidental features of an act it’s the way people think about things and that makes it relevant to ethics. Abandoning the distinction separates sex decisively from its natural physical function and it loses all definition. In the last half-century or so we’ve seen the consequences—the act becomes whatever people make of it, and the only standard becomes consent. That’s not the way to happiness. Especially in basic matters like sex, cosmos is better than chaos.

  • Transubstantiation. Especially today, people want to claim that nothing is settled and everything can become something else depending on how we look at it. If the claim holds then reality can’t lay a glove on us, because we can always redefine things at will. That’s not the way to happiness either. We need a connection to reality, and to make contact with reality we need a religion that makes the connection between man and fundamental reality—God—in a decisive way that can’t be fudged. Transubstantiation does that—the wine and wafer become the body and blood of Christ and nothing but the body and blood of Christ. And they aren’t just something we talk about but something physical that we actually take and eat. To be a Catholic you must accept all that, which means that you must decisively reject, with your body as well as your mind, the view that we define our own reality by what we make of what we see. Transubstantiation is thus a permanently open window from the self-contained world that we would otherwise create for ourselves. It is a liberating doctrine.
  • The role of the Pope. I’m no fan of ecclesiastical centralization. I’ve always preferred the classical Chinese notion of a setup in which the top guy does nothing but sit on the throne with his face to the South, because if he were forced actually to do something it would be a sign that something has gone radically wrong, probably too far wrong to be put to rights. Still, as a practical matter in the course of 2,000 years a universal institution that deals with the most important issues has to have someone to have the final say now and then. Papal infallibility is a lot to swallow, but it seems clear that every other possibility is worse.

All these things I’ve mentioned as examples of how Catholicism is workable and lasting are things that it nails down and insists on as doctrine. So it seems to me that the tendency in recent years to accommodate to other ways of looking at things by becoming less insistent about things has made Catholicism less functional, less able to make its contribution to life, rather than more so. It’s been the very opposite of liberating. What’s liberating is to have a world that we can rely on.

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