Catholicism and freedom of thought

A common objection to Catholicism is that it imprisons the mind by substituting authority and dogma for free thought and inquiry. The objection restates the modern rejection of revelation and tradition as authorities, and from that point of view is important and should be answered.

One response is that experience doesn’t support the claim that Catholicism is bad overall for intellectual achievement. “The West” is simply the countries that form, formed, or descend from Catholic Christendom, and for centuries it’s been the most culturally productive part of the world. And within the West, Protestant societies don’t out-produce Catholic ones. Further, the decline of Christianity in Christendom—post-French Revolution secularization and the expulsion of religion from public discussion after the ’60s—has gone with a radical decline in cultural achievement. (See Charles Murray on the sharp decline 1850 – 1950. To see the post-’60s situation just look around you.)

So overall Catholicism and Christianity have been favorable to achievement. Still, the relationship has been complex, so it’s worthwhile looking at the relation among thought, inquiry and Catholic dogma a bit more specifically:

  • First, note that we’re social, so thought and inquiry don’t make sense unless they’re located within some society or community, and every society or community rests on dogmas, authorities and final standards. The point of thought and discussion is to get an answer, and there can’t be an infinite chain of justifications, so there has to be some standard that is in fact final for what constitutes an answer. If “free thought and inquiry” are too free they won’t be able to reach conclusion and so won’t be thought or inquiry at all.
  • So “follow your heart” is as much a dogma as “follow the Pope.” But what standard is right? In a way, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. If you look at Catholicism and are convinced more and more that it is true to life and the world, and the answers it offers really are the right answers, then it becomes reasonable to think that the way it goes about finding answers is the right way. If the world comes into focus for you as the Catholic world, then Catholic authority and dogma come into focus not as external impositions on the free mind but as constituents of the way things are. Papal Infallibility and The Real Presence become no more intellectual burdens than mechanistic explanations or the germ theory of disease.
  • I should add that Catholic dogma subjects us to others and their will to power less than the alternatives, because it has to justify itself as an unchanging 2000-year-old faith equally binding on all, including our superiors. Its basic principles recognize that the formal authorities are subject to a higher authority that can act on its own, and that someone completely outside the formal structure of authority—Saint Francis for example—might be vastly superior to the formal authorities with regard to the knowledge that matters. In contrast, the great current competitor of Catholicism as promulgator of dogma, formal professional expertise, is the endlessly changing consensus of a particular small social class. The laity by definition are incapable of contributing to it or even discussing it in any interesting way, and just have to accept what they are told in the often quite manipulative form in which they are told it. Such a view, which lies at the basis of contemporary society and is inculcated by a huge bureaucracy of knowledge, is obviously incompatible with human dignity.
  • And finally, there’s always something taken as absolute. Simply as a practical matter, discussion can’t go on forever. You’re much more likely to have freedom if that thing has an institutional embodiment, so it becomes socially real, and the embodiment is essentially different from the state and understands itself as strictly limited by its subordination to the absolute it represents. An international church without direct political power and bound by dogmas understood as irreformable fits the description and it’s not clear what else would.

3 thoughts on “Catholicism and freedom of thought”

  1. . . . least of all . . .
    If intellectual achievement includes artistic achievement, consider Evelyn Waugh, writing in the late 1930s:

    “I believe that Art is a natural function of man; it so happens that most of the greatest art has appeared under systems of political tyranny, but I do not think it has a connection with any particular system, least of all with representative government, as nowadays in England, America and France it seems popular to believe . . . .”


    • It’s interesting to think abo
      It’s interesting to think about the relation among political forms, freedom of thought and great achievement:

      1. As Waugh suggests modern representative democracy doesn’t go with great achievement. It’s not clear it goes with freedom of thought either. Before Europe went social democratic visiting Europeans found America politically free and democratic but intellectually repressed and conformist.

      2. Is it really true that great art goes with tyranny? It’s hard for me to think of Classical Athens, Elizabethan England, or politically-fragmented late Medieval and Renaissance Italy as especially tyrannical societies. Tyranny of various sorts was an element of political life but I don’t think there was an effort to tyrannize everything or the means to do so. So there was a great deal of freedom as well.

      3. Freedom of thought like other forms of freedom can be defined in various ways. If you have a society with absolute freedom of thought, for example, I think it would probably show that institutions are in place to keep thought from ever affecting anything important. So would that be freedom of thought of a kind anyone would care about?

      Rem tene, verba sequentur.

      • I saw Charles Murray on c-Spa
        I saw Charles Murray on c-Span do a presentation on his book “Human Accomplishment,” and he inquired into the factors that contribute to great achievement. His answer included the usual suspects: a more or less orderly society, a community of scholars or artists (usually congregated in a city like Paris or Rome), a great deal of work, and finally (not one of the usual suspects) a sense of transcendence.

        He then contrasted the sense of transcendence that characterizes great work with modern day social science (of which he is a practitioner), and commented that without transcendence a discipline is likely to be “both trivial and false.”

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