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.