Why I so often defend the Catholic Church

A dear friend I don’t see very much asked me how I felt personally about the abdication of Pope Benedict.

“What do you mean, personally?” I asked.

“Well, how’s your Catholicism?” she said.

She’s spent years thinking I was a Catholic.

It happens.  A former colleague at SF Weekly was worried, after seeing me defend the Church, that he might have offended my Catholic heritage.  When I attend parties where people casually bash the Church (which, again, happens) I make a point of defending it.  Not its response to pedophilia, which is indefensible, or its stance on condoms, which is tragically misguided, or its prejudice against homosexuals, which is contemptible  … but its existence in the modern world.  Both in terms of its right to exist and its position as a frequent force for good.

People don’t get it.  Why would I do that if … as is the case … I’m not Catholic, have never been Catholic, and don’t come from a Catholic family?  If in fact, as is probably true, my ancestors were surely persecuted by the Church?


Part of it is surely that most people condemning the Church today don’t actually know very much about it.  They know they disagree with it, and that it has elements they don’t like, and make an ad hoc argument based on that.  It’s actually very frustrating to me, as someone who does know something about Church history, how often people criticize it for the wrong things. I have yet to encounter any one of the church’s die hard critics who knows enough to say “What about the persecution of the Albegencian heretics in the 12th century?”  Very few of them even bring up the Spanish Inquisition.   The church has many flaws, and I will be glad to tell you what they are.  But they’re complicated … mixed in with 2,000 years worth of theology, politics, hope, art, philosophy, and the quest for salvation.

What’s right and wrong with the Catholic Church is, in some ways, the story of Western history.  Yes they persecuted Galileo, but they also funded his research.  Yes the Jesuits were part of the colonial project, but they were the part that almost invariably treated the natives better than anyone else – including Protestant missionaries, commercial companies, and secular governments.  Yes they persecuted heretics, but the Church was also largely responsible for ending the slave trade in Europe prior to the discovery of the New World.  Yes, they promote many causes that are anathema to a liberal mind – including mine – but more than 1 in 9 American hospitals is a Catholic hospital.  1 in 9:  it’s insane how much slack for our pathetic excuse for a health care system they’re picking up. And while they won’t offer birth control, Catholic hospitals do focus on a lot of the less profitable procedures that people need, including breast cancer screenings, nutrition programs, geriatric services, and social programs – and they generally offer below-cost services to people below the poverty line.

Catholic monks and nuns feed people in Africa, shelter them from drug lords in Central America, and run schools in communities where the American education system is failing.  On average, 1 in 3 students at Catholic Schools aren’t Catholic:  they’re there because they (or their parents) think it’s the best educational option they’ve got.

So if you want to talk about whether the Church is “good or bad,” you have to make a pretty engaged argument, a moral calculus that pits its hospitals against its stand on condoms, its persecution of gays against its schools.  Which most people don’t want to learn enough to do.

Instead they argue from ignorance.  And I don’t like that.

At all.

In fact, as a person of Jewish descent, I feel it is an inherited duty to defend people who are being attacked from a position of ignorance.  Some of the things I’ve heard said about Catholics in San Francisco are no better than the blood libel told about my Jewish ancestors.  I won’t stand for it.

You don’t have to like the church, you can hate it all you want.  But if you argue from ignorance, I’ll take that ignorance and put it back where it came from.

I defend them so much because it comes up so much.  Which is terribly sad.

But is that all?  Am I just doing my civic duty, the way the ACLU defends the free speech rights of the Ku Klux Klan?

Sometimes, but not “just.”  For all of my very serious disagreements with the Catholic Church – which are certainly a big part of the reason I could never be a Catholic – I really do find a great deal to respect, admire, and cherish about the institution.

And that’s what really stumps people.  Like my friends tonight.  What, I was asked, could there possibly be to admire?

Okay.  Here goes.

To understand the root of my appreciation for Catholicism, you have to start by looking at my appreciation for rationalism.

The capacity for rational thought is an amazing thing.  It is a holy thing.  It lifts us up from the mud and takes us to the sky.  We ignore it at the peril of tyranny and superstition.

But rationalism is also a dead end.  The belief that all things are best understood through logical reduction is a cliff over the rocks of lunacy. It promises to explain everything, but past a certain point all it can do is keep promising that the answers are just one more precise calculation away.  Followed far enough the urge to quantify everything so that it can be made safe and controllable and perfect by crafting the right algorithms eventually leads to a hyper-rational form of madness.  There is no terrible thing that cannot be justified by a rational mind.  Eugenics?  Slavery?  Torture?  There’s a rational case to be made (and that has been made) for each of these things, and a thousand more atrocities next.  Rational arguments are far better at excusing atrocities than they are at preventing them.  And by the time you get far enough to be making the case that we should logically torture this person because it just makes sense, to keep a race from getting an education because all our best testing shows they’re degenerates, to sterilize the mentally ill because there’s a utilitarian case to be made that they shouldn’t breed, you’re too far gone to pull yourself out of it.

Meanwhile the rationalism has a very hard time making compelling arguments for the things that are the best parts of our nature.  Whats’ the rational argument for loving your children?  Well, you see, you have these selfish genes that you wish to propagate through the species, and your children (who have these genes) stand a better chance of passing your genes on if you assist them.  So a neuro-chemical reaction is created between parents and children in order to keep parents attached long enough to ensure the child’s survival.

The rational argument in favor of love isn’t about love at all.  It dares not even say its name.

What’s the rational argument for helping a stranger you meet on the road?  Well, enlightened self-interest demands that we make the world a better place so that we live in a better world.  It’s not a bad argument, but again, it misses the point.

The further you pursue rationalism as the source of all your important answers, the more you miss the point.

So while we dare not ignore our capacity for rational thought, we must not be seduced by the promise of pseudo-scientific omniscience, either.  The challenge for a people as enamored of progress as we are is to improve and grow while retaining our humanity:  to understand how far our logical minds can take us without giving up our hearts.

Who’s trying to do that in the modern world?  If you want to do that, where do you turn?  Who speaks to this essential struggle?  Who has proven advice on how to do it?

“The Catholic Church” isn’t the only answer, but it’s the biggest answer.  It’s the only major western institution that encompasses this need, calling for rational thought without losing sight of the spiritual needs of mankind.

Again, it’s not the only game in town:  existential-humanistic psychology is centered on exactly this concern.  But when was the last time you encountered a whole bunch of people looking to existential-humanistic psychology for answers?  For all that this branch of psychology has all the right answers, it has yet to inspire anything close to a critical mass – and indeed has trouble “inspiring” at all.  Some forms of Buddhism likewise hit this sweet spot;  but they, too, haven’t reached a mass western following (except, perhaps, as a curiosity).

Protestantism?  Individual ministers and congregations, sure, but Protestantism as a whole not only hasn’t developed a moral vocabulary and tradition of thought equal to the task, but all too often veers into the worst combination of being anti-rational and pro-exploitation.

So for all its imperfections … and they are substantial …Catholicism is really the only major institution in the Western world insisting that both our rational minds and our human spirits must be simultaneously cared for, and that we have innate dignity that must be honored and preserved.

That’s one reason for my appreciation.

Another is that the Catholic approach to the world acknowledges and honors its tragic dimensions, which very few popular philosophies do anymore.  Rationalism and scientism hold that everything can be fixed;  most Protestant churches turn away from tragedy and preach the idea that everything’s going to work out if we just pray hard enough;  New Age spirituality is the same way.  This does a disservice to all of us, because it’s not true.  All of our lives are spent accommodating tragedy.  It cannot be escaped.

Catholicism, however, takes the fact that we live in a broken world seriously.  Takes seriously the idea that salvation comes not as an escape from tragedy but through it.  Takes seriously the idea that what we are called to do as human beings is not easy.  Much Protestantism, if you scratch it enough, turns into some version of the prosperity gospel:  God rewards the good with nice stuff and happiness, and I can talk to him and he’ll explain everything and make it better.  Catholicism is much more likely to embody Christianity’s deepest and most profound truth:  that love comes at the price of the Cross.

Do I need more than that?  Do I need to explain about the Catholic connection to the west’s greatest art, or the humanitarian tradition, or get into a more detailed argument about the theology?

Because I can do that.  Without ever losing sight of the fact that the Catholic Church is and always has been a deeply flawed institution, full of human corruption and venality, I can do that.  But that’s the icing on the cake.  Those two things I said before?  About how it respects both the power and the limitation of our rational minds, and keeps a firm grasp of life’s tragic elements as it searches for salvation?

That’s the cake, and the wine, and the meal that came before it.

(SIDE NOTE:  It’s sheer coincidence, but my column for Gatehouse Media this week grapples with the question of how to evaluate the Pope as a leader in the modern world.)