Postscript: Questions About Catholicism

I don’t need to say that I have had many Catholic friends, and I won’t say that I’ve had more (of the few good friends I’ve ever known) than a random sampling of the American public could possibly account for. I also understand that, while my Catholic friends share many of my own reservations about “the Church”, they don’t necessarily like to hear me review them item by item. That’s human nature. As a Texan by birth and a Southerner by lineage, I’m painfully aware of the foibles and limitations of both groups… but I can get a little irked when I have to listen to an outsider mock a drawl or reduce the Civil War’s causes to racism.

Just let me add this, then, to my previous comments. A professor of physics at Tulane named Frank Tipler wrote a book titled The Physics of Christianity that I lately read… well, kind of read. The degree of physics in the early going seemed rather ostentatious to me and was way over my head; but the point where I actually couldn’t make myself continue (for pride kept me trudging through the formulas that I pretended to half-understand) was somewhere later, where suggestions about the Christian faith—these from a devout man who’s obviously more intelligent than I’ll ever dream of being—began to depress me deeply.

Professor Tipler, you can’t seriously believe that God’s plan for the salvation of the soul is being accomplished by digital technology—that our minds and personalities will be overwritten to chips that can be transferred to an indefinite series of corporeal residences—no, you don’t truly believe that such is the eternity promised in the Gospels, do you? Is that really… it? No higher revelation of the ends of goodness? No reunion with spirits from centuries ago whose creations have awakened us? No admission to such beauty and order as even the Milky Way can only imply in the dullest manner?

I had heard before that parthenogenesis can naturally occur and, apparently, does in an almost infinitesimal number of cases. If the Holy Spirit’s fertilizing a human egg turns out to be a metaphor for a freakish but entirely explicable reproductive anomaly, then… then there’s really no role for the supernatural to play, is there?

And indeed, Professor Tipler, you argue repeatedly that miracles are merely rare occurrences rather than physically impossible ones. But the universe’s very birth from nothing is a physical impossibility, from the standpoint of human reason (I didn’t understand your case to the contrary). If our faith cannot assert that ultimate reality contains events and powers inconceivable to our temporal intelligence, then for what do we need faith?

To me personally, this one is especially obnoxious: that Jesus retained his purity because, thanks to biological parthenogenesis, he was born as sterile as a mule. Do you not grasp, Professor—you whose mind encloses so many mathematical truths that leave me at the starting gate—that a eunuch can incur no moral credit for having mastered sexual impulses? If a sage or spiritual guru never feels anger because he has undergone a lobotomy or never knows fear because he has destroyed his sight and hearing, then he’s no teacher at all and has mastered nothing.

In a Catholic context, I’ve noticed that certain behaviors tend to receive more attention than the state of mind in which they are performed. Frank Tipler, a very devout Catholic, represents some of my greatest apprehensions on this score. He has explained (at least to his own satisfaction) a universe whose physical laws permit the fulfillment of every biblical promise in terms we can understand (or might understand if we were gifted physicists). In his zeal to defend God’s realm, the Professor seems to me to have exiled God from that realm and redefined its parameters to suit the human hand and footstep.

Just as excusing the utopian crusade to create permanent peace all over the earth could well lead to a dystopian, Orwellian hell, so the project of envisioning the life of the soul through computer chips and the abstemious discipline of moral guide through hormonal privation is… well, horribly depressing. It’s cultic. It makes me want to weep for so much intelligence so abused.

Why I Cannot Be Catholic (In a Nutshell)

I had another topic on my mind… but, after hearing a remark made on Greg Gutfeld’s show last night, I lost my original train of thought. This is more important to me.

Gutfeld had assembled three representatives of major world faiths on his cozy stage: a Catholic priest, a Jewish rabbi, and an Islamic imam. The segment was more shtick than discussion—more SNL than Firing Line. (Actually, I recall now that my original intent was to explain why I just can’t adapt myself to “tweeting”—the electronic trail of splattered bodily fluids left after careless collisions. The Gutfeld Show is to William F. Buckley what Twitter is to The Critique of Pure Reason.) In a dangerously close approach to seriousness, Gutfeld dared to inquire of the priest if Pope Francis were… um, maybe just a shade… um, naïve. The prelate (whose name I cannot recover from the Internet, for some odd reason) responded, “Well, what’s so bad about that? What’s wrong with being a little naïve? Would you rather he be bitter and cynical? Isn’t it a good thing to have a world spiritual leader who believes in the possibility of peace?”

I paraphrase, but the response was of this nature. I wanted to tear my hair out.

No, Father! It’s not a good thing! Naiveté is not productive or benign! It’s unbecoming in an older man of any station in life; but in an international leader—and especially a spiritual leader—it is grotesque and potentially lethal on a massive scale. Gandhi was with some justice faulted in certain quarters for staging “peaceful” demonstrations in places and at moments when he ought to have known that a match would ignite the whole ammunition dump. Fools who naively “believe in peace” have a pronounced tendency to draw us into war. They underestimate the duplicity of the Machiavellian tyrants with whom they negotiate. They exhort their followers to overlook alarming signs of imminent hostility in deference to “keeping the faith”. They may even end up offering themselves (and a host of others) to the slaughterhouse in a conviction that their martyrdom will blaze future trails to conflict resolution.

At some point, such reckless gambling with innocent lives and insouciance to the dark side of human nature becomes a squalid ego trip. “Sure, you have your martyrdom, Holy Father. Great. I wish I had my two sons back that were killed in the invasion you declined to notice as it massed on our borders.” I can imagine many a believing Catholic having some such thought at key moments throughout history.

I almost became a Catholic myself in my youth. I worked at two different Catholic schools (one Jesuit and one Benedictine). I was disturbed at how the bad actors on campus were always able to shift into confessional mode and convince a priest that they were just little lost lambs… but I was naïve myself at the time, and I would psychically smack the back of my hand for having bad thoughts.

What really bothers me about the Gutfeld interview is not the Pope’s personal naiveté, but its public and energetic defense by a prominent member of his clergy. The Catholic equation of seeing the world through rose-colored glasses with spiritual elevation is a potential life-ruiner. How does it differ, may I ask, from lighting up a joint or having a lobotomy? Or permitting a chip to be inserted into one’s brain with CorrectThink Update 3.4? For that matter, as we approach a world where lasting peace might really come to pass—because we will all be computer hybrids, and our programming will preclude violent behavior (as defined by the programmer)—how will the Catholic braintrust resist that Nirvana? For doesn’t it offer everything that the rose-tinted glasses foresaw?

The first words out of the mouth of Sophocles’ Teiresias when he appears on stage are, “What a frightful thing is thinking, when thoughts are of no profit!” And Oedipus does indeed pay a fearful price for his pursuit of truth… but Sophocles eventually celebrates him as a hero, I believe, precisely because he chooses the anguishing misery of full truth over the flattering delusions of ignorance. Doesn’t God demand such dedication to truth of us?

Final word: yes, I know that the Protestant denominations have mucked up their glasses and decided to call the color “rose” in much the same way as has Catholicism. There’s nothing much to separate them any more. The name of the only real church is in your heart, not in your checkbook.