Recently my email yielded a straightforward De profundis from a young reader pleading for reassurances; he needed to know that embracing Catholicism did not require the shutting down of his intellect or the suspension of reason. Relating what he had encountered among the comboxes at a number of Catholic websites, he was left wondering if Catholicism inhibited one’s ability to think for oneself.
“I know the Church puts a high premium on docility, humility and the emptying of self,” he wrote, “but common sense tells me that none of those should involve self-lobotomizing. Please tell me I’m not wrong.”
Though I have no pretensions toward intellectualism, myself, I offered the following response to my young reader, and share it here.
Good heavens, no—you’re very right. While I may not have the brain of an Aquinas or an Augustine, do I seem to you to be in any way conformist or lobotomized? Quite the opposite of what you fear, Catholicism not only invites the application of reason into one’s faith—it rather insists upon it.
I may be a cradle Catholic given a fair grounding in faith thanks to some nuns and family members, but I have still had to bring my whole self into my explorations of the faith, in order to understand it and to conform—imperfectly, but with firm intentions—to its teachings in genuine freedom, rather than compulsion, and freedom is what the faith brings.
For me, every tenet of Catholicism—including the pro-life teaching—has been one I’ve had to really research, read about, and reason out in my head and through prayer—and the prayer part is absolutely essential, because that is where what you are learning becomes bone-deep; it is the “setting agent,” as it were. In this way—using research, reading, reason, and recollected prayer—I have always come down on the side of Catholic orthodoxy; never because she has simply dished it out and I’ve eaten it, but because she has made a sound argument that fed me in my totality: mind, spirit, and sinew.
That doesn’t mean that within the life of faith there is no danger of over-conforming to a mindless degree. People who are too lazy to think (or too lazy to reason, because they fear it) exist in politics and in the churches, too, but submission to Christ (and obedient service to the church) has never been about getting humanity to “fall in line.”
Rather, it is about helping each of us to “fall in love” with Him, and with the mind-boggling hugeness of all we do not know, and with the quest. It is meant to broaden, not deaden, the intellect and strengthen the voice so that one may be unafraid in declaring what one knows to be true, and again, that takes reading, researching, reasoning, and recollection.
There is a paradox at work, of course; we apply our reason to what is founded upon unreasonableness (and faith is utterly unreasonable; it is “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen”) and then our understanding—slowly hatched open bit by bit, by our own Holy Spirit-prompted willingness to pursue the gift through the giftedness of all who came before—leads us to the point where we can say not only “I believe this,” but “I know this in a way that has passed through my intellect, and been absorbed within my tissue,” in the same way that you can say you know how to button your coat, or put a car into forward or reverse: not because you are mindless, but because you have fully absorbed that learning.
And then you really can be fearless, because what you have learned will have trained you to consider that so much of what we call “reality” is illusory, while the mystery is worth pursuing and dying-for. And if docility—a great bequest—comes, it will originate not from narrow obedience, but from a broadening of trust and understanding of the Bridegroom, who defends and sustains his Bride, the church, unfailingly.
I used to post the saying attributed to St. Gregory of Nyssa at my site: “Ideas lead to idols; only wonder leads to knowing.” It is a phrase that has informed so much of what I understand, and all of my learning. It is possible to lock into faith without wonder, or with a frenzy to conform, but there is little-to-no growth there, only stagnation and sterility. In the language of March Madness, that’s like taking on the ideas of faith and dribbling with them, rather than shooting for the net.
But if we wonder—and Catholicism encourages wonder—then we really do get to the knowing, and that’s humbling, and fascinating—a daily dive into boundless depths.
Look at our saints and you see that the Church’s true exemplars—the apostles, the doctors of the Church—were men and women who were rarely in “perfect conformity” to their times or trends, inside church or outside. They were innovators and reformers, but not unbounded; they were neither like the “Spirit of Vatican II” Catholics—busily decrying everything that came before them as outmoded and unattuned to the times—nor like the staunch traditionalists who seem to believe that perfect fidelity to the past breeds a perfect future. Instead they took everything that came before, and built on it—added to the whole structure of faith, while tidying up what was corroded or decorative without meaning.
Too much time spent in Catholic comboxes is apt to give a distorted view of where the life of faith is meant to lead—it means to give flight, not to weigh down, to encourage suppleness—which permits a tree to bend in a storm—over rigidity, which uproots it.
Teresa of Avila, Catherine of Siena, Elizabeth Ann Seton and Dorothy Day all called themselves “obedient daughters” of the church. All were intelligent women with a wide and sophisticated view of the world, all were innovators but not unrestricted in scope, who worked within the bounds of the church, whose Christ-led wisdom they had allowed to become bone-set within them. Although they were very different women, of different temperaments and abilities, living in different eras, each one of them would give you the same answers on the big issues of faith, life, sacraments, and redemption.
And considered together, they are perhaps the best argument I could possibly make against any notion that being Catholic means conforming oneself to a narrow path of non-thinking.
Elizabeth Scalia is the Managing Editor of the Catholic Portal at Patheos and blogs as The Anchoress. Her previous articles for "On the Square" can be found here.