My best friend still makes fun of me for something I said on a liquor-tilting night last century. Fired by some undergraduate combination of sudden conversion and Southern Comfort, I misexplained to her, “It’s just that my worldview is so unified!”
This is one temptation of a certain kind of bookish Catholic. (Cradle Catholics aren’t immune!) A similar temptation was expressed by a church that put out a flyer reading, “Are you seeking? We can give you answers.”
There are some ways in which this is true: Once you are already Catholic, the Church does in fact answer some questions you may need to ask.
And the Church can also be the lock for your key, the interpretive community that opens up the world. I still remember how it felt. I knew there was some sharp cruel distance between myself and the world around me. Then I found that the Catholic Church was where I turned in the lock, where I turned upside down, and the world unlocked around me.
As we feel like we’re unlocking the secrets of the world, we too are being unlocked, reinterpreted, and changed. Knowledge is a key that turns on both ends. The “answers” the Catholic Church provides are never the answers you expected and rarely the answers to the questions you thought you were asking.
So there are two important ways in which the claim that the Church provides “answers” is false. First, if you are “seeking,” most often what you need most is to know which questions to ask. I often say that my conversion was prompted because I accepted the Catholic answers to three questions: Why is poetry important? Why is sex important? Why is justice important?
And yet it would be more accurate to say that my conversion was prompted by my acknowledgment of these three as the questions I needed to ask. I’d asked a lot of other questions in the past, including questions about God and religion, and none of them had been the ones I needed. I still remember standing in the backyard one golden afternoon, looking up into the telephone-wired blankness of the sky, and asking God to show up, if a God was out there. Sure, this childhood question had an element of the football fan’s taunting chant, Come and have a go if you’re hard enough! — but it was also the product of genuine religious seeking, inchoate as the unanswering clouds. As a child, I was simultaneously social and lonely, with a close group of friends whom I nonetheless was convinced would never like me “if they really knew.” I wanted to find out if anyone “really knew” — if Anyone saw.
My plea was the wrong question for me at that time. Possibly it has been the right question for someone else, somewhere else. But the encounter with the Catholic Church could not provide me with even rudimentary answers until it had changed my questions.
There’s another reason that church ad was naïve and perhaps self-comforting. (Maybe I should add that the United Church of Christ ads with the Gracie Allen quote, “Never place a period where God has placed a comma,” are self-comforting as well; they comfort people who are desperate for welcome and community, while the “We can give you answers” approach comforts people who are desperate for ethical guidance, and a form of repentance that is more than just minimizing the damage we do.)
To say that the Christian life provides answers is to deny or minimize the fact that this way of life provokes further questions. C. S. Lewis, in The Problem of Pain, points out that theodicy becomes a far more pressing question when your God is both personal and the ultimate source of moral goodness. If you follow Ares, you needn’t wonder why the gods allow war. A new conception of divinity brings new questions — and there is no reason to believe that all those questions will be answerable by every individual to her own satisfaction.
We sometimes speak as if the Catechism is a book of answers; unless your questions are quite narrow, it’s not. The Catechism is a useful creature in her own way, but she won’t make you catch your breath and consider whether there might be a God.
To be Catholic is to accept that no answers in this life will ever be adequate, but the Catholic questions and the Catholic ways of living are better and truer than alternatives.
Here is one way you might become Catholic: You might accept that when you look out at the world, you see the world the Catholics see. I recently heard Alisdair MacIntyre say (I’m paraphrasing) that humans are unintelligible unless we are directed toward God. This is why the most compelling — and, not incidentally, the most sublime — atheism is the belief that life is absurd and suffering is meaningless.
To see the world the Catholics see is to accept some number (maybe only one) of the bizarre Catholic propositions about our lives. A few examples: Suffering is not meaningless and merely an evil to be avoided; humans have some actual purpose or telos that has some intrinsic relation to ethics; God is not just a goon, but a source of moral truth; God is not just a source of moral truth, but a Person and therefore a possible object of our love.
And once you see the world this way — or, for that matter, while you’re trying to figure out whether you see the world this way — the “answers” or propositions become increasingly inadequate. You need not solely reassurances and commandments but Eucharist, liturgy, and art. You learn the difference between true statements about God and love of God; you learn, even, the difference between true statements about God and knowledge of God. Anything else is what St. Bonaventure decried as “reading without repentance, knowledge without devotion, research without the impulse of wonder, prudence without the ability to surrender to joy, action divorced from religion, learning sundered from love, intelligence without humility, study unsustained by divine grace, thought without the wisdom inspired by God.”
To be a Catholic is to accept certain questions as things to be lived through rather than to be answered. “Why do innocents suffer?” can’t be answered in any interesting way with syllogisms. The syllogisms may be necessary, to prevent internal contradictions. But only paintings and novels and movies, the lives of the saints, and above all the Passion narrative, can truly bring us to accept the possibility that God is merciful, that there is a Heaven where even our wounds — even our children’s wounds — are like the glorified Wounds of Christ.
I’m not sure what prompts us to accept some ambiguities, lacunae, paradoxes, and heartbreaking sacrifices (think of how much comfort many gentle-hearted atheists unflinchingly reject), and refuse to accept others. But I am completely sure that the Christian life is not an if-then decision tree. It’s not that the saints put the flesh on the Catechism’s skeleton; it’s that the Catechism is mere food, which the saints need, but which they transform daily into a genuinely human, Catholic life.