Three years ago, Garry Wills came out with a book titled, Why I Am a Catholic. Apparently, after his earlier work, Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit, a lot of people were wondering why he chose to remain in the Roman fold. His answer—a combination of personal nostalgia and belief in the basic truth of the Apostolic Creed—isn’t wholly satisfying. After all, every Christian church adheres to the Creed. That would seem to be a baseline requirement for any self- proclaimed believer.
So what is it that keeps Wills in a Church whose hierarchical structure offends him so? In short, he hopes for change . . . a more “open” and democratic Church. But while hope is indeed a virtue, I’m not sure it counts in this situation. I don’t remain in the Catholic Church because I hope a universal indult will eventually be delivered, nor because I hope for the day when I’m no longer assaulted by “I Am the Bread of Life” during Mass. Hope in what may never come to pass is hardly grounds for sound religious conviction. (Contrast this with our hope in the final Resurrection—an event that we know will occur.)
To my mind—and this should hardly be controversial—there is only one reason to be Catholic. Simply put, I am Catholic because I believe the unique claims of the Catholic Church are true. Period. End of story.
Of course, in saying that, I do not restrict myself merely to the Creed, be it Apostolic or Nicene. Rather, I believe that Jesus Christ founded the Catholic Church, and that it was led by the Spirit to develop the structure that it has today. I’m not so historically naïve as to think that the modern papacy is identical to that of the second century—nor would I claim that Christians of the second century understood the Trinity as well as those in the fifth.
Doctrine develops over time. As Catholics, we believe that legitimate development is inspired and guided by the Holy Spirit. But that’s where problems arise. How, after all, are we to distinguish legitimate development from simple innovation? That’s the role of the Magisterium. Catholics can trust the teachings of the Church because God oversees it. If we take this last point seriously, then we must conclude that our hierarchical structure is indeed the will of God. There was already a hierarchy in the first century—certainly not identical to that which we have today, but an unmistakable, early expression of it. That’s an example of legitimate development.
The same cannot be said of abortion, say, or female priests (despite the claims of some lightly researched recent books). The fact is, such things were not present in Church history. Further, Rome has spoken on these issues and they’re not changing. So what good is to be had by hoping that they will? I may hope I could grow wings and fly to Hong Kong for the weekend, but that’s not going to happen, and my hope would be ill-placed.
Despite this, the theological Left continues to live on false hope. This makes all the more remarkable the common notion that critically thinking Christians are invariably liberal, while traditional believers are generally ignorant and unschooled. Fools can be found at all points on the theological spectrum—it’s hardly an exclusive feature of religious conservatism. What’s more, with some important exceptions, scholarly laziness is a fairly common element of the Left. How else to construct a case for abortion or birth control or same-sex marriage using the writings of the early and medieval Church? If scholars can “find” that, they can “find” anything.
In all things, Truth should be our guide. Illusion and false hope are unworthy of our devotion. I am an orthodox Catholic because Catholicism is true. There is no other good reason.