Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
As a guy who's done a bit of chatting about the Catholic Faith with folks, one of the things that has struck me over the years is the sheer fecundity of the human mind in giving reasons not to be Catholic. To a young Catholic or a new convert, such overwhelming fertility in repudiating the Faith can be rather daunting. A trip to an Internet list group, for example, can be a bit like drinking from a fire hose of anti-Catholic rhetoric. One can simply be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of it all.
This is, however, all to the good for the intrepid Catholic who takes seriously the fact that "in everything God works for the good with those who love him" (Romans 8:28). So when life serves you lemons, make lemonade! I do so by keeping careful track of reasons not to believe.
Reasons not to believe? Why so?
Because, as G.K Chesterton said, "If you hear a thing being accused of being too tall and too short, too red and too green, too bad in one way and too bad also in the opposite way, then you may be sure that it is very good."
Therefore, I urge all those interested in defending the Faith to jot down every conceivable argument you have ever heard against the Faith. For as you do you will find a fun and interesting thing happening: virtually every one of these arguments has a polar opposite which is also used to berate the Church. Consider, for example the following:
Some time ago, a fellow wrote a list I was on to complain, "Roman Catholic scholars of the New Testament publicly deny both the inspiration and the authenticity of Paul's last epistles. I suggest avoiding religious corporations that fund scholars who deny the veracity of the written Word of God, the Holy Bible."
However, on another list at the same time, I saw complaints from certain devotees of the Jesus Seminar complaining that the Church affirmed the veracity and inspiration of the Bible and would brook no compromise on what She arrogantly affirmed to be the written Word of God, the Holy Bible.
The first poster wanted to know why "apostate" scholars (that is, scholars who took a somewhat different view from himself concerning the authorship of the pastoral epistles--which he construed as "denying their inspiration") were allowed to teach by the Church. If the Church was sincere about preaching the truth, he reasoned, She would muzzle such scholars and forbid them to teach in Her name. Yet, at the same time, one of the most common complaints leveled against the Church on the same list was--you guessed it--She muzzles scholars and forbids the free and open pursuit of truth.
This reminds me of another fun set of twin complaints against the Church. The medieval Church, I was informed by a recent movie review, was a sinkhole of superstition and cowering obeisance to ignorant belief in the supernatural. It was not until the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution brought the light of Rational Truth to the world that the Church's hoodoo of priestcraft and supernaturalism was broken.
Good Enlightenment dogma that. Yet imagine my surprise when, a week later, the same film critic (this time reviewing a movie about Nostradamus) informed us all that Nostradamus was a mystic in touch with the rhythms of the supernatural and open to the larger spiritual realities which pervade our existence. Sadly, however, he was rejected by a rationalistic, linear, logic-chopping Western Church that was totally closed to the reality of the supernatural.
In short, any stigma will do to beat a dogma. However, once one gets the hang of it, one can have a jolly time cataloging the complaints leveled against the Church and matching them up like bad blind dates with contradictory anti-Catholic complaints. Then, when they have obliterated one another like matter and anti-matter, a Catholic apologist can step into the eerie silence created by the fuddled confusion and state the actual Catholic position.
Here are some more standard canards. Consider them a "starter kit" for your collection. Be the first Catholic on your block to get the whole set!
A. The Church is lax and lazy. It has mindlessly absorbed dozens of pagan myths and thoughtlessly added them to Scripture without so much as stopping to ask for a second whether these "pious fantasies" contradict the Bible. That's why the 3rd and 4th Century Church got snookered into believing in the Assumption of Mary, the collection of relics, the communion of saints and the doctrine of the Trinity. It's all just pagan nonsense that drifted into a Church that had stopped caring about doctrinal purity.
B. The Church is narrow and squinting and obsessed with doctrinal purity. It picks over minute theological controversies concerning the nature of Christ and the Trinity and is prepared to excommunicate those who vary from its minutely detailed theological formulae by a hair's breadth. This is especially true of the 3rd and 4th Century Church which squabbled endlessly over minute points of scriptural interpretation and took it upon itself to define (according to the authoritarian opinions of the bishops, of course) what books did and did not belong to the canon of Scripture in order to buttress their power. Thank God the Jesus Seminar has shown that these books are but a small part of the rich trove of early Christian writings ruthlessly suppressed by the hierarchy. There is no reason we must accept just the "official" New Testament of the bishops. Let us embrace the gnostic, Arian, and Docetist views of the Christ event as well!
A. The Church is cruelly restrictive of Christian liberty. It everywhere inhibits our freedom of choice and conscience.
B. The Church is absurdly supportive of the notion of human free will, while Scripture is abundantly clear that there is no such thing. God is sovereign and we are predestined according to his will, not ours.
C. The secular variation of A is that the Church is cruelly opposed to "freedom of choice" in the matter of abortion, daring to rebuke the absolute autonomy of individuals and imperialistically impinging on the right to reproductive freedom.
D. The secular variation of B is the Marxist/materialist/determinist claim that human free will is a ridiculous mystical notion and that all human behavior is determined, not by God, but by the motion of molecules and the forces of nature.
A. The Church is flabby and far too tolerant of sinners in her midst.
B. The Church is bigoted and intolerant of anybody who won't toe the party line. Catholics live in continual fear of excommunication if they depart from her dogmas by a hairsbreadth.
A. The Church is perpetually changing its tune and making up new doctrines.
B. The Church is hidebound and retrograde, refusing to change with the times and create new doctrines in light of new truths (as that homosexual practice, abortion, divorce and remarriage, women priests are A-OK).
A. The Church is dark and fearful, despising the goodness of life with her penances and fastings and exalting saints who went barefoot in the snow to earn their salvation.
B. The Church is luxurious and wasteful, building large cathedrals and art collections and exalting clergy who never worked a day in their lives. Didn't the Apostle tell us to "work out our salvation with fear and trembling?" Yet these parasites talk only of the forgiveness of God while forgetting his justice and his demand for sacrifice for the Kingdom. Sinning on Friday, repenting on Saturday.
A. The Church terrorizes us with the threat of hell and the terrible doctrine that no one gets a second chance.
B. The Church teaches that everyone gets a second chance in Purgatory.
C. The Church teaches a pink-and-fluffy heaven when science can prove no such thing. It's all a fantasy to speak of any chance at all. No one gets out of here alive.
A. The Church is patriarchal, worshiping God as Father.
B. The Church is idolatrous, acclaiming Our Lady as Mother of the Church.
A. The gospel is simple and the Church has made it complex.
B. The world is complex and the Church thinks it can go on relying on its simple little creeds and black-and-white dogmas and Scriptures.
A. The Church is too materialistic, relying on sacraments as means of grace when the gospel is purely spiritual.
B. The Church is too spiritual, taking seriously the unseen supernatural world and totally ignorant of Modern Science and the need to face physical reality.
A. Baptism is unnecessary for salvation, yet Catholics insist upon baptism as the normative means of salvation.
B. Catholics don't baptize, they sprinkle, and it is necessary to be baptized to be saved.
And the beat goes on. An apologist with a satiric bent might string this clamorous kaffuffle together in some way or other and draft something like an anti-creed, just to see if anyone catches on to the sheer Chestertonian irony and paradox of the complaints against the Faith. I offer the following for education or amusement (whichever comes first):
We, the faithful of the Holy Catholic Church are tritheists who insist on monotheism, while denigrating all that is feminine in the name of a primitive male sky-god and worshiping Mary as a goddess in defiance of the One True God of Israel. We are syncretists who began by stealing all our beliefs from Mithraism and the pagan mystery religions and then, suddenly and inexplicably, turned around (at some undefined point in the first, second, third, fourth or fifth centuries) and began to cruelly forbid all that was tinged with paganism. We are also dogmatists who believe that only Catholics will be saved and yet squishy Universalists who hold that everybody will be saved by works.
For us men and for our salvation, the Enigmatic Sage of Nazareth whom the Jesus Seminar has at last figured out came from no place in particular to say nothing special. For this reason early Catholics became obsessed with worshiping him and were willing to be crucified and burnt alive for his name's sake. In the process they naturally forgot everything they ever knew about the object of their obsession and, in single-minded devotion to a fanatical purity of faith, taught that we are saved by faith in him alone and that we get our salvation the old-fashioned way (by earning it and by observing Babylon Mystery Religions). Thus, we are obsessed with salvation by works and good deeds done on earth in utter ignorance of the true gift of heavenly grace God offers, but we are so wishful about pie in the sky, angels and saints that our faith in God's grace blinds us to the reality of the work that needs to be done right here on earth.
We pray to statues, while simultaneously being too spiritual to appreciate the truly earth-affirming nature of non-Christian creation-centered religions (which frequently pray to statues, whereas we only pray to some cloudy disembodied Spirit).
We anxiously buy indulgences to avoid spending eternity in Purgatory, yet we foolishly believe that we can have serene confidence of going to heaven merely because we have received Jesus in the sacraments and practiced holiness. We mindlessly do whatever the Pope tells us and believe in superstition rather than cold reason. Yet we think too much and have theologies, arts, philosophies and histories that are the creation of human wisdom rather than relying on the Spirit who is deeper than mere "head knowledge."
We ban the Bible for ordinary people but we also produce false, non-King James Version translations which we compel the faithful to read. We loathe sex while having thousands of children. The reason we have so many kids is because, unfortunately, it's the only way that a patriarchal religion of oppression can keep women down and force them into monotheistic tritheism that worships Mary.
Which reminds us: We, the faithful of the Holy Catholic Church are...
[Return to beginning of Creed and repeat as necessary. Earnest effort must be made by all those reciting it to do so in a single breath.]
This is the criticism of the Catholic Faith our world has to offer. What the Faith offers is best summed up in the words of Chesterton, writing a century ago:
"Suppose we heard an unknown man spoken of by many men. Suppose we were puzzled to hear that some men said he was too tall and some too short; some objected to his fatness, some lamented his leanness; some thought him too dark, and some too fair. One explanation... would be that he might be an odd shape. But there is another explanation. He might be the right shape. Outrageously tall men might feel him to be short. Very short men might feel him to be tall. Old bucks who are growing stout might consider him insufficiently filled out; old beaux who were growing thin might feel that he expanded beyond the thin lines of elegance. Perhaps Swedes (who have pale hair like tow) called him a dark man, while negroes considered him distinctly blonde. Perhaps (in short) this extraordinary thing is really the ordinary thing; at least the normal thing, the centre."
That, in substance, is what the enterprising Catholic apologist has to say after the chaotic criticisms annihilate one another. So stay chipper, collect those complaints and let the critics rave! You've got nothing to lose and every soul in the world to gain!