Friday, 5 August 2011

When is a Catholic Not a Catholic?

Triptych of the Madonna della Misericordia  (c.1415)
 Jacobello del Fiore. Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice
The Madonna della Misericordia is an eloquent expression of the all-encompassing love of the maternal Church, spreading her cloak around the people of Christ but always with room to spare for more to join, and always open at the front to draw us in. In Piero's version, there's a hangman and a prostitute, for God welcomes us as lovers and sinners and not as heroes, champions or pillars of society, nor as academics, journalists, lawyers, mothers, fathers, housewives, politicians, priests, office cleaners or even theologians! "All that is left of us is love" (Philip Larkin). In the end, that's the only qualification we need in order to be there, and it's the love we give and receive that gives shape and form to our presence there. That's why, in this particular version of the painting, I love the image of Christ snuggled not in the womb but in the heart of his mother - her love encircles him in her heart, and his love radiates out through her to us. That is for me the meaning of the motherhood of the Church.

In the end, it matters very little whether we are progressives or traditionalists, conservatives or liberals, radicals or reactionaries, gay or straight. The hallmark of our faith is not the power of our intellect, the persuasiveness of our rhetoric, the depth of our conviction, the conventionality of our lives, nor even the number of people who folllow our blogs, but the love which holds us together within that encircling and open maternal canopy.

I don't regard myself as a progressive, although I see I've been described as one. My views on progressives, liberals and even on Polly Toynbee are readily available in my book, The New Atheists. (By the way, click on the image and see how much Fiore's Madonna looks like Polly Toynbee.)  But these labels - progressive, liberal, conservative, etc. - fail to accommodate the complexity of what most of us actually think when we reflect on life, justice and meaning, and I believe that, whatever our political, ecclesiological or ideological differences, most of us are motivated by a quest for the good and the just. We all have to work out what that means in reasoned and informed debate, and that means we're a diverse and messy bunch gathered within that cloak, and our blogs reflect that. The Catholic blogosphere looks more like a pillow fight in a tent than like the faithful gathered within the enfolding robe of maternal love. It would take a brave soul to want to be part of it!

Nevertheless, the Catholic tradition also teaches that there are some aspects of faith which are revealed to us by God and not accessible to reason alone, even although it's not irrational to hold them. That's why there is a difference between the Church's moral teachings, in which through the use of reason we strive together with others in our cultures and communities to discover what it means to live well (which means there will inevitably be some disagreement), and the Church's doctrines, in which we hold shared beliefs that we do not reasonably expect everybody to understand, althought we can give a reasonable account of why we believe them. So, while Catholic theologians can and must be part of informed and reasoned public debate about matters of morals, politics and society, and while we can and must use mind as well as heart, study as well as prayer, to better understand the mysteries of our faith, I don't think those mysteries are themselves open to debate. We should not be in the business of counting the persons in the godhead to see if somebody made a mistake!

That's why this comment which I discovered out there on the blogosphere concerns me: "Her documented views about. e.g. the divinity of Jesus, which I will not repeat on here, show that she has some deeply seated mis-understandings about basic Catholic beliefs, despite her clear intelligence." I would ask if anybody shares those concerns, they let me know where exactly these documented views are which show my misunderstanding, since as far as I know I have never publicly said or written anything at all which would challenge Catholic orthodoxy with regard to the divinity of Jesus. I think if I were to do that, I might come to the conclusion that, beautiful and consoling though that sheltering cloak of the Catholic faith is, I would have to step out from under its warmth and face the infinite heavens without it.

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