On Being Catholic


Gary Gutting in The Stone:

An old friend and mentor of mine, Ernan McMullin, was a philosopher of science widely respected in his discipline. He was also a Catholic priest. I don’t know how many times fellow philosophers at professional meetings drew me aside and asked, “Does Ernan really believe that stuff?” (He did.) Amid all the serious and generally respectful coverage of the papal resignation and the election of a new pope, I often detect an undertone of this same puzzlement. Can reflective and honest intellectuals actually believe that stuff?

Here I sketch my reasons for answering “yes.” What I offer is neither apologetics aimed at converting others nor merely personal testimony. Without claiming to speak for others, I try to articulate a position that I expect many fellow Catholics will find congenial and that non-Catholics (even those who reject all religion) may recognize as an intellectually respectable stance. Easter is the traditional time for Christians to reaffirm their faith. I want to show that we can do this without renouncing reason.

Toward the end of James Joyce’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” the protagonist, Stephen Dedalus, rejects the Roman Catholic faith he was raised in. A friend suggests that he might, then, become a Protestant. Stephen replies, “I said that I had lost the faith . . . but not that I had lost self-respect.” Factoring out the insult to Protestants, I would like to appropriate this Joycean mot to explain my own continuing attachment to the Catholic Church.

I read “self-respect” as respect for what are (to borrow the title of the philosopher Charles Taylor’s great book) the “sources of the self.” These are the sources nurturing the values that define an individual’s life. For me, there are two such sources. One is the Enlightenment, where I’m particularly inspired by Voltaire, Hume and the founders of the American republic. The other is the Catholic Church, in which I was baptized as an infant, raised by Catholic parents, and educated for 8 years of elementary school by Ursuline nuns and for 12 more years by Jesuits. For me to deny either of these sources would be to deny something central to my moral being.