On Being a Critical, Suspicious Son of the Church

Much to Tom Van Dyke’s seemingly apparent confusion, I take a harshly critical stance toward the mitre-wearing powers that be who run the Roman Catholic Church, the institutional faith to which I belong.  As the magisterial authorities are a shiny key component of my religion, I can see how my seeming antagonism elicits some head-scratching.  Why do I, wayward pilgrim suspicious of religious authority, stay Catholic?

The short answer is that the sacramental way of being (towards truth, others, the world) described by Catholicism (through its imaginative rituals and doctrines) speaks to me in a manner qualitatively different than other faith traditions and the atheistic philosophies.  In my faith, I encounter what I can only describe as a sacred world, a meaningfulness that transcends the empirical while being revealed through what I can see, hear, smell, taste, and touch.  Moreover, as I’ve written before, my faith needs religious authority; the Gospel and the kerygma, the proclamation of religious truths, necessitates witnesses, transmitters, translators, interpreters, and other roles of authority to carry on the words of Christ.  Consequently, I do not oppose religious authority per se.  However, to some extent, all authority is corruptible, and the Church is, to a degree, a corrupt institution.  It always has been, and it always will be.  Any institution with the clerical power of the magisterium would have to be.  If we take sin and human fallibility seriously, we can see it no other way.

I happen to believe that the long tradition of Catholic theological and doctrinal thought offers a rich treasure to humanity–the encyclical letter Pacem in Terris is a godsend–but nevertheless, because of human fallibility and corruptibility, each and every claim of religious authority, each and every claim to speak in the name of God, warrants suspicion and criticism.  Each and every one, from the minor and tangential to the fundamental and essential.  The Gospel and the kerygma deserve nothing less.

It would be fair to call me a faithful, but critical and suspicious son of the Church.  I’m no theologian; the nuances of theology elude me.  My background is in literature and philosophy, and I come at my faith from these angles.  When I encounter weak arguments written by the authorities, I’m liable to counter.  When I come across interpretations asserted as definitive, I’m prone to a little epistemological skepticism.  I choose to stay a “Doubting Thomas,” a man of faith insisting on seeing the evidence.  I give assent with uncertainty.

To be clear: I love my church, and I want to see it succeed as a voice for truth and justice, goodness and mercy, beauty and love.  I want to see it effectively engage the world, friend and foe alike.  I also desire to see it learn from the world and incorporate the wisdom of the poets and the philosophers, the scientists and the laborers, and everyone else who has something to say–theists, atheists, and whoever else.  No one has a monopoly on truth or the best way to pursue it.  No truth-claims should go unchallenged, especially those by the self-described “experts in humanity.”

Kyle Cupp

Kyle Cupp is a freelance writer who blogs about culture, philosophy, politics, postmodernism, and religion. He is a contributor to the group Catholic blog Vox Nova. Kyle lives with his wife, son, and daughter in North Texas. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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13 Responses

  1. GordonHide says:

    Oh dear. I was hoping for your thoughts on relativism.

  2. Tony says:

    I really, really like your writing Mr. Cupp. You and J.L. Wall are the class of the League. But look at the way you wrote the post that drew TVD’s attention. What was the point of using the word Inquisition? Why couldn’t you say in the OP, as you finally do in the comments, that the CDF’s warning (and that’s all it really amounts to, a warning for the faithful) “was certainly within [its] jurisdiction,” that the CDF “did what the CDF is supposed to do,” that Farley’s book is, as TVD says, “unreconcilable with normative Church teaching.” All that stuff is supposedly obvious but you feel no need, as a “critical, suspicious son of the Church” to be critical and suspicious toward that large and apparently much more persuasive–and, of course, much more to the League’s taste–part of the (especially American) Church that likes to pretend that actions like this are some unusual, strange, hubristic exercise of authority that reek of the rack, that part which is terminally unpersuaded by the CDF and the Pope. That these latter are less “institutional” (though they certainly have their orders, colleges, and the media) than the Vatican doesn’t mean they don’t do their own sort of “mitre-wearing,” and it doesn’t make their authority any less real or any less corrupting and deceptive.

    You act like a much more sophisticated response from the CDF would be taken more seriously, but it’s more likely that it would provoke the exact same response. Isn’t that the more relevant datum here? Furthermore, who cares if her book is more popular? Doesn’t that mean the Church should have been exercising its authority more rather than less–that something so obviously “unreconcilable” comes from a “respected” Catholic theologian? TVD’s citation from Neuhaus is appropriate. There’s suspicion of authority and then there’s presenting yourself as primarily suspicious in a case fraught with obviousness.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      I appreciate the challenging comment, Tony.

      I uses the word inquisition for two reasons: it provides accurate historical context and, admittedly, it grabs attention. The CDF is an inquisitorial body. In matters of doctrine, it separates the wheat from the chaff. In the initial post, I didn’t take a position of whether this was a good or bad thing, though I see how doing so may have helped. So here, let me state unequivocally that it makes sense for the church to have an inquisitorial body like the CDF. I do think the Church would benefit from rethinking how this office works and how what it says and does plays in the wider world that is typically hostile to what the church teaching or what the church is thought to teach. Yes, the notification was intended just as a warning to the faithful, and yet, for foreseeable reasons, it went viral, reinforced less than stellar perceptions about the church hierarchy, and ended up effectively encouraging people (who may be on the fence) to see what all the fuss is about by reading arguments against what the definitely church teaches.

      I agree that other authorities besides the Vatican can be just as “mitre-wearing.” I’m on record here at the League defending the bishops’ opposition to the Obama administration’s HHS mandate, for example.

      • Tom Van Dyke says:

        Confused? Moi? You wound me, Mr. Cupp. I believe I’ve been completely logical about the whole affair.

        I’m no theologian; the nuances of theology elude me.

        We agree. Mr. Tony [above] seems to get it. I meself had only hoped to help.

        it went viral

        And who is the virus? Dissident Catholics amplified by those who have an enmity against the Roman Catholic Church, that’s who. What do you expect? This is why clarity on the Church’s theology—and theology of itself, as in the magisterium—is so critically important.

        “There are not more than 100 people in the world who truly hate the Catholic Church, but there are millions who hate what they perceive to be the Catholic Church.”—Fulton J. Sheen

        I think Bishop Sheen perhaps wildly misunderestimated the 100 especially in our 21st century America, but his point is well-taken. The most thoughtful of Protestants who join the Mother Church do so out of deep study and prayer, say a Beckwith, a Chesterton. Richard John Neuhaus, Archbishop Avery Dulles. Mortimer Adler, Elizabeth Anscombe!

        The more one understands of Catholic thought, the more one comes to appreciate it, even if one cannot accept it. In this modern world of nonsense, it stands as a beacon of not of brute authoritarianism or mere fideism, but of coherence.

        I have no problem with Protestants or Protestantism as a variant of Christianity. I shall not know if they’re the ones who are right about all this until Judgment Day. But I’d prefer that Catholics who cannot accept her theology to have the guts to leave their church and go Catholicize Protestantism, rather than the other way around.

        I notice you have a member of the Society of Jesus in your company over at your other blog, and I’d be interested in his thoughts about all this. When I’m put a question on Roman Catholicism that’s over my head I say, Go ask a Jesuit—they understand it more and believe it less.

        I think he’ll get a chuckle. I hope so, anyway.

        Respectfully submitted, with best regards.

  3. The Catholic Church as the fullness of truth.

  4. Johnwhodoesmath says:

    My belated comment is mostly about the picture. Have you been inside the Basilica of the National Shrine? (I checked the file name to make sure, hehe). I drove by it just the other day. The interior is jaw-droppingly gorgeous; almost too gorgeous. You should do a post on Church architecture so that I can pretend to know about churches in Ecuador (i.e. share pictures).

    I am also Catholic, but sometimes I feel like I have no reason to be. I can’t seem to shake it though. When wandering silently through a structure such as the Basilica, I can’t help but be moved in some way. A priest once told me with a smile that sometimes he feels like the most agnostic priest out there. That was encouraging.