Thursday, April 24, 2008


Last week I commented on Pope Benedict's remarks to Catholic educators, and proposed a way to define the Catholic identity of colleges and universities that does not offend naturalism.

Several colleagues quite reasonably asked: "Delete the supernaturalist content from our faith and we might as well cease to exist as Catholic institutions of learning. What would then distinguish us from Unitarians?"

I don't expect the Church to dismiss supernaturalism any time soon. Saint Paul said "If Jesus did not rise from the dead, then our faith is in vain," and rising from the dead is about as supernaturalist as you can get. Moreover, the Nicene Creed is a shopping list of miracles that most Catholics take as defining elements of their faith.

Nevertheless, supernaturalism is in slow retreat within the Church. Let's pick a random dogma: the Assumption of Mary, say, which in 1950 was declared infallibly to be a truth of faith. Did Mary's corporeal body go off somewhere into incorruptibility? If so, where? The whole notion seems so preposterous as to defy credence. And, if confronted with the dogma, most Catholics one encounters in higher education will hem and haw and blush with equivocation. If one infallible dogma of faith is so iffy, then why not others? Why not the central miracle itself?

The Catholic naturalist (assuming there can be such a thing) does not dismiss the stories connected with the founding of the faith -- the Annunciation, Visitation, Virgin Birth, the Magi, the Flight Into Egypt, and all the rest leading up to and including the central event of the Resurrection. The stories are the way our prescientific ancestors embellished the life of Jesus, at a time when the world was almost universally thought to be full of supernatural spirits and miracles. Like great works of religious art, architecture and music, the stories are a part of our cultural heritage, even if not literally true.

Here are the elements of a Catholic faith I could return to:

--Science provides the most reliable knowledge we presently have of who we are and where we came from. It is a story of breathtaking grandeur.

--Science does not exhaust the mystery of the world; rather, each new discovery confirms our ignorance and deepens our sense of mystery.

--Our response to mystery is to understand the world as holy. We celebrate this holiness through the sacramental rites and rituals of traditional faith. The water of baptism, the bread and wine of the eucharist, the chrism of the anointing, and all the other liturgical traditions of Catholicism are visible signs of an inward grace that is deep and transforming beyond our knowing. They are the language of shared reverence and thanksgiving.

--The life of Jesus of Nazareth is the central sacrament of the Catholic faith. The message of that sacrament is love.

--Catholic tradition is just one of the historic ways humans have understood and celebrated the essential mystery of the world. The creation itself, shared by all humans, is the primary revelation, what Umberto Eco calls "God's discourse to man." The challenge of the Church in the 21st century is to divest the word God of its anthropomorphic encrustations.

--There are no miracles except the single miracle which is the universe itself. No need for the supernatural when every jot and tittle of this perhaps infinite creation is shot through with mystery. We humbly honor that mystery with science, art, universal love, and the joyful noise of the liturgy.

--Finally, it goes without saying that I would look to a Church that has rid itself of its present paternalism, authoritarianism, misogyny, and homophobia.