By Terry Hulsey
Is the growth of state power proportional to the faith of its citizens?
I say that the most intractable aspect of the state (its presumption of moral authority) and its deadliest attribute (its application of coercive violence) are deifications of the state, and could not exist in a society of minds free of that need.
Of course the most spectacularly bloody states (Mao’s China, Stalin’s Russia, Pol Pot’s Cambodia) have claimed to be atheist. I would say that the power of these states would not have existed without psychological needs that are at bottom religious.
Consider from the other direction: Does religious faith minimize the moral pretensions or coercive power of the state? The suggestion is laughable. The most intractable conflicts around the globe are driven by faith, by faith in unprovable otherworldly claims. Remove that and the key support for the worst aspects of the state fails.
It seems to me that the only plausible argument from faith is to claim that these psychological needs can’t be eradicated, that they are part of the human condition. Here you have some footing, and a certain justification for the glory of the Roman Catholic faith: Of all the faiths, it has probably the most complex theology, the most beautiful liturgy, the most learned and careful priesthood — just the thing to keep those who are prey to these psychological monsters on a short leash. But this is only “for the troops” — nobody who can think can possibly believe the preposterous nonsense found on every page of the Bible. A sincere and reasoning Catholic makes the barest claims as a “sure and certain hope” (also, I Thessalonians 4:13-18) for what can be known by no one.
The Catholic Church maintains a contradiction on all the salient questions of theology. It affirms the authority of Scripture, but at the same time denies it by exalting the teachings of the early Fathers and of the Pope. It affirms Christ as the mediator to God, but at the same time denies it by giving priests, the Church, the saints and Mary a power of mediation. It affirms one sense of justification by faith, but at the same time denies justification by faith alone. Consider the ecumenical councils. The Nicean Council (325) asked whether there is a single God or a Trinity; the answer: “yes.” That is, God is both single and triune. The Councils of Ephesus (431) and Chalcedon (451) asked whether Jesus is God or man; the answer: “yes.” That is, Jesus is both fully God and fully human. Vatican II (1962-65) asked whether all Christian faiths have ecumenical validity or is the Roman Catholic faith the one true Christian faith; the answer: “yes.” In short, the Catholic Church has the stomach of an ostrich: It can digest anything.
Let me not be misunderstood: Maintaining contradiction on theological questions is the great glory of the Holy Catholic Church. A scientific mind affirms one theorem and advances to the next; while the type of mind preoccupied with theological questions is paralyzed by these contradictions and spends a lifetime in their endless rumination. There is no pretense of knowing an unknowable proposition A that inflames a sublunary rabble to act upon proposition B. All would-be Ayatollahs and Hong Xiuquans are thus effectively castrated before advancing one step in trying to effect some millennialist heaven on earth.
It will be said that some very important things have been accomplished on this earth by Catholics. Of course. I could not agree more. This is so because the Church has been the neutral carrier of a number of philosophies which would otherwise have found it difficult to gain popular currency. Is the philosophy implicit in the Catholicism of Pius IX the same as that in the Catholicism of Benedict XVI? Of course it is not. Believers in the time of Pius IX took his ex cathedra statements as the word of God; believers in the time of Benedict XVI take his ex cathedra statements as something that they will give serious consideration. Is the encouragement of science under Urban VIII (Galileo's accuser) the same as that under Pius XII (Galileo's champion)? Of course it is not. The Church has seen the truth and the benefits of science, and it has allowed itself to become the carrier of what may be called the philosophy of science: Demonstrable facts as the arbiter of truth, collegial reasoning to provide public proofs, and the use of the scientific method. The capitalism and respect for private property that give cooperation and toleration meaning are at the moment given popular currency by the Church. Of course it asserts many contradictory things regarding labor and capital, as it must. If it asserted one thing without contradiction it would become a philosophy and cease to be the Church. But it does not give currency to warfare between the rich and the poor.
The architectonic maintenance of contradiction is the rock upon which the power, utility, and glory of the Holy Roman Church bind and unbind all within its purview on earth.
Now there is one point upon which the Church admits of no contradiction whatsoever. It is the insistence that of all human beings born on earth, a single one died and came to life again. Furthermore, it insists that by asserting your belief in this impossibility, you too can come to life after your death. Whatever the differences among Christians, they all agree that without these two principles there is no Christian faith (1 Corinthians 15:12-19).
This insistence is a denial of the vital principle of the Church -- what I have called its “architectonic maintenance of contradiction.” For those contradictions cited above (e.g., the triune nature of god, the dual nature of Christ), the Church has one reply to their incomprehensibility: “It is a Mystery.” And yet (most bizarre!), on the incomprehensibility of one god-man's coming to life again, it answers: “It is a fact!”
It seems to me that the Church can instantly dismay the atheists and place itself on the side of science and historical truth in a very simple way: By reasserting its vital principle; by maintaining a contradiction on this central event in its history; by saying: “It is a Mystery”; by dropping its assertion of a god-man actually rising from the dead as an article of faith.
But did this one man in fact come back to life after being dead for three days, or did he not? The answer: “yes.” Faith is the “evidence of things unseen” (Hebrews 11:1). But it is the perversion of religion to say that faith is the “proof of things unseen.” To earnestly and powerfully believe that manna will drop from heaven when you are hungry by no means proves that this will ever happen. The most that can be demanded of the Catholic faithful, without asking them to sacrifice their minds on the altar of faith, is that they believe in the future fulfillment of the promise offered by the heroic figure of Christ.