Monday, May 12, 2008

Many infallible proofs

Because I said so

My library contains a slightly ragged copy of Father McGuire's The New Baltimore Catechism and Mass. Its cover proclaims that it is “No. 1” and an “Official Revised Edition” from Benziger Brothers, Inc. The copyright date is 1942. It is a sacred relic of my Catholic youth and a testament to the prompt-and-response training that characterized our religious instruction before Vatican II.

It's just a little bit startling to discover the degree to which many of the rote responses are still embedded in my brain:

Q. Why did God make you?

A. God made me to show his goodness and to share with him everlasting happiness in heaven.

So there. God sure must be good, especially with that everlasting happiness stuff.

It's not very persuasive, though, is it? God the altruistic philanthropist. That God doesn't put in a lot of appearances in the Bible, although there's some hinting at him in the final chapters (though not the final chapter, which bears all the earmarks of a really bad acid trip).

My old copy of The Baltimore Catechism contains an appendix titled Why I Am a Catholic (which the observant reader will recall was borrowed by author Garry Wills for the title of his book-length contortionist act on remaining faithful to a church that he constantly questions). The appendix is in the standard Q&A format and addresses certain fundamental questions. Even giving some allowance for the fact that this catechism is intended for adolescents, question II is a particularly lame instance of the first-cause argument for God's existence:
II. How can we prove that there is a God?

We can prove that there is a God because this vast universe could not have come into existence, nor be so beautiful and orderly, except by the almighty power and the wisdom of an eternal and intelligent Being.
A student armed with this “knowledge” may be at a slight disadvantage upon encountering John Allen Paulos's rebuttal from his new book Irreligion:
Of someone who asserts that God is the uncaused first cause (and then preens as if he's really explained something), we should thus inquire, “Why cannot the physical world itself be taken to be the uncaused first cause?”
Uh, because?

Having thus established the existence of God through unassailable logic, The Baltimore Catechism moves on to man's immortal soul:
III. How can we prove that the soul of man is immortal?

We can prove that the soul of man is immortal because man's acts of intelligence are spiritual; therefore, his soul must be a spiritual being, not dependent on matter, and hence not subject to decay or death.
Intelligent acts are proof of an immortal soul? I have to admit this is a little embarrassing, since here I am using my intelligence, such as it is, to poke gentle fun at gods and souls. Boy, is my face red!

There's the possibility that woman may also have an immortal soul, but she's not much in evidence in the pages of The Baltimore Catechism—except in those passages where she's blamed for leading man astray with that apple business. Apparently we would have been better off without her, a position espoused by much of the Roman Catholic clergy.

(One might also note the likely consequence of Father McGuire's argument that intelligence is a marker for soul possession. Animals exhibit varying degrees of intelligence but are normally excluded from the ranks of the ensouled. It would be quite difficult under this rubric, however, to deny souls to the great apes whom studies have shown to solve problems by cogitation and reasoned action. There are probably quite a few chimpanzees in Africa who worship Dr. Jane Goodall as a goddess, and they have better evidence for her power and existence than Christians do for their god. Is this proof of their souls?)

Now that God and man's immortal soul are firmly established by rigorous reasoning, let's move on to the crucial next step:
IV. How can we prove that all men are obliged to practice religion?

We can prove that all men are obliged to practice religion because all men are entirely dependent on God and must recognize that dependence by honoring Him and praying to Him.

Perhaps I'm expecting too much from The Baltimore Catechism. After all, it keeps saying “We can prove...”; that's a lesser claim than declaring we have proved the assertions. Yes, that could be it: The actual proofs will be provided later....

Still waiting!

A weird postscript: The Imprimatur for my copy of The Baltimore Catechism is by Francis J. Spellman, cardinal archbishop of New York. The cardinal was an ardent supporter of Sen. Joe McCarthy's anti-communist witch hunt of the 1950s and near the end of his life was just as vigorously in favor of the war in Vietnam. The very image of rectitude and moral advocacy, Spellman was protected from the exposure of his own peccadilloes by the carefully averted eyes of the authority-respecting culture of his day. In his spare time the cardinal was a solicitous patron of various Broadway chorus boys, his official episcopal limousine often spotted parked at stage doors at curtain time to whisk Spellman's current favorite to the diocesan residence. Boy, some things never change!

As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be.


Karen said...

Wow. Growing up in the church post-Vatican II, I never was subjected to the prompt-and-response bit. My mother told stories about it (my father was Lutheran), but I always assumed her training was due to the laziness of the parish priest in the tiny midwestern town where she grew up.

A belated and (unfortunately) posthumous apology, Mama.

Ray said...

You got me again, but this time it was not at all pleasant. For the first time in my six decades, I felt physically nauseous simply by seeing a photograph - the one you included of Bush The Pious.

I'm not at all sure how I'm going to get that out of my head.

Zeno said...

Sorry, Ray! But weren't you struck by how sincere he looks?

Porlock Hussein Junior said...

I shall never hear of the catechism without remembering my first contact with the word, when a school friend stopped by and was careful to safeguard the little book that my brother promptly dubbed the Cat-Kissing Book.

Anonymous said...

Where can I purchase Father McGuire's Baltimore catechism and Mass #1?