A game for the skeptical masses
Most people manage to hang on to religious beliefs even after abandoning their youthful devotion to the cults of Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy. A few, however, continue their progression toward enlightenment and may feel some pangs of loss as they join the oppressed ranks of the unbelieving. The nonbeliever in the United States is surrounded by people who speak the peculiar in-language of their "Christian walk" and "give witness" to being "born again." Perhaps you know what I mean. Perhaps you were once one of them.
If you have not experienced a Roman Catholic childhood, you may find it difficult to imagine the sense of pride and security that comes from belonging to the "one, true religion." While Mark Twain may have said, "[Man] is the only animal that has the True Religion—several of them," I believe it's easier to maintain one-true-religion smugness as a Catholic than as a Protestant. Episcopalians, for example, can shift uncomfortably from foot to foot while contemplating the unavoidable historical truth that their Anglican origins sprang more from Henry VIII's pursuit of a male heir than from any wellspring of reformist faith. Roman Catholicism retains a certain monolithic solidity while Protestantism shattered into tens of thousands of splinter sects. It just takes more work to persuade yourself of the primacy of your faith when its source is a disaffected preacher who decamped from some other denomination a few decades or even centuries ago. Catholicism, however, reaches back farther into the two millennia of Christianity than any of its wayward offspring.
As you might have guessed by now, I had one of those Roman Catholic childhoods. Curiously enough, my participation in the rites survived for several years after the end of my belief. Force of habit is powerful and the context of family offers numerous opportunities to follow the forms if not the substance of faith. Lapsing was not an act of rebellion, it was simply the eventual acknowledgment that I didn't believe the stories of resurrection, transubstantiation, and other miracles. The one thing that did not, however, go away was my belief that Catholicism was the authentic form of Christianity and that all other variants were inferior. This remnant of my childhood faith fascinates me. I pondered it until finally realizing that today I am a kind of "axiomatic Catholic." That is, I am not in any sense a practicing Catholic, but if we take the basic tenets of Christian faith as a starting point, I remain perfectly willing to dispute with those who argue that their preferred flavor of Christianity is the best. It is a kind of mathematical thing. Choose a set of axioms with which to begin and thereafter adduce the consequences of those axioms. If you don't really believe your axioms, then you're not going to believe the elaborate formal structure that may be erected on their foundation. In the case of Roman Catholicism, however, the structure is already there and the reality of its existence provides an odd sort of context for my logic spinning.
I drifted into axiomatic Catholicism by accident, although to a degree it is my adulthood's inheritance from my youth. Perhaps most of the credit (or blame) belongs to Bill, a friend of a friend who today is either enjoying his eternal reward for faithfulness or no longer exists in any sense except in the memories of his survivors. (Lucky believers! If they're wrong, they'll never find out!) Bill had made the long journey from left-wing labor organizer in his youth to right-wing evangelical in his old age. Still tied by bonds of affection to some of his comrades from the union movement, he would frequently participate in a Friday lunch group, wincing at the vocal criticisms of neo-conservative politics and patiently proselytizing on behalf of the gods of his old age. Bill was, by his own unblushing account, a phenomenal scholar. He could cure homosexuality (proof: a supposedly gay man he had once counseled had married and produced children!), disprove evolution (with probabilistically illiterate arguments about windstorms and junkyards), and give witness to biblical inerrancy.
Bill and I broke a few lances while jousting over biblical inerrancy. He was passionate in his devotion to sola Scriptura ("Bible alone") as the foundation of Christianity. I told him that sola Scriptura was a clearly specious argument because it had led to a proliferation of rival Christian sects who disagreed furiously in their interpretations of the Bible. If the Bible was the clear standard for Christian practice, why were there such disputes? In all seriousness, Bill patiently explained that the divisions arose because people were not interpreting the Bible correctly. I asked if he interpreted the Bible correctly. He admitted that he did. I asked if those who disagreed with him were damned. No, he said, unless they disagreed on fundamentals. I asked if there was agreement on what constituted the fundamentals. Bill said those were clear from the Bible. I asked if he would like to be the Protestant pope so that he could straighten out all those who disagreed with him. He repeated that a correct reading of the Bible would settle all the disagreements without the need for an authoritarian referee. I reiterated my claim that his co-religionists would likely agree with his declaration that "correct" interpretation was sufficient for Christian unity and then immediately begin arguing over what that meant. Clearly the combination of scripture and tradition, preserved by a long-lived hierarchy, was a sounder method for settling disputes and ensuring orthodoxy. Bill discerned that my statement reeked of Romanism and demurred. He and I never returned to sola Scriptura. I say it's because I utterly defeated his arguments, but I suspect he would say (if he were still here) it was because I had shown myself incapable of understanding the truth of his position.
Shouting in a vacuum
Axiomatic Catholicism is an intellectual game, hollow at its core, a pastime of perhaps no more significance than a round of checkers. It resonates with the training of my early years and keeps it alive in an artificial way. Sometimes, though, I think my dalliance with exegesis is slightly more than mere diversion. We live in a religion-saturated culture and must be prepared to contend with its excesses. Aggressive religious groups in this country are eager to enshrine conservative Christianity as a state religion, intruding on personal freedoms and opposing the secularism of the public classroom. While Bill was a friendly acquaintance, he showed to me the human face of a well-intentioned person who thought he was "doing the Lord's work." His vision of a well-ordered society was anathema to me. Creationism would be forced into the school curriculum, so-called "reparative" therapy would be the standard required treatment for anyone who exhibited same-sex attraction, and non-Christians would be second-class citizens ineligible to hold office (because they're wrong, you know). Bill embodied in full the agenda of the Christian right.
Mind you, my criticisms of the Christian right do not mean that Roman Catholicism is, by contrast, a benign influence in American politics. Many Catholics have made common cause with extremist evangelicals in their quest to outlaw abortion. Catholic radio broadcasters like EWTN regularly treat people like Patrick Buchanan and writers for Human Events as if they were representatives of responsible points of view instead of extremists on the very fringe of American politics. EWTN is an active participant in the mainstreaming of neo-conservative radicalism.
There is one area, though, in which the Roman Catholic hierarchy has demonstrated its capacity to learn—even if it is oh so painfully slowly. It was only a few years ago that John Paul II issued a statement on the Galileo case, expressing regret over the church's missteps in its dispute with the great scientist. John Paul also said that evolution was "more than a hypothesis" and thus warned Catholics not to get on the wrong side of yet another scientific argument. When Cardinal Schönborn recently served as a mouthpiece for some ID-inspired nonsense about problems with evolution, the Vatican moved more quickly than usual to dampen expectations that conservative church politics could be enlisted in the cause of creationist attacks on the biological sciences.
If Benedict XVI would encourage the church to pursue its charitable endeavors, minister to its communicants, and edge away from right-wing interference in American politics, my axiomatic Catholicism would be a bit more comfortable. I have no delusions that that is likely to occur. Hence it is not enough to argue, as the occasion may present itself, that most forms of modern Christianity are distortions of its tradition and that Roman Catholic deference to science should be emulated. I must also argue that this deference needs to be pursued more consistently and disentangled from the confounding effects of dogma. Don't expect Rome to hear that argument, no matter how many people are making it, but do expect the church to make reluctant accommodation with reality, ever so slowly, if we stand our ground. After all, Galileo got his apology in less than 400 years.