I often speak with people about the latest Catholic dust-ups in the news — family and friends, by all accounts very "normal" Christians. While they know they should know better, reactionary headlines and half-truths abound, and often goad well-intentioned people into a tizzy. The Church is not exempt from this pandemic. It's hard to read something like Pat Buchanan's latest ham-handed hit job on Pope Francis
and not feel the red blood begin to boil in your veins, whichever side you hope to come down on. It all makes being a Christian seem rather infeasible, even repulsive.
Ironically, what makes faith sane and attractive is not the opposite of what makes it seem insane or unattractive. Heresy hunting is the Catholic equivalent of fighting fake news. But unlike politics (allegedly), accuracy and accountability aren't the hallmarks of sincere faith. In other words, our model for sifting faithfulness is broken.
To learn this, I've conducted a little experiment. My friends must be sick of hearing me ask the question: "So what? What if so-and-so said such-and-such? How does that affect your ability to evangelize?" Evangelization is, after all, the antidote to erasing Christian identity in the West, the foundation of secular liberalism and the reason for the culture wars. A common notion among heresy hunters is that clear doctrine is indispensable — causal, even — to good evangelization. What I've discovered, though, from listening to the responses, is that there's an even more popular and important idea that a lack of clarity provides an unimpeachable excuse to keep silent. Most times, my question gets no direct answer. At best, it's accompanied by a few big what-ifs.
Naturally, clarity is good. But it doesn't pertain to faith the same way as other things. Clear doctrine is an aid to faith, but not sufficient for it. And although we should seek intelligent reasons for our belief, we shouldn't rely on them entirely.
Preferring exact knowledge (gnosis
) to the mystery of faith is one of the earliest and most destructive errors against Christianity, and one that is still being formally corrected today
. Knowledge is attractive because it produces certainty. But articles of faith aren't held with certainty in the same way. The surety of faith comes not through rational guarantees, but from confidence in the messenger. In the worst case, as Pope Francis writes in his latest exhortation, Gaudete et exultate, "
We can think that because we know something, or are able to explain it in certain terms, we are already saints." We therefore "turn the Christian experience into a set of intellectual exercises that distance us from the freshness of the Gospel." This becomes tiresome and discouraging.
What makes Christian faith attractive is the claim it lays to things beyond our rational horizons. Faith states that there is a God, that he creates each of us with purpose, and that he sustains our being even after death. It even claims that the sinfulness that distorts our vision and blinds us — against our better wishes — is not absolute, but can be overcome. Death itself is conquered.
The first and most evident power of faith is to excite our natural passions. We want to live forever. We want to avoid the pain and fear of death. We want to know there's some purpose to things beyond our minds. The tenets of faith deliver on these desires, and whet our appetite for deeper, richer answers. Doctrines are developed through a long, slow process of fides quaerens intellectum
. And clarity is the result of an inspired (literally, a Spirit-infused) dialectic, not the inevitable completion of a fully plotted rational framework.
If it all seems tenuous, that's because it is. Christian faith, like a gothic cathedral, is beautiful in part because it's so large and airy that, from afar, it appears to be unstable. But upon closer inspection it's unshakably firm. Now, leaning in, a new layer of details emerges, each in its own way spindly and seeming easily broken; but here they are, enduring for a thousand years.
When we proclaim our faith to the world, we must not forget, as Ratzinger wrote long ago
, that "the believer can perfect his faith only on the ocean of nihilism, temptation, and doubt," and that man "has been assigned the ocean of uncertainty as the only possible site for his faith." These are not sentiments that coincide easily with click-bait Christianity or heresy hunting. We should be careful to guard against error in any case, yet wedding these priorities is a particular challenge for public personas and commentators; more and more, this includes the likes of Facebook micro-celebrities, i.e., normal people with very public opinions. Ratzinger goes on to say
that even errors against the faith