I was a graduate student in English literature during the flakey 1970s. I had recently returned to Catholicism and found my faith under daily attack by professors who took great relish in debunking the Church.
I spent a lot of mental time trying to answer those criticisms for my own sake. Once, when talking with a Jesuit priest (a safe haven, I thought) I said something about the “rational basis of Catholicism.” He responded that there was nothing rational about faith at all.
In fairness to him, I think he meant God’s love for us is so great and undeserved that it makes our human rationalizing look absurd, 0r something like that.
Is Catholicism rational?
But, in fact, our Catholic faith is reasonable in many ways, even though it surpasses human reason when its object is the inner nature of God or other supernatural truths.
Did you know the Church says you do not have to “believe” that God exists, or that man has an immortal soul, or that Christ worked miracles — including rising from the dead — or that he founded the Catholic Church?
The Church says this because we can “know” these particular truths from reason. We do not have to make an act of faith to accept them. These are what have been called “preambles of faith”. They provide a rational foundation for the assent of the mind to truths which do, in fact, go beyond reason’s ability to grasp. By reasonably accepting the “preambles of faith” we are better prepared to accept through faith the truths that surpass reason, such as the Unity and Trinity of God, the Incarnation of Christ, the Eucharist and all the Sacraments, and the meaning (rather than the fact of) the Resurrection.
And even for matters that do require faith, we are provided with outside, rationally accessible evidence that it is sensible to believe them. These are what Vatican I called “motives of credibility.” The basic idea can be seen when Jesus healed the paralytic (Matthew 9 & Mark 2). Here, Jesus did something people could see: he healed the man’s body as evidence that he could do something they could not see, forgive his sins.
Visible proofs of Catholicism
Another one of these visible proofs of the truth of Christianity is the Church herself. Vatican I points to the Church’s “marvelous propagation, her exalted sanctity, and her inexhaustible fruitfulness in all that is good . . . her catholic unity and her unshaken stability” as evidence that what she teaches is true.
But wait a minute. “The holiness of the Church has been thoroughly disproved! Organized religion, especially the Catholic Church, is the biggest mass murderer in human history and the oppressor of all human rights! Priests are all a bunch of twisted . . .” I will stop here, because you can add your own list of things people say about us. I heard plenty from my graduate-school professors.
People can always take something they hate and cast an ugly shadow over it. After all, even Jesus Christ was utterly reviled by some.
Saints around us
I would like to focus on just one dimension of the Church’s witness to her own supernatural claims: the “sanctity . . . and fruitfulness in all that is good” found in the persons of the saints. The endless train of authentically good persons who have appeared in the life of the Church over these two millennia is, rationally speaking, astonishing. I, myself, have encountered many extraordinarily good men and women in the Church and two – still living – that I would hazard to guess are worthy of canonization.
The exemplary lives of these men and women are living testimonies to the truth behind the faith they lived for, the truth many of them gave their lives to protect and honor.
Scoundrels among us
But what about all the scoundrels of the Catholic Church? Do they cancel out the witness of the saints?
The world employs a selective myopia when it comes to scoundrels. In any other institution, the world considers the scoundrel’s actions his own responsibility. But in the Church, she herself is blamed, as if she produced the scoundrel. All of us, inside and outside the Church, are sinners with bad tendencies that we can either resist or embrace. Why would we expect scoundrels to flee the Church so as not to sully her reputation? The truth is that every human institution is and always been a place where scoundrels can be found.
Of course, in the first three centuries of the Church’s existence, bad fellows were fairly rare. They tend to avoid entanglements which could get them persecuted or even martyred. But as soon as the Church became an accepted part of society and even assumed a prominent place in it, scoundrels began to lurk.
Scoundrels are always lurking about, ranging from gossips to backbiters to petty thieves to full-blown sociopaths, including within the Church – just as, I have heard, there is always a spider within five feet of us wherever we are. Creepy thought.
But there are also in the Church countless persons striving to respond to God’s grace, including those who live lives of heroic virtue and who provide evidence with their lives that what the Church teaches is true.
The Church is saying that just as Jesus’ miraculous healing of the paralytic provides credibility to his claim to forgive sins, the train of saints in the Church also makes the Church’s supernatural teachings believable. It is through their witness, and the time-tested witness of the Church herself, that God helps us accept the truths which transcend our reason and gives us even greater confidence to defend those truths we can understand.
I leave you with a question to ask yourself, especially when struggling with doubt: has any other institution in the history of the world or on earth today produced anything like the saints?
Photography: See our Photographers page.