Catholic Reasons

Scott Carson critiques Rod Dreher’s reasons for converting to orthodoxy.

But Dreher is talking about more than just a personal comfort zone. He’s talking about a major crisis in his faith. That is one reason why it is a little disappointing to find him saying things like this:

I had to admit that I had never seriously considered the case for Orthodoxy. Now I had to do that. And it was difficult poring through the arguments about papal primacy. I’ll spare you the details, but I will say that I came to seriously doubt Rome’s claims. Reading the accounts of the First Vatican Council, and how they arrived at the dogma of papal infallibility, was a shock to me: I realized that I simply couldn’t believe the doctrine.

Talk about your wishful thinking. True, lots of other people can’t believe it either, but to begin questioning how an ecumenical council arrives at its dogmatic teachings is the doorstep to heterodoxy, not orthodoxy. Granted, the Orthodox Churches don’t recognize the validity of all of the Ecumenical Councils, but you can bet your bottom dollar they wouldn’t tolerate judging the dogmatic pronouncements of the ones they do accept on the basis of personal, private judgments about the manner in which the dogmata were arrived at! Is Dreher going to become a student of ancient history now, and look through everything that can be known about Nicea, Chalcedon, Constantinople, and all the other Councils accepted by the Orthodox, and decide for himself which ones came up with dogmata in a legitimate way and which ones didn’t? Will he discover that the doctrine of the Trinity was forced through by a suspicious vote? Will he discover that physical force was brought into play in the debates over monothelitism? Perhaps he will found his own church someday that all of the other purists can come to.

Actually, Dreher’s previous sentences in reviewed paragraph seem relevant.

I had to admit that I had never seriously considered the case for Orthodoxy. Now I had to do that. And it was difficult poring through the arguments about papal primacy. I’ll spare you the details, but I will say that I came to seriously doubt Rome’s claims. Reading the accounts of the First Vatican Council, and how they arrived at the dogma of papal infallibility, was a shock to me: I realized that I simply couldn’t believe the doctrine. And if that falls, it all falls. Of course I immediately set upon myself, doubting my thinking because doubting my motives. You’re just trying to talk yourself into something, I thought. And truth to tell, there was a lot of that, I’m sure.

Interestingly, the full paragraph seems to suggest that Dreher’s doubts Rome’s claims on account of the ‘arguments about papal primacy’, not on the vague historical recollections that Carson points to as initiators of such doubt. In general, Carson does note his empathy with Dreher’s thoughts.

This may sound unfair, of course, and it would be if Dreher had simply given his own personal reasons for leaving and left it at that. But he couldn’t do that. Precisely because he is an intelligent person, he knew that Catholicism is right, and he needed an intellectual justification for doing what he was doing, and the only possible way to get that justification would be to call into question the teachings of the Church. In short, he made a conscious decision to become a functional protestant, while wishing nonetheless to continue enjoying the fruits of the genuine Sacraments.

Not only does Mr Dreher’s subsequent discussion of the sacraments seem to be more emotionally driven than his doubts about Vatican I, but this arbitrary line between ‘personal reasons’ and ‘intellectual justification’ needs a little bit of teasing out. The fact that Dreher is an ‘intelligent person’ would seem to suggest his ‘person reasons’ just might be intellectual reasons. Unless Carson is arguing that in matters of faith justification should not be a matter of intelligent thought, and I seriously doubt that he would suggest such a thing, why should the fact that an ‘intelligent person’ is giving intelligent reasons mean that he ‘needed an intellectual justification for doing what he was doing’. This could be inferred from the fact that he didn’t go into detail about the causes of his doubt, but his mere presentation of his personal journey should not be expected to be a complete apologia and it sounds as though Carson would agree to this. So where is the line he’s talking about? It seems to be the line before one would ‘call into question the teachings of the Church’. And on this point, Al Kimel (here too) goes into further (and clearer, I think) detail.

To be Catholic is to refuse to doubt the de fide teachings of the Catholic Church, for to doubt these teachings is to doubt Christ himself: “It is, then, perfectly true, that the Church does not allow her children to entertain any doubt of her teaching; and that, first of all, simply for this reason, because they are Catholics only while they have faith, and faith is incompatible with doubt. No one can be a Catholic without a simple faith, that what the Church declares in God’s name, is God’s word, and therefore true. A man must simply believe that the Church is the oracle of God; he must be as certain of her mission, as he is of the mission of the Apostles” (“Faith and Doubt”).


To become Catholic, to be Catholic, is to surrender one’s private judgment to the magisterial teaching of the Church. It is to believe that what the Church teaches and will teach as belonging to the deposit of revelation is from God. One may investigate the rational grounds for de fide dogmas; but one may not doubt them nor inquire whether or not they may be true. As Newman remarks, a Catholic “cannot be both inside and outside of the Church at once.”

But Carson’s line of inquiry brings up some interesting questions. How can an individual Christian be expected to make decisions when each decision they make is bound to stem from ‘personal, private judgments’? Stanley Hauerwas notes

The project of modernity was to produce people who believe they should have no story except the story they choose when they have no story.

I have to wonder what it would mean then for a non-Catholic to ‘come home’ to the Church, or an atheist to become a Christian, or a (God forbid) Catholic to become an Orthodox. Aren’t all of these examples of people believing that the story they choose will be there story? If one postulates that Catholic Church’s authority is absolute on issues of theology, no matter what their reasoning or ‘intellectual justification’, where comes the individual’s authority to recognize the Church’s authority? Is this too to be taken on some ‘blind faith’ that smacks more of Kierkegaard than it ever would of Paul? There must be some sense in which recognizing/choosing the right thing is part of an individual’s authority.

Michael Liccione’s take (from back in May) seems, to me, to be most honest and insightful (his recent commentary gives a quick overview of some of the aforementioned themes).

The Pope knows that such is where the chief difficulty lies: he often says, in one way or another, that true holiness is the most effective argument for the truth of the Catholic faith. It must be admitted that the converse also holds: the lack thereof is the most effective argument against the truth of the Catholic faith.

Now on one hand, this seems to make quite a bit of sense. After all, if some teacher claimed that if you just believed what he said, your life would be transformed and you looked around and the believers’ lives were not transformed, wouldn’t this suggest that the teachings were wrong? A good example I can think of is something like Marxism, where the theory sounds all nice and easy in theory, but never seems to work out in practice. A great contrary example might be Mormonism, where many confess to followers’ piety, but few would suggest that that alone would confirm the accuracy of the teachings.

I guess that this leaves me with a few thoughts.
1. Authority is important.
2. The Catholic sense of authority makes sense of Church’s authority to clarify doctrine, but seems lacking (from the little that I know) when it comes to an individuals’ ability to make day-to-day decisions.
3. The Protestant denominations either don’t even worry about authority or tend to move towards some modern sense of liberalism.
4. Holiness is important, but it’s not an argument in itself.
5. The involvement of the Holy Spirit in this area needs to be discussed more (looking at recognition of the truth in the Bible might lead in this direction).


3 thoughts on “Catholic Reasons

  1. Nick,

    Nice thoughts about Dreher–it amazes me how many words have poured out of us over one man’s decision, but I suppose on another level, his conversion brings up a lot of larger issues. Your thoughts at the end get to the heart of them, points 2 and 3 in particular:

    2. I’m not sure I agree with you, but I may have a peculiar way of looking at the Catholic sense of authority. I see the authority of the Church as setting boundaries beyond which I may not go and remain Catholic. Within those boundaries, there is ample freedom. When it comes to day-to-day decisions, there is a tension between choices I may not make and, often, many decisions that I can make. That’s when the Holy Spirit, Scripture, and prayer come into play. You’re right that Catholic authority doesn’t come into play all that much in day-to-day decisions unless I’m straying close to the defined boundaries. But, I don’t see that as a problem.

    3. I don’t think it’s fair to say that Protestant denominations that do not move toward liberalism don’t worry about authority. Authority is tacit in how those more conservative denominations interpret Scripture. It just isn’t acknowledged per se. A particular interpretive framework of Scripture seems to me to serve exactly the same purpose as the Catholic view of authority. The question for me is: what justification do such unspoken authority structures have?

  2. When I say that Protestant denominations that haven’t moved towards liberalism have instead tended to ‘not worry’ about authority, They tend to believe that the question is merely an academic one. As such, a number of stand-ins take the place of that authority (common sense, rhetoric, Biblical theology, philosophy, etc… depending on the church), as you said, they’re just not acknowledged.

    Their justification is a different story. There I believe that a church that does act appropriately in regards to recognizing authority, even if that authority was never elucidated, would still be justified in their approach. The difficulty is that without the recognition of their structure, it would be extremely hard to stop any opposing structures from usurping their own.

    I also need to make clear that I remain unconvinced as to the authority question. It might be possible that common sense, rhetoric, Biblical theology, philosophy, tradition, etc… may have a place within authority. I just don’t know yet.

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