You know the drill: The Church is a prison that shackles the hearts and minds of people who yearn for the freedom to think and act as they please. It is a stifling cell in which the best and the brightest are not allowed to be free due to the brutal restraints of dogma.
The reality, however, is that most of the modern talk of intellectual and spiritual freedom, particularly when targeted against the Church, is empty cant. Anti-Catholics frequently, if not usually, oppose the Faith because they don’t like the largeness of the Catholic intellectual and spiritual world. They much prefer being prisoners of very small ideas. The reality is that most anti-Catholics are terrified of the intellectual freedom of the Faith and much prefer some small ideology, cramped superstition, or cozy little circle of slogans and simplicities that can be easily memorized and repeated.
I was reminded of this recently when the headlines noted that ex-Catholic Tom Cruise was building bunker to prepare himself against Intergalactic Alien Attack. Now I don’t know if Cruise is really building said bunker, but I do know that to leave the Catholic Faith for Scientology is to exchange a vast estate full of woods and rivers ripe for exploration and quiet meditation for a cement cell decorated with cartoons. I well recall a conversation with a friend who described an acquaintance of his, deep in the meshes of Scientology. The man had explained how the Scientology clinicians had hooked him up to a polygraph and asked him a bunch of incredibly personal questions, the answers to which were carefully recorded and filed away for later “use”. He saw nothing amiss with this. When my friend asked him what benefits he had received from Scientology, he responded “Ah! I can’t tell you. You have to reach the $5000 dollar level!”
This strange urge to be harder on ourselves than the Faith permits us to be is a curious feature of our fallenness. I well remember a friend who stayed with an aging group of Welsh Non-Conformists back in the 80s. They were the last survivors of a religious enthusiasm that swept through Wales in the early 20th Century. Each year, their dwindling numbers got smaller, but they held the True Faith, and continued to meet and encourage each other in rigorism and joylessness. At one particularly unforgettable gathering, one of the old duffers in the group stood up to give his testimony (one they had all heard many times). He said, “When I was a young man, I used to celebrate Christmas and enjoy a pint down at the pub. But when I found the Lord, I stopped doing all that.” And all the saints said, “Amen.”
It isn’t just spiritual smallness people can choose, by the way. Matthew Parris is a British columnist who recently distinguished himself with his preference for intellectual smallness by responding to the amazing healing of a French nun by dogmatically declaring that nobody could “honestly entertain the possibility that from beyond the grave the late Pope John Paul II interceded with God to cause a woman to be cured of Parkinson’s disease.” You may ask how—given the fact that the nun was, in fact, healed—Mr. Parris knows this. Here is his free-thinking and open-minded response:
“But how can you be sure?” Oh boy, am I sure. Oh great quivering mountains of pious mumbo-jumbo, am I sure. Oh fathomless oceans of sanctified babble, am I sure. Words cannot express my confidence in the answer to the question whether God cured a nun because she wrote a Pope’s name down. He didn’t.
Meanwhile, the close-minded and fearful Church is continuing its investigation, just in case Mr. Parris might have missed something in his utter certitude.
To be Catholic is to be free—frighteningly free, in fact. Mr. Parris is manifestly terrified of a universe big enough to include a God who works miracles. Many people have what Evelyn Waugh called “little systems of order” that depend, like a house of cards, on the wind of the Holy Spirit not blowing them apart. It is a scary thing to realize that there is no Catholic position on many of the shibboleths and tribal loyalties that define our lives on a day-to-day basis. The Faith has no particular ideology concerning economics, ghosts, diet regimens, psychic healing, politics, TV shows, music, or smoking. But to the tribes that care about such things, your opinion or lack thereof marks you as Us or Them. The Faith is the only place in the world that insists you can remain part of Us while holding almost whatever view you like about democracy or evolution. Most people don’t want to be that free and prefer the cozy confines of an ideological cell.