Written 8 October 2011; minor revisions 13 September 2018.
This from a graduate student in philosophy who describes himself as a theologically conservative Protestant who is toying with the idea of 'swimming the Tiber':
In a recent post you say this: ""Study everything, join nothing" means that one ought to beware of institutions and organizations with their tendency toward self-corruption and the corruption of their members. (The Catholic Church is a good recent example.)"
Until I read this comment, I, for some reason, was under the impression that you were a Catholic. I was wondering if you would be willing to elaborate on this comment, say more about your take on the Catholic Church, direct me to a post in which you say more about these issues, or direct me to some literature on this topic that you think would be useful.
This request allows me to clarify my relation to Catholicism. I am a cradle Catholic brought up by a pious mother and an indifferent father. She made sure that I attended the parochial school from the first grade on. Those were the pre-Vatican II days before the rot set in, when being Catholic was something rather more definite than it is now. Many with my kind of upbringing were unfazed by their religious training, went along to get along, but then sloughed off the training and the trappings as soon as they could.
For a religion to take root in a person, the person must have a religious nature or predisposition to begin with. Only some have it, just as only some have a philosophical predisposition. Having the former predisposition is a necessary but not sufficient condition of a religion's taking firm root. Another necessary condition is that the person have some religious and/or mystical experiences. Without the predisposition and the experiences, religion, especially a religion as rich in dogmatic articulation as Roman Catholicism, and as stringent in its moral demands, will be exceedingly hard to credit and take seriously in the face of the countervailing influences from nature (particularly the nature in one's own loins) and society with its worldly values.
For some Catholics of my Boomer generation, the extreme cognitive dissonance between the teachings of the Church and the 'teachings' and attitudes of the world, in particular the world of the '60s, led to radical questioning. For example, we were taught that all sins against the 6th and 9th Commandments were mortal and that premarital and extramarital sex even in those forms that fell shy of intercourse were wrong. The 'teachings' of the world and the surrounding culture were of course quite the opposite. For many brought up Catholic, this was not much of a problem: the cognitive dissonance was quickly relieved by simply dropping the religion or else watering it down into some form of namby-pamby humanism. For others like myself who had the religious predisposition and the somewhat confirmatory religious/mystical experiences, the problem of cognitive dissonance was very painful and not easily solved.
And, having not only a religious, but also a philosophical predisposition, it was natural to turn to philosophy as a means of sorting things out and relieving the tension between the doctrines and practices that had been the center of my life and the source of existential meaning, on the one hand, and the extramural wide world of sex, drugs, rock and roll, and the secular values of 'making it' and getting ahead, on the other. The sex bit was just one issue. The fundamental problem I faced was whether any of what I was brought up to believe, of what I internalized and took with utmost seriousness, was true.
I am blessed or cursed with an analytic mind and a serious disposition. For such a person words mean things and truth matters. As salutary as belief is, it is only true beliefs that can be credited. This brings me to a fundamental theme of this weblog, namely, the tension between Athens and Jerusalem. I see this as a fruitful tension, and I see the absence of anything like it the Islamic world as part of the explanation of that world's inanition.
It is a fruitful tension in the West but also in those few individuals who are citizens of both 'cities,' those few who harbor within them both the religious and the philosophical predisposition. It is a tension that cannot be resolved by elimination of one or the other of the 'cities.' But why is it fruitful?
The philosopher and the religionist need each other's virtues. The philosopher needs reverence to temper his analytic probing and humility to mitigate the arrogance of his high-flying inquiry and over-confident reliance on his magnificent yet paltry powers of thought. The religionist needs skepticism to limit his gullibility, logical rigor to discipline his tendency toward blind fideism, and balanced dialectic to chasten his disposition to fanaticism.
So am I a Catholic or not? Well, I am certainly a Catholic by upbringing, so I am a Catholic in what we could call a cultural or sociological sense. But it is very difficult for a philosopher to be a naive adherent of any religion, especially a religion as deeply encrusted with dogma as Roman Catholicism. He will inevitably be led to 'sophisticate' his adherence, and to the extent that he does this he will wander off into what are called 'heresies.' He will find it impossible not to ask questions. His craving for clarity and certainty will cause him to ask whether key doctrines are even intelligible, let alone true. Just what are we believing when we believe that there is one God in three divine persons? What does it even mean? Just what are we believing when we believe that there once walked on the earth a man who was fully human but also fully divine? How is it possible?
I distance myself both from the anti-Catholic polemicists and the pro-Catholic apologists. Polemics and apologetics are two sides of the same coin, the coin of ideology. 'Ideology' is not a pejorative term in my mouth. An ideology is a set of beliefs oriented toward action, and act we must. So believe we must, in something or other. Human action is not a mechanical response to stimuli but free action guided by beliefs. Religions are ideologies in this sense: action-guiding systems of belief. But philosophy-as-inquiry is not ideological, although a particular product of such inquiry, a philosophy, might well be. For more on this, see Philosophy, Religion, and the Philosophy of Religion: Four Theses.
I am skeptical of organizations and institutions despite the fact that we cannot do without them. The truth is something too large and magnificent to be 'institutionalized.' The notion that it is the sole possession of one church, the 'true' church, is a claim hard to credit especially in light of the fact that different churches claim to be the true one. Also dubious is the notion that extra ecclesiam salus non est, that outside the church there is no salvation. And note that different churches will claim to be the one outside of which there is no salvation. That should give one pause. If it doesn't, then I suggest that one is insufficiently critical, insufficiently concerned with truth, and too much concerned with one's own doxastic security. Why does one need a church at all? And why this one? Why not Eastern Orthodoxy or some denomination of Protestantism? These are questions whose formulation and answering must needs be 'extra-ecclesial.'
Now if you are a philosopher this is all just more grist for the mill, along with all the things that Catholic apologists will say in defense of their faith. They will say that their church is the true church because it was founded by Jesus Christ (who is God) and has existed continuously from its founding under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit whose inspiration guarantees the correctness of its teachings on faith and morals.
They will tell me that a church is necessary to correct the errors of private opinions. Now it must be frankly admitted that thinking for oneself, treading the independent path, and playing the maverick can just as easily lead one into error as into truth. If thinking for oneself were the royal road to truth, then all who think for themselves would agree on what the truth is. They don't. But let us not forget that that church dogmas often reflect the private opinions of the dominant characters at the councils. The common opinion is just the private opinion that won the day. You say Augustine was inspired by the Holy Spirit? That is a claim you are making. How validate it? Why don't the Protestants agree with you? Why don't the Eastern Orthodox agree with you?
This only scratches the surface, but one cannot spend the whole day blogging.