Sunday, February 18, 2007

Church as Guide

Troutsky writes:

I hope you enjoy the past more than those who had to live through it did. The hardest moral position is tolerance and compassion and the Church struggled at least as hard as any organized body with those.The limits it places on discourse define the parameters of its power, and as you have noticed, power tends towards concentration.

As always, I hearken to the honorable Mr. G. K. Chesterton to make my reply. In a brilliant essay titled Why I Am Catholic, he explains:

Nine out of ten of what we call new ideas are simply old mistakes. The Catholic Church has for one of her chief duties that of preventing people from making those old mistakes; from making them over and over again forever, as people always do if they are left to themselves. The truth about the Catholic attitude towards heresy, or as some would say, towards liberty, can best be expressed perhaps by the metaphor of a map. The Catholic Church carries a sort of map of the mind which looks like the map of a maze, but which is in fact a guide to the maze. It has been compiled from knowledge which, even considered as human knowledge, is quite without any human parallel.

There is no other case of one continuous intelligent institution that has been thinking about thinking for two thousand years. Its experience naturally covers nearly all experiences; and especially nearly all errors. The result is a map in which all the blind alleys and bad roads are clearly marked, all the ways that have been shown to be worthless by the best of all evidence: the evidence of those who have gone down them.

I don't expect Troutsky to agree that the Church has accurately marked off all the bad roads for the simple reason that he marches proudly down the road of Socialism, which a certain Pope Leo marked as bad. But I do believe that the Church marks off all the bad roads, and does so without error.

This may seem fantastic. The whole of my political philosophy is based on the fact that human beings err constantly, and are hapless in correcting their mistakes. Meanwhile, I claim that the Church, itself comprised of human beings, does not err. It is not so much a paradox as a startling contradiction. If human beings are not to be trusted in government, why should they be trusted with something far more important, indeed, the most important thing of all: truth?

I could now explain the concept of apostolic succession. I could quote the passage where Jesus confers the power to bind and loose upon the twelve. I could cite the passage where Christ changes Simon's name to Peter and founds His Church upon that rock, promising that the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. Or I could confess, honestly, that the fidelity of the Church to the truth is something of a miracle, and attempting to explain the issue without consorting with the spiritual is futile.

But I think the best proof of the Church's role as guardian of truth is in her rich history. Time and again, she has set herself up against the world, only to be vindicated by the world at a later date. This isn't to say that Church members haven't made war on truth, or that individual philosophers haven't gotten things wrong, but the Church herself has not and does not err.

I know this typifies what Flannery O'Connor called "Catholic smugness". I see no escape from it. I paint the picture as I see it. A man who cares for truth can do no better than to learn from the Church. The bad roads only lead to bedlam; but all good roads lead right to Rome.

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