Seventeenth in a Series on Catholic Morality
Fr. John H. Stapleton
The intolerance of the Church towards error, the natural position of One who is the custodian of truth, her only reasonable attitude, makes her forbid her children to read, or listen to, heretical controversy, or to endeavor to discover religious truth by examining both sides of the question. This places the Catholic in a position whereby he must stand aloof from all manner of doctrinal teaching other than that delivered by his Church through her accredited ministers. And whatever outsiders may think of the correctness of his belief and religious principles, they cannot have two opinions as to the logic and consistency of this stand he takes. They may hurl at him all the choice epithets they choose for being a slave to superstition and erroneous creeds; but they must give him credit for being consistent in his belief; and consistency in religious matters is too rare a commodity these days to be made light of.
The reason of this stand of his is that, for him, there can be no two sides to a question which for him is settled; for him, there is no seeking after the truth: he possesses it in its fullness, as far as God and religion are concerned. His Church gives him all there is to be had; all else is counterfeit. And if he believes, as he should and does believe, that revealed truth comes, and can come, only by way of external authority, and not by way of private judgment and investigation, he must refuse to be liberal in the sense of reading all sorts of Protestant controversial literature and listening to all kinds of heretical sermons. If he does not this, he is false to his principles; he contradicts himself by accepting and not accepting an infallible Church; he knocks his religious props from under himself and stands - nowhere. The attitude of the Catholic, therefore, is logical and necessary. Holding to Catholic principles how can he do otherwise? How can he consistently seek after truth when he is convinced that he holds it? Who else can teach him religious truth when he believes that an infallible Church gives him God's word and interprets it in the true and only sense?
A Protestant may not assume this attitude or impose it upon those under his charge. If he does so, he is out of harmony with his principles and denies the basic rule of his belief. A Protestant believes in no infallible authority; he is an authority unto himself, which authority he does not claim to be infallible, if he is sober and sane. He is after truth; and whatever he finds, and wherever he finds it, he subjects it to his own private judgment. He is free to accept or reject, as he pleases. He is not, cannot be, absolutely certain that what he holds is true; he thinks it is. He may discover to-day that yesterday's truths are not truths at all. We are not here examining the soundness of this doctrine; but it does follow therefrom, sound or unsound, that he may consistently go where he likes to hear religious doctrine exposed and explained, he may listen to whomever has religious information to impart. He not only may do it, but he is consistent only when he does. It is his duty to seek after truth, to read and listen to controversial books and sermons.
If therefore a non-Catholic sincerely believes in private judgment, how can he consistently act like a Catholic who stands on a platform diametrically opposed to his, against which platform it is the very essence of his religion to protest? How can he refuse to hear Catholic preaching and teaching, any more than Baptist, Methodist and Episcopalian doctrines? He has no right to do so, unless he knows all the Catholic Church teaches, which case may be safely put down as one in ten million. He may become a Catholic, or lose all the faith he has. That is one of the risks he has to take, being a Protestant.
If he is faithful to his own principles and understands the Catholic point of view, he must not be surprised if his Catholic friends do not imitate his so-called liberality; they have motives which he has not. If he is honest, he will not urge or even expect them to attend the services of his particular belief. And a Catholic who thinks that because a Protestant friend can accompany him to Catholic services, he too should return the compliment and accompany his friend to Protestant worship, has a faith that needs immediate toning up to the standard of Catholicity; he is in ignorance of the first principles of his religion and belief.
A Catholic philosopher resumes this whole matter briefly and clearly in two syllogisms, as follows:
He who believes in an infallible teacher of revelation cannot consistently listen to any fallible teacher with a view of getting more correct information than his infallible teacher gives him. To do so would be absurd, for it would be to believe and at the same time not believe in the infallible teacher.
The Catholic believes in an infallible teacher of revelation.
Therefore, the Catholic cannot listen to any fallible teacher with a view of getting more correct information about revealed truth than his Church gives him. To do so would be to stultify himself.
He who believes in a fallible teacher - private judgment or fallible church - is free, nay bound, to listen to any teacher who comes along professing to have information to impart, for at no time can he be certain that the findings of his own fallible judgment or church are correct. Each newcomer may be able to give him further light that may cause him to change his mind.
The Protestant believes in such fallible teacher - his private judgment or church.
Therefore, the Protestant is free to hear, and in perfect harmony with his principles, to accept the teaching of any one who approaches him for the purpose of instructing him. He is free to hear with a clear conscience, and let his children hear, Catholic teaching, for the Church claiming infallibility is at its worst as good as his private judgment is at best, namely, fallible.
Religious variations are so numerous nowadays that most people care little what another thinks or believes. All they ask is that they may be able to know at any time where he stands; and they insist, as right reason imperiously demands, that, in all things, he remain true to his principles, whatever they be. Honest men respect sincerity and consistency everywhere; they have nothing but contempt for those who stand, now on one foot, now on the other, who have one code for theory and another for practice, who shift their grounds as often as convenience suggests. The Catholic should bear this well in mind. There can be no compromise with principles of truth; to sacrifice them for the sake of convenience is as despicable before man as it is offensive to God.