Tuesday, March 21, 2006


catholicism, secular humanism, faith, works, salvation

1782 Man has the right to act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions. "He must not be forced to act contrary to his conscience. Nor must he be prevented from acting according to his conscience, especially in religious matters."[53]
The line above from Article 6 Section I Catechism of the Catholic Church is probably my favorite part of the entire catechism. I’m starting here because the concept of conscience and free will is extremely important to the question at hand of exactly how belief, salvation, and faith are related.

This particular sentence is probably the reason that I tend to not feel very comfortable proselytizing. The assumption in my mind at least is that if someone is already practicing a religion or philosophy, that they successfully reached that state through the application of introspection and the guidance of their own conscience. In other words, even though they’re not catholic, they get the benefit of the doubt from me that they are doing what they do because they chose it, not because they’re “lost” or “in a state of sin” or whatever.

I soundly reject the “if you’re not a member of the South Park First Baptist Church, then you are going to hell!” sort of sentiment for two reasons. One, it’s casting the first stone. Two, it denies the person their right to free will.

Line 1782 above has two very important components towards the end.

First, thou shalt not force someone to act contrary to his or her conscience.

Second, thou shalt not prevent someone from acting according to his conscience. Out of all matter of conscience, the catechism emphasizes religious matters.

If you disagree over a religious matter, and to me this includes someone’s decision to leave a religion, take a sabbatical to think about it, or whatever, then you as a Catholic are called by the catechism to leave them alone, as long as they’re acting according to their conscience and not simply due to laziness (But mom, I want to watch TV on Sunday!) or some sort of human resources problem (I can’t get along with that stupid old Deacon. What a dork. I’ll quit going until he leaves or dies or something.) or some sort of very trivial material-world problem (this church has the worst interior decorating ever. I can’t stand it. I’m staying home and watching football.).

Since the church is the people, and you’re not there for the building (even though a nice building goes a long way towards making the experience more pleasant), excuses based on what the place looks like or the human failings of the members aren’t really matters of conscience. They’re matters of preference and taste that’s bound up in the mundane and not the sublime aspects of our individual identities.

So, if you’re there for the sharing of sacraments, and it’s just not clicking, and you’ve tried, but you’re heart isn’t in it and you’re nagged by questions that aren’t being answered, then you are obligated first and foremost to be truly introspective about it.
1779 It is important for every person to be sufficiently present to himself in order to hear and follow the voice of his conscience. This requirement of interiority is all the more necessary as life often distracts us from any reflection, self-examination or introspection:
Return to your conscience, question it.... Turn inward, brethren, and in everything you do, see God as your witness.[51]
Once you have your answer, and if it is “I’m just not catholic (now, or possibly forever)” or “I just don’t buy this God stuff (now, or possibly forever)” then you have to decide what to do for yourself. Furthermore, even though other people have the right to appeal to you, to offer help, to challenge you, etc. they do not have the right to prevent you from acting in accordance to your conscience.

They might think or say you’ve not tried everything, or have given up too early, or whatever, but that’s beside the point. The only person that can decide what to do is you, and your free will is paramount in the catechism.

In fact, this is echoed in many other catholic writings. Here’s an example from my library. This is my favorite part of “Crossing the Threshold of Hope” by JPII.



I recommend the whole book, by the way, both because it’s quite good on its own and because, for those that have never read anything by JPII or seen him speak in person; it captures one of the reasons for his runaway popularity, especially among the young. It’s also a short read – 230 or so pages.

The book is the result of a journalist sending him some questions that were supposed to be in preparation for a televised interview. The journalist, who also wrote the Ratzinger Report, didn’t expect to hear back from John Paul II after the project fell through due to scheduling problems and other things that came up for the Pope in September 1993. However, a couple months later, a hand-written manuscript arrived. The book is the product of that manuscript.

When I first read it, I was really surprised, since at that point in my experience I did not expect to see the “God has a lot of explaining to do” sorts of sentiments expressed by, say, a pope. The rest of the book would be about as good, with excellent but short and accessible discussions of a wide variety of subjects.

So, God created man as rational and free and therefore placed Himself under man’s judgment. God’s wisdom and omnipotence are placed, by free choice, at the service of creation. Man has the right to act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions. You are, essentially, called to be accountable to yourself. You are not to abdicate this responsibility to anyone else.

Catholicism, along with many other faiths, is not a passive reception of Truths dictated by old men in vestments once a week in dusty buildings. While it can deteriorate into this, and while this is more than enough to satisfy some (most?) people, it is not what you find in the catechism, nor when you scratch the surface of the church and start asking (undeterred) questions. Sure, some church members (or teachers or officials) might be uncomfortable. Sure, you might run into some static from people that should know better. However, it is your responsibility to apprehend what’s easily available to you, regardless of whether you are a skeptic, an atheist, someone disillusioned, or an interested believer.

On to the question of salvation and belief. This necessitates defining “what it is that saves you”. There are three basic tenets of the Protestant/Catholic Faith/Works schism that played out over the various Reformations and Counter-Reformations. It’s really interesting history to read, by the way, if you aren’t familiar with the era.

1. Sola Scriptura (“Bible Alone”)

There is an old quote: “The Bible, the whole Bible, and nothing but the Bible, is the religion of Protestants.”

This is different in Catholicism, where the bible, church traditions, writings, letters, encyclicals, and other stuff forms a big ol’ blob of “official writings”. A Protestant would (justifiably so, to him or her) hold up the bible and say “No way man, this is the only infallible document.” I happen to fall into the Catholic camp. I think that the Bible is a place to start. However, due to translation issues, figurative speech, and general incompleteness and corruption due to it being written by humans, and due to the fact that I’m a nerd, I give tremendous and equal value to thoughtful philosophical church writings such as encyclicals and other works. I simply prefer and trust a body of work done by a diverse set of people over time, rather than one particular document, no matter how good that one particular document is.

Read “The Wisdom of Crowds” for a contemporary explanation that precisely sums up why I feel this way.

I don’t have any particular argument with or animosity for those that follow Sola Scripture. I don’t think that Sola Scripture the way to pursue a faith life, but if it works for you, then it works for you. You don’t have to agree with but you should definitely respect the honestly-chosen postulates that a person selects for their personal philosophy.

2. Sola Fide ("Faith Alone")
A central principle of the Reformation is salvation by faith alone. The sinner is righteous before God solely on the ground of the merits of Christ as believed in through a faith, in opposition to the theory of the (catholic) Council of Trent, which makes faith and good works equal sources of salvation, with works getting slightly more emphasis than faith. Being Protestant doesn’t mean that you can’t or shouldn’t do good works, but it flatly denies their value as sources or conditions of salvation. In other words, you can be a Secular Humanist, and do good works, and a Protestant will still say you are going to go to hell because you don’t “have faith”. Protestants often criticize Catholicism for allowing people to “work their way” to heaven through good works, or for being “too soft” on those dastardly Secular Humanists who have come to do good works through an introspective process of their own.

3. Priesthood of All Believers
Protestants commonly believe that there exists a priesthood of all believers. This stems from a (understandable) rejection of corrupted church hierarchy in the 1400s. However, since no two people think exactly alike on any subject, this makes for a fractured church situation, which is easily seen in reality. From a purely pragmatic viewpoint, membership in the priesthood can’t easily be universal without suffering tremendous communications overload and balkanization. Worst case? Everyone goes their own way, or one step better you have literally thousands of 100-member churches each churning away in relative isolation. This is, largely, the condition in my native South.

So, can you be saved by works alone?

From the Council of Trent:
“For faith, unless hope and charity be added thereto, neither unites man perfectly with Christ, nor makes him a living member of His body. For which reason it is most truly said, that Faith without works is dead and profitless;"
In other words, we don’t care how pious you think you are, if you don’t actually get out there and do some good, your Faith is pointless. Ouch.

Ok, what if you just do good works and don’t want to mess around much with that Faith issue?

Again, Council of Trent:
“And whereas the Apostle saith, that man is justified by faith and freely, those words are to be understood in that sense which the perpetual consent of the Catholic Church hath held and expressed; to wit, that we are therefore said to be justified by faith, because faith is the beginning of human salvation, the foundation, and the root of all Justification; without which it is impossible to please God, and to come unto the fellowship of His sons: but we are therefore said to be justified freely, because that none of those things which precede justification-whether faith or works-merit the grace itself of justification.”
The short answer is no, good works alone won’t save you. It’s handled in the first canon of the Council of Trent.
CANON I.-If any one saith, that man may be justified before God by his own works, whether done through the teaching of human nature, or that of the law, without the grace of God through Jesus Christ; let him be anathema.
You are going against the theme of Catholicism here, in other words. This is understandable, since having faith (no matter how simple or how complex, how strong, or how weak) is kind of central to Christianity. However, as I mentioned before, faith alone won’t do the trick either.

CANON IX.-If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified; in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to co-operate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, and that it is not in any way necessary, that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will; let him be anathema.

Catholicism and Secular Humanism overlap here (good works: check! Faith: possibly a problem…), where Protestantism and Secular Humanism are completely disjoint (you’re going to hell!). Many Secular Humanists are publicly atheist or agnostic while having a private faith life. If you differ with the assumption that Secular Humanism requires personal atheism, then the path to Council-of-Trent-style Justification is cleared.

Catholicism doesn’t let you either force or prevent someone from acting either contrary to or in violation of his or her conscience, especially concerning religion. So, in the case of someone that is totally convinced they’re a Secular Humanist, and that person is obviously doing good works, then feel free to challenge them to develop a faith, but in matters of conscience, you are not to force them or prevent them from practicing their own faith tradition.

It might seem odd for me to refer to Secular Humanism as a faith tradition, but to me it qualifies. Secular Humanism can be and is defined as a religious worldview based on naturalism, atheism, the primacy of the scientific theory of evolution, and moral relativism. Secular Humanism produces good work and good people, who are all on various paths of discovery about the good, the true, the beautiful, and all other aspects of life that interest humans.

To me, Secular Humanism simply duplicates much of the same sort of results of many religious faiths. It simply starts at a different point further down the pipeline. I don’t have any particular complaint with Secular Humanism except for the problems that are often encountered with moral relativism and the tendency towards materialism. These problems are significant and widely discussed in both religious and secular humanist circles, but are an area of active ethical and philosophical Secular Humanist research. In other words, they’re working on it, so people should stop portraying Secular Humanism as unethical selfish heathens because that simply isn’t true.

A vigilant Secular Humanist will be no more susceptible to failures in morality due to relativism than someone that ascribes to a different worldview. A thoughtful Secular Humanist will be no more susceptible to decadence and materialism than the typical Californian, and possibly quite less.

If you develop a system of belief that guides your behavior, then you are acting in good conscience. Your salvation as a Secular Humanist, according to Catholic doctrine, may not be complete, but you have one foot in the door already.

This begs the question, though – if a Secular Humanist acts in accordance to a moral code that is identical, to say, a Catholic moral code, even though the morals appeared to come from different sources, is the Secular Humanist really a Secular Humanist? Or are they a parallel-universe Catholic? Could God simply be Reason? Could Reason simply be God? Sure, if you have a universalist attitude.

If God can be or do anything, then a facet of God can easily be “Reason”. The invitation to use Reason for Good is issued by God. The rest is up to you.

I prefer to view Secular Humanists as brethren. Perhaps God reaches them in a different way to accomplish the same result – good works done just because good works are the calling of humanity. Maybe some people need fear or a threat of hell (ick). Maybe some people need to feel the solidity of a floor of reason beneath their feet and distrust the non-experiential. Perhaps some people need Zeus, or Peyote, or the Spirits of the Ancestors, or Mother Earth. I really don’t care, as long as the motivation is to do good.

Finally, having faith doesn’t mean you don’t have doubt. “A faith” in something is accepting something without proof. “Having faith” is the process of developing a faith life. They are not the same. “A Faith” is a static and one-dimensional time-invariant statement. “Faith” as in faith in God is a continual process which requires the constant evaluation and growth of the self and does not mean that you have all the answers at any one time, if ever. It isn’t something that’s inherent. It’s learned.

“Having faith” is different for each person. For me, it’s the productive contemplation of the mysteries encountered in life, philosophy, and nature. For other people, it’s a personal relationship with God developed through prayer. For others, it may be the examination of theology and the development of religious thought. For some people, it’s all of this and more.

We’re all guilty of this (deferring to the experts) in at least some aspects of life. In a very specialized society, you will not be able to master everything you need in order to make decisions throughout your life. You save your energy for the big ticket items, like your health care, or your chosen career, or your personal moral code. Some people are totally ok and experience a resonance with a moral code (or religious values) being taught to them in toto as dogma. It works for them, and they go with it. They’re low maintenance. I’m not. Most people I know are not, either, preferring to do the hard work of figuring stuff out on their own, often in the face of people that don’t understand what we’re all about. To them, we’re spending a lot of time re-tracing old ground. However, in my case, I needed to do the work myself, and didn’t like simply accepting what I was being taught.

Fortunately, and like most but not all of my compatriots, I was encouraged to explore and experience by church members. I wasn’t condemned or yelled at or threatened in any way shape or form. Sure, I was challenged, but I took it on as a challenge, and it was definitely worth all the reading and thinking and distancing myself from religion that I did.

About Criticizing Religion - a Postscript

Statements about religion such as “it’s the opiate of the masses” or “obviously nothing more than a method of social and political control” or “nothing more than a dictatorship with good music” assume that religious people are mindless zombies that can’t think for themselves. This is nothing more than snobbish bigoted tripe.

It’s as bad as saying gay people are inherently and inescapably promiscuous or Secular Humanists can’t be trusted because “they don’t buh-LIEVE in the al-MIGH-ty GAWD”.

Catholics, etc. are obligated through free will to develop a faith life in good conscience. Some are better at it than others, but there are literally millions of non-religious people that seem to not want to think for themselves either, easily fall prey to social and political control mechanisms, and don’t even have good music.

Churches are communities of people. People are subject to critique. Productive critique is welcomed. The goal of a critique is to communicate possible errors, shortcomings, or failures. Using pejorative language or making sweeping and negative generalizations right off the bat generally isn’t the hallmark of constructive criticism. It has the additional unfortunate effect of ensuring that the subject or audience of an otherwise valuable critique will immediately discard whatever follows as bigoted.

This makes religious people no different than other types of people. The rules of civil discourse shouldn’t change just because people identify as a member of a religious faith, philosophy, orientation, or creed. Save the snide comments for sitcoms and satires, where we can all then enjoy them… as God intended.

(hehe, sorry I couldn’t resist)

-Michelle Thompson 21 March 2006

"Secular humanists suspect there is something more gloriously human about resisting the religious impulse; about accepting the cold truth, even if that truth is only that the universe is as indifferent to us as we are to it." Tom Flynn
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