The Universal, the Particular, and How Roman Catholics Think

After finishing his biography of Saint Francis of Assisi, G. K. Chesterton realized that a full picture of Catholicism would require pairing Francis with his fellow friar Thomas Aquinas; neither saint alone could capture the complete picture of the Faith. The two saints, though each was wholly Catholic, could not have been more different. Francis was a thin beggar, who hopped about like the birds he praised, singing snippets of song to his Creator above. Thomas, on the other hand, was ponderous both in thought and in physical constitution. He was more likely to stare at a wall in deep thought than to frolic about the fields like Francis. Brother Francis delighted in small and simple material things, piling them like gathered jewels into praises of God. Thomas focused less on particulars and instead peered into the deeper mysteries behind all of being. Chesterton chose for his only two hagiographies the particular joy of Francis and the abstract profundity of Thomas, pairing them as archetypes of the two halves of Catholicism, and ultimately of reality, each of which is incomplete without the other.

I was reminded of Chesterton’s pairing while recently thinking about how to defend the scientific enterprise to a fellow Catholic whose enthusiasm for abstract philosophy led him to be rather neglectful of the particular, incarnate side of life. This fellow coreligionist shared my affinity for Aristotle and Aquinas and the philosophy and reason found in Catholic thought. What he rejected was my enthusiasm for the adventures of science, discovering the odd and glorious particularities of the universe which we inhabit. “Who cares,” my interlocutor asked, “about butterflies in Brazil or the chemistry of distant stars?”  The short answer is that God cares, because he bothered enough to make them.

In determining my response to him I came inevitably to the old problem of philosophy, the tension of particulars and universals, and was reminded of the paradox of Catholicism. If our God is a God Who made man as a being who leans towards the eternal and transcendent that we find in philosophy and theology, He is also a God Who created quirky details like donkeys, wheat, and grapes — and the surprising thing is His fancy for using each of these quirky details for transcendent ends. We have a savior who was God and could thus save us from our humanity, and who was also a man and who could thus be real to us in a way a distant deity could not. Christianity is founded on the remarkable union of the abstract divine and the particularly human. We believe that the philosophical Absolute and the Infinite Ground-of-All-Being was also a carpenter from small-town Judaea, whose Church is administered by an elderly man in the palaces of an Italian city called Rome.

These two aspects of reality, its particularity and its universality, are found everywhere in Catholic thought: in our theology, our sacraments, and even our literature. Two examples from poetry will suffice. The Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins’ famous poem “Pied Beauty” is an example of the former, praising God for all the special unique things that give a glimpse of his Glory:

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;

He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:

Praise him.

The second impulse is found in poems like Father Abram Ryan’s “Song of the Mystic”, in which the Mystic laments the blinding veil that the earthly and mortal places over our view of the eternal and true:

And still did I pine for the Perfect,
And still found the False with the True;
I sought ‘mid the Human for Heaven,
But caught a mere glimpse of its Blue;
And I wept when the clouds of the Mortal
Veiled even that glimpse from my view.

 

Of course, like every truth, each of these impulses can be taken to opposite heretical extremes. One of the Church’s first major challenges was Arianism, a heresy that swept the halls of power in the fourth century and seemed to be on the verge of suffocating orthodoxy. This heresy denied the divinity of Christ, making him a sub-divine agent, recruited by God for spreading his message. This error is of course still popular today, in all the quests for the “historical Jesus” whose genial advice is not much more than can be found in the works of the latest popular self-help author.

Then there is the second error, the error of forgetting the truth of particular incarnation in favor of abstract transcendentalism. In the early Church this was found in Albigensianism, a resurrection of Gnosticism which regarded the material as gross matter to be discarded as soon as possible. Later expressions were found in Puritanism, and even in the modern relativistic tendency which sees all opinions as equal truths and refuses to make distinctions, preferring instead a content-less “spirituality” to firm declarations of truth.

In the end neither the particular nor the universal aspect of reality is dispensable. The individual Catholic must learn to live with this tension in his interior life, and it is comforting to know that both strains of thought are strong in the Church. Spiritual practices grounded in both schools are available for the believer’s use. In those times when particularity seems nothing but a meaningless jumble, and the familiar feels sickeningly trivial, the Faith offers a connection to the underlying truths and the hidden God. On the other hand, during those times when the abstract and airy promises and teachings of the Church seem merely academic, the Church offers concrete symbols and sacraments which channel grace into our lives. Indeed, as the prime example of this Catholic union of mundane particularity and transcendent being, we have the unique Catholic sacrament of the Eucharist, in which we hold fast to the idea that God’s real Body and Divinity become truly present to us in the form of earthly bread and wine.

The term “Roman Catholic” has many uses. In its proper sense it may denote the Roman rite of the worldwide Catholic Church. It may, especially in America, be a reflexive and habitual term conveying not much more meaning than simply “Catholic.” Or it may be used to disparage the faith, tying it to the evil empire of the past. One thing, however, that the term does capture well is this paradox of particularity and universality. “Catholic” is a Greek term which means, literally, “universal.” It is paired with “Roman,” which indicates a particular place and a particular historical narrative: that which is Roman is not Greek, not Arabian, not German, not American. Thus even the common moniker of our Church captures the vibrant paradox of our faith.

Our Church is Roman and Catholic, our savior is man and God, our sacrament appears as bread and is yet really divinity. The Catholic Church retains today this remarkable union. Against monism, which holds that all is ultimately one, she holds that God created a world of individual, diverse beings. And yet against relativism and scientism, the Church teaches that this multiplicity can be ordered in a reasonable and hierarchical harmony. The Church holds both facets together, in a dramatic and dynamic tension, which alone can capture the wholeness of truth.

Michael Baruzzini

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Michael Baruzzini is a writer on Catholic and science issues, and his writing may be found online at www.deepsoftime.com. He lives with his wife and children in Virginia."

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