In Doubtful Things, Liberty

One often hears about the supposedly monolithic or totalitarian character of the Catholic Church.  You know the drill.  The Pope tells everybody what to think.  Catholics all have to believe exactly the same thing.  Freedom of thought is anathema for Catholics. Et Cetera.

I heard much of this and believed it—till I got to know Catholics.  Then I discovered the truth of Chesterton’s remark: “Catholics agree about everything.  It is only everything else they disagree about.”

The reality of Catholic (and biblical) teaching is this: There are a few cosmic truths upon which the Church absolutely insists we must agree if we are to claim the name of “Catholic”.  These are more or less summarized in the Creeds and in the few dogmatic teachings of the Church pertaining to such matters as, say, the Real Presence in the Eucharist, the Immaculate Conception and so forth.

Beyond this, not only does the Church not demand we march in lock-step, she positively encourages a sort of loony diversity that is much more like a garden of wildflowers or a really crazy zoo in which the keepers are the ones who cage themselves (by means of poverty, chastity, and obedience) so that the strange and exotic creatures called “the faithful” might roam free.

Indeed, the curious fact of Catholic life is that most of the Church’s disciplinary might has been exerted over the centuries, not to keep everybody towing the party line, but to make sure that people who marched to the beat of a different drum did not get hammered by those whose vision of the Church was too narrow.  The first instance of this, of course, takes place in Acts 15 when the circumcision party centered in Jerusalem took it upon themselves to insist that Gentiles could not be authentic Christians if they did not keep the ceremonial laws of Moses.  The Church rejected this position decisively. 

060408_lead_new.jpgSince that time, the temptation again and again in the history of the Church has been for some faction or other to decide that some pet cause is not merely a pet cause but an Essential Truth of the Faith that must be held by all on pain of heresy.  The pet causes vary with the time and place, but the impulse to expand an enthusiasm to a dogma remains the same.  Whether it be vegetarianism, cards, dancing, Harry Potter, tobacco, the charism of tongues, theories of predestination, the divine right of kings, or political theories about democracy, Christians have always been tempted to take some merely earthly thing and try to assert that all Christians must believe or do exactly as they do or face expulsion from the ranks of the Truly Faithful™.  Not a few have expelled themselves upon deciding that they and they alone were the Truly Pure Remnant while the “so-called Church” had fallen irretrievably into error and sin.  This attitude is nicely summarized by Garrison Keillor, who remarked of his Puritan ancestors that they came to the New World seeking the freedom to be harsher with themselves than English law allowed.  It is a pattern that stretches from the Donatists to present-day Sedevacantism.

The reality is this: the Church does not teach “In the evening of our lives, we will be judged by our attitude to Harry Potter.”  Paul never said, “Now abide faith, hope, and love, these three.  But the greatest of these is tongues.”  Jesus never proclaimed that when the Son of Man comes in his kingdom, he would say to the sheep on his right, “I was a Republican and you voted for me”.  Nor shall he say to the goats on his left, “Woe to you, for you drove SUVs and did not recycle!”

This does not mean that merely human things don’t matter.  Nor does it mean they all matter equally.  It means that they are contingent things related to the Essential Thing (God) but they are not God himself. 

So, for instance, the Essential Thing says “You shall have no other gods before me.”  Therefore, idolatry, witchcraft, divination and the occult are forbidden, as the Church clearly teaches.  But it does not follow that, since rumor has it cards have their origins in tarot, playing cards is therefore divination.  Still less does it follow that if you don’t demand your spouse stop his weekly poker game, you are implicated in the sin of idolatry.

This sort of attempt to narrow the Faith has played out literally millions of times in the history of the Church since Paul battled the circumcision party.  Happily, the Church has not changed in its love of liberty either and continues to guarantee its members the right to be eccentric just so long as they are orthodox.

Mark Shea


Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog and regularly blogs for National Catholic Register. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.

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  • Claire

    Excellent article as usual, Mark.

  • Loretta

    The phrase that applies to the Church that I love so much is this:
    Diversity in Unity

  • mrteachersir

    The “university” is particularly Catholic invention: uni- (as in unity) and -versity (as in diversity). Pity we’ve taken the unity out the universities.

  • noelfitz


    Congratulations on your great (as usual) article.

    I agree with you fully and in CE I have tried to contribute to discussions, especially in the forum/roundtable “Faith & Life”. I hope I am part of the sort of loony diversity you refer to.

    In the past it was possible for me to have a signature. I chose the one below. However now with the new changes my signature has disappeared.

    I regret that recently we have had few discussions in “Faith & Life”. I have tried to be provocative to get a discussion going, but there are few responses.

    God bless,



    PS: I enjoyed hearing you and chatting with you when you were in Dublin. NF.

  • troymartz

    While I totally agree, many take “liberty” where none exists. You have priests who blatantly and knowingly disobey clearly defined directives on litugical rubrics, couples who knowing foul the sanctity of marriage by contraception, and politicians who claim to be “Catholic” while advocating the killing of innocents.

    Sometimes I wish the “zookeepers” Mark mentions would come out of their cages and keep the lions and tigers from decimating the rest of the “wild animals” running free. Or, to use another analogy: The “shepherds” are twidling their thumbs while some of the sheep are wandering off and the rest are trying to defend themselves (and their children) from the wolves in their midst.

  • JimAroo

    Mr. Shea, your points are valid and clearly stated. But something is missing. You never give any concrete real life examples of such narrowing (I don’t know too many poker foes). You are making a case for some “diverse” beliefs but we don’t know what they are. Would you care to give us some present day examples of significant attempts to narrow the faith besides the sedevacantists (who are everyone’s favorite target but are rare in real life).

    I think you have something in your craw, Mr. Shea. Go ahead and say it. We wont boycott your articles, I promise.

  • JimAroo– perhaps it doesn’t rank as “significant” in the grand scheme of things, but have you ever heard Good Catholics (TM) launch into attacks on those who read Harry Potter? Clearly Harry Potter fans are not only in league with the Father of Lies, but the Pope Himself (!!!) has condemned the books!

    This is a slight exaggeration, perhaps, but only slight. My kids have come home from CCD with stern admonitions from one particular teacher to not go see that evil Harry Potter movie opening that weekend. The virtual ink that has been spilt decrying the books with full measure of Catholic righteousness would fill several good-sized lakes. And people really have frantically taken one line of one letter written by Cardinal Ratzinger wildly out of context to read into it his personal, deliberate condemnation of Harry Potter rather than a vague note of encouragement to an obscure German author.

    OR, take your pick of almost any parenting debate– breastfeeding, diapering, circumcision, vaccination, cry-it-out, etc. ad nauseam. You can’t swing a cat without hitting a whole camp of Catholics who are thoroughly convinced that theirs is the One True Catholic Opinion on the matter. Then you keep swinging the cat and hit another camp who hold the opposite opinion which is also, somehow, the One True Catholic Opinion.

    It gets to be a bit much…

  • Mark Shea


    I thought this…

    Whether it be vegetarianism, cards, dancing, Harry Potter, tobacco, the charism of tongues, theories of predestination, the divine right of kings, or political theories about democracy, Christians have always been tempted to take some merely earthly thing and try to assert that all Christians must believe or do exactly as they do or face expulsion from the ranks of the Truly Faithful™.

    …. was very clear. Paradoxically, there are any number of issues I chose *not* to point to (such as the Iraq War, or homeschooling, or ecological breastfeeding or rock music) precisely because they are such hot buttons for many readers that to mention them would distract from the central point of my article (which is, by the way, part of a three part series and not the result of something stuck in my craw) and lead to a “Who’s Side Are You On Anyway?” assault from the Truly True Catholic with a gimlet eye for the Impure. Even mentioning Harry Potter was taking a risk.

    Sedevacantism is not, by the way, a matter of liberty for Catholics. A sedevacantist is, very simply, not a Catholic because he or she dissents from the teaching of the Catholic Church by rejecting the authority of the Magisterium.

  • noelfitz

    Among the list of thing it is accepatble for Catholics to do is vote Democrat. We have had a good discussion in “Faith and Life” about this. Many thaink it is a mortal sin to vote Democrat.

    I wonder is there a schism in the Catholic Church in America, between those living in the Red and Blue States.

    Previously I wrote:
    “Is there a schism in American Catholicism?

    It seems to me there are two Catholic Churches in the US, both claiming to be the one true Church.

    One is faithful to the teaching of Rome, being orthodox, traditional, conservative, rigid and clear in its views. The other is liberal, caring, ecumenical, progressive and open to change.

    Catholic Bishops, priests and laity seem to belong to one or other of these schismatic groupings.”.

    I am reminded of the agreement between Charles V and the Reformers:
    “Cuius regio, eius religio”.

    One’s Catholicism may depend on where one lives, eg Boston or St Louis.
    God bless,


    PS: The forum/Round-table “Faith & Life” seems very quiet.

    Perhgaps here I will get a response. NF.

  • rakeys

    Voting for a Democrat has never been considered a sin. Voting for a candidate that is pro-abortion has been considered sinful. You probably have confused the two since the Democratic party has a pro- abortion plank, and most Pro- abortion candidates are Democrats. I would be glad to vote for a truly pro-life Democrat. do you know of any?

  • rakeys

    I also question your description of the other Catholic church as “caring”. Is the traditional church “uncaring”. i doubt it. The most compassionate and caring people I know are traditional and orthodox in thought and deed.
    People also often confuse caring for the body’s needs with caring for the needs of the soul. I have heard progressive theologians talk bout the need for divorce and remarriage, the need for contraception, and for abortion. These things may appear to make things better for a while, but our true goal is not temporary happiness on earth, but happiness in the life after death. I am more comfortable with following the teachings of Jesus Christ now, and carrying my cross, than change for the sake of change. How do you change the teachings of Jesus???