One of the things that people often say to me when they learn that my motto is “Sentire cum Ecclesia” is: Why do you need someone to tell you what to think? Why can’t you think for yourself?
The simple answer is that I am in fact quite capable of thinking for myself, but it’s nice to have the help of a two-thousand year old tradition so that I don’t have to start from scratch with every issue that arises.
But there is also the fact that a lot of what passes for “free thinking” is in fact practiced by what a friend of mine calls “deep thinkers in the shallow end of the pool”. “Thinking with the Church” means diving in the deep end, entrusting oneself to the baptismal waters of the Church, so to speak. There is a lot of room to move at that end of the pool, and I haven’t yet dived so deep as to touch the bottom!
In that line, I was glad to find this entry on the First Things blog by Elizabeth Scalia (aka The Anchoress): “Bone Setting the Faith needs the Wrap of Reason”. I read it soon after having a conversation with a work-colleague who is experiencing difficulty accepting the Church’s teaching that ordination can only be validly conferred upon a baptised adult male (it’s the “male” part my colleague has difficulties with).
Someone had written to Elizabeth saying:
“I know the Church puts a high premium on docility, humility and the emptying of self,” he wrote, “but common sense tells me that none of those should involve self-lobotomizing. Please tell me I’m not wrong.”
That word “docile/docility” comes from Pope Benedict, who uses it quite a bit to describe what our attitude should be toward the Church’s teaching. It’s a word that most today hear in a negative sense, but he holds it up as a virtue. Why? Elizabeth explains that it isn’t about getting people to “fall in line” with Christ, but inviting people to “fall in love” with him and his Church. For many of us there will be doctrines of the Church that are not self-evident. We have to research, read, reason and pray about the Church’s teachings. Her experience, like mine, is that when she has taken the time to do this, she has
“always come down on the side of Catholic orthodoxy; never because she has simply dished it out and I’ve eaten it, but because she has made a sound argument that fed me in my totality: mind, spirit, and sinew.”
Look at our saints and you see that the Church’s true exemplars—the apostles, the doctors of the Church—were men and women who were rarely in “perfect conformity” to their times or trends, inside church or outside. They were innovators and reformers, but not unbounded; they were neither like the “Spirit of Vatican II” Catholics—busily decrying everything that came before them as outmoded and unattuned to the times—nor like the staunch traditionalists who seem to believe that perfect fidelity to the past breeds a perfect future. Instead they took everything that came before, and built on it—added to the whole structure of faith, while tidying up what was corroded or decorative without meaning…
Teresa of Avila, Catherine of Siena, Elizabeth Ann Seton and Dorothy Day all called themselves “obedient daughters” of the church. All were intelligent women with a wide and sophisticated view of the world, all were innovators but not unrestricted in scope, who worked within the bounds of the church, whose Christ-led wisdom they had allowed to become bone-set within them. Although they were very different women, of different temperaments and abilities, living in different eras, each one of them would give you the same answers on the big issues of faith, life, sacraments, and redemption.
And considered together, they are perhaps the best argument I could possibly make against any notion that being Catholic means conforming oneself to a narrow path of non-thinking.