Conscious Catholicism: Faith and Reason

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Photo by Francesca Norman

Dealing with your own past can sometimes be difficult. Anything from an embarrassing moment to a life-altering mistake, will affect your life. But the true meaning of these moments boils down to one thing: how you allow your past to define you. 

The past begs a personally fundamental question: are you composed of your flawed actions or do you find a deeper meaning within yourself, allowing you to remember who you are, and move on?

When encountering Catholicism, the same question ought to apply. The Church’s history is wrought with corruption and hypocrisy, even in her highest position: the papacy. From popes fathering several children, to popes believing in pagan gods, to crusades more political than not, to sex scandals, the Church’s history is undeniably flawed.

For some people, the intellectual jump from these flaws to faith can be difficult. As a non-Catholic theist, the Church’s corruption, both past and present, causes me to hesitate. 

If succession comes from Peter, why were bishoprics and even the papacy riddled with nepotism? Was the entire basis for Luther’s break illegitimate? Were the Crusades fought without political motivation?

But for others, the Church’s ability to prevail in its theology and mission despite such hindrances is an inspiration to their faith. “The Gospel itself is preached independently of the witness given to it by very flawed human beings,” said Fr. Thomas Esposito, O. Cist., assistant professor of theology.

“In spite of all human weaknesses, the creed has come down to us. The gospels, the message is the same, and you can spot phonies quite easily . . . we know what the core of the message is. That has reached us.”

The humanity of the Church does not have to limit its legitimacy as a divine institution. Viewing the Church’s flaws in the context of faith enables believers to admit, evaluate and then come to terms with the Church’s flaws.

Jon Paul Heyne, Ph.D., assistant professor in the history department, sees the Church’s existence and legitimacy despite its flaws as evidence of God’s power. “God working through us as fallen instruments all the more displays his power. He can still be in charge of the Church even when he’s allowing us to act freely. He’s still not going to let the gates of hell prevail over his Church.”

If I can, as an individual combine my intellectual understanding of the Church’s doctrines with a logical recognition of its defects can reason alone be enough?

In my studies of the Church throughout highschool and again throughout UD’s theology, philosophy and history classes my understanding of the Church’s history and doctrines increases, but so does my skepticism.

As a human, I learn and understand through my reason, and for others, this fact evidences God. 

“The word conscious in ‘conscious Catholicism’ makes me think of rationality . . . [but] I am not the cause of my being or rationality,” said Fr. Esposito. “If I have the ability to know God, that means he would manifest in some way that I can understand. Then, our life as believers is simply a response.” 

That response to the combination of faith and reason leads to a relationship with God.

“On one end it’s intellectual consent, saying yes you believe in these teachings. But saying I believe is a matter of not putting your trust in an institution but in a person. My life of faith is a relationship that is meant to deepen and grow over time,” Fr. Esposito explained.

Such a relationship requires faith. Without that faith, a relationship with a spiritual being through his physical institution is impossible. 

At the University of Dallas, 85% of the student body identifies as Catholic. As approximately 1,250 students develop their ability to balance the relationship between faith and reason, Fr.Esposito acts as a mentor and spiritual director to them. “It’s on that individual level that I see actively their desire to better their relationship with Christ.”

“There are students that come for confession and spiritual direction and I find that to be a beautiful expression of their faith because no one really likes to pour out all their crap, but they have the sense that God is at work… God can work through me in giving them encouragement, counsel, maybe a kick in the butt perhaps.”

Since a religious relationship is one that continually progresses, UD students must also develop their spirituality further. “UD students typically undervalue the corporal works of mercy, the social action that the Church calls them too. Too often the students view the faith as an intellectual exercise, or a purely private matter between them and God, where they minimize the outward expression in serving others.”

As believers combine their faith and reason, balancing their inward belief with the outward expression of it, they resemble the Church itself. As Fr. Esposito vocalized, “That’s the mystery at work in the divine and human elements of the Church.”

But mysteries can be difficult to believe in.

It appears that believers use their faith to satiate their own reason, but that faith is not sufficient to convince my own questioning intellect. Belief in the trustworthiness of God presupposes faith. The use of faith instead of reason does not aid the faith of the faithless. This appeal to faith through logic still leaves me unconvinced. 

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