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Indulge Your Faith with Reason; Imbue it in Wonder

June 27, 2019


A few months ago a Vatican News article announced that we may see Blessed John Henry Newman raised to sainthood sooner, rather than later. It’s good news that had somehow slipped my radar when it came out, and it got me considering Newman, a hero of mine, particularly since we share a beloved patron in St. Philip Neri.

The possibility of Newman’s canonization reminds me of how controversial some find him, and also how we Catholics try to – according to our lights, our passions and agendas – try to frame narratives around holy people in order to then use them as hammers to build up our pet causes. We try to exploit and manipulate the saints, rather than simply learning from them.

In Newman’s case, for instance, I recall that in the weeks leading up to his beatification more than one Catholic writer asked whether the Anglican convert might be embraced by some,  as “the patron saint of dissenters.” Newman’s willingness to launch his spacious intellect into debate within the church was so glamorous to contemplate that some writers lost sight of the fact that what is now called his dissent, honed by his openness, was always exercised in full conformity with the church’s teaching. Loyalty, as it were, not only won out, it was the very ground of this dissent.

Loyalty and intellectual rigor are by no means mutually exclusive, as trendy thinkers are sometimes prone to insist. What Newman models is, perhaps, a willingness to apply one’s own intellect to any question with enough openness as to leave room to be surprised at one’s own conclusions.

In that sense, Newman is hardly the first prominent Catholic to wonder  “yes, but . . . ” and end up prostrated before the deposit of faith. Dorothy Day, too,  was able to reason with such openness, and she self-identified as “an obedient daughter of the church.”

Reasonable Catholicism is reasoned loyalty, or sometimes even loyalty with gritted teeth; it is loyalty that insists upon the application of reason, lest its value be questioned. By the same token, intellectualism that is not tempered with loyalty ends up pickling itself in its own ego. Either one, by itself, is incomplete. Both are required.

This openness is the difference between reading a difficult verse of scripture and reacting to it — usually a sterile act — or responding to it, which involves giving an idea a little space in one’s brain, simply to ponder. One might might discover, with the pondering, that one still dislikes the phrase, but can find something worthwhile to pluck from it.

A good example of what I mean can be found with Paul’s assertion to Timothy (1 Tim 2:15), that women “will be saved in childbearing, provided [they continue] in faith, love and holiness.” Harsh words to our modern ears, and some will find themselves either rejecting the idea as the discriminatory and archaic utterances of a misogynist, or grimly trying to conform to the notion without question, which may also mean without understanding, and possibly without charity.

Believing that nothing in Scripture is accidental, Catholics are obliged not to sneer, but to wonder about the theology behind Paul’s words and to discern what in that surprising verse is worth pondering in an era where human life is held cheap. Can we discern within the verse a notion that women are, in God’s sublime and mysterious mercy, privileged in their ability to assist God in his continual re-entering into our world, where he comes disguised within that helpless, vulnerable, and unconditional love that instantly forms between mother and child, father and child, siblings, and grandparents and child?

If we can openly allow ourselves to reason upon the foundational stipulation that God wants only our Good, we can surprise ourselves with our conclusions. Suddenly “misogyny” looks like an expedient and human explanation, and blind obedience looks so unsatisfyingly empty; the whole verse is suddenly fraught with a deeper, holier and ultimately more idealistic meaning than either the intellectual or the unquestioning loyalist could have imagined.

The church is egalitarian in whom it regards as holy; the canon of saints includes the highly educated Augustine and the loyal little bourgeoisie known as Therese and calls both of them Doctors of the Church. She recognizes that intellectual gifts are only remarkable because they are, in fact, gifts, conferred over a lifetime, as with Newman, or spontaneously bestowed, as upon Catherine of Siena.

When intellectualism and loyalty are open with each other, all understanding is enlarged. The first without the second breeds cynicism, and the second without the first tempts it. And both breed complacency and self-satisfaction, and close us off from mystery (which instructs us through wonder, itself), and where our wondering takes us.

The saints, all of them, from Augustine to Catherine, to Therese, to Newman, have all shared a similar inclination to indulge their faith in reason, and imbue it in wonder.

Sometimes, the commingling of faith and reason is a neat and natty thing. More often it is a bit messy, but once our intellects have thrashed a matter to its frayed ends, we realize that we have stumbled into mystery and then, if we are open, we (very reasonably) throw our hands up to heaven and submit to it because we know mystery for a good adventure, and we are loyal to it.

It is a loyalty that peers into a mirror, darkly, but is never wholly blind.