February 24, 2005

"You Can't Do That!"

As a Catholic pursuing a less-than-mainstream practice of your faith, you should probably get used to hearing this objection a lot. Both other practicing Catholics, and those who know enough about Catholicism to reject it, will often respond to the Catholic Craft with a dismissive or even offended, "You can't do that! The Church doesn't allow it!" How can we respond to this objection? Well, first, it's important to think long and hard about whether or not you truly want to continue identifying yourself as a Catholic, or even as a Christian. It's a difficult decision and can't be made quickly or lightly (see my discussion of dedication towards the end of this post). If you are committed to the Catholic tradition (or are still wavering and curious about my thoughts, which I certainly hope you are if you're reading this!), it may be helpful to consider what exactly a person means when they declare, "You can't do that!"

Usually, when someone responds to the Craft this way, they mean one of two things: either (a) what you are claiming to do is not actually possible and you are misguided in your beliefs, or (b) even if it were possible, the Church does not allow it. For example, my boyfriend recently objected to my use of personally-blessed water to anoint myself each morning. "You can't do that!" But what did he mean? Did he mean that I just don't have the ability to bless water the way a priest does? Or did he mean that, even if I have that ability, the Church doesn't allow me to do such things for some reason, moral or otherwise? It will be easiest to respond to the latter objection first, and then move on to the former, which will be a bit more complicated.

Conscience and Free Choice

Let's assume for the moment that, with practice, sincerity and God's guidance, it is quite possible for me to bless water or other objects (or do any number of things to which people might commonly reply, "You can't do that!"). This objection might then imply that, even though I am capable, I should not do so, because it would be immoral, "sinful" or wrong. What can we say to this? We can turn to the Church's teaching itself, which places an important emphasis on conscience:

Man has the right to act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions. He must not be forced to act contrary to his conscience. Nor must he be prevented from acting according to his conscience, especially in religious matters. [...] Conscience is man's most secret core, and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths.

- CCC 1782, 1795

Each person must develop her conscience, her "interiority" as the Catechism calls it, by which she makes moral decisions regarding her behavior (this ability to make free choices based on one's own conscience is why each person is responsible for her choices). The official Church doctrine against contraceptives, for example, is not one that I can agree with, due to concerns about STDs and AIDS, and broken or unstable families, among other things. I have taken the time to contemplate the issue, appreciate the Church's stance, and personally I do refrain from premarital sexual intercourse (though, once married, I may prefer to wait before having children)--but I do not condemn the use of contraceptives in principle. Surprisingly, even though I hold a contrary view (as do many Catholics these days), I can still call myself Catholic without many people getting angry at me. Is this personal moral decision different from the personal decision to believe in and practice sacred magic, or to bless water for my personal altar? Not really. Others may honestly believe that these practices are somehow immoral, but the beauty of conscience is that, if you have honestly sought to listen to God, to that "still small voice" speaking from your heart and mind, then you are allowed--even obligated--to follow your conscience as best you can.

Of course, the Catechism does specify that sometimes one's conscience can misguide--and that these occasions are not always guilt-free (especially if they result from a person simply failing to do everything he can to cultivate his interiority, his relationship with God)... We must always remain humble and eager to contemplate and to learn, always willing to consider many sides of an issue and accept the possibility that we are wrong. But, above all, putting our trust and hope in the Divine is surely our best course of action (and one that any mainstream Catholic can't help but support!).

Reality and Belief

Conscience is all well and good, of course--but what if your actions are not based on moral differences of opinion, but on beliefs which themselves may contradict those of the Catholic Church? Interestingly, Christianity is perhaps the first religion to put more emphasis on "right belief" than on "right action" (it is what is called an "orthodox" religion--rather than "orthoprax," focused on codes of behavior and ritual obligations). Thus, this question is one of the most difficult to answer. On the one hand, it is obvious that cultures change and evolve, and that the tradition itself has changed as well, reflecting better understandings of our universe revealed by modern sciences, for example. On the other hand, when a religious tradition is defined largely by its belief system, it is difficult to claim belonging if some of your fundamental ideas about the nature of reality differ.

What can I say? Well, I refer you back to my gushing post regarding Feynman, in particular that second quote of his about the relationship between theory and experiment. True, not everything can be "tested" this way, and some may argue that we should not "test God" in any case. I would point out, however, that questioning and contemplation is vital to the development of that ever-so-important conscience, and that seeking the revelation of the Divine in the patterns of nature and natural law is perfectly legitimate (CCC 31). What if our exploration of reality--the physical world and the human person--inevitably leads us to conclusions contradictory to the Church, even when we have undertaken to study Church doctrine and appreciate its complexity and mystery? Then it becomes a matter of conscience, of moral choice, whether or not we hold to our own understanding. Indeed, many saints and Christian mystics have, in all humility, insisted on their inspired vision of the Divine, even when persecuted for it by the Church at the time. The author of Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism (the afterward of which was written by a Catholic cardinal, and the whole of which seems generally supported by leading religious figures in the Church) writes regarding the idea of reincarnation, stating that although this is indeed the nature of reality, official Church doctrine denies it in order to protect against the problems which might arise from misunderstanding that concept. Despite this self-admittedly contrary belief, the work is still accepted by some of the most influential Catholic scholars of today.

This is not to say we can claim any beliefs which happen to strike us as convenient or enjoyable to hold. But it does mean that we have a response to those who would dismiss us immediately: many things are possible, and the Tradition of the living Church is, in the end, flexible and ever-evolving, grounded essentially in love and hope.


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