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Catholicism: Simply Complex or Complicated Simplicity? | Fr. James V. Schall,
S.J. | June 12, 2005
Catholicism, in comparison to other religions, especially Islam, is often
said to be overly complex.
If we have to be a Thomas Aquinas or a John Henry Newman to understand what
it is all about, then most normal folks are left out, or so it is said.
On the world stage, in the past century or so, moreover, few political or
cultural leaders have matched the intellectual brilliance of a Leo XIII,
a Pius XI, a John Paul II, or the present Benedict XVI, and the other popes
were no mental slouches. Yet, most people scratch their heads at Humani
Generis or Redemptor Hominis. The implication of this criticism
is that the more "simple" a religion is, the better it is. We
need St. Francis, not St. Dominic, let alone Justin Martyr, Augustine, or
No doubt Catholicism is a religion that does not despise or denigrate what
the mind can and should know. It is, and professes to be, a religion that
seeks intelligence, seeks the truth. It cannot be Catholicism and fail to
know what can be known about anything, even though not everyone needs to
know everything about anything. On the other hand, it does not claim that
everything that is worthy of being known is found in religious sources.
It is perfectly comfortable with natural knowledge known by its own experience
or method. It does not see the human soul as radically split because it
is able to focus attention now on reason, now on the teachings of revelation.
Thus, Catholicism cannot be and does not announce itself to be a religion
that seeks simplicity and easy intelligibility at any cost. To be overly
simple is to be neglectful of the distinctions that are actually used by
the mind to understand things, in the fullness of what they are and mean.
Nonetheless, Catholicism does not disdain simplicity. The famous Apostles
and Nicene Creeds are designed to state the essence of what is held in the
most spare and succinct ways. Yet, every word of this creedal simplicity
was hammered out in controversy and contains within itself a whole historical
and intellectual reflection that is not to be forgotten or ignored.
Many theories of religion would maintain that no religion has an intelligible
basis, that none manifest a coherent whole. Religion is therefore a series
of "myths" or "ideologies" that explain things according
to the believers wishes. What is true is what we will to be true.
But such "faiths" do not claim to have any basis in "fact."
They are articulations of what is beyond reason in the sense that they are
not open to any rational reflection or analysis at all.
This view is often called "fideism" or faith-alone-religion. Such
a theory, which goes back at least to Epicurus, has been historically attractive
to many religions because it apparently protects the content of a particular
belief from attacks from reason or science. Since no relation between religion
and knowledge can in theory exist, the said faith is immune from all outside
criticisms. The Latin expression, credo quia absurdum (I believe
it, because it is absurd), was often used to emphasize or justify this position.
Just because a view seems silly or absurd is, it is claimed, no reason for
not holding it. Indeed, it might be a reason for holding it. In this sense,
faith is protected at the cost of the minds integrity, even its sanity.
Catholicism, for its part, maintains that it should face such arguments
stemming from rational analysis to see what, if any, truths are in them.
But if we fear that our religion is not coherent with reality, it is attractive
to fall back into a fideist position. We simply deny that any correlation
between reality as understood by philosophy or science and that same reality
understood by the religion is possible.
Medieval philosophy went through this position under the heading of the
"two truths" theory. The "two truths" argument was that
a position of religion and a position of reason could be contradictory to
each other. Both views could be held by the same mind without discomfort.
The Catholic mind could not, of course, accept this position. If reason
really does "contradict" a position found in revelation, one must
reject the view of revelation. Of course, a seeming contradiction may not
really exist. In this case, revelation guides philosophy to a deeper understanding
of itself. But anyone who really holds that the truth of reason and the
truth of revelation can be "contradictory" must lead a divided
life. He still must choose which side of the contradictory he will follow.
Likewise, there is the contrary view that science is the only religion there
is. It acknowledges no place for revelation even being considered. Sometimes
this position goes under the name of "rationalism." Here, rationalism
does not mean reason open to reality whatever it is, but reason deliberately
closed in on itself so that it will not admit, even for consideration, any
information from outside itself. Rationalism thus is willing to close itself
off from claims of intelligence that are found in revelation in order, like
fideism, not to have to deal with any problems outside of its definition
We must therefore be careful when we want religion to be "simple."
We do not want religion to be either simple or complex. We want it to be
true. If to be true, it must enter into complicated issues and explain them
with greater or lesser degrees of subtlety, so be it. This alternative is
much to be preferred to making things so simple that their explanation leaves
out what is essentially there, what is true about the matter in question.
Chesterton remarked that what was rather uncanny about Catholicism in the
matter of intellect was that it seemed to sense the complexity of things
when reality indicated that simple explications were not adequate. Take,
for instance, the famous notion that God is simple. Clearly, this phrase
does not mean that God is "simple-minded." Aquinas devoted much
thought to this issue. What Aquinas meant was that things that have to be
broken down and divided so that we can understand them. But they exist in
God as one. Reality lacks division in God. It means that nothing is lacking
of what is. But outside of God things need an almost infinite number
of reflections and ways to express what is one in God.
One might charge Catholicism with being "proud" of its complexity.
But this is not the point at issue. It might be claimed, for instance, that
the Christian notion of Trinity in the Godhead is a very complicated notion.
Why cannot we just have Allah or Yahweh in whom, evidently, such complexity
does not exist? The answer is not that God is not one, but that in explaining
the real unity in the Godhead, we are confronted with the Trinity of Persons
who are one in being and nature, while being three in Persons. So this understanding
makes it even more complex! Both unity and diversity exist in one being
One might say, "Cannot you simplify this explanation for us?"
But that would risk neglecting something vital in the explanation so that
it would not explain what it has to explain. Perhaps the point can be understood
by recalling the most famous theology book in Catholicism, namely Aquinas
Summa Theologiae. This book is over four thousand large pages in
length, but it is proposed as a book for "beginners." Probably
not more than two percent of the human race have ever read that many pages
in their lifetimes! Here we have Thomas Aquinas telling us that this enormous
series of volumes is pared down to the essentials for beginners. Evidently,
the more simple the book the longer it took to explain what needed to be
Perhaps it is true that the human mind rejoices in "simplicity."
But what it looks for is the simplicity of an order. If we see scattered
all over the floor of a building all the parts of an automobile, all in
chaotic and arbitrary confusion, and if we do not know what the parts are
or the order in which they are to go together, we will see a complexity
that confuses us. But once we see how things fit together so that the automobile
is one piece of working equipment, our mind rejoices both in the multiplicity
and in the unity.
What is remarkable about Catholicism is that its "parts," which
may seem at first so arbitrary or chaotic, when seen in their proper order,
do fit together. Catholicism presents itself as a whole in which all its
parts are where they are because of a known and principled understanding
of how things relate. Thus, the discussion of what God is, what man is,
what the world is, what is our purpose are not totally independent of each
other. The explanation of the one leads to the explanation of the other.
In the midst of all of this complexity, Catholicism maintains that the explanation
of our redemption, when understood for what it is, also fits it also
does not contradict what we know from reason and experience. Yet, Catholicism
does not maintain that the things of the inner life of God or of His purposes
for the world can be known by reason alone. It does think reason should
and does wonder about these things. But Catholicism does hold that it is
not impossible for the Godhead to make known to us something of what He
is or what we are intended to do or know.
While it recognizes a place for grace in knowledge, Catholicism does not
think this revealed knowledge violates the integrity of our minds. Quite
the opposite. It thinks that we become more mind by what is offered to us
by the divine Mind. But this increase in intelligence only happens when
we actually wrestle intellectually wrestle with what is presented.
This relation to revelation is only seen in the light of what we can know
by ourselves. So we must have philosophy. We must seek actively to know
what we can know.
Thus, Catholicism is a complex religion because it insists on us actually
using our minds to grasp what is. It does not see why our minds should
become inert or uncomprehending when the intelligence of God is made known
to us. This is a delicate relationship, if you will, part of the very complexity
itself. It is not intended to reduce complex things to an inert sort of
simplicity that leaves out much of what is important to know. The mind seeks
to know the order of things. Once it sees how things fit together in an
order, it begins to suspect that things are well made in an almost uncanny
simplicity in which all things cohere, each in its own place.
Other recent IgnatiusInsight.com articles by Fr. Schall:
The One War, The
On Saying Mass (And Saying It Correctly)
Had a "Liberal" Pope
On Being Neither
Liberal nor Conservative
Is Heresy Heretical?
Commencements: A Time for Truth to Be Honored
On The Sternness
On Teaching the
James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown
He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture,
and literature including Another
Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, On the Unseriousness of
Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing, Playing, Believing, Lecturing,
Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing, and A Student's Guide to Liberal
Read more of his essays on his
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