Catholic Thought

As Latter-day Saints, we often see the world in the terms given to us by Protestants. That isn’t surprising because they are those with whom we’ve had the most interaction as well as those from among whom most of us have been converted. I’m a prime example; before I joined the Church I thought about studying to become a Protestant minister. But the Protestant view of the world isn’t the only one and it isn’t necessarily the best. We often adopt that understanding of the Reformation without reflection, not only because Protestantism is, for us, a major intellectual inheritance, but also because we recognize the important role that the Reformation played in preparing the world for the Restoration.

For those reasons and also because, in the U.S., we are in general culturally and politically more like Protestants than we are like Catholics, and especially because if we take criticism from other religions it is more often Protestants than Catholics, when we think theologically we are more prone to do so in Protestant terms and when we do interfaith work, we are more prone to engage Protestants than others. (The Church’s aid work through Catholic charities is an important exception, but one that doesn’t have much influence on broader LDS culture.)

Of course, there is also among us an affinity for things Jewish and for Jewish ideas. Few of my neighbors think it odd that one of the members of the ward lights a Menorah during Hanukkah. LDS scholars who lecture on ancient Israel or modern, or who give rabbinic explanations of biblical passages and ideas, draw large crowds. One sees nothing like that affinity for things Baptist (and it would probably draw suspicion). Nevertheless, I think it is accurate to say that we are culturally and intellectually tied to Protestantism more than any other religion.

So it is interesting that in the last day or two a number of those making comments on T&S threads have expressed their feelings for Catholic and High Church Anglican thinkers. My intellectual sympathies are with them, though we read different authors. I find Catholic and Anglo-Catholic thinkers like Catherine Pickstock, John Milbank, Paul Moyaert, Jean-Luc Marion, Michel Henry, Jean-Louis Chrétien, Didier Franck, and Jean Greisch, to name a representative group, to be more helpful to me as I think about my religion than are most Protestant thinkers. Of course there are others—Martin Heidegger, Hans-Georg Gadamer, and Paul Ricoeur, all Protestants; and Marlène Zarader, whose religion I don’t know. But by and large my philosophical thinking about religion has been influenced by Catholics rather than Protestants.

Why do you think so many at T&S are drawn to Catholic thinkers? What are your favorite insights from thinkers in other religious traditions, Catholic or otherwise, Christian or not?

19 comments for “Catholic Thought

  1. “Why do you think so many at T&S are drawn to Catholic thinkers? What are your favorite insights from thinkers in other religious traditions, Catholic or otherwise, Christian or not?”

    Well, for one thing, Catholic writers write movingly of a unified hierarchical Church with a priesthood authority duly descended from Peter, the chief apostle, who got it from Christ Himself. Chesterton, in Orthodoxy, describes “the monstrous wars about small points of theology, the earthquakes of emotion about a gesture or a word. It was only a matter of an inch; but an inch is everything when you are balancing. The church could not afford to swerve a hair’s breadth on some things if she was to continue her great and daring experiment of the irregular equilibrium. Once let one idea become less powerful and some other idea would become too powerful. … [I]f some small mistake were made in doctrine, huge blunders might be made in human happiness.” This imagery might be applied to, say, the Church’s response to Higher Criticism in the 1920s and 30s. That the Y has pretty successfully blended “learning, even by study and also by faith” (D&C 88:118) is, in that sense, a result of modern apostolic leadership, a careful and crucial “balancing” that ensured the Church would not get too far away from the pattern of education established by Joseph in Kirtland.

  2. I’ve always been intrigued by the Islamic faith. Mostly because it’s pretty much the only other “name brand” faith that requires quite a bit more from a person rather than the salad-bar-pick-and-choice-whatever-you-want-from-your-religion approach, which has taken over most of the world.

  3. Bob Caswell: You might enjoy this article. Not only is it about Islam, it is also about why the author has more in common with Catholics than with Protestants. It was one of the things that “inspired” me to write this post.

  4. Jim, that was quite the article. He had plenty to say. I have to admit that much of it sounded analogous to a hypothetical “who’s cooler” debate over the Nephites or Lamanites in the BOM. Depending on what point of time you’re looking at, each group had its fair share of oppressing the other. What goes around comes around, I suppose.

  5. Islam is indeed intriguing. Many of the Middle Eastern adherents of that faith are descended from Father Abraham through Ishmael.
    Muslims today number in the Billions
    The Lord promised Abraham that his seend will be as numerous as the stars in the sky.
    The Lord also promised him that through his seed will all the nations of the seed be blessed.
    I wonder how Muslims fit into all of this.

  6. Islam is indeed intriguing. Many of the Middle Eastern adherents of that faith are descended from Father Abraham through Ishmael.
    Muslims today number in the Billions
    The Lord promised Abraham that his seend will be as numerous as the stars in the sky.
    The Lord also promised him that through his seed will all the nations of the seed be blessed.
    I wonder how Muslims fit into all of this.

  7. I’ve always thought we were an interesting group who had numerous parallels/differences with all major groups be they Protestant, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Hermetic, Gnostic, Buddhist, Islamic or others. It seems we are kind of in the middle of all of them.

  8. Jim: “We are in general culturally and politically more like Protestants than we are like Catholics.”

    The truth of this depends on which Catholics and which Protestants you are looking at. There’s a big difference between fundamentalist baptists, devout Christian reformed, and liberal Presbyterians. There’s also a big difference between the cultural Catholic, the American cafeteria Catholic, and the one who loves John Paul II and attends Mass every Sunday. We are more like some of these and less like others, but the split isn’t as simple as Catholic vs. Protestant.

    As for valuable thinkers and works in other religious traditions, I would nominate John Paul II’s encyclical’s _The Splendor of Truth_ (Veritatis Splendor) and _The Gospel of Life_ (Evangelium Vitae).

    I would also nominate Martin Luther.

  9. My two favorite non-Mormon Science Fiction writers, Walter Miller and Gene Wolfe (no relation) are/were Catholic and their works are permeated with Catholic themes and motifs.

    Interestingly, Wolfe is a late in life convert to Catholicism and Miller eventually (before his bizarre suicide) renounced his faith.

    An interesting tidbit I got from Gene Wolfe. In one of his essays, he discuss how, in one of his books, he could have possibly made a Christ figure out of a journeyman torturer.

    Wolfe’s defense is that people refer to Christ as a humble carpenter so often that the words have lost all meaning – and we seem to have forgotten that the only physical object Jesus makes with his own hands in the New Testament is a whip.

  10. BTW – one really, really interesting place we differ from Catholics and largely adopt Protestantism is in how we view the second coming and read the book of Revelation. While we obviously aren’t exactly like the Protestants, we are nothing like the Catholics. It was rather shocking to me to first hear how the Catholics read all those passages.

  11. Jim, a great deal of the affinity I feel for Catholicism comes from the Mormon belief in saving ordinances and sacraments. We clearly place more emphasis on these practices than our Protestant friends. Perhaps it is the focus on ceremony and performances that brings us together.

    I’d also agree with Kingley’s comment about a unified, hierarchical Church and the exclusivity that goes with it.

  12. The first time I went to a Catholic mass was during high school. It kind of freaked me out, because I felt a real power there, which I later took to be a very chtonic force. It was the first time I really understood that there was _something_ to other religions besides differences in belief and practice.

    As a missionary in Ecuador, I was amazed by how a church could shape the public and private life of a nation or town. Growing up out west, our Church had a large influence on me, but no church (or religion in general) had much influence over daily affairs of the community. It made me think about how Zion might be established or how communities might come together around common beliefs.

    Later, visiting the Catholic church in Zinacantan, Mexico, I was struck by the syncretic nature of the worship there–candles and small statues of animal spirits on the floor lined one wall and once again, there was a strong spiritual force there, though different from what I had felt in Dallas, Oregon or Ecuador.

    Obviously, St. Francis, or at least the _idea_ of a St. Francis is very important to me as I try to better live in harmony with all the forms of life around me.

    In my own personal attempts to prove all things and hold fast to the good, I find Taoist and Hindu thought playing a larger part than much Protestant teachings. The otherworldly and transcendent nature of God in mainline Christianity doesn’t appeal as much as the struggling of Taoist and Hindu traditions to deal with the powerful spiritual forces we experience. Of course, there are ties here to Heidegger and the Pre-Socratics, so it all becomes circumscribed into one great whole.

    I’m also influenced by the teachings of the traditional peace churches–Quakers, Mennonites, etc. I’m currently reading Val D. Rust’s _Radical Origins_ about the influence of the Radical Reformation on the anestors of the first LDS converts. Very interesting to see the role of the pilgrims and others in the intellectual and spiritual ancestry of LDS beliefs.

  13. Also, Catholics generally do not sweatily reenact the opening scenes of 2001: A Space Odyssey on dozens of seedy Cable TV stations and then ask for your credit card number as a “faith seed offering.”

  14. Josh Kim,

    It’s probably hard to really know who the descendants of Hagar and Ishmael are — but I know that many Arabs certainly consider themselves to be descendants of Ishmael. Whenever I think about the widespread Arab and Muslim populations I think of the promise made to Hagar by the angel of the Lord:

    Genesis 16
    8: And he said, Hagar, Sarai’s maid, whence camest thou? and whither wilt thou go? And she said, I flee from the face of my mistress Sarai.
    9: And the angel of the LORD said unto her, Return to thy mistress, and submit thyself under her hands.
    10: And the angel of the LORD said unto her, I will multiply thy seed exceedingly, that it shall not be numbered for multitude.

    I believe the actual Hebrew uses the verb or root “multiply” twice — if it were translated straight across it might say something like “I will multiply you multiply” or “I will multiply you multiplyingly” though both constructions sound pretty awkward in English.

  15. Yes, the Hebrew uses the verb “multiply” twice here. One of these is what is called an infinitive absolute, which is intended to give emphasis to the verb. In the KJV translation, it is represented by the word “exceedingly.” (An infinitive absolute will often be represented in translation by some sort of an intensifying word in English, such as “indeed.”)

  16. Ivan Wolfe wrote: …the only physical object Jesus makes with his own hands in the New Testament is a whip.

    He also made mud from spittle and clay and used it to annoint the eyes of the blind.

  17. greenfrog –

    I’m not sure if that counts as a man-made, artificial object, since mud is found naturally. Whips aren’t.

    but hey, it was Gene Wolfe’s point, not mine. Though it did make me think.

  18. I wonder if there isn’t a profitable eclecticism going on in our engagement with thinkers from Catholic and Protestant traditions. At least that’s been my experience.

    It seems to me that when I am thinking of issues cross culturally or against the grain of a particular dominant philosophical/theological culture, the thinkers that help me most are Protestant thinkers such as Barth or Kierkegaard or Richard Niebuhr (these three generally run against the grain of liberal theological and philosophical thought). When I want to figure out what sense, as a Latter-day Saint, I make of a particular doctrine or issue, what the foundation is of something or other, the Catholic thinkers seem to help most in seeing how to think within the framework of my own tradition. So, generally speaking, I find the Protestant thinkers most helpful when there are fewer commonly held assumptions and less shared background with my audience, and the Catholic thinkers of more help when there are some deep, commonly held assumptions and frames of reference, though there may still be disagreements. I tend to use the Protestant thinkers when I need to fight for a place for religious thought in a general discussion. I lean towards Catholic thought when the place of faith or religious thought is not in question, but when what something or other means within that framework is the issue.

    I’d be interested, Jim, to know if your use of, say, Heiddeger and Marion follows this kind of pattern, or if you use Protestant thinkers and Catholic thinkers in much the same way, or if there’s something altogether different going on.

  19. Keith, that’s an interesting observation. I’m not sure about my own case because I write mostly for two audiences, LDS audiences and Catholic (at least culturally Catholic) ones. In each case, whether explicit or not, if I’m talking about philosophical issues, Heidegger is always in the background. As you know, he’s an odd case because he was raised Catholic, became a Protestant (a “house Christian”) as an adult, and had Catholic last rites and burial. In the mean time, he declared himself an atheist, though I think there is plenty of evidence that by that he meant that he wasn’t going to talk about God while doing philosophy rather than that he didn’t believe in God.

    But I’m drifted away from your question. The answer is that I’ve not seen that pattern in my work, but I think it may be because I seldom find myself in situations where I have to “fight for a place for religious thought.” That difference could well mean that we use the thinkers differently.

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