The Other I

October 18, 2012

My Catholic thinking, part 1

I have recently read a short book “Belief or Nonbelief,” a dialogue between the renowned author/philosopher/ex-Catholic Umberto Eco and Cardinal Carlo Martini, now-diseased liberal archbishop of Milan and friend of Pope John XXII.  Martini is the cardinal who said shortly before his death that the Roman Catholic church was three centuries out of date, and needed to rethink, among other things, its position on abortion.

The dialogue between these two men was refreshing in its openness and respect for each other’s opinions.  Both were educated, and able to listen with a sincerely open interest in the other’s point of view.  Until I got to the last chapter I didn’t find anything terribly surprising.

But in the last question, Martini asked Eco how it was possible for him to have a set of moral principles not grounded in the belief in a personal God.  How, he asked, could the moral values of a non-believer withstand the grave temptations that face so many people in life?  Martini was not questioning that non-believers do often indeed stand up for moral principles with a strength that rivals that of any Christian saint.  But he just couldn’t understand it.  Why?  he asks, What for?  Why would a non-believer not simply plum for the pleasures of the here and now, and what is best for him personally, whatever the effects it may have on others?

I was shocked by Martini’s incomprehension, and have been trying to understand it.  Martini is now dead, so analyzing his thought is fairly irrelevant.  But I can analyze my own Catholic socialization and assumptions, and I think I can understand Martini’s mystification.

There are two things I would point to, both of which I think tend to separate the Catholic intellectual from actually living in this world, from embracing it, from experiencing its incredible mystery.  Not all Catholics think this way, nor do only Catholics think this way.  But it characterizes the Catholic intellectual and theological analysis par excellence and is reflected in the thinking of the Roman Catholic hierarchy and Vatican teaching.

The first factor is the dualism of a Platonic world view that Christianity espoused by the end of the third century.  This world of matter, for Platonic Christians, is not the real world we should take account of.  What counts is the spiritual world from which truth and beauty emanate and where our destiny lies.  This material world is but an inferior, even sin-filled shadow, with the beguiling pleasures that constantly tempt us to turn our gaze from the divine to the mundanely human.  Because many Christians think of it as inferior, we disregard our worldly experience, and don’t look for truth and beauty here.   And so we don’t see it.  And not surprisingly, we don’t find it.

So this platonic dualism keeps us from looking for truth in this world.  I think Martini didn’t see it because he never took it seriously enough.  I might be wrong.  But I’ve been there.  I’ve looked at worldly beauty and earthly pleasures with a hands-off disdain, rather as if it were a version of fast-food that some people consume instead of “real” food which is what is really good for us.  Whatever allure the world offered was at best second-rate.  If I wanted the real thing, I had to look elsewhere.

The second factor I think in Martini’s inability to understand how a non-believer could be truly moral lies in the difference between deductive and inductive thought, a factor that for me was, I think, even more alienating than Plato’s dualism.

But this is enough for this post.  I will explore in my next how I think an over-emphasis on deductive thought over-developed half my brain, and left the other half unused.




  1. Wonderful posting, Terry. Reminds me of Jules Michelet’s description of medieval Christianity in his The Sorceress, which is about the 1000-year pogrom waged on women in Europe. Even flowers were the provenance of the Prince of Darkness, being mere matter. The healing women who used them (I take a medication almost identical to one those women administered) as medicines were murdered by the state/church for having truck with the devil.

    I don’t believe in killing under any but the most urgent situations of self-defense, but if I did and could go back in time to assassinate one human being before his disastrous philosophy took hold it would be Plato.


    Comment by pianomusicman — October 18, 2012 @ 3:26 pm | Reply

    • Hmmm, I will say I’ve never thought about who I’d put on a “who do you most wish had never lived?” list. But I think Plato would have to be up there.


      Comment by theotheri — October 18, 2012 @ 3:57 pm | Reply

  2. One more thought: Human beings create religions. If religions espouse a moral code that’s because human beings naturally do so under any circumstances. The bigger question for His Eminence would be, Has religion, any religion, made human beings more “moral” in the sense you and I would understand that word. I think the body count is not in its favor.


    Comment by pianomusicman — October 18, 2012 @ 3:33 pm | Reply

    • Yes, I’ve reached the same conclusion. (Well, perhaps I should be a little more humble and say that the sociologist Max Weber said it first.) Religion is a human creation, and religions that have lasted have done so because the societies that espoused them have survived. So there must be a core in those beliefs that supports survival. But those religious beliefs also reflect what is most incomplete about the human project as well. As you suggest, the body count is not in favor of religion as a leading light.


      Comment by theotheri — October 18, 2012 @ 3:56 pm | Reply

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