What if you could get into the minds of a hundred different people to see what they think Catholicism is?  I think, if you could, you’d find that few of them really understand the religion the same way.

You probably expected me to say that “you’d get a hundred different answers,” because so many of today’s Catholic voices actually think “diversity” is a mark of the Church, and they want to imagine that Catholicism is some kind of universally adaptable form of religion that can unite at a deep, societal level even as each individual approaches it in a way uniquely his own.

But I don’t think that’s what Catholicism is, and I’m not the only one.  That’s why I think there’d be at least some people who’d think of Catholicism the same way.

I think Catholicism has an objective meaning, and that we can be wrong about what we say it is.  There’s objective content to the Church’s authentic teaching and there are objective precepts for an authentically Catholic way of life.

Is there variety?  Of course there is, but underlying that variety is a unifying factor.  And that factor isn’t just a societal ethos emerging from the religion’s infinite adaptability, but instead, a certain way of seeing the world.

So, as I said, I do think some of these hundred people, if we could enter into their thoughts, would probably see Catholicism more or less the same way, even if, perhaps, with different emphases.  What each has in mind by the term “Catholicism,” in other words, would be recognizable to the others as the same reality.

Competing “Catholicisms”:

I think, though, that there wouldn’t be very many of them in a randomly selected cohort of a hundred people.

Even if we selected that cohort exclusively from self-identified Catholics, we wouldn’t come up with anywhere close to a general consensus on what the term means.  More than that, I think, inasmuch as we did find consensus, we would see different and incompatible understandings of Catholicism shared widely by pluralities of people.  Among them would be a minority, even among regular Mass attendees, whose understanding of Catholicism would be recognizable as such, say, to Pope John Paul II or to Pope Pius XII, or to Bernadette of Lourdes.  I suspect, however, that the majority, many of whom would be very active in the life of the parish and the diocese, would hold a view of Catholicism those figures wouldn’t recognize as their own religion.

A “remnant” Church?

I can hear already the cries that the popes have consistently cautioned the faithful against the thesis of a “remnant ecclesiology,” and that the doctrines of ecclesial indefectibility and the infallibility of the teaching Church preclude a wide-spread defection from the faith, leaving only a remnant of true believers.  But I don’t agree with either of those propositions.

Pope Benedict XVI never suggested as pope that what he’d forecast in the late 1960’s about a much smaller but more faithful Church, divested largely of its former societal and institutional influence, would mark the Church of the future if trends continued as they were—and as they have—had been a mistaken opinion.

If that smaller but more faithful Church were to appear, it wouldn’t likely happen in an instant.  It would take time to work its way out.  There’d have to be a transition as fewer and fewer people held the faith of the Fathers firmly and deeply and more and more people began to think more as the World than as the Church.  It would be expected that, because of the cultural investment people often and rightly place in certain group identities like those we associate with membership in a religious body, many would remain in the visible structure of the Church even after little if anything remained in terms of world-view to hold them there.  They would remain because it was how they saw themselves, in the way that people often retain childhood acquaintances long after they’ve outgrown one another.

Grappling with contradiction:

People have a hard time living consciously with contradiction, though.  We’re rational beings, so we can’t really do that.  We’re able to not think about the contradiction; we’re able to adapt our understanding of the object of our thought, redefining it so that the contradiction doesn’t touch what we’ve defined as “essential”; or, if contradiction can’t be avoided or finessed, we could, as a last resort, resolve the contradiction by making a choice between the respective options.

Along the way to that smaller and more faithful Church, therefore, we would pass, as a visible body, through a period in which people would live and work, minister, and worship side-by-side, while, interiorly, the meaning and purpose and value of their lives, their work, their ministry, and their worship would differ.  More than variation, there would emerge specific difference.  Meanwhile, there’d be a lot of people groping about, not thinking too much about the different claims that can’t be made to work together, or else struggling to make sense of what their faith must mean, convinced that they must have missed something—what was really essential—along the way.

That’s the stage we’re in now, I think.  The “last resort” of open schism hasn’t yet occurred, but even so, it’s no longer possible to assume that the person beside me in the pew is a “Catholic” in the same sense that I am.  The fact that he calls himself a Catholic, that he’s registered at the parish, or that he’s physically in the church with me, reciting the same prayers I’m reciting, doesn’t give me enough information.

In making this statement, I’m not talking about an abstract hypothesis that we never really know what a person truly believes or intends.  I’m saying that, realistically, we shouldn’t be at all surprised to find, if we could enter our neighbor’s consciousness, that what he thinks he’s doing as he prays the Mass with me is something altogether different from, and irreconcilable with, what I think I’m doing in that very same exterior act.  It’s entirely possible that the very same words of the very same prayers and the very same Creed mean something, in my neighbor’s mind, that I wouldn’t recognize as what I’d just said myself.

This condition can’t endure perpetually.  It has to work itself out eventually, either because people change what they believe so they believe the same thing or because people who believe differently separate from one another.

But is a “remnant” Church really possible?

So, do the doctrines of indefectibility and infallibility preclude this possibility, that perhaps even the supermajority of self-identifying practicing Catholics actually adhere to an entirely different religion?

At one time, I probably would have denied that such a thing could happen.  History, however, is a funny thing.  It has a way of convincing us that certain things might not be as clear as they seem they ought to be.

It’s widely known that the Arian Heresy was, at one time, the dominant take on Christianity in the visible Church—that even after the First Council of Nicaea in 325, Arianism wasn’t immediately and neatly suppressed.  Rather, in the decades following the Council, the Arians gained the ascendency and spread their heretical doctrine far and wide.  Who was within the bounds of the true Church and who was outside of it wouldn’t have been clear to a typical observer at the time, and many sought compromise articulations of the faith to avoid the contradiction between the Arian and orthodox Nicaean affirmations of belief.

This tension took decades to work itself out, but eventually there was a clear and visible break.  For centuries, the Catholic Church—the True Church—stood parallel to an Arian church, and in certain parts of the world, there were more Arians than Catholics.  From the outside, it might have been hard to tell the difference, too, because they both had similar structures and made similar historical claims about themselves.  They both asserted apostolic succession, they both had bishops, priests, and deacons and celebrated sacraments.  They both followed liturgical calendars and observed times of fasting and times of feasting, celebrating the same general holidays and naming as their own the same basic personalities, texts, and events as the basis of their relative points of view.

But what they actually believed and, therefore, intended in their worship, wasn’t the same thing at all.  You couldn’t tell that just by looking at them.  You had to see it from the inside.

Where are we now?

So, I think that we stand, at this point in history, in a not dissimilar situation from the Church in the decades immediately preceding and immediately following the First Council of Nicaea.  It’s not obvious to every observer.  For good reason, many of us don’t want to admit it to ourselves.  You can’t neatly survey the boundaries.  There’s no “juridical” schism.  Everything’s all mixed up together, and some would be content for it to stay this way forever, but it can’t.  The truth of the matter is unavoidable, though I wish it weren’t so: There exist different religions under the umbrella of the Catholic Church, side-by-side and intertwined in a tangle.

In the next installment, I’ll try to define the main divisions that define this crisis.