The Solipsist’s Catechism

If you make up your own faith, it’s easy to believe, as long as you never question your own authority.

He thought he saw an argument
That proved he was the Pope:
He looked again, and found it was
A Bar of Mottled Soap.
“A fact so dread,” he faintly said,
“Extinguishes all hope!”

-from The Mad Gardener’s Song,
by Lewis Carroll

During the summer of 2010, the field of popular theology produced a bumper crop of exciting new ideas, nourished by the very best of natural fertilizers. For example:

Janice Sevre-Duszynska, who identifies herself as a “Roman Catholic womanpriest,” chastised the Vatican in a July op-ed column written for the Lexington (Kentucky) Herald-Leader. The column was illustrated with a picture of Sevre-Duszynska in priestly vestments— which should be satisfactory proof that she really is a priest, for all those who believe that they really were visited by little witches and goblins on Halloween. The title of the Herald-Leader column encapsulates the self-identified priestess’ demand: “Don’t equate women priests with pedophiles.”

She has a point. There are very salient differences between pedophiles and female Catholic priests. Offhand I can think of two:

1) Nobody ever writes a newspaper column identifying himself as a pedophile.

2) Pedophiles exist.

A FAITH OF MY VERY OWN

“Nobody gets to tell me that I’m not a Catholic,” wrote Charles Pierce in a lengthy essay entitled “What I Believe,” which was featured in an August issue of the Boston Sunday Globe magazine.

For most readers, no doubt, questions about what Charles Pierce believes are secondary only to the question: Who the hell is Charles Pierce? But he must be a very important person, if no one has the authority to tell him that he’s not a Catholic.

Certainly the Boston Globe won’t tell him, because for decades the Globe has operated on the assumption that the only good Catholic is a bad Catholic. At the opening of his article, Pierce cheerfully identifies himself as an “anti- Catholic Catholic.” Thus he qualifies perfectly as the man who will tell Globe readers what they should believe.

The Globe essay contains the standard attacks on the Church hierarchy, backed by the standard quotes from Richard McBrien, the preferred theologian of anti-Catholic Catholics. But Pierce goes further, announcing: “I simply don’t want what they call a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” Makes you wonder why he’s hanging out in Catholic churches—if indeed he is hanging out in churches.

Pierce does not reject the Catholic faith, he tells us. He merely insists that the “teaching authority is dependent wholly on the primacy of my individual conscience.” Notice that last phrase: it’s not just “my conscience” but “my individual conscience.” It’s nice to know that Pierce has his very own individual conscience—which is distinct in some way, presumably, from the collective conscience of the Globe editorial staff. Otherwise, unfortunately, his argument doesn’t make sense.

If the teaching authority of the Church is wholly dependent on my conscience, then the Church has no authority to teach on topics on which my conscience is not engaged. If I’ve never really given any thought to the monophysite controversy, then the Church has no right to teach on that question. Which means, naturally, that the Church can only teach me the things that I want to be taught.

That’s certainly a comfortable understanding of authority. But is it workable? Try transposing the same model of authority to other institutions. (“No, sergeant, I won’t come to attention. I don’t want you issuing any marching orders today.”) Nope; won’t work. It’s possible—indeed proper—to say that the claims of authority are limited by the demands of your conscience. But to say that authority is wholly dependent on your conscience is to say that there is no authority over you at all.

Nobody can tell Charles Pierce that he’s not a Catholic. Nor can anyone tell him what the Catholic Church teaches. The Church teaches what Pierce wants it to teach. And he believes it all.