As a Catholic, one is sometimes accused of being so mindlessly doctrinaire that one “accepts anything the pope says without thinking”. However, at other times, one is faced with the opposite challenge: Does your Catholic faith cause you to take any political or moral positions that you wouldn’t take anyway?
Typically, both of these objections are leveled by people who don’t like one’s political or moral stances, but while in the one case it stems from a belief that one would obvious agree with the speaker if only one’s head wasn’t befuddled by religious notions, the other seems to stem from the idea that if only one really took one’s faith seriously, one would agree with the speaker on the point at issue. (Or perhaps alternately, merely a skepticism as to whether anyone actually modifies his life at all due to religious beliefs.)
I think this is a pretty valid question, but if one attempts to think about it seriously, it is a very difficult question to answer, since it leaves one to try to puzzle out how much of one’s beliefs and character are the result of one’s faith, versus how much one picks one’s faith based on beliefs or tendencies one already has.
This would, perhaps, be easier if I were not a “cradle Catholic” or if I had been away from the Church for some length of time as an adult. I could then at least say, “Well, when I wasn’t Catholic I believed X, but now I believe Y.” Though even then, I think someone could reasonably ask if it was becoming Catholic that caused one to adopt the belief in Y or if it was one’s dawning belief in Y that caused one to become Catholic.
The difficulty, as I see it, is to attempt to separate by belief that Catholicism is a true from my other beliefs and tendencies. But really, when one pulls out such a major portion of my worldview, how is one to determine what is affected?
So, for instance, one of the beliefs which informs my politics and my understanding of history is that human nature is something which exists, is the same in everyone, and does not change over time. Thus, if people tended to do something in the past, they will tend to do it in the future unless some sufficient incentive or constraint prevents them. This is something which informs many of my more libertarian/conservative political beliefs, and as a Catholic I ground it in my understanding that we all have souls made in the image and likeness of God but which are “fallen” in nature. However, I tend to suspect that I would hold a similar belief that people tend to not change much over time even if I were an agnostic, since this is also something which is borne out by a materialistic and scientific approach to understanding humanity. So I think many of my views on economics, personal liberty, justice and culture would be the same even if I were not Catholic.
Two other beliefs I hold strongly are that there is an inherent dignity to every human person, which should be respected even when it would be more expedient for society to ignore that dignity, and also that certain human actions have an inherent moral purpose or value. These, I think, are views I would not hold as unconditionally if I were not Catholic.
Taking it that my tendency towards a strong view of justice and a non-changing view of human nature would persist if I were not Catholic (and thus fell back on an agnostic scientific materialism, which is the worldview I find next most persuasive to Catholicism) but would be less inclined to put aside expedience in favor of human dignity and less inclined to give moral actions universal moral value, I think I would probably list the likely differences resulting from stripping Catholicism out of my worldview as being:
– I would be more libertarian in my approach to issues of economics and personal freedom, and more inclined to give a Darwinian shrug of the shoulders if this hurt less fortunate classes or countries harder, unless this seemed likely to cause actual instability.
– I would be more inclined to accept violence or destruction as an unfortunate but acceptable side effect pursuing foreign policy.
– I would be less supportive of foreign aid.
– I would take a harsher approach to justice domestically — more use of the death penalty, less worry about having a fair justice system, humane prison system, etc.
– I would not oppose same sex marriage.
– I would likely see abortion, euthanasia, etc. as an acceptable societal trade off in increasing freedom and reducing suffering.
– I would not have a moral issue with birth control, divorce, homosexual behavior, or pre-marital sex. And any issues I would have with adultery, pornography, prostitution, etc. would relate to their social evils, and thus any opposition to them would be non-absolute.
All of which is probably to say that I would overall look somewhat more like an average American of my level of education and general disposition. Not, perhaps, an earth-shattering conclusion. But there it is.