If I Weren’t Catholic, I Would…

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.

More to explorer


  1. I think my views on domestic and economic matters would be largely unchanged. In regard to foreign policy, I would support a foreign policy largely based on Machiavelli’s The Prince, with a smattering of Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West.

  2. Why would you be less likely to empathize with the poor and oppressed? Secularists are all for helping the poor and oppressed, though they are less likely to actually get their hands dirty. They tend to be less violent. They’re driven by a desire to reduce human suffering.

    Having spent some time away from the Church, I can say that I was more consequentialist in the expected ways except a few. I was an absolutist when it came to opposition to capital punishment. Oddly, faith made me less opposed to the practice.

  3. Why would you be less likely to empathize with the poor and oppressed? Secularists are all for helping the poor and oppressed, though they are less likely to actually get their hands dirty. They tend to be less violent. They’re driven by a desire to reduce human suffering.

    Many of the friends I had as a kid are now “spiritual but not religious” kind of secular, and they do indeed tend to take a very bleeding heart view of social justice issues.

    So that would certainly be one way of looking at things. But my overall personality has always tended towards the judgmental and pragmatic, so in attempting to think how I might look at things without a belief in God I figured I might sound more like some of the agnostic/atheist libertarian types I’ve run into who look at things more along the lines of: Well, that’s one less undesirable element of society.

    Now I guess I could say that if I weren’t Catholic I’d still have an instinctual idea derived from natural law that one should treat all people as having inherent dignity — but that’s still assuming that Catholicism is true, but that I didn’t believe in it.

  4. I think an important element in answering this question for anyone is to consider that, if they weren’t Catholic, they would be something else and that something is not some imagined neutrality. (Darwin hinted at this without saying so explicitly.) At various times I have thought that, if I weren’t Catholic, I would be an atheist (in high school), a Buddhist (in undergrad), or, most recently, a Mennonite (as a grad student in theology). But even those things that appeal to me in other world views tend to do so because of my Catholicity. It is a difficult hypothetical.

    In any case, I know that in my concrete personal situation I would never have even heard that artificial contraception was morally problematic were I not Catholic. I suspect that, were I a non-Catholic, it would sound vaguely like the JW prohibition on blood transfusions. Only if I came face-to-face with serious consequences of using AC would I question such a widespread societal norm.

    And if I had no concerns about the separation of sex from procreation, I would have no problem at all with homosexual acts as such.

    I suspect I would also be slightly less pacifist and slightly less opposed to the death penalty were I not a Catholic, but that, of course, would depend widely on what I was instead. Were I a Mennonite, I would be more pacifist and more opposed to the death penalty.

    I’m the sort of person who would find a cause somewhere though. I would want a systematic worldview and the sense that following through on it passionately would make the world a better place. In other words, I’d be pretty dangerous were I anything but a Catholic. 😉

  5. I’m where Mac is, except in foreign policy I’d support the Roman and English model: conquer the world and send all its wealth back home.

    I still could not vote demokrat cxandidates. They create poverty.

  6. If I weren’t a Catholic, I would have committed suicide a long time ago. There’s no way I would have made it through my most serious bout of depression without the knowledge that suicide is a mortal sin. Even as a Catholic, at one point I found myself reading moral theology to see if there were exceptions to the prohibition.

  7. A Catholic can consider any point of view. The idea that one follows the Pope blindly while seemingly not considering other options is quite silly. Of course many of us do consider other points of view, find either fault or merit in them but at the end of the day, for me at least, no other worldview is as consistent and unemotional and correct as the Catholic one. The non-Catholic argument presupposes an incorrect Catholic view or perhaps a Catholic rejecting his Catholic view for an inferior view, perhaps to spite himself.

  8. “You have no idea how much nastier I would be if I was *not* Catholic. Without supernatural aid I would hardly be a human being.”

    –Evelyn Waugh.

  9. Like Darwin, I’m a cradle Catholic so it’s tough to determine. I’d likely be a bit more libertarian economically if I were not Catholic, and most likely would not oppose the death penalty.

  10. Dale,

    That’s always been a favorite quote of mine — though I didn’t successfully work it in here.


    Stay Catholic, then! (All joking aside, just sent a quick prayer your way. Hang in there.)

  11. DC – It’s ok; I know the rules, and everyone’s got their crosses. It’s just that when I tried to reason through the topic of this article, I realized that for me, any question about where I’d be today as a non-Catholic is moot.

    It is interesting that most of us have said that we’d have less respect for life, in one way or another.

  12. I would have married that really hot nurse I knew when I was overseas in the Navy. Only problem with her, from a Catholic standpoint, was that she was in favor of contraception and did not really want kids. And was a functional atheist.

    I suspect we would have been divorced by now.

  13. Personally, i have a very hard time imagining what I would be like if I were not catholic. It’s like trying to imagine myself as male-I really wouldn’t be me anymore if I wasn’t catholic!
    I suspect that if I had to choose another faith I would likely have become an evangelical Protestant. I’d still be pro life but not have any problem with birth control, divorce, or the death penalty. I might be more of a doctrinaire conservative if that were the case.

  14. If I weren’t Catholic, I would probably be some sort of pagan, and my politics would probably more closely resemble Aristotle’s.

    I would still oppose homosexuality and so-called “gay marriage” because I believe it is anti-social and destructive, but I would “look the other way” and perhaps even facilitate its discrete practice among those who felt they had to satisfy that urge.

    I’d probably be ok with the use of artificial contraception among married couples only, like today’s Protestants. I would still combine that with economic incentives to bear children, because Western birth rates are in the toilet. And I would still totally oppose the distribution of condoms to teenagers.

    I’d be more inclined to support violent revenge in many cases.

    And I certainly wouldn’t have an absolute prohibition on lying (I’d disagree with Aristotle on that one).

    But then, I don’t really want to speculate too much on how dark my personal life would become, and what I would be willing to justify or indulge in, if I didn’t believe in God.

  15. The only thing that would stop me from doing “anything” was the possibility of being apprehended. If I had no family, that would be a weaker disincentive.

    From and old cowboy (C&W) song, the most important things in life (updated).

    Older whiskey;
    Younger women;
    Faster cars;
    More money.

    Eat when yer hungry.
    Drink when yer dry.
    If the sky don’t fall in,
    Ye’ll live ’til ye die.

    Cum a Tai Yai Yippee Yippee Yay Yippee Yay

    Too many take seriously too many worldly “things.”

  16. Born Catholic but having since strayed, I see no reason to return to the Church, especially in light of the lurid scandals that have plagued. As a betting man who has gambled and usually lost, I still might take Pascal up on his wager. After all, sooner or later, I might win. When God gave out faith as a gift, I somehow got passed up.

    Good thread, though. As usual TAC is provocative.

  17. When I read the title of this post “If I Weren’t Catholic, I Would…”, in my mind I immediately completed the sentence “… become one as soon as possible.” I’m Catholic for the same reason I believe everything else I believe in my life: my faith and my reason inform me that it’s true with metaphysical certainty. Imagining the Catholic faith not to be true is like imagining that two plus two does not equal four or the sky is not blue; it makes no sense whatsoever. I’ve read all sorts of apologetic material from all sorts of viewpoints, Catholic, non-Catholic Christian, non-Christian, agnostic and atheist, and the only viewpoint that coheres philosophically is Catholicism. I was providentially born a cradle Catholic, but if I hadn’t been, I surely would have converted, led by the same reasoning that led me to all that I believe. To imagine myself as anything but Catholic, I should have to imagine myself as not being me.

  18. “especially in light of the lurid scandals that have plagued.”

    Yeah Joe, that Judas scandal was earth shaking! 🙂

    Which reminds me of a story. A Jewish merchant and a Catholic merchant were friends in a medieval Italian city. The Jewish merchant becomes interested in Catholicism, but hesitates about converting. His friend encourages him, but then is alarmed when the Jewish merchant decides to go to Rome to investigate Catholicism at its heart. The Catholic merchant is alarmed because he is aware of the corruption rampant in the Church there. The Jew comes back in two weeks and anounces that he is now a baptized Catholic. His friend sputters, “But all the corruption in Rome…”. The new Catholic holds up his hand. “That is what convinced me! If I ran my business the way the Church is run, I’d be bankrupt or in jail in a week! Yet the Church has endured for centuries! It must be of God!”

  19. Joe,

    Before worrying about what it means to “return to the Church”, focus on what it means to hold the Catholic faith. Truth does not depend upon the morality of the hierarchy or the bureaucracy. Many of us “traditionalists” will readily concede that there is corruption and immorality rampant in the Church, at the parish and diocesan level and even higher up than that. But this does not shake our faith in the least. The Church is a 2000 year old divinely established institution that has seen her share of crises and scandals and survived them all. And even if this is the scandal to end all scandals, it only means that the day is near when Christ will return, the consummation of the world.

  20. As my old friend Thomas Hardy once said, “There is a condition worse than blindness, and that is, seeing something that isn’t there.

  21. Don, thanks for the interesting link. Hardy is one of my favorite Victorian authors, along with George Eliot (another apostate). Hardy wrote: “Pessimism … is, in brief, playing the sure game … It is the only view of life in which you can never be disappointed.” I Hard-ily agree.

  22. I prefer Thomas Babington Macaulay myself, not so much for his history as his essays, which are some of the best writing I have ever read. Anti-Catholic as he was, I have always liked this tribute he wrote to the Church:

    “There is not and there never was on this earth a work of human policy so well deserving of examination as the Roman Catholic Church. The history of that Church joins together the two great ages of human civilisation. No other institution is left standing which carries the mind back to the times when the smoke of sacrifice rose from the Pantheon, and when camelopards and tigers bounded in the Flavian amphi-theatre. The proudest Royal houses are but of yesterday when compared to the line of the Supreme Pontiffs. The line we trace back in an unbroken series from the Pope who crowned Napoleon in the nineteenth century to the Pope who crowned Pepin in the eigth; and far beyond the time of Pepin the august dynasty extends, till it is lost in the twilight of fable. The republic of Venice came next in antiquity. But the Republic of Venice was modern compared with the Papacy; and the Republic of Venice is gone, and the Papacy remains. The Papacy remains, not in decay, not a mere antique, but full of life and youthful vigour. The number of her children is greater than in any former age. Her acquisitions in the New World have more than compensated her for what she has lost in the Old. Her spiritual ascendancy extends over the vast countries which lie between the plains of the Missouri, and Cape Horn, countries which a century hence may not improbably contain a population as large as that which now inhabits Europe. Nor do we see any sign which indicates that the term of her long dominion is approaching. She saw the commencement of all the governments and of all the ecclesiastical establishments that now exist in the world; and we feel no assurance that she is not destined to see the end of them all. She was great and respected before the Saxon had set foot on Britain, before the Frank had passed the Rhine, when Grecian eloquence still flourished in Antioch, when idols were still worshipped in the temple of Mecca. And she may still exist in undiminished vigour when some traveller from New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broke arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St Paul`s.”

    As for pessimism, I rather like this view of a late Victorian I bet you are familiar with:

    “The gallows in my garden, people say,

    Is new and neat and adequately tall;
    I tie the noose on in a knowing way

    As one that knots his necktie for a ball;
    But just as all the neighbours–on the wall–
    Are drawing a long breath to shout “Hurray!”

    The strangest whim has seized me. . . . After all
    I think I will not hang myself to-day.
    To-morrow is the time I get my pay–

    My uncle’s sword is hanging in the hall–
    I see a little cloud all pink and grey–

    Perhaps the rector’s mother will not call– I fancy that I heard from Mr. Gall
    That mushrooms could be cooked another way–

    I never read the works of Juvenal–
    I think I will not hang myself to-day.
    The world will have another washing-day;

    The decadents decay; the pedants pall;
    And H.G. Wells has found that children play,

    And Bernard Shaw discovered that they squall,
    Rationalists are growing rational–
    And through thick woods one finds a stream astray

    So secret that the very sky seems small–
    I think I will not hang myself to-day.

    Prince, I can hear the trumpet of Germinal,
    The tumbrils toiling up the terrible way;

    Even to-day your royal head may fall,
    I think I will not hang myself to-day.”

  23. Don, skimming that assessment of Hardy; first impressions are that it is misleading and skewed in its analysis. I just finished The Woodlanders. Townsend quotes Grace Melbury, the main female character as saying she felt “bitter with all that had befallen her—with the cruelties that had attacked her—with life—with Heaven.” Yes, a bitter moment. But he omits the constant prayer visits by her and Marty South, who loved Giles more than anyone, and Marty’s solitary visit at the end which bespeaks of spiritual faith.

    The Mayor of Casterbridge is one of the greatest novels ever written. More later.

  24. If I weren’t a Catholic I would convert to Catholicism…I suppose I could try to separate out what parts of me are particularly Catholic and which parts I might still have if Catholicism were absent but, my goodness, I am 10 times the person I was before I became a “re-vert” to actually living the faith after a long time of slackness. I’m still 1,000 times less the Christian I could be (naturally), but I can’t even stand the thought of myself when I wasn’t going to Mass every week, wasn’t saying daily prayers, wasn’t even trying to follow my Lord.

  25. Little about being “a” Catholic ever sunk in, growing up, and I dropped out not long after Confirmation because of a plague of suicidal tendencies that afflicted me daily for about 25 years. I think I recall trying to live a moral Christian-ish life on my own strength? Something like that. Never hurt anybody else, etc. Not help them much, either. I remember vaguely thinking abortion was the woman’s choice, the pre-born didn’t count as individuals, but politically at least I never voted on that satanic joke of a platform. It didn’t mean enough to make a dent in an otherwise rock-ribbed conservative view. I suspect topics like gay marriage and birth control would fall under that I-just-don’t-give-a-damn heading, if I was still wandering in the desert.
    If you’ve never strayed, it’s pretty hard to picture, and if you have strayed and returned, it’s pretty hard to remember. Post-re-verting, all I can say is that I’m recognizable on the outside, but the interior life is completely different. Seriously, 100% different. As others have said, to imagine not being Catholic is to imagine not being YOU.

  26. More seriously, if I weren’t Catholic I almost certainly would not have five children.

    Politically, I would lean much more to the right on economic matters, have no problem at all with waterboarding or other forms of torture, would be mildly restrictionist on abortion, and would probably favor widespread contraception programs pushed by the government. Overall, politics would serve as a religion substitute, with all that entails.

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