Review

Catholicism: The Heavyweight in the Ring

“The Last Supper” (ca. 1325–30), 34.3 x 52.7 cm tempera and gold on wood by Ugolino da Siena (Ugolino di Nerio) (ca. 1317–ca. 1339/49), located in the The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Photo: Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

William F. Buckley Jr. (in Nearer, My God) quotes the Anglican convert and Catholic apologist Arnold Lunn, who said, in the late 1960s when the Catholic Church was throwing off its traditional forms of worship: “If it is so that the Latin Mass is only for the educated few, surely Mother Church, in all her charity, can find a place even for the educated few?”

That quotation came to mind as I was reading this intriguing book by Barry Pearlman, A Certain Faith: The Catholic Alternative. Pearlman’s goal is not dissimilar to that of other works that start with God’s existence and end with the truth of Catholic claims. One thinks of Frank Sheed’s Theology and Sanity or Archbishop Sheehan’s Apologetics and Catholic Doctrine. The key difference, however, and what I found so delightful, is that Pearlman’s book targets a literate, educated reader who might often find himself talked down to by other Catholic books that assume nothing. The ideal reader of A Certain Faith is looking for a serious intellectual challenge at his own level. So Pearlman gives it to him, in clear but demanding prose, comfortably citing not only Aquinas but also Duns Scotus, Henry of Ghent, Malebranche, and Rosmini (which, needless to say, is not something you see every day in a world of “Ten Things to Know about…” or “Follow me on Twitter”).

The arc of the work goes from Reality (part one) to Wisdom (part two) to Spirit (part three). The first comprises God’s existence, the creation of the world, and the problem of evil. The second focuses on the person, deeds, and teaching of Jesus Christ, as Son of God, Lamb of God, and King. The third concerns our ascent to God through purgation, illumination, and union, a classic triad in mystical writing.

The opening chapter furnishes an impressive ontological proof for God’s existence based on the very premises and presuppositions of all thought, a sort of “Cogito ergo Deus est.” Substance and causality are implied in the activity of consciousness: we directly find ourselves in a situation that requires a primary explanation. Reason’s very ordering to Being rather than Nothing (which cannot be thought) demands Being, otherwise identity, contradiction, criteriology, etc., all collapse into meaninglessness, and scientific explanation is useless. But we see that this is not so; ergo, the conclusion follows. 

Even with his preference for the ontological, Pearlman is not averse to empirical or physical arguments. For instance, he writes:

The discoveries of modern empirical science have only reinforced this tendency [to seek a cause], since it is now believed that the whole of spacetime had a beginning, i.e., there was a state of affairs in which there was nothing we could call spacetime followed ontologically by a state of affairs which we do call spacetime. We say “followed ontologically” because it did not occur in time, since time too came to be along with space, and because one reality proceeded from another—not from nothing at all. Whatever is the origin of time is de facto non-temporal or eternal, since time cannot be the cause of itself—or it would have to precede itself or exist before it ever existed, which is absurd. Whatever was the origin of space is also not limited by space (or anything else) and is, therefore, infinite. And changeable matter, consisting perhaps of quantum units of spacetime, came similarly from something immaterial since matter too had a beginning. Finally, energy as ordered forces must have come from something all powerful. Clearly, some unchanging, all-powerful, infinite, eternal, and immaterial Reality must be the first principle of all that is.

The second chapter identifies Kantianism as the greatest (albeit by now largely implicit) mental roadblock to a sane approach to God and the world. We are treated to a refutation of Kantian epistemology so that we may “step outside the mind” to an external world, with its identities, forms, and finalities, and may see that it, like the mind, needs an adequate causal explanation, namely creation (crucial here is the rehabilitation of the analogy of being that was progressively dismantled after Ockham). The author then turns to evidence from astrophysics about the exquisitely fine-tuned grand design of the universe and to evidence from quantum physics that refutes subjectivism. I will admit that my rusty mathematical capacities were strained to the limit for a few pages, but I am sure there are other readers who will find it delicious.

All that exists is good, to the degree that it exists, and evil is privative of the good. This classical stance is the backbone of Chapter 3. We simply cannot grasp evil except as the absence of a due good: it is parasitical of goodness. This alone completely reorients the “problem of evil,” which becomes: why is the fullness of good not to be found within creation, and why is this or that good, which might have been present, absent? If God exists, then He alone can be absolutely, infinitely good; everything else must be deficient in some way. This is not a fault of His or of things, but rather, is inherent in creatures’ finitude, and this itself is a spiritual path for us: our consciousness of finitude points to the priority of the divine infinitude in which we find our source and destiny. We are not meant to be contented with creation or its goods; we love them in order to learn how to love, and learn how to detach ourselves from them in order to love what is supremely lovable.

Pearlman here strongly emphasizes the mystery and risk of free will: if God wills to create images of Himself that exercise a finite freedom like unto His infinite freedom, then He is accepting the risk (so to speak) that the creature will abuse its freedom, not to His harm but to its own. I did find a few sections of this chapter implausible, as when he argues that God always maximizes the good in the universe by the least means (this sounds Leibnizian to me), and that “created beings are so governed that not one of their activities remains idle, that is to say, fails to bear the fruit it could bear by being properly employed.” Surely, I must be misunderstanding something in this claim of Rosmini’s, as it contradicts all I have experienced of this fallen world.

Chapters 4 to 6 might be called a more sophisticated version of C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity: the case for Jesus Christ as the personal, adequate, and complete revelation of God. The section critiquing modern “form criticism” of Scripture is breathtakingly good: Pearlman shreds the case that skeptics like Bultmann made against the New Testament and its reliability, while persuasively putting forward the nobility of the message preached and lived by Christ. Pearlman shows that Jesus, as depicted in the four Gospels, is fully aware of who He is and what He has come to do, and that a consistent, powerful, and inviting portrait emerges from the New Testament, which is meant to draw us to faith in His mission, discipleship to His person, and communion with His life.

The author’s intimate knowledge of the Old Testament comes much into play as he explains Jesus’s fulfillment of its prophecies and promises. Pearlman argues that Christ summarizes in Himself all the religious strivings and revelations prior to Him, while going beyond them in ways that were unthinkable to His contemporaries. He is ancient wisdom and unprecedented newness; He is Israel and more than Israel:

At the Last Supper Jesus (who was clearly aware of the inherent symbolism of what he was doing) established himself as the new deliverer, prefigured by Moses, who would lead the reconstituted twelve into a more glorious land of promise, the Heavenly Kingdom where he would remain with them as the new Temple. Meanwhile, in anticipation and as a memorial, his apostles were to consume his body and blood as a perpetual unbloody offering (minha) in his name. No gentile at the time would have been so familiar with the priestly traditions as to unify all these elements and themes together in this manner. And neither would Paul or any of the Jewish disciples ever have dared to: the consumption of human flesh or blood was proscribed in Jewish law. Only if Jesus were the Son of God could he have had the authority to transform the Passover in such a radical way. Only if his disciples had revered him as such would they have followed him in this. For his sacrifice was intended to end and replace all the others, completely demolishing the entire temple cult. That it did so is a matter of historical fact. 

The rigorous demonstration of the credibility of the Resurrection of Christ is particularly commendable, done with a care that I have seldom seen elsewhere. He cuts through a lot of nonsense of the James George Frazer (The Golden Bough) or Joseph Campbell (The Hero with a Thousand Faces) type, showing that Christianity makes unique claims among all the world religions—they are not just “variations on a theme”—and that its claims, when calmly considered, carry conviction.

In the manner of Leo XIII’s encyclical Satis Cognitum and of many apologetic works, Chapter 6 argues that Christ intended to establish a visible community on earth, the Church, with a visible head, the chief of the apostles, and that just such a community with just such a head is the testimony of the records of history. Even as there is no Church without Christ, there is no Christ without the Church: “he cannot have God for his father who has not the church for his mother,” said St. Cyprian of Carthage (c. 200–258). The review of apostolic and patristic witnesses will be eye-opening for many who have been tricked into thinking that such a thing as “Christianity” exists in the abstract, or that it can be set up like a street-corner shop by any preacher with a Bible. All the authoritative records point to a very different conclusion: the religion established by God in and through Jesus Christ exists in the Catholic Church. The treatment of the medieval church underlines its continuity with the first millennium and responds to typical objections made against it.

Part Three concerns our acceptance of Christ and our living His life. Chapter 7 examines how we do this through faith in the God of love who has revealed Himself and who is in all things and above all things, which therefore allows us to find Him and hold on to Him in “the sacrament of the present moment,” to use a phrase coined by Jean-Pierre de Caussade.

Just as God came to us as an infant, poor and helpless; just as he comes hidden in the Eucharist, so also he comes disguised in each moment. It is the will of God that is the decisive element, since it is God who sustains this moment and adapts it to the soul. For it is from all eternity that the divine action effects in time and space the ideas according to which we are to be formed. All our bodily states, pious sentiments, good thoughts, holy desires come from the invisible hand of God. Our lives flow ceaselessly from this unknown fount where God unseen works his marvels. The Word is the exemplar and this moment is his canvas. As God’s action pervades all things, so each moment reveals his face to those who, with the eyes of faith, are willing to see. Our response is but to say: Dominus est (it is the Lord); and the moment will disclose its secrets. It is through the very obscurity of this moment that faith is able to triumph as faith. Faith would not be faith if the path was always clear and easy. The virtue of faith consists in the act of willing, even rejoicing in whatever occurs by God’s providence. God knows better than we what is good for us and, moreover, is able to bring forth from all things what is fitting and good. Sanctity of heart resides in a simple fiat: a will humbly disposed to the will of God. Through this discipline the soul is perfected. 

As we strive to follow this path of faith, we are given mighty aids in the seven sacraments of the Church, which provide access to the grace of Christ our Exemplar. We imitate Him by the exercise of His virtues (the topic of Chapter 8), which in us are the theological, cardinal, and “religious” virtues (by the last Pearlman means poverty, chastity, and obedience). Christian ethics are founded on the “divine spark” in every human being, the basis of its dignity, rights, and duties.

The ninth and last chapter, “Union,” looks to the saints as the models and agents of Christlikeness. Every saint is like Christ in a unique way: sanctity is not a cookie-cutter affair. In fact, the more an individual draws near to his heavenly Exemplar, the more his individuality is brought out: the saints are the most distinctive, colorful, exciting, tremendous, and influential persons in history. Of the thousands he could have chosen, Pearlman gravitates toward five, two men and three women: Francis of Assisi, John of the Cross, Thérèse of Lisieux, Teresa of Calcutta, and Maria Goretti. 

The “poor man of Assisi” illustrates the meaning of simplicity, generosity, magnanimity, and harmony with creation. In his sublime doctrine, St. John of the Cross shows us with utter clarity that “the purpose of human existence is transformation into God . . . to become perfect through participation in the perfection of God”. “All graces which God gives us are to lead us to this end”, we are told, and “we seek God because we love him, and we love him because he is Love itself”. Yet this transformation entails a cleansing of self-seeking, of selfish attachments; it requires purification and therefore suffering. That is why no life of faith can exist without “dark nights of the soul” and many other crosses. God wills them for our good, knowing clearly (as we do not) that a life of ease, comfort, and pleasure would be our enervation and dissipation, not a ladder that carries us above our sinful selves to the river of His delights, which are those of Love.

St Thérèse teaches us the “little way” of “childlike, unconditional, loving trust” in God’s providential care, which is the secret of holiness. Without a doubt, all the saints have practised this secret, but no one expressed it as accessibly as Thérèse was given to do. In a continuity of name and spirit, Mother Teresa recognized that no one can “solve the problem of poverty”: this is too gigantic, too abstract, too impersonal a way of thinking about it. Rather, one addresses the problem of this or that sick, suffering, anguished, abandoned, or dying person. One binds these wounds and cradles this image of God. She continued to do all this in spite of the fact that she suffered a dark night of the soul for decades, in which she felt “no faith, no love, no zeal.” Like St Thérèse, Mother Teresa was invaded by the temptation of atheism, which she bore heroically as she continued to put her faith in God, and all her energy into serving Him in the “poorest of the poor”. 

Finally, St Maria Goretti shows how the Christian can “absorb evil” and thus make reparation for it and, in a sense, redeem it to the point of reconciliation. Maria’s willingness to die rather than to sin brought about, in God’s Providence, the conversion and holy life of her murderer, who was present at her canonization (and who, by that time, was a professed Capuchin lay brother). Even in the horror of martyrdom, God brings forth good from evil: the triumph of faith and love, the exposure of malice, the appeal to conversion, the vindication of truth.

Pearlman’s A Certain Faith is not, perhaps, for every reader: there are more accessible works that present arguments for God’s existence, Christ’s divinity, and the Catholic Church. This book, however, performs one immensely important service for the audience that will benefit from it most. At a time when religion is routinely mocked as “anti-intellectual,” as prejudice or superstition or baseless opinion, Pearlman shows that, on the contrary, the true religion has the power of reason as well as the best minds of Western philosophy on its side. It is ready to take on and take down any of its opponents. The real heavyweight in the ring is not atheism, agnosticism, materialism, postmodernism, etc., but Catholicism, which can explain both the appeal of those false views and identify their fatal contradictions. Pearlman has written a gracious, erudite, and eloquent defense of the Faith for modern Western university-trained intellectuals. May it have success in finding such readers.

Peter Kwasniewski is a philosopher, theologian, and composer of sacred music. An author of numerous books and academic articles on topics as wide-ranging as traditional liturgy, the thought of Aquinas, and the writings of John Henry Newman, he is also an international speaker and a frequent columnist.

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