By Pat Flynn
The short answer is because Catholicism is true. The long answer is a bit more complicated and will take some time to explain. Let’s start at the beginning.
I’m somebody who was born into a Catholic family but fell away at an early age. Skepticism has always swelled strongly within me, with serious doubts beginning to bob up around about the sixth and seventh grade. My young interest in philosophy pulled me away from whatever lingering feelings of faith I had left. By high school, my atheism had been secured. I was a full-on materialist. (For what it’s worth, this is a particularly edgy thing to be in rural, southeast Wisconsin.)
But as they say, a little philosophy will pull a person away from believing in God, but keep going and eventually you’ll be brought right back in again. The same argument might be made with respect to science. Certainly, both have been true in my case. And if you’ll permit me, I’d like to explain how this all happened.
Well, I forget exactly how it happened (this all started a very long time ago), but in some way or other I’d come across the Old Atheists. Neitzche was a heavy influence on me, along with H.L. Mencken and the so-called existentialists. Many of these thinkers and writers not only did not believe in Christianity, but actively despised it and mocked it — made it their everyday, object of ridicule. This became a fun pastime for me, as well. Poking fun at religion is just what a recalcitrant teenager does.
But in hindsight, the atheist critiques of the Christian religion were often rather odd. For example: the assertion regularly made by atheists is that Christianity produces only cowards, but never robust, whole people. They’d argue that faith in Christ, in other words, is the sole and singular source of our inherent weakness and is why we are so sniveling and droopy and weak.
But then, only a few pages later — sometimes even the very same paragraph, depending on the manual — another suggestion typically follows: Christianity inevitably turns people into nothing but the most unthinking, battle-ready, blood-hungry barbarians to ever gore about the planet earth. One begins to wonder which exactly it is. Does Christianity make people afraid of almost everything, or does it cause them to crave war? It seems inconsistent.
Beyond all that, however, my favorite atheist thinkers never really did anything to demonstrate that God didn’t exist, so much as just assume that He didn’t exist. Then they railed against Christianity for being a bizarre belief in non-existence entities and hovering spirits and what-not. I can now see I took too much in unassumingly.
Either way, this hot-headed, rhetorical, and snide approach has much appeal among adolescents, and especially males. We tend to be a rebellious sort, us boys. So, while Nietzsche may not have been altogether clear, he was undoubtedly profound. And thus, he made quite the impression on me.
But what Nietzsche starts Nietzsche (sometimes, occasionally) follows through on. Unlike many of the New Atheists, he was not afraid. Nietzche was able to stare down the abyss of nihilism and not flinch. He was able to greet the absurdity of life that results inevitably from the death of God. “There are no objective moral facts” — I will never forget that famous Nietzschean line. It absolutely suplexed me. It left me unable to breathe.
It was toward the end of college when my existential crisis had fully set in: Was I really supposed to believe there are no better or worse choices in life, no actions that are truly right or wrong? Surely, I could admit to some behavior being a matter of subjective preference, social conditioning, or what have you — but not all of it. Not rape. Not murder. Not the holocaust. As sure as I was of anything, I was certain that some things were truly good and worth having — like love — and others truly wrong and worth condemning — like hate. I would sooner have begun to doubt the existence of my sister Bridget than to think the moral law wasn’t real.
So, whatever the arguments against God were — and, in fact, I had encountered no really good ones, aside from that ever-irritating problem of pain — surely they were nowhere near as compelling as my altogether immediate apprehension of right and wrong.
As it happens, the very best argument for atheism — which asks why a loving, all-powerful God would permit evil — cannot get itself going without first affirming God’s existence. The reason is this. The argument assumes that evil is somehow, actually wrong. But if that is the case, there must be some other thing which is somehow, actually right; some way things should, or ought, to have been; some objective moral standard, so to speak.
And certainly, such a standard of moral goodness is not something a person can pull out of any philosophy of atheism. Such a notion is strictly theistic. In fact, the problem of pain, to really be a problem at all, must affirm the objectivity of moral values and duties, but in doing so, only makes the case for God’s existence, not against it.
As Nietzsche rightly proclaims: No God, no objective moral facts. Only there are objective moral facts. Therefore, God.
So, while it is perfectly fair to ask why a loving, all-powerful God would allow evil — and, I can assure the reader there are many, very thoughtful and reflective responses to this — it simply won’t do as an argument against His existence.
Now, some atheists, upon arriving at such a dilemma as this, simply bite the bullet and pretend it doesn’t matter. They assume nihilism. I, however, was more reluctant than that. Because nihilism wasn’t the only problem to come out of atheism. There were more.
As my studies continued, I learned that, as a materialist — that is, as someone who believed only physical things exist — I really could not make sense of much of anything. I could not make sense of consciousness. I could not make sense of ethics. I could not make sense of how the universe came to be, or why the universe persists at all instead of nothingness. I could not make sense of rationality, freedom of the will, or the human person. I could not make sense of love. Was love just some neuronal event? It certainly didn’t seem like it.
Upon reaching such eerie and fantastic conclusions, I decided (however begrudgingly) to go back and check my work. Let me reexamine my starting point, I thought. Let me re-consider the question of God’s existence, this time seriously. And so I began a deep, systematic excursus of natural theology. I studied the arguments for God’s existence and for supernaturalism.
Some arguments, like the one from contingency, I found at first measure mildly interesting. Upon deeper reflection, I found them convincing — that is, I came to see these arguments were correct. Especially when cobbled altogether, there was no longer any escape. God was simply the best explanation for a wide range of human experience that could not be made sense of otherwise.
My perspective could not have been further shifted. I’d somehow slipped free of my atheism, like a dog let loose of his chain, and was off and running, chasing the milk truck of spiritual enlightenment. I was not yet Catholic at this time. You might have called me a religious pluralist at this point, but nothing more. I was sold on the existence of God — and a very specific conception of God, at that — but I was not yet committed to the God of any particular religion, least of all Christianity. While my yoke of atheism had come unstrapped, I had not yet abandoned all the animosity that years spent as an atheist had put in me regarding religion. That would take me a little longer yet.
There is something that happens — something almost predictable and repeatable — to any person who comes out of being a lifelong atheist, and especially one who was antagonistic to religion, like me. They gradually open themselves up to spiritual things — concepts and ideas such as lifeforce, and they may even begin to use words like “manifest” — but remain closed as tight as a clam to the possibility of any Christian claim being true.
To admit otherwise would be too heavy of an embarrassment. I’d spent years haranguing Christianity, and, above all, Catholicism. I was willing to allow almost anything to be right — Buddhism, Hinduism, Huxley’s Perennial Philosophy — yes, any of those would have been perfectly suiting, and just fine, but I was unwilling for that truth to be Christ.
But as it happened, the “God of the Philosophers” took away most of those religious options. From what I had learned about God in the study of my armchair, I had learned that, if God is anything, God is transcendent (outside time and space), non-composite, perfect, and one. So, there goes polytheism, as well as pantheism. Certainly, there goes any proposal that God is a ball of flying spaghetti noodles. My study of philosophy had severely narrowed the list of possibly true religions, essentially down to the great monotheistic traditions. And among those traditions, one stood out as especially interesting.
I could no longer ignore the question of who Christ was. Of all the religious traditions I had yet encountered, none were so bold as to stake everything upon the event, both historical and investigable, of an alleged miracle — of a man coming to earth, claiming to be one with God, and, because of this, getting himself nailed upon a piece of wood, and then, three days later, coming alive again. The Christians said either this happened or it didn’t. If it happened, then Christianity was true. If it didn’t, then their faith was in vain. So there is only one question, then: Did it happen?
I am now completely convinced that it did. Evidence from history cannot seem to be adequately explained apart from Jesus leaving behind an empty tomb. This, combined with the exquisite “fittingness” of Christ atoning for our sins in the way He did, smacks strongly of just the sort of thing an all-loving God might do. It simply reeks of supernaturalism, one might say. Partly because it was so unexpected, and partly because it was so… well, perfect. It’s not something one could have predicted — and, in fact, nobody had predicted it. But now that it’s happened, it’s something we can all recognize for what it is: God saying, “Yes. In fact, this is my beloved Son, and these are my statements about humanity and how things are supposed to be. Take them seriously. Take Him seriously.”
The move had been made intellectually: I came to believe, by way of rational inquiry, the great Christian truths. Everything slowly began to snap into place. Things just started making sense. There was only one thing left to do — something I hadn’t attempted since I wanted the original Xbox for Christmas in the fifth grade. I wasn’t sure exactly how to do it, but I knew I needed to pray. So, I opened the New Testament, read a few passages, and said: “God, if this really is the truth, then please send help. I could use it.”
I was called by the Holy Spirit to Mass on Christmas eve. I was confirmed at Easter Vigil.
I am Catholic because I need a purpose. I need a set of beliefs — I think we all do.
I think the easiest way to explain myself is a quote from a man who used to be the Archbishop of New York: Fulton J. Sheen. He said, “If you do not live what you believe, you will end up believing what you live.”
But when I look around at most people in my generation, I notice a trend. Many young adults set their own beliefs according to their lifestyle. It’s the whole “do what makes you happy” vibe.
I’ve never bought into that.
I don’t want to live my life based on my own “personal set of beliefs.” If I do that, I’ll end up rationalizing everything! Without some sort of guide, how am I supposed to know if what I believe is true?
I don’t want to live based on fluff — on my own personal convictions. I want to live based on an objective, absolute truth — something that others have pursued and given their lives to find. I’ve discovered that searching for that truth with a community of believers has allowed other things in my life to fall into place — my values, my actions, my decisions.
And that is what my Catholic faith gives me: It is my rock. It is the truth. It gives my whole life meaning and purpose.
I can choose joy even on my worst days because I know there is a purpose to pain, beauty in suffering, and freedom in giving of myself. On my good and bad days, the truth is the steadying force in my life. It’s unchanging. Unwavering. No matter what, it will always be there to guide me.
And yes, I understand there are many hurt and broken parts within the Church. I realize living out my faith is a huge commitment involving sacrifice. But once I truly began to understand the beauty and depth within our faith, there’s been no turning back. And I wish for everyone to experience that joy.
While I could lay out my complete rationale for why I’m Catholic (faith harmonizes with reason, our tradition can be traced back to Jesus, the Eucharist, communion of saints, etc.), I want you to discover it for yourself.
You’re not going to understand it just by me explaining why I’m Catholic. You need to go out and search for it yourself with an open heart and attentive ears. If you truly desire to live a life based on absolute truth and not merely on your own belief system, you’ll dig deep.
The truth wants to be discovered, but we have to do our part.