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The Lake News Online
  • Guest column: Unabashed atheist defends Catholicism

  • There sure has been a lot of big stuff in the news lately. But, important topics as they are, I'm not going to write about the sequester or Hugo Chavez or Rand Paul's filibuster or the 1965 Voting Rights Act. I'd rather dig into a subject of much greater weight and importance.
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  • There sure has been a lot of big stuff in the news lately. But, important topics as they are, I'm not going to write about the sequester or Hugo Chavez or Rand Paul's filibuster or the 1965 Voting Rights Act. I'd rather dig into a subject of much greater weight and importance.
    You guessed it: I'm going to write about two television personalities: the pundit Piers Morgan and the magician Penn Jillette (as in Penn and Teller).
    Specifically, I'm going to write about Morgan's interview of Jillette the other day on the CNN program "Piers Morgan Tonight."
    As it happens, they were talking about the abdication of Pope Benedict XVI, and from there they launched into a somewhat ironic and very revealing back-and-forth about Catholic teaching.
    On the one side was Morgan, a nominal Catholic, who expressed his disdain and disgust for several teachings and practices of the religion to which he purportedly belongs. Like perhaps most Catholics, Morgan rejects the Catholic doctrines concerning contraception, divorce and the impossibility of women's ordination, and also disagrees with the Catholic rule of priestly celibacy.
    On the other side was Jillette, a confident and unabashed atheist, who sought to explain to Morgan why he has sincere respect for the pope emeritus and for faithful, orthodox Catholics, and why Morgan is seriously mistaken to desire or hope that the Catholic Church would "modernize" and change its teachings.
    Remarkably, in this conversation the atheist showed a far better understanding of, and much more respect for, the Catholic Church than the professed Catholic.
    For Morgan, it really all came down to his inability to comprehend the Church's teachings that he rejects, or even to consider the Church's rationale for its teachings. In his opinion, Jesus Christ never said one cannot use condoms to try to prevent disease, never said Catholics who have remarried after a divorce may not receive Communion, never said women cannot be ordained priests, and never said priests can't marry - so the Church should change and adopt his personal beliefs.
    But for Jillette, it really all came down to logical consistency. He said that if you are going to take the Catholic Church at its word and accept that the pope is a human conduit for divine revelation, and that the pope under certain conditions teaches infallibly, then logically you can't call on the Church to "modernize." Catholicism is something that you have to accept or reject — there's no tenable middle ground. If you believe that Catholic teachings are true, Jillette explained, then you have to accept everything the Church teaches, not just the parts you understand or that make sense to you. But if you don't think the Catholic Church is what it claims to be, that it doesn't teach and interpret God's word infallibly and authoritatively, then you have to reject Catholicism.
    Page 2 of 2 - Continuing, Jillette said that a Catholic calling on the Church to admit it has been wrong about its teachings is to go the route of Martin Luther, claiming a direct relationship with God and personally interpreting God's word, as opposed to receiving divine truth through the mediation of the pope and the Church.
    "I can't believe that I've got Penn Jillette in front of me actually defending my church against my own criticisms of it," said a bemusedly surprised Morgan.
    From what I know of these two men, I'm not surprised at all by the attitudes Morgan and Jillette expressed towards the Catholic faith. Morgan is not known for understanding or showing respect for ideas with which he disagrees.
    Jillette, however, is a man of an amiable disposition who expresses appreciation for people's sincere held beliefs, even when he strongly disagrees. As an atheist, he esteems logic and reason very highly, so logical consistency is important to him. Also, he doesn't casually reject religious beliefs, but seeks to understand the rationale for them.
    While I applaud Jillette's intellectual honesty and fairness, I should caution him about being fair to the Catholic Church. As G.K. Chesterton wrote, "It is impossible to be just to the Catholic Church. The moment men cease to pull against it they feel a tug towards it. The moment they cease to shout it down they begin to listen to it with pleasure. The moment they try to be fair to it they begin to be fond of it."

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