Is it possible to be both Catholic and modern? The simple answer is Yes if we understand the word modern as simply living in the present times or even if we view modernity as advocating for the considered departure from traditional styles or values. The Church is built upon a rock; it is not set in stone.
Traditional approaches have been transformed throughout the long history of the Church. In that sense, the Church is open to a renewal that builds upon the three pillars of the Catholic faith: Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition and the Teaching Authority of the Church.
Given the pervasiveness of modern culture, the accessibility of alternative philosophies and the complexity of modern life, it is entirely understandable that we struggle with aspects of Catholicism at some point in our lives. It is through this struggle that we can gain a deeper understanding of God’s love.
When we live in the modern world, we cannot help but be confronted by anti-Catholic sentiments that view progress as a simple process of attacking tradition and tearing down the old order. On the surface, these philosophies can appear attractive but often they do not offer viable or valid alternatives to what is being destroyed.
Catholicism is about exploring the fullness of truth rather than elevating some partial truth into an entire worldview.
Through the broad lens provided by the three pillars of the Church, Catholicism describes a comprehensive and consistent account of reality, a reality that is large enough to encompass the history of the universe, the relatedness of all life on earth, the providential journey of humankind, the personal journeys of each one of us and the transcendence and immanence of God.
This is a reality that extends far beyond each one of us and well beyond any one issue that we might struggle with. In the rich tapestry of reality, pulling on one thread often means unravelling another. It is difficult to see all ends.
It is useful to think about how we categorise our own relationship with the Church and any aspect of its teaching. Often, we might just have some level of difficulty with a specific teaching. Maybe, something doesn’t make sense to us and we don’t or can’t take the time to really think through its place in the breadth and depth of reality that the Church professes.
Difficulties can grow into doubts. This is OK. In my experience, it is good to have doubts. St. Thomas himself had doubts that Christ responded to with love. There is always room for doubt. Because, doubts encourage us to be led by Christ towards the truth.
There is a cure for doubt, and it begins with curiosity, which keeps the mind and heart open to wisdom. Without curiosity, doubts can close in on themselves and become the only thing that matters. When this happens, we imprison ourselves by letting doubt become a stumbling block in our pursuit of truth.
At the core of Christianity is the biblical truth that all things can be transformed into something good. This requires patience not only with our individual selves but with each other and the wider Church.
A personal quest for truth is arduous and requires an enduring commitment to deeper understanding. Modern culture often ignores this aspect of wisdom-seeking. As education has become increasingly linked to the economy it has become more utilitarian. There is not much room for prayer and contemplation in modern approaches to what has become widely known as the ‘transfer’ or ‘acquisition’ of knowledge. But, knowledge alone does not bring happiness or fulfilment.
Without the quest for truth that curiosity inspires and the contemplative learning that follows, doubts can grow into dissent. This does not have to be a real problem either. Though dissent has many possible meanings, it is generally categorised as a strong difference of opinion especially about official decisions. Possibly, we have all been a dissenter at some point in our lives if only for limited periods of time.
Curiosity is not enough to prompt dissenting minds and hearts towards unity. What is needed is an understanding that unity does not require uniformity but that it does require civil discourse, respect and love. When we alienate the other, we shut ourselves off from the Spirit of Belonging.
The incredible breadth and depth of the Church is held together pastorally in a way that allows us to explore multiple layers of complexity and build upon open-hearted tensions. Such openness to the truth requires us to deeply examine our own assumptions and motivations.
None of this is easy but it would be entirely impossible without the diverse range of intellectual, spiritual and pastoral treasures available within the Church. It is no accident that the Church is the oldest and most venerable institution on earth.
Problems occur when we elevate our own thoughts or feelings above the three pillars of the Church. We all make mistakes. Our bodies can become weak, our intellects can become closed, our hearts can become wounded and our wills can become rebellious. Virtue does not come easily. It takes a holistic education, repeated practice and dedication to naturally acquire the virtues.
It is important to remember that the Church, with the help of the Holy Spirit contains the spiritual, pastoral and intellectual resources to consider issues at a much deeper and broader level than any one of us can alone. In this sense, the Church is a treasure for the curious intellect, a sanctuary for the restless heart and a gift for the lively spirit.
The comforting reality is that our own weakness can be strengthened by the presence of grace and our frail human hearts can be filled with the fullness of God. This is not just some sort of personal progress nor is it simply a useful educational strategy. It is a wholeness to be found at the deepest level.
Maintaining a moral balance is challenging. Christ’s gift of salvation invites us to accept the grace that we need to patiently pursue the virtues and to persevere in our quest even when we feel lost. Prayer, the Sacraments, contemplation and living our faith more attentively helps us to love what is good.