The Church without Christ

Flannery O'Connor's first novel Wise Blood revolves around a character named Hazel Motes who preaches a "Church without Christ," where you don't need to be saved, not when you've got a car at least. Hazel's car is eventually totaled, and he ends up blinding himself.

I was reminded of this when I read Charles P. Pierce's "What I believe," an article in the Boston Sunday Globe Magazine of July 11, 2010. I actually like Mr. Pierce, as I first encountered him through his bemused sports commentary on NPR's "Only a Game" with Bill Littlefield. But the subject of his recent article is not sports, but rather "why I remain a Catholic." He gives some reasons, among them the "most fundamental rule of my Catholicism--nobody gets to tell me that I'm not a Catholic... No pope can tell me I'm not a Catholic."

Far be it from me to say that he's not a Catholic. I definitely subscribe to Jesus' saying, "Judge not, that you not be judged." In any case, I don't mean to single out Mr. Pierce: His views, I think it fair to say, are widely shared in Massachusetts, home of Kennedy-style, pick-and-choose Catholicism. But, the idea that no pope could tell someone that he's not a Catholic seems to me to be--well, not exactly Catholic. More like a Protestant idea: private judgment and all that!

One wonders, could God himself tell someone that he's not a Catholic? Forget about the pope for a moment. What would Jesus say? Turns out Mr. Pierce apparently doesn't care. He says the answer to the question "why I remain a Catholic" lies somewhere between the "new atheists" on the one hand, and "fundamentalist Christianity" on the other. "As to the latter, I think I can say without equivocation that I simply don't want what they call a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.... I do not need a personal Lord and Savior. Not in that sense, anyway."

He wants to belong to a Church without Christ, where he doesn't need salvation. He's not alone in this, of course. Hazel Motes was the same way. But this is beyond Protestantism, I think. It's an attitude that doesn't seem to be even Christian. What possible value is there in being Catholic if you disavow Christ? This goes for Catholic institutions as well, of course. When colleges talk about being in the Jesuit tradition that must mean that, like St. Ignatius of Loyola, they're both Christian and Catholic.

When President McKinley sought to justify the Spanish-American War in 1898, he talked about the need to "educate the Philippinos and uplift and civilize and Christianize them." Paul Johnson comments, "No European imperialist...would have dared to justify himself in such a manner, rightly fearing accusations of humbug." What McKinley meant was "Protestantize" them, because the Filipinos had been Catholic (and thus Christian) for four hundred years. Contra Pierce and McKinley, Catholic means Christian.

Last Sunday's gospel acclamation states that Jesus is "the Way, the Truth and the Life." He is the "narrow gate" to salvation. "There is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12). Jesus' very name means "God saves." No Christ, no salvation.

Six months previously, on Jan. 10, 2010, Charles Pierce wrote another piece in the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, this time about the then-upcoming Senate election to succeed Ted Kennedy. Nine days before Republican Scott Brown won that election, Pierce wrote, "[T]he notion that Massachusetts would elect a Republican to fill the seat left vacant by Edward Kennedy was the property of people who buy interesting mushrooms in interesting places"--in other words, a delirious notion. Well, Charlie Pierce was wrong about that. Turns out he was the delirious one. Judge for yourself whether he or the pope is more deluded on what it means to be Catholic.

Dwight G. Duncan is professor at UMass School of Law Dartmouth. He holds degrees in both civil and canon law.