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Was Pontius Pilate Right?

The Catholic writer John Zmirak — do you know his funny but serious Bad Catholic’s Guidebook series? — says that all the controversy over the Pope’s recent interviews has made him think about what he believes and why. Excerpt from his self-interview:

Q: What could convince you that the Catholic Church isn’t true?

A: Should a pope (per impossibile) get up one day and teach ex cathedra… let’s say… that Mary had NOT been assumed. Or if he solemnly denied any dogma or doctrine that had previously been solemnly affirmed by the Church.

Q: What would that prove to you?

A: Here’s what it would not prove: that Jesus isn’t God, that the sacraments are invalid, or that life is a meaningless series of incidents that winks out at the grave.  It would prove instead just one thing: that the pope is not infallible, hence Vatican I wasn’t valid, and hence that the Eastern Orthodox have been right for the past 1,000 years. That might ruin my day, but it wouldn’t wreck my life. Perhaps I would walk down the street to that nice Greek church I’ve been passing for 40 years, pray in front of their icons and eat baklava after the liturgy rather than donuts.

Q: Is there anything that could convince you that Christianity isn’t true? 

A: Yes. If I came to believe that in fact what Christians teach did not foster human flourishing, that it made earthly life unbearable, and hence was in fact not in tune with the human nature it claims that God created “good.”

Q: Give me an example.

A: OK; let’s say the Church took literally Jesus’ words about cutting off your hand if it causes you to sin. Every teenage boy on earth would look like Captain Hook – and the more enterprising ones would castrate themselves, becoming “eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven.” One of the Church’s most central functions, I think, is letting us know when Jesus was using hyperbole, and when he wasn’t.

Q: But your example is just absurd.

A: Is it? One of the most brilliant men in Christian history, Origen, made this mistake and castrated himself.  More broadly, for hundreds of years, our monks and theologians had a very hard time seeing how marriage could really be holy – witness the relentless pressure some monastic confessors often put on pious couples to “live as brother and sister.” Pascal would famously call marriage unworthy of Christians, and convince his sister to drop the man she loved. While it’s often the theological left which calls attention to this anti-sexual heritage (which never rose to the level of doctrine), Pope John Paul II alluded to it as the reason he needed to articulate the Theology of the Body.

Read the whole thing; at the very end, he explains how the Church could feasibly justify the judgment, “Pontius Pilate was right.”

It’s an interesting topic for spiritual reflection, this idea of religious practice helping human life to flourish, or making it unbearable, and this being a test of religious truth. Thoughts?

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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