From bad theology to worse

Sep 4, 2004
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:A thorough analysis of Catholic doctrines

Cons:A sterile display of doctrinal scholarship

The Bottom Line: To be read only by devout Catholics who want to deepen their understanding of the biblical basis of doctrines.

Catholicism and Fundamentalism

Why would an agnostic read a book like this? As a former Catholic, I find it difficult to detach myself completely from the religion I was raised under. Make no mistake: Catholic “moralic acid” (as Nietzsche named it) does not leave your soul just because you step out of the church. You may get rid of the Church as an institution, but not so easily of the patterns of thought and behavior that characterize Catholicism. Hence my continuing interest.

It is also interesting for me to understand why many Europeans have abandoned the hypocrisy of the Church rituals to become “humanists”, or have joined Eastern philosophies and mysticism, whereas many Americans have moved into a completely different direction: Christian Fundamentalism.

The question to me is not which approach, Catholicism or Fundamentalism, is theologically the correct one, because, in the end, no religion is fundamentally more true than another. If anything, it is more important to ask which one serves mankind better. But what I am curious about is, first of all, what is at the core of Christian Fundamentalism, and, second, why is this happening here in the US and much less in Europe? Unfortunately, this book is not designed to provide a reasonable answer to these questions.

Keating seems to suggest that believers have left the Catholic Church because of issues with doctrines. His book is therefore all centered around biblical interpretation as an underpinning to his Catholic apologetics. Yet, this seems to be an inherent contradiction: as he explains many times in the book, Fundamentalists do not start with an honest biblical interpretation and find it straying from the official one. They start with an agenda and use the Bible as a tool to justify their Church-bashing activities. Thus, one may wonder, why bother arguing about who’s right about the Bible?

The other major contradiction in the book stems from Keating’s argument, which is absolutely correct, that the Gospels cannot contain everything we need to know about doctrines. The reason is that the earliest Gospels were written very late (70-80 AD) and John’s Gospel around 120 AD, so they were not clearly produced by Jesus’ disciples but only symbolically signed with their names (the dates are from other sources, Keating is very circumspect here about the identity of the Gospel writers). Therefore, oral tradition is superior to the Bible in the establishment of the sacred rituals. This reasonable thesis would eliminate the need for finding scriptural justification for things like the Mass or Confession, things that the Fundamentalists claim were “invented” by the Church. Yet Keating spends considerable time in trying to find some biblical precedent for these practices.

There are more contradictions in this book than a non-Catholic can stomach. A wonder how I made it to the end. I simply wanted to understand the motivation for writing this book. I understood at the end that this is simply a sterile display of “official” doctrinal scholarship. Yes, Keating has read a lot of books, knows a lot, but has no clue about what is going on in the religious world or in a man’s soul.

When I think about the Catholic Church, what comes to mind are the na´ve words written by the chronicler of the second expedition of Hernan Cortez to Central America.
“We did it for the Queen (Isabella); we did it for the Catholic Church; we did it to acquire immense riches for ourselves”. This simple honest statement highlights how, throughout history, the Church has always been associated with power and money. The Pope, in return for Isabella’s support with the Inquisition, gave his blessing to the pillaging, extermination, rape, and enslavement of millions of indios. Anyone browsing through the pages of history cannot help thinking: how can this rotten institution have been really inspired by Jesus Christ? No apologist in the world, I don’t care how clever, can mend this chilling impression.

The book begins with introducing the enemy: “Fundamentalism emerged as a reaction to liberalizing trends in American Protestantism.” This is about all you get in terms of historical analysis! What is Fundamentalism? Apparently, it is the belief that all revelation has its origin in the Bible, and there is no need of a Church to explain people what to believe. The Bible was indeed dictated directly by God, which implies a Bible totally free from error and ambiguity. Well, Keating says, the Fundamentalist position has no rational ground. Funny to hear a Catholic talk about rationality. Where is the rationality of Catholic dogmas?

Born again Christians know deep down when they have been saved, and nothing can undo their state of grace, whereas the afterlife of a Catholic depends pretty much on his last seconds. A saintly life ending with a four-letter word will precipitate the poor chap into Hell, whereas a sinful life ending with an act of contrition will elevate the bastard into Heaven. Well, how convenient to be a Fundamentalist! And how ironic, but also thrilling, is to be a Catholic!

Chapters 2-9 are an analysis of the major contemporary anti-Catholic movements and key figures. Keating here claims that these people are in bad faith and they are motivated by hatred and hostility toward the Church, not spirituality. In addition, all Fundamentalists, and a prime example is Lorraine Boettner, suffer from lack of intellectual rigor. Indeed, I can’t escape the conclusion, that Keating does not reach, that Fundamentalism is motivated mainly by power. The power wielded by the Catholic Church has, fortunately, dramatically decreased in the last century, but has served as a tantalizing example to many unscrupulous men. You can acquire power through the political or the financial avenues, so why not through the “spiritual” path, like Rome did? Indeed, famous preachers like Oral Roberts and Bob Graham are well on their way to having amassed a considerable financial and media empire. This socio-political theme is to me clearly more important that the discussion about the doctrines.

But politics is not where Keating wants to go. His rational analysis of the two theological positions reaches the absurd conclusion that “we have taken purely historical material and concluded that there exists a Church…divinely protected against teaching error”.
Here Keating is clearly confused; doctrines are the objects of Faith, and cannot be justified by rational analysis! But also his concept of Faith seems to be foggy. Faith is accepting that “one plus one makes two…we take these things at face value, but mathematicians must go through a semester’s course...demonstrating such obvious truth.” Here Keating confuses mathematical definitions with a spiritual act that pertains to a different dimension of the human soul. This does not look good.

Keating is much more lucid when he leaves philosophy and theology aside and debates scriptural interpretation. In chapters 10-12, he makes the strong case for oral tradition vs. the Bible. Thus, the Bible has no monopoly on Christian truth. This is a courageous statement that may outrage a lot of Fundamentalists, but is clearly backed up by a serious historical analysis. Faced with the accusation that many of the Catholic rituals have pagan origins, Keating seems comfortable with the fact that this is undisputedly true. Of course, we all know that religions borrow cults from one another, and that many Christian myths were taken from more ancient religions. Keating gives a sensible answer here: doctrines evolve as humans evolve. They perfect themselves. There is no static Bible-given doctrinal truth. Catholicism “fulfills, but does not wholly deny, mankind’s earlier stabs at religious truth”.

Keating then analyzes one by one many points of doctrinal controversy between Catholics and Fundamentalists and attempts to justify the mainstream position through biblical analysis. This part, beginning with chapter 13, is very detailed and more tiresome than the previous sections.

Salvation, which we have discussed, occupies a long chapter. Then Keating justifies the baptism of infants, the forgiveness of sins (confessing to priests is better than going straight to God, says the Church), and briefly the idea of Purgatory. This is a rather weak point in Catholic doctrine. If Heaven and Hell are beyond time, i.e. time no longer flows after the judgement day, how can one have a “temporary” cleansing period? So much for Keating’s rationality. One plus one makes three. Here the Fundamentalists score a big point.

But the biggest battle is about the legitimacy of the Pope and its presumed infallibility. Here, I believe, the motivation on the part of the Fundamentalists is clearly political. By stripping the Pope of his ex-cathedra infallibility, they take that power for themselves. Here Keating defends the Popes and their numerous blunders and crimes by saying that the Pope is only infallible in matters of doctrines, and in everything else he is simply a man. This just does not hold. What about periods when there were two Popes, vying for power? This lasted 40 years in the late 14th century. Why couldn’t God select a legitimate heir? If the Church was his instrument, why were many candidates struggling for supremacy? Yet another dark page in the Church’s history.

The apologist next tackles the Eucharist, another weak point of Catholic doctrine. After struggling forever to prove his point, finally Keating hits the nail on the head: “Fundamentalists have an underdeveloped sense of the mysterious, of the supernatural”. True, but so do Catholics. In ridiculing their idea that the eternity of afterlife is simply a series of endless years, Keating fails to recognize that the Catholic Church has also failed to provide an alternative view of “eternity” that goes beyond this childish representation. And this is the major flaw of both religions: the promise of a forever-lasting life of bliss is the weapon that every Church wields to keep its followers and gain power. Make that “eternal life” symbolic, as it should be, and not literal, and you have lost your political grip on the masses! Which means: the kings and queens will dump you!

The cult of the Saints and Mary is another major point of contention. Unfortunately, this is Keating’s weakest chapter. He fails to clarify why one should pray to Mary or his favorite Saint. He makes the weak distinction between adoring and worshiping, but it is just not convincing.

The most forgettable chapter is “The Inquisition”. Here Keating simply expresses doubts that this was a really big deal. People were killed and tortured in those days, so what if the Church did that too? As for the numbers of executions, Keating says, they are grossly exaggerated. It sounds too much like the efforts of the neo-Nazis to deny the Holocaust. “After all - he says – Catharism (early Fundamentalism) was both a moral and political evil”. Shame on Keating.

The book ends with two chapters on “Practical Apologetics”, that is, instructions to fellow Catholics on how to combat Bible thumpers who go from door to door quoting from the Bible and trying to make converts. Here Keating seems to believe that effective doctrinal discussion may bring some of these lost sheep back to the Church. How silly!

What does this book accomplish? Well, the facts are clear: millions of people are leaving the Catholic Church: many to agnosticism, and many to fundamentalism. The Catholic Church is headed for total irrelevance, unless some inspiring theologian emerges who is able to bring new life into the old decrepit symbols. So what is an apologist like Keating doing? Instead of trying to understand the deeper failings of his Church, and trying to reinterpret the Christian message for modern man, he’s debating fundamentalists on biblical interpretation. I think his idea is totally sterile: does anyone really leave a religion because he can’t swallow a couple of dogmas like transubstantiation or Mary’s immaculate conception? Or do people leave because the Church can no longer feed their hunger for spirituality?

The answer is obviously the second. What is amusing to this impartial observer is that most Americans have escaped from the bad theology of Catholicism into the even worse theology of fundamentalism. And this realization is at the core of Keating’s impotent anger.
This ironic twist brings to the front another disconcerting truth: whenever an old religion loses its power over the masses, a more harmful one emerges that tightens its grip on them. Look at what kind of Christianity our new breed of Republicans are embracing.
In this world, God is still the most popular excuse to commit unspeakable acts against humanity. There are no signs that this is going to change any time soon.

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