A team of sociologists, led by Catholic University professor William D’Antonio, recently published a survey that has gotten quite a bit of media attention, for it shows that many Catholics disagree with core doctrines of their church and yet still consider themselves “good Catholics.” For instance, 40% of the respondents said that belief in the real presence of Jesus in the eucharist is not essential to being a faithful Catholic. Perhaps the most startling statistic is this: fully 88% of those surveyed said “how a person lives is more important than whether he or she is a Catholic.” In a follow up piece in the Chicago Sun-Times, a reporter asked a number of people on the street for their reaction to these findings. One man said, “I’m a very good Catholic because I follow what’s in my heart, more than what the church tells me to do…”
As even the most casual student of societal trends knows, this sort of cavalier attitude toward doctrine is rampant, at least in the West. I dare say that most people in Europe or North America would hold some version of the following: as long as, deep down, you are a good person, it doesn’t much matter what you believe. The intellectual pedigree of this popular idea can be traced back at least to the 18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who held that religion is fundamentally reducible to ethics. All other forms of religious life and practice—dogmas, rituals, liturgies, sacraments, etc.—are meant, Kant thought, simply to contribute to upright moral behavior. In the measure that they fulfill this purpose, they are acceptable, but in the measure that they contribute nothing to ethics, they become irrelevant, even dangerous.
I would argue that what is truly dangerous is precisely the bifurcation between doctrine and ethics that Kant inaugurated and that has become so ingrained in the contemporary imagination.
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