You can tell a lot about a man’s moral or spiritual compass by what offends him. For example, many Catholics are oddly thin-skinned when it comes to criticism of their own denomination.
At say that’s odd for a couple of reasons. For one thing, their hypersensitivity is strikingly lopsided. After all, a number of Catholic epologists are hardly paragons of decorum in their characterization of the Protestant faith. And, of course, it’s not as if their denomination was conspicuous for its tender treatment of theological opponents in the past.
I suppose we could chalk this up to standard issue hypocrisy. But I think there’s more to it than that.
In practice, Catholicism has no core identity. It’s all circumference. Surface-level piety.
For Catholic piety represents, to a fairly extreme degree, a highly externalized piety. You can see this in many respects.
Consider the pervasively pictorial emphasis in Catholic piety. Statues and paintings and other doodads.
Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with making room for the picturesque dimension of religiosity. You have some of that in the OT. Yet the OT never confuses symbolism with reality. Indeed, the OT goes out of its way to accentuate the difference. Signs are nothing in themselves. It’s what they point to that counts.
You can also see the externalized piety in its pervasive emphasis on rites and rituals. For example, repentance is transmuted into “doing penance.” Performing a ritual.
Once again, there’s nothing wrong with a certain amount of ritual. The OT had its share of ceremonies. But, once again, the OT never confuses a rite with the reality it signifies. These are placeholders.
You can also see this externalized piety in the way it confuses grace with matter. Take its morbid obsession with the relics of the saints. The notion that holiness is something which literally attaches itself to a bone or desiccated organ. And if you make a pilgrimage which puts you in spatial proximity with the severed head of a saint, his holiness rubs off on you.
Once more, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the idea of ritual purity or impurity. But that is, at most, a divine convention. God must assign that relationship to the medium. It’s not something that you and I can simply wish on things. And, once again, Scripture never confuses cultic holiness with real holiness.
On a related note is the Catholic notion of holy objects, holy places, holy gestures, and so on. Again, that’s appropriate in such cases where God has actually authorized holy time, holy space, &c. Yet even then, Scripture never confuses the sign with the significate. At best, it’s a type or emblem.
You can also see this in the Catholic notion of holy persons (“saints”). In many cases, this is a purely ascribed status. Something you (allegedly) have because of your relationship with someone else. Popes and bishops. Mary as the Queen of Heaven. On this view, it doesn’t matter what you do, only what you are–in a derivative sense.
This accounts for the amoral reaction of so many Catholics to the priestly abuse scandal. Yes, they may be indignant, but their indignation is strikingly compartmentalized. Outrage at the end-result, but no outrage at the underlying cause. Complicit popes and bishops are allowed to continue in office until they expire or retire.
And that’s because, in Catholic piety, the person of the pope or bishop is sacrosanct. What matters is his office. His isolated status as an officeholder.
Now, the Bible also has a concept of church office, with OT counterparts. And a certain deference was normally paid to officeholders.
Yet that was far from unconditional. Kings and priests could be deposed if they broke the covenant.
We can also see this externalized piety in the theology of indulgences. The saints accrue certain units of supererogatory merit, through lives of heroic mortification. Their vicarious units merit are then deposited in the treasury of merit. The pope can then redistribute certain units of merit to second parties.
This division of labor also creates one of the most appealing features of Catholicism. For the laity can wax eloquent over the austere lifestyle of Mother Theresa or Padre Pio or Father Damien while they themselves are free to live like the Prince of Monaco, le Roi Soleil, or Lord and Lady Marchmain–because they delegate “heroic virtue” to monks and nuns and other stand-ins.
You can also see this externalized piety in the purely decorative use of Scripture in Catholic apologetics. There’s no serious effort to ascertain the actual meaning of the prooftext in context. No, it’s just so much pretty wallpaper. And the more reams of wallpaper a Catholic apologist can roll out, the more impressive the argument.
As a result, the cardinal sin in Catholic piety is a breach of etiquette. It’s like high society, where the worst thing an ingénue can possibly do is to commit a fault pas at her debutante ball–like wearing the wrong color dress–and thereby disgracing the family name.
This surface-level piety also blinds them to the obvious. For example, one Catholic epologist acts offended at my suggestion that artistic renditions of St. Sebastian’s martyrdom betray a homoerotic and sadomasochistic undercurrent. Yet I’m not the only one to notice this. For instance:
[Camille Paglia] “The church that I was baptized in, St. Anthony of Padua, that I attended weekly until we moved away from Endicott, New York, when I was in first grade, had right near the altar this pretty-boy statue of St. Sebastian posing in an extremely voluptuous way, with a little loincloth around his hips and arrows in his body, bleeding. I've often spoken about the impact this statue had on my mind right from the start. As a Mediterranean Catholic, I understood the intermingling of my culturally rooted history with that kind of imagery of boys' beauty. It's built right into the iconography of the Mediterranean Catholic countries.”