May I make a point that may not seem very civil?
I hope you can take questions like this, and not be shocked or offended by them. No offence is intended.
    Sometimes I'm close to giving up when I hear clerical gentlemen claiming that the Catholic Church is the only authentic Church there is and that Christianity is superior to all other religions (described as 'gravely deficient'). They claim they're defending Christ and his work, but I wonder if they know how it turns people away? Religion is made to seem a cheap self-advertising thing. If it wasn't for two or three examples of real sanctity I would be gone. I'm blessed in knowing a few genuinely saintly people, and everything about them proves that real religion is exactly the opposite of claim and brazen assertion. It's hard not to sound angry, but I'm not so much angry as troubled and disillusioned. Despite everything I am looking for a way of surviving in the Catholic Church, but I want to live in it without that kind of claim being made on my behalf.
    I know that I am very far from being alone in these sentiments. What can you say to people like me?

Arthur M.


Dear Arthur,

    Yes, I know for a fact that you are very far from being alone: I have been asked your question many times. It is a burning question for our time, and it calls for serious reflection. I've been trying to reflect on it for some time, inadequately but as well as I can. I offer you the following brief instalment. But please don't be limited by my limitations.
    A friend told me I have a tendency to talk about language when the pressure is on! But I believe that that makes sense: pressure of argument is pressure on language; and it is when words are bearing a lot of weight that they may be discovered to be the wrong words for the job. There is a question that will never go away. It is: What kind of language is religious language?
    We cannot just say: it is language about God and "the things of God" (that pious phrase that evaporates when you look at it). Atheists could talk about God. But it would not be a language of experience of God - if they were genuine atheists. It might be theoretical language about God. Or it might be about their own experience of being at a loss for the meaning of religious language, and so on. Believers also sometimes use such language of loss, yet they remain all the more believers. The author of the 14th-century classic of Christian mysticism, The Cloud of Unknowing, wrote, "Now you put me a question and say: 'How might I think of [God] in himself and what is he?' And to this I can only answer thus: 'I have no idea.' For with your question you have brought me into that same darkness, into that same cloud of unknowing where I wish you were yourself." That was not the end of the matter for that writer; it was more like the beginning. Knowledge of God (rather than knowledge about God) is not knowledge of an 'object' - not even if we capitalise it 'Object'. This is not a quirky side-show of Christian theology; it is mainstream. Thomas Aquinas wrote that we are joined to God "as to the unknown," tamquam ignoto.    What I am bringing it to is this: at the deepest level the language of religion of a language of love, not a language of objects. Objects are 'out there', distinct from the 'subject' (the thinker or speaker) - even in the case where we are thinking about ourselves. In other words this kind of knowledge creates a distinction between subject and object. But a language of love is a language of union or communion; love unites - even while we know perfectly well that the loved one is a different person (or thing). "If God were in me and I were not in God, or if I were in God and God were not in me, there would be two," said Meister Eckhart. God and I are not two, he says; God is another kind of reality that cannot be counted along with a creature. We are not two. But neither are we one in being. We are one in love.
    What does it mean then when a Catholic or a Christian says, My Church, my religion, is the best? It means what it says. It is the language of love. St Francis de Sales wrote to the nuns of the Congregation he had founded, "You need not believe that your Congregation is the best in the world, only that it is the one you love best."
    This will surely sound like relativism to anyone who believes that the fundamental language of religion is a subject/object language. Such an objection shows a disbelief in the language of love, and even in the nature of love. But the language of love is a valid language. The man who says his wife is the most wonderful woman in the world is saying something perfectly valid (if he means it). He has come to that expression by his love, not by a process of elimination. Nor is he bound in consequence to say that all other women in the world are "gravely deficient." In certain moments she may put pressure on him to say just that! But if he is faithful to the nature of love he will resist it; it would be changing the nature of the discourse into something else: an assessment that is almost certain eventually to choke up love with jealousy and comparisons. The full mystery of marital love is revealed to the man through this woman and no other. He was never in a position to assess all the woman of the world and declare her the winner. And even if he were to declare her a 'winner' in some sense, it would put her in a very competitive and insecure position. His love is unconditional, it doesn't depend on what others are like. Likewise he is not in a position to line up all the religions of the world and adjudicate between them objectively; that would be to play God's role. The full mystery of God's love is revealed for a Christian through Jesus and no other. And a Christian's love for him is unconditional. That's the nature of love.
    I'm happy that you are immersed in this question. Don't give up! It is a wonderful exploration - dangerous too! Love is an eternal apprenticeship, and we all make many mistakes and say gauche things. But forgiveness too is part of love! You are blessed in having living examples of sanctity before you. In living we are one with what we do, in talking we may well be separate from it. At least it is clear that our Faith is a way of living before it is a way of talking.

Donagh O'Shea

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