Saturday, October 16, 2010

Flannery on Feelings and Faith

This is an excerpt from a letter written by Flannery O’Connor to Dr. T.R. Spivey on August 19th, 1959. After a recent exchange with dear old DF and a comment by Ben, I remembered her wise words on the said subjects and thought I might thus share her response:

I’ll try to answer your questions but as they are not doctrinal questions, you must remember that this is just my opinion about these things.

The good Catholic acts upon the beliefs (assumptions if you want to call them that) that he receives from the Church and he does this in accordance with his degree of intelligence, his knowledge of what the Church teaches, and the grace, natural & supernatural, that he’s been given. You seem to have met nothing but sorry or dissatisfied Catholics and abrupt priests with no understanding of what you want to find out. Any Catholic or Protestant either is defenseless before those who judge his religion by how well its members live up to it or are able to explain it. These things depend on too much entirely human elements. If you want to know what Catholic belief is you will have to study what the Church teaches in matters of faith and morals. And I feel that if you do, you will find that the doctrinal differences between Catholics and Protestants are a great deal more important than you think they are. I am not so naïve as to think such an investigation would make a Catholic of you; it might even make you a better Protestant; but as you say, whatever way God leads you will be good. You speak of the Eucharist as if it were not important, as if it could wait until you are better able to practice the two great commandments. God gave us the sacraments in order that we might better keep the two great commandments. You will learn about Catholic belief by studying the sacramental life of the Church. The center of this is the Eucharist

Pope Benedict XVI saying Mass

To get back to all the sorry Catholics. Sin is sin whether it is committed by Pope, bishops, priests, or lay people. The Pope goes to confession like the rest of us. I think of the Protestant churches as being composed of people who are good, and I don’t mean this ironically. Most of the Protestants I know are good, if narrow sometimes. But the Catholic Church is composed of those who accept what she teaches, whether they are good or bad, and these is a constant struggle through the help of the sacraments to be good. For instance when we commit sin, we receive the sacrament of penance (there is an obligation to receive it once a year but the recommendation is every three weeks). This doesn’t make it any easier to commit sin as some Protestants think; it makes it harder. The things we are obliged to do, such as hear Mass on Sunday, fast and abstain on the days appointed, etc. can become mechanical and merely habit. But it is better to be held to the Church by habit than not to be held at all. The Church is mighty realistic about human nature. Further it is not at all possible to tell what’s going on inside the person who appears to be going about his obligations mechanically. We don’t believe that grace is something you have to feel. The Catholic always distrusts his emotional reaction to the sacraments. Your friend is very far afield if she presumes to judge that most of the Catholics she knows go about their religion mechanically. That is something only God knows.

O'Connor and two of her peacocks

I hope this also clarifies the preferred terms of "practicing" verses "non-practicing" Catholics, as opposed to "orthodox" verses "cafeteria" Catholics. And many, many thanks to all my many, many Protestant friends for asking questions. I appreciate the dialogue. Deo gratias!


  1. This is really good, Julie. As I was reading this I was thinking about something that I believe as mutual Christians we share in common that I think at the foundation of our faith we share and from there two different ideas have been developed. That foundation is God's grace. What I mean by this is that we recognize that it is by God's grace that we even recognize God's presence in our lives. I think this quote by Charles Spurgeon might help clarify what I mean.

    "One week-night, when I was sitting in
    the house of God, I was not thinking much
    about the preacher’s sermon, for I did not
    believe it. The thought struck me, ‘How did
    you come to be a Christian?’ I sought the
    Lord. ‘But how did you come to seek the
    Lord?’ The truth flashed across my mind in
    a moment—I should not have sought him
    unless there had been some previous influence
    in my mind to make me seek him. I
    prayed, thought I, but then I asked myself,
    How came I to pray? I was induced to pray
    by reading the Scriptures. How came I to
    read the Scriptures? I did read them, but
    what led me to do so? Then, in a moment, I
    saw that God was at the bottom of it all,
    and that he was the Author of my faith, and
    so the whole doctrine of grace opened up to
    me, and from that doctrine I have not
    departed to this day, and I desire to make
    this my constant confession, ‘I ascribe my
    change wholly to God.’
    — Charles H. Spurgeon

    I think this is where we as Christians Protestant or Catholic find truth. Where we differ after is in the authority of how this principal plays itself out in our lives. But I believe it is on the foundation of this principal that our mutual faiths rest. Would you agree?

  2. Hm, I am actually not sure what you mean, so I hesitate to agree or disagree. That we both believe in God as the Author of the world and Christ Jesus is our Savior, then yes; but where you are going with this argument is a little murky. If you mean the foundation of the Christian faith is God's grace, then I disagree. If you mean otherwise, I am open for arguments.

  3. "The things we are obliged to do, such as hear Mass on Sunday, fast and abstain on the days appointed, etc. can become mechanical and merely habit. But it is better to be held to the Church by habit than not to be held at all. The Church is mighty realistic about human nature."

    Straight from Thomas Aquinas! Awesome.