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Thank you for this insightful article. I share your pain and am leaving the Catholic Church myself. I just haven't found a great alternative. I will probably end up in the Episcopal Church their sacraments are similar. Again, thank you.

Steve Shiffrin

Thank you so much for your kind comments. I remember our exchange
very well and I admired the nuanced character of your position
though, of course, we disagreed. Like you, I continue to learn from
many Catholic theologians and authors as well though our favorite
Catholic theologians might be different.
Thanks again.

Francis Beckwith

I met Steve five years ago at Cornell Law School. We had a public dialogue on intelligent design and public education. He probably doesn't remember me. But I left with a very good impression of him. He was a gentleman and a more than worthy interlocutor. I learned much from our interaction.

Ironically, it was about a year later (April 28, 2007) that I returned to the Catholic Church of my baptism, having spent over three decades as an Evangelical Protestant. Not unsurprisingly, many of Steve's reasons for leaving the Church were some of my reasons for returning. Here is what I write in a forthcoming chapter in the book Journeys of Faith, ed. Rob Plummer (Harper Collins, 2011):

"Because of these changing interests, I was drawn more to Catholic authors who seemed to have a better grasp of the underlying philosophical issues that percolated beneath many contemporary moral debates. I found myself continually moved by the case Catholic authors made for their Church’s philosophy of the human person and what that told us about a variety of contested subjects including the nature of marriage, the unborn, homosexual conduct, religious liberty, and the free market."

"Although Protestant authors could cite Scripture in defense of all these views, their cases lacked the elegance and intellectual richness of the Catholic authors. Moreover, the Catholic Church could locate its moral beliefs deep in Christian history, connecting its moral theology to its predecessors, from the earliest Christians to the present day, while at the same accounting for genuine development in these beliefs not inconsistent with its earlier teachings. Protestantism, on the other hand, seemed easily influenced by cultural fads and secular movements in the formation of its moral theology. So, for example, after the Anglican Church discarded its ban on artificial contraception in 1930, it took only one generation for conservative American Evangelicals to make a case for contraception and non-conjugal sex as being consistent with biblical Christianity."

"In retrospect, it is clear to me now that I had, by gravitating to, and eventually embracing the Catholic Church’s teachings on these matters, begun to see the Catholic Church as a `truth-telling institution,' as my friend Hadley Arkes puts it. So, as an Evangelical, I found myself, like Hadley, often looking to this Church, its leaders, and its great authors for insight on moral and philosophical questions, though I sometimes found theological wisdom as well."

God bless you, Steve. My prayers are with you.

Steve Shiffrin

Thank you for your comments. I said in my post that I would not have
left the Catholic Church if I thought it was the only true church. I do
believe in the Resurrection, but this is not a unique Catholic
teaching. I do not know how present Christ is in the Eucharist, but
however present he is, I think he is it is the Holy Spirit and not the
priest that causes the presence. I tend to believe in the priesthood of
all believers, and if I did not I would feel more inclined to be an
Episcopalian than a Catholic.  I accept the Protestant view of the
sacraments though I think the 7 sacraments play a useful role in the
Church. I do not disbelieve the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception,
but I do not believe in the doctrine of papal infallibility or  the
strong claims of teaching authority of the Church in general.
I do think it is disturbing, at least from my perspective, that a
Church which claims to be the true teacher of the Christian doctrine
gets so much wrong about how to live a moral and political life. I do
not think moral and political issues can be ignored in determining
whether a church follows a Christian message. I do not claim that I
have supported my conclusions and I respect your disagreement. I am
simply answering your questions about my own views.

matt muggeridge

Well there we go. I think Prof. Shiffrin already provided the answer to my previous questions, in an earlier post on this blog.

Faith as Trust, Not Belief

Jeffrey Small, the author of The Breath of God, writes about faith as trust rather than belief here. Echoing the arguments of Harvey Cox in his recent book on faith, Small argues that it would be a strange God who created a world in which humans gained entry to heaven, if but only if, they would cultivate particular beliefs, beliefs that would be impossible for many to obtain because of their geographical placement in the world and an unlikely prospect for millions of others for many other reasons. Small argues that justification by faith has been misinterpreted. We have already been saved. The Kingdom of God is here. We already live in the infinite power of God's being. On the latter point, see Susan Stabile here.

In a passage, I very much like, Small says: "Faith then is not belief in a certain doctrine about Jesus, but a trust in using him as an example of what it looks like to live a God-centered life. Through the stories in the Gospels (whether or not the details are historical are irrelevant), we can understand the nature of God's presence within the world and what a God-centered life looks like: a life of humility, compassion, love without boundaries, a life which experiences suffering and doubt, but a life that ultimately participates in the eternal power of God that transcends death."

matt muggeridge

Prof. Shiffrin's essay made me very sad for some reason. I was left wondering what he felt about the more important teachings of the Church, e.g. the Resurrection, the Real Presence, the Sacraments, Immaculate Conception. It has always seemed to me that the Church's moral and social teachings, her discipline and her scandals are less problematic when the soul is focused on the mysteries she proposes. Contemplating the mysteries is not to ignore the rest (though it helps) but to keep oneself from being distracted from the essential. The worst, most obnoxious Bishop --liberal or traditionalist--, the most egregious scandal, and the most difficult teaching, ought not to determine my allegiance, even though they are likely to test it.

I'm not saying that believing in the mysteries is necessarily easy. But when I don't even want to bother with them anymore... that's when I'll leave the Church, because then, there will really be nothing to keep me, beyond social ties and custom.

I think one should not ask oneself: Can I follow this rule? Do I agree with this or that teaching? I think aware Catholics, lapsed Catholics, those who have left or thinking of leaving the Church, should test themselves with the question: do I actually believe that that particular priest (whom I happen to know is good-for-nothing, hypocritical, bla bla bla) has the unique sacramental power to deliver the Body of Christ, forgive my sins, etc., through the ministry of Church... Do I believe that Baptism left a mark on my soul and that I will one day be judged accordingly? Can I sign off on each article of the Nicene Creed?

I suspect that not many Catholics who have left the Church ostensibly on the same grounds offered by Prof. Schiffrin still believe in the event of Our Lord's Ascension, as described in the New Testament. Nevertheless, isn't harder to sign off on the Ascension (Immaculate Conception, etc.) than it is to believe that a particular moral teaching, say, artificial contraception is wrong?

It is a shame to leave for the wrong reasons.

Fraternal Studies

Thanks for a very strong reflection. Though I am no fan of the Catholic Church at this point myself, I agree strongly also that it has "many strengths". But I ask you therefore to consider one difficulty with your lay-out of ideas here, Of course, your personal reasons for your decisions are beyond criticism, and what is more they make perfect sense to me anyways. In fact I think the world would be better off, and the Catholic Church particularly , if more people thought as you do, and acted on it.

The hard point is that basically what "strengths" there are in the Church at this point comes from its simple massiveness. There are so many Catholics, and so much of the Church, period, that there are bound to be healthful and fine corners of it. It sounds like you found one at Cornell, and of course there are many others. But the proper position, from my point of view, for any person with intelligence and wit enough to address such things, which naturally as a Cornell professor you have, is a deeper need. Namely, to use the interior knowledge of the Church to help society deal with the true damage the Church inflicts in the world. I am not suggesting that you have to follow anyone's example on this matter, but that in some way, you have to articulate what you already know. Namely that it is a harmful organization overall. And the corollary is that those who evade that identification are complicit with it. The extent of that complicity we leave to God's judgment. But by any moral coherence in modern terms, this Church is a simple peril for many.


Thanks for your response, Prof. Shiffrin.

Here's what I worry about generally: people who are drawn to aspects of Christian faith for moral or political reasons.

Your post mentions certain dimensions of Catholic social teaching as grounding your Catholicism. I'm sure there are others out there who might list other features of the Church's teachings. But my fallible view is that one should--ultimately--not be a Catholic or Christian for moral reasons at all. One should be numbered among the baptized to bear witness to the God who reveals himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

I'm sure you did not intend to reduce faith to morality. I'm just making an observation about Catholics on the left and the right.


Yo Steve,

Jesus was a Jew and never denied it. He probably had the most sensitive part of his pecker cut off, just like the rest of them.

He came to "fulfill the Law" not to "refudiate" it.

How the hell could Jesus be a Christian, given that Christianity was founded by Saul of Tarsus, many years after Jesus died?

Steve Shiffrin

Jimbino, I suppose the question whether Jesus was a Roman Catholic
is a matter of definition. There was surely nothing Roman about his
views. But we disagree about two things: I think it obvious that
Jesus was a Christian though people disagree what that might be.
More important, I have not joined the unfold!


Jesus Christ was no Christian, much less a Roman Catholic, for Chrissake.

Welcome to the unfold!

Steve Shiffrin

Thank you for your comment. My reference to Commonweal is a
reference to a particular way of interpreting the Christian message;
it is not a claim that Commonweal is an authority. I doubt that
anyone would think that in referring to a Christian message as I did
several times in the post that I was referring to someone other than
Jesus Christ. I doubt you would disagree with that. So I am guessing
I did not say something you thought I should, but I am unclear
whether the objection is stylistic or substantive, and, if the
latter, what the objection is.


I think this post is laudable for its honesty.

Here's what alarmed me: in discussing your reasons for being a Catholic and a Christian, you make more frequent mention to religious magazines than to the person of Jesus Christ. In fact, you did not make a single mention of Jesus Christ.

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