In one of his write-ups MoJoe mentions a Catholic nun who insisted that religion is not a salad bar. This has sprung a proliferation on new nodes that either agree or disagree with the nun, and they seem to do so strongly and vigorously.

As a former Catholic priest, one trained in Rome, I had a different, even unique reaction: First I shook my head, then I laughed. Let me explain briefly.

First of all, I had the pleasure of dealing with nuns in American Catholic schools. They generally gave me a serious headache as most of the time their theology left a lot to be desired. What they lacked in theology, they would make up for in vigor and absolute statements.

For one thing, it is clear that to this particular nun two premises apply:

Given this observation, I shall not even consider the totally different attitude of the Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, etc, or even many Christians.

Given the same observation, I have to say the nun's statement is a paradox, though she probably did not realize it.

The paradoxical nature of her statement requires a deep insight within the nature of the Catholic Church.

The Roman Catholic Church

The first insight is that the Catholic Church is actually Roman Catholic Church. No, I'm not talking about the distinction often emphasized by the Anglicans. Rather, I am talking about something very, very cultural. Something that only a priest who studied in Rome can fully understand.

Shortly after I arrived to Rome, one of the priests who had spent some time in the Holy City taught me a valuable lesson.

He pointed out it is rare that a Rome-trained theologian gets in conflict with the authority of the Church of Rome. And it's not because he is less likely to find himself in disagreement with the Pope. Indeed, he is more likely to be so.

The difference is that the theologian trained anywhere else is more likely to take his conflict very seriously. He will write about it, lecture about it, and end up ruffling a few feathers.

The Rome-trained theologian will most likely just say, "Oh, crazy Romans!" and will not start a war. He has spent some time in Rome, he was very glad when he finally got out of Rome, and has no particular desire to ever go back, let alone to argue with Rome.

Why? Because he understands the Italian culture. He also understands that most of the decrees of the Church of Rome are a direct result of that culture.

What aspect of the culture am I talking about? Exaggeration!

In order to state your point in any discussion in Italy, you have to do three things:

That applies to the Church as well. For the Church to be taken even half seriously in Italy, it must exaggerate everything. It must threaten people with eternal damnation if they don't listen. Then, maybe, just maybe, they will listen to some of it.

If you saw the movie Sister Act, you may have seen the mafia killer refusing to kill the protagonist: "She's a nun. I can't kill a nun!" He is a "devout Italian Catholic," he can't kill a nun, but has no problem whacking anyone else. How do you get to people like that?

The lemma here is: The Roman Catholic Church exaggerates. Unfortunately for Catholics living in countries like Ireland where they take it all very, very seriously. They're not supposed to, but they do.

The Catholic Church

The second point to remember is that the Catholic Church is indeed catholic, i.e., universal. It encompasses a wide variety of very different theological schools and opinions, many in direct contradiction with each other. Yet, they live under the same roof. The Church has masterfully kept them from getting into each other's hair for two millennia.

The Franciscans have a very different view of theology than the Dominicans. Then you have the Jesuits, the Benedictins, the Redemptorists, the Salesians, etc, etc, etc, all with their own traditions.

Contrary to popular opinion, the Catholic Church has made very few formal "infallible" dogmatic declarations. And even then they usually condemn an extreme view, that is what not to believe, rather than declaring what to believe.

Individual Conscience

The Catholic Church has always held that a Catholic is to act according to his conscience. If a Catholic finds himself disagreeing with a particular teaching of the Church, he is to do all he can to resolve the conflict. But, and this is a very important but, if he still finds himself disagreeing, he is expected to follow his conscience, not the teaching of the Church.

That is the theology of the Church. The discipline of the Church (Canon Law) is less tolerant. If you persist in preaching something against the teachings of the Church, you may end up declared a heretic. Or, to be more exact, your teaching may be declared a heresy. But that still does not mean the Church is making any statement against you as a person, or that you will go to hell because of the theology of conscience: Indeed, if you accept the Catholic theology, you are more likely to go to hell if you pretend to agree with the Church and act in accordance with its teachings but against your conscience. All it means is that the Church does not agree with your view, not that it condemns you as a person. (Note: I am not arguing that this is (or is not) good, just explaining how the Church looks at it.)

The Salad Bar

That said, the Catholic Church is one big salad bar. And what the poor American nun said is a paradox. Here's why:

Therein lies her paradox.

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