Navigating Theologically Between Scylla and Charybdis

In the great epic poem of Western civilization, Homer’s Odyssey, the reader is introduced to two monstrous figures named Scylla and Charybdis. The former is described as a six-headed monster and the latter is depicted as a monster that causes a massive whirlpool, which devours any sailor who was so unfortunate as to navigate their vessel nearby. In the poem, the protagonist Odysseus has to negotiate his ship through a narrow strait, where Scylla is on one side and Charybdis on the other. Though Odysseus was put between a rock and a hard place, he survived by the skin of his teeth.

Like Odysseus, the average Catholic today is faced with their own theological version of Scylla and Charybdis, namely supporting the papacy or opposing it. This can be difficult because every faithful Catholic wants to be a loyal and supportive son of the church, yet the same faithful cannot possibly support and affirm the current pontificate, which is laden with theological, spiritual and moral problems. So faithful Catholic find themselves between Scylla and Charybdis. The Catholic discerns if they steer too far to one side, they might escape Scylla, but would be in danger of facing Charybdis. Likewise, if they steered the other direction, they would escape Charybdis but face Scylla. The predicament is clearly troubling and would test the faith of even the greatest of saints.

Another theological Scylla and Charybdis the faithful Catholic has to navigate between is the difference between what we see in the actual life of the Catholic Church today versus what we read about Catholicism on paper. I have called this major division between the two “Paper Catholicism,” since what is affirmed by the Catholic Church on paper (i.e. theological manuals, catechisms, magisterial documents) is not what one finds in person. The average Catholic parish is anything but Catholic, which lends to the notion that Catholicism on paper is one thing and Catholicism in reality is another. This brings us to the following conundrum, namely, does one simply look at what Catholicism is on paper, close one’s eyes and say to oneself: “this is the Catholic Church, this is the Catholic Church, this is the Catholic Church,” while explaining away every bit of reality surrounding them that says otherwise, or does one throw away the faith of the church, in its authoritative writings and embrace the spirit blowing through every corner of the church today; a Scylla and Charybdis indeed.

Perhaps if one existed on paper only, such as the two-dimensional Flatland beings found in Edwin Abbott Abbott’s writings, then Paper Catholicism would not be a problem. However, most of us (hopefully) exist in a three-dimensional reality and, therefore, only those with heroic virtue could ignore their immediate surroundings and focus on the notion that the true faith is what exists on paper, not in that which is found in the life and practice of the church.

Sadly, the “see of pestilence,” has placed faithful Catholics in this predicament. In reality, the Pope could remove these difficulties by clarifying ambiguities, restoring a more traditional liturgy and oversee better clerical appointments. However, that is exactly what the current pontificate does not want!

What then is the faithful Catholic to do? Well, like Odysseus, who escaped the clutches of Scylla and Charybdis by grasping firmly to the ship and sacrificing a few men to Scylla, the faithful Catholic may have to chalk up the sneering and scoffing of Protestants and Eastern Orthodox as casualties of war, hold firmly to the faith handed down (on paper) by their forefathers and pray a better pontificate comes (perhaps in a few hundred years from now).

 

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