Catholic Freethinkers: Oxymoron or the Other Kind of Moron?

grey heron

An acquaintance - not someone I know particularly well - recently described himself as a freethinker. Fantastic! We certainly need more freethought here in Mississippi. But this particular acquaintance also describes himself as a Catholic. He attends church regularly, had his son baptized, and occasionally makes reference to engaging in prayer. Does "freethinker" not mean what I think it means?

Can someone be a religious believer and a freethinker simultaneously, or does one exclude the other? While I would not be surprised in the least to hear a Unitarian or a Deist identify as a freethinker, I'm having a hard time knowing what to make of a Catholic doing so.

I understand freethought as being more about the method through which one forms one's beliefs rather than the beliefs themselves. To be a Catholic freethinker, it seems like one would have to claim that one came to accept the "truth" of Catholic doctrine solely through the application of reason and without any appeal to authority or religious revelation. That seems unlikely, but I suppose it is possible that someone could make such a claim. After all, some people seem to think that there are Catholic atheists.

Maybe the lesson here, if there is one, is that it might a mistake to use "freethinker" as an umbrella term for describing atheists, agnostics, and humanists. Maybe someone could be a freethinker without being any of these things. Still, my guess is that what is going on here is that the Catholic I mentioned earlier is using "freethinker" to mean something more like "nonconventional" rather than what most of us mean when we use the term.

This post, which originally appeared on Atheist Revolution in 2011, was revised in 2021 to improve clarity.