Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Some Catholic Converts Remain Protestant...

Let us imagine that a Protestant Christian were to sit down and read the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and study for years the doctrinal differences between the Church of Rome and those of the East, and of the Reformation, and finally come to a place where he agreed with all of Rome's doctines, and finally joined the Roman Church.

That Christian would still be a Protestant.

As I see it, the central issue in Roman Catholic Christianity is not how its many particular teachings square with Scripture - for indeed, this is a Protestant concern - but whether God has given to the church the charism whereby it may pronounce infallibly upon matters of faith and morals, and whether the Bishop of Rome serves as a lynchpin for this divine economy.

This occurred to me when I was talking to a friend, and he related a question he'd asked of his parish priest: 'What are the essential Christian teachings?' The priest responded that this was a very Protestant question. Protestantism takes for granted that it is right and godly and proper for individuals armed with Bibles to continually second-guess the teachings of the broader church. See, for example, Michael Spencer's review of McGrath's new Christianity's Dangerous Idea.

Either the Church in council has the authority to pronounce in this way, or it does not. Councils doth err, or they do not.

My friend asked me why Anglicanism isn't just a stopover on my way to Roman Catholicism. I suppose that I can't know that it will never be, but I do know why it isn't now: councils doth err.

More to follow...


Peter said...

Methinks you hit the lynchpin on the head.

Scott M. Collins said...

Do you take requests?
Blog about this:

Anonymous said...

terrific and erudite observation. the first question is what will be your methodology, from whence will theological truth come. if, at the end of the day, it's your whoever agrees with you... then you are indeed a protestant, i'd even suggest a radical reformer at that.

Anonymous said...


Does this mean you are a protestant?

Father Rhodes

+ Alan said...

Ah, if it were all that cut and dry and logical. I think there's a lot more gray area here than that. In this logic, I wonder, is someone conscientiously obliged to stay outside the Catholic Church (or to leave it as the case may be) if one does not have what you're hinting at as a certain very strict way of looking at doctrinal definition and infallibility? I know, that's a book's worth of a question. Let's just call it at least something to think about.

I think there are probably several reasons why one would enter the Catholic Church, or stay in it, and they are not all about "I have become utterly undone by the magisterial claims of the Church such that I now have no choice but to enter or put my soul in danger." This is actually the more common tack I notice in converts - at least the high profile ones who become apologists.

I think that's unfortunate. There are probably just as many, likely more, people who become Catholic simply because they were never actively anything else - they were very latently "Christian" - and they connect with the stability and the liturgy. There are others who just don't want to be "lone rangers" any more and find that the deepest connection it seems they can make with the whole Church from the beginning, is in this very old Mother called the Catholic Church. Part of that was my deal. Most of my "reasons" though, were not all that logical and I would have a hard time defending it in that way.

And of course there is the nuance inside how infallibility is understood, how and when it functions, what can change and what can't, maybe. The branches of that old tree aren't quite as rigid as viewed, often, from the outside. Of course that distresses many traditionalist Catholics as well, but oh well, there you go. There's probably a little "protestant" in all of us if we're honest about it. I think, probably, there ought to be. God forbid we just sit and say "whatever" to every word uttered from on high without any hint of a thought, prayer or question inside us about it. I don't think that's what it means to be a Catholic. It's not what it means for me to be a Catholic, for sure. If that makes me a defacto protestant, I think I'm in pretty good company in the history of the Church, both ancient and recent. I'll take my chances as long as I can, or until somebody kicks me out.

OK, too much for one comment - sorry for hi-jacking there Kyle, old man. Hope all is well in Oxford. See you when you get back. Peace.

Anonymous said...

I can't help but comment on the irony of someone named Peter saying you've hit the lynchpin on the head.

Sorry, had to.

Anonymous said...

Yes, councils doth err. And by your very black and white (cut and dried to use Alan's language) definition then, I remain a Protestant.

I thoroughly agree with Alan on this one. What he said.

Anonymous said...

I don't particularly like the word "protestant", I prefer "reformer", and I would identify with that. My first reformation project is my own life, which needs it, and through that project I hope to improve the Church at large.

Kyle said...

But aren't Roman Catholics obligated to believe the teachings of the Roman Church? I'm not talking about something that the Magisterium has pronounced upon very loosely (examples don't spring to mind), but the basic teaching of the Roman Church about itself: that the true Church subsists in the Western, Latin Church, starting with the Pope as a channel of God's grace, and extending to the bishops, priests and laity.

Frankly, it sounds to me like you guys would make really good Anglicans, knowing yourselves to be in some way "saddled" with the broad Christian tradition, but holding onto it critically. I anticipate you'll find that distasteful, but I mean it as a positive thing...!

But if one does not believe that being out of communion with the Bishop of Rome hinders one's growth in grace and holiness, is there a necessity to that communion, or is it really a matter of personal preference?

Oh, and Father Rhodes - I would have said precisely what our friend Tom Mohan said...!

Kyle said...

Oh, and Scott - the news about EO-RC dialogue sounds good, but it doesn't look to me like the statement represents some kind of concession for either side. I don't see anything that indicates that Rome wouldn't insist that the Eastern Churches subscribe to its innovations.

Anonymous said...

I like what Tom Mohan said as well.

Yes Kyle, I probably would make a good Anglican.

But you know, there are some days when I am just so tired of all this labeling, putting-people-in-a-box shit. (I hope you will excuse my use of four letter words of Anglo-Saxon origin.) Sigh.

+ Alan said...

Not sure I have the energy this morning to go all into that, but I'll at least throw a couple of things out there.

"obligated to believe" X or Y - There is that, and there are ways to understand that. I don't think the Catholic Church lays anything down "loosely" but the notion of "tightly" is not as black and white as many seem to try to make it. "It's all infallible dogma, you gotta believe it" - nooo, not. It's not all infallible anything. And even that which is inside the concept of infallibility can be broken down into categories of "tightness." I doubt I could think of a Catholic Theologian who's not working and hoping toward some sort of significant change in the Church. That doesn't quite fit the idea of one who is simply content with everything said by the hierarchy "as is."

That doesn't mean there is no belief, no trust, no level of understanding about a kind of fullness that has been carried down inside the Catholic Church through the years. It just means it all doesn't look alike. I wonder, if that definition was as tight as some think it is, or as some would have it be, if the Roman Catholic Church would have a membership of about 10,000 people - thousand, not million.

At least at this point right now, even knowing there's a lot of crap to deal with, I still believe there can be a general call to be part of such a Church even if one is not so because of the "I am undone" reasons I gave before. I do not believe, at this point, that this lacks integrity. I do not believe it necessarily makes one a defacto Anglican. I suppose, as long as I don't see the big mean Magisterium excommunicating those who somehow dissent in these ways, I'll see what I can do to stay put, if I can handle it within myself. The only ones I see them dealing with in this way are those who go astray on the "right" end of the spectrum. Interesting.

Anonymous said...

I like what I learned this week in my sacraments class, basically that when conciliar pronouncements are made in the negative "anathema sit" it may sound very negative but by narrowing the doctrinal statement to the negative this allows for greater freedom of thought outside of that - this modus dating back to the very earliest councils I seem to recall.

I don't find the Church to favor telling me what I must believe. I certainly pay attention to what I am told to avoid and seek to use that to help me discern the truth.

On my decision to return to Roman Catholicism it is simply a response to my best guess (guessing is a real part of my Christian life) as to what the Spirit is saying to me. It has brought me into unity with my extended family and connects me with my earliest and most innocent experiences of God. I also appreciate an emphasis on Eucharist, which I realize is something I share with my Anglican and Orthodox friends as well.

Kyle said...

So the Church doesn't tell you what to believe... except in the case of Mary, purgatory, heaven, hell, saints, the Eucharist, baptism, marriage, sexuality...!

Anonymous said...

I understand your point. The Church instructs me on why I should believe what the Church says is true about such things. I consider this to be distinct from being told what to believe.

My attitude of Church reform is mostly at a human level, beginning with my own need to love others better as I have said. I also hope to grow in anger, productive anger that seeks justice. I actually do not have any real ax to grind doctrinally, but to borrow a term from Ratzinger much of the scaffolding that is the human institution begs to be torn down. This is what I want to do when I grow up.

Anonymous said...

Hi guys – Kyle invited me here to look at this post, and so here I am. Thanks! And here’s my two bits (as if I ever really only have two bits to say – sorry, but you did ask!):

I like Alan’s comment, that there are many reasons to be a Catholic, belonging is not all black and white, and there are people who have what I call “simple faith,” simply believe the Church and follow, though they might not have much intellectual knowledge of the faith or ability to explain it to anybody else. This last is a really beautiful group – like the woman who touched the hem of Jesus’ cloak, and was healed. She knew little – but she believed.

But Kyle, you are speaking of a particular kind of person, which I’ll re-state:

Let us imagine that a Protestant Christian were to sit down and read the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and study for years the doctrinal differences between the Church of Rome and those of the East, and of the Reformation, and finally come to a place where he agreed with all of Rome's doctrines, and finally joined the Roman Church.

That Christian would still be a Protestant.

It depends. If he remains in the condition of “I belong because I agree with what the Church teaches,” then he is essentially still thinking like a Protestant, though he is actually a Catholic – though he needs to grow in his faith, and one can hope that by the grace of God he will, and come to depend less on his own judgment and trust more in the ability of God to steward His Church.

But if his agreement leads to real faith, “I belong because I have come to have faith that God really did found one Church, is leading this Church and always will, regardless of whether I understand it or not or how it may look sometimes on the outside,” then he is no longer thinking like a Protestant, but is thinking like a Catholic (and that’s why I became a Catholic. After much study, I came to trust).

If the Church later teaches as infallibly defined doctrine something he has difficulty accepting, and he quits and goes somewhere else, then he is a Protestant, still defining things for himself. If he believes the Church and remains, even if he struggles to understand what the Church is teaching, then he is a Catholic.

To be a Catholic is not merely a matter of “agreeing,” though for converts that is generally where it begins. It is a matter of having faith that the Church is Jesus’ Church, and being in union with His Church. It really is having faith in Jesus, that He is powerful enough to steward His Church over the ages (not to mention, knows better than you do what the truth is), despite all the difficulties the Church has endured (and always will – Jesus predicted it, you know, and New Testament writers wrote about it, like in 2 Peter).

You said, As I see it, the central issue in Roman Catholic Christianity is not how its many particular teachings square with Scripture - for indeed, this is a Protestant concern - but whether God has given to the church the charism whereby it may pronounce infallibly upon matters of faith and morals, and whether the Bishop of Rome serves as a lynchpin for this divine economy.

For many of us who convert, how Catholic teaching squares with scripture is the beginning of the journey, the bridge that leads us into Catholicism. But it is not the end of the journey. Once you come to the point of believing that the Church has the charism of authority, then you relinquish your own authority and accept the Church’s – and that begins a process of deepening immersion in the Church, as you are now in a position of softness and openness to the working of grace that comes in and through the Church.

Critical here is also an understanding of how grace operates, and the relationship between faith and grace. The bible speaks repeatedly of those who are hard of heart or blind and deaf, and how our hearts need to be made flesh and our eyes and ears opened. The more open we are through faith, the more grace can enter in and change us. We do believe, as Catholics, that grace is infused, especially through the sacraments, and changes us interiorly. But it is only so to the extent that we are open to it. And it is a process that happens over time – ideally throughout your lifetime. There is no limit to how much we may grow in and be changed by grace.

Now, once you are a Catholic, you may still struggle with this or that teaching. And many cradle Catholics also struggle with different teachings. To the extent that you resist a particular teaching, your soul is also resistant to receiving grace. If you reject a teaching and do what the Church teaches is wrong, your soul is closed to grace. If you reject and violate a very serious teaching, you can be so cut off from grace that you have actually excommunicated yourself, though you may still externally be attending mass and so forth (but not receiving grace from it, if you are unrepentant) – because membership in the Church is not only outward, but especially interior, through the indwelling of grace that comes through faith and obedience – the “obedience of faith” of which scripture speaks (Rom 1:5, 16:26).

It is the interior state of faith and obedience to the Church, which is faith in and obedience to Christ (“He who hears you, hears me” Lk 10:16) that truly unites you as one through grace with the mystical Body of Christ, and leads to outer, visible unity with the Church – that makes one truly Catholic.

One last remark, about the Church “telling us what to believe.” Isn’t that a biblical idea? “Obey your leaders and submit to them; for they are keeping watch over your souls, as men who will have to give account.” (Heb 13:17) This passage is about church leadership, not worldly government. And it is the responsibility of the Church to teach, to preach, to hand on the faith. It wouldn’t be the Church if it didn’t do that.

Well, that’s my “two bits” (remember, you asked for it!). Hope it helps! God bless.