Catholics as Just Another Denomination

Mark Horne says:

But what if Roman Catholics are sectarians dreaming they constitute the historic and perpetual center of the identity of the Church?

What if the real Catholic Church is simply continuing on and the Roman Catholic Church is pretending that it is not lacking that full communion because it has created without warrant autistic conditions for fellowship?

Evangelicals have many issues to work on as they continue through history. But there is nothing to rejoin. If the Roman Catholic Church and another denomination join and receive, then that is simply two denominations uniting together. And if they join and receive under the shared assumption that the Roman Catholic Church is some kind of perpetual “center” that all others are “peripheral” to and must come “back” to, then all that would mean is that the Christian people of the other denomination have become persuaded of sectarian superstitions.

The Petrine Office

This is me thinking out loud. The prominence of Peter in the New Testament is striking, but it does not mean what the modern RCC says it means. So what does it mean? I’m not sure. The famous passage from Matthew 16 says:

And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

It looks to me like Jesus is addressing Peter, not everyone. Peter features prominently in the Gospels and the early part of Acts. He is given a lot of attention. His post-Resurrection restoration by Jesus is portrayed at length. Why? Why the focus on him?
Thoughts:
Peter was flawed, he was not infallible, he made mistakes.
He was not in charge of the church in Jerusalem.
Paul says Jesus appeared to him first of all.
A party in Corinth claimed to be of him.
He led the church in the earliest days.
Peter was the rock, the leader of the early Church, but it was leadership in council, a conciliar model. He was not even first among equals, but one of perhaps a triad of leaders.
I believe that he did go to Rome.
The NT cannot possibly lay obedience to the See of Rome on believers as a necessity.
Jesus built the church on Peter in some sense.
The gates of hell did not prevail in some sense.

Is Conversion the Answer?

Rod Dreher makes several salient points about converts to Rome and Orthodoxy:

Yes, but in my personal experience, the Catholic Church in America has only a facade of unity. Every Catholic parish I’ve been a part of has been basically Protestant, insofar as most of the people seemed to believe that they had a right to believe whatever they wanted. The unity was fairly superficial. Mind you, I’m in no position to say to what extent the Orthodox Church in this country is any different, because my experience is relatively short and limited almost entirely to my own parish. But I would be surprised to learn that we Orthodox on the whole were much different in that regard.

I’ve said the same thing myself: Catholicism in the USA is just Protestantism with a different name. You have gay Jesuits, hardcore Trad Opus Dei types, the First Things crowd, EWTN, liberals like the Kennedys, and on and on. There is no unified, glorious Church. It’s an illusion in the mind of the convert who lives in the world of ideas. Dreher continues:

I keep telling Protestants I know who want to convert to Catholicism that I don’t want to get in the way of their decision — though I would like them to consider Orthodoxy — but that they should realize that they’re probably not going to find an escape from modernism in their local parish. The church of Pope Benedict and First Things magazine, and your favorite conservative Catholic bloggers, is not the church you’re likely to encounter down the street. If you’re convinced of the case for Catholicism, then you almost certainly have to become Catholic — but go in with your eyes open. Similarly with Orthodoxy, we have, like Catholicism, the institutional and historical tools for resisting modernism, but if the pastors and the people remain indifferent or hostile to them, Protestants searching for solid ground to stand on may be unpleasantly surprised.

Again, this is not an argument against becoming Catholic or Orthodox. But it is a warning that it’s impossible to escape modernity and its challenges to tradition and traditional faith. When Father Dwight says that the fissiparous nature of individualist modernist faith will eventually give way to disbelief, because it’s not anchored in communal experience, I agree with him in principle, but would ask him what his prediction is for Catholic parishes that are populated by individualists in religion? (N.B., Father Dwight recognizes in his post that modernist Catholic priests shouldn’t be surprised when people quit coming to mass.) Similarly, I am aware of several Protestant congregations who are far, far more unified in belief than any Catholic parish I’ve been a part of, no doubt because those Protestants who don’t share the core convictions of that congregation found another congregation to attend. Mind you, without a Magisterium (Catholic) or a high view of the authority of Tradition (Orthodox) to hold on to, I don’t know how those congregations over time will remain grounded in their particular judgments. But having the theological mechanism for stability, as the Catholics and the Orthodox do, is no guarantee either.

This makes lots of sense. Because Protestant churches in our day are usually based on shared convictions such as worship style or theology, we have much more unity (at the micro level) than Catholics do.

I have a friend who left the Greek Orthodox church to which he belonged, because he was desperate for a spiritual encounter with the living God, as opposed to the empty formalism of his home parish, which, as he puts it, was more interested in worshiping Greekness than in worshiping God. He became a born-again Evangelical. Despite all the legitimate criticism that can be leveled at American Evangelicalism re: its lack of stability and susceptibility to cultural trends, is it really the case that children raised in a traditional church that has valid sacraments but is spiritually dead are going to have a better chance of living as Christians there than they would in an Evangelical church that has all the trappings of modernity, and an essentially modernist, individualist theology, but that for whatever reason has chosen a theologically traditional set of principles around which to organize, and lives it out in a vigorous, vibrant way?

This is the rub. Tradition and liturgy are life to me and those like me who seek to escape the modern church wasteland, but they were death to my Mom who wanted relationship with God and wasn’t taught that in the Lutheran Church of her day (though she could have had it, had they rightly understood their own past). We can’t re-pristinate the past and create some perfect model that never existed. We can meld the best liturgy and tradition with our modern condition, all the while being bathed in the Scripture as the ultimate norm.

Catholic Idolatry

Mark Horne has a helpful post on why he is not a Roman Catholic. An excerpt:

  1. Idolatry is a huge sin and praying through icons (whether 3d or 2d) is idolatry.  I cannot possibly engage in such a practice, allow anyone in my guardianship to do so, or excuse such a thing, without falling into rank unbelief.
  2. Necromancy is almost as huge a sin and praying to the departed saints is necromancy.  See #1 above.  People raised thinking bigamy is Christian may be true Christians, but people who know better are living in sin and without hope of eternal life unless they repent of such behavior.
  3. The way some Roman Catholic constituencies provide ministry opportunities for defectors from Protestantism is, of course, tempting–but it can hardly count as anything more than thirty pieces of silver if #1 and #2 hold.  If one must be marginalized and impoverished in the Protestant world due to sectarian sins, well, God has called many Christians and their families to far worse martyrdoms.
  4. Claiming unity can be achieved by everyone else joining one’s own denomination is exactly the sect spirit that is so loathsome in many Protestant groups, and it gains no more attractiveness in Rome.

While Mark’s honesty will offend many who justify idolatry by appealing to John of Damascus, we have an opposite example in the Internet Monk’s interview with Bryan Cross, someone who has made that plunge into idolatry. I don’t know why these issues are never raised in these ecumenical interviews. Many Protestants still seem to assume that justification is the core issue between us and Rome, while in fact idolatry is and always has been one of the central concerns of the Reformation, if one that is often ignored today.

Wright on Rome

Over at Christianity Today there is an article on Protestants who defect to Rome. Bishop N.T. Wright is quoted in the article, but his full quote is not provided. Here is his full quote:

a. I’m on sabbatical writing Volume IV of my big series, on Paul; so I don’t have time for more than a quick response.

b. ‘Sacramental, transformational, communal, eschatological’? If you gave me that list and said ‘Where in the Christian world would you find that?’ I could easily and truthfully answer: (i) in the best of the Reformed tradition — spend a couple of days at Calvin College, or read Jamie  Smith’s new book, and you’ll see; (ii) in much of the best of the  charismatic movement, once it’s shed its low-church prejudices and discovered how much God loves bodies; (iii) in the best of… dare I say it… Anglicanism… ; (iv) in some bits (not all) of the Emerging Church movement . . .

c. Trent said both much more and much less than this. Sacramental, yes, but in a muddled way with an unhelpful ontology; transformational, yes, but far too dependent on unbiblical techniques and practices; communal, yes, but don’t let the laity (or the women) get any fancy ideas about God working new things through them; and eschatological?? Eschatology in the biblical sense didn’t loom large, and indeed that was a key element in the Reformers’ protest: the once-for-allness of the events of Jesus’ death and resurrection as producing, not a new system for doing the same stuff over and over, but a new world. Trent, and much subsequent RC theology, has had a habit of never spring-cleaning, so you just live in a house with more and more clutter building up, lots of right answers to wrong questions (e.g. transubstantiation) which then get in the way when you want to get  something actually done. In particular, Trent gave the wrong answer,  at a deep level, to the nature/grace question, which is what’s at the  root of the Marian dogmas and devotions which, despite contrary  claims, are in my view neither sacramental, transformational,  communal nor eschatological. Nor biblical. The best RCs I know (some  of whom would strongly disagree with the last point, some would  strongly agree) are great conversation partners mainly because they  have found ways of pushing the accumulated clutter quietly to one  side and creating space for real life. But it’s against the grain of the Tridentine system, in my view. They aren’t allowed to say that but clearly many of them think it. Joining in is just bringing more of your own clutter to an already confused and overcrowded room…

d. I am sorry to think that there are people out there whose Protestantism has been so barren that they never found out about sacraments, transformation, community or eschatology. Clearly this person needed  a change. But to jump to Rome for that reason is very odd. It reminds  me of the fine old German NT scholar Heinrich Schlier, who found that the only way to be a Protestant was to be a Bultmannian, so, because he couldn’t take  Bultmann, became a Roman Catholic; that was the only other option in  his culture. Good luck to him; happily, most of us have plenty of  other options. To say ‘wow, I want that stuff, I’d better go to Rome’ is like someone suddenly discovering (as I’m told Americans occasionally do — sorry, cheap shot) that there are other countries in the world and so getting the first big boat he finds in New York to take him there . . . when there were plenty of planes lined up and waiting at JFK. Rome is a big, splendid, dusty old ocean liner, with lots of grand cabins, and, at present, quite a fine captain and some excellent officers — but also quite a few rooms in need of repair.  Yes, it may take you places, but it’s slow and you might get seasick  from time to time. And the navigators have been told that they must never acknowledge when they’ve been going in the wrong direction . . .

e. I spent three very happy weeks as the Anglican observer at the Vatican’s Synod of Bishops last October. They were talking about the Bible: about how for so long they have more or less banned the laity from reading or studying it, and how now they want to change all that, to insist that every Catholic man, woman, child, cat and dog should have the Bible in their own mother tongue and be taught to read it, study it, pray with it, individually and together. Hallelujah! Who knows what might happen. Question: why did nobody say this in 1525? If they had, we’d have been saved a lot of bother.
Let’s engage cheerfully in as much discussion with our Roman friends as we can. They are among my best ecumenical conversation partners, and  some of them are among my dear friends. But let’s not imagine that a renewed biblical theology will mean we find ourselves saying ‘you guys were right after all’ just at the point where, not explicitly but actually, they are saying that to us . . .

Aside from what may be an implicit endorsement of women’s ordination in there, that’s pretty good stuff! I particularly like his rejection of Mariolatry in Rome. Perhaps Rowan Williams should listen to Bishop Wright more.

Converts can’t let it go

It seems that often when Protestants convert to becoming Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox they do the following:
– Convert their blogs into a constant stream of Patristic quotes. You’ll see a fine example of this here. Do they think no one has ever read these quotes before? Do they think people are hanging on these words and converting themselves due to reading them? Or does it merely feed their own self-narrative of being part of the new, most correct church? How is it that a brand new convert is best qualified to teach the world about his newfound Church?
– Turn all of their energy to attacking their previous, woefully mistaken ways as Protestants. Protestants had this, that and the other wrong. Augustine was bad, preaching was over-emphasized, art was neglected, Tradition ignored, Authority not thought through, etc.
These attempts at converting other Protestants who have not made whatever leap these individuals have made are puzzling. Do they need the justification of others making the same choice that they have made in order to feel better? Why is it that you never (in my experience) see these bold new converts out in the world evangelizing the lost? Where is the Great Commission in their new life? So let’s just say to them:
“Hey, you converted, that’s great. Now why don’t you go fulfill our Lord’s command and evangelize the lost world? Get back to us and tell us how that goes. Until then, lay off the constant attempts at proselytization of Protestants.”
It seems that often when Protestants convert to becoming Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox they do the following:
– Convert their blogs into a constant stream of Patristic quotes. You’ll see a fine example of this here. Do they think no one has ever read these quotes before? Do they think people are hanging on these words and converting themselves due to reading them? Or does it merely feed their own self-narrative of being part of the new, most correct church? How is it that a brand new convert is best qualified to teach the world about his newfound Church?
– Turn all of their energy to attacking their previous, woefully mistaken ways as Protestants. Protestants had this, that and the other wrong. Augustine was bad, preaching was over-emphasized, art was neglected, Tradition ignored, Authority not thought through, etc.
These attempts at converting other Protestants who have not made whatever leap these individuals have made are puzzling. Do they need the justification of others making the same choice that they have made in order to feel better? Why is it that you never (in my experience) see these bold new converts out in the world evangelizing the lost? Where is the Great Commission in their new life? So let’s just say to them:
“Hey, you converted, that’s great. Now why don’t you go fulfill our Lord’s command and evangelize the lost world? Get back to us and tell us how that goes. Until then, lay off the constant attempts at proselytization of Protestants.”

Catholic Inclusion ~ Catholic Exclusion

The logic of the Roman Catholic Church is that you are better off not ever hearing the gospel or knowing about the Church than you are in knowingly refusing to enter her. In other words, pagans who have not heard are better off than those who hear and do not join the Church. Current Catholic theology bumps up against universalism while at the same time magnifying the necessity of Rome for salvation, [as an aside, this is also the position of the Latter Day Saints, something I hope to write about soon].

The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes this astounding statement:

“The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Muslims; these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind’s judge on the last day.” (§841)

Also, if someone ‘through no fault of their own’ does not know of Christ and the Church, he is good to go. “Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience–those too may achieve eternal salvation.” (§847)

But if you have the misfortune of having heard about Christ and the Church and you stay outside, you’re in trouble:

“Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it or to remain in it.” (§846)

Writing in the February, 2008 edition of First Things, the late Avery Cardinal Dulles confirms this line of thought:

“Piux IX and the Second Vatican Council taught that all who followed their conscience, with the help of the grace given to them, would be led to that faith that was necessary for them to be saved. During and after the council, Karl Rahner maintained that saving faith could be had without any definite belief in Christ or even in God…[but] In Christ’s Church, therefore, we have many aids to salvation and sanctification that are not available elsewhere.”

I take this view to be a dangerous delusion that provides false comfort to people in contradiction to what God has told us in the Scriptures. The Bible tells us, “For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” We are told by Jesus that, “No one comes to the Father except through me.” Saint Peter says that “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.” Hopefully, the living Word of God will work its way in the Catholic Church and in time she will revert to her more ancient views on this subject.