I WISH TO MAKE SOMETHING VERY CLEAR ABOUT THE FOLLOWING POST–I AM STILL A ROMAN CATHOLIC. MY STRUGGLE IS NOT REALLY WITH DOCTRINE AS MUCH AS WITH CERTAIN PRACTICES THAT ARE PRESENTED SO PERVASIVELY THAT THEY APPEAR TO BE THE “MIND OF THE CHURCH,” AND I BELIEVE THAT EVEN WITHIN THE CHURCH OF ROME THERE IS SPACE TO LOOK BEYOND HER AND SEE THE TRUTHS THAT LIE ELSEWHERE.
THIS IS INCIDENTALLY NOT AGAINST CATHOLIC TEACHING EITHER. BUT MANY WHO APPROACH BOTH THE BIBLE AND THE CATECHISM OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH WITH A “FUNDAMENTALIST MINDSET” SEEM TO BELIEVE IT IS. I EVEN DARINGLY THINK THERE ARE SOME WHO ARE SERVED BETTER OUTSIDE THE WALLS OF THE ETERNAL CITY, ALTHOUGH THE IDEAL OF COURSE WOULD BE THAT ALL CHRISTIANS BE UNDER ONE GIGANTIC ROOF. THIS ARTICLE IS FOR THOSE WHO, LIKE ME, HAVE HAD TO LOOK FOR CREATIVE AND PERHAPS UNUSUAL WAYS TO LIVE OUT MY CATHOLICISM WHILE BEING TRUE TO THOSE IDEALS, AND THAT IS WHY I ONCE AGAIN SHARE IT.
Truth all depends on which presupposition you start with. So also with falsehood, and every conceivable combination of both. This is true in daily living, as well as in individual trains of thought. For example, you can be the very best engineer in the world, constructing world-class bridges such as the Golden Gate in San Francisco, CA, following the very best plans and most educated designs for both safety and beauty, but if you start out with soft wood or light plastic as your base foundational substance, you will end up with either a bridge that never stands in the first place or, as in the case of MN a few years ago, a tragic accident due to an unholy union of poor materials and heavy traffic during construction season.
St Paul alludes to this idea in his teaching on rewards in 1 Corinthians. “Wood, hay and stubble” can all be burned up, while gold and silver, when set to the same blaze, become purer. Jesus teaches it another way in his parable about the man who built a lovely and expensive house but used sand for a foundation. It did not last during the storm but rather toppled.
After an over 7 year return to the Roman Catholic circles where I was brought up in and nurtured in my early years, I find myself currently struggling with many of the presuppositions built into their particular interpretation of a beautiful yet bloody, gorgeous but at times grossly savage, and solid but unbendable set of Traditions which I otherwise love deeply.
Around 2 years ago, and again for a few months last summer (2012), I spent several months away from Rome and became part of another Christian “catholic” community, finding many of the answers I was looking for but deeply missing what I had rediscovered within the Roman side of Catholic Christianity. I vacillated a few times during those 6 months, eventually re-returning to Rome, never to “roam” again. Or so I planned. For many reasons I was at peace with this decision, and believed it to be the best for me and others. I continued my studies, kept my eyes open but not away from the Church, and became if anything somewhat of a spokesperson for what I believed to be unfailingly true. It all seemed to fit; it all looked beautiful, and definitely was world-class, just like the bridges and homes I described at the beginning of this piece.
The problem I had then and have now, however, is with the underlying presuppositions. I built many intellectual arguments on topics such as same-sex unions, the Papacy, and onward, only for them to begin crashing around the very issue I thought I had worked through so thoroughly that nothing could yet collapse it again. It was and is an issue of presupposition. One premise says that St Peter was the first Pope, and that the Church, through what is termed as “apostolic succession,” carries that office through him and his successors (the bishops in union with Rome) to this day and age. The other idea is that this succession is borne through Sacred Scripture, and that all necessary teachings of the Apostles are given there, without the actual Apostles being continually replaced through the years in the process. That in fact is the main and (on a very simplistic level) “poles apart” postulation between Catholics and Protestants. One must be correct, while the other cannot be. They cannot be simultaneously true, at least not on a total and unflinching level.
As I prayed and meditated on these opposing concepts, I realized that both have serious problems which the other side can pick apart rather well and easily. That is not my main purpose here but very briefly one teaches that the Bible came through the Church, and is therefore subservient to it, while the other is that the Bible came directly through the Apostles, and what the Church did nearly 400 years into her existence was to officially codify which particular books, already widely circulated and used since the beginning of Christianity, were really and totally inspired as God’s very Word. Both take into consideration the “traditions” that had developed over that four century period. Neither though fully explains how the process was hammered out. Therefore either side could claim “truth” on this issue and its effect on the place of Sacred or Holy Tradition—which, by the way, is a vitally important part of Christianity. If you are not convinced of this, try reading the Bible with no understanding of the societal background, customs of the day, or at least some sense of the original intent and audience, and you will soon find it is very wide open to some extremely bizarre interpretations.
But what about a third concept, one I had not considered? What if God, through natural and salvation history, gave us first Judaism and then through Judaism was born the man Christ Jesus and thus the Christian Faith, while at the very same time revealing Himself to others all over the world in different but essentially valid ways? And what if through that natural development of humankind, people began to develop morality and a sense of religion which, while foreign to the idea of the Trinity or a Messiah, still brought those of good will to an understanding of the Truth within their own cultural contexts? Essentially their salvation would then still be achieved through the blood sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ, but they would know Him through another name (or names) or set of spiritualties. And they might well even carry some pieces of the Truth that Christianity does not.
You might rightly say this would bring a rather huge boatload of seemingly contradictory theology, and you would be correct. However it also explains some essential elements of humanity—such as why all people, world-wide, have some sense of the aforementioned spirituality and ethics in their cultures, even though on differing levels, and why faith and morals have been and are in a continuing developmental process within every religion, including modern Christianity of all stripes. Honesty compels us to recognize that, even within the Catholic Church, many, many seemingly authoritative beliefs have changed in just over 2000 years. Examples follow.
One could easily start with the place of Sacred Scripture in the Church, and its before-mentioned 400 years of varied understandings before the regional Council of Hippo first acknowledged in 393 AD the 27 books which are now used by virtually all Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant Christians. For another example church history, even from a Catholic perspective, recognizes the wide variety of teachings on such doctrines as the sacrament of confession, not only how it is done but even how many times a person who named the name of Christ could sin before becoming ineligible for further confession and absolution, along with the types of penances given, which have varied drastically through the centuries.
Another would be the wide and varied decisions made at “ecumenical” (meaning in this case universal or Church-wide) Councils (such as 4th Lateran) which in Canon 3 determined under what circumstances to take land (and therefore livelihood) away from those considered to be wayward and which elsewhere established guidelines whereby Jewish people could be officially persecuted—all during the same Council which clarified the beautiful and clearly dogmatic teaching of Eucharistic Transubstantiation or what is commonly known as the “Real Presence” of Jesus Christ in Holy Communion—the explanation given of course is that these first two just mentioned and any such discretionary decisions were not actual “teachings” of the Church but rather disciplinary action plans which were in retrospect mistakes, but which take away nothing from the authenticity and authority of the Church in the areas of faith and morals. I cannot help but wonder though how many of the affected illiterate peasants could possibly have understood the difference between a teaching and a discipline? All that they knew was “The Church, the one true Church, has spoken.” And thus she did and still does. Most Catholics in fact still do not know the difference when pressed.
A far likelier explanation than a magically driven Magisterium made up of bishops, Councils and ultimately the Papacy is the idea of a natural development of understanding, which would include of course the Holy Bible, longstanding Church tradition and historical context, and human reason (as well as the guidance of the Holy Spirit in each and every believer) to help interpret the other two and apply them to our lives and current situations. Otherwise all of the authority to interpret both Scripture and Tradition goes to one elite group, and a sometimes self-serving one at that. When a Papal decree goes forth to force the Bishops of England to either burn Anglicans or other “heretics” at the stake or to themselves be burned, then it goes beyond “disciplinary decisions” in my analysis. To be sure, other Christian bodies, including early Anglicans, were doing the same or similar things to others. Post-Reformation blood was shed sadly by all involved. But only one major player in this deadly game was claiming to be the original and universal Church while doing so, and only one had the power to enforce that teaching to the death and readily did so. That one was the Roman Catholic Church.
This may sound horribly negative towards Rome and it is not my intent. I love so much of what Catholicism has brought to Western civilization—hospitals, preservation of the Scriptures in a primarily uneducated society for 1000 years, and many other gifts such as these. But where I believe she becomes erroneous is in the suggestion that those “Traditions” are not to be questioned, and are on the same level as Sacred Scripture as interpreted by the same. Historically I do not see how that can possibly be the case.
So back to this third notion of God’s revelation to the world—the idea that He is beyond any one group, and has given a general revelation of Himself to us all, while then allowing us as humans to develop it. Besides seeming to match history, it also has support even in Sacred Scripture, such as when the wise men came from a far country and had, through astrology (something forbidden under Jewish Law) at least apparently, discovered where and when the Messiah was to be born. If that happened, and I believe it did, it occurred because they were listening to the Holy Spirit, even if they called Him by some other title. Another instance of this is in Acts when Cornelius has a vision of St Peter and the others coming to preach the Gospel to him and his loved ones. He was a Gentile during a time when even Christianity was exclusively Jewish, and by very literalist standards should not have been able to discern such a thing without being a “born again Christian” already. And yet he did.
In short, God works beyond any one group and even nature is His witness to the world according to Romans 1. And if that be true, He does so in ways that work with the cultures involved and the revelation which they have of Him. Placing these two concepts side by side, His “cultural and progressive” revelation, and the Church, even the very Church of Christ, having the same types of fits and starts and development through the ages, leads me to believe that no one group, even the one who produced the Messiah, is infallible in its own right. God is perfect—we are not. And when a group insists that they are the only “right” way to Him, then wars and killings occur in His name—and thousands if not millions have tragically died in this manner over the epochs of time. Somewhere we are missing it severely when we buy into the premise that there is one perfect form of religion out there somewhere, even within Christianity.
I still believe in and respect Sacred Tradition in ways I did not begin to appreciate before my homecoming to Catholic circles. I see a far larger picture of Christianity than ever in my life as well. But to place Tradition on the level of Sacred Scripture without being allowed to use my God-given gift of reason and mind—I find that to be implausible. Additionally, to take the Bible so literally that there is no room for other possible interpretations of less clear passages is equally unlikely. Even the most conservative Greek Biblical scholars acknowledge the wide varieties or at very least shades of meaning which can occur in attempting to translate even one verse into another language. And there are thousands of such passages or phrases within the Scriptures where this is the case.
So where does this leave me? I believe in the basics of the “catholic Christian” Faith—the early Creeds (such as Apostle’s, Nicene and Athanasius), The Triune Godhead or Trinity, Christ’s miraculous virgin birth, His death on the Cross in atonement for our sins and His bodily Resurrection, the 72 clearly established books of the Old and New Testaments, with the 7 deuterocanonical books as given by God as well but not primarily to establish doctrine, salvation as a gift received through a living and committed faith in Him (expressed particularly in water baptism either before or soon after), the gift of the Holy Eucharist or Lord’s Supper as a mystical but actual connection to the risen Christ in His body and blood and given through the Sacred Liturgy of the Church, being Confirmed or anointed in our Faith through reception of the Holy Spirit in His Fullness per the laying on of hands, as well as the Sacraments of Confession, Matrimony and Holy Orders, and further the Anointing of the Sick or Unction, the gift and ability to fellowship and ask intercession of the Saints who have gone on before us, the purgation of the same, and judgment for those who knowingly reject Him, and certainly a few more but those are the main ones. The essentials. Those which make me “catholic” and connected to the early Traditions and go beyond Protestantism in its various scopes. Not better than, but gifted with a fullness that was largely lost during the Reformation.
If you want a reason why I would move to Anglican/Episcopal Christianity at this time in my life, here it is. There are precious few church bodies that recognize the above Catholic sacramental theology and yet allow you to struggle and wrestle with how it applies in today’s world without somehow penalizing you or questioning your worthiness at the Lord’s Table as a result. It is indeed the “media via,” the middle path between Protestant and Catholic Christianity. And it is, at least for now, exactly where I belong. And in Rome too. The two sets of perspectives are not as much contrary and complementary. It is “both/and” and not “either/or” which is the truest spirit of Vatican II in my mind.
- Why the Apostle’s Creed isn’t Enough (theologicalarsenal.wordpress.com)
- What is Sola Scriptura? (pastorreeder.wordpress.com)
- Jesus Christ Our Daily Food: Homily for the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ (frbonnie.wordpress.com)