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Why I Could Never Be a Good Catholic June 19, 2010

I think most anti-Catholicism is either based on rather outdated stereotypes or is the “anti-Semitism of the respectable” as has often been said.  Nevertheless, there are several reasons why I would find it difficult to be a good Catholic [it is, on the other hand, very easy to be a bad Catholic].

  1. Probably the most important reason is that while the institutional church structures can validly mediate authority and law, in the end, I think that the institutional church cannot mediate grace; only Jesus does that.  He is the one Mediator between God and humankind, and the Church is His people and His bride [not His harem, for those who get too carried away with the individualistic “love relationship with Jesus” bit].  In Presbyterian doctrine, still preserved in the PCA and OP denominations, we administer infant baptism, but that admits the baby into the visible covenanted people of Christ, hoping that she is part of the eternally redeemed as well – but we could be wrong!  And we are given Church Discipline to “fence the table” and bar openly rebellious people against visible standards from the Table unless they repent – we often think that a permanent excommunication means the road to hell, whereas all our members in good standing are on the narrow way – but we could be wrong! And we hold that Christ is present in the elements of Communion, but spiritually and according to the faith of the believer – ‘valid’ communion is a matter of law and church order.  We do not say that Christ is spiritually present or absent from the elements because the communion was or was not said by a validly ordained minister.  I think that was the real issue about ‘transubstantiation’ all along.  Transubstantiation is the belief that the elements literally become the body and blood of Christ at the Mass.  The problem is not with transubstantiation as such, in my view.  The problem is that it was asserted that transubstantiation always happens, without exception, when a properly ordained priest says Mass, and never happens, without exception, if someone not of the priestly class were to say mass over the elements.  Thus the priestly class could mediate grace and could, by what was called an ‘interdict,’ cut off grace to a whole rebellious region.  Presbyterians would say that a not properly ordained minister administering the Eucharist was ‘illegal’ or “out of order,” but they would not venture to guess whether Christ decided to show up or stay away on that basis.

  2. This brings up the related issue of purgatory.  I can accept purgatory in the C. S. Lewis sense of a necessary ‘purging’ of our sin nature before we can be with Christ, but in no way is this a punishment, and if I have to spend ten thousand years there, no amount of mass-saying or indulgences will change that, any more than the saying of masses for my soul will shorten the length of a shower I have to take after a physical workout.

  3. The Reformed Church affirms that saving and forgiving grace are two different things, but that if sanctifying grace is not present [Evangelicals call this “Jesus in the heart,” whatever that means] most likely saving and reconciling grace is not present.  The Roman Catholic Church tends to blur the distinction between the two.  This was the main issue to Martin Luther; I don’t think it’s as serious an issue as it once was.

  4. The Reformation started out affirming the equality of all callings after the Church had drifted into a mentality in which monks, priests, and nuns followed a higher way, and the laity a lower way.  Unfortunately, as I will now concede, no dogma in itself can control the temptation of the institutional church to think that God primarily lives for its benefit and for ‘religious’ matters; that God has retired from the universe business and taken His religious vows and gone into ministry.  The Reformers saw this well enough to say that the church is Semper Reformanda, always in need of reform.  So now we have the irony that the majority of Evangelical Protestantism is locked into a mentality of Great Commission Utilitarianism, that earthly work exists primarily to provide relational and financial opportunities for evangelism and sometimes volunteer social action; whereas some of the best ‘Reformed’ worldview thinking often comes from Roman Catholics!

  5. I am willing to scandalize my Calvinist friends by accepting Mary as the icon or firstfruits of the Church, and its image.  I have seen Catholic catechisms that sort of agree with this, saying something like “on earth she is His Mother, in heaven she is His Bride.”  But if she is to represent the Church, she has to be washed clean by His blood.  When she declares, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,” (Luke 1:46-47) she means what she says and means it in the same way that I mean it when I speak of my Saviour or your Saviour.  Therefore, she cannot have been sinless, or she could not function as an icon of the Church.  I do not regard her as Co-Redemptrix, but then again, as above, I don’t recognize the Church as Co-Redemptrix either.  So no problem letting Mary serve as an icon of the church.All orthodox Christians affirm that Mary was a virgin before Jesus was born from her.  In the Catholic and Orthodox traditions it has been said that she remained one her entire life and that the marriage of Mary and Joseph was never ‘consummated.’  This could be, but if it’s true, the Holy Family did not model Paul’s advice in 1st Corinthians 7:5: “You must not deprive each other, except by mutual consent for a limited time, to leave yourselves free for prayer, and to come together again afterwards; otherwise Satan may take advantage of any lack of self control to put you to the test.”It is also held by most Catholics and Orthodox that Mary ascended bodily into heaven in what is called the Assumption or Dormition.  While this is not in the Bible any more than the Perpetual Virginity or the Immaculate Conception, I have no necessary problem with Mary following the example of Enoch and Elijah.  This Marian doctrine I find less troubling than some of the others.Some liberal feminist Protestants have tried to make a goddess out of Sophia, the mysterious female Wisdom figure in the Book of Proverbs.  Give me Mary rather than Sophia!  And I suppose if we want to have Mary as an icon of Divine Wisdom, I could accept that too.

  6. Similarly I think we can pray with the saints, not necessarily to them.  I confess that I’ve always wondered if we can watch earthly events after we’re dead – my wife can accuse me of media addiction here – but if it’s our job to pray for the living, I suppose we have to get some information!

  7. Some people, who can serve as monks or in special services, do have the gift of celibacy.  But it has not worked out well to impose it on parish priests.  The reasons for clerical celibacy were probably legitimate when it was instituted in 1215.  That was a period where everything was handed down from father to son and marriages were ‘strategic.’  So clerical celibacy ensured that pastorates could not be handed down from father to son in a similar manner.  It meant that the plowboy, who could never be Duke or King, could possibly be Pope [though in real life, of course, it was the younger sons of the upper class that got siphoned off to become bishops and abbots and all that, and it was convenient for the older sons if the younger ones didn’t reproduce].   But the need for this, in today’s society, is no more.  Admittedly it means “to knit God’s holy people together for the work of service to build up the Body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12) for the pastor who is a family man, rather than doing the work himself! Some Catholic seminaries had developed somewhat of a ‘gay’ culture, and the Jesuits had that reputation as far back as the time of Voltaire, but it’s not clear that abuse of children is that much more common in Catholic institutions than in any other [read “Anti-Catholicism, Again” at The Weekly Standard].

  8. It is not such a big issue to me that the Church of Rome opposes artificial birth control.  One would have gotten the impression, in my youth, that Luther and Calvin had declared Sola Scriptura, Sola Fide, Sola Gratia, Validitas Conctraceptivorum Artificialum. But they didn’t.  They saw a hazard in making too much of a chasm between the two functions of sexual intercourse – the first being reproduction, and the second being the special link between husband and wife that models Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5:31-33).   Allan Carlson writes about this in a new book.  It was only in the early 20th century that even the liberal Protestants began to validate the use of devices.  This is one area where the evangelicals tended to follow the liberal Protestants.  Some are now rethinking that.  In any case, in America, it is not the Catholics that have lots of kids, it’s the Mormons, the Muslims, and some evangelical communities.  As for abortion, many evangelicals at first welcomed Roe v Wade, but they were brought around later in the 70s thanks to the work of Francis and Frank Schaeffer and their bioethical series Whatever Happened to the Human Race? The event that triggered the Religious Right, among evangelicals, was not Roe v. Wade but the Internal Revenue Service attack on newer Christian schools in 1978, plus the friendliness of Jimmy Carter, the ‘Christian’ president – and for all I know he probably is – to official conferences broadening the definition of ‘family.’  These events led to a major disillusionment among evangelicals with Carter, whom they had thought of as “their man.”  The Catholics had held that abortion was murder from the beginning, but others had confused their stance on this with their stance on birth control.

I have here outlined some various thoughts about the Roman Catholic Church, some of them being reasons why I would not be a very good Catholic.  But I do think that most of today’s anti-Catholicism is “the anti-semitism of the intellectuals” and that most of the people attacking Catholicism today would be just as opposed to the evangelical faith and its influence.  I read Paul Blanshard’s American Freedom and Catholic Power 31 years ago, and it struck me even then that his arguments could be used just as easily against evangelical Protestants – and indeed, they have been!

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