Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Why Catholic?

A reader of this blog who has a fine blog of his own sent me the following question, which was sent to him by a friend:
I have been a Protestant my entire life, yet I acknowledge what R.R. Reno described as "the insanity of [the] slide into self-guidance." (Catholic Matters, Richard John Neuhaus, p. 65). I also whole-heartedly agree with Neuhaus himself when he says, "The allegedly autonomous self who acknowledges no authority but himself is abjectly captive to the authority of the Enlightenment rationality that finally collapses into incoherence." He adds, "Confronted by such truth claims, we necessarily ask, 'Sez who?' By what authority, by whose authority, should I credit such claims to be true?" (ibid., p. 70)

And so I ask: If you are Protestant, why are you Protestant and why are you not Catholic or Orthodox? If you are Catholic, why are you Catholic and not Protestant or Orthodox? If you are Orthodox, why are you Orthodox and not Protestant or Catholic?

Note that whatever question applies to you is actually in two parts, asking a positive affirmation of why you are what you are and an answer of why you are not what you are not.

Thanks in advance to all who search deeply and share good, honest thoughts.
First, I'd like to emphasize that the reason this question is being shared around is not just to ask a couple of people; anyone who would like to answer these questions is strongly encouraged to do so in the comment boxes (or on your own blog, if you have one).

For me, the question is: Why are you Catholic and not Protestant or Orthodox?

The simplest way for me to begin is t0 say that I am Catholic because I believe that Christ intended to found a specific Church, that the Church He founded still exists, and that His Church is the Catholic Church. But I know that's not the whole story.

I began my life as a Catholic quite early. I was born into and baptized into a Catholic family, was raised Catholic, and have strong cultural roots to the Catholic faith. I can't deny that those roots have been somewhat weakened by modernity and especially by the rapid-fire changes of Vatican II; I was born in 1968, three years after the Council closed, but the post-Conciliar changes were just beginning to make their way into parish life during my childhood, and the period of loosey-goosey, anything goes Catholicism was at its heyday in my youth.

My parents, though, were traditional even before there were "traditionalists." They would clarify and explain things that our teachers in the Catholic schools were leaving out, and would challenge some of the things going on at the parish. Eventually they realized they were not alone, and the heady period of weekly Wanderer readership (don't laugh--when I was eighteen my life's ambition was to write for The Wanderer) and the wild adventure into that thing called homeschooling came to pass in our family.

Both the presence of orthodox Catholic media in our home and the pre-Vatican II religion texts that came with our homeschooling curricula had a huge impact on me. I was in high school, rebelling without realizing it against the liberal feminist pacifist pro-Democrat hegemony of my Catholic school teachers at the all-girls' Catholic high school I'd been attending; the (to me at the time) meaty, substantive articles in this exciting Catholic newspaper and the detailed and breathtakingly rational descriptions of what Catholics believed and why we believed it in my textbooks was a positive relief compared to the squishy feel-goodism masquerading as Catholicism I'd been exposed to in the schools most of my life.

The more I learned about who and what the Church claimed to be, and Who She saw as Her founder, the more certain incidents in my past made sense to me. As a young child, I'd asked my mother if Protestants all each believed that their church was the "true" one; repeating this question a few years later to a Protestant friend I'd been shocked to hear her say that her church taught that it didn't matter. All Christian churches (well, possibly except Catholics; this was the South, after all) were "true" churches, because all sought to follow the spirit of Christ. True, they had different founders, but...The idea of different founders didn't make sense to me, but the Protestant notion of the Eucharist made less sense. If Christ had really meant His Body and Blood to be merely symbolic, as she claimed, what about that Gospel reading where many of His followers left in disgust when He said they would have to eat His flesh and drink His blood? Couldn't He simply have explained the symbolism instead of letting them leave over a misunderstanding? I wouldn't have appreciated, then, the full richness of that section of the sixth chapter of St. John's Gospel, but it, and dozens of other Eucharistic passages in the Scriptures, remain even today one of my reasons for being a Catholic instead of a Protestant; I think the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist is the truly Scriptural one, and the Eucharist is, moreover, so central to my life as a follower of Christ that I couldn't imagine life apart from His Presence in this mystery.

Getting back to that notion of "founders--" years later when my sister and I were working after college, she came to me asking to borrow my copy of the World Almanac. I wondered why, and she said a Protestant co-worker had asked her who founded her Church. "Jesus," my sister had said.

"Oh, sure, spiritually, but who was the real founder?" a woman persisted.

My sister went a few rounds explaining that unless you wanted to say, "St. Peter," (which was somewhat inaccurate) you could only say, "Jesus." There was no particular merely human founder of the Catholic Church.

Her co-worker was still puzzled, which was why my sister wanted to borrow the almanac. Today, of course, such sources go out of their way to say, "Jesus, but really Peter, but really some other bishops in the 300s, but really..." as they go out of their way to try to twist the simple truth into something unrecognizable. But my 1980s-era secular World Almanac and Book of Facts engaged in no such sophistry; beside "founder" next to "Catholic Church" the chart simply read, "Jesus Christ." In the almanac, remember--not in a religious source book. My sister's co-worker was, if I recall, impressed--and intrigued.

To me, though, then and now, the idea is a simple one. Christ clearly meant to start a Church. He clearly meant to leave somebody in charge of it, and He clearly meant something very particular with all that "Do this in remembrance of Me," bit emphasized in the Gospels. From the very beginning of the Church, though, some people thought they ought to re-do His teachings a bit. In the earliest years these groups existed in open heresy; later, they broke away convinced that some new understanding compelled them to "go back" to a purer, simpler time, without all that authority and ritual and so forth. But in my admittedly simplistic view of things, these new churches were started because they had one or more of these three ideas:
  • Christ didn't actually mean to start a physical Church, but only a spiritual one;
  • Christ meant to start a physical Church, but He didn't mean to create a hierarchy who would be "in charge" and teach with authority; or
  • Christ did mean to start a Church, but He didn't mean anything about that Eucharist idea except that it would be a nice symbol, and thus there was no need for an ordained priesthood or the inherently sacrificial character of the Catholic Mass.
I don't wish to offend those who believe one or more of those three things, but I do think they're rather hard to argue if you've delved much into Church history; eventually you are left with the idea that sometime very, very soon after Christ's ascension the apostles got everything so wrong and mucked things up so badly that they created a false church complete with priests, sacraments, and so on, and that Christians were thus "abandoned" by God for several centuries until some wise person came along and figured it all out properly. One is, of course, free to believe this, but in my opinion one would be wrong.

Now, all of this answers the why Catholic; why Catholic and not Protestant parts of the question. The "why not Orthodox" question is rather complex, because I do believe as the Church does that the Orthodox are also a real Church. They have apostolic succession and valid sacraments. But what they don't have is the Pope, and again, I find the arguments against papal authority unconvincing.

It's probably far beyond the scope of this post to say fully why that is, except for me to say that I do think Christ intended for Peter to have a special role, above and beyond his companions. Granted, James and John were also often singled out in the Gospels, or rather, not "singled" but along with Peter called to witness some of Our Lord's earthly life that no one else saw firsthand. But it is only Peter who receives the keys; it is only Peter who first denies Christ, and then is forgiven, told "Feed my lambs" and "feed my sheep." Surely it would have made more sense for Our Lord to have said something like this to St. John, who alone of the apostles did not abandon Him at the foot of the Cross, right? But it is Peter who is told these things, and it is Peter who goes from hiding in the upper room, to fearlessly leading the other apostles in Acts, after the pouring out of the Holy Spirit upon them all.

I do hope for Catholic and Orthodox reunification, and I also hope it won't be long in coming. But of the two Churches, I believe I'm in the one that most fully reflects the scriptural image of the Church Christ intended to found, and did found; and being a member of that Church is a blessing beyond anything I deserve.

Lengthy as this is, it is bound to be incomplete; a question like this one could be answered well in a book, not in a blog post. But I'll stop here, to give others the chance to weigh in--I do hope that you will!


John Thayer Jensen said...

I was brought up as entirely without religion as it is possible to be. My life pretty much came to bits at a certain point, and came to Christ in 1969 as part of what was then called the "Jesus movement."

This is not the place to go into great detail about the history of my life since then - and anyway I haven't the time - but the short version is that I came, through many years of prayer, reading, talking with others, to understand that:

- I believe in God because what I see both in the creation around me and in my own heart is simply unacceptable on any other ground. If you like to say this means that I believe because I reject the alternative, fair enough; I do.

- I believe in Jesus as the Son of God because I cannot see any alternative. This is, if you will, C. S. Lewis's "Liar, Lunatic, Lord" argument.

- But what I know of Jesus I know almost entirely because of the New Testament - simply viewing it as a historical document - a historical document which I am convinced is historical and cannot be fiction - that would be impossible to believe.

- And it is evident from the New Testament that Jesus established a Church as an organisation, not merely a concept; that that Church is intended to be unitary and universal - and trustworthy. As the person Red is quoting points out: without that, I am thrown on entirely making it up.

- But there is no candidate for such a Church today except the Catholic Church.

As Newman said, the man who is deep in history ceases to be a Protestant.

If anyone is interested in details about how I got here, it is in:

Magister Christianus said...

So there I was on my friend's blog,, and as I so often do, scrolled down to find an interesting title on "And Sometimes Tea?". Imagine my surprise when I clicked on the link and found my question being used to start a conversation! You see, I am the friend of Eutychus who sent that question out to a number of my friends late in 2008. I have received only one response so far, but admittedly, it is a challenging question.

Thank you, Red Cardigan, for including it on your blog, but more importantly, thank you for your eloquent and thoughtfully considered response. I read it word for word just now over lunch and will return to it many times I am sure.

Over the past few months I have read a number of books by Protestants who were reconciled with Rome such as _Surprised by Truth_ by Patrick Madrid, _Return to Rome_ by Francis Beckwith, and others. Your statements ring familiar with much of what they said.

A good question that could be thrown back at me is why I remain a Protestant. There are reasons less substantial...our current church does great work serving the community, the teaching is sound, the children's program is great...and more substantial...the fact that my wife is not at all persuaded and as the two have become one flesh, I would not make such a move without her.

I have always been convinced that there was more to the Lord's Supper than mere memorial, but it is the issue of authority that most has me in its grips at the moment. It is not even plausible, let alone reasonable, that each church could have its own interpretation of doctrine and Scripture. There must be an overarching authority, and appeal cannot be made to the promise of the indwelling Holy Spirit Who will lead us into all truth, for I have known too many people claiming to be led by the Holy Spirit who have said all manner of nonsense.

I am eager to see where this discussion goes. Thank you again, Red, for posting this.

Oh, by the way...I am a HUGE fan of Alexander Pope and so I love the title of your blog!

eutychus said...

OK so I am a bit slow. I asked MC if I could "shop his question around" to a few places since most folks who stop by my site are "lurkers" vs commenters. I did that around January. This was the first place I thought of but you were having "alotsa" tests and procedures with the word "nuclear" in them so I thought I'd wait.
I really enjoyd your response Erin, and as always, beautifully put. My reasons for staying Protestant mirror MC's almost word for word and I agree they are not substantial. I was born and raised in a church that saw the Eucharist as nothing more than a "rememberance/memorial thing but have grown to see it as much more. I am now part of a church that is not as many steps removed from the Catholic Church and thus has language that says "this is the Body of Christ...this is the Blood of Christ." And I believe it. But like many Protestant churches it likes to straddle the fence. Thus it comes back to an issue of authority again and like MC, I think if my wife were more inclined I would convert today. Wow, did I just say that? I'll post the rest on my weblink and not hijack your comment section anymore. Thanks again and I likewise am hopeful that others (like Mr Jensen)will post their thoughts as well.

eulogos said...

Mr. Jensen, I read your whole story at the link above and I recommend that everyone do so.
You write very well and display a deep seriousness about the most important matters there are.

I am off to a Holy Week service now, so I won't attempt to tell my own story. I just wanted to express my appreciation to Mr. Jensen for his story.
Susan Peterson

LarryD said...

This is a great post, Erin, and I intend to answer it - but it have to wait until after Easter.

Have a blessed Triduum and Easter!

Magister Christianus said...

To continue this discussion a bit further, I began listening to the our local EWTN Catholic radio affiliate shortly before the November, 2008 elections. I became hooked and listen to that station almost exclusively when I am driving. The reason? I had never heard a station, Christian or otherwise, making such sense on issues of life, especially regarding life in the womb. Quite frankly, I had often founded the evangelical station in our area a bit sappy. Yet on this Catholic station I heard hard-hitting, well-reasoned, faithfully impassioned discussion about matters that matter.

So, Erin, this is another reason I have enjoyed your blog. I appreciate your tireless efforts regarding issues of life.

I would also add that in January, I noticed that this Catholic station broadcast Mother Angelica and her sisters praying the Rosary every morning from 6:30-7:00, just the time I am driving to work. I simply cannot listen to anything else and have been praying the Rosary on my drive with these sisters until I lose signal.