It will likely come as a surprise to many of you (though not to some others) that I am planning to join the Catholic church (by this Easter I will be a real-life Catholic). Many of you are probably wondering why, so I want to take this blog post to explain some of my primary reasons why. Obviously, however, one blog post is not going to answer every question about Catholicism or my many reasons for becoming Catholic, so I would love to talk to (not argue with) anyone individually if you would like to discuss it further. Also, please utilize the comment option on the blog (nicely).
I began actively looking into the Catholic church many months ago (somewhere around mid-2011). To give a bit of background, a few months before this, I had read a book entitled Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism by James K.A. Smith, in which he seeks to take insights from postmodern philosophers (Lyotard, Derrida, and Foucault) and incorporate their contributions into a Christian framework of thought (if philosophy bores you, please bear with me for a bit or skip ahead). I really enjoyed this book because, while I definitely do not buy into many of the solutions offered by postmodern philosophy (such as a radical moral and epistemological relativism), I think the one thing it does an excellent job of, is to critique modernist philosophy. Speaking in broad generalizations, modern Enlightenment philosophy has an incredibly high view of humanity and human reason, and seeks to establish truth and knowledge (which it believes can be known objectively) through universal reason, as opposed to knowledge that is dependent on tradition and culture, a more particular knowledge. As Smith wrote on his chapter concerning philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard,
“Christian thinkers should find in Lyotard’s critique of metanarratives and autonomous reason an ally that opens up the space for a radically Christian witness in the postmodern world-both in thought and in practice. By calling into question the very ideal of a universal, autonomous reason (which was, in the Enlightenment, the basis for rejecting religious thought) and further demonstrating that all knowledge is grounded in narrative or myth, Lyotard relativizes (secular) philosophy’s claim to autonomy and so grants the legitimacy of a philosophy that grounds itself in Christian faith.” (p. 73)
So by understanding that all knowledge and systems of knowledge have some starting point that one must begin with on the basis of tradition or faith, the Christian thinker is free to start from a foundation of Christian belief, rather than beginning on the terms of secular philosophy. Smith then goes on to flesh out the implications of this and other appropriations from postmodern philosophy for the Christian faith. He calls this “radical orthodoxy”. He says:
“If there is one thing that postmodernism is opposed to, it is the traditional. The very notion of the postmodern has become synonymous with the new, the novel, the avant-garde, and at the very least, the contemporary. But is it possible to be faithful to tradition in the contemporary world? Is that even something we should want? Don’t the advances of modernity–instantaneous global communication, the virtual connection of the four corners of the world, the steady march of technological mastery, the fluidity of trends and self-invention–don’t these represent the overcoming of tradition and an escape from its static past? Who would want to go back to crawling when we’ve learned to fly? Or could it be that the price of flying is not worth the so-called freedom? Might the progressive, ahistorical detachment of our modern life be a denial of something that is part of the fabric of being human? Could it be that we are traditioned creatures, in which case unhooking ourselves from tradition would end only in self-alienation, even self-destruction?” (pp. 109-110, emphasis added)
That one idea stuck out to me, and continued to stick with me, “Could it be that we are traditioned creatures?” Could it be that that is how God made us as humans? I had for some years moved far beyond the attitude of anti-traditionalism that is rampant, almost inherent in Evangelicalism, realizing that tradition is inescapable. We are always, always within a tradition of some sort, and we always develop routines and ways of doing things and pass down knowledge and frameworks of thought and belief. This is just how God made us. It seems to me that there are flaws in the implicit attitude of some Christians that, “we don’t have tradition, we just have the bible.” In reality, this is just a different tradition, and a different way of doing things, a tradition of anti-traditionalism. However, when I read Smith’s book, I began to re-think how many of my attitudes toward things like not just tradition, but also authority, institutions, and rituals, had been shaped by modernist philosophy rather than anything Christian, biblical, or even healthy, and I immediately felt the pull toward the Catholic church. Did I tend to resist being a part of a church that was institutional and have an aversion towards a Christianity that is “hierarchical” because these are inherently bad things, or because of the influence of our Western, individualistic, do-it-yourself, modernist mentality? Did I avoid ritualistic and symbolic practices of Christian worship in favor of more cognitive and emotional ones because the latter are better or because our previously mentioned culture favors these and has shaped my worldview(s)? These are the questions I began asking. What were my cultural blinders and how have they shaped and limited my understanding of the Christian faith? In view of this uncertainty and the (I think healthy to some extent) uncertainty of all knowledge, I began to wonder if rather than relying on my own ability to transcend my cultural myopia and judge the validity of the vast sea of differing Christian beliefs and theologies and Scriptural interpretations, if it were safer to seek safe harbor by embracing my Christian history and the great Christian tradition (thus producing the aforementioned pull towards Catholicism, which oozes tradition and history, and has by far the best claim to be the successors and guardians of the Church’s tradition from the beginning).
As I felt this pull, I began to wonder if there was room in the Catholic church for me, because while there was much that appealed, I certainly wasn’t on board with everything Catholics believed. And would I have to buy into every single doctrine? Would I essentially have to stop thinking for myself? Would I have to write off most of my non-Catholic Christian friends as some sort of inferior believers? I had some definite reservations, but I still felt the appeal. However, I assured myself that that was crazy. There’s no way, that’s just too big of a leap. I’ll just appreciate Catholicism from a distance, as I already have for years (I’ve never been anti-Catholic, and my appreciation for Catholicism has grown over time).
Then one day, my friend Jeff told me about this book study group that was going over a book that was interestingly titled How to Go from Being a Good Evangelical to a Committed Catholic in Ninety-Five Difficult Steps by Christian Smith, a professor at Notre Dame. And while I hadn’t really followed up on the appeal of Catholicism from reading the book on postmodern philosophy, when I heard of this book, I thought, ‘that sounds fascinating.’ I certainly at that point had moved past the point where I would self-identify as an Evangelical, because I just found core Evangelical beliefs and attitudes on most things to not be sustainable or believable, but I knew I was still committed to being a Christian, I just didn’t know what kind of a Christian. But nonetheless, Evangelicalism was my background and the theological framework I was most familiar with, so a book on going from Evangelicalism to Catholicism would probably be the best at explaining Catholicism to me, I thought (and I think I was right). I bought the book on Kindle for my computer, had it instantly, and read about half of it that night. Within two or three days, I had it finished. While it had answered some questions for me, and cleared up a lot of misconceptions about Catholic belief, the main thing it did was to take me from dipping my toe in the metaphorical water and yank me in over my head into the question of Catholicism.
So I purchased more books on Catholicism, some from the current Pope, some from other Catholics, and also began reading the early Church fathers. I realized that in many ways, I was already much closer to Catholic thought than I thought because for one, I have never been a Calvinist or been enamored by Reformed theology, and two, I have been heavily influenced by the writings of N.T. Wright, an Anglican New Testament scholar whose interpretation of Paul is both incredibly true to Paul’s 1st century context, and at the same time breaks away from some pretty foundational ways of reading Paul for Protestants, and moves closer (though not all the way) to a Catholic reading of Paul. So as I studied, and studied, and studied, here are some things that I gathered that were helpful for me, and may help you understand where I’m coming from a bit more.
- The difference between veneration and worship. Worship, for Catholics and for Protestants, is due to God alone. Veneration means something like honoring. Mary and the saints are venerated, honored, but never worshiped.
- Being Catholic does not mean turning your mind off. While, yes, the Church structure (magisterium) is responsible for Catholic doctrine and there are certain doctrines that must be accepted, there is certainly a fair amount of diversity within the Catholic tradition. Also, I grew to feel a bit convicted for my strongly independent and anti-authority attitudes in this area. I’m learning the healthy balance of using the critical and inquiring mind that God gave me, but within the limits of the living tradition of the Catholic church, rather than free of all constraints, as is the case in Protestantism (look at some of the beliefs there, along with how many differing, contradictory ones there are). Sometimes structure and limits are good things, I’m learning, but this does not mean turning one’s mind off and blindly following the leader.
- The key Protestant tenants of Sola Scriptura and Sola Fide do not make sense. While I never really used these terms much, they were certainly implicit within most or all of the theology I was exposed to over the years. Sola Scriptura is the idea that only Scripture, not tradition, is authoritative, even though Scripture never actually says this, and thus is an idea that must be accepted on the authority of tradition. That’s a bit self-defeating to say the least. I think it is much better to understand the Scriptures and the teaching of the Church as going hand in hand, and not as independent, competing sources of authority. Tradition helps us to know how to interpret Scripture. Sola Fide is the idea that salvation is by faith alone, and taken to it’s fullest extent, as within Calvinism, makes it a completely passive event (salvation happens to you, in spite of you). The Catholic position is caricatured as being that you do good works to earn your salvation (which is not true). It was helpful to learn that Catholics believe that salvation is by grace, and that it is received through faith that shows itself in good works. That is to say, salvation is not a hypothetical legal fiction, but that salvation really does work itself out in reality throughout one’s life. Salvation is neither something that happens in spite of you or something that happens because of you. It is God’s work that you participate in and cooperate with. The Catholic idea of your salvation being a process, working itself out in your life, progressive justification, is something similar to the way Protestants talk about sanctification. I am reminded of when St. Paul writes to the Philippians (2:12-13) “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”
- The idea of a purely “invisible Church” doesn’t make much sense. In Protestant theology, you learn that there is both the local church, specific faith communities that meet together, and there is the universal Church, which is the sum of all believers all over the world, and that cannot be associated with any organization, denomination or institution, and is thus “invisible”. It is clear in Scripture that the unity of the people of God is hugely important; even Paul’s theology of justification is developed in the context of concerns over the unity of the people of God, specifically the Jewish-Gentile issue. But saying that the universal, global church is “invisible” as opposed to concrete expressions of local church just feels more like an excuse the more you think about it. It’s an excuse for the failures of Protestantism to value the oneness of the Church, an excuse for Protestantism’s modus operandi being one of schism. You can say that the Bible is the thing around which unity must happen, but without any sort of authority to determine whose interpretation of the Bible will be followed, there will be no unity; history painfully illustrates that point. The universal (catholic) church must be concrete too. The second Vatican council describes the visible and invisible elements of the Church as forming, “…one complex reality which coalesces from a divine and a human element. For this reason, by no weak analogy, it is compared to the mystery of the incarnate Word…” (Ch.1 p.8, Lumen Gentium), meaning that the Church is both a divine and human endeavor, one that includes, but is never reducible to, structures and institutions.
- Christian unity is a non-negotiable. I said this in the previous point, but I think it deserves its own point. The Church is called the body of Christ in the Bible, and just as the Spirit is one and Christ is one, so Christ’s one body, His one Church that is guided by His one Spirit must be one (see 1 Cor.10:16-17, 12:12-31). As I said above, this is not a hypothetical unity, but a unity that means no individual, local church should exist autonomously or outside of a real communion with the universal Church. It would seem to me that the Catholic church has the best claim to being the structural entity or authority that the Church of Christ subsists in (based off historical continuity, and the fact that this universality or catholicity is central to Catholicism).
- Being Catholic does not entail a hostile or arrogant attitude toward non-Catholic Christians. It was interesting to learn that the reason Catholics do not practice open communion is because of their high value on the unity of the Church. The Eucharist (communion) is a sign of the oneness and unity of the Church, and to open communion to anyone is to ignore and brush over the real divisions that exist in the Church. Concerning schisms that have happened throughout the centuries (i.e. the Reformation) the second Vatican council says, “…serious dissensions made their appearance and quite large communities came to be separated from full communion with the Catholic Church-for which, often enough, men of both sides were to blame” (Ch.1 p.3, Unitatis Redintegratio) Concerning non-Catholic Christians and churches, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “‘many elements of sanctification and of truth’ are found outside the visible confines of the Catholic Church: ‘the written Word of God; the life of grace; faith, hope, and charity, with the other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit, as well as visible elements.’ Christ’s Spirit uses these Churches and ecclesial communities as means of salvation…” (p.819, CCC, bold added) Also check out this document on ecumenism from Vatican II: http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_decree_19641121_unitatis-redintegratio_en.html.
- Catholicism (largely) does not struggle with the dualism that plagues Evangelicalism (and much of Protestantism). Implicit in most of Evangelical theology is the subtle idea that the Christian hope is to escape from this world into another one, which goes hand in hand with the idea that “spiritual” things are inherently more valuable than practical, every-day, physical/material things that we deal with in the here-and-now. This dualism of spirit-vs-matter can be traced all the way back to at least Plato’s philosophy, but the problem with this philosophy is that it denies the inherent goodness of God’s creation (this world) and creates an escapist mentality that produces a religion that doesn’t have much to say about life here-and-now. The Christian, biblical idea is that this world is in a broken condition, but that this is still God’s good creation, and that God will make all things right in His creation (if that last sentence made no sense, read N.T. Wright’s Surprised By Hope, it’ll change your life). The ultimate answer to a dualist approach is the incarnation. When God became material in Jesus of Nazareth, He embraced, rather than rejected, the physical world. He came to rescue it, not to destroy it. Catholic thought holds the theological idea of the incarnation (God becoming man, the Word becoming flesh) in an especially high position. Catholic thought holds together the hope for a future that God brings (heaven/the full realization of the Kingdom of God/the redemption of the creation) with the importance of life in the here-and-now (current, partial realization of the Kingdom of God, social teaching/social justice, morality, etc.). Catholic anthropology is one that holds together body and soul as a unity that makes up the whole human person, not antithetical opponents with the subtle idea that the body is simply a temporary housing for the soul. While these ideas are not exclusive to Catholicism, it seems to me that it does do a much better job of taking a wholistic, integrated view of reality and the human person than does the dualist approach, which is far more common in Protestantism and especially Evangelicalism.
- Catholicism is an ecclesiocentric (Church-centered) approach to the Christian faith, as is the Bible (especially St. Paul’s writings). While this isn’t something that I’ve just realized since exploring Catholicism, I have increasingly realized over the past several years how central the Church or the “People of God” is to the Christian faith. The God of the Bible has never been one who primarily engaged in private relationships with individual people (the just-me-and-Jesus approach), but has always been about embracing a people (the Israelites in the OT, and the Church universal in the NT). The individualistic approach to Christianity is a product of our Western imagination. Much of recent scholarship on Pauline writings have underscored the centrality of the Church in St. Paul’s thought (look up “the New Perspective on Paul”). Even such important topics as justification by faith are not discussed on just an individual level, but within the context of how God has through Christ expanded the scope of his covenant from just Abraham’s physical descendants (Israelites) to all people (Gentiles as well), ecclesiological concerns. To come into right relationship with God is at the same time to become a part of the people of God. These aren’t the same things, but they go hand in hand and cannot and should not be separated.
- Catholicism does a particularly good job of holding together “cross” and “kingdom”. Many (generally conservative) Protestant churches do a good job of holding to a hope in an afterlife and to historical, orthodox Christian beliefs and morality (we’ll call these “cross” churches), and many (generally liberal) Protestant churches do a good job of seeing the importance of social issues like caring for those in need and prioritizing the needs of the most vulnerable of society (we’ll call these “kingdom” churches), but rarely are these two seen together. Catholicism does a particularly good job of teaching the importance of both sides. It teaches that the most vulnerable in society are to be given priority (see the “preferential option” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Preferential_option_for_the_poor), while also insisting that these most vulnerable include the unborn (the Catholic church has been consistently pro-life, which is typically seen as a “conservative” issue). This balance of the importance of right belief, right morality and right action (on a societal level too, especially concerning social justice issues), embraces the wholistic message of the transformative power of the gospel, without sliding to one extreme or another and without being forced to choose a side on the American “conservative-vs-liberal” spectrum.
- Catholicism has an incredibly rich and deep spiritual tradition. I don’t want to give the impression that joining the Catholic church was a purely cognitive, intellectual decision, with no prayer involved at all. But if I am honest, I am much more gifted in abstract thought than in prayer or action, and I am learning to see that God made me this way. But this does not reduce the importance of prayer, and if I am honest, I really suck at praying. I have a very short attention span, and any prayer that is not structured or guided in some way usually ends in me spacing off and then minutes later coming to, thinking, “oh, I was supposed to be praying, wasn’t I?” But the Catholic church has a tradition of spiritual teachers and practices that have been a practical help to people for a couple thousand years. These traditions, often derided in Evangelicalism as being dry, lifeless repetitions that are inauthentic and not “from the heart”, are actually incredibly beautiful and immensely practical. Since discovering the Catholic tradition, my prayer life (while still not easy, and still not always very great) has been strengthened.
- The Catholic Church has a long history of both faithfulness and failure, which is precisely why it’s perfect for me. One of the most depressing moments in college for me was taking a class on Church history. How on earth, I wondered, could such a wonderful thing as the Church which God established, have such moments of blatant corruption and sunk to the level of a tool of the state and a battle field for power struggles? Even in our day we hear of instances of abuse and (even-worse, it seems) cover-ups of those abuses. Why would I want anything to do with such a checkered history as this? It is because this is precisely what you would expect of an institution that is both guided by the Holy Spirit and led by imperfect men. And this strange mix of successes and failures is in many ways like my own faith. There are times when I see myself growing in following my Lord and living a good life, and times when I feel like a miserable failure for doing things I know are clearly wrong. While the Church may be a disappointment at times, it is also the home to the examples and fellowship of masses of saints and examples of holy living. The Church can be so amazing and so disappointing, which is why it is precisely where I belong. Rather than trying to distance myself from our Christian history, I have learned to embrace it (though not uncritically), realizing that the Church is Christ’s body and the home to both sinners and saints.
The list could go on and on, as I continue to discover more and more reasons for loving Catholicism as I go, but I will stop as this is far too long already. Thank you for reading. May God bless you and keep you and give you peace (Num.6:22-27)
Ash Wednesday, 2012
Books I’ve read (or partially read) as a part of this journey/study:
Ante-Nicene Church Fathers (some of them)
Aquinas, St. Thomas: Summa of the Summa (edited by Peter Kreeft)
Beckwith, Francis: Return to Rome
Chesterton, G.K.: Orthodoxy
Currie, David: Born Fundamentalist, Born Again Catholic
Hahn, Scott: Rome Sweet Home
Howard, Thomas: Evangelical is Not Enough
*Martin, James, S.J.: My Life With the Saints
*McBrian, Richard: The Church: The Evolution of Catholicism
Merton, Thomas: Contemplative Prayer, The Nonviolent Alternative
*Ratzinger, Joseph (Pope Benedict XVI): The Spirit of the Liturgy, Jesus of Nazareth v.1 and v.2, Called to Communion, Principles of Catholic Theology, Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith, God is Near Us, St. Paul
*Smith, Christian: How to go from Being a Good Evangelical to a Committed Catholic in Ninety-Five Difficult Steps, The Bible Made Impossible
*St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology (multiple authors, Scott Hahn, editor): Letter and Spirit journal, vol. 2
*US Conference of Catholic Bishops: United States Catholic Catechism for Adults
Weigel, George: Letter to a Young Catholic
Wills, Gary: Why I am Catholic
Yet to read:
Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, Karl Rahner, Henri de Lubac, more from St. Ignatius,
James K.A. Smith. Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church (The Church and Postmodern Culture). Kindle Edition. http://www.amazon.com/Whos-Afraid-Postmodernism-Foucault-Postmodern/dp/080102918X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1329342750&sr=1-1
Christian Smith. How to Go from Being a Good Evangelical to a Committed Catholic in Ninety-Five Difficult Steps. http://www.amazon.com/Evangelical-Committed-Catholic-Ninety-Five-Difficult/dp/1610970330/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1317173933&sr=1-1