Thursday, September 6, 2007

Why Not Catholic?

I take the Creed seriously, or as seriously as an atheist can take such a thing. So, when it states, “I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church” I take that just as serious as the line “We believe in one God.”

So why aren’t creedal-confessing Christians Catholic?

An Episcopalian some what heatedly told a class of mine that he was in fact catholic, just not Roman Catholic. However, this ‘catholicity’ he affirmed is non-substantive. A ‘Catholic’ Church that is also apostolic must be one that is substantive and particular and rooted in a historical construction.

I met with Dr. Stephen Long during my first visit to Garrett-Evangelical. I had recently finished his book The Goodness of God. While reading it I was struck at how centrally and reverently he discussed the sacraments. While we talked in his office, I asked him, “Dr. Long why aren’t you a Catholic?” He saw three problems with being Catholic: the celibacy of the priesthood, the ordination of only men, and the fact that he was already an ordained minister of the United Methodist Church.

Of course, Dr. Long might be harboring a few other theological qualms with the Catholic Church, but probably not too many. I’ve heard him support the Catholic dogma of the Immaculate Conception and he has published a paper on the need for the Papacy.

Dr. Long has also been critical of the Protestant church being defined by protest. He (and I) agrees that the joint declaration has answered most of the questions that originally created a schism within the Church. The Methodist Church in a resolution last year also agreed with the joint decalration. So, do most Protestant stay so for only three reasons: they want priests to marry, women to be ordained and because they happen to already be Protestant?

Besides the second issue, the other two do not hold theological purchase; and I would hesitantly suggest that even second need not justify a schism in the Church (while I would also suggest that the addition of the ‘filioque’ to Creed didn’t either).

Recently an editorial articlein the Christian Century made the point that the Pope’s declaration that Protestant churches are not, “churches in the proper sense” should not alarm Protestants. The editor went on to say that the Pope’s message was a technical statement not necessarily a moral one; rather, Rome simply meant that some Protestants don’t hold the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, fewer uphold bishop delineated apostolic succession and none recognize Papal authority.

The author then went on to write, “At the same time, most Protestants would affirm, with Augustine (and against the Donatists), that the church exists by God's grace, sometimes in spite of human efforts.” Of course, the invisible Church should be affirmed, but the author takes such a doctrine to its relativist-slipper-slope conclusion, “Ironically, in this sense [that they can witness to the pluriformity of the Spirit’s work in the world] Protestants can be more "catholic" than Catholics.” Yet isn’t this ecclesial carte-blanche exactly what has lead to the current state of undue liberalism?

A good friend of mine and Ph.D. candidate has remarked of this same problem with the word, ‘liberal evangelical.’ He criticizes that it often means those who want to claim the name evangelical, but while at the same time relegating its denotation so anyone can claim it. Similar, the author misses the point about what it means to be ‘catholic.’ It may be a nice or amusing sentiment to call Protestants ironically catholic, but in that very moment the term is robbed of any significance it began with. The Church must draw lines in the sands for the doctrine of extra ecclesiam nulla salus to be meaningful. If not, then all are anonymous Christians and humanity is to be silently conscripted into the ranks and rolls of the ‘catholic’ Church without exceptions – the final step of the Church become nothing more than a secularized humanism.

Brent Waters recently mused in a class lecture, “If you are going to be a heretic pick a good heresy... however, I wonder if a Protestant could even be a heretic these days.”

One things for sure, there’s not much stopping them from being Catholic.


Jimmy Cooper said...

Wow, that may be the first time I have ever been quoted!

Andy said...

It's an interesting question, Jason, and while your argument will perhaps hold for most of Protestantism, I think you treat too lightly the Anglican Church. The history of the Anglican Church is roughly the same as "the" Catholic Church.

I agree that Catholicism needs to be visible, or as you say "substantive and particular and rooted in a historical construction." I disagree with Protestants who assume they are more Catholic because they are more welcoming of plurality (which does not necessarily mean the work of the Spirit).

On the other hand, I wonder if you have defined Catholicism (via Rome) far too narrowly. Consider that Irenaeus defended Catholic Christianity against the heretics with a three-pronged approach: Canon, Creed, and Apostolic Succession. Papacy is a glaring omission. The Anglicans and Orthodox (and some Lutherans) retain apostolic succession, and it is here that we find the historical construction of particularity. It is in apostolic succession that we find the flesh Long talks about in his article. But this is not specifically Petrine succession. It is episcopal succession. Now the See of Rome is very important, and yes, invaluable, but not the hub of apostolicity. That power was usurped from the college of bishops at Vatican I (that's my view of it, of course, following Sergei Bulgakov). More than the filioque, it was the papacy (or what would later become the papacy) that rent East from West.

Protestants fail at unity, I think, largely because while they may affirm Creed and Canon, they have no room for Apostolic Succession, and thus have what could be called a docetic ecclesiology.

Anyway, while I agree with the question, "Why not Catholic?" I think we need to examine what constitutes Catholicity. On that question, I resolutely deny the Roman Church a monopoly.

Hellernot said...

Found it!

Anonymous said...

I really can’t comment. It took me two hours to look up all the words I didn’t know and even the explanations contained words I didn’t know.
Hey—when are we going to talk a little football?

Anonymous said...

Your post prompts me to add"Why not Orthodox? If Catholic is not much of a leap, then Orthodoxy should be even less problematic.Eastern Orthodoxy offers a refreshing view point to our Western ideas!

The Catholic Atheist said...


I agree! The great split is not Catholic and Protestants its between the Western and Eastern Church.

That said, I think the filoque, inter alia, can be overcome.

To borrow from the Muslims: inshallah.