Considering CatholicismPosted: October 19, 2013
Why? There is no way to list all of the reasons here, but I will at least attempt to offer a glimpse of my basic reasoning process. The Christian faith must surely be a durable one, and has nothing to fear from my questions. Even if you do not trust my judgment as I look into this, perhaps you can read my thoughts out of curiosity, and I can read your comments in the same manner. My goal is the fullness of the Christian faith, and this is not intended as a condemnation of people who choose to believe differently, or are content where they are spiritually. Think of it this way: someone who is in pursuit of a master’s degree is not necessarily doing it in condemnation of people who are content with a bachelor’s degree. I am grateful beyond words for those who have brought me up in the Christian faith, and I do not wish to appear as though I’m shrugging off their love and legacy by digging deeper.
First of all, let me establish what is NOT being questioned. Christianity itself, in a nutshell, is the core of this whole thing. My faith is grounded in Jesus Christ, who is (and always will be) my Lord and Savior. The Gospel and the Creeds make up my basic declaration of faith which I can refer to as “mere Christianity.” The questions I’m asking arise out of matters of authority within the Church, proper interpretation and understanding of Scripture, the role of tradition within the faith, and the way that Christians are to live their lives. These questions lead to disagreements over the possible answers. Resolving them ultimately requires putting trust in some person’s ability to understand God (even if you only recognize your own ability). So, the overarching question becomes, “Who do you trust, and why?” I ask this in the sense of a trustworthy source that everyone can use. For me this question is separate from questions like “Who has cared about you?” or “Who has invested most in you?” or “What has your family long believed?” It is important to recognize the distinction. Also, you shouldn’t simply point to the Bible as the means of understanding the faith, when the Bible itself is part of what Christians are attempting to understand. If someone is wondering how a masterful work of art was painted and how to interpret its meaning you don’t simply hand the painting to them as an explanation.
One of the first things about Catholicism that becomes apparent to the inquisitor (no pun intended) is that non-Catholics (and even many Catholics!) have many misconceptions of what Catholic beliefs and Church history actually are. I have learned a lot in the past few weeks simply by allowing myself to see the Bible through a Catholic lens instead of a Protestant one. Note: this “lens” concept is important to realize, especially when bringing up points about what the Bible says. Even if I do not end up joining the Catholic Church, I cannot help but have a greater respect for Catholics and a greater sympathy for them as they face constant misunderstanding and mockery in our culture. It has become somewhat amusing to me (yet frustrating) to see the Catholic Church held up to a standard of perfection and be demonstrated as imperfect, while the great many branches of Protestantism are barely held up to any standard at all and are thus demonstrated to be adequate.
In many ways my spiritual journey began years ago, in my frustration with the various churches that I have been a part of. I ended up experimenting with the house church concept, based loosely on an attempt to understand New Testament house churches. Stephen Ray (a convert to Catholicism from Protestantism) tried a similar experiment earlier in his life and described reverting back to the New Testament house church as being like an attempt to take a full-size tree and revert it back into the form of the acorn that it came from. It is an unnatural disregard of what has transpired within the Church since its founding. I realize now that a person can protest their way completely out of the picture. I suppose my attempt at house church could be thought of as the final product of Protestantism.
In other ways this spiritual journey of mine began as a result of my parents’ divorce, causing me to re-evaluate many aspects of the foundation of my upbringing, and the inadequacies of churches that value freedom more than doctrine. In other ways it resulted from my faith being challenged during my time in a secular college, and hours-worth of discussion with a Muslim friend of mine as we compared our faiths. My encounters with Calvinism and various forms of egoism led me to ponder what Christianity would look like apart from those influences, since Christianity seems naturally opposed to them anyway. It appears to me that many Protestants are more Calvinist than they realize or are willing to admit. Calvinism has a foothold in American churches in a profound but immeasurable way.
The Catholic Church seems to naturally repel Calvinists.
I developed a frustration from reading books like “The Cost of Discipleship”, “Crazy Love”, and “Radical”. These books alluded to a very real and powerful way to live the Christian life, but left me with far more questions than answers.
Eastern Orthodoxy and Anglicanism are worthy of serious consideration, but for various reasons I have set them aside. I would be willing to reconsider them or discuss my thoughts if asked.
The issue as I see it is not whether we will accept a human authority on this earth, but which human authority we accept. Some accept the established doctrines of the Catholic Church, others accept the doctrines of their Wesleyan church, or Baptist church, while others establish doctrines on their own, based on their ideas, readings, preferences, etc. What doctrines are the most legitimate? Again, who do you trust, and why? This is NOT ruling out the Holy Spirit as a guide. It is simply an honest acknowledgement of the countless divisions found within the faith, and the logical assumption that divisions are not a sign of strength. If there is one universal Church, it would be great news to anyone like me who is sick and tired of opinions and guesses being used to determine important questions within the faith. Obviously the legitimacy of the Catholic Church’s doctrine is still questionable in my mind at this point (hence the title of this post), but I cannot help but wonder how it can be less legitimate than all of the various ideas that people outside the Catholic Church come up with on any given day. Established doctrines can mean less freedom it’s true, but I for one am willing to release my grip on doctrinal freedom if Truth is found to supersede it.
I admit that much of the appeal of the Catholic Church is its universality. It spans not only the centuries, but the globe. It still boggles my mind that there are 1.2 billion members of the Roman Catholic Church. From what I’ve heard that’s far more than all other versions of Christianity combined. Somebody might be quick to claim that he is smarter than all of those people, but I am not that quick. Like Socrates, learning has made me realize how little I know. An American Evangelical Protestant shaking his fist at Catholicism and declaring it to be “pagan” or some other similar term seems rather self-destructive considering that he is part of a small sliver of the overall Christian population of the world, with the vast majority being Catholic. If the Catholic Church is not Christian, then the legitimacy of all churches around the world looks a bit shaky. It’s more of a question of whether we can justify being outside of it or not. Perhaps we can, but we’d better be sure.
Many different people interpret the Bible in many different ways, and some are quick to accept the responsibility for taking interpretive authority upon their own shoulders. James said “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment.” Knowing Greek is not the same as understanding the Greek of the New Testament, and reading the Bible does not mean we can teach ourselves or others correctly. The “Magisterium” of the Catholic Church takes that awesome doctrinal responsibility upon its shoulders (I wouldn’t want it!), and the Catholics believe that the gates of Hell will not prevail against the Church. Even if the Catholic Church is simply regarded as an institution apart from God’s divine preservation, G.K. Chesterton said, “There is no other case of one continuous intelligent institution that has been thinking about thinking for two thousand years.” It has the accumulated experience of centuries, dating back to the beginning of the Church. We individuals with our limited experience have to sift through more concepts and ideas than we have time for on this earth. There is simply not enough time to get it all figured out, so why try? But it’s still important to base our beliefs on the best sources of instruction. Our eternity may depend upon it.
A few miscellaneous thoughts may help offer some insight as well: I have begun to question Americanized Christianity, allowing myself to be humbled by the age and enormity of the faith outside of our usual perception of it. I have discovered the early Church Fathers. Guys like Ignatius of Antioch, Clement of Rome, Polycarp, Irenaeus, and Justin Martyr are some of the best resources Christians have in order to better understand what Christianity was intended to be. The Catholic Church cherishes the writings of the Fathers, while Protestants seem content to ignore them and rely more on their own judgment and modern commentary. I find that to be interesting. I have developed a greater appreciation for great works of Catholics, from the architecture of cathedrals to the imagination behind The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Things like crossing oneself for prayer and the psychological need people have for confession (and even penance) are making more and more sense. Also, the “age of the earth” debate that Protestants constantly stumble through is practically nonexistent within the Catholic Church, because there are fewer misconceptions running rampant about how to understand the Bible. G.K. Chesterton’s writings have helped me to better grasp the balance between human intellect and the sanity of mystery. I could go on and on, but I’ve shared enough for now.
I ask for your prayers as I continue to follow Christ. Feedback is welcome, and encouragement is always appreciated. I put a lot of careful work into my writing, and this post is no exception. Bear in mind that this post is NOT a declaration of intent to join the Catholic Church. These thoughts are meant to be taken only as thoughts, and I encourage you to keep an eye out for future posts. You may have noticed that I’ve hardly discussed any theology in this post. There will be plenty of time for that. I merely wanted to create a basis from which to launch my future ruminations on the subject of the Catholic Church. Stay tuned…