Part of the trouble that Protestants have in trying to make sense of Roman Catholicism is the bi-polar character of Rome (in the U.S. at least) and its appeal to evangelicals. Damon Linker explains the attraction that Roman Catholicism once had for him:
I became a Catholic (from secular Judaism) in the midst of a personal crisis. I longed to find an absolute moral Truth and craved a sense of belonging with others who recognized and ordered their lives according to that Truth. Catholicism is perfect for people with such yearnings. It tells them that the Roman Catholic Church is the church of Jesus Christ most fully and rightly ordered through time. Its magisterial authority can be traced back to St. Peter and the rest of Christ’s original apostles. It publishes a 900-page Catechism filled with elaborate, absolute rules laying out in minute detail how God wants us to live. It governs itself according to an intricate code of Canon Law that first began to be formulated nearly two millennia ago.
For someone who feels troubled by a culture in a constant state of instability and change, the Catholic Church can feel like a rock in a stormy, windswept sea. Finally, something is steady, permanent, unchangeable, fixed, immobile. The church’s very stability can end up looking like the strongest sign and confirmation of its divinity. Everything changes! But not God and his church.
For someone drawn to Catholicism by the promise of order and stability, any sign of change in the church will be unwelcome, threatening. The fact that social and cultural mores shift and develop around it is an argument for retrenchment and improved outreach to a world tempted by sin in new ways. It certainly isn’t a sign that the church should adjust its teachings on faith and morals, accommodating them to the latest trends. Any such adjustment would risk diluting the Truth, and (perhaps just as bad) serve as a potentially fatal concession that the church’s teachings can be fallible. Once that door has been opened, there may be no way to close it. Remove even a single brick from the foundation, and the whole edifice could come crashing down.
What then does a convert do when she understands that the people who grew up with Rome’s promise of order and stability don’t want to perpetuate that reliability but actually desire change? John Zmirak describes where such desires come from and such aspirations must seem odd to Bryan and the Jasons:
When a large group of highly educated people who have dedicated themselves to an organization with firm doctrines, strict rules, and stern demands — such as the Catholic Church — lose their faith in those doctrines, rules and demands, what do they do with themselves instead? Shrug and join the Unitarians? Leave their rectories or convents and go find apartments, maybe jobs as high school guidance counselors?
What do families like the Pelosis, the Kennedys or the Bidens — and millions of non-famous Irish and Italian-American clans with strong ethnic and historical connections to the Church — do with themselves when they reject its teaching authority?
The history of the Catholic left gives us the answer: Such people focused on the parts of the Church’s mission that still appealed to them, such as looking out for the poor and rebuking unjust discrimination. And of course the Church has an almost 2,000 year tradition of offering the needy education, health care, and a voice in the face of genuine oppression. Many Catholics had joined the Civil Rights movement and marched for integration.
In the 1960s, there were fresh, exciting causes available for Catholics to join which modeled themselves on the Civil Rights movement’s tactics and rhetoric, whose agendas were not so compatible with traditional Christian teaching as the noble fight against institutionalized racism had been. Feminists, homosexuals, and anti-war activists began to throng the streets and demand radical changes in American law and policy, and many Catholics with left-wing sympathies and deep roots in the Democratic Party began to exert their energies on behalf of these new movements — assuring themselves that they were acting as Jesus had when he denounced the scribes and Pharisees.
Many grandchildren of Catholic immigrants to our overwhelmingly Protestant country still clung to the pretense that they were outsiders — excluded and marginalized victims of the existing American establishment. So they felt bound to make common cause with every other “outside” group, regardless of the justice of its claims. This outsider illusion made it easy for them to be right about Civil Rights … and then poisonously wrong about feminism, gay liberation, and socialist economics.
It would be like an avid reader of John Calvin (other than Marilyn Robinson) joining the PCUSA with the expectation that mainline Presbyterians actually care about perpetuating Reformed Protestantism.
While Bryan and the Jasons want Protestants to join the ecumenical discussion, shouldn’t they be having that conversation first with the folks in their own communion?