That’s How Bad Protestantism Is

From the file of why you’d never think of becoming Protestant even when Roman Catholicism has fallen so far. Rusty Reno keeps it real depressing for those not Called to Communion:

The present pontificate has sown confusion, division, and conflict. Francis is advancing a doctrinally suspect revision of the discipline for divorced and remarried Catholics. This affects a vanishingly small percentage of churchgoers. Yet he presses forward against objections, apparently because he wants to empower those who seek a wide-ranging concordat with the sexual revolution. Meanwhile, as he hails the inauguration of a more pastoral and inclusive Church, he spews invective and denounces critics. He seeks to influence the secular politics of capital punishment, immigration, and global warming while ignoring the theological poverty and spiritual corruption of the supernatural body of Christ. In all likelihood, Francis will precipitate a deep and destructive crisis in the Church. That’s been his modus operandi throughout his clerical career, evident during his tenure as Jesuit provincial in Argentina. Again, this is demoralizing.

One friend publicly announced his departure from the Catholic Church. Another friend tells me he won’t go to Mass in a church that protects the likes of McCarrick. Many others wonder how they can persevere as faithful Catholics when it’s increasingly clear that this pope is ­unworthy of their loyalty and respect.

That is not much of a pitch for becoming Roman Catholic.

But it so far superior to Protestantism that Reno would never consider becoming Protestant (even though he was one once upon a time):

Catholicism is the font of nearly all Christian witness in our societies (Eastern Orthodoxy provides some exceptions). Some of that spiritual potency has spun out of the orbit of the Church of Rome, to be sure, but it carries her DNA. As John Henry Newman observed as an Anglican, Catholicism “has ­preoccupied the ground.”

When one is lost, it is wise to retrace one’s steps and return to the starting point and begin again. This is why we need always to return to Christ, who is the Alpha and Omega, and to the apostolic fellowship that stretches from his Resurrection to the present in the continuous life of his bride, the Church. The more disoriented we are, the more we need to return to the original source of our faith, which in the West means drawing closer to the Roman Church. These are difficult times. But for precisely this reason, Catholicism is for me more essential. It is the source of consolation and strength amid our collective failures.

My counsel, therefore, is simple. In this season of corruptions revealed and teachings betrayed, we must not underestimate the sheer fact of the Church: the unceasing prayers of the faithful, the witness of her saints, and the reality of Christ present in the sacrifice of the Mass. The corporate body of Christ sustains us, even amid clerical betrayals, even in the face of our own doubts, mediocrity, and sin.

In this understanding of Christianity, corporate and institutional expressions matter. You need that visible continuity from Peter to Francis to see where Christianity is, to be in fellowship with Christ. When Protestants merely talk about spiritual continuity or spiritual succession, I imagine you get snickers in the editorial offices at First Things.

Except, Rome’s institutional edifice came way way after Jesus. The patriarchate of Jerusalem makes a much better claim to institutional/formal continuity with Christ than Rome (and what of Mormons’ claim that Jesus came to North America and minister here for centuries?). Plus, the Bishop of Rome himself did not begin to consolidate Christianity in the West until the seventh or eighth centuries — hardly the church Jesus founded, unless you want to appeal to the spirit of Christ’s founding.

Wait.

The oddest part of Reno’s lament and apology is what he says implicitly about the evangelical and Protestant writers, readers, and staff of his magazine. Protestants are second-class believers compared to Roman Catholics who have all the rock of Peter bling. At what point do Protestants object to such patronizing dismissal?

Advertisements

Make It Stop

Yet another conversion account with these un-Francis like asides from a former Dutch Calvinist:

I also realized that there was actually no real Protestant faith in itself. The Protestant faith was founded on a protest against a faith, the Catholic Faith. Why would I ever want to part of a “church” that was actually no church at all; one that was racked by division and founded on protest!

The blindness that had always covered me was now gone. I saw that there were countless Protestant denominations, and that they all disagreed with each other on at least one important point of doctrine. This defied the very nature of Truth itself, and rendered all of them imperfect. I finally saw that there must be an authority to clear the air, which I now understand is the See of Peter.

But these questions soon evaporated into joy:

Towards the end of the Vigil, when I saw a number of people receiving their First Sacraments, I knew God was calling me to do the same thing. Mother Church was opening her arms out to me, and even though I knew many crosses would come my way if I ran to Her, I could not resist Her love. Family members of mine would shun me, professors would shake their heads as I had received prestigious scholarships in the Reformed Theology department, my future would be so uncertain, and friends would laugh, but it didn’t matter anymore.

Why doesn’t the fine print of conversion include mention of a stop in purgatory?

Purgatory (Lat., “purgare”, to make clean, to purify) in accordance with Catholic teaching is a place or condition of temporal punishment for those who, departing this life in God’s grace, are, not entirely free from venial faults, or have not fully paid the satisfaction due to their transgressions.

The faith of the Church concerning purgatory is clearly expressed in the Decree of Union drawn up by the Council of Florence (Mansi, t. XXXI, col. 1031), and in the decree of the Council of Trent which (Sess. XXV) defined:

“Whereas the Catholic Church, instructed by the Holy Ghost, has from the Sacred Scriptures and the ancient tradition of the Fathers taught in Councils and very recently in this Ecumenical synod (Sess. VI, cap. XXX; Sess. XXII cap.ii, iii) that there is a purgatory, and that the souls therein are helped by the suffrages of the faithful, but principally by the acceptable Sacrifice of the Altar; the Holy Synod enjoins on the Bishops that they diligently endeavor to have the sound doctrine of the Fathers in Councils regarding purgatory everywhere taught and preached, held and believed by the faithful” (Denzinger, “Enchiridon”, 983).

Further than this the definitions of the Church do not go, but the tradition of the Fathers and the Schoolmen must be consulted to explain the teachings of the councils, and to make clear the belief and the practices of the faithful.

Temporal punishment

That temporal punishment is due to sin, even after the sin itself has been pardoned by God, is clearly the teaching of Scripture. God indeed brought man out of his first disobedience and gave him power to govern all things (Wisdom 10:2), but still condemned him “to eat his bread in the sweat of his brow” until he returned unto dust. God forgave the incredulity of Moses and Aaron, but in punishment kept them from the “land of promise” (Numbers 20:12). The Lord took away the sin of David, but the life of the child was forfeited because David had made God’s enemies blaspheme His Holy Name (2 Samuel 12:13-14). In the New Testament as well as in the Old, almsgiving and fasting, and in general penitential acts are the real fruits of repentance (Matthew 3:8; Luke 17:3; 3:3). The whole penitential system of the Church testifies that the voluntary assumption of penitential works has always been part of true repentance and the Council of Trent (Sess. XIV, can. xi) reminds the faithful that God does not always remit the whole punishment due to sin together with the guilt. God requires satisfaction, and will punish sin, and this doctrine involves as its necessary consequence a belief that the sinner failing to do penance in this life may be punished in another world, and so not be cast off eternally from God.

Venial sins

All sins are not equal before God, nor dare anyone assert that the daily faults of human frailty will be punished with the same severity that is meted out to serious violation of God’s law. On the other hand whosoever comes into God’s presence must be perfectly pure for in the strictest sense His “eyes are too pure, to behold evil” (Habakkuk 1:13). For unrepented venial faults for the payment of temporal punishment due to sin at time of death, the Church has always taught the doctrine of purgatory.

Can you really be so happy about the uncertainty that awaits 99.9% of those who have to make, grace-assisted of course, satisfaction for their sins? If perfection is necessary, how can the imperfect ever be perfect? Protestantism may seem like a legal fiction. But Rome’s fiction is moral. Alien righteousness matters and this convert doesn’t seem to know that her welcoming mother church not only rejects but condemns such teaching.

Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD?
And who shall stand in his holy place?
He who has clean hands and a pure heart,
who does not lift up his soul to what is false
and does not swear deceitfully.
He will receive blessing from the LORD
and righteousness from the God of his salvation. (Psalm 24:3-5 ESV)

Apples and Oranges

Bryan and the Jasons hang another scalp. But notice how anachronistic this conversion narrative is:

In American religion, the Evangelical community and the Presbyterian tradition specifically, there were various things happening that gave me pause to reflect. Several Reformed ministers and theologians I respected were dragged through the mud of the printing press and declared openly to be heretics by self-appointed theological judges. The blogosphere was a landmine of gossip and slander. These accusations brought to the forefront the problem of Biblical interpretation and the sufficiency of Scripture. One man’s heretic was another’s saint. I became angry and worried. The political climate didn’t help my moorings. The nation in general; conservatives and liberals in my own Reformed tradition were at each others’ throats. The Presbyterian world was fracturing into more splits as controversy after controversy began to wreck the Reformed world. Jesus had promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against the Church (Matt. 16:18) and it seemed like He was failing.

To complicate matters further, I learned of Dr. Frank Beckwith’s resignation from the Evangelical Theological Society to return to Rome and the “resignation” of Dr. Bruce Waltke from a prominent Reformed seminary over interpretations of Genesis. Jesus had promised that the Holy Spirit would lead us into all Truth (John 16:13), so how did all these splits in the Christian world occur, now numbering well over 20,000 (some estimate over 35,000)? How did I know where the “Church” was to be found? By the time I resigned from my presbytery in 2012, there were 48 splits, each claiming Calvin as their founder. One writer observed 22 different issues that keep Reformed Christians out of each others’ pews. As of this writing, views of theistic evolution, homosexual unions, female deacons, charismatic gifts, exclusive psalmody (in worship), liturgy, music styles, etc., only add to the problems and all using the same Bible.

The Sweater Unravels

I returned to my studies of Church history and started at the beginning: the apostolic fathers and Church fathers – both east and west and the development of the canon of Scripture. I was shocked by the letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch; though I had read them 20 years before, I never read them with Reformed glasses. There was nothing in those letters that sounded at all Presbyterian! In AD 95, why was Clement of Rome bypassing the authority of the Apostle John to settle a matter of discipline in the Church at Corinth, claiming the authority of Rome to be that of God? The more I studied the more I felt drawn but kept saying “This can’t be right.” So, I sought the wisdom of friends and mentors alike to help steer me through these troubled waters but on whose authority should I accept their observations or interpretations correct?

In 2010, my daughter and I attended the confirmation of a friend. I remember being impressed with the amount of Scripture heard during the Mass. I had been working on liturgical studies, so I was shocked at how similar the mass was to the Reformed liturgy at my parish.

In the middle of 2011, I read John Henry Newman’s “Development of Doctrine” and G.K. Chesterton’s works on his conversion. They both were Anglican converts to Catholicism and I wanted to know why. In the process, I learned of C.S. Lewis’ devotion to Mary, belief in purgatory and his habit of praying the Rosary, but yet, he never became Catholic.

So this fellow looks at contemporary Protestantism and compares that to the ancient church or to Anglo-Catholics. Where are David L. Schindler, George Weigel, Richard McBrien, Hans Urs Von Balthasar, Pope Francis, Joe Biden, John Courtney Murray, William F. Buckley Jr., Brent Bozell, the troubling debates over admitting divorced Roman Catholics to communion?

It’s like saying you still are an evangelical because of John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards. It’s like being an evangelical with a bishop in Italy.

Preaching the Great Commission

Even Purgatory:

Today at my parish we had a missionary priest from India. I am happy to say that after years of disappointment, it was refreshing to finally here a missionary actually talking about bring people to Jesus. To talk about salvation. It was wonderful. And he wasn’t a traditional order priest or anything; he was just a Novus Ordo diocesan priest. But he preached about the Great Commission. About the necessity of bringing Christ to people. About baptism. About India’s great Christian traditions, both those begun by St. Thomas as well that brought by St. Francis Xavier and the 16th century Jesuits. He offered actual spiritual insights that were relevant.

I remember recently on one of my travels I heard a priest saying how he was preaching on Purgatory at this parish. And afterward a woman came up to him and said, “I never really thought about it, but I think that was the first sermon I heard on Purgatory in thirty years!” I think the same is true with the necessity of bringing the Gospel to pagans. Maybe intellectually Catholics know the Great Commission is out there, but it is so seldom preached about these days.

This is no surprise. Muslims worship the same God. Jews are no longer in need of conversion. Protestants are brethren. Orthodox are not to be expected to return to unity with Rome. Aberrosexuals are not to be made uncomfortable in any way. Pagans are able to find God in their own rituals and mythologies. Given all this, one wonders who is left that actually needs to hear the Gospel. Mafioso and arms dealers, according to Pope Francis; but they are a lost cause because the pope has already said they are going to Hell.

The point is, you can’t mentally affirm one thing but act in a manner contrary to it for forty years. You can’t affirm the Great Commission is still a mandate while acting as if there is no particular class of people who actually need Christ and His Church.

What hath salvation to do with conversion?

The Less Worthy Bits of Puritanism

Maybe I am not philosophically inclined. Maybe I am too American and hence of a pragmatic frame of mind. Maybe I like cats too much. But if I owned a gun I would reach for it whenever theologians and pastors enter into realms speculative.

One of the areas of study I teach most prone to speculation is the way that theologians and philosophers relied on faculty psychology as if the will, motivation, choice, and affections are as easy to spot as the genitalia of an unborn child through a sonogram, or as if Sigmund Freud’s popularity owed to the ease of curing psychological woes.

Here’s an example of the murky realm surrounding faculty psychology upon which Puritans spilled so much ink:

Edwards’s psychology assimilated affections and will, motive and choice. The will (choice) was as the greatest apparent good (motive). Motive was choice or volition. Action followed choice, in appropriate circumstances, because God as the efficient cause, although human motive or volition might occasion action. (Bruce Kuklick, Churchmen and Philosophers, 100)

But get this. Not everyone agreed with Edwards, like Nathaniel Taylor:

Taylor’s psychology differed. For him, motives were distinct from choice or volition, and volition caused action. Taylor’s psychology was tripartite, consisting of the affections, will, and understanding; Edwards’s was dual, consisting of the affections (emotions/will) and understanding. (Kuklick, 100)

Is anyone willing to stake salvation on any of these — wait for it — speculations? Or is this plain as day?

But for Puritans, such speculations were part and parcel of the self-reflection that secured assurance of salvation:

Religious experience — in particular, conversion — involved a process which engaged all the faculties of the soul, but which was most deeply rooted in the affections. And the experience, whether in conversion or in the worship that followed, was one in which the believer acted, and was not just acted upon, in virtually every phase. . . . In the early stages of the process of conversion the Holy Spirit drew the chose to Christ, given that the man affected had been elected to receive what [Richard] Mather called the grace of faith (a phrase with Thomistic implications). Mather agreed with most Puritan divines that a man who had been consigned to Hell might experience the same feelings that gripped a saint in the first steps of conversion. . . . At this point the sinner becomes aware of his helplessness; and emptied of his pride he is ready for the knowledge of Christ, a knowledge that the law cannot convey. Comprehending this knowledge is the responsibility of reason, or understanding, but not exclusively so if the whole soul is to be renewed. . . . The knowledge must “affect” them in such a way that they approve and love it. At this point with all the faculties deeply informed, and moved, the grace of faith is infused by the Lord into the soul. (Robert Middlekauff, The Mathers, 64-65)

And your scriptural text is?

I understand the great debt that modern day psychology owes to Puritan speculations about the inner gears of the soul. But is that where Reformed Protestants with the Puritan fetish really want the legacy of Puritanism to go? Can John Piper generate enough earnestness to make any of this comprehensible?

Do We Need a Federal Agency to Regulate Religious Identity?

I was reading this piece over the weekend on home schooling and the author struck me with her use of identifications:

From its inception, the movement included both religious homeschoolers who sought to remove secular influences from their children’s lives, and secular homeschoolers whose motivations were based on beliefs about child development. After the Supreme Court ended state-sponsored prayer in schools in the early 1960s, Calvinist theologian R.J. Rushdoony began to urge parents to consider homeschooling as a means of protecting their children from the secular school environment. Ray Moore, a Seventh-day Adventist who had worked in higher education, began to promote homeschooling for a combination of religious and developmental reasons. Moore argued that homeschooling cultivated children’s natural curiosity and allowed them to learn at an individual pace, an argument that appealed to parents across religious lines. Education theorist John Holt echoed the developmental case for homeschooling in his magazine Growing Without Schooling, founded in 1977. Holt believed that the concept of school was inherently flawed: it created an artificial environment that isolated children from natural learning experiences.

The author’s point about homeschooling may or may not have merit, but why would she not identify Rushdoony as an Armenian-American, an Orthodox Presbyterian, or a Californian? Why Calvinist? And why is John Holt only an “education theorist”? Which extends to the questions of why journalists labeled the Charlie Hebdo killers Muslim or why President Obama refuses to. Why not call them Arab-French? In other words, how do you decide what someone is? What is their primary identity? If you choose to identify someone by an adjective that your readers find odd or unappealing, haven’t you signaled to readers that they need to beware?

These questions are a further reminder that everyone carries around multiple identities. A reporter or scholar may mention one of the markers that identify someone, but it is only a part of who the person is (and perhaps a caricature). The Christian Right has not helped on this. Thanks to neo-Calvinism’s logic of every square inch, the notion that I am anything less than 100% Christian is a betrayal of Christ’s lordship. But if a reporter talks to me about Muslims in America, does it make more sense to identify me as a scholar of religion in the United States than as an elder in the OPC? And when I go to the ballot box, do I go as a Calvinist, a Phillies fan, or an American citizen? Last I checked, Calvinists in Scotland and the Netherlands can’t vote here in Michigan. Is the reason because the U.S. denies Christ’s lordship or immigration officials are wary of Calvinism? Or is it that temporal criteria like residency and citizenship trump belief and church membership? Think “duh.”

A related question is how does a scholar or journalist judge whether a subject qualifies as Calvinist, Roman Catholic, or Muslim? Who gets to determine religious identity? Is it the subject’s own judgment, as in President Obama’s account of his conversion?

So one Sunday, I put on one of the few clean jackets I had, and went over to Trinity United Church of Christ on 95th Street on the South Side of Chicago. And I heard Reverend Jeremiah A. Wright deliver a sermon called “The Audacity of Hope.” And during the course of that sermon, he introduced me to someone named Jesus Christ. I learned that my sins could be redeemed. I learned that those things I was too weak to accomplish myself, He would accomplish with me if I placed my trust in Him. And in time, I came to see faith as more than just a comfort to the weary or a hedge against death, but rather as an active, palpable agent in the world and in my own life.

It was because of these newfound understandings that I was finally able to walk down the aisle of Trinity one day and affirm my Christian faith. It came about as a choice, and not an epiphany. I didn’t fall out in church, as folks sometimes do. The questions I had didn’t magically disappear. The skeptical bent of my mind didn’t suddenly vanish. But kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side, I felt I heard God’s spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering His truth and carrying out His works.

Or do church, parish, Vatican, or imams decide whether the labels that persons self-apply are valid? David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network said of Obama’s account, “That, ladies and gentlemen, is called a conversion experience.” I’m not sure Jonathan Edwards would agree. And as clerk of session, I am definitely not going to trust the judgments of a broadcasting network executive about genuine faith. Heck, I wonder if networks can be Christian (remember, no corporate salvation).

And what if churches inflate their numbers? Terry Mattingly, who quoted the president’s conversion account, indicates that Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago did not record President Obama’s membership. (Are the birthers asking for Obama’s certificate of good standing?) I suspect that many churches don’t scrutinize potential members very carefully and don’t keep accurate records of members.

What is the solution? We need a government agency to keep track of religious identity and to issue religious passports. Someone wants to know if I’m a Christian, I flash my government authorized paperwork. It works for voting, health care, banking. Why not church or mosque or synagogue life?

In the Same Boat?

Do Jason and the Callers concede what George Weigel admits, namely, that despite all the authority that they boast for their communion it turns out they have no episcopal oversight unless they are ordained. In comments about the media’s coverage of the sex abuse scandal, Weigel says:

Another fact that was missed is that reducing a man, an abuser, to the lay state persistently and, if you will permit me, mindlessly dubbed “defrocking,” a word which has absolutely no meaning in any known Catholic vocabulary, is often worse for both the Church and society. It’s worse for the Church because the Church has no way to control the man who has been laicized or reduced to the lay state, and it’s worse for society because that man cut loose from any possibility of institutional control by the institution in which he had spent some considerable part of his life might, therefore, pose a future risk because of what we know to be a high rate of recidivism in some of these cases.

How is this any different from a Protestant denomination or congregation except that Protestant apologists don’t go around boasting about the authority of their pastors and bishops?

In the same setting, Weigel raised yet another question about the gap between Jason and the Callers theory and Roman Catholic practice — in this case, whether the charism of apostolic succession can make up for ineptitude:

The second point that I would make is that if you are interested in doing real reporting among serious Catholics throughout the world, I think you will find something quite striking, and that is while there remains enormous, strong, emotional, and affective and personal support for priests, there are real questions about the competence of bishops throughout the Church.

No matter where I go in the world Church, North America, Europe, Latin America, the single biggest complaint I hear from engaged and intelligent Catholics is about the competence of the local bishop. Some of that is unfair, but a lot of it isn’t, and it speaks to a serious problem that the abuse crisis has brought to the fore.

Let me put that problem in historical terms. In the early 19th Century when the first Catholic bishops were being appointed in the then nascent United States of America, Pope Pius VII had a free right of appointment in perhaps 50 of the then some 600 dioceses in the world. The rest were controlled by governments, by cathedral chapters or other ecclesiastical organizations, but the Church did not have — the Church as embodied by its leadership in Rome — simply did not have control over the most crucial appointments in its ordained leadership.

One of the great untold stories of the success of Vatican diplomacy over the past 200 years has been to change that situation such that now with what is it, more than 5,000 bishops in the world —

. . . Five thousand and twelve bishops in the world, and with the sole exceptions of Vietnam and China, the Church has essentially a free right of appointment. So the Church has gathered back to itself after what some of us would consider this period of Babylonian captivity to state power in the appointment of bishops. It has regained the capacity to order its own house according to its own criteria.

And, in fact, this has been imbedded in the new code of cannon law, which says that no rights of appointment are to be given in the future to state authorities.

However, if you were going to claim the right to appoint, then you must also in my view own the right to dismiss, and this is perhaps the single biggest management problem in the Catholic Church today, is that we do not have a mechanism in place for dealing with instances of manifest incompetence or worse in the exercise of the local Episcopal office, and that problem in turn explains a large amount, I think, of the dissatisfaction of not marginal Catholics, but serious Catholics, regular Church-going Catholics, major donor Catholics, with local bishops, with the quality of the Episcopate throughout the world Church.

So here is another huge problem that has got to be addressed presumably in the next pontificate. How does the Church get the quality of leadership that the people of the Church deserve, and how does the Church deal with the problem of, frankly, failed appointments? When we get it wrong, how do we deal with this?

This has got to be addressed. I addressed it actually a bit in The Courage to be Catholic, and it’s perhaps a shining example of how little influence I have over things that none of this has had the slightest dent that I can tell on the way things are done.

But it’s a big, big problem, and it’s perhaps in the abuse crisis, if one is thinking about this over the long term, it’s the biggest problem that has come to the surface that will have real effect on the life of the Church and the life of the people of the Church for the next 50 to 100 years.

Do Jason and the Callers listen to other voices in their own communion — “we do not have a mechanism in place for dealing with instances of manifest incompetence or worse in the exercise of the local Episcopal office, and that problem in turn explains a large amount, I think, of the dissatisfaction of not marginal Catholics, but serious Catholics, regular Church-going Catholics, major donor Catholics, with local bishops, with the quality of the Episcopate throughout the world Church.”

They keep telling us they have a mechanism in place and regular Roman Catholics like Weigel say the mechanism doesn’t exist.

The fine print of Jason and the Callers’ call is that they raise the stakes of conversion. If you convert to mother church, they argue, you get so much more than a possibly subjectivized relationship with Jesus. But what happens if you don’t get all that? What happens if the church isn’t all that your theory says it is? What happens if the church isn’t the mechanism you say it is? Doesn’t that make conversion to Jesus in a setting where the church tells you that having Jesus is all you need — not worrying about whether the church’s claims for itself are audaciously true — a call that is much more compelling?

"We Told You So" – Jason and the Callers Newest Single

Apparently Jason Stellman thinks the historical arguments about Roman Catholicism are unfair if Protestants themselves don’t also have to answer arguments against their brand of Christianity. He might have a point if such Protestants were converts from Rome and continually banged the drum for the superiority of Protestantism to Roman Catholicism, all the while skirting such issues as the lack of institutional unity, the variety of interpretations of the Bible, or acting as if Augustine passed the torch directly and in the flesh to Luther. So far, I haven’t seen those blogs.

What I have seen, though, are Jason and the Callers ducking for cover whenever unpleasant historical incidents from Roman Catholicism show a less than attractive side to the church (and so make the conversion narratives look — let’s say — incomplete). Jason and Bryan Cross claim that they have repeatedly answered these objections. Jason does so by pointing to one — ONE!!! — post (too numerous to count) and Bryan does it by linking to a series of other links which take readers the same place the the Condor’s phone calls did when he re-patched the wires in Three Days of the Condor — for the cinematically illiterate — that is, nowhere. Jason and the Callers do not interact with the direct changes between, say Unam Sanctam and Vatican II on religious freedom and the separation of church and state, or with the conciliar tradition that antedates (according to leading medieval historians who are supposed to have the right paradigm) their preferred high (read: audacious) papalism, or anything about Edgardo Mortara and the Vatican’s place in Italian and European politics, or the Inquisition, or the Index of Books, of the Avignon Papacy and the Western Schism and the crisis of the papacy. Granted, they don’t need to answer each and every one. But talk about hand waving. When you promote something as the best there ever was, and then you find that the best was also responsible for some of the worst in Christian history, maybe you want to change your story?

So let’s clarify the issue. We have a blog, known as Called to Communion, where converts from Reformed Protestantism talk about the woes of Protestantism and how Rome solves all those problems. The converts who have posted there make historical claims but their history almost never includes the dark side of Roman Catholic history. Perhaps they don’t know the history. Or perhaps they are so keen to justify their switch that they cherry pick from the past. Here’s a sampling:

From Stellman himself:

Historically speaking, the idea that the written Word of God is formally sufficient for all things related to faith and practice, such that anyone of normal intelligence and reasonably good intentions could read it and deduce from it what is necessary for orthodoxy and orthopraxy, is not a position that I see reflected in the writings of the early Church fathers. While there are plenty of statements in their writings that speak in glowing terms about the qualitative uniqueness of Scripture, those statements, for them, do not do away with the need for Scripture to be interpreted by the Church in a binding and authoritative way when necessary.

From David Anders:

I began my Ph.D. studies in September of 1995. I took courses in early, medieval, and Reformation Church history. I read the Church Fathers, the scholastic theologians, and the Protestant Reformers. At each stage, I tried to relate later theologians to earlier ones, and all of them to the Scriptures. I had a goal of justifying the Reformation and this meant, above all, investigating the doctrine of justification by faith alone[…]

My first difficulty arose when I began to grasp what Augustine really taught about salvation. Briefly put, Augustine rejected “faith alone.” It is true that he had a high regard for faith and grace, but he saw these mainly as the source of our good works. Augustine taught that we literally “merit” eternal life when our lives are transformed by grace. This is quite different from the Protestant point of view[…]

No matter where I looked, on whatever continent, in whatever century, the Fathers agreed: salvation comes through the transformation of the moral life and not by faith alone. They also taught that this transformation begins and is nourished in the sacraments, and not through some individual conversion experience[…]

From Jason Kettinger:

I have made two perhaps frustrating assumptions: that the Church of Christ is visible, and that the Catholic Church today is that Church. I can only say that Petrine primacy was rather easily established from the Fathers, and that patristic authors on the Eucharist and apostolic succession cast more than a reasonable doubt on both the authority of my community to believe otherwise (and still be the Church) and the antiquity of those particular beliefs. Some might say that I have been a rebel from day one, and there is some truth in that. However, even as I actively investigated Catholic claims, and explored Catholic life, I never lost sight of Christ Jesus. I found Him there as I went; I pleaded with Him to guide me. I gave Jesus every question.

From Jason Stewart:

Going into this I had to admit that my familiarity with the actual works of the Fathers was limited. Thumbing curiously through a random volume from Schaff’s Patristics collection or culling a quote from Ignatius or Augustine or reading a history of early doctrine text for seminary coursework exhausted my contact with these ancient Christian authors. I had known for a long time that the Church Fathers did not share my Reformed theological vocabulary. But such was to be expected, I guessed. The Protestant Reformation with its precise theological formulations was many centuries away when these men wrote. So what (my thinking went) if Irenaeus or Justin or Augustine didn’t sound exactly like our Reformed creeds and catechisms? Yet now in examining their writings I began to sense that indeed there was something more profound at work than a mere difference in expression or emphasis. Was the Catholic claim right? Continued reading suggested that the actual theological substance of the Fathers was different. Certainly the Fathers didn’t seem at odds with the positive elements of the Reformation. But I noticed in my reading that they thought differently than did the reformers. Their approach to the Christian faith took another route. They seemed to cut an early theological path that when traced did not exactly connect to the one blazed by the reformers in the 16th century. I began to consider whether a person would naturally pick up the distinctive trail of the Protestant Reformation if one started with the writings of the early Church? The answer increasingly seemed to be no.

The pattern is pretty clear. Throw Protestantism aside by examining the past. The past in view is invariably the early church fathers, against which Protestants come up short. Then elide right into the idea that “this is the church Christ founded” and you have the early church as no different from Benedict XVI. Let’s just say, this is not very good history, but history is pretty crucial to the Callers’ understanding of their conversion. In which case, bringing up other parts of the past is entirely fair, and if the Callers can’t answer, then call David Barton.

In the conversion narratives I examined I saw only one that conceded Rome’s defects. Joshua Lim admitted:

As many Protestants warn, there are certain difficulties that the Catholic convert must necessarily face. The contemporary Catholic Church in America is far from perfect. Liturgically, there are, at least in Southern California, very few parishes that celebrate Mass the way Catholics should; there are numerous liberal Catholics who don’t submit to the Magisterium (to the delight of Protestants), the list seems endless.

That’s a pretty contemporary list (like Stellman’s), suggesting to me Joshua doesn’t have any idea about the difficulties between theory and reality from Roman Catholic church history.

Even so, Lim goes on to make it all better:

. . . none of this is actually new for the Church; things have always been so. These issues have not moved me from the conviction that the Catholic Church is the true Church; on the contrary, they have only increased my faith that this must be the true Church. If Christ could continue to work to build his Church with such a history of failings on the part of the laity, various priests, bishops, and even popes, surely this Church must be sustained by God himself. . .

By that logic, (and I’ve seen it several times at CTC in the comm box — this must be the true church because it is so flawed), Protestantism wins the argument. What, with 40k denominations, our fractured state has to be evidence that God is at work among us. You know, you will know them not by their love but by their errors and divisions?

But even then, Lim cannot avoid appealing to history:

. . . despite the passage of over two millennia, the Church continues to hold and to teach in substance what it has always held and taught. Unlike much of Protestantism which no longer believes what even the magisterial Reformers once held to be fundamental tenets of the faith (Trinity, inerrancy, etc.), the Catholic Church remains unmoved, not by virtue of her own strength, but by virtue of the grace of the Holy Spirit preserving the Church.

I understand the appeal of wanting to have it both ways — appeal to history but no responsibility for historical claims. But I had not heard that Rome’s authority extended to re-writing maxims that say you can’t.

Protestantism Isn't All Bad

Jason and the Callers do not say much good about Reformed Protestantism. They could possibly admit that the doctrinalist world of confessional Presbyterianism may have given them a taste for the theory greater than which none can be conceived — the visible church is the church that Christ founded. But they could also be a little more gracious. Rather than constantly counting the five digit totals of Protestant “churches,” they could, like Paul McCusker, give their Protestant backgrounds a little credit for making them the Christians they are:

It may surprise some that being a Baptist taught me to respect the authority of the church. I don’t mean the Church with the capital “C”, but the little “c” church, meaning an autonomous and local assembly with a Pastor (or pastors), a group of deacons, and the congregation. That’s the church we thought the New Testament was talking about. No Bishops, no Pope, no monolithic hierarchy with men dressed in funny clothes and hats (not counting Baptist conventions with all the polyester and toupees).

We believed our church was what Jesus Himself intended churches to be. Fallen, not perfect, but a church, doing what true First-Century-type believers did. That our church bore no resemblance whatsoever to the historical First Century church was something we didn’t know. Not that it mattered. Actually history meant very little when we could simply bypass the 2000 years and go to the Bible directly. At least our hearts were certainly in the right places.

Of greater importance, I learned that the local church was essential to Christian living, not merely the “optional extra” it seems to be now. There was no living the Christian life without it. A good Christian needed the church to survive spiritually. The church fed my personal spiritual life, which would, in turn, feed the church. That’s what it meant to be part of the Body of Christ, as we understood it. Going to Sunday School and Sunday morning service – and Sunday evening and Wednesday evening – and Awana on Thursday – and youth group on Friday – wasn’t a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. If I wanted to grow in Christ, then I needed to take my place in the church and all its activities.

I remember, as a teenager, skipping a Sunday evening service once. The Pastor’s wife later asked me why I wasn’t there. I honestly admitted that I didn’t feel like going. She asked, in that very Baptist way: “What if Jesus didn’t feel like going to the cross? Where would we be?” To which I replied, “At home, since there wouldn’t be a church if He didn’t go to the cross.”

She would have been within her rights to slap me.

I’ve mused that, considering the Baptist mantra of “Saved By Grace and not Works,” Baptists tend to be the hardest working people you’ll ever meet. It’s a funny thing. Catholics minimally have to go to Mass once a week and Confession once a year and they think they’re good to go. That’s pretty light stuff for a “Works-based” religion. Whereas Baptists could slide through Purgatory if only for the time they spent making chicken casseroles for the next fellowship, wedding or funeral. (If they believed in Purgatory. Which they don’t. Just to be clear about that.)

In another post, McCusker draws this contrast:

As a Baptist I truly believed faith without works really was dead. Fortunately, many of the “works” were done as part of “fellowship.” Few groups do “fellowship” as well as Baptists. They seemed to understand the importance of relationships to commitment and growth. After any service or event, the majority of people would hang around to “visit” for ages – adding a half-hour to an hour to the worship service experience. There was no rushing for the exit as soon as the final hymn ended or the last Amen said.

I have said in other contexts how it’s ironic that Catholicism is supposed to be about Community, but tends to be very individualistic (if one were to judge by the scramble to the parking lot even before Mass has truly ended), while Protestantism is supposed to be individualistic yet tends toward Community (if the crowds hanging out and talking in the lobby are an indicator).

It makes you wonder why he converted. It also makes you if it would kill Jason and the Callers to say something positive about Reformed Protestantism.

Conversions Gone Bad

News about Magdi Cristiano Allam, an Egyptian-born Muslim whom Pope Benedict publicly baptised at Easter five years ago in St Peter’s Basilica, leaving the Roman Catholic Church was the top story for a while yesterday at New Advent.

“My conversion to Catholicism, which came at the hands of Benedict XVI during the Easter Vigil on 22 March 2008, I now consider finished in combination with the end of his pontificate,” Mr Allam wrote on Monday in the right-wing Milan daily, Il Giornale.

The 61-year-old journalist and right-wing politician has long been an Italian citizen. He said he had pondered his decision to leave the Church for some time. However, he affirmed that the “last straw” was the election of Pope Francis, which he said was proof that the Church is “troppo buonista” – excessively tolerant.

“The ‘papolatry’ that has inflamed the euphoria for Francis I and has quickly archived Benedict XVI was the last straw in an overall framework of uncertainty and doubts about the Church,” he wrote.

Edward Peters responds to Allam’s announcement:

Maybe it’s just me, but this modern proclivity to parade one’s spiritual angst in the blogosphere is wearing pretty thin. Besides, as Chesterton remarked, there are a thousand reasons to leave the Church and only one reason to stay: It’s true. So, Magdi cited two or three reasons to leave the Church, and not reasons especially high up on the “Top 1000 Reasons To Leave the Catholic Church” list at that. Whatever.

If it wears thin when someone rejects the Roman Catholic Church, isn’t it a tad grating to have a blog dedicated to parading one’s new found epistemic certainty?