The Surprising Admissions Converts Make

David Mills tries to defend being casual about sin, though he rebrands it as familiarity:

In the Protestant world of my youth, nearly everything was a matter of life or death. The Evangelicals made your salvation a drama that depended on you making a decisive commitment. They loved the drama of a sobbing sinner stumbling forward at the altar call.

The mainliners didn’t sweat salvation the same way, but they made your social conscience almost as crucial. God expected you to respect picket lines, protest the war, protect the environments, eat union-grown grapes.

But the Catholics. Gosh, they didn’t seem to sweat anything. The few Catholics I knew — my college town had more Wiccans than Catholics — didn’t seem vexed by human sins, personal or social. They might like devotion and care about social causes, but they didn’t pursue them as intensely as the Protestants I knew.

Older people told me that Catholics had confession. They could axe-murder an entire middle school, go to confession, and Whoosh! they were okay. God was happy with them again. The axe murder? No big deal. Confession magically wiped the slate clean no matter what you did.

Except that the whoosh only got you as far as purgatory if you went to confession.

But now Mills sees the benefits of Rome’s lack of rigor:

After being a Catholic for a few years, I can understand why people think the Church is too casual about sin. I can be too casual about it. It’s easy to use confession as a forgiveness machine and the Mass as a medicine that cures you without your having to do anything. I know how easily you can presume on God’s love.

But that’s just the risk God chose to take when he gave us the Church and her sacraments. Our Protestant friends are not wrong in their criticism, but they miss what God Himself is doing through the Church. He flings his grace around, as we heard in last Sunday’s gospel reading. He lets some fall on rocky or thorny ground, so that some will fall on fertile ground. He gives us gifts we can abuse, because he wants to give us life.

What Mills fails to add (aside from the punishment for mortal sins) is that Protestants exalt Christ. To be hard on sin is to take seriously the cross. Christ died to save sinners from the penalty of sin. That shows that God was not very casual about sin. It also means Christ didn’t die to give sinners a second chance — in purgatory.

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Tying Yourself Up In Knots

Yet another reminder of ecclesiastical superiority:

I am Catholic because Catholicism is true.

It is not a little true.

It is not some truth mixed with error; if I wanted that, I definitely wouldn’t be here. I am Catholic because the Catholic Church is the only place you will find the fullness of Truth. It is for Truth that I became a Catholic, and it is for Truth that I will die a Catholic.

So what’s a truth-affirming Roman Catholic supposed to do with the historical circumstances that reduce credibility, like the Index of Books?

The Index dated back to the Council of Trent, where the Council Fathers sought to protect the faith and morals of the Catholic population by preventing the reading of heretical and immoral books.

Even before that, at the Fifth Lateran Council and earlier, in the ninth century, the Church attempted to ban books which were considered inappropriate reading. And restrictions on the public’s right to read have been imposed, not only by the Catholic Church, but by the Puritans in the original American Colonies.

I remember first learning about the Index at my mother’s knee. In hushed tones she spoke of a neighbor, a woman who scorned the Church’s guidance and dared to read the banned books. At the same time, she raised an eyebrow at the thought that some might ignore the Catholic Legion of Decency’s “C” (Condemned) rating for films or its secular equivalent, the Hayes Code.

If the church has THE truth, and if it puts out an index on THE errors, then isn’t it odd that truth affirmers may now read error? The reaction to the Index on the anniversary of its abolition (that’s right) is mixed. According to Simcha Fisher:

“My take? The Index was a very bad thing, and it’s much more in keeping with a developed understanding of conscience for the faithful to make their own decisions about what to read…. At the same time, it would be a very good thing if the faithful had a clearer understanding that they do have a duty to make careful decisions about what to read.”

David Mills counters:

“…the idea of an index only sounds funny to us because we don’t think of ideas as dangerous. We recognise physical infections but not intellectual ones…. In that, the advantage goes to the men who invented the Index and kept it going. They took ideas seriously. They thought some ideas would poison you just like nicotine-filled smoke and that some people who might innocently indulge should be protected from poisoning themselves.”

Kathy Schiffer takes comfort from everyone doing it:

the truth is that censorship exists everywhere—and that frequently, those most determined to limit ideas are those on the left. Censorship is at play when people would ban the name of God in a public meeting, obliterate the Ten Commandments on a courtroom wall, prevent schoolchildren from being exposed to the Bible in the classroom. Christian parents, in a case of right-triggered censorship, may applaud the removal of the lesbian-themed “Heather Has Two Mommies” from the elementary school library, while at the same time celebrating as a victory for free speech the inclusion of a prayer by the valedictorian at a commencement ceremony.

Even Luther:

The heretical priest Martin Luther, whose rejection of Catholic teaching triggered the Protestant Reformation, engaged in censorship of ideas which he found incompatible with his personal worldview. Besides his inclusion into the Scriptures of the phrase “faith alone,” Luther reportedly burned St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae—his seminal survey of things social and moral and theological—as well as his other works on the nature of God and the world.

Where does this leave the one who says he’s found the truth in Rome? It leaves him in an awkward spot:

But one thing I had solved was the authority of the Church to teach these things. I knew that the Church was protected by the Holy Spirit from ever teaching error. And so I said to myself: Well, if the Catholic Church can not teach any doctrine that is false, then any remaining problems that I have are my own error, and not the Church’s.

That was a key moment for me: the realization that I am not the arbiter of Truth. The Church is, guided by the Holy Spirit. I am not the Church’s teacher; the Church is my teacher.

Except that the teacher no longer instructs about which books are bad, and the same teacher lets students make up their own minds.

Can someone tell the apologists (that includes Bryan and the Jasons) to act like Vatican II happened?

Why Reform Won't Ever Happen

Old institutions are hard to change. They have their own culture. Big administrations are even harder to change. They have their own culture. Which is why I don’t think the Roman Catholic Church will ever become reformed. It’s too big, too top-heavy (and that’s why this announcement is important). But it’s also clear that the laity and the bishops don’t really want church life to change.

Consider the following:

“It’s an outrage,” Peter Saunders told the National Catholic Reporter, that Pope Francis appointed Juan Barros–a man accused of covering up and witnessing a priest’s acts of sexual abuse–bishop of Osorno, Chile. (Barros denies both allegations.) “That man should be removed as a bishop because he has a very, very dubious history–corroborated by more than one person,” according to Saunders, a member of the pope’s new Commission for the Protection of Minors, and a clergy-abuse victim. Saunders went so far as to say that he would consider resigning if he doesn’t get an explanation. He wasn’t the only commission member who was shocked by the pope’s decision. “As a survivor, I’m very surprised at the appointment in Chile because it seems to go against…what the Holy Father has been saying about not wanting anyone in positions of trust in the church who don’t have an absolutely 100 percent record of child protection,” said Marie Collins. On March 31 the Holy See announced that the Congregation for Bishops had found no “objective reasons to preclude the appointment.”

That did not sit well with Saunders, Collins, and two other members of the commission (there are seventeen in total). So they flew to Rome last weekend for an unscheduled meeting with Cardinal Sean O’Malley, president of the body. What a difference a day makes. “The meeting went very well and the cardinal is going to take our concerns to the Holy Father,” Collins told NCR on Sunday. . . . Cardinal O’Malley agreed to present the concerns of the subcommittee to the Holy Father.” That’s quite a bit different from decrying the appointment as an outrage. Did Cardinal O’Malley bring them back from the brink simply by listening? What’s going to happen after he shares their concerns with Pope Francis?

Tough to say. It’s not as though the pope is left with any good options. Leave Barros in, watch the Diocese of Osorno burn, and risk blowing up the sex-abuse commission. Remove him and earn the ire of the world’s bishops for giving in to the mob. (I wouldn’t downplay that worry; it would be widely viewed as a dangerous precedent.) Should the appointment have been made in the first place? I don’t think so. But it’s been made. And now that the Congregation for Bishops has announced that there is no objective reason not to have appointed Barros, the pope’s hands are pretty well tied. Do commission members appreciate that bind? I hope so. Because this already confounding case won’t be clarified any time soon. This may not be the hill they want to die on.

All that power, all that scandal, all that public outrage, and the liberal editors at Commonweal shrug? The pope’s in a hard place? Who said being vicar of Christ was easy?

But sure, condemn the Turks.

Update: since writing the above David Mills tries to cut through the seemingly endless defense of the papacy. Like a lot of former Protestants who have doctrine on their minds, he distinguishes between the popes’ offhand comments (and perhaps even weightier statements) and the catechism, which may help with the spiritual gas that attends the bloating that follows episcopal overreach:

The pope didn’t say that even atheists get to heaven by doing good deeds. Catholic Vote has a good explanation with links to others. He only said, quoting Brian Kelly, “there can be, and is, goodness, or natural virtue, outside the Church. And that Christ’s death on the Cross redeemed all men. He paid the price so that every man could come to God and be saved.”

And if he had said something like what my friend thought he’d said, he would have been saying only what the Church teaches in sections 846-848 of the Catechism. More to the point, given my friend’s allegiances, he would only have been saying what C. S. Lewis, a writer my friend admires, said at the end of The Last Battle, when Aslan explains why a warrior who had worshipped a false god was found in heaven (the passage is found here ). That’s not dumb, even if one disagrees with it. The Catholic wouldn’t need to twist himself into a pretzel to explain that idea, had the pope said it.

The Catholic Church isn’t that hard to understand. The Church herself has created a huge paper trail of authoritative documents designed to declare and to teach.

But this view of the church doesn’t take into account all those gestures and even instances where acts say more than words. What does it say that Francis appoints Juan Barros in Chile? What does it say that the pope is willing to condemn the Turks but not homosexuals? What does it say that worries about mortal sin don’t seem to come from the bishops’ lips while they are willing to pontificate (see what I did there?) on the environment, immigration, or Indiana? Does bloated come to mind?

And to top it off, David says that any political conservative should have a certain admiration for papal authority:

Of course, the Catholic will feel hesitant to criticize the Holy Father in public, as one would hesitate to criticize one’s own father in public. The Catholic will also first ask himself what the pope has to say to us that we need to hear, even if he said it badly. He will give the pope the benefit of the doubt. He will generally say, with regard to the Holy Father’s statements, “Who am I to judge?”

This is a disposition to authority my friend, a political and cultural conservative, would admire. And I think that if he weren’t talking about the Catholic Church he’d recognize it as such. Respect and deference are very different from being forced to twist yourself into knots trying to rewrite the pope’s statements. The people who might do that (were it needed) might do it from a natural sense of filial protectiveness, of the Church and her pope. That also my friend should admire.

Maybe for a Tory but not an American conservative. The founding was not about respect for monarchical kinds of authority — hello. It was about putting limits on government — checks and balances — and its instinct is a healthy distrust of people in power. Why? Because of sin and the tendency to abuse power. And this is why it is so baffling that Roman Catholics in the U.S. would become defenders of American government unless they want to go all 2k on us. Suspicion of government is something that so many Roman Catholics find difficult to fathom when it comes to the magisterium — which may also explain why so many of the Protestant converts are so little engaged in discussions about politics (except for the bits about sex) or why the Protestant converts who do do politics don’t seem to say much about the church.

David Mills may have an effective strategy for Protestants who don’t follow all the news that Roman Catholics create — just keep it to the doctrine and the worship the way good Protestants do. But the Roman Catholic church’s footprint is hardly doctrinal and liturgical. If that’s all it were, I might have more sympathy for David’s point. But has David ever wondered why the Vatican is about so much more than doctrine or worship or why Roman Catholics write so much in defense of every single thing the papacy does, such as:

Pope Francis’ comments on the extermination of Armenian Christians in early 20th-century Turkey prompted a strongly worded criticism from the Turkish Foreign Ministry and led to the withdrawal of Turkey’s ambassador to the Holy See. But what’s the full story?

As the April 24 centenary commemoration of the Armenian genocide approaches, tensions between Turkey and Armenia run high. Despite this, Pope Francis remembered the martyrdom of the Armenian people during his April 12 Mass at the Vatican.

The Turkish government criticized the Pope and an Armenian representative in a Sunday statement, focusing on the use of the word “genocide.”

Most non-Turkish scholars consider the mass killings of 1915-1916 to be a genocide in which the Ottoman Empire systematically exterminated its minority Armenian population, who were predominantly Christian. Roughly 1.5 million Armenians — men, women and children — lost their lives in ways ranging from executions into mass graves to meticulous torture.

Turkey has repeatedly denied that the slaughter was a genocide, saying that the number of deaths was much smaller and came as a result of conflict surrounding World War I. The country holds that many ethnic Turks also lost their lives in the event.

Pope Francis’ comments on Sunday set off a firestorm of criticism among Turkish leaders, prompting the removal of the country’s Vatican ambassador.

What could be lesser known, however, is that the Pope’s introductory remarks included a precise quote of the joint text that St. John Paul II and Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos Karekin II of the Armenian Apostolic Church issued on Sept. 27, 2001, during a papal visit to Armenia.

Lots of words and gestures, so little time for interpretation. So let the paying, praying and obeying interpreters interpret. Let them do to the teaching and actions of the magisterium what Protestants allegedly do with the Bible. Spin and spin and spin and spin away.