The Dilemma

On the one hand, Roman Catholicism is nothing without the papacy:

There is nothing more distinctly Catholic than the papacy. While just about every other Catholic belief can be found in at least some other Christian denominations, our beliefs about the papacy are unique. Nobody else believes that the bishop of Rome has jurisdiction over the entire Church or that he can infallibly define dogmas; only we do. As a result, these doctrines are essentially what make us Catholic rather than Protestant or Orthodox, so they are extremely important for us.

In addition to the papacy, you need the magisterium:

There is agreement among all Christians that Holy Scripture is the Word of God. But since this Word is conveyed in human language, it does not have the evidence (quoad se—in itself) that the Protestants want to attribute to it. Rather, there is need for a human interpretation on the part of the teachers of the faith whose authority comes from the Holy Spirit. Toward those who hear the Word of God, these teachers represent God’s own authority, making use of human words and decisions (quoad nos—to us). The task of authoritative teaching and governing cannot be left solely to the individual believer who in his or her conscience comes to accept a certain truth. After all, revelation has been entrusted to the Church as a whole. Therefore, the Magisterium is an essential part of the Church’s mission. Only with the help of the living magisterium of the pope and the bishops can the Word of God be passed on in its integrity to the faithful and to all the people of all times and places.

On the other hand, you endure clericalism:

Clericalism affects the whole church. It has been accepted and even lauded by clergy as if it is an anticipation of the Kingdom yet to come. Its hold on us rests comfortably in the symbolic imagination of Roman Catholicism and the Orthodox churches of the East, at once their charm and their curse. That structure must be radically reviewed and reformed if the faith and hope and healthy life of the church are to be revived. As a Quaker colleague once put it to me: “What American adult wants to belong to a church in which he is treated as a child?” Clericalism infects the other Christian churches to a lesser degree and variously, but the Roman Church has simply collapsed under its weight.

According to some, there is nothing to be done about the crisis because the clergy-lay distinction is a matter of the divine will; in other words, “It’s Tradition, a very, very, very old Tradition!” Or could it be that there is something that can and ought to be done that is so radical and church-embracing, so chilling, that it is beyond clerical contemplation? If indeed clericalism is the problem, then the solution is the elimination of that division between clerical and lay Catholics. I am not opposed to leadership, to authority, to structure, to ministry, even to its three-tiered Roman Catholic articulation, but I am opposed to its sacrality and its sanctification. I suppose I am now advocating anti-clericalism, an instinct almost as old as clericalism itself, a historical protest against what the priesthood has done to the church (and a lot for the church, it must be said) through nearly two millennia. Can we count on the clergy to eliminate clericalism? Or the bishops? Or the pope? Not likely! They may badmouth it on occasion, much to their credit. But undo it? Never.

Protestants did not fix this, but they did localize church government. The downside for Protestants is a lack of unity. The upside is not having to act like the apostles’ successors know how to interpret the Bible better than you (as long as you know Greek and Hebrew).

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The Protestant Dilemma Writ Catholic

Devin Rose thinks he found all the dilemmas that haunt Protestants (and that led him to Rome). But has he along with Jason and the Callers really escaped the thicket of difficulties.

On the one hand, having a written basis for determining church teaching really comes in handy (as opposed to the slippery way that oral tradition or papal whim might operate. According to Gerhard Cardinal Mueller:

Not even an ecumenical council can change the doctrine of the Church, because her Founder, Jesus Christ, entrusted the faithful preservation of his teachings and doctrine to the apostles and their successors. The Gospel of Matthew says: “Go and teach all people everything that I commanded you” (cf. Mt 28:19–20), which is nothing if not a definition of the “deposit of the faith” (depositum fidei) that the Church has received and cannot change. Therefore the doctrine of the Church will never be the sum total of a few theories worked out by a handful of theologians, however ingenious they may be, but rather the profession of our faith in revelation, nothing more and nothing less than the Word of God entrusted to the heart—the interiority—and the lips—the proclamation—of his Church.

We have an elaborate, structured doctrine about marriage, all of it based on the words of Jesus himself, which must be presented in its entirety. We encounter it in the Gospels and in other places in the New Testament, especially in the words of Saint Paul in the First Letter to the Corinthians and in Romans.

On the other hand, the dilemma for all Christians is whether they will submit to religious authority. This includes Roman Catholics and Protestants:

The hallmark Protestant idea of priesthood of all believers allows the individual — whose relationship with God is unmediated — to determine his or her fitness to receive the sacrament. The Catholic Church, meanwhile, retains a few layers of priestly and catechetical scrutiny.

Last week at the synod, Cardinal Andre Vingt-Trois of Paris worried that couples “do not believe that the use of contraceptive methods is a sin and therefore they tend not to speak of them in confession and so they receive Communion untroubled.” Perhaps because married women might think it inappropriate to be questioned about contraception by a cadre of celibate men.

Either way, confessors tend not to press the issue, and no one pulls married couples out of the Communion line. Few believe a solid majority of Catholic women or their husbands will burn in hell for using artificial contraceptives.

In the case of cohabitating couples, there is little the Church can do. Marriage preparation classes acknowledge its sinfulness, but priests and bishops cannot afford to turn away half of what is already a declining number of couples seeking marriage in the Church. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops advises that priests can point couples toward a holier union by “supporting the couple’s plans for the future rather than chastising them for the past.”

Yet even for Catholics whose relationships put them in a perpetual state of mortal sin, individual conscience and church authority are often in fierce tension. In practice, LGBT Catholics often rely on their own consciences in determining whether they will go forward for Communion. In some locales, it is common enough for partnered gays and lesbians to receive Communion that it only makes news when they are turned away.

Meanwhile, Bryan Cross and company have yet to recognize a dilemma that cost a night’s sleep.