Monday, March 31, 2008

The Abuse Scandal

Did the abuse scandal make you hesitant at all about becoming a Catholic?

This is a very important question, Candice, since it has driven many away from the church, prevented others from 'coming home,' and served to support many mean-spirited prejudices.

The scandal - horrid as it is - had the opposite effect on me. It had the feel of persecution - that is, I felt that the Evil One must really hate the Catholic Church in particular so terribly much in order to prompt such devestating ruin, and the truth must really be there to resort to such an awful thing. Please don't misunderstand this: it doesn't in any way excuse the sick men who caused such harm. Nor does it overlook the mismanagement of bishops who failed to act promptly and properly. Their motives seem mixed: some were in denial, some saw how damaging it would be and loved the Church too much to see clearly what the right thing to do was, and I wonder if some arrogantly believed the church to be unaccountable to temporal authorities. Later, to their credit, responsible bishops correctly acted to protect good priests from spurious accusations and ensure due process. There is now a rigorous procedure in place to investigate any further reports of wrongdoing, and all workers who have any contact with children or youth (therapists, teachers, coaches, instructors in religious education (the equivalent of Sunday School) among others now go through vigorous training with certification that should be a model for other institutions like schools, gymnastics programs, private music teachers, whatever.

My further thought on this is that I'm hoping the experience has a purifying effect on the Church, a good outcome. Chastisement - in the form of ridicule, loss of property, and grief - can result in a deeper devotion and deeper understanding of the gift of human sexuality that is not to be perverted by any means: child abuse, extramarital relations, and so on - especially within a culture where sex is worshipped instead of the God who made us sexual beings. John Paul II's "Theology of the Body" arrived just in time; this is worth exploring another day, too.

Politically speaking, I think the media were perfectly right to cover the story, but blew it up in a sensational way. Sure, it is a "sensation" especially since you expect a higher standard of behavior from priests, in whom such a high trust is placed. The truth is that fewer than 3% to 4% of priests sinned in this way, lower than other people-helping professions such as schoolteachers. That's no excuse, of course, and (as I suggested above) the poor reaction of out-of-touch bishops - shuffling staff and shutting up - made it worse. But I think the media have it in for Christians and Catholics in particular (this, too, is worth another post some day). And they failed to present it a homosexual issue, preferring to portray it strictly as a child abuse issue. The Church rightly sees it as both and is addressing both with vigor. The sex-crazed sensualist culture sees the harm in child abuse but turns a blind eye to the homosexual aspect. The Church, to its credit, does not condemn homosexuals (even within the priesthood) but insists on chastity, which is the compassionate and Biblical response. The priests I've met grieve over their fallen brothers, and all are upright men.

That brings us to your next question about priests not being allowed to marry. Let's deal with this next time.

Grace and peace.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Catholic hurdles

Did you start, like I did, by researching those things Protestants typically find 'wrong' and 'non-scriptural'? What particular parts of Catholicism did you feel you may have problems with?

What parts? Gee, all of it. As an educated evangelical in the 'Reformed' tradition, I affirmed solo scriptura, solo fide -- Scripture alone, faith alone. The Catholic Church's teaching about something called "Sacred Tradition" in addition to Scripture - horrors - was a biggie. Hadn't Jesus castigated the pious Pharisees for basing their oppressive legalism on human traditions (Mark 7)? And instead of relying on heart-felt faith, it seemed Catholics depended on 'works' and 'earning merit', which negated the cross, and I never met a Catholic who had any assurance of forgiveness and eternal life -- just loads of guilt. I thought the Book of Romans had pretty much settled the issue of justification by faith apart from works, and Ephesians 2:8-10 seemed clear to me about the relationship of faith and works. Works remain important as an evidence for genuine faith and to live a life of love in service to others - but no one 'earns' their way into heaven (And I'll address both issues of solo scriptura and solo fide another day).

Oh, what else: the Mass as a sacrifice, Mary, purgatory, indulgences, a checkered history (The Inquisition, Crusades - the usual suspects), saints, the papacy, rote and repetitive prayers like the rosary, and what seemed to be a pervasive superstitious attitude about religious practices of other sorts all turned me off. Some of your questions later on deal with these in particular, so I'll get to them eventually. So, the answer is yes, I had a lot of hurdles - and very high ones. And the odd thing is that the things that were once impediments are now sources of deep rejoicing.

Why did you say in our last letter that you feel you've 'come home'?

I was raised Catholic (rather nominally) and tossed it all overboard when I was a young man, regarding it all as irrelevant hocus-pocus. But I genuinely came to Christ in college (or I should say, He came to me. Long story.)

I found a caring Christian community filled with intelligent people and grew there. The spiritual deadness I'd experienced in the Catholic Church convinced me at the time - and years after that - that the Catholic Church was no place to be if one wanted to grow as a Christian. My wife was also raised Catholic and had a much better experience, but we married outside the Church in a very formal Presbyterian ceremony - to her parents' great consternation - and lived as devoted Protestants for a long time. My wife's mother is gone now, but whenever I say something particularly "Catholic," my wife says "Helen is laughing" - referring to her devout Mom.

More than returning to my childhood roots, though, there is a sense that I have returned to the Church that Jesus founded and still loves, despite its flaws. I understand now why Catholics fondly call Protestants "separated brethren", but this separated one has returned. There is an organization set up for people like me called "The Coming Home Network" which specializes in assisting Protestant pastors and ministry professionals along this journey toward "full communion" with the Church. It is staffed by - you guessed it - former pastors of every sort who crossed the Tiber, and not without difficulty (they left their pastorates and therefore their livlihood). Their website is worth a look.

Your next question is about the terrible abuse scandal and what effect that had on my journey. I'll get to that next time.

Before I close, Candice, you might notice someone else has joined our conversation with an interesting comment/question which I hope I addressed satisfactorily and with charity. I'll be glad to reply to other inquirers, too, as long as the inquiries are sincere and in good faith.

Grace and peace.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

The Sacramental Life

Candice, this is the second major reason for my "reversion." It is, admittedly, the more personal aspect (though it also has strong theological underpinnings). I had reached a point (reaching 50 did it, I guess) where I longed for a more direct experience of God in my life. An intellectual sort (have you noticed?) I knew a lot after years of Biblical study, pondered much, read widely. But I wanted more of a heart relationship as well as the head relationship. And for all the talk among evangelicals about 'having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ,' I wasn't feeling it as fully as I wished. Not that I was cold, or dry, or anything like that. I had a deep inner life. I knew there was more. I read (of course) the work of poet-scholar-pacifict Thomas Merton, an intellectual and Trappist monk from the 1950s-60s (who went to Columbia University as I did) and I developed, in my imagination, a friendship with him. His exploration of the contemplative life, recorded in his extensive journals and letters, moved me. And I began to read more of the Catholic mystics - Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, and others - with a clear (and cautiously skeptical) mind. I learned new ways to pray - not getting weird, not at all - but discovering ancient Christian ways of reading Scripture (lectio divina) and praying as developed by the Church Fathers and Desert Fathers and Mothers. I went on retreats to monasteries and was struck by the rhythm of the Divine Office and the chanting of the Psalter. I wasn't thinking of becoming Catholic - just becoming a deeper believer with a stronger connection to my spiritual heritage. But to my astonishment, I was indeed becoming more Catholic in my sensibilities. I began to think less about "having a relationship with Christ" and more about "being in union with Christ," which is more Biblical (as it turns out) and a conceptual step above mere 'friendship' with Christ (a term
I hear more from Catholics than Protestants, by the way). This 'union' is wonderfully intimate, to the point where marriage itself is a physical - yes, sacramental - metaphor for the union Christ desires to have with us and His Bride, the Church. The way this union is maintained - no, deepened - is through the sacraments, which are physical 'contact points' with Him. Call them 'portals to the divine' if you like, as long as it doesn't get science-fictiony.

But this is only one aspect of 'sacramental' spirituality. The other is in seeing all of life as sacramental, in a way - where the extraordinary glory and goodness and grace of God can be apprehended in the ordinary if one is paying attention, building awareness, staying quiet long enough to listen. It's a holy mindfulness of God at work around us all the time - if we'd only detach ourselves from all our distractions to notice. This is not woo-woo stuff. It's about being fully awake. It's about recognizing the unseen in what is seen. And this is why 'the sacraments' are so physical. God is invested in matter (He made it and called it good) and uses material things to signify what is eternal. So water is used in baptism, bread and wine in the Eucharist, and so on. I'll answer your questions about specific sacraments another day.

For now, let me conclude by saying I began watching certain speakers on EWTN such as Dr. Scott Hahn and I'd think, "These guys sound like evangelicals!" when in fact I was becoming more Catholic. As it turns out, many of these guys were once devout evangelicals - most of them pastors - who had become Catholic through a similar journey as mine. I re-read CS Lewis and realized how Catholic he was (he nearly became one but opted to remain "Anglo-Catholic," a highly sacramental Anglican who went to confession weekly and had a private devotion to Mary that few people know about). I discovered that many of my favorite literary figures were Catholic or Catholic converts. What is happening to me? I asked with some measure of distress. So I explored my traditional stumbling-blocks - many of which you've mentioned in your questions and I'll get to them later - and these got resolved. I finally gathered the courage to attend Mass, I sat in the back row trembling - and was transported.

Next time, I'll begin to address the things Protestants typically find 'wrong' or 'unbiblical' about the Catholic Church. At some point, I'll address what honest non-believers have a problem with regarding Christian faith in general. Thanks for your patience.

Grace and peace.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

A Question of Authority

What drew you, after nearly 35 years as a Presbyterian, to the Catholic Church?

The true - but it will sound trite - answer is that the Holy Spirit drew me. But I understand the aim of your question, Candice: why Rome, as opposed to any number of other Christian options?

The answer is simple: the fullness of the truth is there. I know this may sound arrogant, and it did to me for a long time. In fact, I believed for the longest time that there wasn't much truth there at all, and that Catholics had gone wrong a long time ago. This is openly taught in many Protestant churches (where, in some, there is even hostility, calling the Catholic Church "the whore of Babylon," an image from Revelation). But to say 'the fullness' is there doesn't mean that other Christian traditions are completely in error. The key word is 'fullness.' Maybe it should be, "The full splendor of the truth" is there, bringing to fullness everything foreseen and foreshadowed in the Old Testament in its theology, liturgy, and spirituality.

It isn't that I and my wife went "church shopping" (a peculiar American term - even our religion is about being consumers) after becoming more disappointed with the growing accommodation of the Presbyterian church to the secular culture and decided to settle here for now. In fact, I'm very grateful for our experience in all the Protestant churches we've been part of, and I respect those who remain in those traditions. But this leads me to the two main reasons for becoming Catholic: the issue of authority, and a desire for the sacramental life.


Conservative Protestants affirm the authority of scripture for doctrine and practice, rightly so, and the Reformers proclaimed 'solo scriptura,' that is, 'scripture alone' - any questions about doctrine or practice should be ultimately grounded in Scripture. The key word is ultimately. A problem arises when there are multiple interpretations of scripture (apart from healthy literary interpretation) resulting in splits. The "ultimate" authority then passes from Scripture to the one reading it or preaching it. There are now 20,000 Protestant 'denominations' and new ones form all the time because of differences in interpretation. Is communion merely a symbol or is Christ present sacramentally, and if so, in what way? Should homosexuality be normalized and avowed gays allowed to marry? This issue is splitting the Episcopalians and Presbyterians today. These are only two issues - one sacramental, one social - that result in the parting of ways. So the basic issue is: where does the authority truly reside? Most Americans today might say, if they recognize the authority of Scrtipture at all, that the authority to interpret it is in each individual. Hoo-boy! And how culture-bound. Thus, 'denominations' are just groups of individuals who all happen to interpret everything the same way - well, until there's a disagreement. Then like-minded individuals will break away and form a new 'group.'

Interestingly, the scripture itself provides the answer: First Timothy 2:14 says that "the Church is the pillar and bulwark of the truth." How can this be? Consider how, for a long time, there were no scriptures of the "New Testament" at all. Paul's letter to the Thessalonians is the earliest piece, about 50 AD, and Mark is composed somewhere near the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans in 70 AD. John is one of the latest, perhaps 80-90 AD, and 2 Peter, which barely made it into the canon, is probably much later (circa 150 AD) and written by a disciple of Peter, not Peter himself. These documents were hand-copied and passed around and came to have the same authority as the apostles who wrote them (or who were close to an apostle, as Mark was to Peter, and Luke to Paul). The authority of the documents derived from the authority of the apostles who knew Jesus and who had been commissioned by Him personally. When many spurious documents came out bearing apostles' names and claiming apostolic authority, the Church had to come together and decide which documents had apostolic authority and which ones didn't and which - being questionable - could be recommended but not recognized either as 'inspired' (guided by the Holy Spirit) or apostolic (such as the Didache and The Shepherd of Hermas). The upshot is this: the scriptures as we have them today have their authority by virtue of the fact that the real authority resides in the church that acknowledges apostolic succession. It is the Church that gave us the scriptures. The Church came first, the scriptures later (I'm not speaking of the Hebrew Scriptures, which were accepted from the beginning, as noted by Jesus' frequent quotes from them and 2 Timothy 3:16). In a manner of speaking, the scriptures are part of the handed-down oral tradition and teaching of the Church (as plainly said in 2 Thessalonians 2:15 and First Corinthians 11:2). It is also the Church that, through a series of councils, resisted Arian, Persian and other 'pagan' interpretations, and settled certain doctrinal matters (such as the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, and so on) resulting in the creeds which are 'bottom-line' statements where every line was prayed over and fought over. This is why, for Catholics who understand church history better than anybody, authority resides ultimately in The Church which Jesus established, appointing Peter as its first head. The unbroken line of apostolic succession continues to affirm the authority of the Church (were there bad popes? Sure. Multiple ones at times? Yup. But the current one can trace the laying-on-of-hands directly back to Peter and Jesus). Is the Bible still inspired and authoritative? Of course, and every educated Catholic will tell you so. But no Catholic is at liberty to decide what to accept or reject or what spin to put on a passage to match one's personal preferences (such persons are called "cafeteria Catholics" - picking and choosing what to accept, based on current cultural trends and one's personal tastes). Authority resides in Christ's Church. The collection of settled matters over the years is called "Sacred Tradition" which does not add to Scripture but preserves the deposit of truth which the Church protects and proclaims, unchanged (again, I appeal to 2 Thessalonians 2:15 and hasten to add that "Sacred Tradition" isn't the same as 'the tradition of the elders' that Jesus rebuked religious leaders about in Mark 7:8,9). It is this historical continuity that is attractive, too. The Catholic Church (and Eastern Orthodox churches) go back to the very beginning. British intellectual and convert John Henry Newman said that no Protestant can be a student of history and remain a Protestant. In my case, he was right. As I read Ignatius, Polycarp, Clement, and other early Church "Fathers" who received the faith directly from the original apostles, the more the Catholic Church looked like the authentic New Testament church - to my great surprise.

The second major factor in my decision - the pursuit of the sacramental life - will be the topic of my next posting.

Grace and peace.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Why Catholic

I'm quietly circumspect about my faith at school, where it isn't appropriate to be very forward about it for many reasons. Even in my course, "The Bible as Literature," I strive to be discrete and, as is proper, respectful of all perspectives, maintaining an objective tone. But a student who learned about my faith journey emailed me some questions regarding Catholic beliefs and practices, and I'll share my answers here in case anyone else might share this student's polite curiosity, wondering why a Presbyterian academic would choose, late in life, to "cross the Tiber." I apologize in advance for generalities that such a small space may force. I'll spread out the questions-and-answers over a few days, so that there isn't a large chunk of text in the posting.

I'll call the student "Candice" -- it's not her real name.

Dear Candice:

My, what a fine list of thoughtful questions! I'll get to them all, though perhaps not all at once. And I completely understand your comment about how odd certain practices can appear to those unfamiliar with them when visiting a Catholic church as you did, and seeing all the bowing, kneeling, and the use of 'sacramentals' such as 'holy water' and rosaries. Your reaction is quite polite -- many devout Protestants, unfortunately, misunderstand some Catholic practices and dismiss them out-of-hand as empty ritual, as superstitious, or even as idolatrous.

We must admit one of the first things a believer from a Protestant background notices is that for so many people in the pews all of these external practices are, well, external. Habitual. To be fair, the same can be said for Protestants who warm pews dutifully but do not have a well formed or well-informed faith. But there's something else going on here: for many Catholics, 'being Catholic' is like 'being French,' or Swedish or Jewish - it is akin to an ethnic identity. They'll say they were "born Catholic" (the term is "cradle Catholic"). It's a cultural identity, and they are very sensitive about this. Even if they are 'lapsed' or 'non-practising' or Catholics-Behaving-Badly, they define themselves as Catholic by virtue of parentage and their infant baptism. This is very off-putting to many Protestants (I speak of conservative, faith-filled, Bible-believing ones) for whom a conscious and individual response to Christ, preferably in adulthood, is all important. By contrast, Catholics emphasize community, and this is one of the underlying sensitivities that divides Catholics and Protestants culturally. For evangelical-type Protestant Christians, the focus is largely on the 'individual' - partly a legacy of the Reformation and Enlightenment periods' emphases on this idea - whereas for Catholics, the emphasis is on the group (this may be one cultural reason why so many evangelicals are Republicans, who emphasize individual ownership and responsibility, and why many Catholics are historically Democrats, where the emphasis is on shared responsibility and communities - but I digress).

Obviously, Protestants don't ignore community altogether. Nor do devout Catholics deny the need for a "personal relationship" with Christ (a favorite Protestant phrase, though one used often by Pope John Paul II). What I'm describing is a subtle cultural assumption that expresses itself in subtle ways. For example, the preferred creed in Protestant services is the Apostles' Creed, which begins, "I believe in..." In the Catholic Mass, the Nicene Creed is used, which begins, "We believe in..." See that? It's small, yet significant, I think. Both traditions use both creeds; there's no doctrinal divide here. Instead, the difference, though seemingly minor, carries import. Evangelicals talk about making an individual decision and "inviting Christ into your heart." For Catholics, the initiative is quite the other way -- Christ has invited us into His heart, and into His Church, which is His mystical body.

So why am I starting with all this? It's because Protestants encounter a bit of "culture shock" when visiting Catholic churches. Part of it is due to this individual/community difference, which affects everything: liturgy, theology, politics - the works.

On a less theoretical level and a more concrete one -- it isn't the comparatively quiet liturgy that surprises visitors (in fact, it is this contemplative reverence that is attractive) so much as the way many people in the pews seem rather disinterested. Perhaps the most curious thing to believers from conservative Protestant backgrounds is discovering how thoroughly unfamiiar good Catholics are with the Scriptures despite hearing it read every week from the pulpit and within the liturgy. Even so, I have found the most radiant, deep, intelligent and warm believers in this small town church where I am, and the pastor (whose PhD dissertation was on "the image of God" and who is a highly respected bio-ethicist) always has a word from God for me.

Well, to your specific questions:

What drew you, after nearly 35 years as a faithful and theologically-conservative Presbyterian, to the Catholic Church?

(the reply next posting).

Sunday, March 23, 2008

At Table: A Poem

In recognition of Easter Sunday:

Dionysus brought the wine,

Demeter brought the bread.

(Athena would have dined but

she was still in Zeus's head).

Apollo lit a candle

with his finger and he said:

"At first I did not recognize

you, risen from the dead."

The Host smiles warmly, takes the cup,

and lifts it overhead.

"The Hebrews had the prophets

and you had yourselves, instead.

When Hercules, for love,

went down to Hades for his bride;

or you, a son of god,

defeated Python in his pride,

These were but shadows on the wall

of Plato's cave, so cast

by higher, firm realities

though dimly seen at first.

Isaiah uttered oracles

and David sang withal,

but you had stories, pointing to

The Truest Tale of all."