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Theological Notebook/Personal: From Catholicism to Evangelicalism to Catholicism

From a letter from simeonjawn:
I have a few questions about your journey in Catholicism. I recall reading that you were an Evangelical Christian at one point in your life. I was wondering what prompted your change and how you began to accept Catholic beliefs that are contrary to Protestantism. The reason I ask is ... a few issues came up that always frustrate me. They are the place of Mary, deceased saints interceding on our behalf in response to the livings requests, papal infallibility and indulgences. Typical Protestant arguments. ( I don't have a problem with transubstantiation and the importance of the sacraments in spiritual life for some reason). I was wondering if you had similar problems and how you came to overcome them, if you ever did. (I have gotten the impression that you are not sold on the Marian doctrines).
I'll have to deal with a lot of this in greater detail in my forthcoming autobiography, I Thought It Was Funny: An Apology for Everything I've Ever Said or Done, so you'll forgive me if my treatment here is brief. The quickest sketch of the timetable of my life is that I was raised in an Irish-American Catholic household, the importance of all of those adjectives having become increasingly apparent to me over the years. I really didn't think much about religion, in a typically teenaged way, but when I found myself reading the New Testament documents in their entirety, I realized that if what it reported was true, "it changes everything," as I said to my friends. The understanding that the call of Christ was directed at me finally broke through and I consciously became a believer, a convert from apathy, as I would put it. Undergraduate years passed in a more-or-less Evangelical state, but as an Evangelical who was reading ancient (and some medieval) Church History and theology on the side of studying ancient and intellectual history. Graduate studies, mostly oriented toward patristics/historical theology at Notre Dame came at a time where I realized over time that I was really a Catholic afterall.

So what changed, you ask? The first thing that had to be dealt with was not so much "Catholic beliefs that are contrary to Protestantism," but a Protestant belief that was insufficient to the truth of the situation, as I concluded. That is, Protestantism, particularly Evangelicalism in its contemporary forms, are anchored in a belief in the Scripture as the Inerrant Word of God. What I ultimately concluded, in reading the Scriptures with that openness to their authenticity, was that the Scriptures didn't actually teach the Evangelical doctrine or theology of the Scriptures. There was too much diversity of theologies, too much perspectival tension, to really support such a reductionistic, uniform understanding of the Scripture. I needed an understanding of the Scriptures that was more true to their nature, I felt. Reading George Marsden's (the premiere scholar of American Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism) book Fundamentalism and American Culture: 1870-1925 had contextualized Evangelical theology in a way that I hadn't understood before, and it was revelatory to me to see that this way of reading and understanding Scripture was native to the 19th century: clearly, claiming a universal authority for that theology--even denying it was a theology--no longer would work. The dominance of dispensational visions of the end times in the kind of theology I was receiving in Evangelicalism was also qualified by Brian Daley, SJ's The Hope of the Early Church: A Handbook of Patristic Eschatology. The Bible was clearly bigger than the Biblicists made out.

That conclusion was probably the most significant in all this. Perhaps a key psychological nuance that has helped me throughout, as I look back at the process, is that I have remained dedicated to searching for the truth, and not to "being right." That is, you can easily get in a mindset where you have reached a conclusion, and you set out to defend that. But then your commitment is to the position, not to the truth. They may be the same, but they may not. Coming to such a position really impedes processing new information and being open to new insight. If Christianity is true, I figured, I and it had nothing to fear from any question whatsoever. If it wasn't true, Christianity's ethics--oddly enough, to put it this way--would be the first to encourage me to move on. But what I learned as a historian continually reinforced my confidence in the truth of Christianity itself, but it also meant a having constant willingness to abandon previous understandings of it and to move to more nuanced, complex, or sometimes less confident and more tentative positions. So post-conversion fundamentalism (more-or-less) quickly gave way to a much more moderate Evangelicalism for a number of years, and then eventually a return to a Catholicism that I had verbally and emphatically rejected years before. So I was wrong--big deal. God had His laugh at my expense, I had to admit He'd had his joke and move on. Being continually wrong, as it were, is the flipside of growing more close to what's right, to the truth.

So what about these specific details of Catholicism you mention? The modern Marian dogmas of the immaculate conception and of the assumption are real stumbling blocks for a lot of Protestants. To some extent that is for the issues themselves, and to some extent that is because of just a Protestant tradition of inflaming that particular division, I think. Even in the Catholic landscape, they appear, to a certain extent as historical oddities. The idea of the immaculate conception seems utterly dependent on holding to an Augustinian notion of original sin--so it might be unintelligible in a different theological formulation of that issue--and so it is among the Orthodox, who share with Catholicism the formative Patristic period. But this language is not there, and attention to Mary's conception arises in a later, distinct Western medieval milieu and so isn't characteristic of the entire Catholic tradition. The Assumption is first hinted at in an esoteric, hesitant way in 375 by Epiphanius, but doesn't come into its own until later. Either way, neither of the ideas touches on creedal matters, so even if spot-on infallible, I still can't see that they are of much actual importance. They both seem to develop out of a milieu where the overwhelming idea is one of "fittingness:" that it is fitting that Christ come into the world through a "vehicle" unstained by sin, that anything else would be "unfitting." In fact, yes, personally I cannot see a problem in this: Christ as the Incarnate Word is forever fitting and unfitting, should his mother have been the most heinous of sinners, I don't see that it would invalidate or harm his identity or mission in any way. If the overwhelming concern in the development of these doctrines was one of purity, that's fine. But it makes Mary much less relevant to me, for then she is not human in the same way that I am. If biblical evidences point to a very different picture of Mary as the mother of several children, with a normal marriage and human life, who is blessed by God in an extraordinary way, despite her lack of purity--like all the other saints--then that picture seems to have a great deal more appeal to the spirituality of many people today. Either way, as I said, it is not a creedal matter, and Christianity neither stands nor falls with whatever one believes on this. The Catholic Church in its modern innovations has made it dogma, and so the ideas certainly demand my respect as a non-all-knowing member of the Body of the Church. Certainly in the form they are little more than variations on the much broader dogmas of redemption and sanctification or divinization for the Immaculate Conception, and of the Resurrection of the Body for the Assumption. In this way, they are really more derivations of or articulations of specific, already-received dogmas, as regarding a specific person. Unlike the resurrection of Jesus, there is no historical evidence for these, whereas the absolutely explosive impact of the idea of Jesus' resurrection is immediately and overwhelmingly evident in ancient history. Again, they seem motivated by the concerns of later Christian theological themes coming together in people's spirituality. Certainly they aren't heretical ideas: they don't undermine any of the ancient dogmas of the Church, ultimately. So I think that if those are all that constitute a stumbling-block in moving toward Catholicism, they need not. Assenting to them as part of the accepted beliefs in the Church--even if they should remain personally unintelligible--need not affect one's beliefs in any creedal matter.

The "deceased saints interceding on our behalf in response to the livings requests" seems to entirely follow from the belief in the resurrection and of the communion of the saints. That's no more baffling--hell, probably less so--than asking one another to pray for our concerns. The first theological brick wall that I ever hit--and splattered myself all over--was when I set out after a week's research in the topic to "explain" intercessory prayer to my fellowship group my senior year in undergrad. I started the week confident, ended the week baffled and finished the night a gibbering idiot. I'm much more content now to accept the possibility of our having spiritual effects on the course of events simply as a first principle-kind of idea, related in some way to our being able to effect events physically or socially, but where in this case, I simply don't know what the "medium" of spirit is, other than--I reckon--in some way "God." Prayer is just a practice as well-endorsed in tradition as it is instinctual: I'm just going to leave it at that and count myself satisfied in saying that it simply follows from other things that are more arguable (like the resurrection of Jesus, and thus being able to make the leap to Jesus being the Logos, and thereby knowing what he's talking about, etc.).

Papal infallibility is a specialized topic deriving from the idea of the indefectibility of the Church. I'd actually just recommend reading my dissertation subject Francis Sullivan, SJ (his book Magisterium would be a good starting point) on this subject. Certainly, I'll concede that the very recent modern innovation on this matter and its recent articulation in the 19th century have been done in a way that makes it very problematic, not just from a Protestant but also from an Orthodox perspective. In its broader context--that, again, of the indefectibility of the Church--I think that it is perhaps less so. The fact that it has only been used in order to support those Marian dogmas that are off at the periphery of the faith reinforces the controversial nature of this from the Protestant perspective, and granted in fact that all of this occurs historically in the context of the Church losing its political authority and thus perhaps interested in magnifying its spiritual authority grants a certain unseemliness to it. But then all of human history tends to be unseemly, and yet that's what God dives down into in Christ and in the Spirit. But as Benedict XVI himself has said, infallibility is not so much that an articulation is dead-on correct as much as that it's not hopelessly wrong. Infallible teachings of the Church are open for greater insight, as our history clearly reveals, but I guess I'd say as to whether this is a keep-you-out-of-the-Church-issue, I'd doubt it. Certainly this is one of those things that's magnified by those stressing division, but again, honestly, the likelihood that this would ever touch you in any way central to the Christian and Catholic faith is pretty remote, and you are only able to contribute your own insight into the matter from within the Body, really. It has only been invoked on two points that, frankly, really don't matter to the heart of the faith, and all it really indicates about those two devotions is that Marian piety is welcome within the Church. It's pretty thin beer, it seems, when it comes down to it. Should a contemporary pope--and look at the type of man who becomes pope in our ultra-educated world today: a John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul I, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI--find it necessary to use such a megaphone as invoking the idea of infallibility on some point of faith or morals, I'd really sit up and listen closely. I do anyway, and don't really need the other idea, honestly. These guys have shown such diversity, but such depth of Christian character and insight. That they would invoke a principle that says that they're saying something terribly seriously and that they are sure that on this point the Spirit of God is guiding them and protecting them from an utterly flawed, human articulation--it's not a terribly huge leap, particularly for anyone who has ever held to any doctrine of the inspiration of anything as messy as the New Testament documents. In comparison to that idea, this is fabulously modest.

If indulgences serve their original role as the Church's equivalent of the "gold star" that your 4th-grade teacher gave you in order to affirm that something you had done was in fact a Good Thing To Do, then I don't see much of an issue there anymore. The abuses of the 16th century, yeah, Luther pretty much said everything that could be said on that scandal, and more. Pretty closed issue. This 1999 Michaelmas address of John Paul II's sums up the Church's understanding of the idea nicely. One almost wishes that they'd just drop the historically-tainted term "indulgence" in favour of something else with less "baggage." An indulgence, then, is a recognition by the Church that such-and-such an activity, if authentically appropriated or enacted in the spiritual life of an individual, is the type of thing that would evidence the kind of healing of the damages of sin that continue to have their effects in us even when we have received God's forgiveness. Protestants would see the same kind of evidence in someone "growing in the faith." While it's a very different language than that of Protestants, and while it carries some ugly historical weight from how the idea was corrupted and used to abuse the faith of the simple, it is as articulated today not really controversial, and in fact a pretty commonplace observation of one aspect of the process of sanctification in the believer.

So how's all that for a starting-point and response to your original questions? The "classic Protestant objections" you raised actually had very little to do with my movement back to Catholicism because, as I've noted, these issues really don't go anywhere near the center of the issue. Instead what was much more crucial for me was seeing the identity of the Roman Catholic Church of the Second Vatican Council with the early, Patristic Church of the ancient world; becoming increasingly sensitive to the sacramental vision of all of reality--not just in the Eucharist, although that became increasingly obviously to me--for which I could thank Rich Mullins and Francis of Assisi as much as anyone; for seeing the ancient and modern needs of a system of bishops for the communion and unity of the church, and for creating an effective environment for real social justice; and for a Church that honestly didn't effectively lie to itself, as it were, about the relationship between Scripture and the Tradition (that is, the collected experience of the Church, under the ongoing and even revelatory guidance of the Spirit), because it was obvious to me that Evangelical readings of the Bible were utterly dependent upon later theological work--like what led to the creeds of Nicaea and Constantinople--but closed their eyes to these facts in face of a simplified theology of the Bible. Oddly enough, as I noted before, I think it was taking the Bible seriously that led me past a form of Christianity that claimed to be a pure reading of the Bible alone. That's awfully confrontationally-phrased, I'm afraid, but that's how it more-or-less worked for me.
Tags: catholicism, faith and reason, family, francis a. sullivan s.j., historical, john paul ii, mysticism/spirituality, old stories, papacy, personal, theological notebook
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