That They May Be One

To day is the 483rd anniversary of Luther’s posting of his 95 these in Wittenberg, usually the date from which most people see the Protestant Reformation as having commenced. Some Protestant denominations, mostly Lutherans from what I can tell, celebrate this day as “Reformation Day,” though it seems not to be celebrated as much anymore. A couple of posts here and here prompted me to think about this, as I am always painfully aware of how difficult it is to articulate the beliefs of the Catholic Church to Protestants and other western, non-Catholic Christians.   I have friend who is an Anglican, and I recall telling him one time, in answer to his question of why I chose the Catholic Church over other options when I embraced the faith, that I could tell that the Catholic Church was a living body, and that the various Protestant churches all looked like dead bodies to me.   I regret having used that kind of image in retrospect, because I would not want to suggest that nothing good remains in those bodies, or that the members of such denominations are somehow not Christian (provided their baptisms are valid).  But the point I was trying to make was that the Catholic Church was true, in a way that other Christian bodies simply are not, no matter how many good things they may contain within them.  It is hard to categorize the objections I’ve encountered from Protestant friends (some are less difficult to categorize, such as one who friend who, none too tactfully, tried to convince me the Pope is the anti-Christ and that the veneration of bishops was a pagan custom) tend to run in the same direction that Martin Luther first laid out:  the Catholic church puts unnecessary burdens on people in the way of salvation, “denies” the gospel as it were.   Or as my mother put it when I informed I was going to be baptized as a Catholic, “Catholics believe too many things.”  Indeed:  the beliefs of the Catholic Church are extreme, a cause for scandal, whether it be papal infallibility, its teachings on sexuality, or what have you.   Its beliefs seem so singular, so incredible to some, that their very claims to being rooted in a supernatural revelation are easily rebranded as a violation of human nature.  

Of course, the most usual accusation is that Catholics violate scripture with their beliefs, but I have to say, having studied literature, and knowing just how not simple it is to interpret a text, any text,  I have always thought this was the weakest point with which to criticize Catholicism.  No, rather what in Luther and the other reformers, and in their modern day descendants, even in the sort of non-denomination mega-church religion that characterizes so much of what Americans call Christianity these days, I find to be their most compelling point, namely the wish to be rid of the complex, human elements within Catholicism, the mediating priesthood, its claims of authority, and all the attendant difficulties and complications which necessarily result from these things when they become entrenched in human society.  Luther is sometimes accused of wanting to simplify religion or simplify theology, and there is no doubt something to this, but I don’t think that was his primary goal.  I think what he wanted was a simplification of human relationships, a getting rid of the deference and complex ritual that surrounded the late medieval hierarchy, and replace with the supposedly more  simple and pure relationship of Christians in the gospels.   The Catholic Church, with its reliance on a Tradition mediated by fallible human beings, and its all too peccable authority, places the most intolerable burden on its believers: in order to trust God, you must trust these fallible, peccable human beings, and place yourself willingly, knowingly, under their authority, with the knowledge (sometimes forgotten by Catholics) that at some point they will abuse that authority and that trust.  I can think of nothing else I value more than my independence, and it is impossible not to hear in my mother’s complaint or in Luther’s the cry of the very human need to feel as if one can stand on one’s own in relation to God. 

The fact is, however, that God chose to work through human beings, to mediate his grace through the priesthood, through the material nature of the sacraments shaped by human beings (“fruit of the vine and work of human hands, it will become our spiritual drink” or “bread which the earth has given and human hands have made” in the presentation of the gifts in the Roman rite).   To trust God, we are also required to trust other human beings as well, even when this is the thing we want least to do, especially when they are people, like the Pope, whom one will never get to know personally in most cases.   All the Protestant versions of ecclesiology amount to little more than efforts to insure that one will not have to do this, since one has access without  it through the Bible alone.  The failure of such visions of the Church to provide anything like unity is sufficient enough in my eyes to condemn such schemes, but to bring this post back to its original question, how does one convince someone who does not think such unity is necessary that this is the case?     This is something I struggle with all the time, and I really don’t have an answer for it, other than to point out the necessity of some particular structure of unity which is necessary for the church that naturally excludes other possiblities one might find more appealing-the Church is not only one because, being Christ’s body, it unites disparate elements in the same unity (“all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ,” 1 Corinthians, 12:12), but because it is singular, particular; it is this one, and no other.  What some have called the “scandal of particularity” cannot be brushed off in my view, and the only real candidate for it is the Catholic Church (in the West, I should add; the Orthodox are a different matter, though obviously I have chosen to be in communion with Rome because I believe its claims are the best I’ve heard, but this does not imply any parity between the Protestant bodies and the Churches of the East).   I struggle with this often in my own life, wondering why I have to trust and obey this person or this particular group of people, this order of succession and so forth, but I have never doubted for a moment that this was God’s will for me and for all mankind, that we might know him, and be restored to the salvation which was ours by right.  My only answer for now is to pray for the conversion of my friends who do not see the need for the Church, and ask Christ asked the Father to make us all one, as he and the father are one, and to make me more humble, more patient, more willing to answer their questions in a manner worthy of Him who makes us One.

~ by Alypius on October 31, 2010.

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