I read with great interest your book report on Surprised by Truth. I’m glad you took an interest in a book that I am so fond of. There are few things in this world that interest me as much as when an individual goes through an intellectual sea-change, especially one with such profound spiritual and ecclesial consequences!
I have some comments and requests for clarifications that I have included in line with your text. Your text is in blue bold, and my response is in normal typeface.
Also, please don’t take my comments personally. I think that the position that you’ve stated reflects the Protestant tradition, and thus, I hope that you will consider my comments an invitation to view that tradition from a Catholic perspective.
I respect the Catholic Church.
First off, I appreciate how this sentence expresses an openness to the Catholic Church (and to friendly dialogue about her) in general, even if you do not believe all that she teaches. Yet, from a Catholic perspective, the statement is impossible. It rings the same way as when a Buddhist says, “I respect Jesus Christ (but I’m quite happy to remain a Buddhist).” Imagine what your response would be to such a character. Given the claims Jesus made about himself, he demands more than respect. You might recall C.S. Lewis’s famous argument (from Mere Christianity) that Jesus is either lord, liar, or lunatic. Similarly, the Bride of Christ, the Catholic Church, which is intimately and inseparably united with Him, would seem to demand far more (or perhaps you might come to think—far less) than respect (1). My suspicion has been that people who express their attitude toward either Jesus or His Church in these terms are trying to keep Him or Her at a safe distance. For as G.K. Chesterton said of the Church in his essay “The Catholic Church and Conversion”:
He has come too near to the truth, and has forgotten that truth is a magnet, with the powers of attraction and repulsion….The moment men cease to pull against it they feel a tug towards it. The moment they cease to shout it down they begin to listen to it with pleasure. The moment they try to be fair to it they begin to be fond of it. But when that affection has passed a certain point it begins to take on the tragic and menacing grandeur of a great love affair.Going back to our friendly Buddhist, wouldn’t you agree that the statement “I respect Jesus Christ” would signal immediately that the Buddhist had an inadequate understanding of who Jesus really is—the Way, the Truth, and the Life? Of course, the last thing that Jesus’s contemporaries could do was respect him. They either followed him closely or rejected him strongly. And which one of us wouldn’t have considered rejecting a mere man who claimed to forgive sins, thus implicitly claiming to be God? It took the Holy Spirit for people to recognize that Jesus was far more than a mere man, and takes the Holy Spirit draw Protestants and Catholics alike into a faithful and obedient submission to the spiritual, doctrinal, and moral authority of the Catholic Church.
[full text here.]
After all, who can respect a church that has its members confess their sins to a priest, a church that claims to administer forgiveness to man’s sins? Who can respect a church that has its members worship a wafer, a cookie-god as some of its more vehement detractors would put it? Who could respect a church that claims that Christians must truly eat the body and blood of Jesus to be saved? Who would respect a church that hails Jesus’s mother Mary as the Queen of Heaven and the Ark of the New Covenant? Who would respect a church that claims to this day that you have to be a member of it to be saved? Who would respect a church that claims final authority on all matters of faith and morals over its members and says that the fullness of truth subsists only in it?
The Catholic Church, like our Lord who founded Her, must be followed closely or rejected strongly. She must be shouted at with repulsion or listened to with attraction. I think the main value of Surprised by Truth is to awaken non-Catholics to the radical claim made by the Catholic Church that Jesus shares the fullness of the Way, the Truth, and the Life through this institution that he founded two thousand years ago…and that Protestants of every stripe are converting it to it in droves. The Catholic Church claims to offer the fullness of revealed truths, moral teachings, and life-giving sacraments given to Her by our Savior; no denomination has ever made such a claim, just like no other “wise teacher” ever made the claims that Jesus made about himself. Many people missed the Messiah two-thousand years ago because on the surface, he appeared all too human. To offer an analogy, the Catholic Church, from an outside perspective, looks pretty much like any other old brick building with dark, colorless windows. But if you would enter her doors, you would find, as our converts have, that the church is much bigger, and much more beautiful, on the inside.
One final thought – The “I respect…” phrase implies a “but…” phrase, and thus contains a subtle dismissive tone. Could I ask you to clarify more precisely what comes to your mind after the “but”? Your paragraph’s startling move from your perspective to the nebulous perspective of “many non-Roman Christians” leaves me wondering if the implied “but” phrase is “…but I like where I am, and who could hold me accountable for a position that so many others have also taken?” This presumption could miss the mark entirely, I realize, which is why I would appreciate the clarification.
Of course, the exciting drama of many stories contained within Surprised by Truth is how the converts got to the point where all they wanted to do was dismiss the Catholic Church, but they couldn’t. They had found the one thing—the one reason—to be Catholic: Truth…rock-solid, unchanging, universal, Truth.
(1) The Catholic Church consists of three parts: the church triumphant (the saints in heaven), the church suffering (the saints in Purgatory), and the church militant (the saints on earth). All are members of Christ's body, and all are members in the Communion of Saints that exists through the sole mediation of Jesus Christ. Therefore let us pray for one another, let us pray for the saints in purgatory, and let us ask the intercession of Mary and the saints who praise God in His heavenly temple. We are truly one body in Christ.
One implication of this is that our vision for Christian unity must extend beyond the oligarchy of the living (another one of my favorite Chesterton phrases). What we need to ask Jesus is how he planned to unite the entire body of Christ, which exists throughout space and time--and which exists on earth and in heaven--in a way as mysteriously profound as that unity we call the Trinity.