Many non-Roman Christians value its history and its early teachings, as well as its current bioethics.
That is all well and good. Sadly, in my experience, precious few Christians know anything at all about the history of the Catholic Church (especially of its early teachings), or even the history of their own denomination for that matter. Even Protestant pastors rarely spend more than a semester in seminary breezing through the early fathers of the church, whose writings fill 38 large volumes as they are usually packaged.
From a historical perspective, it is a curious fact that more Christians don’t read these writings, since the first 1500 years of the history of the Catholic Church is really a history that all Christians share. The early church fathers are the fathers of your faith as much as they are of mine. Many of the early church fathers accepted martyrdom so that you could receive the truth “entrusted once and for all to the saints” (Jude 3) as much as I. These early fathers were often assisted by God’s grace in miraculous ways so that the truth of Christ could be faithfully past on, and that grace is to your benefit as much as it is my own. Happily, as a recent Christianity Today article discusses, Protestants are beginning to rediscover the early church fathers, and what they are finding is a picture of the early church that is strikingly Catholic. (See http://www.christianitytoday.
As a point of clarification, do you mean to imply that the Catholic Church’s early teachings are different than her current ones? If so, can you provide an example? If not, what do non-RC Christians value in them?
I think that the steadfastness of the Catholic Church’s teachings on bioethics and human sexuality is a testament to God’s supernatural protection of her teaching. I thank God that your denomination embraces much of the Catholic Church’s teaching on matters of bioethics and sexual morality, especially considering how other mainline denominations have gone off the deep end on issues such as abortion. Sadly, it doesn’t embrace everything. For instance, up until 1930, every single Protestant denomination taught (on Scriptural grounds) along with the Catholic Church that artificial contraception was a grave moral evil. Since 1930, every single Christian organization but one has caved in to the sexual revolution on this point. Since the sin of contraception is deeply tied to that of abortion, it is no surprise that the Catholic Church remains perhaps the strongest pro-life voice in the world today. Hundreds of faithful Christians are pouring into the Catholic Church because (according to them) they can no longer remain affiliated with denominations that either teach that abortion is morally permissible, or participate (unwittingly) in the anti-life contraceptive culture that leads to the higher incidence of abortion (and divorce, and infidelity, and rape, etc…)
But the contributors to this work start from strikingly anti-Catholic biographies.
While I’m not sure this is true in each author’s case, it is usually a good sign that someone is anti-Catholic if they are so for the right reasons—that is, they realize that the Catholic Church is either really right or REALLY wrong, and they happen to believe the latter. These folks, in my mind, probably have better understanding of the Church’s teaching (or at least the radical implications of it) than most do. Now, all they need is a dose of the Holy Spirit to show them that the Church really is who she claims to be.
Stepping back again to exam the trajectory of your short essay, I think this third sentence seems to distance their stories from your own. While I understand that you don’t identify as an anti-Catholic (though, at some level, all Protestants by definition are anti-Catholic), the reasons that were given for joining the Catholic Church apply far beyond the boundaries of this limited subset of non-Catholics. I’m curious about your response to the reasons that were given that apply to all non-Catholics, not just those whose journey started with an anti-Catholic perspective. (Like I implied above, I think that people who are anti-Catholic for the right reason are actually less anti-Catholic, spiritually speaking, than people who keep the Church at a cool distance. Here, the Laodiceans come to mind.)
And with ironic uniformity, each of these writers had a classic “born again” experience, thanks to outspoken Evangelical “Fundamentalists.”
In this case, I think the uniformity has much to do with the editor of the volume wanting to publish stories of people with a similar background. I have many other volumes of conversion stories that are organized around different spiritual journeys, such as Jewish to Catholic, Moonie to Buddhist to Catholic, Mormon to Catholic, Ex-Catholic to Catholic, etc. Like many of the writers in the volume you read, I praise God for the powerful work he is doing through many Protestant ministers and denominations. Certainly, God is not limited by the visible boundaries of the institution he established. God is rich in mercy, and He mercifully grants that denominations that have visibly (and, I believe, spiritually) separated themselves from the Church Christ established may still partake of its manifold gifts.
And yes, while it is true that these authors had a “born again” experience as Evangelicals, every Catholic has also been born again. (One can not be a Catholic without having been baptized, although there are probably a tiny percentage of “Catholics” who lacked faith going into their adult baptism and did not will to receive the graces normally attached to the sacrament. This would not be the case for babies such as Logan.) Of course, the shades of meaning attached to these two words various greatly between Protestants and Catholics, and also between Protestants themselves, but we can let that point go for now, since it plays no significant role in your essay.
These were not incidental detours, but indispensable bridges on each author’s spiritual path. Do they dispose of this? Or credit it? How do they excise their former Protestantism yet retain their re-birth?
In general, converts consider themselves fulfilled evangelicals. They retain all that is good about their Protestant heritage and bring it to perfection in the Catholic Church. Because what they retain is good, Protestant converts almost universally credit their Protestant heritage with giving them these goods. I often challenge non-Catholics to find one published conversion story of someone who leaves the Catholic Church who is willing to speak so positively, directly, and specifically about the goods the Catholic Church gave to them before they left as do Protestants about their heritage. (I've looked long and hard, and I find the paucity of like examples telling. Conversions to and from the Catholic Church are ultimately far more than a numbers game. What are the reasons that people convert? This is always the key question.)
To answer the last question, it is important to distinguish between re-birth and denominational affiliation. People do not need to be rebaptized when they join the Catholic Church. They are still Christians, but they are Christians who have embraced the fullness of truth that subsists only in the Catholic Church. The only thing they leave behind in converting are Protestant errors (at least from their new perspective).
Another way of thinking about it is that there is only one Church and one baptism (Eph. 4:5). One can only be “born again” (through baptism) into the Catholic Church, though many people immediately fall away from full communion with the Catholic Church due to their particular life situation and/or affiliation with a non-Catholic denomination. From this perspective, it is difficult for converts to remain Protestant and retain their (truly Catholic) re-birth once they come to understand that Christ desires for them to enter the Catholic Church.
The church they reject is not entirely mine, and the one they embrace shares much with mine.
Or, the one they embrace is not entirely yours, either. But, I wonder, does anyone embrace the same church that you do? What do you call your church? Can I give your denominational identity a name? Does your church have anything that must be believed (including, perhaps, a list of issues in which freedom must be allowed) if one is to be a member? I ask these questions with full sincerity, in part because your sentence reflects a kind of modern identity-crisis that non-denominationalism has left with its members. In other words, how can two Christians with a non-denominational mentality ever know they have achieved the miraculous spiritual and visible unity that Christ prayed they would have and that St. Paul demanded? The very idea of such a unity works against the historical/practical reason-for-being of non-denominationalism: to assimilate into a single church body many Christians who (potentially) hold contradictory doctrinal beliefs.
Many Protestants agree with what Al Kresta calls “doctrinal minimalism.”(p.260).
Most Protestants don’t have a choice, because to admit that there are serious and profound doctrinal differences among Protestant denominations on matters of grave spiritual importance is to put a major chink in the doctrine of sola scriptura. The only other two options are 1) to believe that truth is not important, and so it doesn’t matter that these differences exist, or 2) to believe that all truth is important and Christ gave us a way of knowing revealed truth with an objective certitude. (Can you think of other options?)
The idea that doctrinal minimalists agree on the important doctrines (besides not really being true) does not hold up to the scrutiny of Scripture. Where does the Bible say that some doctrines are essential and others are non-essential? Where does St. Paul command his listeners to only stick fast to the really important doctrines, but that it is okay to quibble (and divide) over the less important ones?
Being very sure of very few doctrinal essentials is the hallmark of the non-denominationalism that Kresta experienced, and that I agree with.
This sentence could also read: “Being very unsure of very many doctrinal essentials is the hallmark of the non-denominationalism that Kresta experienced, and that I agree with.”
(One clarification is needed here: do you agree with Kresta’s assessment of his own non-denominational experience, or do you agree with the hallmark itself—that we can only be very sure of very few doctrines?)
Seeing the depravity of this statement has led many into the Catholic Church. I would simply ask: is this the best Jesus and the Holy Spirit can do? Did Jesus leave us with a book that we can interpret with almost no certainty? Did he pray (and St. Paul command) that Christians would have an absolute unity (like the Trinity) without making provisions for such a unity to be possible? Did Christ send the Holy Spirit to guide the apostles into all truth, only to have it all (or at least most of it) lost with the death of the last apostle, such that doctrines are simply anyone’s best guess until Christ returns? If so, what did Paul mean in 1 Timothy when he called the church the "pillar and bulwark of the truth?" If the church is the invisible unity of all Christians, then how has the church protected the truth?
True, much chaos exists in Protestantism, but the unity of Roman Catholicism is hardly as self-evident as these writers imply.
I’m not sure the writers are as naïve about the problems in the Catholic Church as this sentence implies. Some of them even found themselves asking: does the Catholic Church I believe in actually exist? (It does.)
The words “unity” and “Roman Catholicism” have too many meanings for me to understand exactly what you mean. Of course, there are Catholics who are not perfectly unified with the Church. I am one of them. All sin tears away at the Body of Christ. But we must remember that the Catholic Church does possess a unity across time and space unparalleled by any other religious institution. Further, the Catholic Church, as a divine institution founded on the unchanging Rock of Christ, is the only standard we have for knowing when someone has separated themselves from the body through sin and false doctrine. Put positively, we have the only standard by which unity of Christians is even possible.
Also, many Protestants fail to distinguish between the institutional chaos of Protestantism and the disunity found within the Catholic Church, which is caused by sin and heterodoxy. In other words, it is when people separate themselves spiritually and intellectually from the church that they remove themselves from the spiritual/institutional unity of the Church and enter into the chaos that exists outside the church’s boundaries (which would include the Protestant chaos that you mention). The Catholic Church possess an institutional unity that has existed since Christ founded Her. The Church is like a bank that has guarded the original deposit of the faith that Christ gave her through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Many Protestant converts have mentioned that they actually find more room for true diversity within the Catholic Church than outside of it. There are literally hundreds of spiritualities one can embrace, saints to model, and theological areas that haven’t been decided or revealed that one can take various positions on within the Catholic Church. In contrast, it is actually quite constricting to be in an institution that basically has its members constantly reinventing the wheel, and with only limited success at that. Imagine how free you would feel to enjoy calculus if you had an error in your multiplication tables. Theological errors also suppress one’s ability to fully plumb the rich depth of Scripture and Sacred Tradition; error squashes true freedom.
They fail to mention both ancient schisms and modern diversity.
I’m not sure if this is a failure, per say, given the limited scope of each essay. I’m quite positive, given that none of the converts were itching to join the Catholic Church, that they considered how the spiritual unity of the Catholic Church imperfectly manifests itself through the ages.
Your sentence is somewhat revealing of the identity crisis of which I was speaking earlier. In other words, a modernist would have phrased it “ancient diversity and modern diversity” and an orthodox Christian would have phrased it “ancient schisms and modern schisms.” I’m not sure you can have it both ways, and I think I know what St. Paul would have said about “modern diversity.” (If I misread you here, please clarify.)
This is not to say that there is room for diversity in the Catholic Church. In fact, only in the Catholic Church can we freely and with a sense of abandon embrace true diversity. Outside the boundaries of the Catholic Church, one begins to find diversity for diversity’s sake, diversity to the point of false doctrine, diversity to the point of…etc. The Catholic Church provides the fence around an intellectual playground beyond the edges of which is a sharp cliff into—as Frank Sheed would put it—insanity. (See his Theology and Sanity, in which he reminds us that the definition of insanity is when our mind disconnects from reality and from truth.)
Understandably, they value authority.
Yes, but they did as Protestants as well. The change is that they began to understand that Christ’s authority over His Church is mediated not only through the Bible but also through Sacred Tradition and a Magisterium.
The lack of indisputable leadership may be a shortcoming among Protestants, but it may also be seen as a safeguard.
I’m not sure how it can be both simultaneously. While I think safeguards are good things, I’m afraid that I can’t think of one thing that Protestantism, through the model of authority called sola scriptura, has kept safe. (Can you help me out here?) Worse yet, sola scriptura has safeguarded the license people claim to privately interpret the Bible however they believe the Holy Spirit is leading them, even if their interpretations contradict how the Holy Spirit is leading another Christian a block away. And the results can be spiritually catastrophic (see 2 Peter 3:16).
There are able leaders, whose ministries can be scrutinized, even if there is no Pope.
Yes, there are many able leaders, and we praise God for them. Surely, the ministry of any spiritual leader, Protestant or Catholic, can and is continuously scrutinized, for better or worse. (I’m saddened by how little good it sometimes does to scrutinize pastors; luckily, prayer is more effective than scrutiny, though I do think that scrutiny has its place!) My concern is that some of these leaders lead ably on their own terms, rather than on the terms Christ prayed for in John 17. May we never let our vision of the church supersede His! While we thank God for those individuals who are responding to the Spirit’s call and are changing hearts for Christ, we can not lose sight of the bigger picture: that the divisions among Christians today greatly hamper our ability to convert the world (or, Christ’s ability to convert the world through us). Lord, make us one as You and the Father are one. Help us to crave the unity that you prayed for like never before, and let us not be satisfied until that unity is perfectly wrought in us. Let unity begin with me! (Sing to the tune of “Let there be Peace on Earth.” ☺ )
I would suggest that there is an important distinction between “able” and “right,” and that the fact that someone has the ability to lead ably provides even more reason that they should become an able leader in the true church. (So, Evangelicals, please join us! We need your enthusiasm for the Gospel as much as you need the Pope and the Sacraments!)
In so far as the Pope is the visible spiritual head whose voice a Christian should heed, Protestantism indeed has millions of Popes. Sola scriptura literally turns people into their own Popes, practically speaking, and thus we lose the only basis for unity that has actually worked in history. “Peter, I have prayed for you…”
I have had a long-standing warm regard for the Catholic Church. While this volume does not kindle that warmth into flame, it doesn’t chill it, either.
I do like how your essay comes full circle, back to your personal sentiment expressed at the beginning of your essay. I look forward to hearing more of your perspectives should you choose to clarify some of the points mentioned above.
May God bless you richly, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit!