Sunday, July 5, 2009

Response to WHW on the Sign of the Cross

Thanks to WHW for another thoughtful and honest response.

First to my Catholic readers: WHW's response is a perfect example of how important it is for Catholics to open every channel of unity possible with our non-Catholic brothers and sisters. The Catholic faith, ultimately, is not ours. It is God's gift through His Son, Jesus, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to ALL of humanity. The Catholic Church belongs equally to non-Catholics and Catholics alike. Though some non-Catholics may not accept part or all of the gift, the gift will always be rightfully theirs as much as it is ours. May Catholics never engage in the kind of denominationalist mindset that sustains so many of the divides within Christianity, but rather may we always speak the truth in love and model Christ's love for all of his children.

Second, to WHW: I offer my deepest apology on behalf of Catholics (including myself) who do not always live up to the faith we hold so dear. For any Catholic to suggest that an ancient practice such as the sign of the cross somehow belongs only to Catholics--and for such a Catholic to take offense when a brother or sister in Christ makes the sign--is not only unreasonable but is contrary to the very ecuminical effort of the Catholic Church as a whole. So for what it is worth, I ask for forgiveness on behalf of my Catholic brothers and sisters who have wronged you, and I invite you to join me in sharing the Catholic vision with these same brothers and sisters. From your comments, I imagine that you would agree that it is no more a misrepresentation when you proclaim a belief in the Trinity or practice Sunday worship or uphold the sacredness of marriage than it would be for you to make the sign of the cross. Rather, the Trinity, Sunday worship, marriage, and the sign of the cross would all be real areas of unity--the very type of unity that Christ prayed for! In this sense, you wouldn't be pretending to be Catholic at all--you would BE Catholic--and that is a prospect that any Catholic should rejoice over, not take offense at. Certainly, these same Catholics would be wrong to take offense if you made the sign with the same faith and religious intention that they do. Do they take offense when hang a cross on your wall or adorn your Bible cover with one? I doubt it; their position is simply inconsistent.

There is one final perspective from which one could offer a corrective to such contrarians: the historical one. As John Henry Cardinal Newman once said, "to be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant." (I believe this quote is from his _Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine_.) Historically speaking, every Protestants' spiritual forebears once made the sign of the cross. Thus, for a Protestant to make the sign of the cross today is much more akin to "returning to one's historical roots" than it is to "add something new."

Yet this does raise one interesting question that goes unaddressed by WHW: why did Protestant groups ORIGINALLY stop making the sign of the cross? Are the reasons themselves still valid today? Do these reasons (whatever they are) still influence some Christians' decision to abstain from this gesture today?

While I can not guarantee that no Catholics will ever take offense to what you say or do, even if these actions are in accord with God's will (and even the teachings of the Catholic Church!), I for one would be overjoyed if a worldwide phenomenon swept through all non-Catholic Christian services in which everyone began making the sign of the cross.

I would encourage all Protestants to begin a dialogue with their pastors about how to recover this ancient Christian practice in their services. The sign of the cross does not belong within the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church--it belongs to the entire universe! (One may indeed find, however, that the Catholic Church is indeed as big as the entire universe--no, bigger.)

Two closing thoughts:

Is there anything in the Catholic Church that non-Catholics are NOT invited to?

The surprising answer is a resounding NO! Non-Catholics are invited to the Eucharist, to Reconciliation, to Confirmation, etc. However, they are invited with the same preconditions with which Catholics are invited. For instance, the sacrament of perfect unity--the Eucharist--would logically entail that those who partake of it have faithfully accepted the unity of faith in its wholeness. The Eucharist is the very cause of the mystical oneness of Christ's body, the Church, and it would be contrary to the whole meaning of the Eucharist if one were to receive it without previously committed one's entire self to the fullness of the faith as it has been maintained by Christ's church.

Still, Catholics hope and pray that the desire shared by Catholics and Protestants to share one common meal may motivate the ecuminical dialogues taking place ever more frequently around the world.

Secondily, I would recommend Thomas Howard's fantastic book _Evangelical is Not Enough_, written when Howard was thinking about converting to the Catholic Church, which discusses things like the sign of the cross, the liturgy, etc. in the life of the church. If I were to come up with a list of ten books I wish every non-Catholic Christian would read, this book would without question be on it, as would Howard's follow-up book _On Being Catholic_ (written after conversion).


whw said...

I thank DBS for his kind and well-considered reply, and even more for the spirit behind it. Of course I appreciate and accept his apology, though with some trepidation. I can't seem to live a single day being entirely true to the faith I hold dear, to my shame be it said. So I feel a little awkward in accepting another Christian's apology for what I regularly do myself.

And I must admit to having made the sign of the Cross where I was pretty sure it wouldn't give offense. A couple of times at DBS's house Young Miss S. was looking at me wondering where her hand was supposed to go next (or so I fancied), so I demonstrated for her. Unfortunately, we were facing each other, so by copying me, she touched the wrong shoulder first. I apologize; I'm sure she has it correct now!

DBS's question about when Protestants stopped making the sign of the Cross, and why, is a good one. Many of the post-Luther Reformers were pretty energetically iconoclastic, and I guess that has something to do with it, but that's just a guess. It's an interesting question, though, and would be fun to research.

His question as to whether those reasons still influnce Protestants today, applied in an abstract sense, is interesting, too: what does the iconoclast do when all the 'icons' (interpreted broadly) are gone? Does this answer completely invalidate iconoclasm? [Resolutely ignoring enticing rabbit trail here...] If the question is applied personally, the answer is No: my refraining (most of the time) from making the sign of the Cross is based simply on my understanding of my obligations to my brothers and sisters in Christ. These, I believe, are clear, regardless of Communion. Among them are: to encourage them, to edify them, "building them up in their most holy faith," and (most relevant in this case) to honor their scruples even when I don't share them (see Romans 14, especially vss. 13-15).

I respect and am moved by DBS's grand and beautiful vision of the sign of that Cross which rises at the center of our shared faith, bringing all of Christ's followers closer to each other and to Him. I appreciate greatly his invitation to me to share it. And I look forward to the day when all true worshippers will worship the Father in Spirit and in Truth, in perfected unity.

mozartmovement said...

Love you guys!

rew said...

I hope it is ok for me to weigh in here...As a Christian (and Protestant), I hold the symbol of the Cross very dear. However, there are a number of reasons why I do not often make the sign of the Cross. First, because to me it seems to place the focus on myself (some say one "crosses ones-self"), rather than on Him. This seems wrong to me, especially when praying. Second, it seems to encourage the belief that one *is* Christian (or Catholic) based solely on what one *does.* As in, "See? I made the sign of the Cross. That's how you know I'm Catholic." I believe that loving the Lord, your God with all your heart, mind, and strength is what makes one Christian. The third reason is probably why you can't seem to get a response that makes sense to you. Quite simply, it would not occur to most non-Catholics to make the sign. It's not part of Protestant services because Martin Luther's goal was to rid the church of "empty" ritual. Since it's not something Protestants do regularly, it just wouldn't be something that most non-Catholics would think at all about.