Part 1: Narrative
I’ve been asked at least a few times in recent years why I’m not a Roman Catholic. The question usually follows me explaining my embrace of Catholic natural law ideas about sexuality or after I recount my personal spiritual practices (praying the canonical hours, making use of icons and candles, crossing myself, etc). And, to be fair, it is a question I’ve asked myself over the years. That I have been on a spiritual journey (I grew up Churches of Christ, spent time in college as a neo-calvinist while attending a third-wave Charismatic mega church which I left for a liberal and cerebral personal theology while regularly attending a moderate Episcopal church) and that part of that journey has involved a discovery of ancient Christian liturgical practices is no secret to any reader of this blog (there was a period of a couple of years that I embraced a pretty liberal theology while cultivating ancient and liturgical spiritual practices–talk about cognitive dissonance!). However, I have, after some sojourning, ended up at Woodcreek Church, a pretty typical evangelical/Bible church type of place. You see, the aspect of historical liturgy I’ve found the most valuable have been resources for my (and my growing family’s) personal devotions. And I like being in a church of my patrimony (broadly evangelical) that is consciously working toward historical and liturgical awareness (our church does Advent and Lent, and those are the big two). But anyway, the question remains: if I have so much affinity for Catholic spiritual practices and Catholic moral theology, why am I not a Catholic? The answer is nor complicated, but it does have its roots story.
For those that don’t know, my brother converted to Roman Catholicism when he went off to college in 2006. A couple of years after that, he made the decision to enter the priesthood (he currently has a year and a half until ordination). He was my first exposure to what I then called “Catholic things” like set prayers, chanting, liturgical seasons, kneeling/genuflecting, crossing, etc. I was seventeen-years-old the first time I resolved to become a Catholic. My brother and I had been talking and I became convinced of the historical argument. Catholics were here first, my teen-aged brain reasoned, so they must be right. Additionally–and it took my mom to point this out–I really wanted to be like my older brother. And, besides, the same impulse that pushed me into the arms of the zealous charismatics and the utterly serious neo-calvinists in college pushed me to embrace Catholicism: I was looking (like many millenials) for a serious faith, the kind of serious faith I don’t really remember being modeled in the church in which I grew up. Of course, making this resolution was a childish decision and was quickly abandoned. Once I talked to people I knew and loved (my mom, for one, who had done her own historical research), I found it easy to doubt the historical claims and to move on with my life. When I was a sophomore in college, after spending a year among the charismatics and reading the neo-calvinists, I was feeling the itch to try out a new toy. I was already disillusioned with the Charismatic world and my Bible classes at ACU were starting to make me feel uncomfortable with the simple and rigorous system proposed by Calvin’s schoolmen. I spent the spring semester of my sophomore year (Jan-May 2010) in Germany. While there, I decided to convert to Catholicism. It was an easy decision, really. I needed a more nuanced theology than the one the Calvinists had and I needed something that embraced the charismatic without being crazy. And, more than anything, I was craving a church with a historical memory of something more than yesterday. I spent most of that semester convinced that I would convert once I returned to the US. I even emailed the RCIA director at a Catholic parish in Abilene. And then, once more, it was conversation with one who loved me, this time Drew, that brought me back. This time I felt called to my relationships, to my family, to my own history. And becoming a Catholic on my own in college seemed daunting anyway. I quickly put the idea back to sleep, but I did start embracing more litiurgical spiritual practices in my own life. I began praying the liturgy of the hours upon my return to the US.
The fall of 2010 was the beginning of my loss of orthodoxy (it took a long time, really only fully culminating in January 2013 when I flat out wished I didn’t have faith in God). As detailed elsewhere, I began my journey back during Lent of 2013. I regained (in a better way) a belief in historic orthodoxy by the end of the summer of 2013 (thank you Thomas Oden!) and found my soul deeply shaped by the liturgy at the Church of the Heavenly Rest even when I didn’t know that was happening. By the time we moved to Dallas in June 2014 I considered myself a theological conservative on everything but one point: homosexuality. However, by the end of 2014, my study of virtue ethics and Catholic natural law convinced me to give up that position as well and to submit to the historical consensus of the church.
(Though, I want to be clear on this: I count as brothers and sisters in Christ good friends who disagree with me on this point. I think that Christians can disagree on this issue in good faith though, if I’m honest, I think that as our culture increasingly demands the anything-you-want sexuality be enshrined in law and our cultural practices, Christians who support monogamous, long-term, committed homosexual relationships will find that anything other than the traditional definition of marriage leads down the slippery slope of deviant sexuality that results in a denial of objective truths like the Imago Dei (male and female are cosmic categories reflecting the Divinity) and the salvation of the church (the bride) by Christ (her husband)).
In any case, it was my year and a half at Heavenly Rest (Sep 2012-May 2014), my regular participation in the historical liturgy of the Church, that taught me about spiritual formation, personal spiritual practices, and the way the Holy Spirit operates through the rhythms, habits, and sacraments of the Church. And, I am deeply thankful for my time at Heavenly Rest. But as I have detailed elsewhere, the reason I did well at Heavenly Rest was because I had another spiritual community–the hodgepodge of ACU people, Beltway people, and Highland people. When we came to Dallas, we were forced to find spiritual community and sacramental life in one place–and we found it first at Richardson East and now at Woodcreek.
One comment that I wish to add before I get into the argument is this: one complex that historically minded evangelicals seem to have is that they feel like they are only Catholic-lite. Those who come to love St. Thomas Aquinas or monasticism or Gregorian Chant feel like they are “borrowing” these things from Catholicism. But I want to challenge that. My use of the Liturgy of the Hours or of icons or crossing myself is, first of all, not unique to Catholicism–it is present in Anglicanism too. But, more importantly, anything before the Reformation is fair game for Protestants. We were one church until the Reformation. And granting that any Medieval writer or practice was Roman Catholic (and therefore not Protestant) imposes modern categories where they don’t belong. St. Thomas Aquinas is as much a Protestant’s heritage as he is a Catholic’s. The same goes for all of the rest.
Part 2: Arguments
So, the question remains: why am I not a Roman Catholic? I think the first and best answer is simply this: Roman Catholicism is not where God has called me. he has called me to my patrimony, specifically to Woodcreek. This is obvious to me and is why I have included above the narrative (in part) of my journey to there: I want to share my sense of clarity. But, of course, we all know that “feeling called” or “led” is not a good enough reason when truth is on the line. Humans, especially this human, are quite capable of making big emotional mistakes. So, a couple of months ago, I decided to settle in my mind, once and for all, some of the more traditional arguments for Roman Catholicism. As part of this process, I began corresponding with my brother who was tremendously gracious to me. I felt the need to investigate Catholic (and Orthodox) claims for two primary reasons: 1) As I prepared to teach and then taught my 8th graders about church history, I came face to face with some difficult truths. For example, Catholicism in its current institutional form is undoubtedly very ancient and there is clear continuity to the early church. 2) The apostolic fathers–the earliest Christian writers outside of the New Testament–do not sound very much like contemporary evangelicals. They sound, well, Catholic. Given that I teach at a classical Christian school, and given that I teach Humanities, I am surrounded by this push, this desire, for the old and the ancient, for the aesthetically beautiful and the true. Western Civilization–the cultural tradition in which I belong and which I love and which I teach–was at its best during the Middle Ages, a period that was thoroughly (and at times very corruptly) Catholic. Catholicism, as one of the primary conduits and preservers of the Tradition that I love, is in the air. And, it seems, I must deal honestly with it.
I won’t be able to exhaustively walk through the arguments that bolster my innate sense of where God has led me, but I do think I can walk through the basic ideas of each.
First, I felt that I needed to settle the historical argument. Whatever issues I have (and I have several) with various aspects of Catholic theology, I would need to find a way to accept them if Catholic claims to be the one true church of Jesus Christ were true. The claim is based on the doctrine of apostolic succession. That is, that Christ appointed apostles who appointed successors called bishops who appointed further successors ad infinitum. Only the legitimate successors of the apostles possess sacramental authority and, collectively with their leader the Pope (the successor of St. Peter) they contain the magisterium, the teaching authority of the church. Of course, most Protestants reject out of hand the doctrine of apostolic succession, but I wanted to actually examine the evidence since the claim is a historical one: did the Apostles appoint successors in a way that established the monarchical episcopacy? So, to begin with, I read Chadwick’s The Early Church and Jefford’s Reading the Apostolic Fathers: a Student’s Introduction. I also read Newman’s Apologia and several other articles I found on the Internet. After doing a bit of research and scanning Jefford’s volume, it seemed to me that the two apostolic fathers that might say anything with bearing on the historical claims of The Roman Catholic Church would be all seven of the Epistles of St. Ignatius as well as I Clement.
According to tradition, Clement was an early bishop of Rome, though historians (including Chadwick) think it likely that Rome did not get a single bishop until the middle of the 2nd century. One argument that Catholic apologists make for apostolic succession as well as the authority of the Pope is that Clement, writing around 95 AD, intervenes in the affairs of the church in Corinth. It is my reading of Clement that there is no evidence for apostolic succession there.
1) It is clear that Clement uses Presbyter (elder) and Bishop (overseer) interchangeably (like the New Testament writers). He seems to mean, but of course we can’t know this, that there were a group of Presbyter-Bishops who ruled in Corinth who were summarily tossed out by the Corinthians. He wants them reinstated. 2) It is not clear that Clement rules as the Bishop in Rome. In fact, his title is never given. 3) It is clear that Clement does not assert Petrine primacy to justify his intervention in Corinthian affairs.
Of course, the argument from silence is a difficult one to make. But the argument from silence goes both ways. Just because, for instance, there are no authoritative historical records that deny that Abraham Lincoln was a witch does not, of course, mean we grant credence to the claim that he was a witch. The burden of proof, it seems, lies with the one who would make such an assertion. It seems to me, then, that the burden of proof for Catholic claims to Clement in the line of petrine succession (the first attestation of which is much later than he supposedly ruled–by Irenaeus in 180) when historians are pretty sure that Rome didn’t actually develop a monarchical episcopate until sometime between 115 and 140 lies with Catholics. Again, I recognize the problem of the argument from silence. Peter may have founded the church in Rome, there may have been a monarchical episcopacy as early as Linus–but we just don’t have the evidence unless one accepts, prima facie, the Catholic doctrine of oral apostolic Tradition.
And, besides, absent positive evidence either way, I think I have to presume according to my reading of the New Testament and my understanding of the spirit of the Gospel. Specifically, I mean, presuming against what appear to be innovations beyond the descrptions and commands of the apostles in the New Testament. It seems logical to me that if the monarchical episcopacy, with the correlative idea of apostolic succession was so important, we would see it in some of the extant Christian literature of the first century, but we don’t.
Ignatius was the bishop of Antioch and wrote seven letters on his way to martyrdom around 115 AD. Catholic apologists really like him because of the emphasis he puts on submission to the bishop.
1) It is clear that Antioch had the three-fold order (bishops, priests, and deacons) as did the churches in Asia Minor to which Ignatius was writing. 2) It is clear that Ignatius views acting in accordance with, and in submission to, the bishop to be an ideal and certainly an important feature of the churches in Asia Minor. 3) It seems interesting that he does not mention, in his letter to the Romans, the need to obey the Bishop. It is as if there isn’t a single bishop in Rome. 4) Ignatius seems to treat each of the other churches to which he is writing as autonomous entities to which is only giving exhortations. He certainly doesn’t claim unique authority as the metropolitan or archbishop or patriarch.
From my research, reliable tradition seems to indicate that John did appoint Ignatius to be Bishop in Antioch. Furthermore, it seems that different apostles founded different churches in different ways. For instance, it looks like Johanine churches in Asia Minor possessed the three-fold order early on while Pauline churches, at least initially, were governed by presbyter-bishops. Ignatius doesn’t seem to insist that the Romans get with the program and ordain a single bishop to rule them. Rather he, like Polycarp in his letter to the Pauline church at Philippi, tacitly accepts their organization as valid. It is obviously important to submit to church leaders, but church polity doesn’t seem to become rigid for a little while yet.
My takeaway from both 1 Clement and the Ignatian Corpus is this: 1) There remains no clear evidence for the necessary universal development of the monarchical episcopacy. Organizing one’s church with a single Bishop at the top followed by a college of presbyters and several deacons seems like a fine way of doing it, but it does not seem to be the universal instructions left by the apostles. 2) If the monarchical episcopate is not necessary, but simply one way (and the way that took predominance by the middle of the second-century) of organizing one’s church, then the Catholic and Orthodox claim to exclusive apostolic succession through their bishops and the historic episcopate is highly problematic. 3) Apostolic succession itself, meaning the succession of bishops consecrated through the laying on of hands linearly back to the apostles, is a highly unlikely doctrine and is, itself, not really apostolic as it is not attested to in the Apostolic fathers. The Didache in the first verse of chapter 15 even commands churches to appoint bishops and deacons for themselves; this without, it seems, episcopal consecration (as the bishop of Alexandria, until Nicaea, was elected and consecrated by his presbyters). The church structure, then, seems administrative or ordinary and not sacramental. The mark of apostolicity seems to have more to do with fidelity to apostolic teaching (as found in the New Testament and maybe the apostolic fathers) than submission to 1900 years of validly consecrated bishops in apostolic succession.
Second, if I reject apostolic succession and thus the magisterium of the Catholic church, what is the basis for authority? Protestants, like me, typically turn to the scriptures. One common objection in my own mind, and voiced by Catholic apologists the world over, is that if I accept the authority of the New Testament, then I ought to accept the authority of the councils (Carthage in 397, promulgated by Pope Innocent in 405, ratified by the Orthodox at Trullan in 692) that codified the canon. That is a fair point and not something I think I have a complete answer for, but something I think I have the beginnings of answer for.
1) I don’t accept the authority of Scripture because I affirm the validity of the councils. I accept the authority of the New Testament because it contains the only extant writings of the apostles and those who knew the apostles. The councils merely served as the administrative instrument to acclaim the canon as it already was being used. They also served as a clearinghouse for what might be heretical. The sheep can detect the shepherd’s voice; this is what the councils were doing with the NT canon.
2) I further accept the authority of Scripture because the canon of the New Testament is universally acclaimed by the Church–Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox. I do trust that, generally speaking, when the church speaks with one voice she speaks by the Spirit.
3) I further find as good evidence for the authority of Scripture the example of Jesus and the Jews. God provided, in multiple dispensations, the Old Testament. By the time of Jesus, the OT canon was set and both he and all of the Jewish sects appealed to the scriptures for their doctrines and beliefs. Jesus specifically rejected the pharisaic claim to a second oral law passed down from Moses through the authoritative teachers of Israel by doing things (like healing on the Sabbath) that violated this second law. While not the same thing, I find the idea of an oral apostolic tradition necessary for interpreting the NT to be in a similar situation.
4) The vast majority of the NT canon was in use before the end of the apostolic age (and the rest was in universal use by the middle of the third century). Even if we were to toss out those more controversial books later acclaimed as part of the canon (Hebrews, James, II Peter, II John, III John, Jude, Revelation), we would still be left with the Pauline corpus and with the four Gospels and Acts–clearly enough to get going on.
5) I find the Catholic claim that one needs an authoritative interpreter to interpret Scripture, that the pervasive interpretive pluralism common among Protestants is a good example of why a Magisterium is needed, to be persuasive. But, I also find that argument to not be very nuanced. Protestants can almost always get behind a Mere Christianity or (once you explain to them that the Nicene or Apostle’s Creeds are not only a “Catholic thing”) the Christianity of the creeds. Or, even more, simply, Christianity is located primarily the Gospel of Paul–that Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again. Protestants seem able, where Catholics are not, to prioritize some beliefs (resurrection, Trinity, inspiration of Scripture) over others (sacraments, church polity, liturgical style). This ability gives evidence to a kind of essential, primitive Christianity that transcends institutional boundaries. I also get the impression from reading Ignatius (who explicitly claims not to give commands but merely to advise the Romans) and Clement that the apostolic church was not institutionally one–that it was a collection of local expressions united in certain practices and beliefs. I dig that. That’s how I think about the Church.
6) I also think there are lots of issues with the idea of an oral tradition being passed from bishop to bishop in succession. This article, in particular, highlights some of those issues.
Third, I have theological problems with Catholic theology that are not easily resolved and that run the gamut from veneration of the saints to the sacrifice in the Eucharist. I intuit that there is much opposition between the simplicity of the Ethic of Jesus as articulated in the Sermon on the Mount and in other places and the claims of authority and power and dogma and focus on Getting It Right that pervades so much of the discussion about faith and theology. I know that every religious tradition had its warts, and that it is essential to have orthodoxy in doctrine, but as the minister at my grandparents’ church reminded the congregation a few weeks ago, love of God (rightly ordered) and love of neighbor (also rightly ordered) ought to be our paramount concern. So I guess I go back to this: if a) the Catholic Church has apostolic authority and b) I believe the apostles to be the safeguards of the gospels, then c) I should be in communion with Rome. But how can I assess the apostolic nature of Catholic claims? It is merely looking at history to see what the Fathers said about apostolic authority, of making a simple historic judgment? Or does this also require comparing the teachings and conduct of the apostles (however preserved) with the teachings and conduct of the Catholic church that claims apostolic authority? That is, however we got the Bible, surely the Bible is the best guide for evaluating theology. Further to that, Paul says in his epistle to the Galatians that anyone who preaches a Gospel other than what he preached, whether an angel or anyone else, should be accursed. Theology, it seems, and not just history come into play. So, beyond the historic questions, I’ve had to consider whether I believe other Catholic teachings (primarily about the role of the priest as an intermediary and the sacrifice of the Eucharist as well as the legalism of the sacramental system) to comport, or at least not contradict, the Bible. I guess I should say that conscience is the most important thing here. Surely God would forgive error made in good faith and accordance with conscience. My full evaluation of those doctrines will have to wait for another time (if ever; I am satisfied with the historical argument for now), but I have the typical Protestant objections to these doctrines.
In the end, it is my belief that the Catholic Church is absolutely part of the Body of Christ that does the work of God in the world. But it, like other communions that asserts exclusivity where it doesn’t belong, is not a communion that I can be part of. The errors of the Catholic Church are compounded because of its size and its influence on our culture; something like 10% of Americans are former Catholics. In my view, Catholicism’s greatest error is its failure to distinguish between God-given Tradition and man-made tradition. There is a conflation there that fails recognize nuance where it should recognized, that puts too many things in the MOST IMPORTANT box. I, like C.S. Lewis, believe in a Mere Christianity. Its been a long time since I’ve read Lewis, but I think this can really be understood as creedal Christianity. If you can affirm the Nicene Creed, you’re in. But Lewis goes further. Lewis insists that Mere Christianity is just a hallway off of which numerous doors lead to numerous rooms. Each room possesses Mere Christianity, but each room is also distinct from the others. You cannot stay in the hallway, Lewis says, you’ve got to pick a room. And so, while my brother and many others have ended up in Catholicism, the room I’ve chosen to enter is the broadly evangelical one. In addition to basic orthodoxy, I am happy to embrace a high view of scripture, Arminianism, the priesthood of all believers, rule by a plurality of elders, an emphasis on praxis, etc. And one thing about my tradition that I love, one thing I love perhaps more than anything else, is that we practice an open table: all baptized Christians are treated as full members in Christ. As Peter Leithart has written: “I would go from a church where every baptized Christian is welcome at the Eucharist to a church that excludes hundreds of millions of validly baptized Christians, and I would never again share the Lord’s Supper with Protestant friends or family members. Becoming Catholic or Orthodox would, in my estimation, make me less catholic, not more.” And while I will continue to push for things I strongly believe in (ordination and calling of female pastors and elders, embrace of the liturgical calendar), I will do so from within my own tradition.