July 29, 2014

iMonk: Roman Catholicism – An Appreciation

St Peters Sq

From the classic Michael Spencer post, Yo Ho Ho, A Papist’s Life for Me?

NOTE: In honor of the new Pope, we present this portion of an essay by Michael, in which he expresses several reasons why he appreciates the Roman Catholic Church and tradition. Be aware, this was not all he had to say. At this point in his journey, he still had some pretty strong negative views of Catholic doctrine and practice, especially regarding salvation, the Mass, and Mary. You can follow the link and read the rest of the story.

* * *

The fact is, there is much that I like about Roman Catholicism. The better I get to know it, the more I find to like. Some of it is personal and subjective. Some is mythical and ridiculous. Some are matters of perennial debate among Christians, and we are allowed to open our Bibles–and our minds–and take sides. I don’t expect you to like my reasons for liking Catholicism, but at least check them out. As usual, I believe honesty is a virtue.

Let’s be clear on one thing. I am not talking about Roman Catholic theology about the Gospel and the sacraments. I’m talking about Roman Catholicism as I’ve experienced it in books and people. Your experience is probably much different. I know, I know, I KNOW that some of these positives have negative aspects, and some are the result of grievous RC errors. But I will admit that I am not impressed by the idea that the errors of Catholicism make it impossible to be a fan–or a Christian–within its confines.

I’m not trying to repudiate the reformation. I’m just telling you what I like. I’m not trying to bug ‘ya. But if I do, so be it. Forgive me. It’s the Christian thing to do.

I’m impressed by a very balanced view of Jesus and the Christian life. We often criticize Roman Catholics for not embracing the language of “personal Savior” when speaking of Jesus. That’s precisely what I admire. Serious Roman Catholics aren’t having a debate about evangelism versus missions versus social action versus devotion. The Catholic ministries I’ve worked with put all these things together in a more balanced way than my Baptist Christianity ever did. And where we had learned that sort of balance, we usually learned it from Catholics.

Starting a ministry to the community would have been a big deal in most of the churches I’ve served. As soon as you started talking about food for the poor, the subject of evangelism had to be put forward as the more important counterpoint. The caricatures of poverty that populate middle class America usually turned it into a long business meeting. Maybe Father Maloney had the same headaches down at St. Joe and Paul, but it sure seemed that our Catholic friends did a lot more for the community than the Baptists did.

In fact, it seemed that the whole subject of individually imitating Jesus in our concern for the poor and suffering just got expressed in Catholicism far better than it did in our tradition. I don’t think it was just that we got burned by liberals espousing the social Gospel. I think the Catholics had a better grip on what it meant to be following Jesus.

Roman Catholicism, in its system of designating saints, holds up a multi-dimensional portrait of the Christian life. Academics, evangelists, missionaries, monks, bishops, intercessors, warriors, servants of every kind–they all have a place in the Catholic approach to the Christian life. St.Thomas and St. Francis are both manifestations of the Spirit of Christ. Mother Theresa and Benedict are both living out the calling of following Jesus. Protestantism seems hampered in any effort to synthesize these gifts together into a coherent Christian life, except, as I said, in emulation of Roman Catholicism.

It’s remarkable how many good Protestants, when coming across an Augustine or Merton or Manning or O’Connor, feel like they are stepping from a tiny stream into a mighty river. Now streams are typically more cluttered than rivers, and even though rivers have more pollutants, they are also able to cleanse and dilute their waters. Even so, Catholicism’s river, polluted as it may be, still impresses me as being “deep and wide” and containing, within itself, so much that other traditions have never been able to bring together. I will freely admit this appeals to me, and powerfully.

I am impressed by the Catholic intellectual tradition. Where are the Notre Dames of evangelicalism? Liberty University? Evangelicals decry their own intellectual backwardness, and commendably, are trying to correct this deficit. But Roman Catholicism, a tradition that once condemned scientists, has also produced an intellectual tradition that embraces science and knowledge in a far healthier way than evangelicalism. Where is the creationist controversy in the RCC? Is it just me, or has anyone else noticed that Catholicism has a vital involvement in almost every intellectual endeavor?

Catholic Biblical studies continue to impress me and many others. Raymond Brown may be the greatest New Testament scholar of our generation. His work on the Johannine literature, and the New Testament in general, was standard fare at my Baptist seminary, and I am more than glad of that today. Brown is critically astute, yet reverent to the text as a devoted Christian scholar. Despite the constant Protestant criticism of how Catholics use the Bible in theology, their own Biblical studies are highly respected. Just look at the current quest for the historical Jesus, and how John Meier’s A Marginal Jew towers above everyone else because of detailed attention to the text New Testament.

And if Roman Catholicism has any Bishop Spongs or Bishop Robinsons being openly ordained, I am missing them. I am very well aware of the problems, but I can also say that the Catholic church has created a “big tent” better than any church I know, and without allowing the extremes of right or left to dominate the middle. American Catholics, with their tendency toward individuality, often challenge the Vatican on issues like abortion and homosexuality, but the church doesn’t budge. When I hear the liberal vanguards haranguing the church for not changing, I am always reminded that the RCC is far more sure of itself–right and wrong–than that amorphous blob known as Protestantism.

Sistine-Chapel2I love the fact that Catholicism embraces art. While evangelicalism condemns most art as worldly and finds the pursuit of art distinctively unspiritual, Catholicism’s artists multiply and prosper. I have been warned that the Catholic artistic tradition just served the purposes of idolatry. This from the Christians who brought you religious television and CCM.

I’m fairly sold on the Catholic approach to the creation of our Bible. Don’t read that as an endorsement of everything done in the name of tradition. I just find it undeniable that the church and the Bible had a synergistic relationship from the start, and to whatever extent I am a Biblical scholar, I really can’t see the Bible separate from the church’s involvement in canonization. I never feel more inadequate as a Protestant than in admitting that most of the good stuff happened in the first four centuries of the church, when the Catholic Church was the only game in town.

I obviously love much about the worship of Roman Catholics. When I worship with the monks at Saint Meinrad, I actually feel I am worshipping with God’s church, and not listening to an infomercial. The dignity, beauty and depth of the Catholic liturgy remains even after the ravages of Vatican II and decades of modernistic tinkering. Please, Catholic friends, don’t become like the Protestants down the street. Somewhere, pop culture has to be checked before it turns all of Christianity into a stroll in the mall.

I love the diversity of Catholicism, a diversity that does not take away the sense that there is one, worldwide church family. If unity matters to you, you already know the feeling you get when you watch Christmas mass from St. Peters, or catch even a glimpse of what it means to be a Catholic in a world of 1 billion Catholics. In a scattered and constantly sectarian Protestantism, it’s sometimes a cold, cold world.

(I will say that there are few things about Catholicism I like less than the constant “ecumenical dialogs” that are part of the life in mainlines. I hope evangelicals never try this. “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” wasn’t the worst thing in the world, but I generally believe that Protestants and Catholics are at their best playing softball against each other, and not nuancing justification or grace into something we can all live with.

I like the Pope, this one at least, [Benedict XVI] because he is a brave and courageous voice for faith, and doesn’t try to sell me anything. (I would buy some Pope gear if I could.) There are times that he expresses the faith better than anyone alive, and his faithfulness to the things that matter most is a bright light in a dark world of compromise. I like the idea that when it is wrong, the church actually hurts itself to make things right. That took courage, and even though it was an imperfect process, it was unprecedented. He’s done a lot of that, and while some Protestants dislike it, I think it’s brave and honest.

I love monasticism, not for the reasons Catholics love monasticism, but because I see an attempt to live the whole Christian experience in community that deserves respect, and that inspires me. Not an experiment in Utopianism or some kind of ongoing revivalistic pietism, but a kind of life centered around the Word, work and worship. Sanctification through community. Again, when Protestants have succeeded in their communities, they owe far more to Catholicism than to anyone else.

I love the contemplative tradition, and the kind of seriousness about a life of prayer that can’t be expressed in bumper stickers and spiritual awakening campaigns. I love prayer retreats that aren’t spiritual treadmills. I love an actual respect for silence as a meaningful spiritual discipline. I particularly admire that part of the contemplative tradition that grasps how prayer and work come together into one life, and does not separate work and worship into two things. What Protestantism grasped in the Priesthood of the believer as it applied to ministry is important. There aren’t two kinds of Christians or vocations. But oddly, it is Catholicism, in the contemplative tradition, that has the most to say about truly seeing work and worship as one. (Perhaps this is why Catholics are not coming to church to be entertained and mesmerized and calling it worship.)

I admire a tradition that sees the culture of the church in history as confident and defining on its own, without having to resort to endless envies and imitations of pop culture in order to feel relevant.

I like the Catholics I know who are happy Catholics. Peggy Noonan. Kevin Black. Dr. Shroeder. My old BHT friend Ken. Rudy Gulliani. Mel Gibson (though he’s not that happy.) Bob Hope. Brennan Manning. Richard J. Neuhaus. Michael Novak. John Michael Talbot. Father Pete in town. Yes, even Scott Hahn. The serious Catholics I know are happy to be Catholic. Even with the pain the church has been through, they aren’t leaving their church for our church. Protestant converts from Catholicism are generally folks who never knew what being Catholic meant.

I’m a fan. No doubt about it. And I seem to be more of a fan as the years go by. But will I ever convert to Catholicism? Serious Protestant converts to Catholicism seem to be of two kinds: People in search of authority, and those who are tired. Guess which one I am?

Comments

  1. ….Man, I miss Michael.

    So much in this article I identify with. Catholicism is a big tent with lots of subcultures living underneath. Michael calls out two of my personal theological favorites, Brown and Meier. He also goes on to talk about the mystical side, contemplation, and experiencing silent retreats (which I am about to do in a few hours with anticipation). While the intellectual side stimulates my mind, the mystical side has done much to bring me closer to God, or to get me moving again when I hit the wall or hung too long by the side of the road or when I am going through a dry period.

    I admit there is also a lot of luke warm participation from those who are only involved from a cultural or generational perspective but those who wish to delve deeper can find a whole treasure trove of learning, closeness and spirituality. And I can feel sad or suffer or experience failure without feeling that I must not be doing something right for God.

    “When I worship with the monks at Saint Meinrad, I actually feel I am worshipping with God’s church, and not listening to an infomercial. The dignity, beauty and depth of the Catholic liturgy remains even after the ravages of Vatican II and decades of modernistic tinkering.” – AMEN!

    Good stuff!!!

  2. This was an excellent piece. So much of what appealed to Michael about Catholicism is what drew me to it. His comments here are compelling until the very end. My conversion to the Catholic Church, after more than 30 years of being pulled toward it, was not a search for authority — which I did find — or of being tired, which I was not. But the surprise that awaited me was something I had come to assume could not be found elsewhere: joy.

  3. Josh in FW says:

    “Where are the Notre Dames of evangelicalism?”
    The Baptists are putting forth a fairly good effort down in Waco.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Don’t forget BJU, the Kentucky Creation Museum, and Hagee’s Ark Experience knockoff from a couple days ago.

      • Josh in FW says:

        c’mon HUG, don’t put my beloved Baylor University in the same category as Bob Jones or Liberty. Those fundagelicals think Baylor is a cesspool of liberalism and heresy.
        :-)

    • I will assume that the IMonk never heard of Wheaton. ;)

  4. Michael wrote: I can admit my attraction and my admiration, but the key objections are simply too significant. Rome may be the most impressive human institution to carry on the tradition of Christianity. In that legacy, it has much to commend it. They can say they are the one, true, holy, catholic and Apostolic Church and I won’t laugh.

    I’ll just quietly, and sadly disagree. The list is short, and the reasons are incontrovertible.

    1. The Catholic Church has badly mangled the Gospel. Mangled it to the point that to become Catholic would be to forsake the Biblical Gospel, and I have read Galatians 1. I believe the church is in serious error on justification and all the doctrines that precede and flow from it. In two thousand years, Rome has gotten better in talking about the Gospel, but hasn’t come one step from where Luther stepped back and called the church apostate on the Gospel. Yes, often Rome holds forth one of the jewels of the Gospel in its liturgy or tradition or in the voice of one its eloquent saints. But Rome has never come beyond Trent, and this is an uncrossable boundary.

    [snip]

    Galatians 1:6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— 7 which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse! 9 As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse!

    - – -

    My own list is similar to Michael’s, as are, I suspect, the lists of the others who write and post here who are not and cannot be Roman Catholic.

    • I think Michael (rest his soul) falls into the soterian trap of reducing the Gospel to the plan of salvation here. If one accepts Scot McKnight’s definition of the Gospel as being the story of Jesus completing the story of Israel, then it becomes more difficult to say the Catholic Church has compromised the Gospel. Horribly mangled soteriology, perhaps, and we can argue passionately back and forth about that, but the Gospel itself, not so much.

  5. Joseph (the original) says:

    being raised Roman Catholic there is much of the ritual+tradition that can be celebrated for what it is without having to ‘elevate’ it to the pinnacle of worship style & theological claims of preeminence & doctrinal rightness.

    my own spiritual awakening @ the age of 20 heralded the exodus out of Catholicsm into the Evangelical Wilderness. it was God’s own prompting one Sunday at Mass that simply impressed me as a Holy Spirit nudge: “I will not meet with you through this worship expression any longer…” or a realization to this effect. not that i fully understood it. but i shortly ceased attending Mass while i was also attending evangelical services. simply was a quiet transition. hard to really explain. although raised in the RCC tradition, was a devout altar boy & eventually recruited for the priesthood, i did not have a deep connection with the very deity they claimed to be the reason for the traditions. too much added religious ‘stuff’ in the mix. the access to God more like a maze one had to navigate thru before being clean enough to be in His presence, let alone His good graces…

    lots of guilt, paranoia, fine print, indulgences, worry about dead loved ones suffering in Purgatory & how i had to be doing things to shorten their time there. too much really to express in this short commentary response…

    God did not communicate to me anything regarding the condition of the RCC or even mention my religious upbringing. He seemed to simply bring me into the next phase of my own personal spiritual journey without making any conclusions about the past 20 years. so i did not become a rabid anti-Catholic type ready to condemn the very religious tradition i actually learned about Christianity & that developed in me an actual desire to know God. it started there. the rest of my story & 38 year journey one of fits-and-starts, stumbles, detours & discovery. my own journey meant only for me to embark upon. He had invited me, “You can go back to the way you were, or come, follow Me.” and that is what i have done…

    • Great testimony.

      My story is very similar to yours.

      Thanks for sharing.

    • Jonathan says:

      When the Holy Spirit nudged you to leave the Catholic Church, why didn’t you ask “Why?” or “And go where?” and wait for an answer? Seriously. I’ve met too many former evangelicals who’ve credited God with leading them TO the Church. Somebody’s messed up.

      • I can’t speak for Joseph (the original), but in case he doesn’t respond, it seems to me that he gave both the “Why?” and the “go where?” when he wrote:

        it was God’s own prompting one Sunday at Mass that simply impressed me as a Holy Spirit nudge: “I will not meet with you through this worship expression any longer…” or a realization to this effect. but i shortly ceased attending Mass while i was also attending evangelical services. simply was a quiet transition.

      • Joseph (the original) says:

        Jonathan:

        there were maybe 6 truly ‘inspired’ directions i have received from God that were about as tangible as if He were whispering in my ear. the first one was His ‘presence’ in my consciousness that was as clear as an audible voice. it is when He made that dramatic appearing that i claim to be my own personal spiritual epiphany…

        once that event occured, my sensitivity to that ‘still, small voice’ was fine-tuned. not because i was questioning God, asking Him for a repeat performance, avoiding late-nite pizza, etc. i had ‘found’ what i had be seeking from a very early age, or i had indeed been ‘found’ by Him. my earliest recollection of wanting a connection with God was when i was about 6 years-old. what had been lost thru the years was not the fault of the RCC, although my parochial school experience was not as positive as it could have been.

        my epiphany was, in fact, God answering me after all my previous petitions to really know Him more…

        like a little child, God seemed quite content to guide me thru those 6 tangible ‘nudges’ like a Father would guide His young toddler learning to walk. if you have had children, standing there excited at first wobbly steps of your child one of the wonders of the universe. you stand there arms outstretched both coaxing & protecting that child from falling. as they do stumble they are quickly snatched from harm & encouraged to keep at it. as they strike out on their first mobile adventure of discovery, proud dads everywhere repeat this very ritual many times every day all around the world…

        after those initial 6 nudges, He did not communicate, or guide me in that way again. and yes, i have pondered this too. He simply seemed to be smiling all the time i was waiting a more specific answer…

        i had to learn to make my steps more deliberate & use the choices i had to make to learn about the direction i embarked upon. when He invited me to follow, He did not imply He would be carrying me. so i was never afraid of being lead astray.

        i too have pondered the reason He called me out of the Catholic faith tradition. maybe 20 years of liturgical exposure was sufficient as my training wheel phase. nor did i ever really become a Protestant or even an Evangelical. i claimed no denomination loyalty, brand identity, tribe, affiliation, flavor, etc. i was a pilgrim that happens to have more in common with those also journeying in the wilderness than those that seemed to have found a safer harbor within the faith traditions they also claim to be a true anchorage for their souls…

        i suppose if God had been whispering things to me contrary to His character & i did feel compeled to some weird, spiritually-spooky stuff, then yes, i think i would have questioned just what i sensed. but i also know more about wrestling against what i know i should do, rather than having to be told to do this or that. as Christians we happen to know what we should be doing, thinking, believing, etc. every day of our existence. i have answered more times like Cain than simply responding, “Your will be done.” so yes, i have talked myself out claiming that still small voice was really God more times than simply doing what i already knew i should be doing…

        did He tell me what church or faith tradition to seek or become involved with? nope. i happened to have been attending another church with friends that had also had a similar life-changing experience with Jesus. it was not because i asked for such a direction. it was something that was going on while i was pondering what the meaning of His personal revelation implied. later on my journey i actually talked to the local Franciscan Friars/Brothers. it was then that i knew that God was not directing me that way. one of the Brothers i talked to confirmed the leading of Holy Spirit in the manner he talked to me. i was surprised at the response, but then i realized he too knew that still small voice…

        anyway, there is much of my own spiritual experience that will never be part of other people’s encounter with the Most High. and many things simply private exchanges between my Lord meant only for me. same with any Christian really. i do not need to meet anyone else’s spiritual litmus test of ‘hearing from God’ & if that was really Him or not. i happen to know it was Him. and it was not like God was banishing me from a faith tradition that i felt was home. it wasn’t like that at all. i have attended Masses after that. mostly for funerals of relatives. i attended Midnight Mass Christmas. but it was not to meet Him there. i took Him with me.

        this is simply my own personal spiritual experience. other results may (and certainly will) vary…

        blessings…

      • I finally heard that Word of freedom. No more project (God has already accomplished EVERYTHING for me on that Cross and in my Baptism)

        I NEVER heard that in my 35 years in the Catholic Church. Not once.

        Now I hear it every Sunday. And I receive the true body and true blood…to boot.

        Not a bad deal!

        • Steve…..glad that you are happy where you landed, but clearly you didn’t leave the Church Christ founded on Peter, but on a palid shadow of that Church that someone fed to you……

          • Christ founded his church on Peter’s confession, not Peter’s personhood or apostolate. The testimony of Joseph (the original) affirms that the Body of Christ is larger than the Roman Catholic Church and exists alive and well outside the authority of the Roman pontiff. The Spirit blows where He wills and can no more be contained nor His gifts be primarily be given in or by any human institution or human person, ordained or not, no matter how “divine” that institution or person claims to be.

  6. Great words by Michael Spencer. And I did click on the link to read why he could never be a Catholic. I really respected Michael for his passion and his desire to stay within the Truth. I loved this post when he wrote it and love it just as much now.

    • Christiane says:

      there was something about Michael that was more ‘catholic’ than he realized . . . That ‘something’ helped him to create this forum for all of us to come together here . . . his honesty and openness made so much possible.
      I think Michael was gifted. He is deeply missed.

  7. I miss Michael too. I find myself thinking more about Catholicism when I am bored or tired with my own ” brand” of Christianity.

  8. This is good:

    THE question that precipitated the Reformation

    for Catholics to better understand why some of us have heard something different.

  9. I agree, there is much to be admired about the RCC. It is a church of good works and solid intelIectual pursuits. I too find myself drawn into the worship service. There is much beauty there.Then something always seems to go wrong and my eyes role. Example: Pope Francis leading the mass of the people in the square. Starts out familiar then it ends in territory that is strange to me. “Holy Mary pray … Different than the prayer I am familiar with which ends with “For thine is the kingdom…

    • I am presuming you are not joking…..the “our Father” does end as you stated. It was followed by a “Hail Mary”, as it often does in communial non-Mass Catholic prayer.