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.
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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.
I 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?