Monday, 5 February 2007

Why I am a Catholic

Here's a post I've been meaning to compose for a while, a post I feel more comfortable writing now that I have been a Catholic for a little while. Not having a computer these days, I'm not really at liberty to elaborate or defend what I say here on the web - if you want to say something to me, actually say it to me. I don't want to be too biographical or even too thorough in making my case for the reasons that I give. It'll just be a statement of some reasons why I can still say
I believe and profess all that the holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God.
as I did on this day.

This is not going to be an explanation of why I am a Christian, which I have been for much longer. One of the main reasons why I continue to be a Christian is addressed here, but I should mention that I was raised within the Anglican tradition (though I had a believer's baptism aged 10) by virtue of the fact that my Dad is a vicar. I remember having an Anglican confirmation, which is odd, because I don't remember feeling any particular attachment to Anglicanism; I would say I was non-denominational with an Anglican background. In addition to church, I attended various house-parties, youth-groups, Spring Harvests and CU meetings, where I picked up a fair bit of information about God and about being a Christian, which I have yet to put into practise. At University I started going with Will to Belmont, which used to be a brethren church, but which now eschews such labels. I don't remember having any real exposure to Catholicism except that afforded by Chick Tracts. I didn't pay a great amount of attention to Mr. Chick's arguments, as I wasn't a Catholic.

In my second year I began to live with, among other people, a Catholic called James. He came to University feeling that he ought to develop his faith, fell in with the CU, some of whom told him that it was a very-bad-thing that he was a Catholic and that it wasn't a patch on real Christianity. He looked into things and decided that it was Catholicism that was right rather then these CU people, and so when I met him, he had a head full of arguments for Catholicism (albeit without so much rhetorical skill). I liked to talk religion. James liked to talk religion. We talked about religion, so I was in turn exposed to pro-Catholic apologetics. I didn't just swallow it, obviously I would hope, but that's where it began, talking with a friend. I started living with James in 2001 (I think) and decided to become a Catholic on February 28 2004, so I'd had a little while to chew things over.

So, there follow some of the reasons that gradually compelled me to become a Catholic and, as I see it, complete the faith that I received years earlier by coming into full communion with the Catholic Church.

Sola scriptura is really a major consideration, one which, once decided against means that you have no option, as a Christian, but to consider where else authority may be found - so it opens the way to consideration of the authority of a historical Church. And I must say, sola scriptura was dropped pretty quickly by myself - I'm not sure it's even an intelligible belief, let alone a correct one.

The canon of Scripture is not decided by Scripture - it is a collection of books which has been given a table of contents and a name from an outside source. For the canon of Scripture to be of any use to us, we must know that it comes to us from God. How can we know this? It really is terribly important. As a non-Catholic (and this is of course an unreliable imaginative exercise) I think I would have been obliged to say that the historical consensus on the canon was the proof that we had. Further, that the Church maintains the Hebrew Scriptures together with the Apostolic witness always recognized by the Church as such. When there was one visible Church, it had the ability to declare the canon in the name of God, and this is what what remains to us today.

Except it simply isn't. If there ever was consensus even on what Christian doctrine was, it vanished pretty quickly, let alone the canon. Certain biblical passages suggest a nascent gnosticism, whose various schools later came to possess their own scriptures: 1 Tim 6:20-21, 1 Tim 4:3, 1 John 4:1-3. The process of canon selection is also contentious. The heart of the reason why Catholics and protestants have different books in their bible is because of the circulation of two separate collections of the Hebrew Scriptures at the time of the birth of the Church, the Hebrew version for protestants and the Greek for Catholics, to over-simplify it. The writers of the New Testament quoted the Greek version and it was a natural step to take the Greek version with it's extra books as canonical. After (I forget when, but it was substantially after) the Church began to make its presence felt, it was decided among the Jews that the Greek version was not canonical - it was in any case being abused and misinterpreted by Christians. The Church decided not to follow suit, as the Greek version was good enough for the apostles. I daresay that it was a contested decision, especially as time went on, but such it was until Luther decided that we should use the Hebrew version, as did the Jews. (It occurs to me that, for this to be a really consistent argument, Luther should also have prescribed circumcision) A firm decision on the New Testament of the Church was not made for some time. In certain communities, books that orthodox Christianity does not accept were treated as gospel (I'm thinking of the Didache and the Shepherd of Hermas) and certain books that we now take as gospel were deemed spurious, such as Hebrews. I believe the Catholic Church basically laid down it's canon at around 300 AD, but you may want to check it out yourself, as I think it was finalised somehow much later. That, with the removal of certain Old Testament books for protestants, and additional differences for the orthodox churches is how we have come to understand the contents of the bible. It was a declaration by a Church which believed it had the authority to make that declaration. How then is it possible for someone outside of that kind of Church, which believes that it can collectively make binding decisions of such magnitude, not to question that historical decision?

I already sense that I have begun a gargantuan task, which I can't help but expend a lot of words on. Never mind.
But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. - John 16:13
Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit — just as you were called to one hope when you were called — one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. - Ephesians 4:3-6
And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. - Matthew 16:18
When I look at the history of protestantism, I think it demonstrates the exact opposite of what the above verses expect and call for.

Whatever you may say about it, Catholicism confidently proposes dogma where private judgement of Scripture inherently generates disunity. Maintaining the principle of private judgement is to my mind, a natural route to the kind of liberalism that says that a symbolical resurrection is as valid as an actual one, and further to the whole tedious and insular business of post-modernity. It is obvious that encouraging everyone to form their own opinion results in different opinions and leads away from "all truth". The pool of protestant dogma seems to slowly shrink away - where it has shrunk away to nothing it is an extreme liberalism which still wants to maintain the name of Christianity - quite why, I could not say. I am incapable of feeling that "mere Christianity" is a desirable state of affairs.

Once I was invited to talk about Catholicism to a group of people studying the history of the reformation on the Moore course at Belmont. So I did. I talked a little about the doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist and mentioned that it wasn't really contested until the ninth century. The retort was that what the Church practically unanimously believed for eight centuries was quite capable of being wrong. Now, to my mind, if, for eight centuries the whole Christian Church held that a piece of bread was a fit object of worship and not, in fact, a piece of bread, then the gates of Hades did overcome the Church, and pretty soundly at that.

Cardinal Newman is reputed to have said that "[t]o be deep in history is to cease to be protestant." I make no claim to be deep in history, but that ecclesial history which I have made a study of, prior to the reformation has given me no indication of a Church which looks more protestant than Catholic. You can, in fact, find lots of evidence of contested opinions among church fathers, including some which sound quite protestant, but which are hedged in with what now pass for Catholic distinctives. And you can also find lots of schools of Christianity which profess some protestant-sounding doctrines, but these tend to be hedged in with what both protestant and Catholic alike would call heresy.

From the protestant side, it is generally alleged that Catholicism corrupted the true Christian Church, but when I looked for the Church that resisted the major heresies of gnosticism, Arianism &c. it looked like the Catholic one, and I couldn't find anything that looked non-denominational, or even Anglican.

I was surprised to find Catholic theology unjustly maligned as unbiblical. I couldn't begin to enumerate all the instances in which I was able to see that Catholic exegesis had quite a point. Of course, if you maintain that the bible is the only resource from which you can determine doctrine, I can still see how it looks ad hoc and forced, but as I say, I was inclined to ditch the idea. I found that these Catholic distinctives either existed clearly, or were visible dimly, in the belief and practise of very early Christian communities and though Scripture did not prove them, it could support them and did not in fact contradict them.

As an example of theology which I found surprisingly satisfactory: faith and works. Simply put, I find Catholic theology accounts for all of the following, whereas protestant theology falls over itself so as to affirm grace to the detriment of other sentences of Scripture, not uncommonly in the next verse.
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. - Ephesians 2:8-10
Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose. - Phillipians 2:12-13
You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone. - James 2:24
Sometimes it seems that every interpretation but the Catholic one is licit. For example, someone recently told me that they weren't comfortable with the idea of sins being forgiven by men, to which the obvious retort is "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven." Without blinking they asked if it might not apply equally to all Christians, which is of course a complete about-face (but it's okay because it's a biblical about-face).

Anyway, faith and works is one example. I found Scripture to be far more accommodating of Catholicism than I had suspected hitherto, and Catholic biblical apologetics to be, cumulatively, very coherent, more so than protestantism.

I suspect that the story is different in poorer countries than ours, but it seems to me that protestantism takes its cue from academic theologians, which seems to be the wrong way round.
I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure. - Luke 10:21
But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. - 1 Corinthians 1:27-29
I do not mean to imply that the study of theology is a bad thing - by no means - but I don't see much of a precedent in relying for our doctrine on the learned. What we have received, in Christianity, is a superficially nonsensical religion built on such apparent paradoxes as wrath completed by mercy, strength in weakness, glory in shame, dying to live. It has frequently been necessary to appeal to what has been traditionally believed by Christians in the face of the-latest-thing. I might mention Arianism and gnosticism again, and the various heterodox tendencies of the Alexandrian school. I might also mention that, though neither I nor the Catholic Church deem it necessary to believe in creationism, we are both sneered at for refusing to acknowledge that science has killed off any possibility of believing in God.

Our bishops may or may not be clever men. The reason that they are our leaders is because the Church has seen fit to entrust that ministry to them, as Jesus entrusted his mission to the Apostles, and they entrusted their ministry to their successors.

I think that perhaps that will do. I intended only to explain myself a little, so I would be surprised to hear that anyone was, in the parlance of our times, "challenged" by it. As I said at the start, if you want to talk to me about any of it, talk to me about it.

1 comment:

Dave Pegg said...

Cool, yeah I've got some questions so I'll ask next time I'm round!