Is The Catholic Church the Kingdom of God?

I just finished reading what I thought was a pretty excellent starting point for a good discussion on ecclesiology and ecumenical dialogue between Catholics and non-Catholic Christians (Protestants, non-Catholic Charismatics, Orthodox, etc.). I was referred to the site by one of the nicest commenters I’ve ever heard from (or of) via my e-mail. Much thanks to Rick from Livermore – I really enjoy this guy’s perspective.

Anyways, for some reason, the comment box wasn’t working: I tried shortening the comment, and it kept saying “cannot accept the data” or some similarly vague error. So here’s what I was trying to say in response.

John,

I was referred to your website by someone who was favorably disposed to your irenic tone towards us Catholics. I’ve not been disappointed. I love that you singled Mary Ann Glendon out as a profile in courage. She is indeed, on abortion today as on civil rights yesterday.

A lot of what you’re saying here is correct. Winning a Protestant convert to Catholicism shouldn’t be about tribalism or gloating (even to oneself). It certainly can be: I’ve undoubtedly been guilty of indulging this before.

You’re right about the numbers, too. The Catholic Church is losing members much faster than she’s gaining them (Something like 10% of America is ex-Catholic). Usually people leave the Church at a young age: it smells like authority and rules, and the promise of a “simpler faith” is particularly appealing to the young. Plus, we’re doing an awful job (in some places in the US) of teaching the next generation Catholicism. I say this as a young person myself (I’m 24 now) who has seen some of the best and the worst.

Finally, you’re right that the constant in-fighting amongst Christians is abhorrent, and repels would-be converts. Christ prayed “that they [we] may all be one” in John 17:21, and in v. 23 explains why: “May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

Vatican II took the bold step of embracing what we have in common, and as Catholics, we believe that the Holy Spirit was at work there. But as the poster above me (Bryan) mentioned, V. II doesn’t deny that there remain very serious differences.

Here, I draw different conclusions than you. Those leaving the Catholic Church often have a poor understanding of Her teachings to begin with. As Bp. Fulton Sheen once said, “There are not a hundred people in America who hate the Catholic Church. There are millions of people who hate what they wrongly believe to be the Catholic Church — which is, of course, quite a different thing.”

Conversion (and reversion) stories are an edifying way of showing Catholics why it is that so many of our co-religionists are becoming Evangelical, and why so many are coming back. I just finished Francis Beckwith’s “Return to Rome,” about his resignation as president of the Evangelical Theological Society, and it’s been great for me as a Catholic. I learned more about what my own faith teaches about justification and why (his 6th and 7th chapters are all about it with lots of information from the early Church Fathers, although the book isn’t primarily an apologetic work by any means).

It also contained some much needed criticisms for us Catholics. Too often, we have the urge to do what you’re suggesting here: to simply become one of the denominations, to become something like relativistic about it: the “competing orthodoxies” view. That would be suicide for the faith. If Catholicism is just one option, why choose it over an easier option? It’s like asking pro-lifers to posit their view as one of a multitude of possible choices. When we do that, we’re declaring defeat.

Protestant Christians are both Protestant and Christian. We may change our emphasis on which part we focus upon, but it’s not a change in the Church’s belief. The Catholic Church has always held Herself out as the Kingdom of God which Christ established on Earth. Pope Benedict is no exception – he mentions this (more or less) in his work as a private theologian in “Jesus of Nazareth.” The Biblical support, like Matthew 13:24-25, suggests that the Kingdom of God on Earth is a visible society containing both saved (wheat) and unsaved (weeds) members. Matthew 16:17-19 has Him giving the keys to that Kingdom to St. Peter. We view that as Jesus creating a perpetual earthly head for the earthly Kingdom. He seems to claim a comparable power for Himself in the Heavenly Kingdom (Revelation 3:7, and perhaps Rev. 1:18, though it’s less clear). So the Church isn’t making this up out of whole cloth, either. It’s the crux of our identity, independent of Protestants. We would focus on being the One True Church even if the only non-Catholics to convert were the Jindals of the world instead of the Brownbacks.

Finally, about whether or not we should convert non-Catholic Christians. It’s a valid question, and Beckwith raises some points in Return to Rome which are worth considering. He described a job interview at Baylor where he was asked about his views on a certain issue, and then the second question was, “so do you believe that everyone who thinks otherwise is wrong?” And that second question is where we always get antsy, particularly in this day and age of palatable relative “truths” being juxtaposed against rigid fanaticism. None of us want to make ourselves look closed- or narrow-minded.

If I were answering the question, I would delineate between matters of personal taste, factual errors, and moral errors. Certain elements (liturgical ones) are shaped in no small part by personal taste. Individuals should agree to disagree. It’s like arguing over which favourite color is better. Other elements are factual errors, but insignificant. One side is right, one side is wrong, but the correct answer doesn’t impact the way we live, worship, or conceptualize God, so it hardly matters. The final group, though, is where I see the issue of the Church. We believe that Christ worked through us to create the “complete unity to let the world know” by creating One True Church with visible leadership on Earth.

We think that Christ instructs us to act in a certain way, and that the Church is inescapably tied to Christ Himself. The early Church clearly thought this – they called themselves “the Way” (Acts 9:2), a divine title (John 14:6), Paul describes the Church as the Body and the Bride of Christ: of one flesh with Him through the Eucharist. And Jesus seems to think this way of the Church as inseparable from Himself as well. In Acts 9, He asks Paul why do you persecute “Me,” rather than “my followers,” and of course, “whatever you did for one of these least brothers of Mine, you did for Me” (Matthew 25:40).

We don’t emphasize this because we want to denigrate the legitimate faith that the vast majority of Protestants have. Rather, drawing on that love for Christ, we try (or perhaps should be trying) to make a good-faith effort to steer it in a different direction on this issue, because we think it’s what Christ wants, and what’s ultimately the only way to bring about the sort of unity which is pleasing to God.

All of that said, I think this blog post (and the blog, generally) is an important piece in that dialogue.

Yours in Christ,

Joe.

1 Comment

  1. Joe, you have read my comments accurately and responded in very helpful ways that express true Christian faith and wisdom. I am delighted to read your perspective and essentially believe it reflects an accurate and faithful Catholic perspective, one I respect while I still disagree at some important points. We have made progress in true ecumenism but we are not where we ought to be or desire to be, if we long for oneness expressed in Christ’s Church.

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