Sort of my Grand View of Catholicism

A friend of mine was talking with me about the ecclesiology (particularly the differences in how it’s understood by Catholics and Eastern Orthodox), and said: “It seems that there is a tension here between a desire to establish and protect dogma, affirm unity, and preserve relations as a body catholic as much as possible but still reserve the ability to act when that body seems to be departing. I really like this sentence. I think it really does capture the essence of a lot of what the debate it about.

A lot of the conversation revolved around good-faith questioning. His argument was that schism is sometimes necessary to preserve the truth. He poses a fair question: what happens when, no matter how hard you pray and read up on an issue, you just can’t “buy” the Catholic (or generic Christian) position? When the Assumption seems like… well, an assumption. [He was considering this in the context of Catholicism, but the argument works for those things agreed upon by (virtually) all Christians, like the atonement or the Trinity]. I’m not sure I have a great answer, but here’s my best attempt. I’m starting with the presumption of a general belief in Christ and the Bible (I could go about trying to explain this, but that’d be making this post a lot longer).

Here’s how I view it:

The historic Church has to be given the presumption. All of the exhortations to look to the Church as the pillar and foundation of Truth (1 Tim. 3:15), be of one mind (1 Corinthians 1:10), and so on, as well as the promises that Christ would be with us always (Matthew 28:20), that the Holy Spirit would be with us forever (John 14:16) and will teach us all things (John 14:26), seem to make sense only if we can trust the Church, and only if that Church is externally visible.

It seems to me that Christ and the Spirit-inspired NT writers clearly believed you could put your faith in the Church. This didn’t mean, of course, neglecting personal sanctity and Scripture reading, and so forth, but as a crucial element of the Faith, the Church was put there. And we are instructed to go to the Church constantly to resolve disputes and to find out theological questions not made clear during Christ’s stint on Earth.

The early Church didn’t, for example, confine itself to Scripture alone when making binding declarations. The Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 shows two groups of Christians who fundamentally disagree on doctrine. The Church holds a universal meeting in Acts 15:6 [which, by the way, dispels the notion that local congregations were the highest level of authority], for ordained clergy. At the end of the Council, they declare, “It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us…” They’re speaking for the Holy Spirit. And they criticize the heretical Judaizers for teaching “without a mandate from us” (Acts 15:24).

All of this sounds incredibly Catholic. We still operate this way today. Many of the core teachings accepted by all mainstream Christians (like the Trinity) are declared dogmatic at these Church Councils. The Biblical canon is set (including the Dueterocanon), various rules are set up, the date of Easter is established, etc. A great many of these dogmatic rulings are held as binding dogma by Protestants, even when, like the Trinity, you may not find them from a bare textual reading.

Of course, there’s a legitimate question today about if “the catholic Church = the Catholic Church”, but prior to the East-West Schism, there was an identifiable early Church (granted, there have periodically been heretical splits, and a few which may be more fairly classified as schisms, although it’s hard to say – the Coptic split, for example – but these were never large enough to confuse anyone about what was meant by the ‘c’atholic Church).

So if your intuitive reading leads you in direction X, but direction Y is also supportable from the reading, and Y is the embraced by the Church, you should submit to being wrong. For example, the OT can reasonably be read to support either a political or a spiritual Messiah (or both), and Jews came (and come) to all three conclusions. The Bereans were able to go back through the OT (which again, included the Dueterocanon – they were Greek-speakers; Berea is in Greece), and see all the things which they’d missed the first hundred or so times they probably poured over those texts. Catholics are encouraged to do the same thing – there are all sorts of Catholic doctrines which you might not notice at first brush, so when you hear a speaker saying something like, “the angel Gabriel greeting Mary in Luke 1:28 with a ‘Hail’ is an awfully deferential move from the same angel who pulled rank on a Jewish priest 6 months earlier,” you can go back and read Luke 1, and see if it makes sense. And if it doesn’t, come back and ask questions! The difference between the Bereans and the Pharisees wasn’t that one read Scripture and the other didn’t. It was that one was willing to re-read Scripture with an open mind and an open heart.

All of this leads to the big question: what if you just can’t believe Y? The Church says, keep trying. It’s good advice. But I the interim? I’m not sure. I think acknowledging your struggles, doubts, or disbelief is a good starting point, particularly if you’re someone other people will listen to and follow. This way no one is mislead into thinking you represent the Catholic view when you don’t (this has been a BIG problem in the last half-century in the US).

The two models of dissent are Martin Luther and Hans Kung. Luther disagreed with Church doctrine and split. Kung disagrees with the Church but stays (nominally, at the least). Kung actually wrote his dissertation on Luther, and while he agreed with Luther’s views on sola fide, he felt Luther was wrong for splitting. I think, of course, that they’re both wrong. The Church’s response to Kung has been to strip him of his ability to teach as a Catholic theologian, which is rather lenient, and perhaps very wise (it’s not what I would have done, but perhaps it’s what I should have done). There are times to cast people out of the Church for their views (Matthew 18 makes this clear), but it should be a last resort.

However, I still can’t affirm schism in the case of someone who believes in Christ but not Church teaching. Christ establishes a Church, and prays against schism in John 17:20-23. Reading that passage with the understanding that Christ is praying for the future (v. 20), and that He is all-knowing, He doesn’t seem to think any schisms are necessary evils. So I think your last paragraph (that sometimes you have to split, but only in extreme cases) is wrong [it’s seemingly wrong in part because you seem to think of the Church as an earthly institution, while Christ calls it the Kingdom of Heaven]. Christ gives no clues that this is the case, at least that I know of. (Obviously, the Bereans you cite to as proto-sola Scripturists wouldn’t have been praised if they’d come to the wrong conclusion.)

In either case, a person who struggles with the Church’s teaching doesn’t then get the authority to go and preach against it any more than the Judaizers did – like I said, they were condemned for this lack of Apostolic mandate in Acts 15:24. I think the appropriate thing to do is to acknowledge your struggles and quietly and prayerfully deal with them without allowing your doubts to lead others into doubt. It’s probably better that someone like a Bart Ehrman, whose Scriptural scholarship lead him to disbelieve his evangelical upbringing, acknowledged this fact outright, instead of pretending to be on the same “team” as the Evangelicals. I think it was a bad thing that he wrote 2 books capitalizing on creating doubts in Christians’ minds (I see very little possible good that could come of this: just because you think you’re right doesn’t mean you have to go and tell everybody).

You say, “Doubt, uncertainty, and a dissatisfaction with the church are hardly grounds for nourishing growth in faith.” And this is often true, if the person is sulking, or feeling offended that his or her prayers didn’t lead them to the right conclusions. Of course, there’s an element of absurdity in all of this: if Christ desired to be known primarily through private reading and interpretation of Scripture and private prayer, it’s a curious result that so many millions of Christians have understood the Bible differently than one another, all believing their individual interpretation is the right one based on the feeling they ascribe to the Holy Spirit. Christ promises His and the Holy Spirit’s guidance to the Church, not to the individual, so if the two are at odds, it’s obvious who’s right. Still, it seems to me that sometimes, God works through the person’s troubles, and leads them to the right conclusion, so a prayerful struggle can be beneficial. And at the other end, the person may come out having a unique perspective, and answers to a lot of objections that cradle believers may not have considered.

I question what option you leave in the paragraph I quote from: you’re clearly thinking that the person’s dissent leads them into relatively mainstream Protestantism, but what if it doesn’t? What if they read the Bible and come out an atheist or agnostic (like Ehrman), or a polygamist (like some of the LDS believers), or something patently non-Christian? Should the Church just say, “Hey, follow your conscience!” If the Church is the pillar and foundation of Truth, She must have the authority to condemn, deter, and even punish error. Because Truth isn’t relative: it stands above and in opposition to falsehoods. It has to, to be the truth. Certainly, there’s miles of room for mercy, for dialogue, for trying to explain things in terms the other party can assent to. But at the end of the day, She can’t just have a “run wild” attitude, or She’s no longer the Church.

One of the reasons Christ forbade schism prayed as He did in John 17 is so “that the world may know that You sent Me, and that You loved them even as You loved Me.” (John 17:23). When we tear each other apart as Christians, it leads to non-Christians looking at Christianity and thinking, “no, thank you.”

Great e-mail… very thought provoking. Sorry my response was so long.

– Joe.

That’s more or less it. He respond with some good points. One of these is that I shouldn’t have said Christ “forbade schism.” Certainly, schism is damnable (Galatians 5:19-21), but Christ is doing something positive: inviting us to the type of union that He and the Father have, which is a union with hierarchy. We see this sort of submission out of love all throughout the Christian message: women are to submit to their husbands, everyone is to submit to the Church, the Church is to submit to Christ, Christ submits to the Father. So while I think you’re right that it’s to be a unity modeled off the Trinity, I think that implies a hierarchy, even amongst moral equals.

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