Wednesday, October 29, 2014

To a friend who is leaving the Catholic Church

A Hard Saying

I so totally admire your love of the Catholic Church Tony. I am saddened that some of the rules I can not live with and will be joining a Lutheran one that will accept me.
What could I say? Facebook is where I keep in touch with my family and friends; I don’t go there to engage in verbal fisticuffs or stand on my soapbox. And yet, I can’t help feeling the answer I gave — “Forget it, lady. You gotta do a lot worse than that to lose my friendship” — was well-meaning but unsatisfactory.

I suppose I could have been a smartass and built some quibbles based on the precepts of the Church or on canon law. But either of those sallies would have ended in an exasperated “You know what I mean!”

In fact, I do know what you meant, my friend. It’s not really the rules you can’t live with, but rather some of the teachings. It isn’t a question of whether the Catholic Church accepts you: she does, and always has. Rather, it’s a question of what you accept — or, rather, what you reject.

You’re not the first person to abandon the Church over a teaching that sticks in the craw. Read the “Bread of Life” discourse (John 6:22-66): as Jesus insists that “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (v. 53), his verbs in the Greek become more graphic, switching from phagō (to eat) to trōgō (to chew, or gnaw like an animal). At the end of it, many of his disciples leave him, telling themselves and each other, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” (vv. 60, 66)

Jesus Never Promised Us a Rose Garden

Jesus came not just to forgive our sins but also to free us from the propensity to sin. Jesus did not, however, redefine sin or make the concept of sin “outmoded and irrelevant”. When Jesus stopped the scribes and Pharisees from stoning the adulteress, he did so by reminding them that they, too, were sinners; he did not, however, excuse the woman’s adultery, but rather told her, “Go, and sin no more” (John 8:2-11). She did not die for her sexual adventurism — but neither had Jesus made it no longer a sin.

Jesus didn’t promise his followers an “easy” religion. Indeed, he taught that it were better to tear out your eye or cut off your hand if either leads you to sin (Matthew 5:29-30), and that “there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:12). While these are examples of rabbinic hyperbole, they’re meant to underscore the necessity of avoiding sin.

Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s foes will be those of his own household. He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it. (Matthew 10:34-39; cf. Luke 12:49-53; emphasis mine)

Discipleship costs. I’m not just thinking of the physical and economic threats that face Christians in various parts of the globe, from hostile cultures and unfriendly governments; I’m also thinking of the cost, in relationships broken, lifestyles irretrievably altered, and careers stunted, to those who have committed themselves to living out the Church’s teachings in their fullness.

Putting Handcuffs on God

If you can’t accept some of the harder truths of the Faith, my friend, I can’t blame or judge you. My own discipleship is nowhere near perfect. And yet, without meaning to insult or degrade my friends and family from other communions, it would be more intellectually honest to give up Christianity altogether rather than leave the Catholic Church for a Protestant denomination.

I don’t recommend apostasy; nor do I make any judgment against the souls of Protestants. Here’s what I mean:

All Protestantism is, at its core, the rejection of religious authority — that is, the capability of any one or group of humans to be final arbiters over the meaning of the gospel message. This rejection, sadly, isn’t always principled; for a significant motive in rejecting the infallibility of the Church is found in the desire to change the rules so life as a Christian can be made easier. It’s not just that human beings make mistakes; rather, it’s that the mean ol’ corrupt bishops have laid such intolerable burdens on us with their rules that they must have made mistakes.

And yet, if you reject the authority of the bishops, how can you accept Scripture as authoritative, when it was the bishops of the Church who decided which books were divinely inspired? (Saint Augustine: “For my part, I should not believe the gospel except as moved by the authority of the Catholic Church.” [Against the Fundamental Letter of Manichaeus 5]) 

If you reject Jesus’ teaching on divorce (Matthew 19:4-9; cf. Mark 10:11-12, Luke 16:18), then on what grounds do you repeat his command, “Judge not, that you be not judged” (Matthew 7:1)? 

If Christ giving St. Peter the power of the keys (Matthew 16:19) is “a later insertion by the Church”, why isn’t the tale of the adulteress whom Jesus saved from stoning (John 8:2-11) also a later insertion? 

If the guidance of the Holy Spirit promised by Jesus to the apostles (John 16:13) couldn’t prevent the Church from getting at least one doctrine wrong, how could it prevent the Church from getting everything Jesus taught wrong? 

Then again, if the Holy Spirit couldn’t prevent the Church from getting something wrong, then what assurance do you have that the Holy Spirit will keep you from getting it wrong? This is the trap Martin Luther inadvertently laid for himself and all Protestantism: denying the infallibility of religious authority necessarily denies the power of the Holy Spirit to guide the Church, or even individual preachers. Sola scriptura handcuffs God Himself.

No Merely Human Institution

Yes, it’s difficult to live with complete faithfulness to the teachings of the Church — not impossible, for “with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26), but difficult nonetheless. Even bishops struggle to live the Faith authentically; their failure can be scandalous.

But consider: Jesus condemned the scribes and Pharisees for not practicing what they preached: “They bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with their finger. … [They] shut the kingdom of heaven against men; for [they] neither enter [themselves], nor allow those who would enter to go in.” (Matthew 23:4, 13) However, before he denounced the scribes and Pharisees, he instructed the people of Jerusalem to “practice and observe whatever they tell you”, for they “sit on Moses’ seat”; i.e., they were heirs to the teaching authority of Moses. (vv. 2-3) In other words, Jesus confirmed the scribes’ and Pharisees’ religious authority even as he condemned them for their hypocrisy.

So it is with the bishops of the Church. Not only did the early Church consider the bishops successors to the functions of the apostles, there is evidence, as I’ve shown elsewhere, that the apostles themselves considered their authority transferable. We consider their teaching protected from error, not because they’re uniformly wise, good and holy, but because they’re eminently human. Hilaire Belloc once quipped, “The Catholic Church is an institution I am bound to hold divine — but for unbelievers a proof of its divinity might be found in the fact that no merely human institution conducted with such knavish imbecility would have lasted a fortnight.”

So again I say, if you choose to convert to the Lutheran church, I won’t stop being your friend. Nor will I presume to cast judgment on the state of your soul. But I would ask you to prayerfully consider just what it is that’s leading you from the Church. Ask yourself not why you don’t believe everything the Church teaches, but rather why you believe anything the Church teaches.

Ask yourself how you’re different from those disciples who abandoned Jesus in Capernaum two thousand years ago.