My post this weekend about embracing doubt has stirred up quite a few people. The truth is that the post started and ended as an encouragement for us not to approach our studies with the intent of confirming our prejudice. In order for true learning to take place we have to be willing to change. So far, so good?
Of course this is not the reason I had to put on my bulletproof vest. The post turned from a “ho-hum” reminder to a slanderous “how could you?” when I used Roman Catholicism as an illustration of an institution that limits freedom. Further, from this, I suggested that true Roman Catholics cannot be good scholars. In order to qualify as “good” scholars, they have to be a bit rebellious.
I have been quite taken aback by the responses. Part of me is glad to see so many Protestants coming to the defense of Roman Catholics. It tells me that our readership is made up of those who are kind and gracious, not wanting to make unnecessary divides and not liking harsh rhetoric (which does nothing to advance our cause and does not honor Christ). Though I don’t think I made any overstatements or used sensationalistic rhetoric to make my point, I am glad to see pushback, so long as it is thoughtful. As well, I believe I have earned the right to write a “wounds of a friend” post every once in a while. Those of you who are regulars of this blog know that I don’t engage in polemics very often. I feel I have written in a balanced way over the years, even if it has not been perfect. But every so often I will write something that cuts to the quick. Looking back at this post, it would have done me well to preface it with a study on the Roman Catholic view of authority. This might have served as a reminder (to those of us who are Protestants) why we don’t believe in an infallible Magisterium, and why we do believe this body ultimately does much more harm than good.
My History with Roman Catholicism
When I was exploring the Roman Catholic faith many years ago, I did not do so as a mere outsider who was trying to gather apologetic ammo. I did so prayerfully and respectfully, wrestling with the Lord concerning every detail and doctrine. After nearly a year of daily engagement with Catholicism (sometimes for 4-5 hours a day – my whole family remembers that time!), reading and talking with the “best of” Roman Catholics, I came to understand Catholicism at a whole different level. My fellowship with many Catholics became so close and sweet that many of them approached me and said that they all knew that it was simply a matter of time before I converted. However, this was not to be.
During this time I reshaped my understanding of Catholicism in many ways. For example:
Prayers to Mary and the saints: I used to think that these amounted to worship of Many the saints. While this might be true of some Roman Catholics, it did not represent the true teaching of the Church on this matter. When Catholics pray to Mary and the saints, it is not unlike when you or I ask someone to pray for us. We are not worshiping the one we ask to pray for us, are we? When a Roman Catholic prays to a saint, they are simply asking them to intercede on their behalf the same way as when you or I ask a friend to pray for us. And from their perspective, who better to ask to pray for you then Mary, Jesus’ mother!
Yes, I still disagree with this practice, but I don’t view it as saint worship anymore.
Purgatory: I used to think this was a doctrine which expressed a wholly deficient view of the atonement. What Christ did was not enough. His payment was insufficient, so we must spend some atoning time in Purgatory. While this is the view of some Roman Catholics, others merely see it as “washing up before dinner.” In other words, all of us believe in some type of process that completely sanctifies us after death. We all believe that Christians die imperfect and fallen, but something happens between death and the presence of God, which makes us actually and totally free from all sin. What happens? What cleanses us? Catholics call this Purgatory. Many see it as a timeless (almost instantaneous) event. It is like our last surgery.
While I strongly disagree with any type of atoning event which uses suffering as its means of cleansing, I can live with this “modified” understanding of Purgatory without getting too bent out of shape these days.
Doctrinal Development: But hasn’t Catholicism changed so much over the years? How can they claim to be a stable entity when they have contradicted themselves so often? Those who are serious about understanding Roman Catholic theology as it stands today must engage An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine by John Henry Newman. In my opinion, it is the most important Roman Catholic apologetic work of the last two centuries, and possibly since the Reformation. In essence, Newman gives Rome an articulated defense of how and why Roman Catholic doctrine develops (i.e., it develops, but does not change).
Again, I disagree with the work’s final implications (that Rome has not really changed), but I can now understand how one can still have their historic integrity and their Catholicism, too.
My journey in and out of Roman Catholicism was an incredible struggle, filled with the fostering of new friendships, appreciation, and some degree of anxiety as I returned my visitor’s pass and sailed back across the Tiber. There are so many things to say, but I must move quickly to a justification of my last post concerning their scholarship.
Can Catholics Disagree with Rome and Remain Catholics?
As many of you know, my primary training is in New Testament studies. I love and respect theology, philosophy, and church history, but when push comes to shove, I want to know what the text says. I love to study commentaries. I love to read them cover to cover. Although I could do a much better job of it, I love to keep up on my Greek. Nothing persuades me of truth more than discovering it in the Bible. In short, I love exegesis.
Issues related to interpretation became a major focus of my conversations with Catholics. My primary question was this: What if I have an interpretation of a text that does not agree with Rome? Is that okay? What you have to know is that there is quit a bit of freedom to interpret in the Roman Catholic system. Wait. I know what you are thinking. Doesn’t that militate against what your previous post argued – that there is not academic freedom in Rome? Well, it depends on what you mean. You see, contrary to popular opinion, Rome has not spoken directly and dogmatically to many passages of Scripture. Even the Pope rarely, if ever, speaks infallibly. He is just as fallible as you or I 99.999% of the time. It is only when he speaks “from the chair” that his words are infallibly binding. And there is quite a bit of debate among Catholics as to when Popes have actually exercised this privilege. In other words, there is not a “Dogmatic-Required-by-Rome-Commentary” out there. The Pope and councils have not laid out how understand every text of the Bible. Therefore, there is some degree of freedom.
However, there are some passages, such as Matthew 16, that have been dogmatized (you know, the whole “Peter and the keys to heaven establishing the Papacy” thing). More importantly, theology has been dogmatized. In other words, however one reads the Scripture, in the end, the reading must fall in line with Roman Catholic theology.
So…can one interpret the Bible in a way that conflicts with Roman Catholic theology? The answer is no.
In my attempts to understand Roman Catholicism, I looked and looked for loopholes.
What if I come to the conviction that Mary was not ever-virgin? Can I teach accordingly? No.
What if I come to the conviction that missing mass on Sundays is not a mortal sin? Can I teach and act accordingly? No.
What if I came to the conclusion that the Bible teaches against the doctrine of Purgatory? Can I teach my kids this? No.
What if I disagreed with the doctrine of transubstantiation, believing that John 6 was not to be taken literally? Could I teach and believe accordingly? No. Well, not if I expect to be a true Roman Catholic.
What About Hans Kung?
In response to my last post, many people brought up the fact that there are many within the Catholic Church who have disagreed with the Church and are still in good standing. Therefore, they believe this invalidates my last post. Hans Kung is always the example in these cases! While it is true that Rome has not formally excommunicated Kung, this does not serve as a good illustration, as any good Catholic will inform you. One does not have to be formally excommunicated to have lost their standing in the Church. Think about it. I am sure that there are many everyday dads and moms and brothers and sisters who have never been formally “kicked out” of the Church, yet hold incredibly aberrant views. They are not “safe” simply because the institution has not formally recognized their apostasy. Apostasy is defined very clearly and happens upon the subject’s departure, not the Church’s recognition of this departure. So one should expect to find thousands, indeed millions, of examples of those who hold views different from Rome’s, but are still “members in good standing.”
Again, this was such an important question for me: Can one study the Bible and come to conclusions that are different than what has been dogmatized by Rome, and still be a true Catholic?
Let me quote Rome:
“23. When the Magisterium of the Church makes an infallible pronouncement and solemnly declares that a teaching is found in Revelation, the assent called for is that of theological faith. This kind of adherence is to be given even to the teaching of the ordinary and universal Magisterium when it proposes for belief a teaching of faith as divinely revealed.
When the Magisterium proposes ‘in a definitive way’ truths concerning faith and morals, which, even if not divinely revealed, are nevertheless strictly and intimately connected with Revelation, these must be firmly accepted and held.(22)” (emphasis mine; Source)
Accepted and held. This is more than a mere “I will not teach against this” like we have in the documents of membership at Stonebriar Community Church. This doctrines much be accepted and held. And this is not a passive acceptance, but one that must be firm.
Doesn’t Evangelicalism Have the Same Limits?
Finally, a word about Roman Catholicism compared to Evangelicalism. Many have objected to me using Rome as a punching bag, believing that if Catholicism lacks freedom, then the same must be said of Evangelicalism. In a way, I see where people are coming from. However, this does not really work. Evangelicalism is not an institution. It has no creeds, documents of incorporation, headquarters, president, or pope. In theory, Evangelicalism is descriptive of a movement with which like-minded believers network or identify. One cannot be “kicked out” of Evangelicalism. One does not become an Evangelical by vowing to submit to the authority or even the idea of Evangelicalism. Therefore, the comparison does not work.
I even had someone complain by saying that since I was a 5-point Calvinist, the same restraints were upon me. They said that I did not have the freedom to interpret the Scriptures outside of my 5-point Calvinistic paradigm. Again, this is in no way parallel. Not only is 5-point Calvinism not an institution to which I submit, it is merely a description of my beliefs. I am free to become a 4-point Calvinist tomorrow if I so desire. (And this often happens!. Every time I study the book of John, or talk with Dr. Hall Harris III, I become more 4-point.)
Again, the end is the same. Becoming a Roman Catholic amounts to a submission of your beliefs to the authority of Rome. I think one can be a fine philosopher, sociologist, epistemologist, and ethicist and still be a Roman Catholic. However, when it comes to theology and, most specifically, exegetical studies of the Bible, I don’t think he or she can be a scholar, since they lack the academic freedom to disagree with Rome.
Contray to what many people have said, I don’t hate Rome. Maybe I should have used Mormonism as the example. You think there would have been less push-back if I did? I probably shouldn’t have used any illustration at all! Just left it as “Embracing Doubt.” Oh well, damage done.