Is Union With Rome A Moral Imperative?
I am a Christian, a member of a religion stretching back two thousand years. I am, one could say, the spiritual heir of nearly one hundred generations of those who came before me in the faith. And yet, I was born into a divided Christendom, clinging to one of the Reformation's innumerable shards.
And, so far as shards go, it was not a bad one. I grew up as a Free Methodist, the result of a schism from mainstream Methodism, which was itself a schism from Anglicanism. Anglicanism has its own story, of which more will follow later.
Free Methodism is a Protestantism of the Arminian variety, which affirms free will, denies eternal security (the belief that we can never, even through deliberate renunciation, lose our salvation), and does not teach that God is a most, shall we say, “unpleasant” being who has decided to hate (to the point of predestined damnation) the bulk of humanity from the moment of their conception. The Free Methodist Church is a wonderful church, and it has been the spiritual home of my family for many generations.
And yet, as a body created by schism, it has had a relatively short life on its own. The heritage of faith only goes back to 1860, before one must jump back into the parent church. Continue back through Methodism, and one finds oneself in the Church of England. If one dares to continue, one will find oneself in the Church of Rome, the Catholic Church.
The Catholic Church, by its very existence, is controversial to the Protestant. There is this idea that we Protestants rediscovered Christianity five hundred years ago and put the religion back on the right track. It can be baffling to see so many believers -- indeed, the largest single group of believers -- still within the Roman communion.
Those who know me very well know that I have been strongly interested in the Catholic Church for several years now. This has been surprising to some, and even shocking and upsetting for some others. To say to a devout Protestant that one is considering Catholicism is much like saying that one is considering renouncing one's citizenship and pledging allegiance to a foreign land. This is particularly shocking if the Protestant believes, as many do, that the Catholic Church is evil and apostate, the home of the anti-Christ.
I first expressed serious interest in the summer of 2005, while serving with the U.S. Army in Iraq. Someone, in such a callous disregard for separation of church and state that Barry Lynn would have surely collapsed from shock had he known, had taped the Prayer to St. Michael to the window of one of our humvees. I investigated it further, out of curiosity, and this led to further study of the Catholic Church.
I continued my study when I returned to the U.S., amassing quite a library of Catholic apologetics. I even entered the RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) program in Savannah, Georgia, with the intention of joining the Church on Easter Sunday, 2007. I did not follow through, however, due to some lingering doubts. That decision, I fear, has been to my detriment, though perhaps the fact I see that is a sign of hope.
In an earlier note, entitled “500 Years After Rome,” which I posted on February 5, 2010, I argued that the Protestant Reformation has had rather disastrous consequences and that, in hindsight, maintaining union with Rome, even a flawed Rome, would have been a better course of action. That argument was based primarily on the idea of unity and doctrinal cohesion.
I made a later argument in favor of traditional Catholic-style liturgy, in my note, “Give Me That Old Time Religion.” Certainly, I prefer traditional liturgy to what we have in Evangelical churches today, but that is largely, though I would not say entirely, a matter of taste. And, if aesthetics are to be the deciding factor, I attended an absolutely beautiful Church of Ireland (Anglican) service in Dublin recently, which put the Ordinary Form (Novus Ordo, post-Vatican II) of the Catholic Mass to shame.
And yet, as beautiful as the service was, Anglicanism has no great appeal to me. It looks, at least in the glorious high-Church atmosphere of the 11th century (and therefore, formerly Catholic) Christ Church Cathedral, like Catholicism used to look, but appearances are deceptive. Underneath the beautiful display, the doctrines and moral teachings of historic Christianity have been eroding away. In the Catholic Church, however, the doctrinal and moral foundations are still firmly in place, no matter how strenuously clergy and laity alike so often rebel against them.
Anglicanism is interesting, however, when it comes to my own religious heritage. King Henry VIII had once been a loyal Catholic, and he had opposed the innovations of Martin Luther and the other Protestant reformers on the continent. However, his desire for a male heir – and Anne Boleyn – coupled with some good old English nationalism, led him to break with Rome. If not for those factors, England may have remained a Catholic nation. As a Free Methodist, tracing my heritage back, I cannot help but wonder if I would have been raised a Catholic instead, if King Henry VIII had stayed true to his wife and to his Church.
However, King Henry did split, the Reformation did happen, and here we are, heirs to a centuries-old schism. The question is, what are we to do about it? May we continue as we are, accepting the status quo, even if we lament the original separation? Or, does each and every Protestant have a moral duty to return to union with Rome, in the Catholic Church?
These are very serious questions. We Protestants often talk of the importance of unity, and yet I cannot help but think that Protestantism, by its very existence, is an offense against unity. It had its origins in rebellion and division, and it perpetuates rebellion and division. Personally, I do not believe Protestantism contains the viable framework necessary to maintain any sort of unity or doctrinal orthodoxy. This is nothing against the strong faith and commitment of so many Protestants, but I believe we are working within a system that is doomed to failure.
And yet, most of us are born into this system. We did not choose to leave the Catholic Church. Our ancestors, for various reasons, chose to do this long ago. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says the following, in entry 818:
“However, one cannot charge with the sin of the separation those who at present are born into these communities [that resulted from such separation] and in them are brought up in the faith of Christ, and the Catholic Church accepts them with respect and affection as brothers . . . . All who have been justified by faith in Baptism are incorporated into Christ; they therefore have a right to be called Christians, and with good reason are accepted as brothers in the Lord by the children of the Catholic Church.”
Very well; this is all very positive. We are not charged with the sin of separation, and we are acknowledged as fellow Christians. However, skipping down to entry 846, we read this:
- “Basing itself on Scripture and Tradition, the Council teaches that the Church, a pilgrim now on earth, is necessary for salvation: the one Christ is the mediator and the way of salvation; he is present to us in his body which is the Church. He himself explicitly asserted the necessity of faith and Baptism, and thereby affirmed at the same time the necessity of the Church which men enter through Baptism as through a door. Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it or to remain in it.”
- If I may repeat the last sentence again, “Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse to enter it or to remain in it.”
Those are fairly strong words, though still showing a great deal of mercy to the ignorant. Most Protestants ignore or disagree with words such as these, believing that their faith is perfectly fine, thank you very much. However, for those of us who do consider such words, for those of us who think there is at least a chance the Catholic Church is correct in what it says, we cannot set the matter aside.
This is where that moral duty comes in, which I mentioned earlier. This is not about aesthetics or about what each of us may prefer in a church service. This is a matter of what we must do, not a matter of what we would like to do. It is a matter of our salvation. We may look into the Catholic Church and decide, in all sincerity, that it is incorrect, and we ought to stay where we are or go elsewhere. Or, we may embrace its claims and rush eagerly into its doors. What we cannot do, I believe, is ignore it.
Schism is an unfortunate state in which to be. As Protestants, we are separate from those who were our predecessors in the faith. At some point in time, our spiritual ancestors said to their bishops, “We will no longer acknowledge your authority,” and then went their own way. In the years since, many of us have have come to accept their decision as the default. What I propose is that we each consider the matter anew. We should each decide if the schism is something we wish to personally maintain and pass down to our children, or if we should return to Rome.
“What a minute,” some will say. “You do not understand. I was raised Catholic, and I never heard the Scriptures; I never learned how to have a personal relationship with Christ. I was saved out of the Catholic Church. Why would you want to go there?”
Leaving aside the question of what in the world they were doing during mass, if they never heard the Scriptures, or what can be more personal than receiving Christ, body, blood, soul and divinity in the Eucharist, I think these are legitimate things to say. The Catholic Church in our day has done an astoundingly poor job of teaching the faith to its members. One could argue about why this has happened, but the result is that many Catholics have left the Church and have embraced some form of Evangelical Protestantism or left Christianity entirely.
The fact that so many Catholics do not know their faith is a serious problem, but the problem, in my opinion, is not the faith, but the fact they do not know it like they should. One almost never hears of learned, faithful Catholics in our day studying their way into Protestantism, though there are numerous examples of the reverse being true and Protestants studying their way into the Catholic Church. Instead, the casual Catholics and the Christmas and Easter Catholics and those who found themselves simply going through the motions on Sunday are “saved” by Evangelicals who actually do know their faith.
The newly converted Evangelicals worship God wholeheartedly in their new church, and one cannot fault their zeal, and one cannot help but be glad they are now seriously serving Christ. However, did they have to leave the Catholic Church to do this? Did they have to commit themselves to a new and exciting version of Christianity, or could they have stayed in the Catholic Church, sharing in two thousand years of faith and participating in the sacraments?
I have, over the past few years, had some objections to the Catholic Church, but they were not the objections of Luther or Calvin or any other Protestant. My concern, a concern shared by John Henry Newman, was that Rome had introduced innovations and perhaps the true, apostolic, historic faith was to be found elsewhere. Newman believed, for a time, that this faith could be found in Anglicanism. I have often thought it could be found in Orthodoxy. I do not think it is likely to be found in some radical new theology preached in the new church down the street.
“But the Reformation was a restoration of the true, historic, apostolic faith!” some might say. While I respect the opinion, I must disagree most emphatically. When I look at the practices of the ancient Church, its writings, its councils, and its creeds, I see sacraments, apostolic authority, the communion of saints, infant baptism, and a visible Church. The Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church continue to hold to these. Protestantism has largely rejected them, while adding a few doctrines, such as sola fide and sola scriptura, that were clear departures from what was previously believed.
If someone were to be suspicious of purgatory, papal infallibility, or the immaculate conception, I would be sympathetic. These are doctrines believed by the Catholic Church, but not by the Orthodox Church, and they were formally defined after the East-West split in AD 1054. I have respect for the Orthodox objections, and if someone, out of a desire for the true, apostolic, historic faith, were to become Orthodox, I would completely understand. However, if a Protestant were to object, simply because the doctrines did not line up with his or her interpretation of Scripture, then I am unlikely to be convinced, particularly since the Protestant also rejects so much that Catholicism and Orthodoxy hold in common.
It is difficult for me to believe Rome was right about the inspiration of Scripture, the divinity of Christ, the Trinity, the immortality of the soul, and the existence of Heaven and Hell, and yet Rome's teachings about the communion of saints or the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist are damnable lies. If the Catholic Church is completely wrong about sacraments, authority, and Sacred Tradition, I am far more likely to reject the faith entirely than to scrape away a few pieces and make my own personal Christianity out of them.
What shall we conclude? Was traditional Christianity hopelessly flawed, with the mess that is Protestantism being the best we can do? Is the Christian religion itself a hodgepodge of conflicting options which we should abandon in favor of agnosticism or atheism, admitting that none of us have a clue who God is or what He wants from us? Or, did Christ found one Church, which He has continued to guide into all truth, promising that the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it?
For myself, I am increasingly inclined to believe Christ did found a Church, the Catholic Church, and it is the obligation of every person to enter into it. I am still a bit indecisive and I have not made any formal decisions, but I have to wonder how much longer my indecision will be a valid state of inquiry, rather than a form of rebellion against Almighty God.
I welcome your thoughts. May God have mercy on us and guide us to the truth.