Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Internet Monk, as usual, asks great questions

Michael Spencer, over at Internet Monk posted 5 Questions for Roman Catholics. Due to the fact that (1) it was linked by the ever-popular Amy Welborn, and (2) he wasn't able to get in to moderate and post comments for a while, he was flooded by voluminous and thoughtful answers of remarkable consistency.

Here are his questions:
  1. Do Roman Catholics consider Protestant ministers like myself valid ministers? More particularly, if a good friend becomes Roman Catholic, are they now confessionally required to believe that I was never called of God to be a minister?

  2. Why is so much of my dialog with Catholics frustrated with “cafeteria Catholicism?” Catholics will tell me that I must accept the church’s teaching on subject X, but if I point out that they also must accept the church’s teaching on subject Y, I often hear, “Don’t put words in my mouth. That’s not what I believe.” With all due respect, since when did the beliefs of an individual catholic matter? If a Protestant demonstrates that the church has infallibly taught Y, isn’t that the end of the discussion for the catholic?

  3. What would be the church’s view on someone who is convinced the Catholic faith is true, but who is unable or chooses not to openly convert to Catholicism at this time? Is such a person committing a sin?

  4. Exactly what is meant when a non-Catholic goes forward at communion to be blessed, but not partake? What if such a person- like myself- openly disagrees with some of the church’s teaching and is not seeking reception into the church?

  5. What is the church’s view of leadership and submission in marriage? Would the church teach that a wife should join the church over the objections of her Christian, but Protestant, spouse? If so, how does this fit into the church’s teaching on marriage?

My thoughts were stimulated by the questions but, as usual, I went in a slightly different direction. I sent him a note which I'll post here as the most efficient way to share my musings. I'd appreciate your thoughts.


I was fascinated by the questions you asked and the (remarkable) consistency of the answers. (That's what you get for moderating comments -- everyone speaks up thoroughly instead of building on what has gone before. It's illuminating.) Since I am nothing like a theologian, I was not particularly competent to give answers. But as a consultant and a business coach, questions are my business. And the answers you get always depend on the questions you ask. Your questions were, legitimately, about the Catholic Church's view on particular things. That's the right approach because, as you've noticed, if you ask individual Catholics what their particular opinion is, you'll get a wide and unhelpful range of answers. But there's a way that answers to those questions, good as they may be, might not really address the particular issue at hand.

There is a difference between Catholic and Evangelical mindset. (I'm going to speak in wide generalities for the sake of making a point. Please graciously impute more nuance than I'm articulating.

N.B. - A bit about my background: Raised Catholic, spent 15 years with late husband and family as Presbyterian, began considering return to Catholic Church around 2001, then did so about a year after his death (Easter, 2004). Long-time participant in interdenominational intentional Christian community, so I'm coming from a background of respect and familiarity with key commonalities and differences among denominations.])

In my view, most orthodox Christians share a temptation toward legalism, stemming from the human desire to avoid uncertainty and construct as much solid footing for ourselves as possible. If we learn something from God, we tend to want to extrapolate it to (1) others, and (2) situations that appear similar.

This plays out differently in Evangelicals and Catholics. For Protestants, doctrine and practice issues are determined at the level of congregation, presbytery, synod, reformed-branch-of-original-denomination and the like, often adapting (healthily or not) to cultural or situation-specific understandings. Therefore, it's not unexpected that we might find, for example, formal acceptance of finely-tuned analyses of the precise mechanisms of grace, salvation and predestination; establishment of unswerving primacy of one scriptural principle (i.e. wifely submission in marriage) to others (charity to the poor, say); or pastoral practices, beyond those found in scripture, that would foster a sense of community (such as prohibitions against drinking or dancing).

This desire for certainty seems to work itself out different in Catholics. It doesn't happen as much at the institutional level. Despite sometime appearances, the Catholic Church does not make "policy pronouncements" about issues unless it has been necessary at some point in history to do so, either because of a pressing leading of the Holy Spirit or in order to counter an error that is widespread and dangerous enough that it needs to be addressed. So we find the Church being very specific about, for instance, the truth that Jesus was fully God and fully man from the very beginning, or the fact that it is solely by God's grace and not our merit that we are saved. (See CCC para. 2009.) But it is not specific about the exact method by which that grace is made available to us because there isn't a clear understanding that's been given to the Church as a whole by the Holy Spirit. Respected and honored Catholic theologians have often expressed disagreeing ideas on important topics, and frequently either is held as acceptable for a Catholic to believe.

But, we have this desire for solid ground. So individual Catholics, in my experience, might experience more of a temptation to individualized scrupulosity. They may hairsplit about the things the Church has, in fact, already said. They may ask their parish priest exactly how high their temperature must be in order for them to be too sick to go to Mass. They may be critical of couples who choose to limit their family size, even if done so within the guidelines acceptable to the Church. They may lose sight of the fact that all prayer, devotion to saints, even frequent participation in the sacraments are only vehicles God uses to increase our union with him rather than ends in themselves.

Well, Michael, that is turning into quite a treatise from someone who is spectacularly unqualified to so do. But there is a point to this.

A number of the questions you asked really have the answer, "It depends." For instance, you brought up the situation of a woman whose husband discourages her conversion to the Catholic Church. I have a friend who is as Catholic as you can possibly be without being fully received into the church, but out of charity toward her (solidly Christian) husband who would have a strong antipathy toward her converting and leaving the church life that they have shared as a family, she is waiting and asking God to work in the situation. In my opinion, my friend is firmly in the middle of God's will for her life. However, another situation might call for another action. There are objective things that are right and wrong and will never change. But there are sometimes pastoral-application issues in which wisdom and counsel can be brought to bear. It's one reason that the ordained priesthood, the confessional, and the tradition of spiritual directors can be enrichments to Catholic life.

So, although there are non-negotiables that we need to accept as Catholics, there are many questions on which there are numerous acceptable answers. One of the questions facing a prospective Catholic is: "Can I accept the fact that there will be people in full communion with this Church who decidedly disagree with me on this?". When I was returning to the Church there were a number of issues I decided to wait and consider from inside the house rather than do it while I was lurking in the front garden, so to speak. The real presence of Jesus in the sacraments - yes, I was right there. The competence of God to preserve the Church as a whole from serious error - yes, I was there. An exact understanding of how I could draw near to Jesus by drawing near to Mary - well, that was going to take some time. But it wasn't necessary, and I was able to trust that there was a non-heretical understanding that I would enter into sooner or later. But I had to humbly accept that perhaps some of these people who I thought might be a little "off the deep end" might be further along in an understanding of the truth than I was.


kc bob said...

I just looked and IM had 125 pretty lengthy comments - poor IM :(

I liked what you had to say Roz ... your thoughts are rational and helped me see your point of view. Didn't realize that we had the death of a spouse in common ... good getting to know you a bit better.

Here are few of my observations ... by the IM numbers:

1) What difference does it make? I accept my wife's RC priest cousin Karl as a valid minister ... whether he accepts me or not doesn't matter to me ... my church and the state does recognize my ordination ... so it doesn't matter who else does ... if they don't I see it as their issue not mine.

2) The issue of what you describe as (my words) core beliefs and non-core is confusing to non-RCs ... especially ones like me who attended mass with my RC wife for several years. It would be good to know what are RC core beliefs.

3) I really don't understand this question or why it is an issue to IM.

4) I never did this ... really didn't know it was an option. Is there a universal sign that I would give to indicate to the communion minister that I am not permitted to partake and would like a blessing instead?

5) I supported my wife's decision to stay in the RC church by attending mass with her every week and she did the same by attending Sunday church service with me. Along the way we left both churches we were attending and started fresh at a non-denominal church.

TS said...

Ay-yi-yi. How can I summarize something so informative and well-written as that into a small Span the Globe quote? Bad Roz, bad!

Therese Z said...


1) What difference does it make? I accept my wife's RC priest cousin Karl as a valid minister ... whether he accepts me or not doesn't matter to me ... my church and the state does recognize my ordination ... so it doesn't matter who else does ... if they don't I see it as their issue not mine.

The comments at IM show remarkable unanimity in the answer to this. Ministry and priesthood are not the same thing. Recognizing someone's answering the call of God to do his work doesn't mean that we therefore equate that work with priesthood, which is the administration of the sacraments. I think IM is worried that his relatives who are considering the RCC might suddenly turn around and accuse him of a masquerade, of fruitless work, which is absolutely not true.

2) The issue of what you describe as (my words) core beliefs and non-core is confusing to non-RCs ... especially ones like me who attended mass with my RC wife for several years. It would be good to know what are RC core beliefs.

The Nicene and Apostle's Creeds would cover those core beliefs in summary. Every word of those creeds was carefully written, argued over and suffered over in the face of heresies, leaving us a developed understanding of the nature of Jesus and the Church He left behind Him. We recite or chant the Nicene Creed in unison at every Mass, and are required to believe every word of it (which is a joyful privilege). We use the Apostles Creed in some prayers, notably the rosary, and the same holds true.

The thread there is quite remarkable in many ways. He is asking intelligent questions and getting (moderated) intelligent answers that come from every stripe of Catholic and non-Catholic alike.

5) I supported my wife's decision to stay in the RC church by attending mass with her every week and she did the same by attending Sunday church service with me. Along the way we left both churches we were attending and started fresh at a non-denominal church.

That may work well for you, but your wife gave up the sacramental life to do so. And I would be interested in knowing what she thought she was gaining. I'm not discounting the value of you two worshiping in union in one church, and that's probably another discussion for another time....

kc bob said...

I guess we agree on the creeds TZ. From our past conversation I thought that words like "real presence" would be included in your core beliefs. I am a bit miffed though that, since I whole-hearted believe the creeds you state, I am not allowed to partake of RC communion.

I guess we will (no surprise here) disagree on priesthood and who can officate the sacraments. My contention has been that Jesus and Paul delegated baptism to others because they recogized the priesthood of all believers. Again, it makes little difference to me whether you or Karl acknowledge my pastoral ordination because neither of you are in direct relation to my ministry.

I asked my wife Ann (who was RC for 45 years) about what you said and here is her response:

Her decision to leave had much to do with the extra-biblical teachings of catholicism (the adoration of Mary (queen of heaven, immaculate conception, perpetual virginity, assumption into heaven), praying to the saints, holy days of obligation, and transubstantiation ... among other things). She said that she does not miss it ... also said that communion is different and says that she now takes a more thoughtful approach to receiving communion.

I guess I don't care to debate Ann's experience with anyone ... I just asked her because you wanted to know. It is her experience ... she is truly one of the most spiritual and intelligent people that I have ever me. Too bad we don't live closer ... I think we could be friends and you'd be able to dialog with her.

Enjoying the dialog TZ ... it is very helpful to understand your perspectives.

Blessings, Bob

Therese Z said...

Reading over the creeds, I can see where we WOULD agree, but I bet we wouldn't mean all the same things about the same words.

Those were not such a good choice for me to make. I hate to point to the Catechism because it's such a big book, but I guess I'd have to.

You're right, it would be easier to talk about these things, rather than take each one separately in a blog entry or wait until they came by for discussion.

carrie said...

I appreciate your email to iMonk, Roz. One of the most enlightening things I realized as I started to investigate Catholicism was how differently Catholics think. I have a brother-in-law from India. He is an American citizen and Catholic. But he is "Eastern" in the way he thinks, and it took me years to start to grasp his culturally different form of "logic." Understanding how Catholics think and construct arguments and doctrine has been a similar experience for me. I knew I'd made progress when I started realizing Catholics framed their questions differently, just as my bil does. It really helps to read about Catholicism from Catholics, instead of Protestant rebuttals. ;-)




Sample Text

We are grateful ladies with a point of view and a sense of humor. Like-hearted people are welcome. Others, too.

For a glimpse at our lighter side, hop over to In Dwelling.

E-mail us.

Sample text

"There is no God who condones taking the life of an innocent human being. This much we know."

Pres. Barack Obama, Feb 5, 2009