Questions for a Catholic: Part One

I asked a Catholic grad student colleague of mine to respond to a series of (somewhat boneheaded) questions that Mormons might ask of Catholics. Here is part one of our exchange:

Ronan: How would you respond to Mormons who say that the Catholic Church is the Great and Abominable Church of Satan?

Andrew: I would respond by telling them they are wrong–the Mormon Church is the Great and Abominable Church of Satan…!

Ronan: Mormons believe that the RC Church bases itself on the question of authority, that the Pope is the successor of Peter (and thus derived his authority from Christ), and that the Church is the One True Church. Mormons (and many/most Protestants) find this claim incredulous. Why? Because the horrors of the Catholic Church’s medieval reign make clear that the Popes were not servants of Christ and that the Church was not the pure church of Christ. Discuss.

Andrew: I would like to answer this question in three parts: first, I will respond to the question of ecclessial continuity and authority; second, the issue of salvation outside the Catholic Church and ecumenism; and finally, I will offer some personal reflections on sin and the Catholic Church.

The first issue of succession and authority is, in my opinion, not at all unique to the Catholic Church. You are right that we Catholics believe that we are the heirs of a church mandated by Jesus Christ and founded by Peter and that its authority derives from that mandate. Isn’t this what every Christian church is claiming in one way or another? How else is a Christian church to derive its authority (or reason for existence), except by in some way identifying itself as a (or the) mediator/interpreter/instrument of Christ’s mission for the present world?

The second aspect of this question, I think, is the real heart of the matter: the idea of the “One True Church.” It is one thing to say your church is the inheritor/steward/instrument of Christ’s mission on earth, but it is much more objectionable to say your church is the ONLY inheritor/steward. And indeed the Catholic Church has a long history of making this exclusivistic claim. However, since the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II) during the 1960s there has been, even in the official church teaching, a growing appreciation for non-Catholic faith traditions. I think the Catholic Church still claims its own doctrine as the fullest expression of Christ’s mission on earth but acknowledges that the truth of His Gospel can be found in non-Catholic faiths also. This may seem not seem so earth-shattering a gesture, but in the snail-paced development of Catholic doctrine, it is a big step towards coming to terms with human epistemology and the (non?) viability of absolute truth claims.

I would add that most Catholics would confirm this openness to other faith traditions. Also, another important aspect of Vatican II is its emphasis on gesture in addition to doctrine. That is to say, Vatican II taught that doctrinal differences should not prevent a generous spirit of ecumenism from taking place, and this is indeed what you see on all levels of the Catholic Church: Pope John Paul II at the Western Wall, recent conciliatory gestures with the Eastern Orthodox and Lutheran churches, ecumenical liturgies in local faith communities. You may also remember that during the election for a new pope last year, Muslim-Christian relations was one of the recurring issues used to evaluate the strengths of some candidates.

In this way, I would say every such claim by a church is incredulous in that it requires faith to accept that church’s teaching as authoritative. (I found it interesting Joseph Smith said of his revelation, “If I had not experienced what I have, I could not have believed it myself”). A particular church’s claim may be incredulous, but its members accept it as a matter of faith. Catholics believe the pope is Peter’s successor, Mormons believe Joseph Smith is an instrument of revelation, Lutherans believe Luther’s reform represents an authoritative interpretation of the Gospel, etc. None of these, in my opinion, are immanently “credulous.”

A professor once told me to notice the gestures because doctrine will be the last thing to change; if a change does come, it will be preceded by ecumenical gestures. If that is the case, then I think we have reason to hope for improved relations and openness between the Catholic Church and its sisters in faith. Finally, your question draws attention to the sinful history of the Catholic Church. You mentioned medieval atrocities, and we could go on to name countless other abominations right up to the current sexual abuse crisis. Are these atrocities the extreme opposite of Christ’s message? Undoubtedly. Does such human sinfulness preclude Christ from working His mercy and justice in the present world? I sure hope not. If the sins of some clergy, no matter how egregious, shut out Christ’s saving work, then what hope is there for me, who am nothing, if not a sinner?
Coming to terms with the depths of Christ’s loving self-sacrifice means coming to terms with the depths of one’s own sinfulness that left God no other choice but to sacrifice his own son to repair the rift human sinfulness has caused. The difference between the sins of those popes (or anyone else for that matter) and my own is one of degree and not kind, and if their sins cut off Christ for good, then so do mine. My own redemption depends on Christ’s constantly being able to work amid my petty sinfulness and to transform my heart, and in my faith I cling to the belief that He does the same for the entire Catholic Church, no matter how sinfully it acts.

Incidentally, the logic of your argument on the effect of human sin and the church could cast a dark shadow on the first infant stages of the church. As I read the NT, Peter committed the ultimate sin by rejecting Christ three times when the going got tough…and he is supposed to be the rock. So much for the “pure church of Christ,” if you meant that the beginnings of the church were more pristine that the present-day (Paul might also have something to say about the “purity” of the first churches). If human sin shuts Christ out, then Peter’s rejection must have doomed us from the start! So we are left hoping that Christ could and did mitigate Peter’s sins and can and will mitigate our own.

Comments

  1. Steve Evans says:

    Excellent thoughts Andrew and Ronan.

    Question for our resident papist:

    1. What is the future of the Catholic church, in your opinion? Do you see further acceptance of local traditions a la Vatican II, or do you think that it will eventually have to end?

    2. At what point will the American Catholics be forced to choose a path of orthodoxy? It seems to me that there are significant gaps between continental Catholicism (or Catholicism anywhere outside the U.S.) and the U.S. equivalent.

    3. You guys have the edge: best religious music, finest religious edifices, best hats. Is that edge slipping? Which religion do you see as occupying a cultural predominance?

    4. I’ve thought to myself at times that if I weren’t Mormon, I’d be drawn to Catholicism. What about you — if you were to look elsewhere, what faiths appeal to you? Why?

    5. You use the language of American protestantism pretty well (“My own redemption depends on Christ’s constantly being able to work amid my petty sinfulness and to transform my heart” — sounds like G.W.B.!). What about the language of Catholicism? Does it belong anywhere in your life? Where do you fit in beliefs about Mary, the lives of the Saints, the ordinances and rituals?

  2. Steve,
    Good questions. But let Andrew catch his breath. (Andrew, you don’t have to answer all of those. This is part one, after all.)

  3. Andrew,

    You have done something that Mormons cannot countenance:

    Admitting institutional error and asking for forgiveness (and, in your mind, getting it).

    Many Mormons, who also have an authority claim, accept that their church is imperfect, but could not cope with something as awful as, say, the Inquisition. They would either deny it, or leave the church in anguish. (This, by the way, is why the Mountain Meadows Massacre remains so sensitive: if Brigham Young ordered the killing–and I’m not saying he did, but many do–then this would be really problematic.)

    Anyway, how representative our your views on this matter?

  4. Way to come out swinging, Ronan. Seriously, though, this was a great post. Thanks for participating, Andrew. I was pretty surprised by Andrew’s language as well. My current business partner is a devout Catholic and his family who lives close by is still in a very different place. I don’t see this as a bad thing at all, but it does show the diversity of perspective.

    Like Steve, I am interested in the American vs. non-American debate. There have been articles all around, including the Atlantic Monthly that delineate a disparity of schismatic proportions. As far as I am concerned, Roman Catholicism is the world wide Christian Faith and am quite interested in this dynamic as it will have effects for all faiths.

    That said, I truly wonder (all ecumenism aside), whether the Roman Catholic Church would ever stop making claims of exclusivity. I hope not. They would lose too much. I think one can state in good faith that God loves his children and that he works through different cultures to bless His children, and still say that the holy sacraments are required for salvation. Maybe that is because I am Mormon and state the Mormon variation of that.

  5. Good job, Andrew and Ronan. I wonder if maybe I was meant to be a Catholic after all.

  6. Seth Rogers says:

    “notice the gestures because doctrine will be the last thing to change; if a change does come, it will be preceded by ecumenical gestures”

    I find this to be an interesting statement. I makes you look at the recent “gestures” from our own prophet in a little different light.

  7. Davis Bell says:

    Very interesting.

  8. Thanks Ronan and Andrew for a great post. Very interesting indeed.

  9. Andrew, Thank you very much for your patience and candor.

    Re: your comment, “If the sins of some clergy, no matter how egregious, shut out Christ’s saving work, then what hope is there for me, who am nothing, if not a sinner?”

    This echoes my own experience of Christ’s atonement healing my soul. As I posted elsewhere*, even cases in which the Church, leaders, members, or anyone else may be late or err don’t concern me anymore because they do not affect the healing I enjoy and that others can have. I’ve learned that God’s love truly is the most joyous to the soul and that lesser issues don’t take it from me.

    * http://www.timesandseasons.org/index.php?p=2582#comment-97137

  10. Hi Everyone,

    First, thanks for such a warm reception. I was really interested to see which parts of my answer intersected with your experiences as Mormons.

    I will try to reply as regularly as possible; doing so will writing off the cuff rather than taking time to polish. (Thank you, by the way, to Ronan for pointing out that “ecclesial” [para. 1] has only one “s”; such is the keen scribal eye of an Assyriologist.)

    Let me begin by taking Steve’s questions in turn and then working down the list of questions.

    1. What is the future of the Catholic church, in your opinion? Do you see further acceptance of local traditions a la Vatican II, or do you think that it will eventually have to end?

    In Catholicism we recognize a diffrence between doctrine and theology. Doctrine represents the non-negotiable parameters within which theology can take place. Theology is study of God within those parameters, but in time some of those theologies begin to push against and bend those parameters. At that time, the Vatican accepts that theology and changes its doctrine or squashes that theology. You can imagine which happens more often. But solid theologies will return and again challenge doctrine and in time, the best, most self-evidently true theologies will effect change.

    Vatican II redrew lots of parameters, and its implications are still being worked out. It is not a question of WHETHER it’s accepted, but HOW is it accepted. I have offered somewhat progressive theological interpretation of Vatican II; others will say that the doctrine does not support such a theology. We both “accept” Vatican II but disagree about its theological consequences.

    2. At what point will the American Catholics be forced to choose a path of orthodoxy? It seems to me that there are significant gaps between continental Catholicism (or Catholicism anywhere outside the U.S.) and the U.S. equivalent.

    It will be easier for me to address this question if you can offer an example of a “significant” gap. Also, would you mind clarifying “path of orthodoxy”?

    3. You guys have the edge: best religious music, finest religious edifices, best hats. Is that edge slipping? Which religion do you see as occupying a cultural predominance?

    The center of gravity of the Catholic Church is shifting southward. It’s no coincidence that many South American and African cardinals were mentioned as candidates for the papacy. The church is the people, and most of the people are living south of the equator.

    One of the huge questions nowadays is how much can local culture be folded into church life while still maintaining the integrity of the essence of the church. The flip side of this question is: do the trappings of European culture, which gave us the music, the hats and the buildings, really constitute the essence of the church?

    As the demography of the church shifts away from Europe, I think it will be inevitable that European influence will be replaced by cultural symbols that have more meaning for those who are practicing Catholicism.

    4. I’ve thought to myself at times that if I weren’t Mormon, I’d be drawn to Catholicism. What about you — if you were to look elsewhere, what faiths appeal to you? Why?

    I’ve honestly never considered another faith. I met God as a Catholic and have come to know God through Catholic tradition and symbols. It’s hard enough to speak with God, let alone in another language; I’ll stick with my mother tongue.

    5. You use the language of American protestantism pretty well (“My own redemption depends on Christ’s constantly being able to work amid my petty sinfulness and to transform my heart” — sounds like G.W.B.!). What about the language of Catholicism? Does it belong anywhere in your life? Where do you fit in beliefs about Mary, the lives of the Saints, the ordinances and rituals?

    I had to laugh when I saw this. I am from North Carolina and we have a saying: “In the South, even the Catholics are Protestants.” I’ve been found out!

    Without getting in to Mary (my queen), the Saints (who intercede) and the ordinances (which I can never remember) and the rituals (which I love), I would just say that the language of redemption and transformation is pretty consistent across the board. The differences are HOW one express that reality in one’s life and one’s worship.

  11. I’ve noticed recently some of our critics are starting to discuss what they call a “Mormon epistemology.” What that means is that they can’t explain how it is all these Mormons run around saying that they KNOW this and that, when these critics feel that what they observe is not “knowledge,” but rather avid faithfulness. It seems to me that to say “I know this is the true church,” even if that were true (I’m not saying it is or isn’t), severely strains any form of conversation one may have with another. Our method of testifying what we “know,” (notice the quotes) comes across as smug and irreverent, I think. Sure, I’ve felt the presence of the HG while pondering/praying certain things, but do I really “know” it now by the same categorical methods by which I know where I live, or that I know I’m typing on this keyboard? Apparently not, and this is the Mormon epistemology. It’s when one says one “knows” something while circumventing the usual methodologies employed in knowledge acquisition. Personally, I’d like to see less of “I know this church is true” (whatever that means) and more of “I know that God is true.” Honestly sometimes in testimony meeting I feel people are practicing ecclesiolatry — which I actually find more offensive than the claims that Catholics practice Mariolatry (which I think is bogus). Catholics are probably our closest friends, ecclesiastically speaking.

  12. 4. I’ve thought to myself at times that if I weren’t Mormon, I’d be drawn to Catholicism. What about you — if you were to look elsewhere, what faiths appeal to you? Why?

    I’ve thought a lot about this. If it’s a post-eventu retrospection (that is, if I left the Mormon church to go somewhere else), it would probably be something equally dry and boring, like Lutheranism. If I had never known the Mormon church, probably nothing at all. Who knows. Anybody else?

  13. wrt Comment 1 point 3.
    Wrong! Anglicans have the best religious music.

  14. This is absolutely the nicest dialogue from people from different traditions within the Christian faith that I have found, ever. Looking admiringly towards commonalities, yet curious about the genuine meaning of the differences. I myself grew up Catholic, have family that are Mormon, and am an Anglican/Episcopalian. And I agree with comment 13…Anglicans have the best religious music. Anyone whoever listened to King’s College Cambridge would hear it, save the MTC. I might add that I admire greatly the sense of mission that LDS member have towards their faith, and of their good manners and kindness. God bless you all.

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