Why we are Catholics and why we are not

What is a better term for “multidenominational?” The other night at our quarterly Doing Theology a few of us searched for a good word to describe how we identify with the genius of every stream in the broad river of Christianity, even the Catholics.

My journey into Christianity made me very fond of Catholics. For instance, I think of Francis of Assisi (who we celebrated yesterday) as one of my first mentors. I was a history major in college. While I was exploring history I ran into Francis. It was great to find him. He cut through the nonsense of the Church and lived with Jesus. He was just what I needed, since I almost left Jesus because of the Church’s nonsense, especially the Catholic part. I was so poor in college, I never missed the free movies they showed. One night, someone showed Brother Sun Sister Moon, which is all about Francis of Assisi and his friends. Watching his rebellion against war and self-serving authority and seeing his utter obedience to joy and Jesus helped seal my deal with God. I almost became a Franciscan and have been an almost-Franciscan ever since.

As a result, I am a Francis-kind of Catholic. Even through I think the rules say I don’t qualify, whenever the priest offers me communion, I take it like I am a member of the tribe. I figure I am more of a Catholic than a catechized fifth grader and, besides, I don’t care about most of the laws any more than most of the Catholics I know. So I’ve done a lot of travelling with the Catholic Church over the years. I even went on pilgrimage to Santiago de Campostella, which is one of the most Catholic things a person can do.

So why aren’t I and why aren’t we Catholics?

Well, in a way, we are Catholics. But the other night we explored seven main reasons we have to start with the radical Anabaptists rather than stand on what became the Roman Catholic Church. Here they are:

  1. Maria Gorretti  was on the block. –- Venerating relics of remarkable people might be respectful and aspirational but it is more likely superstitious.
  1. The Pope’s titles don’t make him our leader. — Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Jesus Christ, Successor of the Prince of the Apostles, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Primate of Italy, Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Roman Province, Sovereign of the Vatican City State, Servant of the servants of God — only the last one sounds remotely like Jesus to me. All the power-grabbing by the Pope got started in the 300’s when Emperor Theodosius made Christianity the official church of the Roman Empire. Over time the leaders of the church became state officials. By the 1200’s the Donation of Constantine was used to validate that Emperor Constantine had transferred authority over Rome and the western part of the Roman Empire to the Pope. To be generous, the church was often trying to do good in a troubled world by ruling it, but the leaders ended up being just like all the other powerful people.
  1. Canon Law is a new Mosaic Law. A woman was quoted in the Inquirer not liking Pope Francis because he “does not follow the law.” But many women do not like Pope Francis because he does follow the laws of the Catholic Church that make women second class citizens. Part of Canon Law is the ancient takeover of Roman law, which was needed if you are ruling, but too much of it is edicts by a supposedly infallible pope with absolute power.
  1. Their doctrine of original sin goes extrabiblical. The influential Augustine (400’s) insisted that the guilt of the first sin is transmitted, through sexual intercourse, to all generations. The consequence of Augustine’s view is that every act of sexual intercourse is somehow tainted, and therefore needs legitimation–which is achieved primarily by procreation. He won the argument which made women despised members of the church and imposed celibacy on priests. We don’t need a science for sin. It happens.
  1. Mary was a real person. Perhaps the development of Mary into a member of the Trinity is the antidote to male dominance, but even more she has become a model for virginal holiness that has no relation to actual history and little to do with normal women. The mother of Jesus is a great example, but the “Theotokos” is hard to defend. Add the “immaculate conception,” and her “assumption” and she is even harder to defend.
  1. Purgatory is not needed to purify us. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines purgatory as a “purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven,” which is experienced by those “who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified” (CCC 1030). Selling indulgences to “buy down” years in purgatory sped up the advent of the Protestant Reformation.
  1. The Mass should not be a continual sacrifice of Jesus Christ. The teaching is: “Christ… commanded that his bloody sacrifice on the Cross should be daily renewed by an unbloody sacrifice of his body and blood in the Mass under the simple elements of bread and wine” (Catholic Encyclopedia). In his book The Faith of Millions, John O’Brien, a Catholic priest, explains the procedure of the mass:  “When the priest pronounces the tremendous words of consecration, he reaches up into the heavens, brings Christ down from His throne, and places Him upon our altar to be offered up again as the Victim for the sins of man. It is a power greater than that of monarchs and emperors: it is greater than that of saints and angels, greater than that of Seraphim and Cherubim. Indeed it is greater even than the power of the Virgin Mary.” The scripture clearly says the sacrifice happened once for all. The repetition of the drama might welcome us into the ever-present nature of God’s grace, but that is a very generous reinterpretation of clear teaching by the RCC.

So why am I and why are we catholic?

Given all these problems, why are we so multidenominational that we would like to  think of ourselves as Catholic enough to feel like family?

  1. We like Franciscans and other teachers. Actually, we love them like brothers and sisters. Before all the modern arguments after the Enlightenment that divided the world (and our discourse) into this or that, one identity or the other, there was one church. The divisions of postmodern Christianity are worth talking about, maybe even worth getting emotional about, but they are not worth dividing up about.
  1. The RCC is a big tent and a lot of Catholics don’t know or follow all their laws and untenable beliefs, either. The Pope even has a novel veneration of Mary the Undoer of Knots that makes her more palatable. One of my spiritual directors was a Catholic priest; we did fine. Besides, the Anabaptists had and have some weird ideas and excesses, too. We have to work things out together, not get presumptuous about how right we are or cut people off because they seem whacked.
  1. The RCC cannot claim universality under the pope; we are under Jesus. Catholic means “universal.” I am part of that church too — even the catechism grudgingly affirms that. That’s why we are trying out the idea of being multi/trans/ uberdenominational rather than just negatively acting nondenominational.
  1. The nuns in our region are really helping us out with our spiritual development. We have been so well taken care of by the sisters at Cranaleith and the Franciscan Spirituality Center that we have to respect their faith.

One of the people who was doing theology with us last Monday went to Catholic school for his whole youth and knew almost nothing about the doctrines we were exploring. I get the feeling that many of you who got this far also did not know or care much about what I just enumerated. So why bother? Well, one of the other people at the meeting said they were going to pay attention to our “transhistorical” blog more because they realized that there is a lot of stuff influencing what the present church is like. Not knowing stuff, or pretending that history begins right now isn’t truthful enough. Finding a little pod of like-minded people and becoming impermeable with them is not loving enough.

About Rod White

Pastor for Circle of Hope, http://circleofhope.net , grandparent, church planter, peacemaker, comrade, spiritual director, psychotherapist, silence lover

7 thoughts on “Why we are Catholics and why we are not

  1. Great post, Rod. One question: Why is Theotokos hard to defend? Isn’t saying Mary is the Mother of God more a statement about who Jesus is than who Mary is?

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