Dating the Catholic Church12:50 PM
Looking for a church tradition is like dating -- particularly if you're moving high church. It's not like dropping into multiple evangelical churches and taking open communion with no commitment either to those particular churches or evangelicalism as a whole. There's a long process of Googling, going on lunch dates with practitioners of the tradition in question, and awkwardly feeling left out during closed communion. Dating a high church tradition gives you goosebumps -- is this the one, the place I can rest and follow Christ more effectively than in my previous tradition? It gives you heartbreak -- that moment when you recognize that you and it are just fundamentally incompatible. A high church tradition ultimately wants your commitment, sealed with chrism oil and sometimes a vow to accept everything the church says and does -- and that's the nature of dating.
How does a Reformed Baptist fundamentalist who considered Catholicism a cult even begin to date the Catholic Church?
Bad First Impressions
It started with Erich, my nominally Catholic friend who told me he liked me. His confession sparked a months-long debate on whether a Protestant and a Catholic (i.e., WE) ought to date. Because I grew up thinking Catholicism was a cult and that maybe only a few Catholics were saved by God's grace, I questioned Erich's faith -- something thing both valid and taken too far, in hindsight. He did seem more Protestant than the other Catholics I knew. He evaluated teachings like purgatory against what Scripture said (even if his Scriptures contained the apocryphal books). He declined to go to confession: "Why go to a priest when I can confess directly to Christ?" I had no doubt that once I hit him with several rounds of the Gospel and Timothy Keller, he would see the light.
He did encounter God in a new way at a Catholic mass during summer break. Elated at his newfound faith, I jumped into a relationship with him. We were happy, squabbling about normal couple things, and chatting about God. But it became clear to me that Erich was far more Catholic than I had assumed.
Sophomore year was a spiritual mess. He clung to transubstantiation and the importance of the real presence, something I ridiculed during our post-mass debriefings in the cafeteria. I hated attending mass on Saturdays -- the only fair compromise to balance out his attendance at my Baptist church on Sundays. I felt left out and excluded during the mass, listening to non-ecumenical statements that implied anybody outside of Catholicism was a lesser Christian. I hated seeing the zeal glowing in my Catholic friends' faces when they saw me at mass: "We're so glad you're here. Please come again."
The final straw dropped when Erich and I looked up the requirements of a Catholic-Protestant marriage. He promise to try to convert me? Me promise to raise my children Catholic? Not on your life!
"Erich," I asked him, "would you really let the Catholic Church bully you into following these rules?"
Tearfully, he nodded.
By all logical trains of thought, we should have parted ways permanently that night, but we were stupid in love and crying too hard to think straight. That night, I was dead set against Catholicism. That night, Erich started questioning the overreach of the Catholic Church -- something offensive to his ecumenical, personal faith.
Damsel in Distress
Even with those emotional scars, I found myself attracted to the importance Catholicism placed on the mind and its contributions to Western thought. My Reformation class tore down my ignorant belief that Catholicism was all about works without faith. My incarnation class presented Christ, the gospel, and the Christian life in the most accessible way I had ever heard it put. Most of the professors I admired were devout Catholics and brilliant men.
It was not merely a matter of truth at this point. After many classes touching on Catholicism and on Scripture, I sympathized with the Catholic interpretation of Scripture, even if I didn't necessarily agree that they were the most likely interpretation. The real question that haunted me was whether my faith life would remain intact long enough to believe any kind of Christianity.
There was also the slight pressure of following the smart crowd -- all of whom converted to Catholicism by their senior year. They too felt the unrest with Protestantism that I felt. If they struggled with the same issues, why should I not consider their almost unanimous solution in Catholicism?
Unfortunately for me, I was not attracted to the sacramental life like everybody else was. I thought transubstantiation stupid. This developed into bitterness against God: Why on earth was there no church tradition that met my spiritual needs? "Well," my inner me answered, "maybe Catholicism is that church tradition, and you just need to get over yourself."
Dating the Catholic Church
By the time senior year started, I held the door wide open for Catholicism's wooing. I signed up for the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA), the inquiry process for those interested in joining Catholicism. I started that process of Googling, lunching, and trying to feel at home in Catholicism's beautiful liturgy and awkward closed communion. I heard of the professors happily rumoring that I too would join the rest of the cool kids in becoming Catholic. I heard myself giddily describing my elation with Catholicism to my Catholic friends.
Things were happening way too terrifyingly, gloriously fast.
They went so fast that when I hit a speed bump or mountain, the pain hurt even worse -- the lack of ecumenicalism; the scapulars around young women's necks promising protection from eternal fire (love, Mary); the confirmation vow to accept everything the Catholic Church says, end of story; and, ironically, my Catholic fiancé.
He encouraged my inquiries into Catholicism, joking that I was too smart not to consider it sooner or later. But we were both disillusioned with what it really meant to be Catholic.
By this point, I respected his love of the Eucharist even if I still thought transubstantiation silly, and even more greatly respected his personal sense of the priesthood of all believers. But I was worried that his dislike of church authority would ruin my chances of becoming Catholic. When chatting with a Catholic friend, I brought up how Erich didn't go to confession on principle and how he refused to get a dispensation for our upcoming nuptials. Like a good Catholic, my friend pressed for us to go visit a priest and see what could be done. Erich balked at that. He wanted to keep the Catholic Church out of his relationship with me and with Christ.
Then it started to hit me over and over again how wrong Catholicism was for me, him, and us as a couple.
Strike one -- becoming more Catholic would damage Erich's deepest-held beliefs.
Strike two -- on the first day of RCIA, after an innocuous and moving sermon on the Christian life, I explained to one of the RCIA leaders that I was just inquiring and usually led worship at my church during the RCIA meeting time. Could we possibly meet up at another time to discuss Catholicism? She insisted on the importance of attending the mass when inquiring and offered no sympathy to my situation as a mere inquirer. The Spirit used that to say clearly and strongly, "This is not for you." That feeling remained steady, with the last strike following close after.
Strike Three: The Break-Up
Since Erich didn't want to get a dispensation from the Catholic Church -- the requirement for marrying a non-Catholic -- we started encountering problems with our mostly-Catholic wedding party. Only since Vatican II were Catholics allowed to even attend Protestant weddings, much less stand up in them -- and especially not in the wedding of a lapsed Catholic marrying outside the Church's authority. A friend quietly dropped out of the wedding party on those grounds.
According to the Catholic Church, Erich would be forever considered Catholic regardless of his personal beliefs or actions, unless he signed a statement renouncing the Catholic Church. Erich had no desire to renounce the Catholic Church but merely to leave it. Because of his perpetual Catholicism, our marriage would be viewed as invalid -- in other words, we would be two people living in sin together. That's why our wedding party was restless.
I was furious that the Catholic Church dared make such ridiculous, intrusive claims. I was embarrassed that I even considered joining myself to a church tradition with so little sensitivity toward Christians in other denominations and the unity of Christ across denominations. It was like sophomore year all over again -- except this time, Erich and I wanted to break up with the Catholic church and couldn't.
It took a phone call to my mentor who married an ex-Catholic to realize that the Catholic Church's canonical position on our marriage was inconsequential. Erich stopped calling himself Catholic and opened himself up fully to exploring other traditions. I quit inquiring into Catholicism, despite the RCIA leader's emails asking if I wanted to talk. Our Catholic wedding party asked permission from their local priest to stand up in the wedding and were granted permission -- as long as they prayed that Erich would return to Catholicism and that I would convert.
It's quieted down after our break up with the Catholic Church. Admittedly, any hint of Catholic proselytizing puts me on edge -- but any anti-Catholic bigotry also gets me riled up. We didn't stop dating the Catholic Church because we thought it a cult or a false preacher of the Gospel. We stopped because the overreaching hierarchy, legalism, and lack of ecumenicalism was inconsistent with what Catholicism itself taught, much less Christianity. We still support our friends who went or are going home to Rome.
But we're not going back. And we've started going out with a new church tradition.