Dating the Catholic Church

12:50 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.

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  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  2. It's always so interesting to hear what attracts people to different faith traditions. Like you, my family and I aren't particularly drawn to the sacraments. We have many Catholic friends who can't imagine faith without the adoration of the physical Eucharist, but I can't imagine faith *with* that adoration-- I keep coming back to the fact that Christ explicitly left earth (in body) and gave us the Spirit instead.

    Also really interesting that you felt Catholicism is the tradition that attracts all the smart kids ;) Why do you suppose that is? Did most of your intellectual friends convert for a shared, particular reason? I have felt some frustration with the Protestant intellectual tradition (or lack thereof). There's such a richness of church history and scholasticism that is neglected by most evangelical churches. But at the same time, I just can't buy into certain important Catholic doctrine, so converting to Catholicism would be, for me, even more intellectually dishonest.

    What is more attractive about the Orthodox tradition? I was under the impression that it is very similar to Roman Catholicism, sacrament-wise, but probably quite different in hierarchy/authority. (Feel free not to answer this-- I know you're still figuring stuff out!)

    Prayers for you and Erich as you continue to seek the Lord. As important as church traditions are, it's even more important to abide in Him as you date :)

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    1. Andrea, I appreciate your comment so much -- its thoughtful questioning and your reminder to abide in Christ instead of just worrying about church traditions. I love interactions like this!

      About sacraments...I too didn't understand the need, desire, or viability of the real presence of Christ for the exact reason you mentioned -- Jesus bodily left the earth in order to leave His Spirit, and He said it was BETTER that way. It was ironically an Old Testament class that convinced me how the real presence of Christ was compatible with the sending of the Holy Spirit. As the OT sacrifices did not save the individual (because salvation came through justification by faith and a contrite heart) but were required as signs and the means of grace applying salvation, so too can the Eucharist be the real presence of Christ, both the sign and the means of grace. In the Orthodox tradition, the Eucharist is not transubstantiated (i.e., its substance does not become the physical body and blood) and transubstantiation and the adoration of the Eucharist is seen as idolatry. But Christ's presence is still really there in a mysterious, actual, but non-bodily (?) way, perhaps in the same way the OT sacrifices worked. That's how I'm approaching it at least; I'm not sure what Orthodoxy would say on my train of thought. The real presence also takes into account our need for the incarnation of Christ -- the OT sacrifices prefigured Christ's incarnation, and the Eucharist is the sign and means of experiencing that incarnation spiritually. I'm still on the fence about sacramentalism.

      About smart kids and high church...I'm sure you've seen the statistics about evangelical kids going high church, and anecdotally, it's definitely the case at my college that really academic types join Catholicism. They mostly converted because of the Eucharist and because of the historical validity of the Church. Also, in evangelicalism, what it means to be a Christian changes with every new bestseller that comes out. In Catholicism, that question has already been discussed, decided, and carried out for millennia. It's less that converts want to be told "what to do" and thus seek out an authoritative church, but rather, they believe that the truth of Christianity and the Christian life should not constantly change. Thus, the authority of the Catholic Church ensures the truthfulness of its teachings.

      Honestly, for me, like you said, there are a lot of things in Catholicism that are superstitious and non-intellectual at all! The immaculate conception, mystical Marian devotion, an elaborate purgatory structure (including indulgences)...meep! I question the ability of a church to filter out un-truth when it has allowed and condoned such teachings that contradict its richer truths on salvation and the Christian life.

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    2. I thought the Orthodox tradition was very similar to Catholicism, but it actually really isn't! It's refreshingly free of the Western church's arguments and errors, and very no-nonsense and Christ-centered. Orthodoxy seeks to preserve the apostolic tradition and way of worship of the early church (unlike Catholicism, which uses its authority to develop doctrine with some pretty scary results -- like Marian stuff). It's simultaneously chill and rigorous -- there are rules, yes, but those rules are tailored to the individual for their personal growth and sanctification in Christ. They're incredibly ecumenical, emphasizing the unity of the church and not judging any group's salvation, without compromising their own views or the Gospel. They don't seek to proselytize other Christians into their church. They also are more confident in allowing Christianity to be paradoxical and mysterious, something that resonates with my reading of Scripture. One of the things I love about Orthodoxy, for instance, is that they accept ALL the metaphors and explanations of salvation (like the juridical metaphor that Paul uses and salvation as health and life that other writers use). They use things like Mariology, icons, sights and sounds, etc. not in a distracting way like the Catholics tend to do but as aids to pursuing Christ, understanding how human and bodily we are. The Orthodox community is also incredibly friendly and open. They hand out blessed bread to visitors after communion as a sign of fellowship to those who cannot take closed communion, and they serve lunch after the service. I also love how the Orthodox incorporate children and personal faith in both the worship service and the Christian life. Oh, and their hierarchy is heavily-based on the priesthood of individual believers. There is a...pope-figure of some kind, but he's just the organizational point for bringing all the churches together, I think. I recommend www.goarch.com if you're actually interested in Orthodoxy. I must say, though, I prefer Catholic liturgy to Orthodox liturgy, so I was disappointed at how much I disliked the aesthetics of the Orthodox liturgy. :P

      It's still a big jump to go from Protestant to Orthodox, and even though Erich and I are fairly sure we'll go in this direction at least for now, we totally understand people's concerns or dislike of Orthodoxy. :)

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  3. Oh, I have so much to say, so little time to type. :) Just take time with Orthodoxy. My brother was just chrismated along with his family and it was pretty awesome. I didn't end up calling it my home, but I can see how it was a great fit for him and his family. In the end, you'll usually find warts no matter where you go -- pretentious people, uncouth converts, and people who somehow make mystery feel black and white! Hahaha -- but like I said, this is only my experience, yours may be very different. Also, you say it seems "refreshingly free of the Western church's arguments and errors" -- I would like this outlined a bit more, as its kind of a HUGE statement to make about two such behemoth institutions.

    I'm going to request a post on Mary. I find it intriguing that you found Catholic Mariology distracting, but Orthodox Marian theology edifying -- is this a theological reaction or an aesthetical reaction do you suppose? Because even though I'm at peace with both approaches, I had the same reaction -- a lot of Catholic saint-Mary-etc stuff felt almost gaudy and distracting to me, while Orthodoxy felt understated, even though their declarations, titles, and stories were no less glorifying or mystical.

    I love this journey you're on. All Orthodox communities I've visited seem very kind and definitely excel in hospitality -- definitely moreseo than the Catholic Churches, and it in the end, that's the biggest positive they had in my book. They seemed to love each other well, and I always seemed to feel that love while visiting. I can't say the same for all Catholic services I've visited, that's for sure.

    PS - Check out the book "Mary through the Centuries: Her Place in the History of Culture" by Jaroslav Pelikan. I absolutely loved this book, and it helped me appreciate Mary from a new point of view. Its not a theology book, but to me, that's one of its strengths. It allows me to visit a Catholic church or art museum, or view an icon and appreciate it from a perspective that was completely new to me, as someone who was raised a Christmas-only-Mary type Christian.

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    1. So many great thoughts! I wish I had the time to respond to these all in blog posts instead of brief comments.

      When I said "refreshingly free of Western arguments and such," I think I just meant that as a Western person, I felt Orthodoxy was a liberating, restful expression of Christianity that defined itself outside all of the typical Western arguments and boxes in which I grew up. I don't think that the East is necessarily better than the West, just that it seems more helpful in ways the Western church is not for me.

      Mariology. That's such a huge topic, and as of yet, I can't formulate my particular opinions on it. I just see Catholic Mariology as being incredibly superstitious -- all of the Marian apparitions, "wear this special thing around your neck and you'll go straight to heaven," pitting Jesus as judge against Mary as sensitive intercessor. It goes beyond respect and veneration to borderline heresy and plain silliness. Incredibly off-putting. I'm still skeptical of the idea of praying to Mary as if she can hear and respond in any meaningful idea, moreso than I am currently struggling with praying to an invisible God, but between the Orthodox view of Mary and the Catholic view, I'd definitely take the Orthodox. It's primarily a theological discernment that leads me to say this. Orthodoxy doesn't believe in the immaculate conception or Mary as co-mediatrix. I respect their veneration of her as an important part of the Incarnation that redeemed women's bodies and souls. My favorite article arguing against Marian apparitions was written by an Orthodox woman who hit the ball out of the park theologically and historically speaking. That's really all I've got to say about Mariology as the present moment. I'm actually reading Jarislav Pelikan's book for my senior thesis!

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  4. Also curious to know who's on your blogroll? What's your online reading list like? And, in addition, if you're ever into the idea of creating an online magazine of some sort, hit me up -- I love the idea!

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    1. My blog presence has been sporadic even as far as consistent blog reading goes. I read www.verilymag.com every day as a light read that's more substantial than Facebook. I'm working my way through the archives of www.jorymicah.com/blog ("Breaking the Glass Steeple"). I've read lots of Rachel Held Evans, believe it or not, and I relied heavily on www.cbeinternational.org ("Christians for Biblical Equality"). Yes, I've become quite the Jesus feminist over break while working on my thesis.

      As far as Orthodoxy...I really haven't settled on a blog community I liked. I've just been reading through www.goarch.com and Googling random questions. I haven't had much time to focus on theology or spirituality between wrestling with women's issues and preparing for marriage. :)

      Funny you should mention an online magazine. When I graduate, I want to start a website dedicated to promoting an egalitarian perspective on Christian women in an academic, friendly, engaging way. I'd definitely love help with that if you're interested!

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Hit me with your best thought! I'm very interested in your unique perspective. If you'd like to discuss things in private, feel free to email me! :)