Sunday, February 10, 2008

Rome, Sweet Home?

By sheer good fortune I found out about a talk that was taking place tonight entitled "Why am I a Catholic?" Perhaps what I found most interesting about the prospect of going to this talk was the fact that the speaker, Dr Robert Tilley was a convert from Protestantism. Having been interested in Catholicism for at least the last few years, I was quite interested in what would have to say. Just for the record, I am very uncomfortable using the term Protestant to describe myself these days because I believe that I find myself much more closely aligned with the doctrines of Catholicism than I do with mainstream Protestantism. The only reason I could be called a Protestant is by virtue of the fact that I am not yet Catholic. I ditched the title "Evangelical" some time ago and don't wish to be associated in any way, shape or form with the theological movement.

Dr Tilley started talking about a visit made to Australia by the newly appointed pope, Pope John Paul II in 1979. He spoke of a newspaper article that talked about the thousands that flocked to the Sydney Cricket Ground and photograph of one lone protester holding the banner "The Pope is the Antichrist and the Mass is Blasphemy". It was a nice rhetorical approach which got the attention of the mostly Catholic audience. Perhaps more startling was the revelation that the protester in that photograph was in fact himself. It turned out that he had come from the ranks of Reformed Presbyterianism and took both his Calvinism and his objection to Catholicism seriously. I was really interested in hearing the story about how these beliefs started capitulating and how he began to become involved and finally gave in to the Church he has previously despised. Unfortunately, that wasn't the tack that he took during his talk which was a bit of a disappointment on a personal level.

The focus on his talk on the nature of individualism and the way that this inevitably led to a consumerist mentality that produced standardisation and conformity. In contrast to this, he talked about the diversity and yet the unity in the Catholic Church. I must admit that I tend to agree on this point. Contrary to the stereotype about Catholicism being a dogmatic and inflexible religion, my experience has been that there seems to be much greater intellectual freedom in Catholicism than pretty much all of Protestantism. Even in Liberal Protestantism, where I would nominally place myself at the moment, there is tremendous pressure to tow the party line, or else face stern criticism. That is, if you don't join the rest of these people and be take the same progressive, supposedly non-comformist stance, then you risk being labelled as just another fundamentalist. It has always impressed me how strongly liberal Catholics can have the freedom to strongly oppose the stance of the Church with respect to homosexuality and yet be archetypically conservative on the issue of abortion. This intellectual freedom seems to translate into the quality of Catholic theology and I've long thought that Protestant theology was generally quite inferior due to the fact it become no more than glorified apologetics because of its defensive nature.

Perhaps one area that I disagreed with Dr Tilley was in respect to Protestant ecclesiology. While it is true that for many Protestant denominations the Church is seen as little more than incidental to one's faith, I believe that the ecclesiology of some Protestant denominations is much more nuanced than Dr Tilley was acknowledging. As much as I dislike to defend Calvin, he himself had much to say about the centrality of the Church and the significance of the community of believers in the context of the Christian faith. At the same time, it is quite true that this ecclesiology in theory does not always translate over neatly in practice.

The natural question that many would ask at this point would be why I am not yet a Catholic if I see myself so closely aligned to Catholic theology. Indeed, a number of people have suggested to me that I am somewhat more Catholic than most Catholics that they know, so what is it that holds me back? I suspect there are a few niggling reasons which warrant more time and energy than I currently have at the moment, but I wish to write an article about "Why I am not yet a Catholic" when I get a chance, as well as "Why I may one day become a Catholic". Stay tuned.


Dave Cody said...

Hi David

I can understand where you're coming from. I grew up a Catholic at a fairly relaxed and liberal-ish church in England. Nevertheless there were some elements of Catholicism which just drove me crazy with frustration.

Take the devotion to and adoration of Mary. However you look at it, it is a fundamental part of Catholicism and I suspect Catholic churches which ignore Marian devotion are very few and far between. Perhaps it is a symptom of not encouraging your congregartion to study the Bible. I've been to many churches of different denominations and all of them had Bibles readily available for the congregation. Catholic churches were the exception. Of course some denominations have an excessive view of the Bible's importance, but holding it up as a primary source of godly authority is a vital safeguard against the human model of traditions, decrees and heirarchy which is how Catholicism mainly operates. In my experience, of course.

I admit I'm baffled as to why you think you'd find more intellectual freedom in a Catholic environment. I think you'd find less studying and referring to the Bible in developing ideas, which can seem attractive if you've been over-exposed to hardline evangelical zealots, but surely that's just replacing one error with another?

By the way, I don't think your spiritual journey has to be one of simply choosing between Catholicism or Protestantism. Although I 'left' Catholicism many years ago I've been a member of Baptist,free evangelical and Anglican churches and I just see myself as being a Christian. Paul is spot on when he rebukes his readers for attaching sub-labels to their faith.

I'll be fascinated to see where your spiritual jouney takes you...

David Castor said...

Hey Dave - welcome aboard and thanks for your comments.

With respect to Catholicism allowing for more intellectual freedom and depth, I'm probably referring to the way in which many liberals seems to be able to stay in the church without getting excommunicated, as long as they don't start attacking the Magisterium. They might be criticised for their liberal stance, but it seems to me that the Catholic Church usually takes a much more tolerant stance to difference because the Church is too big to effectively police everybody. I'm also referring to the theological writings in Catholicism, which seem to be a higher quality than conservative Protestantism. On the other hand, liberal Protestant theological writings can either be really good or really bad.

Of course, all of this could simply me falling victim to "the grass is always greener on the other side" mentality.

You're definitely right about there being more options to pick from than simply evangelicalism and Catholicism. For the best part of four to five years I've probably been a liberal Protestant, which didn't seem to work so badly, but occasionally I felt that I needed something a little higher church. I tried Quakerism for a while (obviously very low church!), but the problem was that their Christology was generally much lower than mine, and I felt I needed fellowship with those who held a high view of Christ.

I want to write a post about this some time, but I guess one of the reasons I was attracted to Catholicism is because it was something very different to the cognitive faith of my upbringing and I wanted to experience God in places other than my headspace.