Cardinal John Henry Newman once said that there is nothing as ugly as the Catholic Church yet nothing as beautiful. It is hard to see that beauty at this moment. It is a time for sackcloth and ashes. But I will hang on.
Below is an edited and updated article of mine that was first published by David Lovell Publishing in 2003
G K Chesterton said, ‘I cannot explain why I am a Catholic, because now that I am a Catholic, I cannot imagine myself as anything else’. Personally, I now cannot imagine not being a Catholic either, yet I am more conscious and appreciative of my Methodist upbringing than ever before. As a Catholic, I reckon I am a pretty good Methodist, with a healthy skepticism about authority. And the more I see of the failure of Catholic Bishops the more skeptical of ‘authority ‘I become.
Cardinal John Henry Newman described his feelings after joining the Catholic Church: ‘I was not conscious of firmer faith … I had no more fervour, but it was like coming into port after a rough sea’ (Apologia).
I have found Newman very convincing and encouraging on many issues of concern to me. He also spoke of the pain he felt after ‘coming into port’ — mistrust and misunderstanding. He wasn’t one of the tribe. His critics suggested that if he could change once, he could change again and rejoin the Church of England. To some Catholic bishops he was much too independent and risky.
I have always felt an outsider in the Catholic Church. I am not tribal. But being an ‘outsider’ troubles me not at all
Before I speak of the two main reasons why I am still a Catholic-the Eucharist and Authority -, I would like to give a few impressions as a relative newcomer to the Catholic Church. Newcomers have some disadvantages, but newcomers sometimes see things with clarity and freshness. The Polish have a proverb that the guest to the house sees in one hour what the host fails to see in a lifetime.
The Catholic Church doesn’t indolently occupy the ground like ‘national’ churches. It is not a sect that like an oasis gives life for a period and then disappears in the sand. It is like a great and wide river flowing to the sea, touching the life of all people. It is not an abstract or a set of values. It cannot be ignored or dismissed. It is taken seriously by friend and foe. It is a working religion of heart and mind. It is the carrier of the unique incarnation of salvation for all humankind that traces its origins to Christ and the apostles. Despite its shortcomings, the Catholic Church remains, in my view by far, the greatest influence for good in the world.
And its music, paintings, literature and architecture are sublime.
As a Methodist, I had little sense of belonging to a universal and diverse church. I have that sense now in the Catholic Church. As a Methodist, I felt that a lot depended on me. I didn’t really understand what it meant to be surrounded by a ‘great cloud of witnesses’. I now understand better what it means to be part of an historic communion.
Newman spoke of this ‘new reality’ after a time in the Catholic Church. ‘Then I understood that I was not making for myself a church by any effort or thought. I needed not to make an act of faith in her. I had not painfully to force myself into a position. But my mind fell back upon itself in relaxation and peace, and I gazed at her almost passively as a great objective fact. I looked at her and I said ‘this is a religion’. (Advertisement to Sermons, 1857).
I now have a clear sense of what Newman meant by, ‘this is a religion’, and the relief he felt that it didn’t all depend on him.
The Eucharist is the primary reason why I joined the Catholic Church and why I remain. While ever the Catholic Church celebrates the Eucharist, I will be there. Despite bishops and even popes..
I came from a tradition which evangelised through the proclamation of the word in sermons, testimony and singing, rather than the sacraments. ‘Holy communion’ was once a month. I must say, though, that I miss good preaching and good hymn singing in the Catholic Church.
I have come to see that the faith of the church must be anchored in the sacraments and particularly the Eucharist, or there is the risk of it drifting off to become another community or welfare organization. Social work and social workers, however well meaning and critical, don’t make a church. The sacraments are essential for the grounding of Christian faith. As Fr Henry de Lubac SJ described it, ‘the Church makes the Eucharist and the Eucharist makes the Church’.
For me, the Eucharist is more than a memorial; ‘Do this in memory of Me’. It is an encounter with Christ — not dependent on the wise words of the sermon or homily or the uplifting music. The encounter is not something we or even others do. It is Christ’s own initiative and action. He is present. I didn’t believe that before I became a Catholic. I do now. Even in the drabbest church my heart leaps when I see the tabernacle flame that tells me that Christ is present.
The Eucharist to me is the event at the centre of the universe — the double grace of the Incarnation and the Sacrifice, the encounter that changes everything. The Father sacrificed his own Son in Jesus to restore us to himself, to others and to freedom. Only through his own vulnerability could God touch our vulnerability. The cross was the only way.
At its best, the celebration of the Eucharist is the theatre of the sublime that ‘takes us to the threshold of heaven’. It is an encounter alone and beyond anything else I have experienced. It is an exquisite balance of both the personal and the communal. As we drink from the same cup, we share the same faith and bear responsibilities for one another.
I don’t know that ‘old Catholics’ quite understand the impact of the Eucharist on ‘new Catholics’. In the stories of those who cross the Tiber, they invariably speak of the Eucharist. As ones columnist Melanie McDonough in The Tablet (3 March 2000) put it.
‘I know a Methodist who became a Catholic after attending a high Mass at Westminster Cathedral. Among the innumerable lapsed Catholics I know, they are touched not through argument, but subliminally through the sense of the sacred and in the sheer theatre of the liturgy (of the Eucharist) at its best.’ I know what she meant.
The incarnational nature of the Eucharist is reflected more broadly in the Catholic Church. It is very earthy. It acknowledges that I am human but not all bad. The Catholic Church has helped me move beyond Calvin and Knox, who trapped so many of us in fear and loathing. In the vernacular, this incarnational faith is expressed in ‘I am a Catholic, but not a fanatic’. It is a lived-in religion of struggling people who are loved despite themselves. It is not an elite or an elect by reason of virtue or social position. It is very inclusive.
An appreciation of authority in the Catholic Church, which is the second issue I would like to address, has turned out to be more important than I expected. My views in this matter have developed and changed..
As an old Methodist, I have many problems with the way almost any authority is exercised. It both attracts and repels me. Authority is essential, but legitimate authority is undermined and imperiled whenever that authority is misused — as it invariably is in today’s Catholic Church. Authority should only be used to serve others and is exercised best when it is used sparingly. But I am more than ever convinced of the necessary authority of the pope as the successor of Peter.
I find Newman’s argument on authority in the church compelling — that evil in the world is so powerful and pervasive that another power is essential to counter it and energies and marshal people of goodwill.
‘The initial doctrine of the infallible teacher must be an emphatic protest against the existing state of mankind … It is because of the intensity of evil which has possession of mankind that a suitable antagonist has been provided against it … This power, viewed in its fullness is as tremendous as the giant evil which called [it forth] … If Christianity is both social and dogmatic and intended for all ages, it must, humanly speaking, have an infallible expounder, else we will secure unity of form at the loss of unity in doctrine, or unity in doctrine at the loss of unity of form … You must accept the whole or reject the whole. It is trifling to receive all, but [exclude] something which is as integral as any other portion. Thus it should be trifling indeed to accept everything Catholic except the Head of the Body of Christ on earth ‘(Newman, Essays on the Development of Christian Doctrine).
The Catholic Church often falls short ., but there is no doubt in my mind that it is the great bulwark against evil in the world and the great defender of the human person and human dignity. But as Saint Paul acknowledged in his second letter to the Corinthians: ‘We hold this treasure in earthen vessels’. As ‘an earthen vessel’, the Church has erred. It could compile a syllabus of its own errors. And we see that writ large today.
Authority is essential because we are all so easily blown off course with passing whims and fashions, particularly in our age of mass communications, a technology culture and fashionable modern philosophies that are not anchored in respect for human dignity. The Catholic Church is much more stable in the way it proceeds in the world. And may it continue that way. I don’t want the Catholic Church to be wishy-washy and picking up every passing breeze like a weathervane.
Despite its many failures the Catholic Church has kept the Faith.
Authority is also necessary to sustain objective and revealed truth to discourage us from succumbing to the siren voices of relative truth and relative morality — not what is true and good, but what works and what we find convenient. Democracy and the markets are not sufficient in themselves. In an individualistic world, we can be easily seduced by the pick and mix approach of society where there is no coherent framework of truth and goodness.
An alternative authority to the papacy is of course the Scriptures. The reformers taught us the great value of the Scriptures. But the Scriptures cannot be a matter of individual interpretation by every Christian. Otherwise chaos would reign, and sometimes it does. The church with its history and traditions is a much more reliable arbiter of doctrine than yours or my interpretation of the Scriptures. I believe that while the church is judged by the Word of God revealed in Scripture and stands under the Gospel, it is true that Scripture is the Church’s book and is its interpreter. Where the church, through its teaching authority may get a matter of doctrine wrong, over time and with the Spirit alive in the church, that error will be corrected authoritatively.
Petrine primacy is attested to in all the gospels. The special place of the apostles as leaders of the church is accompanied by the identification of Peter as their leader. Following Peter’s move to Rome late in the sixth decade of the first century, respect for the Church of Rome as the centrepoint of the church grows. For pragmatic reasons, it located itself at the centre of the known world where the city of Rome enjoyed the political significance as the centrepoint of the Empire. By the beginning of the second century, its leaders are recognised as having a preeminence among the churches. The full reach of the Church of Rome’s significance is not consolidated until the fifth century when Leo the Great proved to be the essential unifier of the church at the Council of Chalcedon, convened to articulate the essential doctrine of Christianity, the divinity and humanity of Christ.
Authority is essential, but the way authority is exercised is a problem. We see the lack of collegiality amongst the bishops, forcing decisions to the top of the hierarchy rather than allowing them to be made by people best informed and intimately involved; the secretive selection of bishops; the subordination of women and the denial of sexual abuse.
Vatican II in Lumen Gentium put so clearly the need for continual reform, ‘The Church, embracing sinners in her bosom, is at the same time holy and always in need of being purified and incessantly pursues the path of penance and renewal’. Renewal and new life comes when old structures and habits die.
The major doctrinal issues of the Reformation are long gone or have been substantially resolved in favour of the Reformers. The Catholic Church was wrong on Justification by Faith although it took over 400 years for it to humbly to acknowledge it, first in Vatican II and more recently in the Declaration at Augsburg in 1999 where the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Council said that ‘together we confess that by Grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our own part, we are accepted by God’.
The principal issue now keeping Christians apart in Western Christendom is the authority of the Roman Pontiff. It is a critical and sensitive issue.
Sometimes I wonder how the Catholic Church survives and grows. But I am reassured that if the Catholic Church was not divinely inspired and established, we sinners would have sunk the barque of Peter long ago.
What life is like in the Catholic Church, with that frustrating mix of the divine and human, joys and sorrows, hopes and disappointments, was beautifully described by Fr Walter Burkhardt SJ in a baptismal homily which he delivered at St Paul’s Chapel, Columbia University, 1973, entitled ‘A Strange God, a Strange People’. Sonia Maria’s older sister had died in infancy and Sonia Maria had obviously struggled herself as the homily describes.
‘Sonia Maria, before we welcome you through symbol and ritual into this paradoxical people, this community of contradictions, let me make an uncommonly honest confession. In the course of a half century (and more), I have seen more Catholic corruption than most Catholics read of. I have tasted it. I have been reasonably corrupt myself. And yet I joy in this Church, this living, throbbing, sinning people of God; I love it with a crucifying passion. Why? For all the Catholic hate, I experience here a community of love. For all the institutional idiocy, I find here a tradition of reason. For all the individual repression, I breathe here an air of freedom. In an age so inhuman, I touch here tears of compassion. In a world so grim and humourless, I share here rich joy and earthy laughter. In the midst of death, I hear here an incomparable stress on life. For all the apparent absence of God, I sense here the presence of Christ … I pray, Sonia Maria, that your life within this community, your experience of a strange God and a still stranger people, will rival mine.
Come now, Sonia Maria, and take your first steps into a kingdom you can only enter through hardship and tribulation, into a community that will not wipe away your every tear but does promise that we will touch each tear with our love’
I am ashamed of the behaviour of ‘leaders’ in the Catholic Church today. I am disappointed in a passive laity It is a time for sack cloth and ashes.
But I am a follower of Christ, not the bishops or even the Pope. Conscience is my guide.
It would be a cop out to leave. I will stay.
The never ending process of continual reform by individuals and institutions must be embraced.