Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Catholic at Wheaton? Panel Discussion

Hey guys.  In light of Thanksgiving, I'm not going to write an update for this week--I'm going to spend time with my family!  But, I am going to provide a link to an audio recording of a panel discussion we held at Wheaton College.  The Ecumenical Society (of which I am a part) hosted a discussion entitled "Catholic at Wheaton?" in which 5 Catholic students from the college answered questions that our Protestant brothers and sisters had about Catholic spirituality and the experience of being Catholic Christians in a strong Protestant environment.  It's a lot of fun to listen to--hope you enjoy it!

Monday, November 14, 2011

Guide Me Into All Truth

So I’ve been talking a lot about Catholic priests lately.
For me, the whole authority issue was really the deciding factor for my conversion.  For some people, they need to be convinced of the Eucharist or the Church’s teaching on justification or some other specific issue.  I needed to be convinced of the Church.  Is it really what it claims to be?  That is, does it really have authority from Christ himself?  If it did, then the burden of the proof was on me to align my beliefs on all of those other things with whatever the Church taught about them.  But I wasn’t so convinced the Church had that authority in the first place.

What authority does the Church claim, exactly?  She claims the authority to administer the Sacraments (more on those later), and the authority to teach, by the power of the Holy Spirit, in the name of Christ.  To ask a question typical of Wheaton College students: is this biblical?

So, Catholics claim that Christ was given authority from God the Father, and that before leaving earth he passed on this authority to the Twelve Apostles, who then, before they died, passed the authority onto others so that now, 2000 years later, there are still people on this earth with the authority Christ gave to the original Apostles.  In Scripture, we read that Christ gave the Apostles the authority to forgive sins, to teach and baptize in his name, and to “bind and lose”.  He even went so far as to give Peter the “keys of the kingdom of heaven” in Matthew 16:19.

Who knows what all that means.  

One thing that was crucial to me was to realize that these were actual events, things that Jesus said to actual people—and the people he chose to say them to were the Twelve Apostles that he had chosen.  I hadn’t realized that I had been bringing a specific way of Biblical interpretation to the text.  That is, I subconsciously (or consciously) read all of Jesus’ words as if they were spoken to me.  Matthew tells us in chapter 18 of his Gospel that Jesus told the disciples that “whatever (they) bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever (they) loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”  The Gospel of John tells us that Jesus told the Twelve Apostles that they had authority to forgive sins (John 20:22-23) and that the Holy Spirit would come to guide them into all truth.  I assumed—without warrant—that those words were spoken to me, too: All Christians have the authority to forgive or withhold forgiveness of sins; all Christians will be guided into all truth; all Christians have the authority to bind and loose.

There was really no valid reason for me to assume that.  I simply took it for granted.  And when I began to realize that most Christians, for most of time, did not take that for granted, I was stopped short.

What if Jesus really did give the Twelve Apostles a special authority to forgive or withhold forgiveness of sins, a special authority to make decisions that will be bound and loosed in heaven, a special promise of the Holy Spirit's role in guiding them to all truth?

I knew that I did not have the authority to withhold Christ’s forgiveness of sins.  I had no reason to believe that I was able to make decisions to bind and loose that would be echoed in heaven.  And the more I looked around, the more I became aware of the thousands and thousands of disagreements about the truth of the Gospel, and the more I doubted that the promise of the Holy Spirit to guide the Church into “all truth” was really a promise given to all Christians.  At least, not the way I had originally interpreted it.  Either the Holy Spirit was a schizophrenic, or the promise of Christ to the Apostles actually meant something drastically different than I had believed.

I decided to err on the side of my misinterpretation of Scripture.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Christ, the One Priest (And All the Others)

In my last post I mentioned that the priesthood of Christ—and the privilege of certain men to share in this priesthood—is the primary condition for the Mass being a holy sacrifice.  Let’s go back to the Last Supper and see what happened in addition to the institution of the Eucharist on that holy night.

John’s Gospel gives us a very different story of the Last Supper than the Synoptic Gospels.  Instead of the institution of the Eucharist, John tells us the story of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet.  All of my life, I had been taught the moral application of this story.  “Jesus was so humble that he washed his disciples’ feet; we need to follow his example and serve others.”  This is certainly a valid reading of the text, but—dare I say it?—a secondary reading.  The primary import of Jesus’ actions in this passage is not to give us a nice moral example to follow, but is rather to anoint the twelve Apostles to his priesthood.

An interpretive jump?  I don’t think so. 

The washing of the disciples’ feet recalls how Moses was commanded to wash the feet of Aaron and his sons in order to consecrate them to the Levitical priesthood.  Exodus 40 says that God told Moses to “anoint [Aaron] and consecrate him, that he may serve me as priest… [so Moses] put water in [the basin] for washing, with which Moses and Aaron and his sons washed their hands and their feet”.  Further, when Jesus tells Peter in verse 8 that “If I do not wash you, you have no part in me,” the word translated “part” is the Greek word meros.  This alludes to the “portion”, meris, which the Levites had in the Lord God alone. Thus Jesus fulfils the type of the Levitical priesthood by anointing the Twelve for priestly ordination through washing, explaining that this washing is necessary so that they may have a part in him.

And who is he?  The Great High Priest, as we talked about last time.  The priesthood to which Christ anoints the Twelve is Christ’s priesthood.

Hebrews tells us that Christ is the only priest of the New Covenant.  Nevertheless, even Protestant Christians find no inconsistency between understanding Christ as the one priest of the New Covenant, and the fact that we are all made priests in this covenant.  Consider the Apostle Peter’s words in his first letter:

“…like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ…you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” (1 Peter 2:5, 9)

So what is the nature of this priesthood, in which we all share?  Well, first of all, we offer “spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”  Our sacrifices are not acceptable to God based on our own merits, but they are made acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. Also, our priesthood is for the purpose of presenting God’s sacrifice to the people, rather than the other way around. “You are…a royal priesthood…that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you…”

All of this is true of the priesthood of the ordained, as well.

The Church is the Body of Christ.  Christianity is an incarnational religion; we take seriously the significance of the body, the fact that humans are not pure spirits but exist physically.  Every Christian is called to bring the Gospel of Christ to the world and to offer up prayers and our bodies as “living sacrifices” to God.  The priesthood of the ordained—the men you see consecrating the Eucharist at Mass—incarnates a specific element of the Gospel; namely, Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, made present for us in the Eucharist. Christ, at the Last Supper, instituted the ministerial priesthood and thereby gave authority and power to the Apostles and those whom they chose as their successors to act in his name, in persona Christi, to bring to earth throughout all of time his one unique sacrifice on the cross, through the Eucharist.  This is why, on the one hand, bread and wine do not turn into the body and blood of Christ when just anyone tries to consecrate them, and why on the other hand they actually do become the body and blood of Christ when an ordained priest consecrates them.  Christ has given certain men a unique role in bringing his grace to the world.

And this is precisely what the Catechism says:

“The redemptive sacrifice of Christ is unique, accomplished once for all; yet it is made present in the Eucharistic sacrifice of the Church.  The same is true of the one priesthood of Christ; it is made present through the ministerial priesthood without diminishing the uniqueness of Christ’s priesthood: ‘Only Christ is the true priest, the others being only his ministers.’”

Catholic priests act for the good of the people on behalf of God; they bring Christ’s sacrifice, his forgiveness and his mercy, to us in a physical tangible way, so that we can see, hear, touch, smell, and even taste his grace. 

Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass

Time for another update, eh?

So one of the reasons I waited so long to update is because at this point in my story the chronology becomes a little jumbled because… I read the Council of Trent.  This brought up issues of justification, sacraments, apostolic succession, church authority, and….

The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

Which is what I want to talk about today.

A pastor friend of mine had encouraged me to read the Council of Trent in order to find out what the Church said about justification and specifically, the Mass being a sacrifice.  Any good Christian knows that there is only ONE sacrifice that can atone for sins, and that is the sacrifice of Christ on the cross some 2000 years ago.  So the fact that the Catholic Church claims so unambiguously and irrevocably that the Mass is a sacrifice clearly is evidence that the Church is not guided by the Holy Spirit and infallible in the interpretation of Scripture.

Or, it is evidence that the Church really has been given (and has maintained) the full treasury of the faith.

Obviously, I subscribe to the latter point of view.

So what does the Church mean when it talks about the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass?  How can that possibly be consistent with Scripture that claims, in no uncertain terms, that there is one sacrifice for sins?

Well, let’s see what Scripture tells us about this one sacrifice.

Growing up, I was always familiar with the idea of Christ being our Passover Lamb.  I understood the analogy and significance of Christ being our “new Passover meal,” although I did understand this in a metaphorical sense.  Just as the Passover Lamb was slaughtered, and its blood covered the people of Israel so that the angel of the Lord would pass over them and not kill their firstborn, so Jesus was slaughtered as a sacrifice for sins and his blood covers all who believe in him so that through his blood, we are justified before the Father. 

However, I didn’t realize (or didn’t count as significant) the command in Exodus 12, when God institutes the Passover meal, that in order for the sacrifice to be complete the Israelites must “eat the flesh that night….(they) shall let none of it remain until the morning” (Ex. 12:8, 10).  Also, God clearly tells the Israelites that this feast shall be kept as “a statute forever” (Ex. 12:14).

To sum up the “new” parts of the Passover meal that I learned: not only did the blood of the lamb cover the people of Israel, but this was a feast that would be kept forever (by God’s command) and in order for the Passover to be completed, the lamb’s flesh had to be eaten.

So, when Luke tells us in Luke 22:15 that Jesus said to the Twelve, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer,” we understand him to be not replacing the Passover Feast (since God has told us that it will last forever), but participating in it, fulfilling it if you will.  And what does he do?  Does he sacrifice a lamb?

Well, yes and no.

“And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.’”

Hmm.  This is confusing.

So Jesus offers the Passover meal—which somehow is himself (“this is my body, this cup is my blood”).  But why bread and wine, rather than either a) a lamb, or b) himself?  This must be symbolic.  The bread and wine must represent his body and blood, which is being related to the Passover Lamb since the Twelve would have understood the significance of the Passover Lamb as the sacrifice that saved the Israelites from death.

Except, then what’s the point of using bread and wine?  Why don’t we just keep using a lamb, since we already understand that as symbolically pointing to Christ’s sacrifice anyway?

Let’s listen to the answer that the author of the letter to the Hebrews gives us.

“We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.” Hebrews 6:19-20

Who the heck is Melchizedek?  Must be pretty important, since he is mentioned 8 times in the book of Hebrews, and in the Psalms too. 

The only time Melchizedek is mentioned in the Old Testament (except in the prophecy of Psalm 110:4) is in Genesis 14:17-24.  He is mentioned as a king of Salem and a priest of “The Most High God,” and his sacrifice as a priest of God is….

Bread and wine.

There are two priesthoods of the Old Testament, the Levitical priesthood that offered animal sacrifices, and this priesthood of Melchizedek, that offered a sacrifice of bread and wine.  We know that Christ fulfills the order of the Levitical priesthood by offering himself as the lamb offering, but Scripture tells us in no uncertain terms that he also fulfills the priesthood of Melchizedek—which is a priesthood offering bread and wine—and that he is a priest after the order of Melchizedek forever

Forgive me for quoting at length from the letter of the Hebrews, but I do believe that Scripture’s explanation of the matter is far more convincing than my own.  J

“Now if perfection was through the Levitical priesthood (for on the basis of it the people received the Law), what further need was there for another priest to arise according to the order of Melchizedek, and not be designated according to the order of Aaron?... For it is attested of (Jesus),
  For, on the one hand, there is a setting aside of a former commandment because of its weakness and uselessness (for the Law made nothing perfect), and on the other hand there is a bringing in of a better hope, through which we draw near to God. And inasmuch as it was not without an oath (for they indeed became priests without an oath, but He with an oath through the One who said to Him,
  so much the more also Jesus has become the guarantee of a better covenant.
   The former priests, on the one hand, existed in greater numbers because they were prevented by death from continuing, but Jesus, on the other hand, because He continues forever, holds His priesthood permanently. Therefore He is able also to save forever those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them.” Hebrews  7:11, 17-25

So Scripture tells us that Jesus is a priest forever.  Specifically, a priest after the order of Melchizedek.  What does a priest do?  What makes a priest different from a pastor?

A priest offers sacrifice.

We know that the sacrifice Christ offers to God on our behalf is the sacrifice of himself, his death on the cross.  The letter to the Hebrews, however, tells us that though this sacrifice was a “once for all” sacrifice, somehow Christ is a priest forever, always living to make intercession for us.  And, after the order of Melchizedek, his sacrifice must somehow involve bread and wine.

This post is getting long, so I will explain in my next post how the Last Supper involved not only the institution of the Eucharist, but also the institution of the new priesthood, the priesthood of Christ, which is the condition for the Mass being Christ’s own sacrifice.  Suffice it now to say that Christ explains in John 6:55 that his “flesh” (using the word that specifically recalls the “flesh” of the Passover Lamb) is “true food, and (his) blood is true drink,” and in the same chapter he makes the claim:

 “I am the living bread that comes down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh." John 6:51

Jesus is the bread of life and the Passover Lamb; the Eucharistic Meal, celebrated at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, is not another sacrifice in addition to Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, but it is rather the same sacrifice—the fulfillment of the sacrifices offered by Melchizedek and the priests of the Levitical priesthood—brought mysteriously into our lifetime.

We know that Christ, as a priest forever, offers himself—his one sacrifice—continually to God the Father, on our behalf.  The letter to the Hebrews tells us this plainly.  The Mass is the great privilege Christ has granted us, as his people, to celebrate this sacrifice “in remembrance” of Him.

Remembrance: from the Greek word anamnesis, signifying not only calling to mind, but making present.

At the Mass, Christ makes present for us, in the sacrifice of bread and wine, His one sacrifice, after the order of Melchizedek, of himself on the cross.

At the Mass, we do not offer another sacrifice, but we fall before the throne of grace and experience firsthand the sacrifice of Christ on behalf of us all.  That is why we believe that the Eucharist is truly Christ’s body and blood; we believe we are truly eating our Passover Lamb. 

At Mass, we—with confidence—draw near to the throne of grace that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Beautiful Blood

I mentioned in my last post that two weeks into my freshman year of college, my brother came to visit me.

Up until this point, Catholicism had solely been an intellectual project for me.  It was fun to study, fun to argue about, fun to upset people about.  But now it was getting to the point where the truth of these “fun” arguments was starting to become apparent to me, and so were the implications of realizing that truth.  And I was very frightened.  I did not want the Catholic Church to be anything more than a concept.

My brother was going to take me to Mass the next day.  I hadn’t been to Mass since the 3rd grade when I went to Catholic school.  My friends and I would sit in the back and get in trouble for giggling and putting our feet on the kneelers.  Other than that, I remember hating it.  Now, I knew that I was going to go back, and I might hate it again.  But if all of this was true, I would be stuck going to Mass every week.  I would have to go to boring, lifeless Mass instead of the church I loved.

So that night, I locked myself in the bathroom (the only place to be alone in a college dorm), and prayed.  I asked God to either show me where the Catholic schema broke down, or else to show me why Catholicism was beautiful.  I told him I was terrified of it being true because it still seemed so dark, ugly, and lifeless to me.  I prayed: “God, if this is from you it has to be beautiful… so please, if it is from you, show me how it is beautiful.”

I wasn’t really that hopeful.

The next day I got up early and went with my brother to a daily mass.  It was 7 am and yet there were at least fifteen people gathered into a tiny chapel on the bottom floor of the church.  To be honest, the Mass itself was not that “impressive”; it was a lot like I remembered Mass being—kind of dry, rushed, a little awkward, and not that challenging (at least from my need-to-be-intellectually-stimulated standpoint).  But then—

“Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world.  Blessed are those who are called to the Supper of the Lamb.”

The priest spoke those words—he spoke them as he lifted the Eucharist for us all to see—and then I watched as people, called to the “supper of the Lamb,” came to receive Him.  There was a crippled man.  A single mom and her two kids.  A mentally-retarded man.  A businessman.  My brother.  They all walked to the front of this tiny chapel and were given “the body of Christ.”

I started crying as I realized that not only were the “lame, the crippled, and the blind” all called to receive the Lamb, but that they could.  It seemed like this was at least part of the answer to my question about the universality of the Church.  I had wondered, if a church’s Sunday worship service is primarily a sermon and singing songs, what place is there for children, non-academics, mentally or severely physically handicapped persons?  How can it that the grace of God truly extends equally to the mental-athlete and the mentally impaired?  At least, in any way that affects this present life?

If the primary means of receiving God’s grace is via “faith alone,” which in our day and age is practically translated into receiving information via a sermon or Scripture reading which produces an intellectual response that somehow affects our lives, then these two men can never receive God equally.  Even if worship is expressed through sacrament, but the sacrament is merely a symbol whose real efficacy relies on the subject’s ability to “remember” the meaning of the sacrament (another intellectual task), then hope is lost for this life.

But if God gives himself to man in the form of an efficacious sacrament, as I was watching that day at Mass, then truly his grace is available to all people—from the infant who is sprinkled with the waters of baptism (obviously through no intellectual or moral effort of her own), to the mentally-ill man from the streets of Chicago who is able to swallow the Eucharist as it is placed on his tongue.  

Of course, God does give himself to his people through the Word, through the hearing of faith.  I in no way mean to belittle or diminish the import or efficacy of the Word of God.  I merely mean to emphasize, as it was pointed out to me, that the Word of God became flesh and dwelt among us.  And the Word of God promised to remain with us until the end of the age. 

The Word of God, who is the Bread of Heaven, said in his own words: “
Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.”

It wasn’t that I had been totally misled about God’s grace up until this point, but that it was bigger than I had previously known.  His grace meant that he not only gave his body for us on the cross 2000 years ago so that all who hear and believe may be saved, but that he continually gives his body to us every day so that all who eat his flesh may abide in him and live. 

And this struck me as achingly and overwhelmingly beautiful. 

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Wheaton Underground (Catholic Church)

Hello all, and sorry for the month long hiatus! 

As the summer ended I was bombarded with weddings and traveling and packing and moving back to college, so, needless to say, updating this blog wasn't the main priority.  But now I am back at Wheaton and plan on resuming where I left off.

Coming to Wheaton is, actually, exactly where I left off.

This time two years ago I was deep into considering the Catholic Church--but I had no desire for it at all and was actually completely afraid of what it would mean if I couldn't find answers to my questions about the Church's relationship to Scripture.  At this point I did not know any Catholics who actually practiced their faith and converting to Catholicism was on par with converting to a completely different religion, as far as I was concerned.  Nevertheless, my understanding of Christianity as a Protestant was slowly beginning to deteriorate, and I knew I either needed to find answers to my questions, convert to Catholicism, or leave Christianity.

It was at this point that I arrived on campus as a freshman at Wheaton College.

I had been praying for months now that God would show me His Church, and I figured that studying Scripture and Church history at the greatest Evangelical school in the nation would be the best way to find answers to my questions.  But to my dismay, being at Wheaton only intensified my questions (more on that in another post).  Now I was stuck—I was hundreds of miles away from home, beginning a new life, surrounded by strangers, and my whole worldview was falling apart.

Enter: my older brother, for a surprise weekend visit.

My older brother, who had converted to Catholicism a few years before, drove all through the night in order to come see me at Wheaton.  While he was there, he got me plugged in with the Catholic community…that was surprisingly all over Wheaton.

We like to call it (playfully, of course) the “Wheaton Catholic Underground” because at a school like Wheaton you would never expect to find so many devout Catholics—and so many converts.  To my utter shock, there were six Wheaton students in RCIA (that’s the name of the initiation process for adults wishing to convert to Catholicism) during my freshman year. Six might not sound like a big number, but from Wheaton College… it is a very big number.  And there was a larger group of students—Catholic, non-Catholic, and not-sure-yets—on Wheaton’s campus going through an independent study of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Also, my brother randomly met and connected me with a group of women in Chicago who were committed to living out their Catholic faith (members of Opus Dei, for those of you to whom that means something). 

So in the course of two days, I went from not knowing any Catholics who understood their faith and loved Jesus through it, to being surrounded by them everywhere I went.  And all of this as a result of my choice to go to Wheaton College in order to find answers to my questions about Christ’s vision for His Church.  

Tuesday, August 16, 2011


Sorry for the lack of posts, everyone--I'm in the process of moving back to school and have been extremely busy, so the blog has taken a back seat for a few weeks.  I will start it back up again in a week or two!


Monday, August 1, 2011

The Bible Needs the Church: Part 2

I had already begun to see the logical fallacy in holding to an infallible canon of Scripture (aka, an infallible tradition) while also declaring that tradition could not be infallible. 

But even when I decided to ignore that little inconvenience to my worldview, I realized that there were incongruities between my view of Scripture and tradition within the Bible itself.  Though I wouldn’t have known to call it this, I was an advocate of the doctrine “sola scriptura,” the belief that “only Scripture” is an authority in the Christian life (as opposed to Scripture and the Church, Scripture and Tradition, etc).  In other words, the Bible was the only place we could look for a true and authoritative picture of the Gospel and Christian life.

However, once my eyes had been opened (rather painfully) to the extra-biblical presuppositions I was taking to the text, suddenly I realized that not only was the doctrine of “sola scriptura” itself a tradition, but it was actually a tradition that was incompatible with Scripture.  First of all, the Bible claimed that it is the Church of the living God that is the “pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15), not the Bible.  Then, the writers of the New Testament epistles are constantly appealing to an outside authority: that either of themselves (Apostles) or those who have been ordained by the Apostles.  In 2 Thessalonians 2:15 Paul instructs the Thessalonians to “stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.”  Here and elsewhere in the New Testament Paul declares that his written word—the words which would come to be Scripture—had as much authority as his spoken word.  Why?  Because they are both presentations of the “traditions” that had been delivered to him as an Apostle. 

But isn’t the written tradition more secure than the oral tradition?  The oral tradition could have been altered whereas the written tradition is steadfast.  Perhaps; except for the fact that the steadfastness of both traditions depends on the promise of the Holy Spirit.  The Bible isn’t infallible because the Apostles were perfect eyewitnesses.  Scripture could have been recorded incorrectly, as well.  Nevertheless, Scripture is infallible because the Apostles were given the promise that the Holy Spirit would “guide them into all truth” (John 16:13), enable them to forgive or withhold forgiveness of sins (John 20:23), and to make executive decisions regarding doctrines (see Acts 15).  Furthermore, the Spirit would ensure that the “gates of Hades would not prevail against” the Church of Christ (Matt. 16:18). 

The infallibility of Scripture does not rest on the Apostles’ ability to remember and interpret perfectly their experience with Christ, but rather on Jesus’ promise that the Holy Spirit would provide and protect the authority given to the Apostles, by Christ, to lead the Church.  And this authority did not end when the Apostles died; rather, it was passed on to those who were ordained to take the Apostles’ places, as we see in Acts 1:15-26 when Matthias is elected by the Apostles to succeed Judas.

All of these things gave me the uneasy conviction that if I was going to let Scripture be the authority in my Christian life, then I would have to submit to it when it told me to submit to the Church. 

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Bible Needs the Church

I had been looking into Catholicism for a while when suddenly I realized something:

To accept the Bible was to accept the Church.

All of this time I had been comparing whatever Catholic theology I read with what I understood the Bible to say.  The Bible was the only standard for all Christian truth.  Right? 

But somehow in the course of studying Catholicism, of looking into church history, I realized that the Bible was a product of the Church.  True, the Bible is technically a product of the Holy Spirit, but the Church was the vehicle used by the Holy Spirit.  The Church had existed for decades before one page of the New Testament was written.  Furthermore, even after the Epistles and the Gospels had been written, there was debate for hundreds of years about exactly which writings were inspired.  It was the leaders of the Church—the Bishops—who made the authoritative decision about which books the universal Church should consider were actually the Word of God. Without the Church, we wouldn’t have the Bible. 

One Christian scholar told me it wasn’t a question of the leaders of the Church declaring which books were inspired by the Holy Spirit, but rather of them recognizing which books were inspired.  In other words, the Church didn’t—and doesn’t—give the Bible its authority; the Bible has authority of its own.  I agreed, but my question went further.  How do we know that the Church recognized the right books?  Couldn’t they have made a mistake about which books were really Scripture?  Obviously we attribute the inspiration of the Church in this matter to the power of the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit is the One who guided the Church to recognize truly which writings were actually inspired by God.

But once I admitted that (which seemed obvious), suddenly I had another question.  Why did I not believe that the Holy Spirit didn’t guide the Church in other decisions that were reached in the same manner?  The canon of Scripture was discerned and decided on at different councils at which the bishops were present.  This is also how doctrines such as the Trinity, the two natures of Christ, and naming Mary as the Mother of God were formulated.  If I believed that the Holy Spirit guided the Church in recognizing which books belonged in the Bible, why did I not believe He would also guide them in correctly interpreting those books?

As far as I could see it, I either had to believe that I was really reading the Word of God, and therefore accept the authority of the Church that handed on the Word of God to me, or else I had to reject the authority of the Church and also reject any confidence in the inspiration of the canon of Scripture.  But if I chose the latter route, I no longer had any reason to reject the Catholic Church.

At least, I couldn’t use the Bible to argue against it. 

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Contraception: In the Beginning It Was Not So

Lots of people think the Catholic Church is crazy for claiming that contraception is immoral.

I would have, except no one had ever presented contraception to me as an issue before at all until the Church did.  And when I read her reasons for rejecting it, I was without an answer.  She provides dozens of reasons, but what was most compelling to me was the argument that contraception makes it impossible to be truly “naked and without shame”:

Naked. Completely exposed.  Nothing held back. All of me given to the other.  Sexual intercourse is the physical manifestation of the love between husband and wife, a love that declares and promises “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.”  In intercourse the husband and wife give themselves to each other completely, binding them together in a physical and metaphysical way.  It is an act of mutual self-donation, complete gift, nothing held back…supposedly.  But contraception denies the “nakedness” of the sexual act, for contraception necessarily implies changing the body of one spouse or withholding part of the body of the other.  A pill which changes the physical makeup of a woman’s body to render her infertile robs her of the opportunity to give herself completely; she now gives an altered version of her body.  A barrier method imposes a “barrier” between the union of husband and wife.  By withholding part of one’s body from the other, contraception clothes the couples’ “nakedness” in artificiality and renders void the gift.  Now, the gift is of only part of me, or of an altered version of me.  
Without shame.  The Hebrew word for “shame” denotes an embarrassment resulting from unmet expectations.  Contraception, by its nature, introduces certain unhealthy expectations and conditions to the sexual act.  “I accept you as long as you’re infertile.”  Contraception destroys the reception of the gift of the other; it changes the message of sex from “I accept you” to “I accept this part of you.”  It is no longer a reception of the other person; it is now the reception of the part of the person that I want.
But wait—withholding fertility does not really affect the gift of self to the other; if both consent to the withholding, a true gift is still made.  Yet, sex is the physical manifestation of the love between husband and wife; to accept merely a spiritualized understanding of the gift of self in sexual intercourse is to deny the very meaning and purpose of sex itself.  A spiritual intention does not suffice for a physical manifestation; sex itself is a declaration that the physical matters. To reject my spouse’s fertility is to reject part of my spouse.  To put a barrier between physical union is to put a barrier between spiritual union.  

Every Christian church had rejected contraception until the 1930s; less than 100 years later, every church has accepted it and even ceased to consider it an issue—except for the Catholic Church.  This startled me; how could 2000 years of Christians consider contraception equal to adultery, and now we don’t even blink at the thought of it?  Was my understanding of the life God had designed for his people really rooted in Scripture and Christian principles, or had I unknowingly accepted the philosophies of the world?

Monday, July 11, 2011

Setting the Stage, Part 2: Catholic Bible Stories

To be honest, Catholicism was not even on my radar as a viable Christian option.

I thought the Catholic Church was evil because it masqueraded itself as a form of Christianity but kept its people away from grace, away from the Scriptures, and away from God.  My most concrete experience with Catholicism had been Catholic school in the third grade, when I started a prayer group at recess in order to free my fellow third graders from praying the rosary.  I just wanted them to put all of that Mary worship behind them.

But ten years later I read a book by a Catholic author about Mary.  The author talked about Mary as the “New Eve,” a concept that had apparently existed within the Church since its earliest days.  Contemporaries of the Apostles coined the term, and they drew their ideas largely from the writings of the Apostle John.  But the idea itself seemed to have been planted by God, in the book of Genesis.

Christians are familiar with the idea of Christ as the New Adam, due to St. Paul’s writings on how death comes through Adam but life through Christ.  But Genesis 3:15 speaks of three parties in the coming redemption: the serpent, the man, and the woman.  “I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed.”  The prophecy in Genesis makes it clear that it is the seed of the woman (Christ) that will “bruise the head” of the serpent; nevertheless, the woman herself will be involved in the battle for redemption—just as a woman had been involved in the Fall. 

It was significant to those in the early church that Mary, in John 2, is the one responsible for the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.  As the first Eve led the first Adam into sin, the new Eve led the new Adam to perform “the first of his signs.”  When Jesus calls his mother “Woman”, it is not a title of disrespect but rather an allusion to the name given to Eve in the Creation story: “Woman” (Gen 2:23).  John 2 is a “new” version of Genesis 3, in which the Man again submits to the Woman, but this time her request is pure.  The result of this submission is not death, but the manifestation of the glory of Life Himself (John 2:11).

Mary is the Woman spoken of in Genesis 3, whom the serpent would hate and whose Son would conquer evil; she is the Woman who appears in Revelation 12, who is “clothed with the sun” and sought by the dragon, but whose Son will “rule all nations with a rod of iron.”  She is neither above her Son nor equal to him, but due to Mary’s privileged place in the redemption story—prepared for her by God—all generations have called her blessed.

If it had been my ideas about Mary that kept me from Catholicism, it was the Catholic Church’s teachings about her that began to draw me in.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Setting the Stage, Part 1: The Sociology of Church Hopping

By the time most Christians in my generation have finished college, they have either begun the process of “church hopping” or have given up on church altogether.

What is church?  Why do I need it?  Why are there so many different churches, with different styles and even beliefs?  I “get more” out of staying at home and having a quiet time on my own.  Why do I have to sit through a two-hour service in order to fulfill some sort of Christian obligation?  These are the Church Hopper’s questions, and they are especially difficult for those of us at Christian schools, who are lacking neither in Christian community nor in Christian education.

The church I attended when I lived at home had solid preaching and excellent music—the two criteria most of my friends use when deciding on a church to join.  There was nothing “wrong” with my church, per se, but by the time I was in high school I was simply longing for something different.  The sermons were good but after 15 years in Christian school, I was stuffed.  Perhaps I wasn’t academic enough to be a good Christian.

When I was a senior in high school I thankfully found a Christian community that was less focused on the teaching aspect of worship and instead centered around community and outreach.  This, I thought, was truly what the Church was meant to be and my involvement in this community really sustained me throughout the next year.  However, once the community changed, so did my confidence.  Again, it was not that there was anything bad about the church, but simply that its foundation was subjective and dependent on the people who were a part of it.  Community is necessary for Christian life but could not be the pinnacle of it, which was obvious to me as my friends from the community left and I was soon to leave for college.  I could not take this church with me, and I was back to square one. 

Many people have determined that my conversion to Catholicism was simply due to a psychological need for constancy that I couldn’t find in any other church.  But I think this is simplistic.  When church is mainly a long sermon, it alienates all who are non-academics, who are tired, or whose greatest need at the time isn’t more information.  When church is based around the community, it is rooted in one location and therefore lacks any power to be universal, not only geographically, but also demographically.  A community-based church requires that the majority of its members have similar needs and even likes in order for the community to last. 

So for me, it wasn’t so much that I needed constancy, but that I really believed there had to be more.  There had to be more to Christ’s vision for his Church.  It was supposed to extend to all people, in all stages of life, for all of time.  Right?  Or was “church” merely something arbitrary?

Friday, July 1, 2011


I have wanted for a while now to share, somehow, the story of how I fell in love with and gave my life to Christ by surrendering it to His Bride, the Catholic Church. 

This blog will seek to chronicle my "journey to Rome," as they call it.  I hope the posts will be diverse in their content; some will be theological, some simply stories from my experience, some merely posing honest questions that I continue to wrestle with.  I do not want to attempt to answer every question ever posed to religious man; I cannot do this and do not think the Catholic Church can either.  I don't think the Catholic Church has all the answers, I simply believe she has the most answers as Christ has revealed Himself to her more fully than to any other body on earth.  That said, I will share the questions I have asked over the last few years and the answers I have found, but I will also be honest about questions that yet go unanswered.  

Feel free to comment; if you have a question or would like clarification on something I've written, let me know and I will respond to it.  However, I do not want to engage in any sort of internet debate (because I am known to become consumed by that sort of thing :-) ), so if you have an in-depth question or would like to discuss something at length, e-mail me and maybe we can find a time to talk either over the phone or in person.  I will do my best to not write anything inflammatory or intentionally offensive; my goal is not to argue but simply to share what I truly believe is the fullest manifestation of the Gospel. 

If you would like to follow along, then thank you.  Thank you for listening to my story.  I will try to update on Mondays and keep my posts to 500 words or less.  And let us all pray along the way that the Holy Spirit will make us sensitive to the truth, and help us to hunger and thirst for righteousness.

"It is Jesus that you seek when you dream of happiness, he is waiting for you when nothing else you find satisfies you; he is the beauty to which you are so attracted; it is he who provokes you with that thirst for fulness that will not let you settle for compromise; it is he who urges you to shed the masks of a false life; it is he who reads in your hearts your most genuine choices, the choices that others try to stifle. It is Jesus who stirs in you the desire to do something great with your lives, the will to follow an ideal, the refusal to allow yourselves to be grounded down by mediocrity, the courage to commit yourselves humbly and patiently to improving yourselves and society, making the world more human and more fraternal.” Blessed Pope John Paul II