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