In light of the scandals again roiling the Roman Catholic Church, many are understandably asking why they should remain Catholic. Some, such as Damon Linker, have simply announced that they will not. Others are answering in a way that, at any other time, might seem rather surprising to Catholics and Protestants alike.
Writing in the Wall Street Journal, for example, George Weigel explains that he and his fellow Catholics attend Mass “to hear what we believe to be the Word of God in Scripture and to enter into what we believe to be communion with God because of Jesus Christ.” He emphasizes “the basis of Catholic faith, which is trust in Jesus Christ.” Only Jesus Christ, he reminds his readers, has “the words of eternal life.”
Princeton University’s Robert George sounded the same note even more emphatically. “Our faith is in Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ alone,” he wrote. “The subject and object of our faith,” he continued, “is Jesus Christ—and him alone. It is Christ and him alone who saves.” “It is in him, and in no one else, that we place our hope and trust.”
Writing at The Federalist, Matthew Petrusek echoes a similar theme in the advice he offers to those contemplating an exit from the Catholic Church. “Pause, turn around, and look up,” he says; “That man you see hanging there is what this is ultimately all about.”
Are These Reasons Distinctly Catholic?
Since virtually all Christians at all times and in all places voice the earnestly pious sentiments expressed by Weigel, George, and Petrusek, why might they seem “surprising” to Catholics and Protestants alike? Most immediately, it is precisely the fact that all Christians of all traditions do profess these fundamental truths. If “what this is ultimately about” is “trust in Jesus Christ” and “him alone,” it is not at all clear how this constitutes, as Weigel claims, “the reason to be Catholic, the reason to stay Catholic.”
Yes, George explains that the above theological claims are “the teaching of the Catholic Church.” But surely a man of his intellectual stature and ecumenical activity is well aware that they are not the teaching of the Catholic Church only. Even more pointedly, Petrusek raises what he calls “distinctly Catholic” questions for those tempted to leave the Roman communion:
Do you believe in God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth? Do you believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was born of the Virgin Mary, was crucified, died and was buried, rose from the dead, and is now seated at the right hand of the Father?
But even those of the most modest theological literacy will recognize these as questions answered affirmatively in the ecumenical creeds—that is, the creeds confessed by the whole Christian church. There is nothing “distinctly Catholic” about them.
You Guys Sound Kinda Protestant
In short, what each of these authors suggests, without stating it explicitly, is that the essential teaching and belief of the Roman Catholic Church is no different from that of any other Christian Church. This may or may not be the case, but, again, it’s difficult to see how it amounts to an argument for exclusive loyalty to one particular communion of the broader Christian church.
Indeed, if true, the claim appears much more amenable to an argument for abandoning any particular communion if and when it evidences an entrenched culture of corruption, criminality, and cover-up from its lowest to highest levels. If the Christian faith is ultimately and essentially about trust in Jesus Christ and him alone, and if one attends church to hear the word of God in scripture, why not choose to hear that word and have that trust cultivated in a less compromised environment?
There is yet another reason the recent emphases of Weigel, George, and Petrusek might seem surprising. Although each highlights that which all Christians share in common, George most explicitly does so by emphasizing a theme historically associated with one particular Christian tradition. His repeated emphasis on “Christ alone” echoes a rallying cry of the sixteenth-century Reformation and the subsequent Protestant tradition.
There are of course ways in which a faithful Catholic can say, as George does, that “it is Christ and him alone who saves.” But historically such rhetoric has sat less comfortably with other Roman Catholic emphases, from popular understandings of Mary as “co-redemptrix” to the formal teaching that submission to the papacy is also “absolutely necessary for salvation.”
Is This All about the Church?
It is precisely the traditional association of “Christ alone” with Protestantism that prompted Jeffrey Mirus—in an article published only a few days before Weigel’s—to ask, “Why do Catholics speak so often of ‘the Church’ instead of ‘Christ’?” His answer is revealing in itself, but also for the manner in which it complicates the narrative forwarded by Weigel, George, and other of his fellow Catholics.
“Protestants can hardly refer to ‘the Church,’” Mirus writes, “because they do not have a ‘church.’” Catholics, on the other hand, may speak more often of the church than they do of Christ because they “recognize the Church AS Christ” (emphasis in original); “She is Christ present in the world.” Although Mirus also refrains from explicitly stating the logical conclusion of his premises, it is clear enough:
Protestants don’t have a church.
The church is Christ.
Therefore, Protestants don’t have Christ.
If Protestants and their “not-churches” are without Christ, then neither can in any real sense be called Christian. If one truly believes this, then of course there can be no thought of abandoning “the church with Christ” for a “non-church without Christ,” no matter how compromised, corrupt, or even potentially dangerous that church might be. However wrong Protestants—and many Catholics—might find this sentiment, it is clearly a coherent reason for remaining Catholic even in a time of scandal.
Let’s Be Honest, Please
But because it is the presence of scandal that has precipitated the many and loud cries for honesty and transparency, allow me to add another request for the same. Catholics, be honest with yourselves and others, and be clear about the implications of your beliefs.
If you truly believe that you cannot leave the Roman Catholic Church without abandoning Christ himself, without severing yourself from the body of Christ, openly admit it. If you truly believe the Anglican, Lutheran, or Presbyterian communions are false churches, without Christ, and therefore not Christian, be forthright about this. Even if we think you’re wrong (and we do), we’ll appreciate your honesty and better understand your reasons for remaining in a church that is quite obviously causing you a great deal of anguish.
Incidentally, such honesty might also allow us to forego heartfelt explanations of why “Protestants Should Care Deeply about the Catholic Catastrophe.” If it’s your view that Catholicism and Protestantism are nothing like complementary “ships in the Christian armada,” but more akin to navies at war with one another, perhaps we can simply stop caring about your catastrophe. (We won’t, of course; but if you don’t care that we care, maybe we’ll just do so a bit more quietly.)
On the other hand, if you believe that the word of God, the words of eternal life, and Christ himself—“the subject and object of our faith”—are indeed present in those non-Catholic communions that also confesses the ecumenical creeds, openly acknowledge this. And if you truly believe that “our faith is in Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ alone,” because “it is Christ and him alone who saves,” and that this is what Christianity is “ultimately all about,” be forthright about the real implications this confession has for answering the question of why you should—or perhaps shouldn’t, or at least needn’t—remain Catholic.