In my almost ten years of experience of ecumenical dialogue that began as a dyed-in-the-wool Calvinist seminarian and resulted in a conversion to Catholicism several years later, I periodically read some theological reflection that both provokes and puzzles. Sometimes that leads to a deeper understanding of some theological idea, or perhaps even a change in my opinion.
Other times, despite my best attempts at a charitable reading, I have to conclude that the author has misunderstood things so badly it causes confusion and detracts from the ecumenical project. The latter, unfortunately, is my reading of Korey Maas’s reflection in The Federalist on frustrated Catholics choosing to remain Catholic despite the many recent scandals rocking the church.
Maas reads the writings of several Catholics who have written in the wake of the latest clerical sex scandal–namely, George Weigel, Robert George, and Matthew Petrusek–and argues that “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.” Maas comes to this conclusion because each of these authors urges his fellow Catholics to keep their eyes on faith in Christ, in whom they should place their ultimate trust.
Yet, Maas observes, there’s nothing uniquely Catholic about this idea, which is essential to just about every Protestant tradition. Indeed, it is a concept that matches up quite well with the “mere Christianity” affirmed by most Protestants.
Moreover, “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?” In effect, asks Maas, if Weigel, George, and Petrusek are making essentially Protestant arguments for why Catholics should remain Catholics, what’s so special about Catholicism, and why can’t people be Protestants instead?
A Word On Catholic Self-Conception
Before evaluating Maas’s argument, a short explanation of Catholic self-understanding is required to do an effective, responsible reading of Weigel, George, and Petrusek. There are many things that Catholics recognize as unique and essential to themselves, but in official catechesis, there are basically two ideas that loom largest for why people should be Catholics.
The first is that the Catholic Church is a visible religious institution founded by Christ that enjoys apostolic succession, meaning that its leadership can trace its authority directly to the apostles of Christ, who were given authority by Christ himself to guide his church on earth. (A corollary to this belief––which still divides Catholics from their Eastern Orthodox brethren––is that the bishop of Rome is the inheritor of the seat of Peter, the leader of the apostles.)
The second belief is that part of what constitutes the church’s apostolic authority is the privilege and responsibility to faithfully administer the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, the “source and summit” of the Christian faith. Indeed, in official Catholic doctrine, to worship and consume the Eucharist–which we believe is Christ himself–is the closest we can get to Christ on this earth.
Thus any time we read Catholic authors reminding the faithful of why they are still Catholic, we should be on the lookout for appeals to the church’s unparalleled ecclesial authority and its sacramental system, particularly the Eucharist, since to depart from the church’s offering of the Eucharist is tantamount to departing from Christ himself.
These Catholics Aren’t Making Protestant Arguments
We can now consider if Maas is reading these authors accurately. Take George, a famous professor of law at Princeton University, who does indeed assert: “Our faith is in Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ alone,” a slogan that any Protestant could support. Yet at the end of that same article, George further argues: “Christ, the faithful bridegroom, will remain with the Church, making reform and renewal possible, and ensuring that the gates of hell, whatever inroads they may make, do not prevail against her.”
George is citing Jesus in Matthew 16:18–a verse affirmed by any Bible-believing Protestant–although its usage is intimately united to the nature of the Catholic Church. Any Protestant who has spent time debating Catholics knows that Matthew 16:18 is used as biblical justification for both Petrine primacy and the doctrinal infallibility of the Catholic Magisterium (i.e., apostolic succession). The idea is that the Catholic Church cannot fall into error, no matter how egregious the sins of her members or leaders. Thus we must read George as offering not a “mere Christianity” line of argument, but one decidedly reliant on classic Catholic apologetics regarding her unique authority.
Let’s move on to Weigel, the author of the best-selling biography of Pope St. John Paul II, who begins his Wall Street Journal article with reference to the phrase “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church,” which appears in the Nicene Creed. Yes, it’s true, many Protestants also affirm the Nicene Creed as an accurate reflection of scriptural teaching. But the Catholic Church interprets this fourfold description, called the “marks of the Church,” in an essentially different sense than Protestants. Most important for our purposes, the term “apostolic” refers to the church’s claim to possess apostolic succession, something Catholics believe Protestants cannot claim.
Moreover, Weigel in the same article makes reference to the “Bread of Life” discourse in John 6, a text that Catholic doctrine relies upon to support its interpretation of the Eucharist. Weigel is obviously citing it to remind Catholics that they believe that Jesus is truly present in the Eucharist, and that we cannot abandon Him there. Again, Weigel appeals to “those of us who believe in God’s providential guidance of the Church,” and declares that “the living parts of the Catholic Church are those where people have embraced Catholic teaching in full.”
To believe that God is providentially guiding the Catholic Church (a reference to her infallible teaching authority), and that the best expression of Christianity is found where people embrace “Catholic teaching in full,” is antithetical to Protestant theology and practice. It would be hard to interpret Weigel’s article as anything less than a full-blooded appeal to Catholic preeminence.
Finally, let’s consider Petrusek, assistant professor of theological ethics at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. Maas cites Petrusek’s call to Catholics to “please pause, turn around, and look up. That man you see hanging there is what this is ultimately all about.” Yet what is lost here is the practical component of Petrusek’s statement. He’s referring to the crucifix, a representation of Christ the Protestant Reformation sought to abolish in its repudiation of what it considered “idols” and “graven images,” forbidden by Exodus 20:4.
The church’s use of the crucifix is not only to serve as a reminder of Christ’s bloody death on the cross–it is also intended to draw worshippers’ hearts to the Eucharist, where that unbloody sacrifice is now offered for the salvation of the world. This is a doctrine just about every Protestant tradition has fundamentally rejected. Although less explicit than George and Weigel, Petrusek likewise seeks to remind Catholics of what is unique about their own church and its faith, namely, the centrality of the Eucharist.
Misunderstanding Catholic Teaching
Maas then quotes Catholic Jeffrey Mirus, who recently argued: “Protestants can hardly refer to ‘the Church because they do not have a ‘church.’” Mirus adds that Catholics, alternatively, “recognize the Church AS Christ” (emphasis in original); “She is Christ present in the world.”
Maas deduces the following logical conclusion from Mirus’ argumentation: (1) Protestants don’t have a church. (2) The church is Christ. (3) Therefore, Protestants don’t have Christ. Maas concludes: “If Protestants and their ‘not-churches’ are without Christ, then neither can in any real sense be called Christian.”
Rather than try to defend whatever exactly Mirus is trying to argue, let’s consider what the Catholic Church actually teaches––in her own words––regarding Protestantism. The church has declared in her magisterial capacity that Protestants do indeed “have Christ,” to use Maas’ phrase. Paragraph 818 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church declares:
…the Catholic Church accepts them [i.e. those in Protestant communities] with respect and affection as brothers…All who have been justified by faith in Baptism are incorporated into Christ; they therefore have a right to be called Christians, and with good reason are accepted as brothers in the Lord by the children of the Catholic Church.
The next paragraph of the Catechism, 819, expands upon this:
Furthermore, many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside the visible confines of the Catholic Church: ‘the written Word of God; the life of grace; faith, hope, and charity, with the other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit, as well as visible elements.’ Christ’s Spirit uses these Churches and ecclesial communities as means of salvation, whose power derives from the fullness of grace and truth that Christ has entrusted to the Catholic Church.
The Catechism in both these paragraphs is quoting magisterial documents from the Second Vatican Council, which, in the Catholic paradigm, has infallible magisterial authority. Thus no person, be he Catholic apologist or Protestant interpreter, could possibly deduce from this that Catholicism thinks Protestants don’t possess Christ.
Notice, however, that the Catholic Church usually calls Protestant denominations “ecclesial communions.” This is because the church does not recognize these Christian organizations as possessing apostolic succession, one of the marks of the church. Thus Protestant communities, as understood by Catholic teaching, are not properly churches.
A common Protestant question to the above is “if the Eucharist is ‘saving,’ then how do Catholics think Protestants can be saved if they don’t possess it?” The answer to that question has taken up entire chapters of Catholic books, but here is the abbreviated version: the Eucharist is indeed saving, but not in the sense that if one never receives it, he or she is by default excluded from salvation.
If this were the case, Catholic children who haven’t yet received the Eucharist would not be saved. Rather, the Eucharist, being the means by which Christ actually makes present his saving work on Calvary, is saving as a sort of “engine of grace” that empowers not only the other sacraments (like baptism, which most Protestants practice), but can achieve salvific effects outside the church’s ordinary means of salvation.
This is why, in Catholic teaching, even a Protestant who wasn’t baptized could in theory still be saved if he or she professed faith in Christ. In Catholicism, the sacraments, including the Eucharist, are the “ordinary means” of salvation, but this does not negate God’s omnipotent ability to act as he so pleases outside the ordinary to draw people unto himself.
Of course, if the Eucharist and the other sacraments are the ordinary means of being united to Christ and giving a person the best chance of persevering in faith unto death and enjoying eternal salvation, it would be the pinnacle of foolishness to reject them as they are offered in the Catholic Church. This, as I argued earlier, is the heart of what George, Weigel, and Petrusek are getting at–one shouldn’t leave Christ where he most fully offers himself for our salvation.
Catholics Can’t Admit What They Don’t Believe
Maas ends his article by urging Catholics like George, Weigel, and Petrusek:
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.
The problem here, as evidenced by the quotations from the Catholic Catechism above, is that no faithful Catholic can believe “Anglican, Lutheran, or Presbyterian communions” are “without Christ” or “not Christian.” For a Catholic to assert this in the face of magisterial teaching would mean rejecting Catholic doctrine, and, if done publicly and without repentance, risks inviting Church discipline.
Ultimately, I believe the problem in Maas’ consideration of Catholicism is a lack of precision of language. Catholicism teaches that Protestant communities possess Christ, but that they don’t possess him in his fullness, since that is located in the Catholic Church, with her Christ- and apostolically derived authority, and her sacraments, particularly the Eucharist, which Catholics believe to be Christ himself.
Of course, if we believe a small wafer is somehow truly the Lord we worship, than anyone who isn’t willing to worship him there would be lacking! Moreover, given that Catholics believe that free will makes it possible for any of us to lose our salvation, it would be crazy to deprive ourselves of what will keep us closest to Christ.
As someone who spent about 20 years as a Protestant, I know that one of the traits that defines the tradition is a desire for simplicity and straightforwardness. Martin Luther was an inheritor of the nominalist school of philosophy, associated with William of Occam. This is the same Occam of “Occam’s razor” fame, which teaches one should gravitate towards the simpler solution.
In perceiving Catholic teaching, and Catholic writers speaking to one another in a moment of crisis as we now endure, the Protestant temptation is to employ simple terms and simple ideas to explain church teaching. Yet, as Maas’ article demonstrates, this is fraught with problems, the greatest of which is the propensity to misinterpret or mischaracterize what Catholicism actually teaches.
Yes, Professor Maas, Catholics “truly believe that ‘our faith is in Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ alone.’” Yet commensurate to that belief is a recognition that the Catholic Church–in all her magisterial authority, and all her scandals and sins–is where the fullness of Christ dwells, especially in the Eucharist as faithfully administered by those with apostolic succession. In the Catholic paradigm, those two realities of human weakness and salvific glory coexist . My appeal for all Protestants is to find out how.