Tuesday, July 05, 2005

On the Scandal of a Church Outrageously Claiming to be a Church

From another blog. Various interlocutors will be in different colors.


I don’t think that the Lewis “trilemma” is properly or analogously applied to the claims of the Catholic Church (as a purely logical matter). On the other hand, I do find it noteworthy that the Catholic Church is far and away the most controversial, hated, despised Christian body (which characteristic of disciples of Jesus was predicted by Jesus Himself). I regard that as strikingly analogous to the reactions to both Jesus and the early Christians. Radical truth claims have a way of creating controversy and strong opinions one way or the other.

The deeper question is: would we expect a priori (in attempting to step back from our “sectarian” vantage points and looking at this thing with as much “theoretical objectivity” as we can muster up), that the claims of the Christian Church (whatever it is; however defined) would cause such a “controversial, polarazing” reaction, or would we expect the one True Church (assuming that this is a valid, biblical claim and category) to elicit yawns and “ho-hums” (or even laughter, as the case may be)? Clearly, the actual reaction was always closer to the former choice.

So then when we come to the Catholic Church, I think it is significant that it is our claims which always seem to be the focus of controversy. We get accused of all sorts of things, precisely because we are “confident” (aka “triumphalistic” from a more cynical viewpoint) enough to make the claim in the first place: one which appears to me to be a rather routine, particularly Pauline one, in Holy Scripture. In other words, the claim itself is the bare minimum prerequisite for being considered a contender for what the claim asserts. Most other Christians, meanwhile, want to either avoid it (a sort of ethereal “ecumenism”) or let it die the death of a thousand qualifications (settling for the unbiblical, anti-incarnational notion of the “invisible church,” etc.). The only serious rival as a claimant (whether true or false: I’m not yet discussing that) is Orthodoxy.

In my own opinion, Orthodoxy can make a halfway-credible claim if it is not set forth as oppositional to the Catholic Church (either anti-Catholic or more ecumenical but still exclusivistic). My reason for that is early Church history. For example, the East split off of communion with the West on at least five separate occasions prior to 1054. In EACH case, it was wrong, by BOTH the later Eastern (Orthodox) and Western (Catholic) criteria. The prevalence of much heresy in the East, at the highest levels (while Rome never officially adopted heresy) also mitigates against an Orthodox claim to preeminence over against Rome. So any claim to be the one True Church must deal with the facts of these early controversies and how each “side” chose (because historical continuity is essential to apostolic succession and preservation of orthodox doctrine).

Since Orthodoxy cannot make a credible claim that excludes Catholicism, in effect its claims collapse into simply asserting one institutional Church prior to 1054. At that point, Roman primacy and the historic papacy make it a slam dunk case for the Catholic Church (since we have continued the ecclesiological pattern of the first Millennium to the present, with the papacy and Councils). But I don’t wish to get into Orthodox-Catholic polemics (which is why I deliberately avoided the recent 643-comment thread). I’m simply giving the case I would make in a nutshell.

We do not necessarily deny these statements outright, but we are not convinced they fairly represent Holy Tradition, at least as they presently seem to be understood.

How does one determine what actually represents Holy Tradition, if this is not determined by some authoritative Church interpreting same? The problem is that on one hand, mere private judgment is exercised (which has a host of difficulties, both biblically and historically, not to mention logically). On the other, the historic ecclesiological claim of being One True Church cannot plausibly be made by anyone other than the Catholic Church (per my reasonings above, but also much more evidences that I could produce).

That gets us right back to the rival claims and whether they are qualitatively equivalent. I say they are not, And I say that without the slightest trace of “triumphalism.” I simply believe that no Church besides the Catholic Church can make this claim without massive self-contradiction or else such a lack of plausibility as to make it impossible to set forth even the claim without running into a host of difficulties which are unable to be rationally defended.

Once this is understood (I accepted it after having read Newman’s Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine), it is seen that the choice is not so much the “best” one, but rather, the only plausible one. If difficulties with individual Catholic dogmas remain, then one has to realize that one’s own private judgment is insufficient to judge such a massive thing as the Catholic Church, with the overwhelming weight of Tradition behind it. One has to submit at some point, in faith, as matter of intellectual duty, and obedience to the leading of grace and faith, once having understood and accepted the types of things I outline above. Note that I don’t say that everyone understands Catholicism sufficiently to make such a commitment, and there are many reasons for that. My case here doesn’t require a judgment that all non-catholics are dishonest or insincere in their convictions (absolutely not!). But I am saying that once one grasps these issues (IF in fact how I described them above is the correct way of analyzing these matters), it is incumbent upon them to either become a Catholic or set forth some compelling counter-argument as to why they should not.

That’s the point that Cardinal Newman arrived at. No one said it is easy. It wasn’t for Newman, or for anyone who has stood at that crossroads (I thought I was going insane at some points on my journey; I couldn’t believe I was even considering such a thing).

To judge the Church by the hatred of the world may be a valid point, but if that is so, I don’t see how 20 million dead Russian believers and the deliberate terror unleashed on the Orthodox Church under the Communists can be ignored. There are very few serious contenders for such intense hatred of Christians or the Church.

Good point; however, I think that the Communists would have killed whatever Christians they found, just as the Nazis killed Polish or German Catholics if they got in the way at all. The Christians to be gotten rid of in this instance just happened to be Orthodox. That doesn’t prove that these Orthodox were killed or hated specifically because they were claiming to be the One Church, so much as it proves the anti-Christian and ruthless nature of Communism.

My point had more to do with the hostility towards the Catholic Church precisely for claiming to be the One True Church. I don’t think there is any question that we receive more flak for our claims than anyone else. As we make more claims than anyone else in the first place, this is to be expected, I suppose. But it is not insignificant.

I don’t think any of my present argument is compelling, by the way. These are just some rudimentary considerations thrown out for discussion. I have many other arguments that I would submit as much more potentially compelling in favor of Catholicism.

My perception is that the specific OTC [One True Church] issue is of an intramural type within Christianity. Even there, in my corner of the Evangelical world it seems as if such hostility as exists is related to differences in theology and practice, more so than from the OTC claim. On the other hand the hostility of the Modern American Secular Humanist seems to me to be significantly greater towards Born-Again Evangelicals. Catholics, after all, used to vote Democratic in large numbers. “You Must Be Born-Again” seems to strike a rawer nerve than “We’re the One True Church”.

I agree that anti-Protestantism is a huge phenomenon also (having been a campus missionary as a Protestant, how well I know firsthand!). My argument was specifically related to being despised because of making the claim to be the true Church (per the topic of this thread, after all). I think it is a good point that the evangelistic emphasis in evangelicalism is also quite threatening to people. The hostility towards the Catholic Church comes relatively more so from other Christians. Secular anti-Catholicism is quite a different animal, though there are significant intersections with Protestant and Orthodox anti-Catholicism.

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