Tuesday, February 13, 2007

On the possibility of joining the Catholic Church

I never expected such tension to arise from my desire to join the Roman Catholic Church. It is not from a lack of desire that I am hesitant about being confirmed. I am hesitant, if that is the correct word for how I am feeling, because I do not know whether it is even possible for me to join the Catholic Church in good conscience.

This is of course the fault of my Protestant upbring (I'm not trying to shit on Protestants. I have no desire to shit on Protestants. I don't even care.). If I had not grown up going to a Southern Baptist church three or four times a week until I was eighteen years old this tension would never have posed a problem, whether because I would never have considered joining the RCC or because joining would have been much easier in the sense that this sort of hesitancy would not have been possible to someone not raised Protestant.

In my theology class my professor has made the claim that one should not accept doctrine on authority alone, one must exercise reason. Otherwise one falls into fideism, as the Southern Baptists do. My professor is a Roman Catholic priest. To put it otherwise, one must use private judgement (at first) when it comes to matters of doctrine.

But is not this entirely backwards? Or is it? Must I assent to the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church by some sort of mental gymnastics? But isn't this the way of the Protestants? As a Protestant, I have been attempting to rationalize doctrine my entire life. If I could only set doctrine on a rational foundation everyone would have to become Christian! It only makes sense! This is what the Southern Baptists attempt to do, by their own absurd form of Enlightenment thinking. This is the framework in which I was raised, and this framework became my own. I have spent the past eight or so years desperately trying to rid myself of this mindset and will likely continue this extermination for the rest of my life.

I am told that I need to assent to the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church by exercising my private judgement. This is of course only the beginning, as over time I will be led to a life of faith. This is a bit of a reversal and inversion of Anselm's definition of theology, as it is no longer faith seeking understanding, but rather understanding posing as faith. I feel like I'm being ordered (by whom?) to have a complete understanding of Catholic doctrine and make sure it is all in working order and doesn't offend my enlightened sensibilities. Then and only then will the cloud of faith descend from heaven and surround me, so that gaining faith will be no more difficult than breathing in that lovely cloudstuff of reasoning.

I can't help but reject this outright. I have no desire to join the Roman Catholic Church because I, through private reflection, have found Catholic doctrine acceptable in my eyes. Who the hell am I to say if their doctrine is up to par? I want to join the RCC because I trust that they have the authority to make such doctrinal claims. But how am I to found this trust if not on my own Private Judgement? Through faith, of course. But I'm not supposed to have faith yet. And I'm not so sure I am in the possession of anything I can rightly label faith.

So it comes down to the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. Either I accept their authority by my own reasoning, which I find unacceptable, or I have faith that they are the True Church and the Holy Spirit wouldn't let them err in matters of doctrine. But I'm supposed to reach the possibility of faith only after I've subjected these doctrines to thorough rational scrutiny. And I'm back where I began.

Thus, is it possible for a Protestant to join the Roman Catholic Church in good conscience?

It is in this state that I am attending the Rites of Christian Initiation for Adults at the Newman Centre at McGill University.


Claire said...

Thank you for linking to me. I'm going to return the favor.

urbanmonk said...

Seems like for a man convinced of the absurdities of Enlightenment thinking, you are caught in a very Enlightenment box.

Where does the way of Theosis and Theoria fit into your pursuit?

I've arrived at this tension from a different trajectory, yet I feel equally dubious about the validity of receiving communion in the Romish or Orthodox traditions. I'm simply not confident in my ability to choose the good.

But maybe in light of the notion that God desires for union with each of us, I am asking the wrong question.

Thanks for the thought provoking post and you commitment to honest reflection.


Matthew said...

Thanks for your comment, Brian.

I am absolutely convinced of the validity of my receiving communion into the Roman Church, and I'll be received into full communion with them this Easter. I have no doubt in my mind that I am making the correct decision. I just have no idea why I feel it to be correct. I don't know why I believe the Catholic Church has the authority it claims for itself. But I believe it wholeheartedly. The more I examine my decision the more inexplicable it is to me. My decision is an absurd one. I can't explain it to myself, much less anyone else.

I wake up in the middle of the night wracking my brain over the absurdity of the whole thing.

Theosis and theoria are the only things I have to stand on.

It has also been really difficult to make this ridiculous decision without any encouragement, even better, with nothing but scorn. But I'm going to take the leap, whether I can wrap my mind around it or not!

I know that if I did not join the Catholic Church, I'd never be comfortable going back to a Protestant denomination. That would be equally absurd, and I'd know that it would be wrong for me to do, even if I couldn't explain why. So it is all or nothing!

urbanmonk said...

I think the Roman church has the authority it claims for itself as an apostolic community connected with the Christ. I know I'm kind of off the subject now.

Jesus offers his disciples the keys of the kingdom the power to bind and loose. The Roman church has the keys in the same way as other communities (orthodoxy, coptic, protestant) within the Body have the keys. It's really a matter of time as to whether communities that claim the keys have made correct communal decisions in following Jesus together. (obviously a foundation built upon schism is not particularly solid) I don't know if I'm making any sense.

We may find that in the next 500 years the protestant branch just gets reabsorbed into another branch. What am I saying? Christ gave authority to his disciples to decide together how to follow him in community. The way of Jesus has always had the same focus (union with God through faith in Christ), but authority is at times and in place in flux, it is not static. Some traditions may have a rootedness that propels their life together with more staying power than others. Some are so whack they only last a generation.

Maybe all this to say that given theosis and theoria the authority of the Roman church does not depend on your assent or their proclamation but God's active presence with a community. I think this leaves lots of room to affirm your wholehearted belief while at the same time leaves space for those of us separated brethren outside the Romish communion.


Matthew said...


I'm drunk but I'll say this: I think you are spot on. There is space outside the Romish communion. Most definitely. God is at work all over the place and at every moment. He's quite the character. We can never imagine what he's up to.

If that were not the case I'd be a complete wreck, as I'd imagine you'd be too, as the both of us don't seem to fit into the same type of mould, though we can both claim allegiance to Christ. Even those who have never heard of that man from Nazareth can claim allegiance to him. And we're all the better for having the opportunity to hear of their experience of him, though they do not exist for some sort of edification for the West.

I do not doubt the fact that the "separated brethren" are in communion with the body of Christ. Not at all even. But it isn't up to me. And that realization takes such a load off my shoulders. For what place does democracy have when it comes to doctrine?

This is not to say that I think Protestants are outside the body of Christ. I'm just trying my best to make sure I'm in it as much as I can be.