Sunday, July 09, 2006

Introduction and conversion story

"I believe and profess all that the holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God."

This is the profession a person makes when he enters into full communion with the Catholic Church, and it summarizes my worldview. I believe it all and strive to live it with God's help. In this blog I intend to share my thoughts on matters of faith and life from a Catholic perspective.

I was raised United Methodist and my wife was raised Lutheran. Why are we now Catholic? Here (reproduced) is a brief explanation:

The decision to become Catholic ultimately boils down to accepting the authority of the Catholic Church to preserve and to teach faithfully that which God revealed in Jesus Christ. That is the commitment I made last December after a couple of years of thinking, reading and praying. After Amy and I were married, we had to decide which church to attend. I was raised Methodist while she was raised Lutheran, but neither of us were overly attached to the distinctive doctrines of either denomination. Amy had many positive experiences with the Caltech Christian Fellowship in college, so we also considered the possibility of joining a more Evangelical church. After visiting several congregations around the Twin Cities, we defaulted to the Methodist Church in which I grew up. However, I wasn’t quite settled about the decision.

For some reason I was not satisfied with just picking a church where we liked the music or the preaching or the people or felt comfortable. I didn’t want to join a church unless I agreed that what they taught was true. But, how was I to know what was true myself so that I could choose a church? Protestant churches rely on the Bible as their final authority for discerning what God wants us to believe and how to live. Through the prayerful study of scripture, each person tests doctrine against the Bible and trusts that the Holy Spirit will guide him correctly. The problem is that honest, prayerful and scholarly Protestants still come to different conclusions, and not just on peripheral issues. For example, once a person has become a Christian can he lose his salvation? I think that’s a very important question, but there is no consensus among Christians. Also, when Jesus took bread and said, “This is my body ... Do this in remembrance of me” what did he mean? Some believe that at Holy Communion the bread symbolizes Christ’s body and we simply remember his sacrifice as we eat it. Others (Catholics included) believe that the bread and wine cease to be bread and wine and become Jesus himself, fully human and fully God. It only continues to look like bread and wine. If the former is correct, then the latter is committing idolatry by worshipping a piece of bread. If the latter is correct, then the first is denying a truly miraculous manifestation of God. Again, it’s an important question. It’s either one or the other. What we BELIEVE has no effect on what something IS. I was faced with the fact that no matter how long I studied and prayed, if I relied on my own limited judgment there would always be someone who had studied and prayed more who honestly disagreed. The Bible alone doesn’t work.

I still believed in the reliability of the Bible and the historicity of Jesus life, death and resurrection. It just seemed like our ability to interpret it was flawed. What I realized was that Jesus made some strong promises to his disciples. “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it.” (Mt 16:18) “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” (Jn 16:13) “I am with you always, to the close of the age.” (Mt 28:20) Later, the apostle Paul says he writes so that “you may know how to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth.” (1 Tim 3:15) Whatever form the church took, it must in some way be led into that truth which Christ came to reveal, and which he promised to protect through the Holy Spirit. If Protestants were right about not needing an authority beyond the Bible, then one might expect to see some kind of progress toward agreement since the Reformation. Unfortunately, the opposite has happened with many contradictory denominations. Clearly, they cannot all be led by the same Holy Spirit.

Historically, the Christian Church was the Catholic Church. By that I mean that it believed the things that the Catholic Church today believes, and it recognized the authority of the Pope and the Bishops in union with him to be guided by the Holy Spirit and prevented from officially teaching error. This authority, as exercised in the early councils, established all of the foundational Christian beliefs including the divinity of Christ, the incarnation, the Triune nature of God, etc., as well as the canon of scripture itself. Based on Jesus’ words, whatever the Church was it must still be, or else God had failed. I recognized the need for a place of appeals in matters of truth and found that it existed within the Catholic Church.

To clarify, I’m just a plain Roman Catholic who accepts the Pope et al. I was received into the Church on December 19, 2002 at St. Agnes Church in St. Paul, MN and my wife came in a bit later at the Easter Vigil 2004 at Nativity of Our Lord in St. Paul (along with Peter who was baptized). It wasn’t a matter of coming to my own conclusion about every doctrine and then joining the Catholic Church because she agrees with me. Rather, it was accepting the authority of the Church and thereby everything she teaches in the same way one accepts the Bible as God’s Word. Protestants and Eastern Orthodox reject part or all of this authority. Of course, I have found that the Church gives sound reasons for everything she teaches.


Anonymous said...

Hi Dan. It's good to see you blogging again. As I've said before, I have tremendous respect for the process by which you came to your decision, and I'm very glad to see you and your family fully committed to a Church that unashamedly preaches the Gospel of truth.

I just want to make one point about your characterization of Protestants. I don't think any thoughtful Protestant would say that the Bible alone is able to bring one to the same level of certainty that Catholics attain through the authority of the Church. Clearly it is not. Rather, we would propose that God did not intend for us to have that level of certainty.

I believe that the doctrines that are essential for orthodoxy are rather few, namely those that the Bible itself stresses as essential (such as the nature of Christ, His death and resurrection, and His future return). I also accept the early creeds (Apostles, Nicaean, Chalcedonian) as unanimous declarations of the Church as to the essentials of the faith.

For other issues, though they can be very important as you point out, I believe God means for us to determine His will as best we can. The important thing is the state of our hearts rather than the decision itself. "One person eats meat, and does it unto the Lord; another abstains from meat, and does it unto the Lord" (Romans 14).

I know you (and the Catholic Church) would interpret these passages differently, and my point is not to debate that. All I'm getting at is that I do think we can all be led by the same Holy Spirit -- in fact, I think that you and I are -- even though we come to different conclusions on many issues.

Dan said...

Thanks Matt for your (always) thoughtful comment.

I don't think any thoughtful Protestant would say that the Bible alone is able to bring one to the same level of certainty that Catholics attain through the authority of the Church.

I hadn't considered this. While I haven't read a direct comparison between the certainty of faith between Protestants and Catholics, it seems that if Protestants don't claim certainty on certain doctrines they act like they do. For example, the Calvinist/Arminian debate concerning free will and predestination. Somehow both sides are certain of their position yet agree to disagree and call it "non-essential".

Thinking about Jesus' promise of the Holy Spirit to teach the apostles ALL things (Jn 14:26), His command for them to teach all nations to observe ALL that he commanded (Mt 28:20), and the way the early Christians went about discerning the will of God with apparent certainty in council and then communicating that will to others (Acts 15), it doesn't make sense that he would suddenly cut off the guiding light of His Spirit. Other than the experience of Protestant churches' inability to decide doctrinal disputes with certainty, what leads you to believe that only some doctrines are essential? Is there scripture to support this?

I also accept the early creeds (Apostles, Nicaean, Chalcedonian) as unanimous declarations of the Church as to the essentials of the faith.

But what do they mean? What is "the one holy catholic and apostolic church" that you profess? Is it visible or invisible? Does an "apostolic church" require valid apostolic succession? Does the "communion of saints" mean communion with just those on Earth, or also in heaven? Do the saints in heaven help us? May we ask for their prayers?

These are all parts of the essentials of the faith contained in the creeds, but even the meaning of those are disputed. Also, many Protestant criticisms of Catholic teaching (related to my questions above) seem to be very certain, such as prohibitions against "contacting the dead" like Mary and the Saints in heaven.

All I'm getting at is that I do think we can all be led by the same Holy Spirit -- in fact, I think that you and I are -- even though we come to different conclusions on many issues.

I can agree that it is the same Spirit of Christ who leads us both. But in the end, one or the other of us is coming to the wrong conclusion, because the Spirit of Truth can't lead us to error.

Anonymous said...

Certainly there are Protestants who are so caught up in their own point of view that they fail to consider the possibility that they could be mistaken. Knowing how little you know is a mark of wisdom, IMO.

Regarding things like Calvinism/Arminianism, the thoughtful Protestant may feel his opinion strongly, but will always hold it subordinate to the correctional authority of Scripture. As an example, my denomination, the PCA (conservative Presbyterians), is strongly Calvinist, but such language is included in their foundational documents. If this were not true, then I (who am not a strong Calvinist) would have trouble being a member. Of course, there are many "unthoughtful" Protestants, of all persuasions, who do not do this, and I would criticize them as much as you.

Regarding essential doctrines, it seems to me that the burden of proof is on those who claim a doctrine to be essential. Clearly the "all" in the passages you quote is somewhat hyperbolic, as even Catholics have internal disagreements on many issues.

I believe that the "one church" is invisible, as every earthly organization includes some unregenerate persons and excludes some regenerate ones. I don't believe that "apostolic" implies a continuation of the office of Apostle to the present day, but rather following in their footsteps. I don't have a problem with asking those of God's people who are now in heaven to pray for us (Hebrews 11-12:1), though I've not done it myself, and I worry about emphasizing it to the detriment of prayer to God.

So I do think I follow the creeds, though as you note, we may disagree on the meaning of a passage or two.