Letter to My Brother: A Convert Defends Catholicism

Dear Phil: I won’t respond by the numbers to your paper, since various items you adduced   can be re-grouped. But I must say, I was enormously impressed, even moved, at the piece of work you have done, and I’d also say that virtually the entire list which you adduce of blots on the Catholic escutcheon calls up in me the same reaction as it does in you. So maybe I should begin with that point.

Rome’s opulence, her political machinations down through the centuries, her tyrannies and hauteur and self-assertiveness, not to mention the Dionysian romp in the Vatican in the Renaissance, what with Borgia popes and catamites and so forth: all of that is bad — very bad. The Catholic Church knows that. Dante, of course, had half of his popes head down in fiery pits in hell. Chaucer, contemporary with the Lollard Wyclif, but himself a loyal Catholic, is merciless — scathing even — in his portraiture of filthy and cynical clergy. St. Thomas More and Erasmus, contemporary with Luther and Calvin, were at least as vitriolic in their condemnation of Roman evils as were the Reformers.

The obvious question immediately is, then: why didn’t they all leave this donnybrook?

The answer reaches back to some infinitely ancient matters. First, Israel, since the Church understands herself to be the “in-grafted” inheritor of the promises made to Abraham and to be, in some sense, also “Israel.” Israel was God’s chosen people. No one was free to hive off into the Fertile Crescent and start something else. The Hebrews had to stick with the tribe, even when Israel was smelting golden heifers, and even when Ahab was on the throne. Or put it this way: Ahab was no less king of Israel than was Hezekiah. And Israel was not less Israel when she was being wicked than she was when she was going up ad altare Dei to praise God. The Church is in the same position in its identity as People of God. We have Judas Iscariot, as it were, and Ananias and Sapphira, and other unsavory types amongst us, but we have no warrant to set up shop outside the camp, so to speak.

Second, despite what you mention about diversity in the Early Church, the bottom line, to coin a phrase, was that you weren’t allowed to hive off. The history of the first four centuries of the Church is an unremitting narrative of how first the Apostles, then the Fathers, including Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp of Smyrna, and Clement of Rome — wonderful, godly men, some of whom had known the Apostles and been taught by them — how these men insisted that the Faith once for all delivered was to be located and guarded in the company of people and episkopoi who were visibly, physically (by the laying on of hands) united with the Apostles. Anyone else (Eutyches, Apollinarius, the Montanists, Marcion, and everyone else who arrived with some variation on the theme) was condemned. Do read a good history of those centuries. You’ll find the apostolic Faith being defended, eventually at Nicaea and Chalcedon and Ephesus, against all sorts of clutterings and watering-down, including not only full-dress heresies like bad Christology, but also against efforts to break off and start anew over matters like post-baptismal sin.

This brings us to a region where evangelicals and Catholics have difficulty keeping any discussion on track, since the evangelicals’ vision is radically verbalist, propositionalist, and “spiritual” (in the sense of being disembodied), whereas the Catholic vision is sacramental, that is to say, perceiving that the physical is the appointed bearer and pledge of the unseen and eternal. For example, evangelicals would understand the Apostolic Succession as being a lineage solely of doctrinal fidelity and not also a genuinely physical lineage brought about by the laying on of hands. They would, most of them, unhitch salvation from baptism, all the while, of course, admitting that baptism is to be done, since the Lord enjoined it. Or again, their vision of the Lord’s Supper is ordinarily a Zwinglian one, which is to say that the act is seen to be symbolic only, with no notion of solid, tangible (sacramental) actuality about it.

The Early Church would, I think, have lumped the evangelicals with the Manichaeans in one sense, in that the Manichaeans didn’t like the grotesquely physical nature of Christianity. They wanted to fumigate and spiritualize it, and you can’t do that. It might be put this way: every single thing that God has done in history has been “physical,” starting with Creation itself, of course, with granite and flesh and lymph and so forth. Then we have skins from slain animals to cover Adam and Eve’s guilty nakedness; the Flood and the Ark; then circumcision, and stone altars and blood and burning fat.

But then, far from an escape from all of that hefty stuff, what do we find? Annunciation, which means, somehow, in a mystery, gynecology and obstetrics being drawn into redemption history. Then pregnancy, then Nativity, then water turned to wine, and the Savior fasting in the wilderness, and then the Passion, which funnels our eternal salvation down to splinters, thorns, and nails.

Then the scandal: the Resurrection, where we have, despite what timorous people or high-minded Emersonians might prefer, a resuscitated corpse. No nonsense about “the spirit of Jesus.” And then, worst scandal of all, the Ascension, where our flesh was taken up into the midmost mysteries of the Holy Trinity itself. Not to mention baptism, which the New Testament insists “saves” us — not apart from faith, to be sure: but you wouldn’t have been able to persuade Peter to edit out from his epistle his re-marks about baptism, nor to get Paul to stop including baptism in his teaching on salvation.

And then more scandal: the Eucharist. The people begged Jesus to grant that he was speaking symbolically in John 6, but he only kept upping the ante. Certainly the early Fathers understood the bread and wine to be the Lord’s body and blood—and so did Luther, and so, in some sacramentalist sense, did Calvin. The Zwinglian (evangelical) view, that the Lord’s Supper is solely commemorative and symbolic really is, we must admit, out of line with the universal testimony of the Church and the New Testament texts.

But I got onto this via your points about the bad things one sees in the Catholic Church down through the centuries. The point here would be that both Catholics and Reformers would agree that those things are to be called sin. But there is only one Church, in the sense with which we’d all agree, in that the Lord and the Apostles seemed to speak of “the” Church, which is “the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). The Bible is not spoken of that way. And people did not, on the view of the Early Church, have any warrant to refound the Church every hour on the half hour, in Moravia, or Zurich, or Edinburgh, or California. The doctrine of the “Invisible Church” is unknown to the early Christians. The faithful in those centuries were not left guessing, as are modern evangelicals, as to whether Theologian A or Theologian B might be right, say, on the matter of lesbian priestesses, or whether the Second Coming will take the form of the Secret Rapture or not. There was an authoritative voice from the beginning (the Apostles and their appointed successors) which was able to say, “This is the Faith, and that which you hear Eutyches preaching ain’t.” They weren’t left riffling anxiously through the pages of their bound copies of Paul’s letters, each man trying to wring from these scriptures what he ought to believe in the matter in question.

I sometimes think of it this way: Islam is the religion of The Book, and in so far as anyone says, in connection with Christianity, “Sola Scriptura” he is making this wholly Incarnational religion into a religion of The Book. Our faith is not The Thought of Chairman God. It is Creation, Incarnation, Passion, Resurrection, Ascension, Church, Eucharist. And it does not suddenly thin out into something solely propositional or cerebral after the Ascension.

I also sometimes wonder if the evangelicals, in their just horror at rampant evils in Catholic history, don’t unwittingly place themselves somewhat with the Donatists of the fourth century, who wanted to hive off because of certain evils which they felt were widespread in the Church. Augustine and others held the view that you can’t go that far. You can’t set up shop independently of the lineage of bishops. I mention this here not by way of proving that Augustine was correct (Catholics would believe that he was, and evangelicals might hold that he was wrong on that point), but only to point out that, as far as the ancient, orthodox Church was concerned, nobody could split off.

On the topic of Rome’s “additions” to Scripture in such doctrines as the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption most notably, we come, of course, to the nettlesome matter of authority which usually reduces itself quite quickly to a shouting match over Sola Scriptura. Let me, with very modest aims in view, mention a couple of items here.

First, I seem to recall that the text which we evangelicals were all taught as somehow pulling the rug from under “Romish claims” was the one in which the apostle John in Revelations 22:18 anathematizes anyone who might add or take away from “these things” (his visions, and the words with which he recorded them). Our crowd lifted that text and with no Johannine warrant made it apply to the whole Bible, when John certainly knew no such entity as “the Bible” as the Church now knows it, and in any event was only guarding his own book of visions.

Second, if anyone wants to understand fairly Rome’s idea in the matter, as over against the widespread notion that popes sit in the Vatican cobbling up quirky Marian doctrines, he must read John Henry Newman’s The Idea of Development in Christian Doctrine. It is very heavy sledding, but remember that Newman and all the theologians and popes up to his time saw themselves to be most emphatically under the tutelage and judgment of Scripture. No one said to himself, “Now here’s a dogma that’ll capture the pious imagination of numberless ardent souls and maybe thereby result in a few more contributions to the coffers: let’s promulgate so-and-so.” I’m being waggish, of course. But I think you’ll find that the Catholic Church has always taken a most somber view of the Bible. They stared straight at passages like John 6, for example, or Matthew 16:13-20, and neither exegeted these difficult passages away, as some do now, nor, like robust old Luther with James, baldly admitted that they’d like to expunge such and such a text since it didn’t fit their agenda. It is also worth noting that no pope, be he never so wicked, ever changed one jot or tittle of Church dogma or moral teaching in order to weasel in room for his “life style,” shall we say, whereas other consistories and bishops’ benches that we might note are now busily doing just that.

My only point here, over against the notion that Rome feels free to ginger up Scripture with adventitious doctrines, is that Rome does not think the Bible is something to be tinkered with. One had, of course, to go to the magisterium in order to find out what Rome actually teaches (say, on justification by faith, or on Christ’s exclusive mediatorship), and not turn either to poorly-instructed Catholic neighbors who might suppose that we’ve got to work up a little pile of merit of our own in order to squeak in through the door of heaven, nor to the headlines which exult in bugling out the latest surprises from pop Catholic theologians who indeed do the very thing of which Protestants often accuse the popes, namely, cobbling up novel doctrines and teachings (e.g., that homosexual promiscuity, say, is a “deeply Christian” style of life, or that all roads lead to heaven, or some such).

While we are still thinking about this matter of Rome’s “additions” to Scripture, one other point might throw light on the frequent objection from evangelicals that Vatican magnificence scarcely looks like the spareness, penury, and simplicity which marked the lives of Our Lord, the Apostles, and the early Christians. How can anything so sumptuous as this marmoreal emporium pretend that it is heir to that lowly set of antecedents? In other words, Rome appears to have added not only dogmas, but luxury, to the original deposit. What about that?

One angle of approach here might entail two considerations. First, whatever we all might suspect as to the part sheer avarice and vaingloriousness played in the ever-greater sumptuousness of the Vatican, we will all have noticed that the present pope will not wear the Triple Tiara, nor is he often (ever? I’m not sure) seen carried about on his throne on the shoulders of men. Nor are those gigantic ostrich-plume fans much in evidence nowadays in the court of Rome. Indeed, any tourist who went looking for a “court” would be disappointed. There has manifestly been a scaling-down of things, and we might even urge that to tear Vatican City down would cost more than such an enterprise might warrant, and that the pope has got to live somewhere, so he might as well go on living in his apartment there and paying the heating bills. Also, any church’s headquarters has got to be pretty capacious, and therefore expensive, viz., the Baptists’ splendid building in Valley Forge, Pa., or even Billy Graham’s headquarters. And as for heaps of gold in some Catholic treasury, it ain’t so. Oh, they’ve got art treasures, to be sure, but these don’t generate cash, and in any case, the Church looks on those things, I think, as a sort of trust, or depository, like a museum. This whole paragraph, of course, argues on a very superficial level.

Catholics know that the Church would still be the Church, and the Supreme Pontiff still the bishop, if there were nothing left but rubble and smoking ruins in the Vatican. My guess is that John Paul II would be as happy in a mountaineer’s hut (he’s a great hiker) as he is in the papal apartments.

And second, to the Christians who, in connection with their own simplicity of gathering and worship, say, “Oh, we just go back to the book of Acts for our cues,” a Catholic might urge that Acts gives us no blueprint, either for worship or for church ordering. The believers met, we all know from Acts 2:42, for the Apostles’ doctrine and fellowship and breaking of bread and prayers. But we have got to look elsewhere (in the writings of the men who had been instructed by these Apostles) to find out just what “shape” that gathering took. It wasn’t, by the way, on the New England Town Meeting model, which many Christians do seem to visualize when they picture the early Christians’ practices and try to do likewise. What they come up with is a “worship service,” and that was not the paradigm, alas.

Furthermore, on this question of simplicity in the Early Church as the norm, we have to stir into our recipe the Lord’s words about the mustard seed. It is a very tiny seed (the Upper Room; the early, hugger-mugger gatherings of Christians). But it grows into a tree big enough for all the birds of the air to roost in. That tree (the Church 100, 500, or 2000 years after the planting of the seed) does not at all resemble the seed. It shouldn’t. That would imply a sterile seed. Seeds grow. Oaks don’t look like acorns. The titanic Brazilian Pentecostal or Korean Presbyterian congregations look as remote from the Upper Room as do the Catholic churches all over the world.

Which brings me to your point about variety of types of worship. That is partly correct, but the variety had to do with details. If you will read the earliest possible eyewitnesses and participants, you will find that the liturgy in its present shape of synaxis (readings from the Bible, homily, prayers) then anaphora (the “Offering,” or “Great Thanksgiving,” that is, the Communion) was in place throughout the Christian world from the beginning. This was the act which the Christians understood to constitute “worship.” You can’t find alternatives.

I find myself troubled when someone says, blithely, “Oh, fine: some folks like the Lord’s Table every week, and some even like ritual. But that’s all a matter of taste and preference.” Well, it wasn’t anything quite so optional or easy to be dispensed with. The paradigm of worship as a sort of program, with hymns, readings, prayers, and sermon, does not correspond to what we find if we are seriously trying to make sure that our model is indeed apostolic practice and not some very late Swiss or Dutch blueprint.

And again on this question of diversity versus visible unity: non-Catholics can point to what seems to be almost universal ignorance on the part of the Catholic laity as to just what the Gospel really is, and then say, “But compare your average Catholic with your average evangelical. The latter is the one who is wholly at home in the Scripture, and who knows whom he has believed, like St. Paul, and is ready at any time to give a reason for the hope that is in him.”

Touche. How can I do otherwise than agree with you?

The following may be germane here. The problems of the Roman Catholic Church (sin, worldliness, ignorance) are, precisely, the problems of the Church. St. Paul never got out of Corinth before he had all of the above problems. Multiply that small company of Christians by 2000 years and hundreds of millions, and you have what the Catholic Church has to cope with. Furthermore, remember that the poor Catholics aren’t the only ones who have to cope. Anyone who has ever tried to start himself a church has run slap into it all, with a vengeance. Luther, Calvin, Knox, Menno Simon, Elder Brewster, Roger Williams, Ann Bradstreet, Wesley, General William Booth: they’d all testify to the difficulties that arise when you try to move out from the morning of Pentecost into the long haul of history. Worldliness, second-generation apathy, ossification, infidelity, loss of vision, loss of zeal, loss of discipline, jiggery-pokery, heresy—it’s all there.

The Donatists (and, a fortiori, the evangelicals?) can keep things manageable by starting over, and over, and over. Look at the bewildering roster of denominations, most of which are splits from splits from splits, and you can see the fruit of efforts to keep the Church pure by hiving off. If we urge that this is the only hope for the Church — to keep splitting — then we have an ecclesiology, surely, that really is arriviste.

Also, the notion, widespread among evangelicals, that the whole Church went off the rails by A.D. 95 so that it is futile to appeal to Ignatius, Clement, and company, seems impertinent. To the man who says this (I have a former colleague, a theologian, in mind) I can only say, “Ah. You know that Ignatius was wrong, do you? Um, ah . . .”

Finally, your point on Rome’s “baptizing the world’s trappings.” I think the watershed here would appear thus: either the True Faith (Israel; Christianity) must make so total a break with paganism and culture that nothing is left inside the camp that even resembles what the Canaanites or Philistines do; or we must “baptize the world’s trappings.” That is, the heathen pray: so does Israel. The heathen kneel down: so does Israel. The heathen mark special days: so does Israel — or, let’s face it, the Church. Certainly, groves and high places must be cut down if they cloak the obscenities of the cult of Dagon or Cybele or Phtha, say.

But this does not mean that we must then have no high places. We honor Hermon, Tabor, Sinai, and Olivet, so to speak. The heathen offer incense: so do we, the difference being that we offer it to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and not to Moloch or Gaea. Our difficulty with the man knocking his forehead on the ground and wringing a chicken’s neck in front of a totem is not primarily with his posture or with his attempt to propitiate some deity. We say to him, “What ho: you’re correct in so far as you think that there is Something in front of which we had all better bow down, and that blood must be shed. But I’m here to tell you that that God has disclosed Himself in great love to us, and has furnished the Sacrifice Himself.”

Or again, if there are images of Astarte or Diana, we hold up the Cross, and the Christos Pantacrator, and the Mother and Child. This vexed question of icons was settled satisfactorily in the eighth century by St. John Damascene in his defense of the use of icons over against the objections of the Monophysites, the Manicheans, and the Muslims. Because of this, our little fundamentalist church in Moorestown 50 years ago could distribute Sunday School leaflets with pictures of the Good Shepherd, and we could paint on the wall up behind the pulpit a great gilded Bible, and could set up Manger scenes. We couldn’t do that if John Damascene hadn’t put the case for the legitimacy of iconography.

Which brings us to the question of various culture-steeped modes of Catholicism, where the peasants, as it were, don’t seem to be within a thousand miles of the ringing message that “God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” What about that? This bothers the evangelicals (and me with them).

It is ignorance, and for this the Church is responsible. If some Catholics think that some ghastly painted doll really will “save” them, or that a St. Christopher medal is more or less on a par with a rabbit’s foot, or that a hurried sign of the Cross will assist the free throw, then it seems to me that something is indeed rotten in the state of Denmark. The Catholic Church has a huge job on its hands of re-preaching the Gospel, most especially to its own people. Do Catholics know, and are they hearing from their bishops, not to mention their theologians, that “There is none other name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved”?

If to believe that is to be an evangelical, then I am one. And so, by the way, was St. Peter, since it was he who preached that text. And so, as it happens, is John Paul II.


  • Thomas Howard

    Thomas Howard is the author of Evangelical is not Enough and C.S. Lewis, Man of Letters: A Reading of His Fiction.

tagged as:

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on
Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...