I would like to draw your attention to an article that has appeared in First Things. I had better not reproduce it for copyright reasons, but there is no paywall. Catholicism made me Protestant. Read it there.
I should attempt a few comments. First of all, there is an American view of Catholicism and Protestantism, the authority of the Church being embodied in the secular authorities “to the punishment of wickedness and vice and the maintenance of thy true religion and virtue“. This English form of unity of Church and State has lapsed somewhat in England, but it has remained more meaningful in the USA, whether through the Episcopal Church, Roman Catholicism or various forms of Baptist and Presbyterian denominations. Protestantism is more or less dead in the UK and Europe, except where it has put on the gloves of populist religion like in the mega-churches. I have no contact with Protestants and barely any with Roman Catholics. None of the people with whom I socialise go to any form of church. Churchgoing is more motivated by cultural and social considerations than by belief and faith.
In America, there is more discussion about doctrine, moral teaching, the role of authority, secondarily about prayer and spirituality, than over here in Europe. This is the first thing that strikes me about American conservative Christian writing. French Roman Catholics, other than the traditionalists, do not discuss questions of interest to conservative converts like Papal infallibility, questions of tradition and private judgement. They are indifferent to such considerations, at least over the past hundred years or so. Less than 5% of the baptised population ever go to church. American methods of “evangelisation” will be of no avail. Only some other way will do, usually by giving the person some kind of experience beyond the rational faculties.
My own experience with Roman Catholicism was consciously embraced through the traditionalists, firstly the “dissidents” of Archbishop Lefebvre and then the various groups admitted back into the fold by John Paul II in the 1980’s. Like many cradle Anglicans, I read Newman and spent many sleepless nights worrying about tradition and authority. Like many Europeans and rationalists disposed to scepticism, I saw the historical abuse of authority both in the Church and modern secular states. Where did the dictators of the 1920’s to 40’s get their infallibility? It is rather obvious, don’t you think? Protestants too have their authority – a book and the preachers with “fire in their belly”. It is all about base humanity and the “first past the post”.
At this stage in my life, I belong to a small church claiming the Anglican and Catholic tradition in the broadest meaning of the latter word. I am a priest and do what I can to keep going in my “exile”, self-imposed and very soon out of necessity. I can understand the person who has become alienated from the Church but yet has not become a materialist or an atheist. They often try to express slogans like spiritual but not religious – something that is anathema to American conservatives but understandable if one seeks to get behind the words and clichés. My contact with my Church is quite minimal, synod and bishop’s council meetings, made increasingly difficult by ever-toughening traffic regulations in London. Apart from that, little more remains other than Facebook.
What is the attraction of Protestantism for some people who find themselves in a state of cognitive dissonance as Roman Catholics? Protestantism comes in different shades, fundamentalist and liberal, Calvinist and Arminian, Methodists, Presbyterians, Quakers, Unitarians, literally hundreds of denominations. The Reformation was a highly complex movement based on a reaction against corrupt Roman Catholic clericalism, an appeal to the early Church and especially St Augustine of Hippo and a desire for political freedom from local two-bit princes. It tended to revert to some extent to an imitation of Judaism through emphasis on the Scriptures as the sole source of tradition and worship centred on the word rather than sacramental symbolism. Personally I am more attracted to the Christianity of the Gentiles, the way Christ was introduced to pagans and animists!
Christianity is at the same watershed as in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. What is the relationship between scientific reason and philosophical faith, the intellect and the heart? Listening to the average American preacher is about as boring as a lecture at the Angelicum on various Atonement theories in the thirteenth century or the treatise on merit and grace!
How do we live as Christians in a world where Christianity or even the teachings of Christ as recorded in the Gospels is totally irrelevant and lost in the noise of materialism, consumerism and political populism? Many have tried to give an answer, including myself through this blog. I have come to believe that the kind of Christianity taught in nearly all churches is inadequate and its apologetics have no credibility. I find myself quite close to the “Modernist” theologian George Tyrrell in the 1900’s. There needs to be an esoteric and mystical dimension by which a person acquires experience of the sacred and the profound truth of Christ. The Protestant world has the Pentecostal movement, like the old Convulsionnaires de Saint Médard in seventeenth-century Jansenist France, and various phenomena which might not all be of God. Catholicism and Orthodoxy have monasticism and a deep contemplative tradition. The Lutheran and Pietist world has J.S. Bach, Jakob Böhme and Novalis to show in the mystical tradition from which German Romanticism grew. Rod Dreyer dreams of some form of lay monasticism called the Benedict Option, and shares many intuitions with mainly Americans in mind. I would add the need for mystery schools like in the ancient world where people can meet kindred spirits and learn about sacred symbolism and depth psychology.
Many of us have been scandalised by the failing of the clergy to set a moral example. I am a priest myself, and am far from impeccable. That said, I have stayed on the right side of the law and public decency all my life. Most priests have. I have always made a distinction between mortal humans and the high moral ideal of the Church. I studied theology mostly at Fribourg University, which gave me a neo-patristic approach with some measure of German Idealism rather than strict Thomism and Scholasticism. I was largely spared the nit-picking and pinpoint-splitting distinctions of traditionalist seminaries. Reading the Fathers of the Church can be quite shocking, since error would be attributed to wickedness rather than ignorance in good faith or human prejudice. A psychological view of a person only came in from the nineteenth century. Reformation and Counter-Reformation polemics leave the same impression of hardness and lack of compassion for persons. In Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose, Salvatore is referred to as the heretical hunchback rather than someone who is mentally retarded. The study of history does not admit anachronism. Human rights are something very recent and a fruit of the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason. This is why I advocate Romanticism: a union of the Enlightenment and the modern understanding of the human person with a revival of the emotions and the creative imagination. Such would change our way of expressing Christian teachings to a world that thirsts for the transcendent in a way of which it is unaware.
Newman wrote as an Anglican but also as one who cultivated an immense knowledge of the Fathers of the Church, both Greek and Latin. As we read his books, even when we see through the nineteenth-century cultural mask, we become aware of his obsession in trying to reconcile the irreconcilable. The theory of doctrinal development was a stroke of genius in describing the living consciousness, but its purpose is disappointing – an attempt to justify Papal infallibility even if it is limited. What must the nineteenth century Church have been like? It was certainly more diverse than after World War II and since Vatican II when the Piuspäpst tradition reached its paroxysm. There was a movement of revival and Romanticism, but also a progressive tightening leading to the purges of liberals and modernists by Pius X in the years leading up to World War I. Newman needs to be placed in his historical context. I like his thought, but he is not the be-all-and-end-all.
Since reverting to Anglican Catholicism from my fifteen-odd years with the Roman Catholics, I have been relieved of that problem of infallible authority, either religious or civil. We are all endowed with “private” judgement, though most of us are sceptical enough to recognise our fallibility and possibility of being mistaken. That is a part of our human condition and the learning curve. The problem with Newman is his opposition of authority and the use of reason. Perhaps he would have been enlightened by the reign of terror in the 1930’s and 40’s in Europe with a mind for comparison with some historical popes and bishops. There have always been evil men in positions of authority and there always will be. Infallibility is simply not possible. There must be a harmony of reason, faith / spiritual life and freedom of inquiry. Of course there is the element of sin, but you can’t stop sin by legislating against it. The way must be interior. Since World War II, mere authority has no credibility, and post-modernity rejects all institutions.
I don’t claim to have a universal answer. If I did not belong to a Church, I would not be attracted to Protestantism or any other institutional form, at least in the state in which I now find myself in late middle age. The Catholic Church (in its meaning as a Platonic universal idea) needs another kind of definition, one that is not institutional or political. It needs to consider modern discoveries of conscious energy and its relationship with matter. Science is beginning to vindicate the intuitions of Romanticism, even if Mary Shelley perverted it somewhat. We arrive at a new form of Tyrrell’s so-called “modernism” and perhaps a key to bringing our Christian life into our times without imitating mass culture and demagogy.
As a student at Fribourg, I was very impressed by the thought of Vladimir Soloviev and Nikolai Berdyaev. Firstly there was the idea of trying to pick out the positive intuitions of Orthodoxy, Catholicism and the Reformation and bringing about a convergence. The idea is sublime but naïve. I discovered orthodox Gnosticism through Berdyaev and some of the other Russian theologians of the time, many of whom were exiled to France by the 1917 revolution in Russia. These strands set me thinking, and I could only go on reading and discovering new insights, even if they brought me close to heresy and doubt about things that should be absolutely certain. I had to work through many of these things myself, in the same way as I worked to understand my own personality.
I end with a quote from Berdyaev in Freedom and the Spirit:
“As Leon Bloy has well said in Le Pelerin de l’Absolu, “Souffrir passe, avoir souffert ne passe jamais”. This is a remarkable aphorism demanding the broadest possible interpretation. Victory may indeed be achieved over what has been experienced, and yet that experience is still in our possession as a permanent enhancement and extension of the reality of our spiritual life. What has once been lived through cannot possibly be effaced. That which has been continues to exist in a transfigured form. Man is by no means a completely finished product. Rather he moulds and creates himself in and through his experience of life, through spiritual conflict, and through those various trials which his destiny imposes him. Man is only what God is planning, a projected design”.