More on Proselytism

New addition. See towards the end of this posting for a dialogue between a Lutheran pastor and a conservative Roman Catholic priest.

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This is not the first time I have written on this subject, but it is one that crops up from time to time, and is particularly toxic and nauseous. It is more relevant in America than in Europe. Here in France, I meet very few people who regularly attend churches, though some are open to a spiritual view of life involving self-acceptance and unity with a universal consciousness of some kind. Most of the conservative priests for whom I have installed an organ in their church understand why my time in the Roman Catholic Church had to come to an end. I had nothing to relate to, and it was quite honestly a nightmare for me. One might attribute it to my autistic “condition” and my not being able to identify the reality with the apologetic claims proffered to have me take the bait. I fight to make the distinctions needed to keep both my faith and my vocation as a priest.

I was particularly impressed on reading a message to a small e-mail list by Rev. Larry Peters, a Lutheran pastor.

With respect to David Mills piece on Peter Scaer, it should be noted that there is no Lutheran worth his salt who does not regularly address the question of whether Lutheranism still offers the best choice for evangelical catholicity or not.  I would say that every Lutheran serious about his Lutheran-ness struggles with the great divide between Rome and Wittenberg, that every Lutheran longs to find an ally in the pursuit of orthodoxy in doctrine and witness before the world within Rome, and that most Lutherans hope for a Pope who will aid in these causes.  Lutherans deal not with ideas per se but with the Word of God, the catholic witness of the Church, and our life flowing from the means of grace.  One of the primary differences between good Lutherans and Roman Catholics is this – every good Lutheran must wrestle with why they are Lutheran and not Roman or Orthodox while it seems most Roman Catholics do not even raise the question of why they remain Roman Catholic.  I suggest that if Roman Catholics considered this challenge more, it just might be harder for a Lutheran to justify remaining a Lutheran.

I have no personal experience of Lutheranism, but I see it as one of the early expressions of the Reformation like Wycliffe, Hus and the Moravians. I am very intrigued by the story of John Wesley who led the pietist Methodist movement in England against the backdrop of Enlightenment rationalism and the fading away of a spiritual vision in Christianity. I have written on John Wesley, and not merely on account of the flowing locks of his hair! My great-great grandfather was a Methodist minister in Yorkshire in Victorian times, serving working people and businessmen who gave them work. As a schoolboy in York and singing in a parish choir, I quite often went to Methodist services with the choir to give support to their hearty worship. We would joke, “We’re on the meths tonight”, but that altered nothing of their welcome and their taking their faith seriously. The Methodists are less strict these days about drinking alcohol, but they never drank methylated spirit, a nasty smelling liquid we use for alcohol stoves and which is poisonous if drunk.

The religion of a country forms its culture, and this was certainly true of Germany from the Renaissance era and through the centuries to our own time. Lutheranism was high-church up to about the time of Bach, who composed several Latin masses to be sung in Lutheran churches. Lutheranism largely kept the mystical tradition of medieval Catholicism which is reflected in pietism and the beautiful texts of Bach’s cantatas. The theology of these texts is so rich in spirituality and beauty as would also be found in the writings of Roman Catholic and Orthodox saints. Pietism is a response to the teaching of Scripture and a dialogue with God’s word, often highly poetic and mystical. Our souls engage and do not merely acquiesce to the word. It is a paraliturgical experience, enriched by inspired musical composition. Lutheranism also produced Jakob Böhme, who did not always meet with the favour of his local parish pastor on account of his unconventional writing. I have visited a few Lutheran churches in Germany. They still have their medieval stone altars which are used facing the east. The statues and icons were not destroyed, and even the Sakramentshaus remains intact in many of these churches.

The same thing happened in eighteenth-century Germany as in England during the same period, a movement of rationalism and secularisation that emphasised moral and social teaching over prayer and mysticism. Such secularisation is what has occurred again in our own time, this time in the Roman Catholic Church as well as in Lutheranism, Anglicanism and all expressions of western Christianity. In turn, like John Wesley, bishops, priests and lay people reacted by asking for the old liturgy and spiritual life rather than simple considerations of helping the poor, redistributing wealth and bringing about a solution to ecological issues.

This is what we need to remain focused on, rather than abstract considerations on which church is the most true or authentic, setting out the others as fakes or illusions. I know that the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod is the biggest of several American split-offs from mainstream Lutheranism. In all churches, there are conservative and traditionalist movements, like Continuing Anglicanism to which I belong as a priest. We tend to project our certitudes on our brand names and entertain hopes that more people will convert to what we believe to be true. Since my early days in 1981 as a “convert”, I have become much more sceptical and Idealistic in my epistemology. Truth is not something we possess but a transcendent reality to which we aspire in our entire human experience and imagination. A one true church making an exclusive claim in institutional terms is complete nonsense to me.

No institutional church can make the claim to be the one true church, but rather should seek the truth of God. Roman Catholics can no longer make that claim on account of its being based on their Pope’s teaching. That teaching now brings Catholicism to the level of eighteenth-century rationalism and secularism in Lutheranism and Anglicanism during the same period, and in its own ranks. We can only shudder to think how they ended up during the French Revolution. Lutherans will often come up with tit-for-tat arguments. I have seen the same apologetics in evangelical communities, where zealots “thump” their Bible as a sign of “possessing truth”. In my reckoning, Christianity that becomes a fanatical ideology loses its very claim to truth.

The Roman Catholics profess to want unity with all Christians and to engage dialogue. It has been like that since the 1950’s and the run-up to Vatican II. We have all seen the scandal of sectarian conflict and violence, its effect of discrediting the very Christian Gospel. We all want peace and mutual respect, mutual recognition of at least our sincerity and purpose of being Christ’s disciples in our own time.

Presently, in the Roman Catholic Church, the Pope has brought out the conflict between the apologists and zealots one one hand, the liturgical traditionalists and the more or less secularised synodality of the mainstream. I respect them all for their sincerity, but I have nothing in common with them. I do not relate to them. I feel no duty or obligation to join them.

Again, I bring out the point of not converting to an idea of an institution, but to a concrete community. It might be a parish, a “Benedict option” community, perhaps a monastery where ordinary people can attend Mass and Office. Where two of three are gathered in my Name… Christian faith is expressed inwardly by each of us and by our communities, our families, circles of friends, anything imaginable. That community might be a part of a larger communion, perhaps “approved” by a Roman Catholic bishop, perhaps independent and trying to hang onto the essential ideal. Many Roman Catholics want to demolish this belonging in order to “save” someone’s soul by having them go through reception – and then years and decades of agony and alienation. I have known people who could only disassociate themselves from all institutional religion in order not to lose the faith and personal attachment to Christ. Yes, it is possible, and such people need to be respected.

I have wondered whether I should move to a place where people are more actively Christian and in need of priests. In the end, northern France is where I live and where people secretly live their beliefs and ideals, perhaps Christian, perhaps “pre” or “post” Christian. Europe has lived through centuries of conflict and persecution, and the seeds of human sin remain. We needed secular states and neutrality, perhaps with more conviction than America’s Constitution. If we are spiritual and sincere, then we will not only be tolerated but asked what gave us this way of life. The essential is to teach, not by word, but by example, by love, by beauty, truth and goodness.

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Dialogue between the Lutheran pastor and a conservative Roman Catholic priest. The Lutheran pastor is Rev. Larry Peters, already mentioned above. I will hide the identity of the RC priest, because I am not attacking his or any person but rather a mindset shared by many. His comments are preceded by “Father”.

Rev. Larry Peters With respect to David Mills piece on Peter Scaer, it should be noted that there is no Lutheran worth his salt who does not regularly address the question of whether Lutheranism still offers the best choice for evangelical catholicity or not. I would say that every Lutheran serious about his Lutheran-ness struggles with the great divide between Rome and Wittenberg, that every Lutheran longs to find an ally in the pursuit of orthodoxy in doctrine and witness before the world within Rome, and that most Lutherans hope for a Pope who will aid in these causes. Lutherans deal not with ideas per se but with the Word of God, the catholic witness of the Church, and our life flowing from the means of grace. One of the primary differences between good Lutherans and Roman Catholics is this – every good Lutheran must wrestle with why they are Lutheran and not Roman or Orthodox while it seems most Roman Catholics do not even raise the question of why they remain Roman Catholic. I suggest that if Roman Catholics considered this challenge more, it just might be harder for a Lutheran to justify remaining a Lutheran.

Father “I suggest that if Roman Catholics considered this challenge more, it just might be harder for a Lutheran to justify remaining a Lutheran.”

Your idea needs more explanation. Can you detail the argument that moves from Roman Catholics considering why they remain Roman Catholic to your conclusion that it might just be harder for Lutherans to remain Lutheran. I don’t quite follow

Rev. Larry Peters My point is that many in Rome make little effort to actually develop an apologetic beyond the complaint that I as a Lutheran am a Biblicist, do not believe in THE Church, do not have a valid ministry and therefore no valid sacraments. In essence, many in Rome find it impossible to conceive why anybody would not simply recognize and join the Roman Church – no matter how good or bad the local incarnation of that might be. Quite frankly, the local examples of Roman worship, preaching, and teaching are rather pathetic – hardly more than a Roman version of Protestant Contemporary Christian Music loosely within a liturgical framework, hurriedly executed as if the building were on fire, with sermons that barely make mention of the Scriptures. I am sure that there are many places where this is not the case but I can say with some confidence that within an hour’s drive of my own parish, there is nothing better. In fact, the most catholic expression of the Church’s liturgy and preaching happens where I am at every week. The typical Roman cannot distinguish a Baptist from a Lutheran and does not care. But even the worst Roman Catholic, who never attends mass, is sure of one thing – that to join another church is to exit the realm of God’s grace. What am I to make of such a church?

Father I think you are comparing two quite different categories of persons. You cannot compare yourself, one who is a highly intelligent man with an inquisitive mind, a highly educated Lutheran pastor, and one who is open to considering issues beyond just those of concern within his own Confession, with ordinary average Catholics or, indeed, ordinary average Lutherans. Moreover, anyone who thinks that you “as a Lutheran am a Biblicist, do not believe in THE Church” has clearly never read the Book Of Concord”.

One of my closest friends, the late Lutheran Pastor Dr Daniel Overduin, was able to have with me the very open theological discussions to which you refer. And I am grateful to him for that as I began to understand more and more about the Lutheran Confessions, the intrusion into Lutheranism of Calvinism, and the openness of orthodox Lutherans to a reconsideration of their relationship with Rome.

There are Catholics who rarely attend Mass still but still have the Faith no matter that their practice may be appallingly weak. Such Catholics know and believe that the Catholic Church is not just a church among other churches but is The One Holy Catholic, and Apostolic Church. And that is why they would not consider going to one of the protestant ecclesial communities for the sacraments. And as the Church teaches, protestants are baptised Christians who are in a state of imperfect Communion with the Catholic Church.

Rev. Larry Peters I would suggest that the Roman Catholics I reference are not “ordinary or average” except that they are typical. Several monsignors, a cathedral dean, priests with pontifical college degrees, a former seminary professor, and a few Lutherans who have swum the Tiber. In my experience from rural parish to urban setting, from cathedral principal mass to university setting, the quality of the worship is abysmal. The homilies sad and pathetic. The liturgy rushed and irreverent. Our cantor was on the staff at St. John Cantius in Chicago for several years. He and some others were let go when Cupich reduced their budget. But that is one experience against many other attempts on my part to see and hear.

What I was saying is that there is little attempt on the part of Roman Catholics to see and hear – I think they would be shocked and surprised. My local priest told one Roman Catholic family looking for more reverence to go over to that Lutheran Church where they still chant and take their time. They did. They are. I suspect that they are not alone in longing for this in Rome but they have been driven away by trivialities parading as liturgy and jokes and stories acting as homilies. Rome has done a little to encourage me to look (Benedict XVI is one thing) but the papered over differences over justification and the current Pope are not helping at all. I confess that Lutheranism may not offer any more consistent confessional and liturgical integrity than what I see in Rome but Rome does not offer any compelling reason for me to keep looking except the stock and trade of Christ only established one Church and not many churches, that communion with the Bishop of Rome is contiguous with the boundaries of heaven, and that the papacy was the plan of Jesus from the beginning. With the sad state of bishops in Rome, why would I trade one broken communion for another? I thought it was the Gospel that saved, grace that justified, faith formed by its hearing, and my baptismal new life fed by the Eucharist. When did communion with the Pope become the saving Gospel? Yet, sadly, none of my Roman friends have much of a justification for leaving where I am as a priest and pastor to become a laymen sitting in the pew behind the praise band while I receive only the Body of Christ from a female extraordinary minister of the Eucharist except the papal office and its guarantee that Rome is the only right and real church. The Lutherans I know who left were not so much running to something as running away from something. They knew they were trading one kind of brokenness for another. I am not ready to do the same.

I am not sure that those who neither attend mass or go to confession could testify that the Roman Catholic Church is the true and only Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. I wonder if they do not write off everyone as being as shallow and irreverent as their and my local experience of Rome has proven. Just a little over a year ago, the local priest in my community took the stage during mass to announce he was gay. Apparently that was more important than Christ crucified and risen. And people wonder why churches are in decline! In any case, what shocks me is that these folk who have not darkened the door to a Roman Catholic Church for ages are considered by that communion to be “better” than me a Lutheran who has heeded the Augsburg Confession’s call to be the Catholic Church in doctrine and practice. Is it mere formal association that Rome seeks? If so, how it that any different than any Protestant Church? Could it be that we are all competing to be the true, visible sect on earth?

I am not trying to be argumentative or smug but to be real from someone who laments the broken state of most churches and wishes that there was one that was not.

Father You say: “I am not trying to be argumentative or smug but to be real from someone who laments the broken state of most churches and wishes that there was one that was not.” No one could fairly say that of you. But, here’s the thing. You are caricaturing Catholic beliefs. Your criticisms of Catholic liturgy are fair, and I lament the trivial nonsense served up as a Homily and the folksy over casual way in which the Mass is too often celebrated.

But I do not hear Catholics saying they are necessarily “better” Christians.

There are many churches which are in Full Communion with the Church. Those churches share the same faith, are in communion with Peter, and have valid orders of bishop, priest, and deacon. Lutherans simply refuse to deal with Christ’s conferring on St Peter the prime ministership of the Church. I could lament the various brands of Lutheranism which include all kinds heterodox moral views and liturgical aberrations such as women Pastors. As my late friend used to say, only half jokingly, that he didn’t think Luther was a Lutheran.

Of course you should remain where you are if that is what your conscience tells you. But you need better justifications than the ones you have chosen because in the end, and pace the behaviour of many Catholics, it is the truth that matters, the truth that sets us free. I abandoned the Protestantism of my upbringing for many reasons, the most important of which was my recognising where the Church is really, truly, and substantially to be found. As Chesterton once put it, I do not want a Church which is right when I am right, but a Church which is right where I am wrong.

Another Lutheran pastor – recognising where the Church is really, truly, and substantially to be found

That’s the trick, isn’t it? If one doesn’t already know where the Church is to be found, how exactly does one go about “recognising” it?

Of course there are several plausible answers to the question of how to recognise it (e.g. look at the history, look at the Bible, look at the Tradition, etc). But surely, to recognise something is to ask the question “what does it look like.” Fr Peters is asking, does the Roman Catholic Church that I actually see look like the Catholic and Apostolic Church as it has always been through the ages? It’s hardly surprising that his answer is No. (That is my answer as well.)

It seems to me that what you are saying is that even though the RC Church looks like the most vapid of Protestant sects, despite all appearances it is the Apostolic Church — because it is in communion with the Pope. That is simply not enough.

Father You have changed the way I used the word “recognising” in such a way that it has no meaning in the context. The Church physically “looks” different in different places in the world as has always been the case. The problems in the Church in countries like the US are in no way the same as in many parts of Africa, Eastern Europe, Latin America, and Australia. Moreover, what do you mean by “look(s) like the Catholic and Apostolic Church as it has always been through the ages”. What are the criteria? Such a comparison is impossible to sensibly make.

The question only makes sense if it applies as you remark earlier by “look(ing) at the history, look(ing) at the Bible, look(ing) at the Tradition”. Luther’s Reformation represented a break from what went before it.

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I find plenty of things to criticise about Lutheranism, but we need to place it in its historical context. Ironically, it finds itself confronted with the kind of Roman Catholicism as it faced in the early sixteenth century. Much of Father‘s apologetic approach projects the Counter-Reformation onto our own time. Essentially, however corrupt and absurd the Roman Catholic institution has become, it has to be recognised as the one true Church simply because it is in communion with the Pope.

There may indeed be good and holiness in the RC Church in places other than Europe and the USA, but it is found also in other churches, and indeed other religions. The Papacy has recognised this fact, and the teaching of Vatican II on ecumenism pointed the way to the notion of truth lying beyond human reach, possessed by none, and inviting mankind to converge and seek together. Father‘s apologetics are left on the beach as absurd verbiage. Triumphalism has driven away the noblest souls and those who bought the advertised product regretted it bitterly. To such apologists, it would almost seem that it would be better to be a materialist and an atheist than to find God and grace in a different institutional church.

Traditionalists often caricature the current state of the liturgy, speaking of “clown masses” and other uses of modern entertainment. Most churches positively lack spectacle and imagination, and most parish masses are pious and prayerful – but uninspiring. The same applies to many Tridentine or Prayer Book services, probably also to the Sarum masses I celebrate on my own – if someone turned up to attend. I find no need to caricature what goes on in most or almost all churches. There is simply no need to go through the intellectual and spiritual torture, the cognitive dissonance, of “converting” from one imperfect Christian institution to another.

In the end, there are probably more contradictions between members of the RC Church (or any other) than between Lutheranism and Roman Catholicism. The apologetics don’t work, as the Modernists found more than a hundred years ago!

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2 Responses to More on Proselytism

  1. raitchi2 says:

    “In turn, like John Wesley, bishops, priests and lay people reacted by asking for the old liturgy and spiritual life rather than simple considerations of helping the poor, redistributing wealth and bringing about a solution to ecological issues.”

    You hit it on the head here. I’m still within the mainstream RCC in Chicagoland. I find a strange dichotomy with my run of the mill suburban parish. On the one hand the pastor and parish lay-elites seem to have a great desire to do all sorts of community organization (collecting donations for pregnant mothers, domestic abuse support, environmental awareness cleanup, tutoring at risk youths). The pastor is really a powerhouse of social work and is involved with many local charities. I actually envy most of these people in their social works.

    However, I find when it comes to the liturgical and religious aspects of the faith I share nothing with them–as far as I’m concerned I think they’re members of different religion. Liturgically it’s still 1978 (polyester, terrible hymns, we even have an electric base/flute +piano musical team to accompany the choir in jazz styled music). Liturgically everything feels like the distilled essence of a warm blanket out of the dryer and story time when I was in 3rd grade. The homilies are about the horizontal aspects of the faith with little transcendence. I’ve yet to read in the bulletin or hear a sermon that doesn’t portray Jesus as a really hip thinker and God the Father as our loving grandfather who spoils us and overlooks our evil because at the heart of it we are really nice people and all religions are really just about loving one another anyways. I find myself torn between going to the local Latin mass group with all of its neuroses, and dying the spiritual death of a social work / charity masquerading as a Catholic parish.

    My only solution thus far has been to retreat spiritually into my own home. I have a prayer corner where I say morning and evening prayer, and the occasional rosary. I attend mass only on holy days of obligation and get all my residual eye rolling out when on my walk home after mass.

    I recently watched Netflix’s “Midnight Mass” a horror series centered around a parish priest in a small town. While watching it, I was uplifted by the music and surprisingly rubricly accurate and reverent “reform of the reform” style modern Catholic mass. While watching I realized how starved I am for a dose of that transcendence when a horror series by an atheist former Catholic makes me ache for the Lord in ways that I haven’t felt in years since leaving a small Latin mass group in college where we all routinely shared fellowship at least on a weekly basis if not more often.

    As my archdiocese goes through its restructuring plan (i.e. merge and close ~50% of the parishes or as I call it cut off the necrotic to prolong the gangrenous), I don’t know why we can’t have a serious talk about having both aspects in a parish. Why can’t a parish have the intense social work and transcendence? Heck nearly all parishes have multiple Sunday masses we could even have a transcendence focused mass and a Woodstock mass. I don’t want to kill off their worship, I just want to have a place to encounter the Other that isn’t my guest bedroom.

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