Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Catholic vs. Protestant

“The weight of this sad time we must obey; Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.”

—King Lear

Once, while working as a police officer, I consulted a lawyer about what strategy to adopt against a low-life, criminal type who was accusing me of brutality. It is a little game the bad guys play: by charging the arresting officer with brutality, they hope to get reduced charges or even an acquittal and then civil suit damages.

After the business end of the discussion, there was a brief human encounter (very rare) between police officer and the lawyer. Off the record I told the lawyer, “The problem with this whole business is that you can’t tell the whole truth. You can’t say, ‘Yeah, I gave the blankety-blank so-and-so a few extra shots after I had the handcuffs on because the blankety-blank so-and-so tried to stick me while I was trying to cuff him, and our lives wouldn’t be worth a nickel if there wasn’t some kind of immediate retaliation for that type of thing.’ But if you say that in court, the opposing lawyer will jump all over you and move for the immediate dismissal of the charges against his sweet angelic client. So you stick to the old formula: ‘I used the minimum amount of force necessary to facilitate an arrest.’”

The lawyer agreed with my assessment and, with rare candor for a lawyer, said, “We are all whores.”

I have seen the same courtroom dynamic at work in the Catholic-Protestant debate. No concessions can be made because each side must win the dialectic argument or be faced with loss of case, loss of face, loss of job. But unfortunately, the dialectic is not the highest form of discourse nor is it the discourse most conducive to the truth. So I would like to move beyond the dialectic and actually say something about the Catholic and Protestant versions of Christianity.

The Catholic Church has the X’s and O’s; they have the ‘smart ones’ on their side. Indeed, I recently heard one convert state that he became a Catholic because Catholics were “so smart.” But the Church’s smartness is its weakness as well. Catholics have everything that Protestants lack: sacraments, Mariology, prestigious theologians, Church fathers dating back to the beginning of Christianity, and an infallible pope. But they don’t have Christ because they have preferred the ‘smart’ Plato and Aristotle to the Son of Man.

Dietrich von Hildebrand once criticized Thomas Molnar for making some mild criticisms of Plato. It was von Hildebrand’s contention that Plato was the vessel from which God had ordained we should receive Christ’s revelation. Hmm… I thought the Jewish people were that divinely appointed vessel. I wonder if von Hildebrand really had ever read Plato with an objective eye. Plato, the birth control advocate, despiser of the poets, and advocate of the Socratic dialectic as the highest form of wisdom, is not a worthy vessel for Christ’s revelation. Nor is the atheistic, bug-collecting, materialist named Aristotle.

It bears repeating that the greatest poet of the Greek culture, Sophocles, said it was better not be born than to live in the closed, rationalist universe of the philosophers. The “folk” of Asia Minor preferred the mystery religions to that of Greece and Rome. And the people of God, the true vessel of Christ’s revelation, spoke of God in these non-Platonic and non-Aristotelian terms: “Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O Lord.” That is the language one uses when addressing a personal God. That is the language of St. Paul, of Shakespeare, and of all Christians who have not succumbed to the Greek heresy.

I’m not saying there were never any Christians in the Catholic Church, but I do think the Church has, over time, become a most unChristian institution. One gets used to hearing our Church leaders support every radical and vile cause that comes along, but shouldn’t that tell us something about the Church?

There is nothing good that one can say about modern Protestantism. It is every bit as anti-Christian as modern Catholicism. And I don’t want to go over the Reformation debate again. Neither side is guiltless. What I want to focus on is a surviving remnant of Christians in the Protestant ranks who have no counterpart in the Catholic ranks.

The fringe elements in the Protestant Church, those Fundamentalists to the right of Jerry Falwell, do not have the Faith in its entirety. But they are more Catholic than any Catholics because they have chosen to stay with the Christ of the Gospels instead of the Platonic Christ or the Aristotelian Christ. And the great struggle of Christians in every century, the one which the visible Catholic Church gave up in the 20th century, is the struggle to retain a vision of the one true God rather than a blueprint of the attributes of God. And therein lies the reason for the greater Catholicism of the Fundamentalists: they have maintained, in an imperfect form, a vision of the true God.

Adhering only to one’s personal interpretation of Scripture and to the personal vision of Christ derived from that personal perusal of the Gospels is fraught with danger. One has only to look at the devastation in the Protestant churches to see the consequences of the “Scripture alone” approach to Christianity, but the Catholic Church has committed an even graver error than the Protestant churches. The Catholic Church has forgotten that Christianity does start with a personal relationship with the Christ of the Gospels. The sacraments, the wisdom of the clergy, and an infallible pope all exist to nurture and refine that initial, personal vision of Christ. They do not exist to replace that vision with a pagan philosophical system. It was personal contact with Christ that raised Jairus’s daughter, not the vaunted wisdom of the Greek sages.

I do not see how one can accept the Catholic Church’s claim to be the one true Church so long as that fundamental personal encounter with the Christ of the Gospels is set at naught. The Church needs an infusion of Fundamentalists’ blood if she is to live. Theoretically, Christ’s blood flows in the Church, but it seems that the blood cannot, or will not, flow in the unholy vessels of the Greek philosophers.

Having experienced the Catholic and Protestant versions of Christianity, I can say that I find neither version to be complete by itself. I see a shore called Christianity. We are given a sailboat with which to reach that shore.

The Catholic sages tell us we don’t need the body of the boat or the sail; all we need, they say, is the rudder. Of course with no boat, no sail, and only a rudder, we can never get to the shore.

The Protestants, on the other hand, tell us we don’t need a rudder. All we need, they say, is a boat and a sail. Without a rudder to steer, nine boats out of ten do not make it safely to shore. But one out of ten does.

So, it is not a perfect equality. The Catholic Church, to whom everything was given, has nothing. The Protestant Church has, in its despised lunatic fringe, something that the Catholic Church needs if it is ever to reach the shore.

The anti-Christian nature of modern Catholicism has been brought home to me in so many ways. The works of Flannery O’Connor provide just one example: In all of her major novels and in all but one of her short stories, the hero, when there is a hero, is always a Protestant Fundamentalist. When Flannery O’Connor was asked why this was so, she said it was because when a Protestant heard voices, he thought it was God speaking to him, and when a Catholic heard voices, he thought it was the devil speaking to him; thus a Protestant character had more freedom of movement, upward and downward, in -which to act out the drama of salvation.

But should this be so? Does a commitment to the Catholic sacramental system mean that our intuitive facilities that hear those inner voices must always be suppressed in deference to the rational faculties of the Catholic clergy? No, it should not. Such a system kills the romance of the Faith. It kills love, honor, and bravery. In short, it kills the soul. Is there no room in Catholicism for that old quaint notion that what the heart prompts is the echo of the soul? Apparently not. But the Church should make room for such antiquarian notions because now she sits, so cold, so still, on a throne of ice, inaccessible to human beings with hearts that still live.

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