I see nothing in these descriptions that Catholics can find a quarrel - and if there is hardly a quarrel - why are we not one? ... Maybe it will help (me at least) if some of your Protestant readers can tell us what it is that we Catholics or our Church [do that] makes them cringe so? And, maybe I am wrong - maybe the animosity I think I detect is much milder than I imagine and instead - we are in reality "Brothers in Christ". Wonderful would that be so. I’m listening.Bless him, the world could use more people with that attitude on all sides. And first of all I have no doubt we are brothers and sisters in Christ. That is exactly what makes discussing our differences so delicate and awkward, and this post has to be one of the most-rewritten posts I've ever published.
Where to start?
To his question, the historical answer to "why are we not one?" is not where I'd choose to begin. I do not believe it helps towards reconciliation to focus on the dramatic events of the 1500's as such. It's not only that the high drama of such moments tends to inflame passions rather than to promote reason. It's also that the divisions and disaffections had been growing for a long time before that, and the historical moments of the 1500's were, by that point, I believe nearly inevitable. So to answer Ed's question, what exactly Rome does that makes other people cringe, I would step back, and not try to compile a list doctrines and practices or individual decrees, but the assumptions on each side that made the rest inevitable. So here's Ed's question as I receive it: how do I explain the underlying differences that fuel the rest of our differences? And how do I do it without giving offense? And I think the only place I can start is with the Nicene Creed.
One holy catholic and apostolic church
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church.The Nicene Creed does a nice job of proclaiming what the church must be.
- One: We all long for full unity. But I also believe that, whether we officially own each other or not, we are in some sense still genuinely unified in Christ, even if the mind says to the heart, "I don't need you," or something along those lines.
- Holy: set apart for God.
- Catholic: Just in case someone here is new to the discussion, "catholic" in its original and ancient sense simply meant universal in the sense of broadness, being comprehensive in range. It was a word in general use; originally it did not refer specifically to church matters or to the church in Rome, but to what was broad and all-encompassing.
- And apostolic -- for the moment let's leave aside the question about whether anybody beyond the original apostles counts as an apostle, at least agree on this much: the original apostles of Christ are certainly included. Being apostolic means at the very least adhering to the things taught by Christ's own apostles. The idea of being apostolic is important in the sense of continuity, holding to the original teachings of Christ and his assembled believers, as a guarantee as to truth, to knowledge, and to purity. One of the church's great jobs is the faithful transmission of both the knowledge of Christ's redemptive work and the teachings of Christ as received from the original apostles and passed along to each new set of disciples.
Then we come to the question of how Rome sees herself. I'm gathering from what I've heard from those belonging to the church of Rome: Rome definitely sees herself in the role of "one holy catholic and apostolic church." Some even see Rome as that to the exclusion of other Christians. Rome has a view of history in which she alone was faithful and true, where everyone else -- whether in error or in deliberate evil -- has left the only true and faithful church, by which she means herself. She sees herself as the catholic, broad, comprehensive church; she sees herself as the church tracing back to the apostles. She proclaims her catholicity and apostolic origins.
Evaluating Rome's Claims
Let me say plainly that if I actually believed that about the Roman Catholic church, I'd leave my church tomorrow and go to a Roman Catholic church without delay. Let me also say plainly that I'm not trying to get anyone in Rome to transfer their membership elsewhere; I'm not in the sheep-stealing business here. But most of the objections I have to Rome come directly from the question whether she is catholic and apostolic. I know it's nearly impossible to discuss these things without annoying everyone all around; my only excuse is that I was asked for my thoughts, and if anyone is curious, here they are. Let's take a few examples.
Do I see Rome as apostolic?
Rome claims Peter as the first pope; I know there has to be a temptation for any Roman Catholic reading along to jump into a conversation about whether "On this rock" (etc.) conveyed special authority to the bishop of Rome. And I think that's a conversation we'll have here, but not today when I'm responding to someone else's question. For now let's just discuss some implications of that claim that Peter is the first pope in a church that is ancient and apostolic. We know from Scripture that Peter was a married man, and his wife traveled with him on his missionary journeys. Today, Rome forbids that a married Roman Catholic man could become even a humble parish priest, much less pope. Just on the surface, that seems to go against the idea that Rome has kept the ancient faith and practices unchanged from the days of the apostles. It's also a little bewildering, from an outsider's perspective, that the "women priests" issue is addressed always in terms of what Christ did as the normative rule, but the "married priests" issue is not addressed in the same way with what Christ did being the normative rule. As I work through this example and others, please keep one thing in mind: I am not choosing my examples because I believe they are the keys to the division so that this particular thing (e.g. married priests) could resolve the division; no, instead I'm choosing my examples because I believe that Ed, the kind soul who asked the original question, or someone with a similar question could read it and understand why I'm unconvinced of Rome's claims about herself.
Do I see Rome as catholic?
My next example is the Copts, the ancient church of Egypt. The Copts have a subtly different understanding of the two natures of Christ. Most of the churches hold that Christ has two natures, one human and one divine. But the Copts hold that the human and divine natures inside Christ are united seamlessly as one nature which is both fully human and fully divine. They were excommunicated early in church history, after the council of Chalcedon in 451 A.D. The Copts say their views were never properly understood by the remainder of the church and that subsequent writings against them have often misrepresented their views. They have been condemned as monophysite in the sense of recognizing only one nature by denying either the humanity or the divinity of Christ; this is incorrect in their case because while they do recognize only one nature, that of the Incarnate Word, that nature is both fully human and fully divine. Now I am convinced that if "catholic" means "comprehensive, encompassing the broad range" then the Copts' view of Christ's nature should be within acceptable limits (more on that directly). If that's not included, then "catholic" isn't broad enough to deserve the name. I would like to clarify one thing: I am not saying that the church cannot define what is acceptable and what is unacceptable belief; I am saying that the holy catholic and apostolic church, using holy, catholic, and apostolic criteria to define those boundaries, would have included the Copts by now. Or to say the same thing the other way around, if the goal is to be holy, catholic, and apostolic, then there is nothing that would exclude that teaching of the Coptic church. True, there was a probable misunderstanding involved back in the 400's A.D.; but it has been well over a thousand years. The clarifications have been made long since. I'll say this: if the true church is the "one holy catholic and apostolic church", that church already includes the Copts within that definition. When I confess that I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church, I have a picture in my mind that includes Anglicans like C.S. Lewis, Copts with their One Nature of the Incarnate Word, Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholics and Protestants and so forth. Such a church is catholic, though it's not particularly Roman Catholic.
Rome versus Constantinople, in a Lutheran's eyes
One more example should do it. I'd also like to consider the Eastern Orthodox, a church every bit as ancient as Rome. They protested that Rome had introduced new doctrines and practices, things that had not been received in the church tradition, things that had not been taught by the apostles or believed or practiced in the church in the wider world. Speaking for myself here, when we see a new doctrine or practice being introduced, being debated, perhaps being largely accepted in one region of the world but not in another, then that teaching is neither catholic nor apostolic by definition; if we saw a new teaching introduced some centuries after Christ's apostles came and went, then that doctrine can never be apostolic in the same sense as doctrines taught by Peter and John and the earliest church. As such, I do not see how it can properly become a required teaching without damaging the claim that the church's required teachings have ancient and unbroken apostolic authority.
The rest of the story of Constantinople is, like the story of Luther, so dramatic and so tragic, so history-shaking, that I will not review the story here in any depth because it also tends to inflame passions rather than aid reason. I will make this brief comment. At that critical moment when the Christian city of Constantinople was about to be conquered by a Muslim army, when Constantinople applied to Rome for help, Rome made such official help conditional on doctrinal concessions. I have heard Roman Catholics complain that the Eastern Orthodox, in their desperation for military aid, behaved improperly. I will even say that, from where I sit, it looks like some certain ones of them did behave improperly. But I have never heard a Roman Catholic suggest that their own church, in its desperation for doctrinal concessions, behaved improperly in placing such a horrendous condition on aid for the Eastern Church, which, since then, has greatly diminished under hostile rule to the point where many people honestly suppose that Christianity is a merely western religion. Once you work out what, exactly, were the bargaining chips on the table being weighed against each other, I simply don't see how that was anything other than the original Indecent Proposal. There's not a Roman Catholic alive today who bears even the slightest responsibility for what happened back then. The shame is that it happened at all, and that the divisions have continued.
The Protest Begins
I haven't reviewed all the pre-existing divisions in the church here, just enough to serve as examples. At the end of the 1400's A.D., the one holy catholic and apostolic church was deeply and bitterly feuding within itself worldwide. This is the scene onto which a German monk strayed and nailed some debating points to a church door. Some of the objections he raised had been raised by the Eastern Orthodox before him, though in a more polished Eastern Orthodox voice than his unpolished rustic German one. I can't help but wonder if that was a chance missed in which certain non-catholic, non-apostolic doctrines and practices could have been renounced -- or at least set aside as non-catholic, non-apostolic, and therefore non-binding -- and the church could have been re-unified.
But if Rome would not listen to Constantinople whom it in some sense respected, it would not listen to a hot-headed German priest and professor. However, this time the issues were raised within the territory of the Roman Catholic church, and a great number of the people found themselves in sympathy with the frustrated German monk, not for his charm to be sure, but because he had the courage to say what so many had long been thinking. The aftermath left no real doubt: large numbers of the faithful followers of Christ already had grave doubts about the church in Rome.
To answer Ed more directly
All that I wrote above had one aim: that you know what is in my mind when I give a more brief and direct answer to the question asked. For me, the main issue with the Roman Catholic church is not that she is outdated and apostolic, but that she is not apostolic enough; not that she has such variety of peoples and beliefs, but that the variety is not quite broad enough to deserve the name catholic. For me, the biggest cringe factor in Rome is the way Rome treats other Christians, and the most dangerous doctrine she teaches is that she cannot possibly be wrong even on doctrines and practices that are not properly catholic and apostolic as I've discussed at some length above. From there, it's a direct implication that, according to Rome, she cannot possibly need to change, she cannot possibly be an obstacle to the union of the church, and it is unthinkable that the problems lie exactly with whether Rome is truly catholic and apostolic.
When men like C.S. Lewis are outside the Roman Catholic church, when churches like the Copts and the Orthodox are outside the Roman Catholic church, that church is not catholic. A church is not catholic and apostolic unless it includes every single shade of belief which truly reflects the apostolic teaching, and requires no beliefs beyond what is apostolic and catholic.
A united church?
I dream, hope, and pray for a re-united church. If you have made it this far reading material that is incendiary yet hopelessly tedious at the same time, I can think of no other explanation than that you also dream, hope, and pray for a re-united church.
Picture it: within the Church Catholic, an esteemed and ancient Coptic School of interpretation (or an Alexandrian School, if they'd rather be known after the ancient See of Alexandria). The Eastern Orthodox School of interpretation would bring the understanding of God's essence and God's energies to the rest of the church, an understanding which has developed in the Christian East but is fairly undeveloped in the Christian West. The different prayer traditions of the various churches would enrich each other. And, as a side benefit, when the criteria for beliefs and practices became "holy, catholic, and apostolic", the majority of serious objections raised by the Protestants would also be addressed. When the church (all-inclusive) becomes holy, catholic, and apostolic, I believe she will find that she is already One.