Via Media

…to the post following this one.

A subject that comes up in the Catholic blogosphere a lot runs sort of like this:

A. The Roman Catholic Church claims to be the one, true Church of Jesus Christ.

B. The Roman Catholic Church botches things up more or less continually.

C. So, how can the Roman Catholic Church be the one, true Church of Jesus Christ?

The most recent spurt of discussions along this line occurred a couple of weeks ago, inspired by a post originally at the Pertinaceous Papist about "false advertising" and such in re/converts and the Catholic Church. A good place to check in on that discussion is at the Intentional Disciples blog post here.

The discussion usually revolves around issues of liturgy, catechesis and evangelization. As people articulate it, it goes deeper than "bad liturgy." The question, as I’ve come to understand it, really comes down to this:

People complain that you have an "ideal" Catholic Church that is constituted in the deep rich Tradition of Catholicism. But hardly any of that is visible in the experience of the average Catholic parish today. Liturgies do not reflect the mind (not to speak of the liturgical law) of the Church, catechesis only scratches the surface and homilies..well…why do they even bother to go to seminary?

The problem is particulary acute for those who have "read" their way into the Church. It’s been articulated over and over again. You can find an articulation of this in a 1999 article in First Things by former Lutheran minister Jennifer Ferrara called Becoming Catholic: Making It Hard. Coming from the music-rich Lutheran background, that’s the focus:

The answer finally came after I resolved to speak to a visiting priest at the church where I attend daily Mass. I told him I was a Lutheran pastor who wanted to become Roman Catholic but couldn’t find a place to worship. Did he know of a traditional parish without guitar music? He looked at me as if I resided on another planet. "Can I ask you something?" he asked. "Why do you want to become Catholic?" He asked the question in a tone that suggested, Why would you want to do a thing like that? I mumbled something about the problems in the ELCA and my belief that the Catholic Church is the fullest, most rightly ordered manifestation of the Church on earth. "Oh," he replied. "In that case you want to go to Holy Rosary. It’s an Italian parish with a beautiful sanctuary and traditional music and liturgy."

I have attended Holy Rosary ever since. There are no guitars or missalettes. The organist and choir are first rate; the organist even plays Bach and the choir often sings in Latin. More importantly, the parishioners have an attitude of quiet piety and profound reverence for the liturgy that is quite moving. They observe the muscular prayers of kneeling, genuflecting, and crossing themselves. The monsignor never begins Mass with "good morning," offers no explanations, does the Canon with great dignity and reverence. Unlike other parishes I have attended, Holy Rosary offers a seemingly endless variety of distinctively Catholic devotions—prayer hours, rosaries, novenas, Fatima devotions, Divine Mercy Masses, and nocturnal adorations. I feel I have entered a world with endless layers of meaning with the mystery of Christ in the Eucharist at its center. Here at last the Truth has become manifest. Maybe I am not part of a Protestant–type church family, but I am part of something far bigger and more important—the community that traces its history back to the apostles and their living testimony of the Risen Christ. On Corpus Christi Sunday, I was received into full communion with that cloud of witnesses.

(Jennifer’s story is included in the excellent book, The Catholic Mystique, a collection of conversion stories from women, some of them, like Jennifer, former ministers.)

I do believe the pastoral problem is not one to be ignored. The transition of converts into the Catholic Church can be painful in a way that extends beyond the difficulty so many parishes have in communicating and expressing, in word, sign and ministry, the fullness of the Faith. Many former Protestants, active in their former church communities, have a difficult time finding a similar sense of fellowship and interest in evangelization in a Catholic parish.

All of that is by way of introduction to a comment hidden away on another blog. The comment is by the blogger – Fr. Al Kimel – but it is buried in the comments and was so good I thought it was worth sharing. It’s #13 on this post:

#11: Adam, it is not just the poor worship. The poor worship has a cause, and the cause is ineffective, poor, or misleading catechesis. And, for me, still, this calls into question the proposition that “this is THE church”. If this is THE church, shouldn’t it do better at making Christians, out of both unchurched adults and little children?

The simple answer to your question is, yes. Yes, the Catholic Church should do better at making Christians, it should do better at evangelizing, it should do better at catechizing, it should do better at preaching the gospel, it should do better at worshipping God, it should do better in serving the poor and the oppressed, it should do better in every aspect of its life and ministry.

However, if the Church was doing better in all of these areas, or even just the one you have mentioned, would you be persuaded that the Catholic Church is the Church of Jesus Christ, as she claims to be? Of course not! Because performance neither proves nor disproves the claims of the Catholic Church. Ironically, your objection to the Catholic Church—viz., her poor, even sinful performance—is grounded in a works-righteousness understanding of the gospel. You are demanding that the Catholic Church justify herself as the Body of Christ by her works! But the Catholic Church is the Body of Christ only by grace and election!

Are you willing to apply the same criterion of performance to individual believers, to yourself? Are you willing to prove your regeneration in the Spirit by your works, by how well you are living the Christian faith, by how effectively you are proclaiming the gospel in word and deed? Jim, are you not in fact judging the Catholic Church by a standard you would never apply to yourself? What would you say to the nonbeliever who declares that Christianity cannot be true because there are so many bad Christians?

But your criterion of performance also fails for other reasons. For one thing, you are judging the Catholic Church on the basis of her performance in one geographical area in one period of time. But she has no doubt performed better (whether it be at catechesis or evangelism or whatever) in other places and in other times. Why not judge the Catholic Church at her best? Why not judge the Catholic Church by her saints?

But would you be persuaded even then?


I forgot to note that Fr. Kimel commented again on the thread, and this, too, is worth a quote:

Jim, for 2,000 years the Catholic Church has been proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ and making disciples. How many saints must the Catholic Church produce to convince you? How many martyrs must lay down their lives? How many nations must she evangelize? How many churches must she build? How many baptisms must she administer? How many penitents must she absolve? How many Masses must she celebrate? How many religious orders must she establish? How many hospitals and schools must she found? How many hungry persons must she feed? How many homeless must she house? How many kings and despots must she confront in the name of Christ? And who stands today, pray tell me, more firmly and courageously against the culture of death, abortion, and sexual immorality than the Catholic Church?

If you insist on judging the Catholic Church by her works, then by all means do so, but do so across all categories of mission and ministry. Do not judge her just by your parish church in the year A.D. 2007 but judge her by her remarkable and glorious history that reaches back to the Apostles of Christ.

Yet are you truly in a position to judge her sanctity and sins, good works and failures? Why do you see only her weaknesses and not her strengths, her defeats and not her victories?

There’s more – interesting commentary on the difficulty of maintaining the fervor of church communities after the first generation. And yes, this post is dealing with a least two different issues, maybe more. But I thought Fr. Kimel’s words were worth pondering for all of us..

And pray for those coming into the Church in a couple of weeks..pray for them and make them feel welcome!

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