“Catholicism made me Protestant”

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”.

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3 Responses to “Catholicism made me Protestant”

  1. Caedmon says:

    I think that some people reach a point where they have to start again in a different religious tradition where they don’t have any baggage.

    • That is one of the most profoundly intelligent ideas I have read for a long time. Preferably a tradition that involves both mind and heart and that rises above ideologies…

      A lot is written and said about conversion from the religion of one’s origins (if there was any religion in that family). There is something to be said about not going anywhere in life and taking over your father’s business. That is good for some and a remnant of life as it was before industrialisation. Such a way of life leaves you in something of a rut. In days gone by, there was little or no class mobility.

      Two things change our paradigm totally: education and travel. As Berdyaev quoted from Léon Bloy, suffering goes away but the experience of life remains. Once Adam had tasted the knowledge of good and evil, he could no longer remain in his place. He and Eve had to go and find new horizons in their human condition. That is change.

      Some converted to Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, Orthodoxy or whatever out of conservatism and the search for origins. Others did so and looked beyond their horizons in one aspiration of Sehnsucht. For the latter, the closed-in system of religions cannot hold them for long as their soul soars onwards and upwards. They can no longer be prisoners of ideologies and shallow sentiment.

      There is a snag with the quest for knowledge, the risk of turning to evil in disillusionment with this world. I see the symbolism of the Genesis narrative of Adam and Eve, as with the parallel stories of Prometheus and the Demiurge. As we are transported by desire and nostalgia, we do need to have an idea of where we are going and whether that would be wise. That is why Reason must be primordial in making the important decisions.

  2. Stephen K says:

    I find the subject matter of this article very relevant to my own perspective. Looking back over the trajectory of my religious and spiritual attitudes/conclusions, I see that one’s affiliation is the result of an evolutionary process, which is full of nuance and complexity. I am a native Roman Catholic, with many Irish cultural influences, but they were alloyed with modern antipodean and various other nurture elements. The very process of maturing, ageing, life experiences are integral to any changes in my outlook. I daresay that at various levels – emotional, intellectual – I have not become a totally different person, and that there is a significant degree of continuity in my ‘approach’ to things, but at the same time I now say and do different things from when I was a jejune zealous conservative Catholic apologist. Along the path to my present outlook I reflected long and hard about the meaning of the terms “Catholic”, “Catholicism” and “Protestantism”. Rather like the terms “right-wing” and “left-wing” which had their origins in particular historical circumstances, they have come to embrace many shades of meaning and stand for broader cultural markers, and they serve a legitimate role for such purposes.

    However, one of the things I observe is that antiquity lends value to provenance and status. A lot of people claim to be “Catholic” while holding all kinds of different views and doing quite different things. There is a sense in which this may reflect a real condition, namely, where a person’s thinking and mode of feeling is so influenced by their earliest formative conditioning that whatever they do may be described as deriving and taking something of the character of that earlier conditioning. But this may also be trite. The bottom line I think is that as a matter of history, perhaps even from the time of Paul and James and Cephas/Peter, there has never been a truly ‘catholic (kata holos)’ community. People have long been scrapping for eating (or disposal) rights over the carcass of ‘Catholicism’, what they are fighting over. (It may be true to suggest the same kind of thing applies whenever Anglicans fight over ‘Anglicanism’, or the Easterners fight over “Orthodoxy’, or Lutherans fight over “Lutheranism’, etc. but I won’t distract from my central point here, and in any case, they might also see themselves as engaged in a fight for a version of Catholicism).

    Today, when many people refer to “Catholicism” they may mean Romanism (Roman Catholicism) which is a particular historical phenomenon. It did certain things, changed in certain directions, but centred around an imperial-style command structure that built and was represented by symbols of power – cathedrals, chapels, mitred clergy etc. That structure, though somewhat exposed and criticised now, still exists today. Other Churches may mimic to greater or lesser degrees the same model. The structure – and the material/spiritual power interests propping it up – has informed the theology and religious culture encompassing the lives of generations of people recruited by birth and coercion into the ranks of its ‘market’.

    This is not to say that it did not historically provide people with a vocabulary and context in which the spiritual path to holiness or enlightenment could be pursued, but it is important to realise that it was only ever one vocabulary and context among many others, and in view of a realistic reflection of the way people behave, it would be a stretch to assert that ‘Roman Catholicism’ has any advantage or privilege in the holy-making stakes.

    I have taken some time to get to my core suggestion: that is, that not only is ‘Catholicism’ what it has been, all the bad as well as the good, but also that you cannot be a ‘Catholic’ if you are not prepared to place the various command structural authorities (incl. traditions) over your own moral and intellectual autonomy, for if, after exercising the latter, you adopt or conform to practices or views that happen to be consistent with the tradition or decrees, you are essentially functioning as a ‘protestant’. And when I look at all the traditionalists insisting on their version of ‘Catholicism’ or indeed, on the other hand, even progressives and liberals claiming to remain Catholic despite their dissident views, I do not see Catholics but protestants.

    Don’t misunderstand me: I do not criticise traditional Catholics or progressives for being protestant – I think it is the way thinking or free-willing people act. I decry their appropriation of a nomenclature which no longer fits what they are doing.

    I think ‘Catholicism’ is and has been a term denoting a rather totalitarian kind of religion. It may have been reflecting an aspect of human personality and a lengthy socio-political environment, but both people at large and even the people within the command structures have been evolving and arguably few people would like the idea of a completely docile or subservient state in life.

    I personally think that ‘Catholicism’ is moribund, even though no doubt people will continue to try to retain or revive it as a term for what they want. But I also think that somehow we have to eschew all terms, including ‘Catholic’ and ‘Protestant’, and a pre-occupation with what they mark, if we wish to focus on love of God and neighbour.

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