One reason why I’m not Catholic

Ecclesiology Theology / Biblical Studies

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I was raised in the Roman Catholic church. Now, I’m a Protestant. I am most definitely not one of those Protestants who believes that part of apologetics means telling everyone that the Catholic church is evil. I find that flavour of Evangelicalism frankly embarrassing. The truth is that I have a great respect for the Catholic intellectual tradition, in spite of the disagreements I have with the doctrines of that church. I would gladly work with Catholics, fellowship and worship with them, and in fact I’d rather like to work at a Catholic College/University. I wanted to get that out in the open right away. I am an ecumenical Christian, and I cherish the idea that I am part of the catholic (small c, meaning worldwide or universal) Christian faith. Disagreements that I have with Catholics are disagreements among family.

That being said, every now and then I am exposed to a reminder – quite apart from my doctrinal disagreements – of why I could not become a Roman Catholic again. I was having a discussion recently with a friend about the Canon of Scripture – the list of books that are included in the Bible. My friend – a Protestant – was under the impression that the “Apocryphal” books of the Old Testament (called the “deutero-canonical” books by Catholics, when means “second canon”) were actually part of the Hebrew Bible, and that is why they ended up in the Septuagint. I was able to point out for him that actually, the apocryphal books gained their separate status in part because they are the ones that appear in the Septuagint but which are not found in the Hebrew Scripture.

Bear in mind – the point that I am getting to has nothing to do with which books actually do belong in the canon of Scripture. For my purposes here, it doesn’t matter to me what you think about the answer to that question. This issue just provides the backdrop for what I’m about to say.

We were then joined by a Catholic friend, who proceeded to provide links to Catholic apologetics pages attacking the claim that the apocryphal books were rejected by some of the Church Fathers. The game was on, for someone at least, and the ammunition was being fired as quickly as possible in lists of (very short) quotes. I commented that while strongly interested parties might present smoothed over versions of history suggesting otherwise, it’s just not true that there was one consistent list of Old Testament books in the early church, and some church fathers clearly did reject at least some of the apocryphal books. I gave Athanasius as an obvious example. So the evidence just doesn’t support the claim that “the Fathers accepted the apocrypha.” That claim was false, and I was able to cite a Catholic source candidly admitting this. This doesn’t show that the books ought not be accepted of course. It was just a modest historical observation about what the Church Fathers did in fact accept.

But this could not stand, apparently. My Catholic friend, as though compelled by an invisible hand, granted this observation but started listing other authorities that did accept the apocryphal books as canonical, including eventually (naturally) Catholic Councils. Not wanting such lists to go on forever (as no doubt they could), I tried to explain – nobody was denying that many, including now the Roman Catholic Church, did and do accept the deutero-canonical books as canonical. My point was just that there is enough clear historical evidence that nobody can honestly claim anything like “accepting the deutero-canonical books is THE orthodox view.” We know this is false, we can see that it is false by looking at the evidence. At very least, this means that if we want to visit the question ourselves, we can’t sit back and called it a settled matter, we’ve got to actually engage our brains and look at the reasons for why those books might be accepted or not accepted.

Here is where the issue rose to the surface. Here is where my Catholic friend said (my summary), “Well, it’s at times like this I’m glad that the Church has binding authority, so it can just cut through all the mere opinions and settle the matter.”

What just happened here? What happened is this: Somebody initially thought that they could argue a case on the basis of the historical evidence. When it became quite clear that the historical evidence did not show what they had hoped, they effectively retreated from the evidence and said “Well, that wasn’t my real argument anyway. I don’t even need evidence, because my church has made the decision.” He went on to say that this shows just how vital it is that the church does make such binding decisions. After all, if the Church didn’t step in and provide clear, final and completely binding answers to this and other questions, we’d be lost in a sea of completely subjective opinion with no way at all of reaching answers!

This is a way of thinking about reason, decisions, seeking answers, assessing evidence, that is anathema to me. I could never ever go back into an environment where this kind of thinking is encouraged. It would mean that I could treat the evidence as essentially irrelevant. It would mean that I would have to adopt a kind of hopelessness in regard to the evidence: I would see all evidence and the tools of reason as leaving me still totally in the dark, with no more than a completely subjective opinion. In an unexpected twist, it would leave me with a kind of relativism, where the facts, the evidence, lead us to a place where nobody’s opinion is better than anybody else’s, and so we need one, authoritative, binding and final opinion to silence the chaos.

But I am fairly sure that my Catholic friend – and I am absolutely certain that Catholics in general – do not approach life in general this way. They look both ways before crossing the street. They accept that the milieu of scientific facts and opinions does not mean that all theories are equal (and equally false!). God gave us reason in the expectation that we should use it to aim at the truth, and outright relativism is a patently false outlook. The fact of disagreement should not and does not suggest to me that I have no way of accessing the truth, in spite of the fact that a number of intelligent Catholic friends have said otherwise more than once.

The same applies to issues of biblical interpretation. I have lost count (not that I was actually counting) of the times that Catholics have confidently assured me that unless the (Catholic) Church makes a final, discussion-ending binding statement on what a passage of Scripture means, then we may as well despair of having even the slightest hope of knowing what it really means. This, too, I find patently absurd. Now of course, I will listen to the human opinion of the Church just as readily as I will listen to any other human opinion. But it is an opinion that can be assessed like all the others. It does not stand above the facts. The truth is objective, however. Facts can genuinely be used to reach conclusions. We are not doomed to subjectivity and ignorance without the declarations of the Church. When the Gospel writers say that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, I can be fairly confident of what they meant. The only thing that changes between this and doctrinal matters like the deity of Christ, eschatology and the like is complexity. Now this requires an analysis of more complex facts, yes, but there is nothing about the issue of complexity that suddenly requires a top-down heavy handed, absolutely binding, final declaration from Rome.

I’m open to being persuaded by Catholics. I truly am. But I will have to be persuaded. I’ll need reasons.

So on any particular doctrinal question, I’m open to being persuaded by Catholics. I truly am. But I will have to be persuaded. I’ll need reasons. Pick up your Bible, turn your mind on, and let’s discuss it. Open the history books too, I am – some stereotypes notwithstanding – perfectly willing to hear what they say. But if at the end, the evidence hasn’t compelled us to accept your claim, then that is where the matter lies. Do not then just retreat into a shell, telling me that really the evidence isn’t required, because the church has answered the question anyway and that is that, so we don’t have to worry about the hopeless ocean of subjective opinion. While I have a number of doctrinal reasons not to be a Catholic, this methodological reason stands head and shoulders above them all. God gave me reason, and ignoring what it tells me is not better than being given sight by God, but being willing to pluck out my eyes if they do not agree with what the Church tells me I should see.

Glenn Peoples

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{ 139 comments… add one }
  • Thomas Murphy November 13, 2013, 6:30 pm

    Are you familiar with the traditional Catholic website and YouTube channel of Most Holy Family Monastery?

    vaticancatholic.com

    youtube.com/user/mhfm1

    Lots of truly amazing eye-openers there! Would warmly recommend.

    With kind regards,

    Thomas Murphy

  • Dominic Foo September 9, 2014, 10:32 pm

    I realise this is a very old post, but if I may provide some insight into the Roman apologist strategy of simultaneously appealing to history and denying it at the same time.

    This problem can be encapsulated by two very big figures in 19th century Roman Catholicism, Cardinal John Henry Newman (whom most should be familiar with) and the lesser known Cardinal Edward Manning.

    With the 19th century the Roman Church was systematically being undercut by the new historical studies and criticisms conducted by Protestant Church historians as more and more of the writings of the early church came to light with greater and much in depth analysis. During the Reformation, Roman Catholics like Cardinal Bellarmine confidently asserted that all the distinctive Roman doctrines like purgatory, Marian dogmas, etc, have always existed in the church and was the universal consensus of the Church right from the very beginning.

    However the rise of historical studies and careful analysis of patristic sources and comprehensive historical surveys laid waste to such confident claims, revealing a plurality of opinions and teachings even amongst the most venerated of Fathers and theologians. Desperate before the triumphant herald of the Protestants, who have always insisted that it is the Roman Church who had strayed from tradition in dogmatising mere opinions which have no basis in Scripture nor universality in history, the two Cardinals, Newman and Manning, immediately set out to armed the Roman Church to the teeth with any weapon they could lay their hands on.

  • Dominic Foo September 9, 2014, 10:34 pm

    Cardinal Newman’s weapon of choice was his romantic “Theory of the Development of Doctrine”, whereby he retrospectively reads back into the past the present Roman teachings and practices, admitting the Protestant contention that these doctrines were never there from the beginning, nevertheless he invented an implicit “seed-form” of distinctive Roman doctrine which “grew” into an explicit doctrine over time. The problem of course which such retroactive reconstructions is that with sufficient creativity, *any* present doctrine and practices can be retroactively read back into the past, and far from protecting the integrity of the Church, his theory smashed open a hole in the citadel permitting the howling winds of the Zeitgeist entry to justify *any* novel doctrine and practices as long as one can provide a clever retroactive reading of Church history leading to this new development.

    Cardinal Manning’s strategy was the complete opposite. While Newman (over!)confidently asserted that, “To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant”, Cardinal Manning believed to be too deep into history was to cease being a Roman Catholic and instead anathemise the entire enterprise of history and antiquity altogether by thundering, “…the appeal to antiquity is both a treason and a heresy”! It is instructive to note that this condemnation was given in response to “the charge of the Reformers that the Catholic doctrines were not primitive, and their pretension was to revert to antiquity.” Rather than employ Newman’s (dishonest?) attempt to force Roman doctrines backwards into the past and deny that their doctrines were not primitive, Manning simply shove the whole thing aside by declaring the complete irrelevance of history and antiquity to the Roman faith.

    Personally I would of course think that Manning was the more honest cardinal of the two to refuse to attempt a sly tinkering of historical facts in aid of providing an illusion of justification for the Roman Church. With what one might call an almost Nietzchean wilfulness, Manning declared that the Roman Faith preceded history, fact and antiquity and they form no part of the Roman theological method or proof. Instead, Manning outrightly asserted that the Church simply teaches by a “perpetual living voice”, not by appeals to history, antiquity or tradition.

  • Dominic Foo September 9, 2014, 10:36 pm

    The logical consequences of this assertion can be seen in Cardinal Manning’s answer to “how can you know what was revealed before, as you say, history and antiquity existed”, his reply: “The enunciation of the faith by the living Church of this hour, is the maximum of evidence, both natural and supernatural, as to the fact and the contents of the original revelation. I know what are revealed there not by retrospect, but by listening.” By this thunderbolt, the Roman Church severs its connection from antiquity and tradition permanently. The moment by moment proclamation of the “living Church of this hour” constitutes the total evidence of revelation. Neither history, antiquity and one might also add, even the Scriptures, can contradict this living voice at this hour which pronounces its judgement by a sheer divine right to the exclusion of everything else which would pretend to rise up against it.

    So while Newman attempts to wallpaper over the difficulties of history with his retrospective reconstructed history, Manning refuses such tricks and outrightly denies the validity of history and antiquity altogether, placing the entire weight of the Roman faith upon the living voice of the Church which alone constitutes the maximal evidence of every Christian truth.

    This of course explains why the Roman Catholic simultaneously appeals to history, qua Cardinal Newman to attempt to justify their faith, and when this fails, they would swing dialectically to Manning to anathemise history altogether and simply ground the Roman faith firmly upon the present voice of the magisterium.

  • Dominic Foo September 9, 2014, 10:41 pm

    I think it would be instructive to quote Cardinal Manning at length here from his Temporal Mission of the Holy Ghost to get a full sense of the Roman Catholic dialectical (or contradictory) attitude towards history:

    The other objection I shall touch but briefly. It is often said that Catholics are arbitrary and positive even to provocation in perpetually affirming the indivisible unity and infallibility of the Church, the primacy of the Holy See, and the like, without regard to the difficulties of history, the facts of antiquity, and the divisions of Christendom. It is implied by this that these truths are not borne out by history and fact: that they are even irreconcilable with it: that they are no more than theories, pious opinions, assumptions, and therefore visionary and false.

    We very frankly accept the issue. No Catholic would first take what our objectors call history, fact, antiquity and the like, and from them deduce his faith ; and for this reason, the faith was revealed and taught before history, fact or antiquity existed. These things are but the basis of his faith, nor is the examination of them his method of theological proof. The Church, which teaches him now by its perpetual living voice, taught the same faith before as yet the Church had a history or an antiquity. The rule and basis of faith to those who lived before either the history or antiquity of which we hear so much existed, is the rule and basis of our faith now.

    But perhaps it may be asked: If you reject history and antiquity, how can you know what was revealed before, as you say, history and antiquity existed ? ‘I answer : The enunciation of the faith by the living Church of this hour, is the maximum, of evidence, both natural and supernatural, as to the fact and the contents of the original revelation. I know what are revealed there not by retrospect, but by listening.

    It was the charge of the Reformers that the Catholic doctrines were not primitive, and their pretension was to revert to antiquity. But the appeal to antiquity is both a treason and a heresy. It is a treason because it rejects the Divine voice of the Church at this hour, and a heresy because it denies that voice to be Divine. How can we know what antiquity was except through the Church? … I may say in strict truth that the Church has no antiquity. It rests upon its own supernatural and perpetual consciousness. … The only Divine evidence to us of what was primitive is the witness and voice of the Church at this hour.

  • Glenn September 9, 2014, 11:06 pm

    Dominic what are you doing…
    http://www.rightreason.org/blog-policy/

  • Dominic September 9, 2014, 11:15 pm

    Opps, feel free to delete them all then, I forgot about that.

  • Jason Kettinger September 10, 2014, 6:09 pm

    I appreciate the tone of this, but it fails, because a wise Catholic does not believe that the Fathers are a norm in themselves; it is rather that they bear witness to the rule of faith, and the Church. There is a difference between being completely impervious to evidence, and being beholden to historical-critical methods, a sort of makeshift magisterium of scholarship. I’ve held your view of the “Church,” too, and it appears to be as self-refuting as the Catholic claim is offensive. It must tolerate within itself mutually exclusive dogmatic claims, all allegedly originating from the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scriptures. In light of that reality, what would be the point of arguing the Scriptures, since the appeal to them is yet to be finally dispositive or convincing, except to throw light on competing interpretive traditions (which, as Protestants, we had expended reams of energy denying that they exist)? Before this comment gets too lengthy or obnoxious, I’m leaving it here.

  • Glenn September 10, 2014, 6:14 pm

    “It must tolerate within itself mutually exclusive dogmatic claims, all allegedly originating from the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scriptures”

    The solution to which is very catholic (small c): Have a small creed that we can agree serves as a summary of the necessities, and extend charity beyond that. The Nicene Creed is pretty good. 🙂

    Moreover, the fact that there exist some Catholics who do not argue in the way that I have described does not mean that this criticism of the Catholics who do this fails. The truth is that I quite clearly had the evidence on my side in the discussion in question. The “Oh well, forget the evidence, here’s what the Church (now) says” reply was a real one, and I do not agree that my criticism of it “fails.” It will fail when Catholic culture changes and nobody argues this way and Catholics accept that the evidence would trump the decision of the papacy. When and if that happens, this one reason why I am not Catholic will cease to be.

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