If the Catholic Church Isn’t From Heaven, It’s From Hell

Over the last several years, as I investigated the various objections to Catholicism, I began to notice something strange about them.  At the same time the Church was accused of being too “conservative,” she was also accused of being too “liberal”–often by the very same people.  In the chart below, I try to show what I mean:

“The Church Is Too Conservative!”

“The Church Is Too Liberal!”

  • “The Catholic Church is too exclusive–where does it get off claiming to be ‘the’ Church?”
  • “The Mass is too formulaic.  We should be able to arrange corporate worship the way we want.”
  • “The Church’s requirement that priests be celibate is just a ‘tradition of men’ that needs to be abandoned.”
  • “All other major Christian groups dropped their ‘no artificial contraception’ stance a long time ago.  The Church needs to get out of the Stone Age on this one.”
  • “The Catholic Church is too inclusive–look at how it dialogues with all of those non-Christians and has all that nice stuff to say about them.  Why, John Paul II was practically a universalist!”
  • “The Catholic Church is full of a bunch of folks who don’t even follow Catholic teaching.  If it was really Christ’s Church, it would kick them all out.”
  • “The Church’s social justice teachings on things like ‘the preferential option for the poor,’ health care, and immigration policy are practically socialist and/or globalist.”
  • “Look at the Church’s position on the death penalty.  Doesn’t it believe in justice?”
  • “The Church’s opposition to the initiation of the Iraq War just gave aid and comfort to an evil regime that needed to be taken out.”

In my journey to the Church, I struggled with objections in both of these columns.  Towards the end, though, I was struggling mostly with the ones under “The Church Is Too Liberal!” heading.  I’ve always leaned more toward the “conservative” side of contemporary American politics, so I had a visceral reaction against any of the Church’s teachings that even sounded like they might be sympathetic to positions taken by those on the American political left.  Then it occurred to me one day:  why should I be comfortable with the Church’s pronouncements on all of the economic, social, and political questions of our time?[1]  If one thing can be safely said about Jesus, it is that He didn’t make anyone—not even His closest followers—entirely comfortable while He was on earth.  Why should I expect His Mystical Body, the Church, to do so?  I ultimately concluded that, given that the Church was the Body of Christ in the world today, I had to leave open the possibility that I could be the one who was wrong and should be open to learning from the Church, rather than simply seeking out a congregation and/or pastor who agreed with me down the line.

The more I investigated all of these various objections to Catholicism, another thing began to strike me:  an institution that attracts such disparate objections as these must be a very strange institution.  How could the Church, at the same time, be both too “conservative” (on issues like abortion and so-called same-sex “marriage”) and too “liberal” (on issues like concern for the poor, immigration, and the Iraq War).  Or how could it be both too “exclusive” (by claiming to be “the” Church) and too “inclusive” (by not consigning all non-Christians to hell)?  Or how could it be both too much against having children (by requiring priests to be celibate) and too much for having children (by saying it was wrong to use artificial contraception)?

This train of thought reminded me of yet another passage from G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy:

What again could this astonishing thing be like which people were so anxious to contradict, that in doing so they did not mind contradicting themselves?  I saw the same thing on every side. . . .  Thus, certain sceptics wrote that the great crime of Christianity had been its attack on the family; it had dragged women to the loneliness and contemplation of the cloister, away from their homes and their children.  But, then, other sceptics (slightly more advanced) said that the great crime of Christianity was forcing the family and marriage upon us; that it doomed women to the drudgery of their homes and children, and forbade them loneliness and contemplation.  The charge was actually reversed. . . .  Or again, Christianity was reproached with its naked and hungry habits; with its sackcloth and dried peas.  But the next minute Christianity was being reproached with its pomp and its ritualism; its shrines of porphyry and its robes of gold.  It was abused for being too plain and for being too coloured. . . .

I wished to be quite fair then, and I wish to be quite fair now; and I did not conclude that the attack on Christianity was all wrong.  I only concluded that if Christianity was wrong, it was very wrong indeed.  Such hostile horrors might be combined in one thing, but that thing must be very strange and solitary.  There are men who are misers, and also spendthrifts; but they are rare.  There are men sensual and also ascetic; but they are rare.  But if this mass of mad contradictions really existed, quakerish and bloodthirsty, too gorgeous and too thread-bare, austere, yet pandering preposterously to the lust of the eye, the enemy of women and their foolish refuge, a solemn pessimist and a silly optimist, if this evil existed, then there was in this evil something quite supreme and unique.  For I found in my rationalist teachers no explanation of such exceptional corruption.  Christianity (theoretically speaking) was in their eyes only one of the ordinary myths and errors of mortals.  They gave me no key to this twisted and unnatural badness.  Such a paradox of evil rose to the stature of the supernatural.  It was, indeed, almost as supernatural as the infallibility of the Pope.  An historic institution, which never went right, is really quite as much of a miracle as an institution that cannot go wrong.  The only explanation which immediately occurred to my mind was that Christianity did not come from heaven, but from hell.  Really, if Jesus of Nazareth was not Christ, He must have been Antichrist.

And then in a quiet hour a strange thought struck me like a still thunderbolt.  There had suddenly come into my mind another explanation.  Suppose we heard an unknown man spoken of by many men.  Suppose we were puzzled to hear that some men said he was too tall and some too short; some objected to his fatness, some lamented his leanness; some thought him too dark, and some too fair.  One explanation (as has been already admitted) would be that he might be an odd shape.  But there is another explanation.  He might be the right shape.

In this Chestertonian defense of “Christianity” in general, I found the key to resolving the contradictory charges against the Catholic Church in particular:  in order for the charges to be true, then the Church had to be, not simply “too liberal” or “too conservative,” but diabolical.  Either the Church really was the Whore of Babylon (as the early Reformers so vividly put it) or it was what it claimed to be—the Church Christ Himself founded.[2]  There was no middle ground.  To conclude otherwise, by hiding behind next-to-meaningless words like “conservative” and “liberal,” was merely to attempt to duck the question.  Whatever I was dealing with, it clearly was supernatural.

How Nikki and I decided that the Church was from Heaven (and not Hell), of course, is what this blog is all about so I’m not going to go into all the details of that here.  You’ll have to read all of our posts to date (and all of the great ones coming down the road!) for that.  Beyond that, though, and much more importantly, I’ll leave you with this thought.  Scripture tells us that a “tree is known by its own fruit.”  I feel it is a common mistake (not just for Protestants but for anyone looking into Catholicism) to think that the primary fruit of the Catholic Church is its doctrine.  It’s not.  The fundamental purpose of the Church is not to produce doctrine (as important as doctrine may be)–rather, it’s to help produce Saints.  So if you really want to know whether the Church is from Heaven or Hell, start reading about people like St. Francis of Assisi, St. Clare, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Therese of Lisieux, or St. Maximilian Kolbe.  If you do, I think I know what your conclusion will be.

[1]               Please note that these pronouncements do not rise to the level of infallible Church teachings.  Church leaders—even the Pope—who spoke out against the initiation of the Iraq War could have been wrong on that issue; the same goes for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and those individual American bishops who have taken positions on the question of illegal immigration.  Catholics, however, are still expected to respectfully consider what the Pope and the bishops have to say on these issues.

[2]               Whatever their other failings may have been, the early Reformers were on-fire for what they believed to be true and didn’t mince words.  Contemporary American Protestantism, on the other hand, tends to treat the Catholic Church like some slightly batty old uncle, acting like its doing Catholicism a favor by acknowledging that “even Catholics” can be saved.  I had this condescending attitude when I was a Protestant and now recognize it was just a way of avoiding taking the Catholic Church’s claims seriously.

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