What’s the Big Deal?

If, a few years ago, I’d been reading posts like Nikki’s and mine, I think by this point I might have been asking myself:  “Why are these people making such a fuss about all of this?  They must be sickos who get a kick out of counting the number of angels that can fit on the head of a pin.  But haven’t Catholics and Protestants actually gotten beyond these petty doctrinal disputes?  Why drag back up differences on things like ‘the priesthood of the believer,’ the ‘theology of suffering,’ and the nature of the Eucharist?  Maybe, once upon a time, Protestants and Catholics killed each other over these issues, but that was a long time ago, and we’re so much more advanced now.  Can’t we just let bygones be bygones?”  These are fair questions which, perhaps, some readers are asking, so I’ll try to answer them in this post.[1]

First:  the question of what to do with the history of Protestants and Catholics killing each other over doctrinal issues and the contention that no one should do anything to try to bring that awful era back.  On this one, let’s all first assume that, back in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, there were people (both Protestant and Catholic) who died solely because of their position on theological questions that Protestants and Catholics dispute.[2]  Having made that assumption, isn’t it obvious that, to simply try to brush these disputes under the rug is to desecrate the memory of all of those (again, both Protestant and Catholic) who thought these issues were important enough to die for?  Don’t we at least owe them the courtesy of treating these issues as worthy of continuing discussion?

Also, I’ve noticed that the very people who see religious warfare lurking around the corner whenever it is suggested that these issues actually matter don’t have any problem with bloodshed on behalf of political interests.  Thus, they suggest that the belief that the United States should be a sovereign nation is worth dying for, but the belief (or non-belief) that Jesus Christ is truly present, on this Earth, in the form of bread and wine at every Catholic Mass isn’t.[3]  And exactly what scale of values does that represent?  Doesn’t this position just reflect an attitude that temporal politics matters more than faith?

Second, and more fundamentally, the reason the Catholic Church asserts that these various differences matter isn’t simply to demonstrate its power over individual believers.  Indeed, looking back through history, it is apparent that the Church has only dogmatically defined doctrines when it has become necessary to do so–often because some particular doctrine was under attack.  So, for example, in response to the Arian heresy, which asserted that Jesus Christ was not fully God, the Church formulated what we today call the Nicene Creed, which proclaims that Jesus Christ, the Son, is “consubstantial” (i.e., of one substance) with the Father.  And, again, the Church did this, not to “lord it over” people, but to protect people from being hurt by heresy.  To deny that Jesus Christ was fully God was to deny that God Himself fully participated in human suffering.  This denial, in turn, risked kicking God “back upstairs” to a completely spiritualized Heaven in which He could not relate to or understand the full scope of the human experience.  And believing that makes it harder for a person to live out his or her life in this world, which is often full of suffering, cruelty, pain, and injustice.

This same analysis can be applied to every doctrine the Church has taken the trouble to definitively articulate.  Thus (among other things):

  • Denial that salvation is a life-long process, rather than a one-moment-in-time event, logically results in the individual Christian forever wondering whether their one moment in time was real or not;
  • Denial of the primacy of the bishop of Rome as the visible head of the Church on earth logically results in it being well-nigh impossible for an individual Christian to have any certainty that the local congregation he or she is attending is a real church;
  • Denial of the efficacy of praying to the Saints logically results in individual Christians feeling like they’re alone in their own time and space;
  • Denial of the Church’s teaching on artificial contraception logically results in the conclusion that sex is not necessarily procreative and so there is no basis upon which to conclude that there’s anything special about heterosexual marriage;
  • Denial of the honor due to the Blessed Virgin Mary logically results in the denigration of the status of all women, both in the Church and in society;
  • Denial of the sacrament of Holy Orders logically results in confusion regarding the role of the local “minister,” breeds cynicism, and leads to never-ending power struggles between the “laity” and the “clergy”; and
  • Denial of the Real Presence logically results in the average lay-person not knowing exactly what’s so special about going to church every week.

Note that, in each of the above items, I’ve indicated what denial of Catholic doctrine “logically” leads to.  I’m not saying that every person who denies these doctrines necessarily feels the way I eventually felt because of my rejection of the Church’s teaching.  But I stand by my conclusions–and I’ve seen them played out too many times in my own experience.

In this vein, I found very interesting the responses to the conversion story of Jennifer Fulwiler, recently posted on the Why I’m Catholic site.  Ms. Fulwiler, who blogs over at Conversion Diary, is a convert to Catholicism from atheism, and the atheists came out of the woodwork to comment on her story about why she became Catholic.  At the center of that story was Ms. Fulwiler’s conclusion that, as an atheist, her life (and the lives of those she loved, such as her husband and her children) had, when all was said and done, no actual meaning so she might as well commit suicide  In response to this, numerous atheists said, “Well, I’m an atheist, but I find meaning in life!,” and attacked Ms. Fulwiler as a weakling who simply has a need for the psychological comfort Catholicism provides.[4]  What struck me, though, was that these folks have NO argument as to why atheism doesn’t logically lead to materialism and nihilism.  They just posit that it doesn’t.  However, as I read their comments, it seems to me they pretty much concede that atheism, as a matter of pure logic, means that individual lives have no significance but that they, as a matter of choice and despite their atheism, choose to live their lives as if they matter.

As I reached the end of my days as a Protestant, the arguments I heard in favor of Protestantism (and the arguments I still hear) were similar to those the atheists made against Ms. Fulwiler: I should stop worrying about all the “why” questions, such as why I go to church on Sundays, why we have leaders, why we have stained glass in the sanctuary, etc., and just buckle down and go on, even without reasons.  In essence, I should act “as if” these things have meaning, just as the atheists counseled Ms. Fulwiler to go on living “as if” life actually means something. 

Maybe I’m just a weakling, but “as if” doesn’t cut it for me.  If I’m going to act like what I do means something, it helps me to believe that it really does.  And I don’t think I’m alone in wanting meaning out of life, including meaning in my religious experience.  Chesterton, yet again, puts it better than I can, so I’ll give him the last word:

The outer ring of Christianity is a rigid guard of ethical abnegations and professional priests; but inside that inhuman guard you will find the old human life dancing like children, and drinking wine like men; for Christianity is the only frame for pagan freedom.  But in the modern philosophy the case is opposite; it is its outer ring that is obviously artistic and emancipated; its despair is within.

And its despair is this, that it does not really believe that there is any meaning in the universe; therefore it cannot hope to find any romance; its romances will have no plots.  A man cannot expect any adventures in the land of anarchy [where Protestantism is located].  But a man can expect any number of adventures if he goes travelling in the land of authority.  One can find no meanings in a jungle of scepticism; but the man will find more and more meanings who walks through a forest of doctrine and design.  Here everything has a story tied to its tail, like the tools or pictures in my father’s house; for it is my father’s house.  I end where I began–at the right end.  I have entered at last the gate of all good philosophy.  I have come into my second childhood.


[1]               These also are questions that, in one form or another, were  posed to Nikki and me during our journey to the Catholic Church.

[2]               Let’s also all recognize this is a big assumption.  In the aftermath of the Reformation, plenty of folks died, not for any virtuous religious reason, but because their political leaders (again, both Protestant and Catholic) used the theological disputes as cover for their own ambitions.  For more on the Catholic/Protestant wars of religion, see here.

[3]               Please don’t misunderstand me here.  That a single Protestant or Catholic was killed simply because of their position on the issues that Protestants and Catholics dispute is a tragedy which, hopefully, will never be repeated.  I wholeheartedly reject the notion of conversion by the sword. 

[4]               In so doing, of course, they completely ignored the part of the Gospel where Jesus said that, to be His follower, you have to take up your cross and follow Him.

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