Sunday, October 31, 2010

That Fateful Reformation Day

Today is the 493rd anniversary of when Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany. Although Luther was not yet intending to break from the Church at that point, many mark it at the symbolic beginning of the Protestant Reformation. Some Protestants thus celebrate today as Reformation Day.

Yet the Reformation has led to nothing but disunity, confusion, and a chaotic muddying of the theological waters of Christendom. Even if you are one to think that Luther was right that the Catholic Church had become irreparably corrupted, the Reformation did not lead to a clearly unified Reformed alternative. The Reformers protested not only the Catholic Church but each other as well.

Protestant theologian and professor at Duke Divinity School, Stanley Hauerwas (pictured below), agrees that Reformation Day is not to be celebrated. Here are a few quotes from a famous sermon he gave in 1995 on Reformation Sunday:

Reformation names the disunity in which we currently stand. We who remain in the Protestant tradition want to say that Reformation was a success. But when we make Reformation a success, it only ends up killing us. After all, the very name ‘Protestantism’ is meant to denote a reform movement of protest within the Church Catholic. When Protestantism becomes an end in itself, which it certainly has through the mainstream denominations in America, it becomes anathema. If we no longer have broken hearts at the church’s division, then we cannot help but unfaithfully celebrate Reformation Sunday.
I often point out that at least Catholics have the magisterial office of the Bishop of Rome to remind them that disunity is a sin. You should not overlook the significance that in several important documents of late, John Paul II has confessed the Catholic sin for the Reformation. Where are the Protestants capable of doing likewise? We Protestants feel no sin for the disunity of the Reformation. We would not know how to confess our sin for the continuing disunity of the Reformation. We would not know how to do that because we have no experience of unity.
...Catholics understand the church’s unity as grounded in reality more determinative than our good feelings for one another. The office of Rome matters. For at least that office is a judgment on the church for our disunity. Surely it is the clear indication of the sin of the Reformation that we Protestants have not been able to resist nationalistic identifications. So we become German Lutherans, American Lutherans, Norwegian Lutherans. You are Dutch Calvinist, American Presbyterians, Church of Scotland. I am an American Methodist, which has precious little to do with my sisters and brothers in English Methodism.
So on this Reformation Sunday long for, pray for, our ability to remember the Reformation – not as a celebratory moment, not as a blow for freedom, but as the sin of the church. Pray for God to heal our disunity, not the disunity simply between Protestant and Catholic, but the disunity in our midst between classes, between races, between nations. Pray that on Reformation Sunday we may as tax collectors confess our sin and ask God to make us a new people joined together in one mighty prayer that the world may be saved from its divisions.

October 31st, 1517 was a fateful day. Let us all, Protestant and Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox as well, repent of our sins and pray that God may bring us into full unity once again.

"I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought." - Paul, 1st Corinthians 1.10

"May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me." - Jesus, John 17.23

Monday, October 25, 2010

Truly Universal

The Church is truly Universal. It encompasses the whole world, and includes people from every nation, but it also embraces the whole of the Christian life. Any aspect of the Christian life you might be looking for can be found in the Catholic Church. The Church certainly does not live out all these things perfectly in all times and places, but it has a deep tradition in all of them from which those searching today can draw from. Here are some examples:

Looking for monasticism? The Church has a long, un-broken tradition that goes back to the early Church from which to draw. St Benedict, St Scholastica, St Dominic, St Clare (pictured on left), St Francis of Assisi (pictured on right), even the late Bl Mother Teresa - for both rural and urban monasticism, these are all saints who not only left behind religious orders that still exist today, but they are people from whom Catholics can draw inspiration and guidance.

Want a place that is open to mysticism? The Catholic Church has one of the richest mystical traditions in all of Christendom, with such greats as St John of the Cross, St Teresa of Avila, St Hildegard of Bingen, St Padre Pio, and St Catherine of Sienna.

Maybe you need something to sink your intellectual teeth into. The Church has a wonderfully deep intellectual tradition which spans 2000 years, a tradition that has survived the transitions from antiquity, to the medieval period, to the Enlightenment, and through the Modern period all the way into the Post-modern period, and includes some of history's greatest minds like St Augustine, St Anselm, St Thomas Aquinas, Bl. John Henry Newman, and the still-living Jean-Luc Marion.

So you're a scientist: you're not alone in the Catholic Church. The way has been paved for you by people such as John Philoponus, Pope Sylvester II, Gregor Mendel (right), Blaise Pascal, Rene Descartes, and of course Galileo Galilei.

Artists have long been supported and embraced by the Church. Whether it be architecture, music, painting, sculpting - the Church has not only been a long-time patron, but has seen it as crucial to the life of the Church.

And the Catholic Church isn't just for the supposed elite but has a place for popular piety as well. Things such as special devotions to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, or the Holy Face of Jesus, pilgrimages, and popular spiritual practices are embraced in the Church.

The Catholic Church recognizes and embraces the reality of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, including speaking in tongues and prophesy.

In a world that thinks that the supernatural is merely a superstition of the past, the Church still believes in miracles. The Church takes miracles so seriously that it has investigated hundreds if not thousands of alleged miracles and claims to have validated many, even very recently.

If you want to feel connected to history and Christians who have come before you, look to the saints, the memory of which have been preserved in writing and artwork since the early Church. Even further, the Church has maintained relationships with them to which all of us have access.

But what of the tangible problems in our world? The Church has a very well-developed theology regarding helping the poor and the sick, and has put it into practice: in addition to its unparalleled network of hospitals and organizations to help the poor throughout the world, there are figures to look to as well, such as the Bl Mother Teresa, St Damien of Molokai, Dorothy Day (left), and St Nicholas of Myra. Regarding solving these problems on a societal scale, the Catholic Church actually coined the now popular term social justice.

Now I'd like to hear from you! I've only mentioned a few main categories. Comment about aspects of the Church that are important to you or that you feel add greatly to the Church's richness and beauty.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Our Most Interesting History

As I have read about Church history, I have come across little tid-bits here and there that I think are simply great stories. Here are a few. Enjoy!

- St Nicholas of Myra, on whom Santa Claus is based, was a bishop in the 4th century and attended the Council of Nicaea, which was convened to settle issues related to Arianism and Trinitarianism. It is said that at one point the debates became so heated that St Nicholas slapped Arius in the face. He was quickly removed from the council.

- St Francis of Assisi, the 13th century monk and Church reformer, had the first reported case of stigmata, a condition in which the wounds of Christ appear miraculously on a person's body. He is also credited with creating the first crèche, or Nativity scene display, as well as bringing Eucharistic Adoration to Italy.

- St Joseph of Cupertino was 17th century monk who also happened to be mentally challenged. In spite of this, he was known for his holiness and great devotion to God. He also was blessed with the gift of spontaneous levitation against his will, a gift that manifested itself during public, crowded events on several occasions - once even during a papal audience. The great fame and following brought on by his frequent levitations worried Church officials and he was eventually ordered into seclusion. He is the patron saint of, among other things, aviators and the mentally handicapped.

- The 1st Vatican Council, held 1869-1870, was called off part-way through because the Kingdom of Italy had attacked and captured the Papal States, totally surrounding Rome with armies.

- 13th century saint Thomas Aquinas is one of the most important theologians in Church history. His four volume work, the Summa Theologica, remained unfinished, though not because of his death exactly. While celebrating Mass one day, he had a mystical experience of Jesus. Afterwards, he refused to continue his theological work, saying that it all "seemed like straw" compared to the actual reality of God. A couple months later he was summoned by Pope Gregory X to attend the Council of Lyon. While on his way to it, he hit his head on the branch of tree and was dead a few days later.

- St Irenaeus, in his late 2nd century book Against Heresies, relates this extra-biblical story passed down to him about the Apostle John: "John, the disciple of the Lord, going to bathe at Ephesus, and perceiving [the heretic] Cerinthus within, rushed out of the bath-house without bathing, exclaiming, 'Let us fly, lest even the bath-house fall down, because Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth, is within.' " (3.3.4)

- The 13th century nun St Lutgardis claimed that the then-recently deceased Pope Innocent III appeared to her. He was engulfed in flames and explained to her that he was in purgatory for three faults he had committed during his life. He implored her for prayer help saying, "Alas! It is terrible; and will last for centuries if you do not come to my assistance. In the name of Mary, who has obtained for me the favor of appealing to you, help me!"

- Some claim that if you zoom in on the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe that miraculously appeared on the cloak of St. Juan Diego when he unveiled his cloak to his bishop, you can see
reflections in her eyes of those who were present.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Which Essentials

"In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity"

Such is an oft repeated motto among Protestants, including evangelicals.

The idea is simple: Let us remain unified on what is really important, but let's not allow the unimportant or the trivial to divide us. And of course, as we navigate such matters, let always remember love. This principle is wonderful. But I question whether evangelicals can really uphold it, at least the first two elements.

For, in order to maintain unity in essentials, and allow liberty in non-essentials, groups of Christians must first determine which beliefs are essential. How do we go about determining which beliefs are required, which beliefs on which we're unwilling to compromise? Who gets to determine it for the group?

For evangelicals, the answer will most certainly include the Bible. Evangelicals subscribe to sola scriptura, the belief that Scripture, by itself, is the highest authority. So one answer to the problem might be something like this: whatever the Bible teaches is essential for belief. But there are at least two problems with this.

First, Scripture must be interpreted. Experience proves that many sincere, devoted, well-educated, Bible-believing Christians can, and in fact often do, disagree about what Scripture says. This makes it difficult to determine exactly what Scripture is saying.

Second, perhaps as a result of the type of disagreement just described above, though I have heard of evangelicals claiming to follow the above principle, no evangelicals that I've ever encountered have actually subscribed to the principle that whatever the Bible teaches is essential for belief. Many issues that the Bible clearly has something to say about - such as the nature/necessity of baptism, end times, angels, church governance, etc - most evangelicals, although they may or may not have their own opinions, often do not consider to be essential for belief. Instead, we would tend to call someone who does subscribe to this kind of principle a fundamentalist.

Many evangelicals, however, implicitly as well as explicitly, subscribe to a somewhat softer version of the above principle which attempts to take into account the problems addressed: whatever the Bible teaches clearly is essential for belief. But this only pushes the problem back, for how do we determine what is clear in the Bible?

Unfortunately, the all too often answer for evangelicals today is that the Bible is clear, and is therefore teaching something essential, regarding whatever on which there seems to be a consensus among people they respect, trust, or have come in contact with. However, as time has gone on, more and more issues on which there used to be a consensus have been challenged by sincere Bible-believing Christians. This has meant that the list of things that evangelicals take to be essential has only been shrinking. Besides, truth is not settled by vote. We are called to follow the Truth of God whether or not it is popular or appeals to our preferences.

So how are we to solve this very serious problem? What I believe to be the answer, I'm sure, is no surprise: the living teaching authority of the Catholic Church. God did not give us the definitive revelation of Himself only for us to have no way to knowing for sure what it is. Jesus, the God-man, chose apostles and gave them the authority to be the authoritative teachers of the faith. These apostles passed this authority on to successors through ordination, who passed it on to others, all the way to our present day. These successors, guided by the Holy Spirit, have the ability - more than that - the right to determine what is or is not essential for belief.

It is, of course, possible for a non-ordained person to arrive at the right conclusion regarding a particular issue of theology, even through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. But we have no way of determining who has arrived at the correct conclusion, or who has been guided by the Holy Spirit. Ordination, in succession of the apostles, provides us a visible means of knowing that at least these people are guided by the Holy Spirit and have authority from God to tell us the correct interpretation.

Thus, for Catholics, there is a workable, plausible means that's based on Scripture and Tradition by which what's essential or non-essential can be determined with certainty. This allows for Catholics to actually have "in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity."