Friday, January 16, 2009

Marks of the Church

A common reaction found among Catholic converts from evangelical Protestant backgrounds is dismay over the state of the Church. Some cradle Catholics are put off by their dismay and wonder why they cannot be more grateful to be aboard the Ark of Salvation.

Just a few thoughts about this. It's true that the Church Fathers have likened the Church of Christ to Noah's Ark, wherein there were clean and unclean animals together. Again, they have likened the Church to a net in which various creeping things are also drawn in together with the fish. Our Lord Himself, in one of His parables, suggests that the Church is like a field in which both wheat and tares (weeds) are left to grow together until the final harvest (Matthew 13: 24-30). St. Augustine, noting that not even the perfectionist sect, the Donatists, lived up to its own standards, wrote of the parable: "And so the Church until the end of the age will combine within Herself the good and the evil, without harm to the good. If it turns out that there are tares in the Church, this does not hinder our faith and love; upon observing tares in the Church, we should not fall away from Her. We ourselves must only try to be wheat ..." More on this anon.

The experience of many Catholics from evangelical Protestant backgrounds may be illustrated, for the sake of our purposes here, by a denomination such as the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), a small splinter group founded in 1935 by conservative members of the Presbyterian Church--USA (PCUSA) who objected to the creeping Modernism of the 1930s and endorsed the conservative Presbyterian manifesto of 1910-15 called The Fundamentals -- five essential 'litmus test' doctrines (divine Biblical inspiration, Christ's virgin birth, atoning death, bodily resurrection, and the historical reality of Christ's miracles) -- the 'five fundamentals' from which the original use of the term 'fundamentalism' derives. These 'fundamentalists' aren't the snake-handling yahoos of popular caricatures. The OPC denomination has more PhD's per capita than any other American denomination. Of course it helps that it's a small denomination. With under 28,000 members worldwide, it is a small, lean, well-educated and deadly serious little group. During Sunday morning sermons, which may last upwards of 40 minutes, it's not uncommon to see individuals taking notes and later offering the homilist a grilling, if friendly, critique over coffee and donuts. If you have ever studied Koine (NT) Greek, even in a Catholic seminary, chances are you are acquainted with the little Greek primer by J. Gresham Machen, the Princeton Seminary professor who founded Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, as well as the OPC denomination.

It goes without saying that such a disciplined little platoon of solemn, like-minded souls as this is a far cry from the vast assembly of the Catholic Church, which James Joyce once reputedly described as "Here comes everybody!" Securus iudicat orbis terrarum ("The secure judgment of the whole world"), declared St. Augustine of the Church's all-embracing Catholicity. Yet the example above may nevertheless help to understand why many Catholic converts from such backgrounds, where not only parentally-enforced moral discipline but the propositional content of Christian Faith is taken seriously by nearly everyone in their denomination, often find their heads spinning when they find themselves among the vast and diverse array of animals amassed together in the often odoriferous quarters of Noah's Ark.

If I may presume to speak for these 'many', I do not think for a moment that their concerns stem from regrets about their conversion or from lack of gratitude in finding themselves at last within the fold of Mother Church. Most of them will attest to having been driven into the fold of the Church by the unshakable conviction that what she officially teaches in her catechisms and magisterial decrees is ineluctably true. Most will readily confess to having found the "fullness of truth" in the Church, which also entails the sobering admission of having been deprived of that fullness in their previous religious affiliations. Most are also personally acquainted with devout Catholics who faithfully practice their faith and lead exemplary lives. I don't think most are altogether surprised when they run into Catholics who aren't practicing their faith or are ignorant of their own tradition, since this phenomenon is found increasingly among the younger generations of nearly all religious communions.

I think, rather, that their chief concerns stems from what may strike them as a startling indifference at the frequent absence of clear and detailed doctrinal instruction and firm moral discipline, starting with the grass-roots level of families and their local parishes and parochial schools, but often extending to the diocesan level. Granted, the 'tares' will grow with the 'wheat' until the harvest. "And so the Church until the end of the age will combine within Herself the good and the evil," said St. Augustine, "without harm to the good." Yet here the convert will be inclined ask: "Really? 'Without harm to the good'? Is there no point at which the wheat, if it has become infested with tares (at least in some places), can ever be jeopardized?"

One of the problems with Catholic converts from such backgrounds is, of course, that they are typically accustomed to thinking of their life of faith as something that reposes primarily in intellectual propositions and in moral habits. The metaphysical centrality of the Church in her sacramental and liturgical life may take some time to sink down into their souls in such a way that they can even begin to see its full importance. Yet, to be fair, is it not also possible that the often confusing contemporary Catholic milieu, for many who are born and raised through the ranks of its parishes and parochial schools today, may effectively leave them sacramentalized pagans?

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