Catholic apologists often belabor the alleged scandal of a divided Christendom. According to them, unbelievers are scandalized by the fact that Christians can’t get along with one another. That, so we’re told, is a major reason why many unbelievers are unbelievers in the first place. Christian divisions are a major turn-off. This is what drives many unbelievers away from the church, away from the faith.
If every Christian were Catholic, if every Christian belonged to the church of Rome, then this would remove a major obstacle which impedes many unbelievers from coming to the faith.
What are we to make of this argument. From what I’ve read, Catholic apologists never get beyond the ecumenical abstraction. They’re in love with the idea of ecumenical reunion. But they don’t stop to think through the practical consequences of their position.
Why is that? Well, they take this position because they’re supposed to. That’s the official position of their church. The party line. It’s your duty to say that.
For Catholic apologists, ecumenical reunion is a wonderful and dutiful ideal which all of us should all strive to turn into a concrete reality.
But let’s pause a moment to consider the reaction of outsider or unbelievers if this actually took place.
Suppose we conducted one of those impromptu, man-on-the-street surveys in which we random interview pedestrians in Times Square. We begin by asking if they’re Christian.
If they answer in the affirmative, we don’t ask any further questions. The purpose of this survey is to poll the opinions of unbelievers, not professing believers. The folks who are allegedly offended by the scandal of sectarianism.
Having eliminated the professing believers, we pose a couple of follow-up questions for the admitted unbelievers. Suppose it took the form of a verbal, free association test.
Suppose we began by asking our friendly pedestrian a question like: “When you think of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, what’s the first word that comes to mind?”
I daresay that in many or most cases, the average pedestrian would draw a blank. They have no opinion of the OPC. That’s the first time they ever heard of the OPC.
Suppose we followed up that question by asking our friendly pedestrian, “When you think of the Roman Catholic Church, what’s the first word that comes to mind?”
I suspect that we’d score far more hits on that question. Many people have an opinion about the Catholic church. The Catholic church is a very famous institution. For many, indeed, it’s not merely famous–but positively infamous.
It’s constantly covered in the national and international news. In addition, the Catholic church is the explicit or implicit backdrop for countless movies, TV dramas, and TV sitcoms. And much of this treatment is hostile to Catholicism.
You also have a lot of lapsed Catholics with strong opinions about they church they left.
So the notorious reputation of the Catholic church precedes it. For the moment, I’m not discussing whether popular impressions of the Catholic church are fair or unfair, true or false. That’s not the point.
Remember the original argument. Unbelievers are said to be scandalized by divisions within Christendom. If only all of the “separated brethren” came back home, returned to Mother Church, then that would be a powerful witness to an unbelieving world. That would solidify our witness to the unbelieving world.
So this is an argument based on public perception. Subjective impressions.
But in that case we need to ask ourselves, when unbelievers think of the Catholic church, what do they think of? What associations spring to mind?
At the risk of stating the obvious, many unbelievers have very negative opinions of the Catholic church. The Catholic church has an image problem.
They regard the Catholic church as a sexist and homophobic institution. They think of the Crusades and the Inquisition. They think of pedophile priests. They disapprove of its positions on contraception and abortion. And so on and so forth.
In brief, many unbelievers are offended by what, in their own mind, the Catholic church stands for.
Even if, for the sake of argument, you think they suffer from an ignorant misimpression of what the Catholic church really stands for, that’s irrelevant to the point at issue. Remember the original argument: unbelievers are said to be offended by divisions within Christendom. The way to remove this stumbling block is to heal the divisions by reuniting with the Catholic church.
But if many unbelievers, rightly or wrongly, are offended by the Catholic church, then this is not a recipe for winning converts to the Christian cause. To the contrary, that would be quite counterproductive.
For many unbelievers, “Catholic” is a loaded word. By contrast, “Presbyterian” may be neutral, simply because they know next to nothing about Presbyterians.
Suppose a Presbyterian were to become a Catholic. He would instantly inherit all of the sodden baggage that’s associated with the Catholic church.
Moreover, it’s not as if the Catholic church presents a solid front. The Catholic church has very lax standards of membership. Take the case of Hans Küng. Küng is a famous Catholic dissident. Yet Küng has never been excommunicated. Indeed, Küng has never been defrocked. He’s still a priest in good standing.
If every Christian belonged to the same denomination–in this case, the Catholic church–you’d still have high profile dissidents within the membership. You’d still have lots of in-fighting. Internecine warfare–which the news media would be more than happy to headline.
Yes, Catholic apologists try to distinguish between the unity of the Church’s official teaching and renegades like Küng. But even if you think that’s a theoretically coherent way to harmonize the internal divisions, remember the target audience. The question at issue is not how someone who is already a pious Catholic can finesse these internal divisions, but how that appears to the outside world. To someone not automatically sympathetic to Rome. Indeed, to someone who may well be antagonistic to Catholic church.
Or take the case of Catholic celebrities like Ted Kennedy. Many Catholic politicians disregard their Church’s teaching on abortion with complete impunity. So it’s not as if the public image of modern Catholicism is distinguished by its show of unity.
Furthermore, if every Christian were Catholic, then every Christian scandal would be a Catholic scandal. That would further tarnish the already tarnished image of Christendom.
Does the Catholic church really want to add all of the televangelists to its roster? Would having Jim and Tammy Faye, John Hagee, Benny Hinn, Peter Popoff, Jimmy Swaggart, Robert Tilton, Jeremiah Wright, et al. on the membership rolls burnish its public image?
Finally, to consider just one additional issue, the Catholic church is already a multi-billion dollar corporation. And if all professing believers were members, that would double its size.
Because the Catholic church is so huge, it has to process billions of dollars a year. That creates an incentive of corporate accounting scandals which utterly dwarf many middling and piddling Protestant churches.