Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Bryan's pacifier

Theologically they [Protestants] oppose the very notion that some communion or institution is the one that Christ founded, referring to such a notion as ‘sectarian’ or ‘sectarianism.’ From their point of view, all those who love Jesus are equally members of the Church that Christ founded. They do not believe that Christ through His Apostles gave charge of His Church to an hierarchy of bishops in a perpetual line of succession having an essential unity that is essentially visible. In their view, the Church Christ founded is fundamentally an invisible union of all those who love Jesus, no matter what their denomination or tradition.


So far so good.

Some Protestants who know of the Catholic Church’s claim to be the Church that Christ founded are not offended by this claim. They are not offended by it, because they remember Protestantism’s historical origin in the Catholic Church. They remember that in the minds of the first Protestants, the intention was not to separate from the Catholic Church, but to reform the Catholic Church. For these first Protestants, their resulting separation from the Catholic Church was a kind of ‘necessary evil,’ not intended to create one or many schisms from the Church, but to bring needed moral and doctrinal reform to the very same Church that Christ had founded. In the minds of those first Protestants, this separation was to persist only until the Catholic Church was sufficiently reformed, so that they could return to full communion with her. The present-day Protestants who remember this obviously do not believe that the Catholic Church is infallible; that is why they believe that they can justifiably be separated from her. But they do believe that the Catholic Church from which they are visibly separated is (or has the best claim to being the visible continuation of) the Church that Christ founded, and they look to be reunited to her as soon as she is sufficiently reformed.5

Carl carries with him a memory that many if not most Protestants have forgotten, the old ancestral memory of having once been Catholic, before the events of the sixteenth century. He carries within himself this memory of Protestants’ true home and family, understanding that Protestants as such are in essence Catholics-in-exile whose Catholic ancestors in the sixteenth century made the painful decision to live in exile from the Catholic Church until she had sufficiently reformed, never intending to be or form a permanently separate body or group of bodies. This is what Protestant fathers used to teach to their children. But memories are feeble and naturally fade and grow dull with the passing of the centuries. Eventually Protestant fathers no longer taught this to their children, and these children grew up not even knowing that they were in exile. They came to think that schism from the Church was normal, because they no longer retained even the concept of schism from the Church.

These descendants of the earlier Protestants have completely forgotten that they were separated from anything. And without this memory, there no longer stirs within them any longing for the conclusion of the Catholic Church’s reformation so that they can be reunited to her. Instead, understandably, their discovery of the Catholic Church’s claim to be the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church Christ founded arouses in them some degree of resentment and offense.

For them, the question “How would Protestants know when to return?” makes no sense, because they have forgotten that they were waiting to return to anything. They have forgotten from whence they came, as Protestants. Carl would have them remember. He would have every Protestant get out of bed each morning asking himself whether there remain any good reasons for not returning to full communion with the Catholic Church. Carl understands that those who have no such good reasons, but who remain Protestant, are perpetuating an “act of schism.”7 By his prescription, every Protestant should place the following question in a prominent place by his bed, and read it aloud every morning first thing when he gets out of bed, and teach his children to do the same:

“Why have I not yet returned to full communion with the Catholic Church?”

Not only would this daily practice help Protestants see the Catholic Church as their true home, and Catholics as their separated brothers and sisters, it would also encourage Protestants to pray for Catholics and the Catholic Church from a perspective of love and affection and longing, as one would pray for an estranged sibling, spouse or parent. Before we can begin talking about whether the Reformation is over, and how Protestants would know when it is time to come back to the Catholic Church, Protestants (and Catholics) must first recover our collective memory of our former union in one and the same Church, and the fact of our having become separated in the sixteenth century. The “when should we return” question can make no sense to Protestants until they see themselves daily as Catholics-in-exile from the their own Catholic Church, waiting eagerly to return home and be reunited to the family from which they have been separated now for almost five hundred years.

Several basic problems with this analysis:

i) There is Bryan’s tendentious use of Jungian categories (e.g. ancestral memory, collective consciousness) and genealogical metaphors (e.g. Mother Church).

ii) But if we strip away the Jungian psychology and the tendentious metaphors, his claim in part boils down to the banal observation that, in some sense, the past causes the present. So, in a sense, the Protestant Reformation came out of the Roman church.

But although there’s a causal continuity between the past and the present, that doesn’t mean folks living in the present should necessarily feel homesick or orphaned or exiled. Let’s explore a different, but related metaphor: immigration.

i) Some immigrants are refugees. They love their homeland, but were forced to leave. So they always feel wistful for their homeland.

ii) But other immigrants leave because they want to. There are folks who hate their hometown, homestate, or homeland. They are just dying for an opportunity to move away.

iii) Likewise, immigrants can have very different views of the host country. The parents may always regret having to leave the fatherland. They may never feel that they belong here.

But if their kids came here at an early age, or if their kids were born here, then this is their home. They don’t wax nostalgic for the old country. They don’t feel like exiles. They identify with the land of their birth, and not their parents’ birthplace.

There is no longing to return home. For them, they can’t go back since they didn’t come from there in the first place. That is not a defining space for them.

iv) We all have many ancestors we don’t know about. Even people who make the family genealogy their personal hobby can only trace the family tree back so far. So the cut-off is inherently arbitrary. They simply run out of links. Run out of records.

Does that mean I feel rootless or homeless because I don’t know who all my ancestors were? But, of course, that’s absurd.

Yes, there’s a sense in which you can trace evangelicalism back in time to the Latin church. But in terms of historical continuity and historical causation, the Latin church doesn’t pop into existence ex nihilo. There’s a past that lies behind the Latin church as well. Like the pre-Christian Greco-Roman Empire. Should I long to be reunited with my separated heathen forebears? What about estranged pagans? Maybe I have a witchdoctor in my family tree. What a loss!

v) There is also a tacitly ethnocentric, if not racist, undertone to Bryan’s argument. No doubt there’s a sense in which a educated white American like Bryan might identify with Western civilization as his reference point, but what about, say, Chinese Christians or sub-Saharan black African Christians? Do they naturally trace their social identity back to 1C Italy?

What about Messianic Jews? Or American-Indian Christians? And so on and so forth?

There’s a kind of white-is-right undercurrent to Bryan’s appeal. But Christianity is inherently transnational and multiethnic.

It’s not as if all Christians subconsciously identify with Palestrina or Latin liturgy or Renaissance architecture or Raphaelite Madonnas as their emotional motherland. Bryan keeps projecting his own sentimental immaturities and insecurities onto everyone else.

Today, as many Protestants celebrate “Reformation Day,” and we Catholics reflect upon the events that separated millions of Christians from us, we would do well to remember that reforming and separation must never be ends in themselves, least of all to the point of becoming so comfortable with schism that we forget that it exists, or that we are in it. Today we ought to reflect on the schism that continues to divide Protestants and Catholics, and earnestly pray that God by His grace may reconcile us, in one family, at one table, so that the world may see our unity in love and know that this love is from Christ, and that Christ is from the Father.

If you’re reconciled to Christ, then you’re ipso facto reconciled to the sheep.


  1. "Bryan's pacifier"

    Pacifiers are typically inserted into a baby's mouth in order to comfort the baby and/or to shut him up.

  2. Except that some sheep look suspiciously goat-like.