Thursday, November 02, 2017

One sinking ship–or many lifeboats?

This year, Reformation Day was a bit more significant than the average Reformation Day because it marked the 500-year-anniversary of the Reformation Day. Admittedly, picking a particular day is somewhat arbitrary. The significance is symbolic. But that's often true for commemorations. We don't celebrate the Lord's Supper on the same calendar date as the Last Supper. We don't even know when that was. 

On this occasion, Ryan T. Anderson, a high-profile Catholic culture warrior, posted a volley of antagonistic, denunciatory tweets. Perhaps it's not worth commenting on, but I'll say a few things. Before commenting on the particulars, I'll make a few general observations:

i) What was Ryan trying to accomplish? I understand that as a pious Catholic he won't join in the "celebration". He disapproves of the Reformation. 

But what's striking about his reaction is that he made no effort at rational persuasion. He gave Protestant readers no reasons to share his point of view. It was one question-begging assertion after another. A string of tendentious talking-points. 

So what's the point? Who's the intended audience for his tweets? If he thinks Protestant theology is that bad, shouldn't he be reaching out to Protestants by patiently explaining to us why he's right and we're wrong? 

Admittedly, Twitter is a poor medium for rational discourse, but then, why not use Facebook or write an essay or arrange a formal debate or series of debates? Just telling Protestants they are wrong without presenting an argument is totally unconvincing. 

ii) In addition, there's an ironic quality to his tirade. Is his own Catholicism consistent with post-Vatican II theology? His belligerent disapproval perspective would make more sense if our eternal salvation were at stake. It would make more sense if Protestants were hellbound. And that's the position Rome used to take regarding everybody who wasn't in communion with Rome. But nowadays, the Magisterium is flirting with hopeful universalism. So it's not as if Protestants have much to lose, even from a Catholic standpoint. 

iii) Another problem with his tweets is bigotry. To judge by what he said, it seems highly unlikely that he's had many, if any, conversations, with evangelical philosophers, theologians, Bible scholars, and church historians. His uninformed comments are a textbook case of prejudice.   

iv) In addition, he's like a man standing in front of a burning house, which happens to be his own house, while he lectures the neighbors on how their house is an eyesore. We watch him stand there, scolding us, while right behind him we see his own house in flames. 

Pope Francis is an aggressive modernist who's torching social conservatives like Ryan. Yet there stands Ryan, with that burning house at his back, scolding Protestants because we don't rush into his burning house. His angry comparison between Rome and the Protestant movement is unintentionally comical when his own denomination is on fire, and the sitting pope is the arsonist. 

And that's not primarily the impression of a Protestant observer. Many devout Catholics are terrified at what they see Pope Francis doing. This includes cardinals and bishops as well as conservative Catholic academics. Shouldn't Ryan be helping them douse the raging fire before he presumes to draw an invidious contrast between his own denomination and the Protestant movement? 

Many poorly formed Catholics become Protestant. Whereas many converts to Catholicism were once fervent devout Protestants. An asymmetry.

What is Ryan's sample? Is that a representative comparison? What's the data-base for Ryan's generalization? Or is this just anecdotal, based on his insular experience? 

"Orthodox Protestantism"? Which version of Protestantism is "Orthodox Protestantism"? Lutherans disagree with Calvinists, with Baptists, etc.

Okay, but which version of Catholicism? Francis is unweaving the Catholicism of Benedict XVI and John-Paul II. What about the long-gone but not forgotten Catholicism of anti-modernist popes like Pius IX and Leo XIII? 

“The more I prayed, studied history & theology, read the Bible & Church Fathers, the more I felt God calling me to be Protestant” said no one.

Even assuming that's hyperbole, just about any major Protestant seminary has one or more church historians. How many conversations has Ryan had with Protestant church historians? Or Protestant pathologists? Or Protestant theologians and Bible scholars? 

For that matter, modern-day Catholic Bible scholars typically debunk traditional prooftexts for Catholicism. Modern-day Catholic church historians typically debunk the traditional narrative of the papacy. 

The knots Protestants tie themselves into to deny the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. John 6, Last Supper, 1 Cor 11, all symbolic..

What Protestant commentaries has Ryan even studied on the subject? And not just Protestant commentators. Take Jerome Murphy-O'Connor's commentary on 1 Corinthians. 

Reforming the church (good) and creating a pseudo church (bad) are two very different things.

Does post-Vatican II theology regard Protestant denominations as pseudo-churches? Or is Ryan out of step with contemporary Catholic theology? 

2,000 years of unbroken Christian practice, east and west, Catholic and Orthodox, rejected. That’s the Reformation today.

If you turn a blind eye to all the internal dissension.

Because of the Reformation, millions of Christians lack intimacy with Christ in the Eucharist. That’s just tragic.

Which assumes that Christ is to be found in a wafer. But what if that's a pious projection? What if Catholics are fellowshipping with an ordinary cracker? Like pagans who pray to an idol. No one's home. 

Orthodox Churches have valid Eucharist. Reformation bodies do not.

Is that the position of post-Vatican II theology?

BTW, why does the Eucharist require a Catholic priest to be valid, but baptism does not? What's the principle? Or is the distinction ad hoc? 

At best, Reformation was tragic necessity. In actuality, much worse. Celebrating the division and disunity in the body of Christ is obscene.

i) To begin with, there's a difference between a celebration and a commemoration. 

ii) Ryan assumes that his religious sect is the body of Christ. I get that. But he doesn't give Protestants any reason to see things his way. Instead, he resorts to shaming rhetoric. 

iii) If, by contrast, we view the Roman church on the eve of the Reformation as a morally and theologically corrupt religious monopoly, then competition is a good thing. It was good to give people options. It was good to have emergency exits. From an evangelical perspective, moreover, the church of Rome has gone from bad to worse. 

What's better–one sinking ship or many lifeboats? Should everybody stay on board a sinking ship? If all the passengers go down with the ship, that's unity–but I'll take my chances with a lifeboat. 

iv) I don't normally think about being Protestant. I just study the Bible with the wealth of resources at my disposal. 


  1. Would you rather live in orderly Stalinist Russia or a messy democracy?

  2. Ryan T. Anderson also recommended Brad Gregory's abstruse, flawed tome on the Reformation, and it's clear that work informs his stridency. It basically argues the Reformation ruined a near-pristine medieval Catholicism and is to blame for many of modern life's major social/cultural ills. Anyone who internalizes that narrative is going to find it difficult to treat the Reformation with any sort of charity.

    I see a lot of Catholics who believe some version of Gregory's thesis. For a corrective, see Horton's critical review: