Is Roman Catholicism the default position?

Carl True of Westminster Seminary says yes.

Every year I tell my Reformation history class that Roman Catholicism is, at least in the West, the default position. Rome has a better claim to historical continuity and institutional unity than any Protestant denomination, let alone the strange hybrid that is evangelicalism; in the light of these facts, therefore, we need good, solid reasons for not being Catholic; not being a Catholic should, in other words, be a positive act of will and commitment, something we need to get out of bed determined to do every day. It would seem, however, that if Noll and Nystrom are correct, many who call themselves evangelical really lack any good reason for such an act of will; and the obvious conclusion, therefore, should be that they do the decent thing and rejoin the Roman Catholic Church. I cannot go down that path myself, primarily because of my view of justification by faith and because of my ecclesiology; but those who reject the former and lack the latter have no real basis upon which to perpetuate what is, in effect, an act of schism on their part.

In my classes I am always interested in finding out in a way that is sensitive to privacy concerns why students are or are not Roman Catholic. Almost always the choice to leave the RC church has to do with tertiary issues, almost never primary ones and rarely reasons that are more secondary. By tertiary I refer to lower level reasons such as the remoteness of the liturgy, too much money spent on building and sanctuary beautifications, etc. They almost never have to do with essential doctrines but are issues of taste and preference.

Evangelical Protestants tend to me much more informed concerning their choices, but few are able to present RC theology in its best case. They often use caricatures that do not stand up to examination. I think there are real differences but in fact most Protestants do not know what those real issues are.

I am increasingly concerned that Protestantism’s fascination with new paradigms for ministry keeps the movement in a constant shift that threatens any thing like a stable worship and ministry platform. I have been active in ministry for 5 decades and have witnessed mega-shifts in ministry models that come down one per decade. Whole denominations and entire churches retool and reshape how they do ministry. Each move means some demographic group gets left out and marginalized and programs are in such a state of flux that vision statements and implementation processes are moving targets. Each phase requires new staff, more money and different kinds of buildings.

I think that to intelligently commit to Protestant Evangelicalism requires much more intention and attention and is a gamble that one’s church and method of ministry might last for ten years at most without a shift and shakeup that threatens the entire structure.  After all the change that it engenders most of the churches that chase change are left with about the same number of people they had before all the change but with more blood on the floor. It can hardly be said to be worth it.

12 thoughts on “Is Roman Catholicism the default position?

  1. Does a ex-Nazi pope, who was a leader in the protection and enabling of rapists, count as a primary concern? I ask, not b/c i want to be a jerk, but b/c i know many people who have left for this reason.

      • True, it is ad hominem, but not if you mean “ad hominem fallacy”. I rightly reject the idea that the morality of the leader of a group which purports to teach absolute morality is not fair game.

        Both of these claims are demonstrable facts. It’s fair to say that any organization that would elevate this man to a position of “Holy Father” – when he clearly deserve neither title – is seriously flawed.

        If you are willing to ignore child rape, racism, and murder would you really separate over something as ridiculous as bad theology? The answer, of course, is yes b/c little christs tend to care significantly more about orthodoxy than orthopraxy. Ironically, this is the opposite of the big Christ, as recorded in the holy book.

    • It’s not about what I want. Yes, it’s clear that I find these sins unforgivable, but I was asking you a question. I asked, “Does….count as a primary concern?”

      In your post you said, “They almost never have to do with essential doctrines but are issues of taste and preference.”

      I’m asking if you think morality is an essential doctrine of Christianity or if you think it is a taste/preference? Do you respect people who have left the RC church b/c it’s leaders committed child rape and it’s highest leader played a major role in the cover-up?

      • Your argument is too easy to answer, John. The whole RC tradition is not put in jeopardy by one very bad Pope, one very immoral Pope, or ten or twenty over 2000 years. How many would it take for a well-intentioned and reasoned grouping of people to be firmly convinced that RC produces just bad leaders and therefore must be a morally bad belief system? You choose the number. Do I respect people who choose not to be involved in the RC church because of corruption in the hierarchy? Surely. Do I agree with the conviction that therefore the RC is by nature evil? No. Do I judge democracy by Nixon? Or Carter? No.

      • “You choose the number”

        Last night I thought about your question for quite some time. There were many rapists priests and many bishops who covered it up. I think I would give the good bishops ONE MONTH to speak out against the pope, once his role had come to light. I think one month is a enough time for them to consider all sides and make the right decision to call for his resignation. Then, if he refused, to force it. If after a month, those good bishops are complacent, then they are implicit.

        “The whole RC tradition is not put in jeopardy”

        of course not, but the current church is! What moral person would stay loyal when they refuse to deal with this issue? Ratzinger apologized – sort of – Then he made sure to announce ordination of women and being gay are just as bad as child rape. Even if he were right – which I would contest – didn’t Jesus teach something about a plank in your eye? Once it was resolved and all rapists and rapist enablers were removed from leadership, a protester could return with dignity.

        “a morally bad belief system?”

        again, I think Jesus said something about this. Ah yes, “You shall know them by their fruits”

        “Do I judge democracy by Nixon? Or Carter? No.”

        At least Nixon was impeached. If the church had the moral fortitude to do the equivalent to this pope, I’d have a lot more respect for them. Carter, on the other hand, wasn’t immoral. He was incompetent, but not immoral.

      • Western civilization as you and I know it, in its best clothes, is nothing but the presence of the church. In your jihads against the failings of the church you would do well to rise above the immediate and the always disappointing. While the RC hierarchy are guilty of crimes against nature in the rape of children, the RC church has never criminalized nature itself. By continuing to stand against women’s ordination and the acceptance of homosexuality as a moral good they do us all a great good. Their “fruit” is the intellectual enlightenment that has kept culture from disintegrating into the deification of humanity and putting a bridle on the state as the definition of the good. Without the church your wife would be wearing a burka and your daughters would become chattel. In the history of the world there is no force that has successfully stood against the victimization of women and children with the power of the RC church. And during the Crusades the church even became soldiers to withstand the Islamization of the West for which we all should be most thankful, Jim Wallis and company not withstanding. The church has many grievous and terribly disappointing failure, not the least of which was its gay culture of the 1960s and 1970s among the priests, which ultimately bore the poisoned fruit that we have seen in these sex brutalities. (A cycle which Protestantism is repeating and which will bear the same poisoned fruit in the decades to come-pastors as manly men who bring to the church the care of fatherhood is critical to the health of the church in the same way that loving fatherhood is critical to the family). The church as an existence is the greatest force for moral good and human happiness. Hitchens point that religious skepticism and confidence in rationalism are critical to a good society fails to see that the very things he counts as good are products of the church and its confidence in the life of the mind. I continue to think that D James Kennedy’s book, What If Jesus Had Never Been Born, is one of the most insightful responses to the forgetfulness of the West of its very root system.

      • “nothing but the presence of the church.”

        This is such a great distortion of history. – everything that happened in western civ happened within the context of the church b/c you were killed if you left [or disagreed with] the church. How does that FACT then give the church credit for all of the progress?

        “In your jihads against the failings of the church”

        Yes, I’m willing to call a spade a spade. My real question is why aren’t catholics[and other Christians] screaming the loudest?

        “And during the Crusades”

        did you just use the crusades as point in favor of the church. Is there any end to the evils that religion will defend?

        “gay culture of the 1960s and 1970s among the priests”

        blaming gays for rape is one of the most ridiculous lies of the church. It is the obsession with celebrity and and power given to these “fathers” that give them the drive and power to commit these sins. The catholic church has segregated men and women so it was mostly gay rape, but priests also have a history of raping nuns that surely goes much deeper than reported – as nuns also are compelled to protect the church.

        “A cycle which Protestantism is repeating”

        this is true protestant pastors who sexually prey on their flock are in no short supply. But here we see the reality that it’s not the gay’s fault. Protestants have not segregated the sexes quite as effectively and we see that bear out in the demographics of their abuses.

        ” The church as an existence is the greatest force for moral good and human happiness.”

        is there anything more ridiculous than this claim? greatest force? not democracy, civil rights, or science? And don’t you dare give those to the church. The church became the new roman empire and prevented democracy as long as they could. In fact democracy was growing in Greece and Rome. It was the church allied with Rome which put it on hold for another 1500 years. The church protected slavery, and [based on the OT] the mixing of the races. They opposed science[and still often do]. Based on this post, I have no doubt that you will try to claim the future discoveries of stem cell research for the church.

  2. One of the questions to be answered is why democracy, civil right and science developed in the West. Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, etc. did not have the “stuff” to fuel the trajectory that led to the blessings that we in the West have experienced. Short answer: the world view contributed by the church. It was Christianity that was able to blend Jerusalem and Athens to produce the forces necessary for western civilization. This is not a Christian theory of history. This is run of the mill historiography. Also it does not follow that RC’s segregation of the sexes in the life of its hierarchy is the source of sexual abuse. It does follow from the RC’s choice of the kinds of priests it placed in leadership. It is well known that in the mid and latter parts of the 20thy century there was a significant gay culture in the priesthood, many of whom were fixated on adolescents. Today the church is re-examining whether or not even fully celibate gays should be invited into the priesthood. No matter where one falls on that issue, the ultimate reality is that a portion of the gay clergy were predatory and the church enabled. Celibacy nor homosexuality explain pedophilia or explain rape of young adolescent boys. Sexual perversion does explain it. Occam’s razor is our guide here – the simplest explanation is the one to be adopted. Of course, in very large measure, the issue was not pedophilia. It was simply homosexual rape even as heterosexual rape is the simple explanation why some teachers violate their students in the public schools. In fact, the biggest scandal is the violation of children in the school systems. Go through the list and see how many teachers each year are arrested. The criminal behavior of the church hierarchy should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. And yes, I am a fan of some of what the Crusades did. Absolutely. See God’s Battalions: The Case for the Crusades by Rodney Stark.

    • “Also it does not follow that RC’s segregation of the sexes in the life of its hierarchy is the source of sexual abuse.”

      I think this thought was lost in the larger discussion, but i was not claiming the segregation caused abuse. My point was that the abuse would have been more equally distributed if priests had access to rape little girls too. Just as we see in protestant circles which are not nearly as sexually segregated.

      “Go through the list and see how many teachers each year are arrested. The criminal behavior of the church hierarchy should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. ”

      I would place money on more religious leaders per year than teachers, but either way it’s disgusting, vile, and deserving of the worst kind of punishment.

      The leadership should be prosecuted, and it should be catholics leading the charge. Why should atheists need to demand that the pope be arrested? Shouldn’t catholics have already done it? Instead, they did things like boycott Sinead O’Conner – who tore up a picture of the pope in protest of child rape before it was hip. If every catholic stood up and said I will not attend mass until the pope is brought to justice, it would happen very swiftly or Catholicism would die. Either way, if they don’t stand up, aren’t they implicit? I feel the same way about Muslims and jihad.

      If I could circle back a little – I do not agree with Hitchens that “religion poisons everything” and I’ve probably overstated my case against the positive benefits of Christianity in the west. However, I would agree that it is poisonous. Child rape, the cover-up, and the ability of the clergy to remain above the law are symptoms of a disease that says, “take my word for it b/c i’m in charge and God told me”. This is directly opposed to the enlightenment, which is responsible for reason based authority and most of the progress in science, philosophy, math, equality, freedom, medicine,…..

      I’m no fan of the other religions you mentioned. For ex. the Hindu cast system creates massive inequality and Buddhisms attempts to rise above reality are worse then the rapture-escapism rampant in evangelical circles. However Christianity is my sin, so now I must pay my penance. I didn’t spend 28 years fully devoted to Hinduism. Perhaps when I’m 56, I’ll stop pointing out the immorality, inconstancy, and irrationality of Christianity.

      If it’s true that Christianity is the prime cause of the enlightenment, then I suppose i’ll concede the point and enjoy the irony that Christianity rendered itself useless.

      • BTW – I’ve enjoyed the bit of back and forth, but I think I’ve said all I have to say.

        I’d be happy to give you the last word on your own blog, so [Unless you ask me a specific question] I’ll consider your next response the conclusion of this particular discussion.

        Looking fwd to reading it – and to many more discussion to follow!

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