Thursday, May 07, 2009

This time, it's personal

The City wonders if I missed the personal, not theological, point of Knippenberg's review. I wish I had. Problem is, I did catch it, and therein spotted myself. Personal reasons, such as the heritage card, are what you rely on when you were chasing the theological straight and nothing turned. The Reformation was not about heritage.

Let me explain why I feel deprived of theological reasons for not being Catholic: First, I find myself wondering what positive Protestant beliefs there are that one is forbidden to believe in the Catholic Church. My answer: None. This leads me to cling to objections. Theological emphases or preferences won't cut it. What is required to sustain the serious matter of church division are the most serious of objections, ones by which the church stands or falls. This is why the early Barth may have been onto something when he said that the analogia entis was the invention of the anti-Christ, and hence the only good reason to not become Catholic. Yes, Barth was wrong about that; but when Barthians soften his rhetoric today with an insulating layer of ecumenical fuzzies, they know not what they do. The Reformation started with such hard-hitting language, and only so can it continue. However untrue and perverse, there is something profoundly shrewd about the time-honored American tradition of referring to Catholicism as the whore of Babylon. Such rhetoric ensured Protestantism's survival; abandoning it all but guarantees Protestant ill health.

If Trueman is right about the Catholic Church being the default option in the West, then Protestant objections to Catholicism, whatever they may be, must be able to bear the weight of continued church division. That's a lot of pressure per cubic foot of objection. When the stakes are this high, it seems rather chintzy to to nit-pick the Catholic Catechism's soteriology insisting, "That's not exactly how I see it," or to parse clauses of the Joint Declaration on Justification insisting "more progress must be made." Progress towards what? I thought the point was unity - and after a century of ecumenical effort, few should be fooled as to where real prospects for unity reside.

This is what Carl Braaten meant when, writing in Concordia Theological Quarterly, he analogized Lutherans to Frenchmen exiled from Nazi-occupied France:
Now, what if the Free French forgot the reason for their exile, and as expatriates became so accustomed to life outside of France that they forgot about returning and reuniting with the French countrymen they had left behind? What if they began to think and act as though what was meant to be only a temporary arrangement in an emergency situation had actually become for them a permanent home and established settlement? ... If that would have happened, one would call it a tragedy, akin to the tragedy of the Reformation.
When Protestantism is understood as exile, theological grips by which to resist the gravitational force of Catholicism are hard to find.

This, however, leaves us with the personal, the situational reasons to not be Catholic, which can provide that missing grip. In fact, ideas are overrated. Personal reasons may ultimately be the face cards of the matter at hand. There's the professional model, exemplified by Tony Blair who didn't become Catholic until he stepped down from a rather high profile position. Or the spousal model, exemplified by Thomas Howard who didn't become Catholic until his wife gave him her ungrudging blessing. Perhaps some people are too quick to override such personal reasons, trampling over a faithful spouse or a family heritage as they dash madly for the Tiber. We don't make our theological decisions in sanitized intellectual laboratories vacuum sealed from personal and professional reality. And no, that's not relativism - it's theologically informed realism. Yes, such personal reasons can amount to a refusal to "take up your cross and follow Me," but to assume they always amount to that is thick-headed. There are good, and bad, personal reasons for not being Catholic. But the things about personal reasons is, they're personal.