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05/05/2010

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Greg Louis

A somewhat hackneyed question that I nonetheless raise again since I have never received a comprehensive answer to it:

If the institutional Roman Church is so terribly anti-Christian, why not disassociate from it? Or, to put it another way, why not have the same relationship to the Roman clerical hierarchy (= the Vatican and the Episcopacy) that Episcopalians, Baptists, Evangelicals, and our other Christian brothers and sisters do? (After all, they do interact with the Vatican and retain what they consider to be authentically Christian from the Roman Magisterial corpus).

I have never been able to understand what is uniquely Roman Catholic in visions of 'the real Roman Catholic Church' such as that of Kristof. Surely it can't be the beneficent religious, laity, and priests - the Episcopalians and Anglicans have selfless people committed to social justice and societal regeneration too (and I mention only those two for reasons of ecclesial compatibility - other Protestants have them too, of course).

It also can't be the 'diversity' of the Roman Church: for example, the Anglican communion evinces the same e pluribus unum principle of the RCC (there are Latin American, Eastern European, African, Southern and Eastern Asian, and North American churches within that communion, not to mention the 'flagship' church which itself is internally diverse).

The 'Sacramental imagination?' Anglicans (e.g., Charles Williams) and Episcopalians (e.g., Madeleine L'Engle), check, check.

Perhaps an altruistic, Christian motivation to 'stay in' to help our neighbours the 'unhealthy' Vatican in spite of themselves (to see to it that the organization is eventually dragged into [fill in desired ordinal number] century 'kicking and screaming', which 'progressives' suspect won't happen if they defect)? But why can't this work be done from the standpoint of a more congenial (to progressives) Protestant or Episcopalian community?
I mean, wasn't the whole point of the early modern European Reformation to help the Roman Church to change its un-Christian ways by breaking off to provide Christendom with a paragon of 'authentic Christianity?' (Luther envisaged his work as a reform of the Roman Church, not as the creation of a new one.)

The basic point that I'm stressing here is aren't the Protestant communities supposed to be the Roman Catholic Church progressively reformed? For, in them, one sees the beneficence that we should expect of genuine Christians complemented with that ecclesiology and doctrine which 'progressive Catholics' maintain are more authentically Christian.

Is there something that I haven't grasped?

Robert Hockett

I'm sure many Catholics have contemplated the course Greg Louis here proposes, and that many have taken it. I've certainly contemplated it. I think what prevents my taking it, and perhaps what prevents many others, is the thought that it would be a form of disloyalty, an abandonment of the field to those we think well intended but wrong. The church has evolved beneficially in large part as a response to those who have declined the 'love it or leave it' invitation as the false dichotomy that it is, and remained here to work toward continued improvement. There's a well known book by an economist out there (Albert Hirschman) whose very title says much: 'Exit, Voice, Loyalty.' The first two of those often are viewed as rough substitutes, with the third element prompting many who choose the second over the first. Many of the loyal, that's to say, remain and speak up - they exercise voice. I've not given up, and I'm glad that so many others as well have declined to give up.

Steve Shiffrin


Thanks to Greg Louis and Bob. Greg's reply is very well articulated and thoughtful as is Bob's. I think liberal Catholics stay in for many reasons. Some feel they are part of the People of God more than tied to those wearing fancy robes. Some, as Hans Kung has argued, feel tied to their local Catholic Church, not to the larger whole. Some are ornery: "I know they want me to leave, but they'll have to throw me out." Some are tribal, born into the Church which is their home. Some feel a part of the liberal Catholic community of discourse - from Commonweal, to National Catholic Reporter, to the liberal Catholic theologians. I, for one, look to Kung, Curran, Tracy, O'Brien and others for guidance before, long before the Bishops. Some are attracted to the ritual and the seven sacraments.
If I were to differ with Greg's comments, it would be with
the unstated assumption that there must be a uniquely Catholicnon-hierarchical distinction from all other churches that justifies staying within the Church. Bob's sense of disloyalty, I think, in part arises in part from the presence of  a large Protestant community within the midst of the Catholic Church. If I did not have commitments
to my local church, I must say that being in an Episcopal church that honored women, respected gays, and was more democratic would be awfully inviting despite the pull of the considerations I have mentioned.

Michael Perry

A wonderful exchange.

Thanks to all of you.

Greg Louis

I agree with Prof Perry that it has been a most wonderful exchange; I thank you all for your courteous engagement with my questions.

In response, I should simply like to reiterate two points that I think got lost in all my verbiage:

a. But isn't it possible to help the Vatican evolve from the standpoint of a Protestant or non-Roman community? (Isn't this how Luther conceived of his defection? I mean, we all share the same fundamentals and are all housemates in the one holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. We simply are in different houses because some recite the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed with a Roman accent, some with a modern cadence, etc.)

b. Related to point a, don't many Protestant communities conceive of themselves as 'evolved Roman Catholicism?' I mean, isn't the perennial endeavour of 'progressive Catholics' essentially to render the RCC, say, the Episcopal Church? If so, seeing that the Episcopal Church already exists, shouldn't the work then be to enrich the Episcopal Church, to bring to her whatever she may be missing that is customarily more prominent in Roman Catholicism? (E.g., a more fully developed social doctrine; or, for another example, a universal recognition of the sacraments. For, some Episcopalians recognize seven sacraments: simply, however, the seven are not a defining article of Episcopalian Christianity binding on all communicants as they are on Roman Catholics.)

And lastly, Prof Shiffrin, I can wholly understand loving one's parish. However, I don't see why one has to remain affiliated with an entire church for a parish. (To modify Goethe's remark, I should not say that the whole Roman Church is worth the parish if one only likes the parish; one could always remain in the parish as a [fill in alternative denomination].)

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