Beyond the Limitations of Chick Lit
Beyond the Limitations of Chick Lit
Beyond the Limitations of Chick Lit
Wages of Spin
A friend recently asked me to put down a few reflections on Roman Catholicism, whether I thought it was on the whole a good or a bad thing. The conversion of Francis Beckwith, the ETS President, to Roman Catholicism has perhaps made the subject of more immediate relevance than might otherwise have been the case. So, for what they are worth, here are my thoughts. In this article, I offer a few areas where Protestants can learn from Catholics, or share common ground; next month I will offer a few areas where the Protestants necessarily diverge from Catholicism.
I should preface the following by noting first that there is not much good confessional Protestant interaction available in print which deals with post-Vatican II Catholicism. Boettner's pre-VII work, a classic of its kind, is out of date; Berkouwer's account of VII is fascinating but flavoured by the theology of his own later years; and, a few interesting collections of essays notwithstanding, there is no really scholarly critique of VII Catholicism from an evangelical perspective.
As a general piece of advice, however, it is worth avoiding `chick lit' - no, I am not saying that it is always a mistake to pass a Catholic friend a copy of Bridget Jones' Diary or something on the Ya-Ya Sisterhood; rather, I am thinking of the graphic novellas of the venerable Jack Chick, fixated as they are upon an evil and conspiratorial Rome, which are not to my mind the best resource for developing an understanding of contemporary Catholicism or for interacting with Catholic friends. The `cookie god,' cartoons of ethnic stereotypes worthy of Julius Streicher, and disturbing images of attractive, pregnant ladies being tortured to death by medieval Inquisitors in quasi-Ku Klux Klan outfits do tell the reader quite a lot about the state of something, but not, I suspect, of contemporary Roman Catholicism. Contra Chick lit and popular Protestant shibboleths, there are numerous aspects of Catholicism that should resonate with thoughtful Protestants and which we neglect to our own impoverishment.
Quality Christian Writing
The first is, perhaps, one that is not always noted by those who think in strictly theological categories: Catholicism has produced the most stimulating literary figures of the Christian tradition, broadly considered. First, there is the incomparable G K Chesterton. Humour and irony in the service of theology? Can a Protestant do that? Well, Luther would have approved of the idea; it's there at the very inception of the Protestant tradition; and it is a great shame we have lost it. If you want to know how much we have lost, then spend a few hours perusing the works of GKC who does for basic creedal Christianity what Terry Eagleton does for Marxist literary criticism.
Then for anyone wanting to wrestle with issues of evil and redemption, is there a better novel than Brighton Rock by Graham Greene? And to this one can add the names of Walker Percy, Flannery O'Connor, Evelyn Waugh, and (at least arguably - I know scholars divide on the issue) William Shakespeare. Tolkien too - though, as a loyal English Brummy, I myself tend to claim him geographically for the Midlands, rather than theologically for the church. All of these writers offer literary expressions of various grand moral and theological themes with which Protestants should be able to resonate. Indeed, as a good Calvinist, I find myself more in agreement with Greene's take on human nature than I do with the sort of Pelagian tosh one finds on the bookshelves in most Christian bookshops.
A Shared Creedal Tradition of Trinitarianism
The second area is that of the creeds. Here, Catholics and confessional Protestants both share a high regard for the great ecumenical statements of the early church, particularly the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, the Apostles' Creed, and the Athanasian Creed. Indeed, given the fact that the Christian God is not just any god in general but a very particular God - the one who is three in one, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, this common Trinitarian ground epitomized in the Nicene Creed is no small thing. Ironically, the explicit presence of this in the Catholic liturgy guarantees the obvious Trinitarian aspect of Christian worship; while much evangelical Protestantism repudiates use of creeds in worship out of a desire to be more scriptural, yet fails to offer any adequate alternative for safeguarding the Trinity in worship - and thus the explicitly Christian nature of the God being worshipped. As evangelical Protestants, we should humbly acknowledge our common Trinitarian heritage with the Catholic Church and make our criticisms of their liturgy on this point not by shouting the odds about the scripture principle vis a vi use of man-made creeds in worship (most Protestants use hymn books, not psalters after all!) but by showing them a better way, if indeed there is such.
Great Christian Theologians
The third area where Protestants should appreciate Catholicism is that of certain great theologians. Of course, it should go without saying that the early church fathers who provided the intellectual and theological background to the creeds should be part of any Protestant minister's or teacher's education, along with obvious later authors, such as Augustine, without whom neither traditional Catholicism or confessional Protestantism can possibly be understood.
But there are other, more definitely Catholic authors with whom every thoughtful, theological Protestant should be familiar. Thomas Aquinas is one, partly because he is without doubt the single most important intellectual source for pre-Vatican II Catholicism; but also partly because his writings represent a classic statement and defense of some basic doctrines which, say, Catholicism and Reformed Protestantism hold in common. For example, he is anti-Pelagian; and his basic statement of the doctrine of God forms the foundation for later Reformed Orthodox notions of the same, critically appropriated through a later exegetical and philosophical grid. In my own studies of John Owen, I soon discovered that to understand the mind of the great Puritan I first had to understand the mind of the Angelic Doctor.
Yet no Protestant reading list should end with Aquinas. The writings of Blaise Pascal are also a treasure trove: his Provincial Letters are perhaps the single greatest piece of satirical religious polemic ever produced, a devastating critique of both semi-Pelagianism and theological verbiage with which all Christian leaders should acquaint themselves. And as for his Thoughts, there is so much gold to be mined from his thought-provoking reflections on life and culture that these aphorisms are probably more relevant now than the day he penned them. Pascal sees through the superficiality of a culture obsessed with pleasure and with busy-ness in a manner devastating and astute than any other theologian with whom I am acquainted.
One could go on: from John Henry Newman to Etienne Gilson down to figures such as Brian Davies and Thomas Weinandy in our own day, the Catholic Church has produced a stream of outstanding theological writers who are worth reading; even at those points where the Protestant reader must part company with them, the stimulation to clarity of thought which they offer is worth its weight in gold. Indeed, I would argue there are few great prose stylists in English literature seen as a whole than the great Cardinal Newman, a master wordsmith. And as for contemporary theology, I have for many years preferred to read the latest thoughtful Catholic writers than their often all-too-superficial evangelical contemporaries. To listen to a Catholic like Eugene McCarraher on, say, postmodernism is far more stimulating, critically profound and thought-provoking than any post-evangelical with whom I am acquainted.
Common Cause on Moral Issues
A fourth area where Protestants can stand profitably with Catholics is that of moral issues. Many of the current moral challenges which concern Protestants - abortion, gay marriage, poverty, social justice - are areas where there is a strong tradition of Catholic reflection and practice which can be studied with profit by Protestants. Abortion, right to life issues, and human sexuality are all areas where Catholicism and Protestantism share common ground; and the numerical strength, media savvy, and political power of the Catholic Church ensures these issues have a higher public profile than might otherwise be the case. It is worth injecting the caveat that, on some of these matters the foundations of Catholic thought are not shared by Protestantism. For example, opposition to homosexual marriage is predicated at least in part on the fact that such marriage breaks the link between sexual intercourse and reproduction. Most Protestants (and Catholics!) already break this link through the use of contraception, and thus many Catholic thinkers would regard Protestant opposition to homosexuality as fatally compromised at the outset. Nevertheless, in the public square the practical policies desired by conservative Catholics and conservative Protestants are substantially the same.
A fifth area of positive note, and one where Protestants can really learn from Catholics, is church loyalty. For all of the concerns I have about Catholic notions of the church and of worship, there is one thing I find remarkable and impressive: the loyalty of many Catholics to the church and not to particular personalities. So often in Protestantism the attitude to the church as an institution is weak or non-existent. Thus, a Protestant church calls a pastor whom some of the congregation do not like because they find his preaching boring or his family difficult or his way of running congregational meetings to be less than stellar; the reaction of many of those less than satisfied with their new minister is simply to resign their membership and move on to the next church - and to keep moving until they find a church which meets all their needs. What I find striking about Catholic friends is that the arrival of a priest with whom they are less than enamoured rarely leads them to move on in this fashion. The local church is not treated as lightly as many Protestants treat theirs. Now, I am of course aware that some of the reasons for this difference in response are in theory theological; but in practice I suspect that Protestant wanderings are rather more to do with allowing taste to trump ecclesiology than with real issues of substantial principle. The ecclesiological loyalty of Catholics may be theologically misplaced; but the response to that is for Protestants to do better, not abandon ecclesiology wholesale as is so often the case.
These, then, are five areas where I believe Protestants can fruitfully learn from Catholicism. In Part II, I will offer some thoughts on key issues that divide us.