Blog Template Theology of the Body: Why I'm A Catholic, Bit III

Monday, March 10, 2008

Why I'm A Catholic, Bit III

I am a Catholic because the Church understands that God elects particular people and places. And Jesus elected Peter, who went to Rome.

The story goes like this. If we take Scripture seriously, we ought not overlook those critical moments which the Gospel writers emphasize, with the gravity that the Holy Spirit required. There is something deliberate in Luke's hushed reminder to the reader considering Pentecost: "and the mother of Jesus was there." And in much the same, understated way, there is great significance in the spotlight which the Biblical authors turn on Jesus' exclusive statements to Peter: I have prayed for you... care for your brethren... I will give to you the keys of my kingdom...feed my sheep.

When Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, turned to Rome never to turn away again, his final missionary journey made great sense. He was a Roman, a proclaimer of the Gospel to the uncircumcised, and to those who had never worshiped in that Temple and Land in which God had chosen to meet His people. As Galatians reminds us, Paul had already followed apostolic protocol when he submitted the content of His proclamation to Peter and James, the heads of the Church in Jerusalem. And it made sense that Christ's politically transformative Church, as the international institution of the King of Kings, should be established in Rome, the capital of worldly commerce and military power.

...But then something strange happens, as Scripture and tradition tell us; Peter also leaves Jersualem and turns his face to Rome for one final journey. He left Jerusalem, the holy place of the Jews, for the cosmopolitan center of paganism. Tradition holds that in Rome Peter led a church of martyrs, and died with them in Nero's circus, near the Vatican Hill where he was buried. Word spread. The grandchildren of the apostles and the friends whom they evangelized would make their pilgrimages of prayer not to the old sites in Jerusalem, but to the grave site of Jesus' elected leader of His disciples, in commemoration of the personal relationships that are a hallmark of Christianity. Thus, in God's providence, one of the holiest places in the new creation would emerge with the prayers of new Christians, who were led by the chosen successors of Jesus' chosen successor, in the very center of the crumbling Roman empire, from which roads ran to the far corners of the earth for the discipling of the nations, as Jesus had commanded. The following generations found the profoundest providence in this unfolding of events, as one of the earliest Church Fathers put it less than a hundred years after Jesus' resurrection:

Since, however, it would be very tedious, in such a volume as this, to reckon up the successions of all the (true) Churches, we do put to confusion all those who, in whatever manner, whether by an evil self-pleasing, by vainglory, or by blindness and perverse opinion, assemble in unauthorized meetings; we do this, I say, by indicating that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also by pointing out the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of her pre- eminent authority; that is, by the faithful every- where, inasmuch as the apostolical tradition has been preserved continuously by those faithful men who exist everywhere...Since therefore we have such proofs, it is not necessary to seek the truth among others which it is easy to obtain from the one Church; since the apostles, like a rich man depositing his money in a bank, lodged in her hands most copiously all things pertaining to the truth: so that every man, whosoever will, can draw from her the water of life. For she is the entrance to life; all others are thieves and robbers... Suppose there arise a dispute relative to some important question among us, should we not have recourse to the most ancient Church with which the apostles held constant intercourse, and learn from her what is certain and clear in regard to the present questions?" (Adversus Heresies III, Irenaeus of Lyons, AD 115-190)

It is in these ways that Rome seems to me to be the place to be. In one way or another, Christians have always looked to Rome for normative guidance, if only to define what they have chosen to reject.

There is more to be said on this point in our broken world, since much of the faith and practices of Rome remain available, with great grace, even in schism from Rome. Rome understands that these features of grace persist to lead the Father's children home. These graces, which always tend towards unity, may lead beyond Protestantism because Protestantism can ring hollow. These graces may lead beyond Anglicanism and Episcopalianism because one wishes to avoid guilt by assocation. And, as in my case, they led well beyond Eastern Orthodoxy.

It seems like it could go without saying, but then a lot of my friends are enamored with the Orthodox way, and certainly it is a way which led me home to the Catholic Church; it was during a gap year in Romania, between high school and college that I first discovered the beauties of the Romanian Orthodoxy. I was part of a group of young people working for a long winter in Romanian orphanages in the early nineties. It was rigorous, in the way that the Orthodox are rigorous- we were up at four in the morning to pray each day, and during Lent we were alotted just a few cartons of orange juice to sustain each person for twenty one days of work and intercessory prayer. During those months, I- like thousands of my generation who have fallen in love with the old ways in various emergent movements- discovered icons, and incense, and little chapels lit like caves with slender, smoking candles. I prayed there, doubled up on the floor like the mystical old peasant women around me, with chickens squacking around us during the Mass. I would sometimes stay in those places all day, often with a few homeless gypsy kids snuggled next to me, looking at the images and waiting in the silence.

I am most grateful for those times in the Orthodox basilicas, but I've never missed them; and when friends of mine wax nostalgic for the Orthodox experience, I always wonder whether they know what they are talking about. Perhaps this wonder has something to do with the fact that I just do not know many Orthodox people in my current context, while on the other hand, my life has been filled with Catholics of every kind. I have great respect for the very few Orthodox people who I do know; they are Patristics scholars, educated at... the Catholic University of America. This fact refers in a way to the reservation recently expressed by Msgr. Peter Elliot, who cautions disaffected Anglicans about the unecessarily burdensome and difficult process of cultural making-over that will face Westerners and Wasps who flirt with Orthodoxy.

One might answer back that a cultural makeover is a burden that will face any serious convert, and that the benefits of Eastern Orthodoxy as an alternative to Rome persist nontheless. As I say, I was there; and truly, the Orthodox have wonderfully stinky incense and a lot of candle wax, and chickens wandering around before the iconostasis. Gothic cathedrals just cannot match that sort of embodiment of the universe. The Orthodox have married priests. And, they have never tried to determine how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

It's this last point that seems to resonate with a lot of the people who like to dogmatically proclaim that they will refuse to dogmatize mystery, that the Church is presumptuous to define her teaching, and that the sorrowful brokenness of the Reformation hatched from the Scholastic egg that Rome laid. I always wonder about these assertions. The good people who make them might be merely upholding the value of their personal preferences for describing the mysteries of the faith- at which point any pretense to be catholically minded or even potentially obedient must fall by the wayside. Or, these good people may be making a very different sort of claim- namely, that the refusal to "dogmatize" the Christian mysteries in certain traditions is somehow evidence of the endorsement of Jesus and the presence of the Holy Spirit.

When adjuducating such claims, I think that the Biblical criteria is clear: by their fruits you shall know them. Certainly the Anglican refusal to dogmatize has produced untold fruits of theological "creativity," from Richard Hooker's proposals of Eucharistic "receptionism" (at best) to Mrs. Schori's hopeful forays (at worst). About the Orthodox refusal to dogmatize I know less, apart from the very apparent absence of an Orthodox Catechism on my bookshelf.

Rome, on the other hand, dogmatizes. She always has. As I've come to appreciate, Rome has an older and gentler pastoral tradition of responding to the human heart, which always seeks understanding when it has fallen in love. As Anselm explained it at the dawn of the Scholastic era, fides quaerens intellectum, the faith of God's children seeks understanding, with the kind of hunger and thirst which a true spiritual father provides for. It has always seemed to me that Rome's dogmatizing is her response to her child martyrs; people should know what they are willing to die for.

But there's more. The height of the Scholastic impulse and method emerged from the missionary movement of the Dominican order. The method and clear doctrinal conclusions that were produced were in turn tucked under the arms of the Franciscan and Jesuit missionaries who set the world on fire during the first missionary movement of the 16th century, and who have been imitated by Wesleyan, Baptist, etc. missionaries ever since. The Gospel got into the farthest reaches of the Amazon and the Kavango Delta and the Northern Territory because itinerant Franciscans took the summaries of Thomas Aquinas as warrant for something to teach and a reason to teach it. You cannot go far into the developing world without reaching one of their old outposts. But I've never seen an Orthodox mission. I travel all over the world, and I've never seen one. I've been told they exist, but frankly, I'll believe it when I see it.

It could be argued that the missionary impulse is merely different for the Orthodox, in that perhaps it is lodged in the ministry of monastic prayer; and certainly the monastic tradition in Orthodoxy is venerable. But the forms of the monastic communities in which the great Eastern saints have flourished are themselves the offspring of Rome, authorized by the See of Peter long before the Great Schism of 1054. It was the Roman Church that sent the desert Fathers to live the radicality of the Christian life when their civic context became too soft. There is good reason why the first monastic communities at Norcia and Assissi sprang up based on the Roman ideals of the pater familias, within short distances from the eternal city. And again, try as I might, I cannot name a single Orthodox missionary order which has sent the consecrated into all the world to make disciples.

And as for comparing mystics, please. I give you St. John of the Cross and Theresa.

Lastly, a word about political theology. History has shown that in the absence of a Pope, you get an emperor. Every Christian community that persists apart from Rome has been or is inevitably tied to some perishable, fallible, and sometimes violent national agenda. In fact, most Orthodox branches are designated by the nation in which you find them; and most have been implicated by the sins of that nation. Although the monarchial pope of the Catholic Church and the alternative civitas of the Catholic monestary and family can and should resist the secular state whenever the state sins against God's people, the same mechanism for the resistance that God requires is absent within Orthodoxy and Anglicanism.

I will never forget walking through the Romanian Orthodox Cathedral Square in Timisoara, admiring the beauty of the place but wondering why the doors were riddled with holes from machine gun bullets. It seems that there had been a political uprising in the town square a few years before I passed through, and the frantic townspeople had gathered their children into the basilica for sanctuary when fighting broke out. But the bishop was no mere bishop of Christ's one Church; he was a Romanian bishop, and he was bound to take orders from someone in the Romanian government. His orders came that day from high up in the Romanian army. So the bishop took fifty children outside of the basilica and locked the door behind him while they were gunned down. Of course this horrible incident is in no way typical of any sort of Orthodox behavior. But it does indicate the extent to which Christ's Kingdom cannot be of this world.

Next: Though I give my body to be burned... but have not charity, I am nothing. I Corinthians 13.