Premises

Today was a long day. I had several posts I spent most of the day plotting in my head, but when I got home, I was met with something far more exigent: the first real, vehement opposition I’ve met from a friend to my becoming Catholic.

She raised a valid point: To what degree have I foregone my conclusion? Have I already concluded that I am becoming Catholic? This blog is titled, “A Catholic being born.” Apparent in that is the assumption that I am in a process that will result in my conversion. Might my “delivery” still end in a “stillbirth”? It is possible; I have not closed my mind. But I have felt good about the road I am on, and until tonight have had a relatively smooth passage.

She, an ardent Baptist, had consulted with another friend who was very knowledgeable about matters of theology and doctrine. She proceeded to aggressively challenge me, making a number of mistaken assumptions about what I believe and why I am pursuing Catholicism. It was very clear that neither of us understood where the other was coming from: she didn’t understand where I stand, what I believe, or why I am approaching the Catholic Church; I didn’t understand why she was so vociferously opposed to it. She called me “ridiculous” and “unreasonable”; I do not believe I was.

So I thought it would be productive for me to try to formulate where it is I stand and what it is I believe — the premises from which I’m proceeding. Feel free, reader, to challenge me or question me — but please don’t call me ridiculous or unreasonable; I’m making every attempt not to be.

Premise: Everyone who calls on the name of Christ, and subscribes to the central tenets of Christianity, as laid out in the orthodox, traditional creeds of the Church, is a Christian.

I’ve come from an evangelical Protestant background. I’ve known and been close to many people from many different Christian denominations, Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox. I’ve witnessed firsthand the grace of God to transform lives and save souls, active in their lives and in their churches. Therefore, I can come to no other conclusion but that all of our differences of doctrine and practice amount to nothing in God’s eyes. Despite our human divisions, we are still, in the Spirit, one unbroken and unified Body of Christ.

Does one’s belief in the sacraments change the fact of what they are to God? Does the Catholic belief in the sacramentality of baptism create in it an efficacy that doesn’t exist in a Protestant baptism, where in many traditions, it’s considered merely symbolic? This seems not to be the case: if I become Catholic, the Church will accept the validity of my Protestant baptism when I was twelve, as my “one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.” This apparently doesn’t extend to marriage: the Church doesn’t accept the sacramentality of a Catholic’s marriage outside the Church.

It also doesn’t seem to extend to the Eucharist: our pastor explains to non-Catholics every week that “while we may believe in the same God and the same Christ, we don’t believe in the same Eucharist,” so they are not allowed to receive it. But, then, is Communion in a Protestant church without any efficacy at all? I don’t know that I can accept that. If we believe in the same Christ, does he not provide His Body and Blood to all His brethren? Is it the Catholic belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist — the participation of a man ordained as a priest, the practice of a liturgy — that makes Him really present — or does Christ Himself transubstantiate the elements?

Christ said to the Apostles, “(You) do this in memory of me.” The Catholic Church believes that all ordained priests, having been ordained by bishops, who in turn have been ordained by older bishops, are successors of the Apostles by apostolic succession. Therefore, the priest in the Mass is a substitute for Christ at the Lord’s Supper. It’s not the priest who transubstantiates the elements; it’s Christ Himself.

Protestants, on the other hand, read the Gospels, and take the passages where Christ was enjoining and entrusting authority to the Apostles, such as the Great Commission and the institution of the Lord’s Supper, not as injunctions to only the Apostles, but to all believers. Therefore, to a Protestant, any believer has the authority to baptize or cast out demons in the Lord’s name or celebrate Communion. The Protestant minister who does those things does not believe he is Christ’s substitute — but he is doing them in Christ’s name, so he nonetheless is.

But if Christ is truly present in the lives and churches of Protestants, would a Protestant minister standing in for Christ not be as valid as an ordained Catholic priest? By another tack, if a Catholic priest is a successor of the Apostles because he has been ordained by the bishops of the past, would a Protestant minister, having been taught and having received tradition from Scripture and from the Christian leaders of the past — even back to and across the chasm of the Reformation — not also be a successor of the Apostles? If Christ is truly, really present in the Catholic Eucharist, why would He not be present in the Protestant Eucharist also? Why wouldn’t He make Himself present in the crackers and grape juice of every church that proclaims His death until He comes?

I have gotten lost in a tangent I didn’t intend to go on. This is not the course I wanted this post to take. It is almost midnight, hours past my bedtime. I’ll have to collect my thoughts and try again tomorrow. Needless to say, tonight has seriously disturbed me and put me in a panic.

[Be sure to read my reflections on this subject in the ensuing days, “Bridging the Gap” and “The Historical Church.”]

8 thoughts on “Premises

  1. I’ll cut to the chase and lay out the clear responses to these questions that you could find in the Catechism or from any bishop. As for the sacraments: the Church says that they are made up of form, matter, and minister. It’s using traditional philosophical categories, but it’s mainly a way of breaking down what the essentials are that constitute a sacrament. The main principle is that the sacraments are the life and service of the Church, and they are to a large extent what makes the Church “visible,” and incarnate like Christ’s own Body. That’s why there are firm lines drawn in the sand when it comes to Protestant sacramentality.

    1. Baptism: its matter is (a) water! and (b) a person (or their sponsor) requesting baptism. Its form is the Trinitarian formula (I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit — not “the Creator, the Savior, and the Counselor” or other variations) — and anyone can be the minister of baptizm, they don’t have to be ordained, because it is so essential, but they must do it “with the intention to do what the Church does.” This is so general that, like you said, the Church recognizes Protestant baptisms as valid, and sees rebaptism as something offensive to the sacrament — unless it’s in cases where you might doubt that your baptism was validly given, but that’s rare.

    2. The Eucharist: its matter is the elements of bread and wine, its form is the words of consecration (there’s some controversy about which other parts might be included), and its minister is an ordained priest. Ordination has always been essential to the practice of the Eucharist (unlike, say, confession, which didn’t always involve an ordained confessor), and Protestants can’t escape that requirement just by their belief in the priesthood of all believers. The important thing about ordination is that it is our link to the Apostles, and the link from the priests to the bishops. Moreover, here they also say (I think I remember) that the priest needs to intend his prayer to do what it says, as the Church understands that. So the Real Presence is not found (the Church says) in the Protestant Lord’s Supper. I don’t think this is something we can judge by experience, although even by that measure I would say that I’d never experienced a Protestant communion service where I knew without question that Christ was as present as in the Mass. Really, this isn’t something we can really sense by experiment (outside of a miracle). Communion in Protestant settings was special for me, and I know that by virtue of our communal prayer and meditation on Christ’s sacrifice, God was close to us and listening.

    A lot of these questions come down to – Why, if God loves Catholics and Protestants equally, wouldn’t he be sacramentally present with them both equally? God loves everyone in the world, but he can’t be sacramentally present with them where the sacraments are not found. The sacraments, by their limitations and the very fact that they are administered by very earthly people, have this character because that is what God intended for His Church, because it is how he intended to save us by His Son. Of course, for those inside the visible Church, it means they enjoy (and sometimes take for granted, and so overlook) a concentrated, intense, and intimate union with God, which can be seen in sign and in veiled reality. It’s a paradox, that our union with God would be so blatantly physical and basic – eating and drinking, washing with water, laying on hands – and yet still hidden. God is present outside of the sacraments, and I believe he knows and shows himself to Protestants (as well as Jews and Muslims), maybe (who knows) not in degrees according their “correct belief” but according to the inclination of their hearts. There’s a Catholic saying that “we are bound to the sacraments, but God is not.” God hears every cry for help, for light, for forgiveness, every act of true contrition, etc., and so every life can be opened to grace if God wills it. But we don’t know the state of each other’s hearts, or even often our OWN hearts. So that is why sincerity has to be met, in this world, with the “objectivity” of the sacraments and their ministers in the Church. I call all believers in Christ Christians, but I know we can’t all be part of an unbroken Church. Your definition of a Christian can’t be found in the Bible, or even in the creeds — it includes everything you listed, of course, but to be a Christian alive in the Mystical Body of Christ, His Church, more is needed.

    Oh, and 3. Marriage, for Catholics, is contracted by the spouses – so they together minister the sacrament by virtue of their consent. So every marriage between baptized Christians (that doesn’t have an impediment of some kind) is a sacramental marriage, and married Christians who enter the Church usually just have their marriage blessed (or something, I forget the term). Marriages between unbaptized people, or between one baptized and one nonbaptized, are not considered sacramental, and are called “natural marriages,” though it’s not like Catholics go around discriminating between the two. It only comes in when one partner wants to come back to the Church (or enter in the first place) and receive the other sacraments. The sacramental economy is like a net holding things in place for us during our lives, helping us in ways we can’t will for ourselves, and hopefully forming us into serious Christians. But it’s not magic, and people manifestly fail to fully receive the grace God offers.

    Phew! There’s my book on the sacraments, part one. 😛

    • Thank you so much for this. This is exactly what I was looking for, and in such terms that I could grasp them. I guess I could also have looked in the Catechism, but I was frustrated and confused and wasn’t really sure what I was looking for.

      I was aware that anyone could perform a baptism in an emergency. I found an awesome little book at a thrift store called The Catholic Girls’s Guide (I bought it for my friend Audrey) that was full of devotions and advice (and this is it! This edition doesn’t have what I’m about to tell you about, though) — and at the very front of the book was a page giving instructions for an emergency baptism. And I could just imagine all the well-equipped little Catholic girls out there in the world, always dutifully prepared to perform a baptism. 🙂

      I appreciate your explanations. I feel a lot better about this. I’m going to have to continue working through it — but I’ve come a lot way towards understanding it through writing about it in this post and reading your response.

      What I want to know and understand is this — what do they sacraments actually convey? What is actually conveyed through the Eucharist with Christ’s Real Presence, that’s not conveyed in a Protestant Communion service, where it elements are held to be merely symbolic? What is conveyed through Baptism, as the Church understands it? I guess I’ll go read my Catechism regarding that…

  2. P.S. If I sound brisk, it’s only because I know these things can be hard to hear, especially if you haven’t heard them before, so I just wanted to get all that over with. I know from experience how painful it can be to hear Catholics saying blithely that Protestants don’t have real sacraments – and angering too. When I started hearing Catholics talk about the “rules” of the sacraments (it was a discussion group reading through the Council of Trent, actually), I would walk home at night crying. For me, that was partly because of the shock of encountering exclusion for the first time, and partly because I loved my evangelical upbringing and knew I had met God among evangelicals, and yet– yet– I still believed the Catholics were right. So it was hard. I just wanted to let you know that I’m not trying to be callous about it. Protestants (especially some Anglicans or Lutherans) would have different ideas about the sacraments and where they can be found — and most Protestants of the Baptist or Congregational or Charismatic variety would not talk about sacraments at all, but they most likely wouldn’t grant that the Catholic Real Presence was for real. So really, what kind of union could there be between us, and why was I so offended to find out that Catholics believed evangelicals didn’t have something that evangelicals had never wanted to have, something they outright denied? Anyway, I was offended, and hurt, and it took a while to get past it.

    • No, don’t worry. Answers is what I need; and I know you have been on both sides of the divide. See the post I’m about to make (I hope) regarding this.

  3. Oh and one more thing about the priest acting “in persona Christi” — he can “disappear” so that Christ is both priest and victim in the Sacrifice of the Altar — but only by virtue of his ordination. This is what allows him to become the minister. Could a Catholic layperson validly consecrate the Eucharist? Why should the belief of the Protestant minister allow him to do so? If God did come to us sacramentally in a Protestant communion service, it would be by some extraneous miracle – and this isn’t impossible – but it doesn’t seem to be that it’s something that could happen just by virtue of the pastor’s belief and intention. Eucharist, ordination, and “belonging” to a bishop (the pastor in the line of the Apostles) all hinge together, really. The bishop is “as Christ” to us (so writes St Irenaus), and that is why he has the “keys,” and the responsibility to administer the Eucharist (originally himself, now through his priests) and keep people outside the fold away from it so they don’t receive it unworthily.

    I had a trustworthy priest tell me once that, in following the rubrics for Mass, it’s necessary to lay down the chalice on top of the altar cloth, or some other particular thing that I don’t remember. And the priest really is supposed to follow all these instructions because he’s not supposed to be winging it, as if he were completely in control or inventing his own ritual out of the depths of his own holiness. That’s part of what it means to hand something down from others – you are the steward of the mysteries. Yet, he said, if he accidentally once missed the cloth, he doesn’t believe God would deprive the congregation of a valid Eucharist just because of his small human error. I mean, he wasn’t counting on it in a reckless or arrogant way, but he was just explaining as best he could the interplay between ritual and practice, or rubric and enactment. The Eucharist is itself, every time, a miracle performed by God – and the priest has to ask for it in the Epiclesis: “Let your Spirit come upon these gifts to make them holy, so that they may become for us the body and blood of our Lord, Jesus Christ.” And God fills the whole world – but the limitations of the sacraments and their rituals are like stepping stones for us, who largely go around blind to the life of the spirit. We can at least feel around for the edges of things and orient ourselves.

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