Thursday, April 9, 2009

Theory of Relativity

“The RC church is seemingly so similar to the Episcopal that I wonder what nuance has captured your senses.”

So started a recent letter from an old friend who had only just heard of my reception into the Catholic Church. I hardly know where to begin to explain to her.

It’s interesting to me that when Catholics and Protestants get together, there’s always this nervous assurance that “Well, we believe 95% of the same thing.” That’s the American insistence that denominations are fungible, one being the same as, as valid as any other. In my mind, it isn’t true and it makes it difficult for Catholics to argue that there is actually a compelling reason to become, or to stay, Catholic. If we are 95% in harmony, why quibble about details? That’s close enough in anyone’s book.

Except, it’s not. I am not sure how I missed it as a Protestant, but it seems pretty clear that Christ intended one church, one real and visible body, not a bunch of different denominations eternally squabbling over details and splintering into ever more and more factions.

It’s true that we share a great deal in common with our Protestant bothers and sisters, but what we share, and how much, seems to be different in the case of each denomination. Every split from Rome, or from someone who has already split from Rome, means shedding just a little more of the deposit of Faith, of Truth, that was placed with the Church. Even words begin to mean different things, so that we might superficially agree on subjects like salvation, scratch the surface and you find very different notions indeed.

I agree that it is the things we share in common that can provide the bridge for Catholics and Protestants to talk. It can provide a profound basis for some shared ministry, but it’s the differences that Protestants must overcome if there is to be one flock, one shepherd, under the See of Peter, one church as Christ founded. And it is the differences that Catholics tend to shy away from, either from lack of confidence in explaining what is so familiar, or from desire not to offend and alienate. Or perhaps from lack of understanding their importance.

My friend, for example, looks primarily at the great similarity of liturgical style in the Episcopal and Catholic churches. It’s true an Episcopalian coming to the Roman Catholic faith finds learning the intricacies of the mass not so difficult. Except for a few words here and there, and the placement of the Our Father, it’s very much the same order of service. Strikingly, utterly, and invisibly (to the average worshiper, anyway) different are the doctrine and belief that underlie that liturgy and the governance that got them there.

It has become evident to me that the Episcopal Church in the United States (ECUSA) sees itself as the vanguard in social change, and intends to lead the rest of the Communion to its position of “enlightenment.” It has listened to no one in authority in the Anglican Communion, and it has created a situation that the orthodox who remain in her ranks find so distasteful that some are seeking other affiliations within—and outside-- the Anglican Communion. ECUSA seems determined to bow to no one and no thing, certainly not to established doctrine from the past. It seems determined to shape beliefs to its preferences, not the other way around.

There’s no commitment to an unchangeable deposit of faith because there isn’t an unchanging deposit of faith. From its inception, the Episcopal Church has been based on rejecting some part or another of Teaching and Tradition, starting with the founding of the Church of England over Henry’s divorce and insistence of temporal rule over the church in England. ECUSA has moderated its faith and its teachings over time but recently has it accelerated to a point that it has effectively split the church. The 39 Articles appear unchanged on paper, but they are given only lip service, and there is no systematic way to maintain historic faith and traditions which are disappearing rapidly. The great Protestant experiment of working without the net of the Papacy has let many a spiritual tightrope walker fall to the ground.

Several things drove that reality home to me. First, I realized that, until the Lambeth Conference of 1930, all Christian denominations viewed artificial contraception as sinful. It occurred to me that a mere vote of the Bishops couldn’t change whether an action is sinful or not; that seemed to me to be God’s jurisdiction. Then, the same thing happened in 2003 when ECUSA consecrated an unmarried Bishop openly living—and calling sacramental—a non-celibate life. Either sex outside marriage is sinful or it isn’t. ECUSA stands for the latter. I read scripture and Tradition otherwise, and , until recently, so have all Christian denominations.

It became very clear to me that the core beliefs of ECUSA, if indeed there are any at all that are commonly shared, are up for popular vote, and this is generally true of Protestant denominations. And I realized that I need to be in a place where Truth was not subject to the whims of personal opinion, either mine or those of so august a body as the General Convention. Once I got to that point, there was only one road, and it led to Rome.

What troubles me is that it took me so long to find this out. What troubles me is that, in my Protestant years, I also saw the Catholic faith as “just another denomination” instead of THE faith. I’m a reasonably smart girl—the fact that my Baptist friends believed differently than my Methodist ones, than my Catholic ones, than my Presbyterian ones, than my Jewish ones didn’t really prompt me to think about who, amongst all of them, might be “right.” It never occurred to me to figure out who was, when all was said and done, in possession of the Fullness of Truth.

Thinking back, in spiritual things, there’s an unspoken acceptance of the virtue of relativism in American culture. For some purposes—tolerance of different religious traditions, freedom of thought and worship, it’s great. It’s what makes this such a fine place to live. It is what has taught me to recognize the beauty and the reflections of the Fullness of Truth in other faiths and to respect and value them for that.

When searching for direction in the spiritual life, relativism is not so much a virtue as an impediment. Ultimately, I realized God provided us a means to know Him, and that there is His Truth, which is not subject to the vagaries of human preference, conventions, or progress. It’s like I used to tell my students: “There may be your ‘reality’ and my ‘reality,’ but if you try to sit down without a chair, your rear end is going to hit the floor. Gravity doesn’t care whether you believe in it or not. It operates anyway.”

I remember discussing the Eucharist with a Presbyterian friend whose opinion on the subject was very different than mine. He smiled and said, “We can agree to disagree and both leave here friends.” I smiled back. “You bet, but we can’t both leave here right.” Perhaps it is the lawyer in me, perhaps the scientist. At some point, I needed to find Truth and the Authority for it in one place, and that led me to Rome, where Christ put it, and where He assured that the Gates of Hell could not prevail against it, where it is available for the asking.

I am thankful for the years I spent in an orthodox Anglican parish, because it made it easier to get in the door of the Catholic Church—the worship didn’t scare me away; I was able to enter and find. I am grateful for spending time in a tradition that recognizes, at least historically, the fact of Sacred Tradition, so that became less of an intellectual obstacle to me. I am thankful for all the people in that wonderful parish, especially the priests, who loved me and supported me and helped grow my faith and make me open to the movement of God in my life. I am grateful for the fact that I was forced to move away physically at the time I was wrestling with Truth, so that I did not have to leave that loving congregation and explain to them just why I was going, at least, not right then.

But ultimately, I am thankful God led me away, and I’ve no desire to look back across that river. I am home.


  1. What a wonderful account. I think you have captured the very essence of what conversion is. Recently, my pastor asked me what brought me to the Church and I sort of mumbled something about feeling, "called." I think you have articulated very well some of things I feel in my heart as well. Thank you.

  2. The full truth isn't totally known until you pass over. Following the Catholic road is a good path to take toward that moment. The Catholic road, though, doesn't have all the answers defined. There are many unknowns. Once over, that is where there is the joining of divergence, that is where oneness is fully realized; that is where the whole truth is fully realized. Our earthly condition will forever be but a slice of what is to come. No faith can encompass it all...ever.

  3. Well said! Am so glad to have seen an @newadvent Twitter pointer to this post. If helpful or interested, I dealt with some of the same issues here:

    God's peace during this season of Eastertide!

  4. Wow, I thought I'd been redirected to my own Religious Ed class blogsite! - first time I've found someone using the parchament template.

    A inspiring article of well-articulated points! I plan to forward this to a few friends who are either inquiring into the Catholic Church specifically, or just seeking God's truth in general. Helped me to understand why I came back to & remain in the Church.

    Thanks & may God bless you.

  5. strange I used the catholic church as stepping stone to a better understanding of God.the bible is much more profound now,the garden of Eden make more sense,it is the place we must get back to.Jesus talked in parables because it is more meaning full,God used symbol's in the bible for the same reason.One comment by a anonymous,stated we will not know the whole truth in this life?I think this is we why are learn the whole truth!

  6. the High Episcopal - which ceased to exist a few decades ago - was not considered protestant; remember any of those forms you filled out - asking religious affiliation?; these asked if you were Catholic, Episcopal, Protestant, other ;-)
    When lies overtake the truth, a society will fall - reading The Fall of the Roman Empire will open many eyes. The only hope is in Him who is both omnipotent and omnipresent.