One of my law school professors (the Kingsfield kind) had a variety of expressions that were meant to get us to think more deeply about the issues at hand in our contracts course. He goaded us into defining the questions we were trying to answer, and challenged us to take more than a superficial look at the facts. He was tough, he was grumpy and he was brilliant. And my favorite expression of his was “Just because your cat has kittens in the oven doesn’t make them biscuits.”
I was reminded of this when our Korean bonus baby, newly received into the Church on Easter, came back from a summer stint in Korea to announce that he’d been defending his Catholicism against the arguments of five friends, all Episcopalian, who told him his view of the faith was...well..wrong. There are three branches of Catholicism, they argued. The Roman Catholic church, the Episcopalian and the Orthodox. All equally Catholic. All equally valid.
It brought me back to my own days in a high-church “Anglo-Catholic” parish, where it was more or less taken for granted that the theology was Catholic and the faith historic. It was in that parish that I learned to love the Eucharist, to believe that Christ was present there, to think of so many things in ways that are so consonant with the Roman Catholic Church that my transition to it was quite seamless. I quickly narrowed my “issues” down to four: purgatory, indulgences, Mary and the Pope.
And of those, only Papal infallibility posed any real problem to me.
But then, that’s what made me an Anglican and not a Catholic, no matter what label I appropriated for myself.
I remember clearly the day that I overcame the “obstacle” of the papacy. I was leaving the Episcopal church because it had abruptly changed directions on me, heaving leftward with the ordination of Gene Robinson, an event that I found unthinkable even when presented with the reality of it. I started to think about the line of decisions that had led, unrelentingly, to the ordination of an openly gay man who abandoned a sacramental marriage for a life with his gay lover that he then called sacramental in return. A lawyer by training and a tough-minded broad by inclination, I realized that there was no court of last resort in the Episcopal Church--no way to protect the persecuted orthodox from the whims of the House of Bishops and whatever lunacy they might decide to embrace--in short--no Pope, no Magesterium.
Once I realized with clarity what happened to churches that tried to make their own ways and rules, I was more than ready to embrace the notion of Pontifical authority. Once I gave the assent of faith, the splendor of the Church and her protections of infallibility opened up, little by little, to the point that I cannot imagine living without it, so uncertain would the path be.
But there are my friends, who, as I would have done at one time, continue to call themselves Anglo-Catholic. Who continue to assert that they ‘believe all the things I do.” The Real Presence. Apostolic succession. Baptismal regeneration. Confession. Like my bonus baby’s friends, they think of themselves as one part of three great branches of a single tradition called Catholic.
Not quite. Oh no, not quite, and as my crusty old (Protestant) Dad might have said, not by a long shot. You don’t believe that you must answer to the Holy Father.
It’s well and good to have come to intellectual assent concerning the validity of the Roman Catholic teaching on all of those things. I can say from experience, it makes the journey to Rome easier, and the arriving pleasant. But being Catholic is more than intellectual assent to a few critical doctrines. It is a willing submission to authority, to the Church and to the Pope, and thus, by extension, to Christ Himself in the manner He established for His church. His, not ours. And that submission cannot be made and remain outside the Catholic faith.
There was no go along-get along compromise when it comes to the Catholic faith: either I believed it, assented to it, and was prepared to be obedient to it, or not. And once I confronted that reality, another came on its heels: I’d never entertained thoughts of the Catholic faith because I thought I was already there. The comfortable idea that I could have wonderful liturgy, great music, a smattering of saints, and not have to pledge obedience to the Pope was just enough of the truth to keep me happily ensconced in my traditional parish until August, 2003.
Then, after Gene Robinson and all that followed, there was no denying that the Episcopal Church could not possibly be a branch of the same tree as the Roman Catholic Church. It was unthinkable as finding an apple and a pot roast on the same bush. And no amount of labeling or getting along could change that. To continue to kneel at that altar would have been to say that I believed things that I did not. And kneeling at that altar was keeping me from keeling in the Church where I did believe what was taught--always and forever, from the time of the Resurrection to now.
Just because I heard so many of the same words as I would in the Mass, followed a similar order of liturgy and could give intellectual assent to much of the Catechism didn’t make me Catholic and it never would. And to pretend otherwise was just that: to pretend.
I decided that I preferred my faith to be built on something more substantial than my adopting a label for myself that I didn’t deserve. And I realized that if I believed so much of Catholic teaching, and so little of what the Episcopal Church was purveying, I needed to change homes and earn the label “Catholic” honestly. After all, it seemed to me that the people who originated the term ought to be the ones to define it, and I didn’t yet fit the definition, no matter how much comfort it gave me to think that I did.
Just because your cat has kittens in the oven, doesn’t make them biscuits.