By Charlie Johnston
It was St. Augustine’s Confessions that sparked my conversion to Catholicism nearly three decades ago. In the summer of 1990 I had spent a lot of time reading Reformation-era thinkers; Erasmus, John Donne, St. John of the Cross and Martin Luther, even excerpts from King Henry VIII’s defense of Catholicism written just a decade before he split off, himself, to facilitate his divorce. Somewhat to my surprise, I found much of Luther’s theology to be repulsive. It was not the popular image a Protestant would get from the pews. He was a very unpleasant man. It was not just books in the Old Testament Luther wanted removed from the Bible; he also wanted to get rid of the Epistles of James and Jude, the Letter to the Hebrews, and the Book of Revelation. That was a bridge too far for his co-religionists, so he had to leave the New Testament alone – but he ignored those books and how they contradicted the new theological interpretations he sought. He started, I thought, as a genuine reformer, then degenerated into a megalomaniac driven by some serious neuroses – and ended as a very unpleasant, intolerant man. His history was not what I had expected.
I’m not sure what drove me that summer. I suppose it was a search for truth. Though rejecting the peculiar, obscure variety of fundamentalism that came from home, I had seriously sampled about a half dozen Protestant flavors. I would stick around until I reached the irredeemable error – the doctrine that could not be reconciled with the fullness of the Bible (I was a constant and relentless reader of the whole Bible…also a search for truth, of sorts). While I came to deeply respect the spirituality and deep Christian faith of so many Protestants, no denomination matched up with the Christ I knew or what the Bible plainly said. The problems were covered over, just as Luther had, by ignoring problematic passages and emphasizing those passages that seemed to support the doctrinal priorities of the various denominations. That was not good enough for me. I wanted something I could submit to with all my heart, mind and soul. Though the lack of internal contradictions does not prove that an institution is true, the presence of fundamental internal contradictions proves it is not.
The Confessions were all wrong for me, it seemed. He was from the wrong era, he was Catholic…I don’t really know what moved me to read him at all. Perhaps it was some residue of interest from having read Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions, which I found deeply repulsive. Rousseau’s ideas were so shallow and narcissistic I can still hardly believe he sparked such a large, intellectual, movement. I think I was expecting the Catholic equivalent to the noxious Rousseau. But read Augustine I did. It is probably the single most important book at the right time I have ever read. I identified with him – he was the equivalent of a public relations consultant in his time. His flaws and temptations also matched up well with my own. But glory, what a great soul he was! His little book entirely cleared up some lingering logical problems I had with Scripture. I was utterly captivated by the depth and breadth of both his intellect – and his heart. While Rousseau was focused in on himself, sparking a barren crop of shallow men impotently seeking self-actualization, Augustine was focused outward, seeking to purify himself that he might more fully engage with his fellows and serve his God. I wish I could describe for you how breath-taking it was for me, how I savored each page.
I got to wondering why I had never seriously examined Catholicism. Though I made no differentiation between my Catholic, Protestant or Jewish friends, I wondered if perhaps the vestigial anti-Catholicism of many of the adults of my childhood played a role. Certainly, I had theological objections of my own to what I thought Catholicism was, most notably to the unrealistically exalted role they afforded their Pope. Don’t misunderstand. I had become an ardent admirer of Pope John Paul II fully a decade before I began to consider conversion myself. But to pretend that Popes were always right in everything they said, could never sin, and that Catholics must do whatever the Pope says, no matter what the subject, was errant poppycock on its face. It denied the history of more than a few deeply corrupt Popes. This did not transcend reason: it defied and made a mockery of reason. Yet this is what many of my Catholic friends told me they were required to pretend was true. I could not submit my whole heart to what clearly was not true.
There was a minority take among some Catholics that I was familiar with. They argued if a Pope acted unworthily, he was not actually Pope at all. This was way too precious. I was as contemptuous of it as the idea that the Pope could never do anything wrong on anything. Besides the circular logic, it would easily degenerate into an escape hatch for any doctrinal dispute – and would create as much division in Christianity as the Reformation had. It did not require its adherents to take any responsibility for mistakes that they might have enabled. Plus, the Lord said “I am with you always, to the end of time.” If the Lord capriciously allowed men who were really not Pope at all to effectively leave the Papacy vacant for vast periods of time, that would be an absurd statement. The Lord is NOT absurd. (As it turns out, this is the position of the ultra-traditionalist, sede-vacantists – not to be confused with most truly pious traditionalists). It just seemed a tawdry way to evade responsibility for living our duty to protect and defend the faith. This piece by Shane Schaetzel, while not precise in either its theology or its definitions, gets the overall sweep of the matter with deep insight and accuracy.
I thought, though, that if the Catholic Church could produce someone like St. Augustine, who struggled so mightily with his own flaws, but through grace grew to be such a great-hearted saint, I ought to examine it seriously. I went to my first Mass to worship the week I finished the book. (Only a year later would I find that this happened the week in which St. Augustine’s Feast Day was celebrated. He is the Patron of my conversion.) New hope sprung up in a heart that had despaired of finding a spiritual home it could call its own. I called the office and asked how I could go about “joining up.” The secretary directed me to weekly RCIA classes which had just begun.
As I began, I was in a “won’t get fooled again” mode. I had gone up so many blind alleys that, despite the nascent hope that there might be a home for me after all, I set to work trying to find and verify the catch, the internal contradiction. Certainly, I heard a few in class. I read freakishly fast, though. In those first two months I read voraciously – all the Documents of Vatican II (thank God that was my introduction to the subject rather than the perverted and false “spirit of Vatican II” taught by dissident churchmen!), various Church Fathers, the Catechism, a smattering of Canon Law and others. To my growing astonishment, it all held. I would not have to carefully ignore vast swaths of Scripture to be a Catholic.
The definitive teaching on the Pope was not at all what I had heard from Catholic friends. Infallibility was not at all the same as impeccability. His authority was decisive, but narrowly limited. On matters of faith and morals, when he formally speaks for the whole Church in communion with the Bishops, he speaks infallibly. Infallibility is actually a negative gift rather than a positive one. The Pope is prevented from formally teaching error. Thus, if the Pope were infallible in matters of mathematics and then presented with a test of 100 formal questions, he would not be guaranteed to get any of them right; only that he would not get any of them wrong. He might not be able to formally speak at all. When he speaks in this manner, it does not become true because he says so. Again, he is only prevented from error. Sticking with the math metaphor, if it had long been assumed that 2+2=4 and a heretic came along dividing the Church that actually 2+2=22, the Pope would not speak until it was needful for the good of the faithful. When he said it equals four, it would not be because he says so, but because it is true. Properly understood, within its narrow limitations, infallibility is a great gift for the Church – and a bit of a burden for the Pope. This means that the Pope can write or casually speak terribly errant theology without it having any effect on the question of infallibility, so long as it is not formally proclaimed as defined doctrine. It is certainly confusing when it happens, but does not affect the formal claim.
On temporal matters that do not involve intrinsically evil practices, the Pope has no authority at all save that which flows from his person or a temporal office he might hold (such as head of the Vatican State). Those things are the primary prudential responsibility and authority of the laity. As a King should not pretend to the spiritual authority of a Pope, neither should a Pope pretend to the temporal authority of a King.
Some Magisterial teaching is fully defined – and those matters are binding on the conscience of all Catholics. Those Magisterial teachings that are not fully defined are worthy of deep respect while leaving room for debate on definition. It is kind of like a speed limit: while you may honorably argue that the limit on a road should be 80 mph instead of 65 mph, if you actually drive at 80, you fully earn the ticket you ultimately get.
The Pope has broad disciplinary powers in the governing of the Church. Those disciplinary powers, while binding on the faithful at particular times in Church history, are not irreversible. No infallibility applies to matters such as excommunication, diplomatic agreements, discipline of Church members, consecrated or laity, and other things not connected to defined doctrine or the canonization of saints.
The actual, fundamental claim is that no Pope has formally contradicted defined doctrine. I looked hard, but found no occasion when it had ever happened. This was astonishing to me. Oh, I found Popes who endeavored to do so through surrogates or even their own bad informal theological musings, but never an actual occasion of such a formal reversal of defined doctrine. This claim made sense, proved out, and astonished me at the same time. Most institutions can’t go a few decades without fundamentally contradicting themselves; to go 2,000 years is downright miraculous.
Now we are in the opening act of a great crisis in the Church. I have had several people email me to tell me I must do whatever the Pope says and never criticize or disagree with him. Sorry, had I believed that to be true, I would never have converted in the first place. I have had a couple of people from Latin America write to tell me how avidly they support the Pope – and that the current charges are just a “conservative conspiracy.” On matters of faith, I do not base my judgment on regional affinities like rooting for a baseball team or on political issues as in an American election. In the last century, Pope Francis is the only Pope who has routinely pretended to be supreme on political matters. Other Popes, when speaking of such, have carefully noted that this is outside their area of definitive authority.
I am grateful for the rigors that were involved in my finding and embracing the Church, the great love of my life. It kept me from being burdened down with beliefs that are as common in the pews and secular society as they are errant. I am not happy about the scandals that have created crisis in the Church, but it has NO effect on my faith in the Church Christ founded. I submit to the authentic discipline of the Church because I am convinced that Christ intends me to do so. When I was under investigation by my Archdiocese, I was asked if I would refrain from writing directly about the faith if the Archbishop so directed me. I had to think a day or two, for all baptized Catholic laymen have the absolute right to speak and write publicly about their faith. It was speaking about my visitations that were subject to the Archbishop’s authority. But I decided, after a few days, that I would be obedient even in this – exceeding my duty of obedience as an offering for all the disobedience in the Church these days. But I would never cede my temporal responsibility, duties and rights; for that I believe I am directly responsible to God. As crisis rises, though, my responsibility as a layman is to help build up the Church. None of us can do that by turning a blind eye to corruption and abuse. Nor can we do it by trying to take over the ship. Rather, we are in a sort of “Braveheart” moment. For all his passion and fight, William Wallace never sought to overthrow the Scottish King in that movie. Rather, he fought to purify the nobility and unite behind the lawful King. That is partly why I submitted my list of Bishops in America who I trust and admire a few days back. We already have noble Shepherds in our midst. The question is whether we will empower and rally round them.
This crisis, I fear, is going to get much worse. Secular entities which have tried to oppress the faithful are now investigating the Church. Given the circumstances, it was inevitable – but don’t think they have our best interests at heart. For many, they are just salivating over the opportunity to deliver a death blow to Catholicism. Predators, even now, are scheming how they can accuse orthodox prelates of the very things the predators actually do in order to discredit the orthodox and enhance their own toxic hold. Never forget that, at a time when he was allegedly assaulting seminarians behind the scenes, Archbishop Theodore McCarrick was pretending to the role of passionate reformer at the Dallas Conference in 2002. Now, more than ever, we are called to judge righteous judgment with prudent deliberation before jumping into a mob.
The Pope, the Vatican and some top clerics are not helping matters. Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich’s approach has been so ham-handedly awful I have wondered whether he is not being advised by an enemy who wants him to completely discredit himself. The Pope has insisted he will be silent rather than respond to credible accusations. Fr. Dwight Longenecker wrote marvelously about why the supposed “silence” is a disastrous strategy. Before October is over, unless a significant course change is adopted by the Pope and the Vatican, Mass attendance is going to plummet catastrophically. Fortunately, I think that as intense as the next few months will be, it will ultimately be mercifully brief.
It is primarily we, the laity, who now stand in the docket before God. Will we defend homosexual assault, child rape, and institutional cover-up? Will we act as uninvolved consumers of Sacraments, with no responsibility for the sturdiness and holiness of our home? Or will we act as creators, men and women with an active role as the crew in the House God has given us, pulling out the rotted wood and doing our part to make it holy again? Will we do so in a way that cooperates with faithful shepherds in excising the corruption without destroying the structure? This is what we have before us – and where our duty lies as faithful sons and daughters of the Church. We are not in a time of destruction, but in the early destructive phase of a great renewal. Before you can install fresh, well-seasoned wood, you have to pull out the rotted timbers. Don’t even think of abandoning Our Mother, The Church, in her hour of need – and don’t even think of enabling the predators who have battered her. This spring, I began a four-part series on “The Ballad of the Ordinary Man.” Though I have not published anything on it since late May, I have not abandoned it. The subtitles for each piece were written at the time I first conceived it in March. The first was, “A Strange Land.” The second was, “The Fellowship of True Believers.” Now events have caught up to my third installment, subtitled, “The Apostolate of the Laity,” which I will soon publish. I pray that the final installment, subtitled, “The Return of the Native,” can be published sometime near Christmas.
The day before Abp. Vigano released his testimony about the situation in the Church, I published a piece entitled, “Let There Be Light!” What the light has revealed is ugly, indeed. It occurred to me this week that the first reading at Midnight Mass before Christmas is usually taken from Isaiah 9:2: “The people in darkness have seen a great light.” I think that piece of Scripture is going to have newly profound meaning for millions this year. I pray – and I believe – it is going to be joyfully profound meaning.