Wednesday, May 21, 2008

What I Love About Catholicism: Ecumenical Unity and Episcopal Polity

In George Weigel's book, The Truth of Catholicism: Inside the Essential Teachings and Controversies of the Church Today, he talks about the Roman Catholic's church commitment to ecumenical unity. He states (emphasis mine):
Whether other Christians think of Catholics as brothers and sisters in Christ, Catholics have no choice but to think of other Christians that way. The Catholic Church has a unique position in world Christianity; it is the only Christian communion whose self-understanding demands that it be in ecumenical conversation with everybody else, without exception.
(Chapter 8 "What About the Rest of the World" p 136)
After the promised wedded bliss of Vatican II and the failure of the World Council of Churches to stay faithful to its mission of "the reconstitution of Christian unity through common doctrine and a mutual recognition of ministries," the Roman Catholic church was left standing alone at the altar.

This truth is amazing to me. I cannot help but think of the Roman Catholic church as a loving parent, beckoning the children to stop this nonsense and come home. And I suspect that secretly (and for some, perhaps not so secretly), there is still the rebellious spirit within that says, "No. I am independent from you and will remain so because really - in the vast scheme of things, your ideas are outdated and stodgy."

Whenever any Christian public figure has a beef with the Catholic church and makes a point of publicly saying so (John Hagee, for instance); who takes the first step toward smoothing out misunderstandings? Not usually the accusers, for sure. I started to remember all the times that the Roman Catholic church made the first move in conciliatory relations. It warmed my peace-loving heart as I realized that the Roman Catholic church isn't the Big Bad Wolf as some would suggest. Instead, if anything, our Mother Church is indeed a mother - consoling and persuading while trying to apply balm to wounds.

When I was involved in my last non-denominational church ministry in 1999, I remember clearly a very painful event. I was part of church leadership and one of my responsibilities was to counsel women. I was invited to "sit in" during a meeting which included two of the male leaders and one church member who was female. The woman, who was a new member, had evidently written a letter to one of the male leaders with concerns about his behavior.

I was not to intervene but to simply sit there as a witness. How difficult this proved to be! During the course of the meeting, this poor woman was ripped up one side and down the other for her arrogant assumption that she had any "right" to question them. None of the Biblical directives for discussing spiritual differences were followed. There was no attempt on the part of the leaders to understand why this woman had her concerns. There was only an immediate attack which eventually resulted in expelling her from the church by the end of the meeting. All I could do is look at her. As she looked at me (and I'm sure she thought, "Can't you say something?"), I could only return her gaze with love in my eyes while praying furiously inside, Please, Lord. Heal quickly whatever brokenness she is now experiencing. Help her to forgive. Help her to love. I also pray that for all of us, we learn to handle these situations more lovingly...

Scott Hahn, in his book Reasons to Believe: How to Understand, Explain, and Defend the Catholic Faith, tells the story of a Baptist preacher who had issues with his congregation. The preacher had been successful with his evangelization efforts to the poor in their community and the poor were now attending church. However, this didn't sit well with the more established members who decided to have him fired. The Baptist preacher appealed to the church's regional office but was told that basically, there existed no court of appeal beyond the congregation. The preacher rightly asserted this was not the Biblical approach. Apostles were not to be disciplined by their congregations nor take orders from them. The regional representative agreed but said the only church who really still followed this was the Roman Catholic church. (pp 90-91)

The Baptist preacher converted to Catholicism.

As I read that story, I thought of the woman in that meeting. What course of action did she have after such treatment? None.There was no higher authority to appeal, no advocate who would mediate on her behalf. And this is the reality for many churches. They operate according to their own understanding of Scripture no matter if they understand it correctly or not.

When I was younger, I found such lack of accountability liberating (as the young often do). I thought many of the denominational churches were stuck in the past and the older leaders were on a power trip that didn't include any input from their youthful members. I had the attitude of a typical Gen X'er toward the Baby Boomers: Get out the way, we're coming through. Little did I realize at the time that what I was fighting wasn't so much against authority but against anything that thwarted my will. If things didn't go the way I wanted, the blame was put on the authority of the church. Never upon my own self-serving ways.

The Roman Catholic church cares more deeply about her members than I suspected. A big part of this "caring for the flock" is seen in all the laws. Rules are boundaries erected by a loving parent. As a child feels safe and comforted by the parent who establishes such boundaries, so I am realizing that as a Christian, I feel better about a church that cares enough to say "no" as well as a church that has some checks to balance power. The New Testament is filled with governing directives and at this point, I'm seeing how Catholicism is faithful to the call.

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