Drawn Closer by Scandal?

May 5th, 2010 | By | Category: Blog Posts

My cousin’s husband who also teaches at Auburn came into the Church last week. He had been going to Mass with them but never showed any interest. We asked how he got interested and his answer was that the sermons were so horrible, he knew there must be something else there to make the people come…

Flannery O’Connor
The Habit of Being, Collected Letters
To “A”, August 22, 1959.

Flannery O'Connor at the steps of her home in Milledgeville, Georgia

In many senses, this quote from Flannery O’Connor encapsulates my thoughts about Catholicism prior to my conversion. Like the husband of Flannery O’Connor’s cousin, there is a part of my own journey to communion with the Catholic Church that was spurred on because of the shortcomings of people in Christ’s Body, not in spite of them.

Our Creed is bold in stating that we not only believe in God, we also believe in the Church–and it is not merely the Church as some pharasaical organization with a lifeless but physical attachment to the Apostles. She is One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states this with regard to the holiness of the Church:

823 “The Church . . . is held, as a matter of faith, to be unfailingly holy. This is because Christ, the Son of God, who with the Father and the Spirit is hailed as ‘alone holy,’ loved the Church as his Bride, giving himself up for her so as to sanctify her; he joined her to himself as his body and endowed her with the gift of the Holy Spirit for the glory of God.”289 The Church, then, is “the holy People of God,”290 and her members are called “saints.”291

In the light of the many flaws that we have observed throughout history, how could one describe the Church as unfailingly holy? Has She not failed to live up to the standards of God time and time again? There are many recent and ancient flaws that Catholics can be guilty of, but in our view of the Church we see all of our real life, all of our real existence, as tied to the grace of God. For a fuller explanation of this, see one of our oldest articles here. Or to read from our Catechism, this section makes the point clearly:

827 “Christ, ‘holy, innocent, and undefiled,’ knew nothing of sin, but came only to expiate the sins of the people. The Church, however, clasping sinners to her bosom, at once holy and always in need of purification, follows constantly the path of penance and renewal.”299 All members of the Church, including her ministers, must acknowledge that they are sinners.300 In everyone, the weeds of sin will still be mixed with the good wheat of the Gospel until the end of time.301 Hence the Church gathers sinners already caught up in Christ’s salvation but still on the way to holiness:

The Church is therefore holy, though having sinners in her midst, because she herself has no other life but the life of grace. If they live her life, her members are sanctified; if they move away from her life, they fall into sins and disorders that prevent the radiation of her sanctity. This is why she suffers and does penance for those offenses, of which she has the power to free her children through the blood of Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit.302

We are all moving, trying to respond with a more fervent “Yes” to the call to communion. Church Fathers such as St. Gregory of Nyssa would look at perfection as a constant progress in the good. Our salvation is not a simple one time transaction, but is rather a progressive vision of beatification. {For an Eastern Orthodox perspective on this which harmonizes with both Western and Eastern Catholics, I highly suggest this video.} All of this is not to say that there are no tares or wolves in sheep’s clothing. We know that with even Christ as the physical head of the Apostles, one out of twelve was full of betrayal and was described as a “son of perdition”. But it does state that even among those who are being saved, this spotless Bride of Christ is nonetheless comprised of sinners on the way to a fuller grasp of holiness.

Therefore, any thoughts about the sins in the Church must be seen as sins of Her members living apart and in contradiction to their eternal calling and home. It is why we believe, as sad as it is, that those who are sacramentally joined to Christ may also be sacreligiously severed. If we held to the “once saved, always saved” dictum perhaps there could be the true dischord of which we are accused. But our life in Christ is a journey, and sadly some have forsaken the road. Others never truly joined the road in their heart of hearts, but used the Church, which is the very Ark of Salvation, a safe haven from the storm, as a way to mask their darkness and bring about a maelstrom in the hearts of the innocent. The particular tragedy of our day deals with something so horrible that it is arguably better dealt with in mournful silence, as another contributor at Called to Communion has wisely pointed out on his personal blog. This response of silent repentance, however, is not a silence stemming from an inability to speak intellectually. For just a couple examples of a more direct confrontation of the present matter, I would recommend this article by a layman named George Weigel, and this podcast by a priest, Father Thomas J. Loya.

And so, returning to the Flannery O’Connor quote and reflecting on my own entrance into Catholicism, I am reminded of my shock that despite the flurry of articles and exposees in the early part of this millenium, piling painful detail upon painful detail, that there was nonetheless a worldwide mourning and tribute paid to the passing of Pope John Paul II, of blessed memory. It is true that abusus non tollit usum was a logical rebuttal to the idea of rejecting Catholicism on these grounds alone. But as I thought about this issue, I was overwhelmed by the fact that so many stayed true to a Church undergoing such a storm of those among its leaders who so clearly were living faithlessly. Like O’Connor’s account, I knew that there was “something else” that made the people come to Catholicism. I knew that if my own congregations suffered from similar issues, we would have dissolved immediately. As I read the news of the day, I railed against the “oddity” and lack of “humanity” in a religion that extolled a definition of chastity that included an actual emulation of the celibacy of Christ. As much as I professed Christ to be True God and True Man as a Protestant, I must confess a strong skepticism that his life of 33 years lived in chastity had an actual reflection in anyone else on earth.

In my Protestant microcosm, I could not point to a Pastor Joe or a Reverend Steve who had promised to God to devote his life to churchly activities to the point where he would forsake marriage and focus on the families of others. The idea of celibacy itself is simply unnatural in our society, and Protestantism reflects that thinking quite clearly. Unmarried men may often be youth pastors et cetera, but it is almost unheard of to have senior pastors living as unmarried men. And yet, as acquainted with my Bible as I was from my Protestant background, I simply paid no attention to these words of Christ:

For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to receive this, let him receive it. Matthew 19:12

The inner struggles that you or I may have with Our Lord’s teachings do not undo the Life that Our Lord lived. They also do not negate the life that Christ says some were called to – something that my gut feelings and my society were calling “unnatural”. In fact, Christ’s own words state that this is something that only some can receive, so my own failings and inability to grasp something should never have undone His description of a life lived in utter chastity. In trying to mock Tradition with fingers pointed at those who have fallen short via one ideal (all the while not taking responsibility for my own sins), I felt myself drawn in by an example that is clear from those monastics who are on the road of faithful obedience and chastity. Try as I might, those who disobeyed did not make those who did follow with faith disappear. And in the same way, my personal call to the Church would not disappear. The more I thought of the disconnect between this ideal of chastity and my world where celibacy was nonexistent, the more I realized that I needed to consider the claims of the Church who praised both the single and the married in their call to holiness. The more I thought on the scandal of my day, the more I was drawn in. Eventually I knew these things to be detachments from Her True Life and Light. And I knew that in my own way, I was detached from the fulness of that Life and Light. May we all find a deeper attachment to His Holy Body in this Paschal Season.

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  1. No doubt about it – the sermons are awful. I keep interested by watching Bishope Sheen.

  2. http://mliccione.blogspot.com/2010/05/necessity-of-scandal.html

  3. I was overwhelmed by the fact that so many stayed true to a Church undergoing such a storm of those among its leaders who so clearly were living faithlessly. Like O’Connor’s account, I knew that there was “something else” that made the people come to Catholicism. I knew that if my own congregations suffered from similar issues, we would have dissolved immediately.

    I am having an ongoing conversation with a well known Reformed theologian and I was explaining the seeming necessity of an infallible interpreter so that I am not relying on my own opinions, and he responded by saying:

    “If you as a Roman Catholic are studying Daniel, and you run across a verse you don’t understand, you’re still not going to be able to find a definitive Roman interpretation. There is no Vatican Study Bible with the definitive interpretation of every text.”

    I was immediately floored. He is right of course, but the fact of it is not what floored me. What floored me is how an organization as old as the Catholic Church that claims an infallibility when it defines doctrine could have gone hundreds, or even thousands of years, with hundreds of Popes, without having a “Vatican Study Bible”! Unless of course they actually are infallible in matters of the faith in which case you would expect them to remain silent in areas (Daniel perhaps) where the Holy Spirit has not desired to have them define anything.
    This is a paradox. Even if one were to grant that the Roman Magisterium is a recent invention of the last few centuries that is still plenty of time to give a definitive statement about every single verse in Scripture.
    Concerning scandals Jonathan said: “I knew that if my own congregations suffered from similar issues, we would have dissolved immediately.”
    The implication there is that a simply human organization would dissolve. A simply human organization would also have a “Vatican Study Bible” and a commentary to fill a library with papal declarations on the front cover of each book stating that it is free from error. Yet there is no such library. And that makes no sense to me. And it is precisely the fact that it makes no sense that draws me to look closer. Someone should write an article on CTC called “Drawn Closer by Paradox”.

  4. The sincerity is very, very nice and rewarding.

  5. David:

    The Church held and taught the entire deposit of faith and morals, without dogmatically defining any of it, for over two centuries after the death of the last apostle. To this day, by no means is the entire deposit so defined. Nor will it ever be. The subject matter is, after all, inexhaustible; for the primary revelation is a Person, the divine Person of the Son who is Truth itself, and who revealed the Father and the Holy Spirit by doing the Father’s will with the power of the Spirit.

    The usual purpose of dogmatic definition is simply to settle definitively questions that could easily become church-dividing. But most passages from the Bible do not raise such questions. Some do, of course; and when they do, the Church definitively answers them. You can see that for yourself by reading how general councils use Scripture in formulating their definitions. But that sort of thing is not as important to Catholics and Orthodox as it would be to conservative Protestants.

    For Catholics and Orthodox never pretended, as do most conservative Protestants, that Scripture is formally sufficient to express the entire deposit of faith. It is of course materially sufficient if interpreted in light of Tradition and magisterial statements. You can find in Scripture whatever the mind of the Church comes to see as part of the deposit. But that doesn’t mean that one can prove it all from Scripture. If Scripture were that perspicuous, then the Jews would have had no trouble seeing Jesus as the fulfillment of their Scriptures, and heresies would never have troubled the Church later.


  6. It just goes to show that in some respects the doctrine of infallibility is in some ways a limitation of magisterial authority. This seems ironic to me, and gives the doctrine more plausibility.

  7. David,

    Nice observation. “And that makes no sense to me. And it is precisely the fact that it makes no sense that draws me to look closer. ”

    I thought something similar when I was contemplating conversion. It was a bit different though in my case – it related to infallibility. Here’s the thing; I didn’t agree with everything the Church taught. There were several areas where, on my own, I had arrived at different conclusions. There were even a couple areas where I really disagreed (Immaculate Conception for example). It was exactly because of this that I knew the Church might actually be infallible. If the Church matched up to exactly what I believe, then I could take it to the bank that she was fallible (because I know I have some things wrong).

    Your point is from a different angle and well taken. BTW, you might find this article I wrote along the lines of ‘drawn closer by paradox.’

  8. When I was an evangelical Pentecostal I recognized that we had no formal position vis-a-vis abortion. We were like the majority of Protestantism and the initial reason that Protestantism had no formal position vis-a-vis abortion was that pro-life was a “Catholic” position, and we could not be seen agreeing with the Catholic Church – even when the Catholic Church was right.

    It was another one of those overwhelming quantity of ideas and positions that Catholicism held, largely on its own, in the face of everything else. We as Pentecostals / Protestants did not have a formal position other than opposition to the Catholic position or on nit items such as the next paragraph notes.

    In a comment above it was noted that a Reformed theologian was concerned with an exegesis of Daniel and the failure of the Church to define that prophetic book. That reminded me of the melodramas that we pursued before my conversion to the Catholic Church. God’s return was immanent even if it did not happen in 1843. The rapture was immanent because God’s return was immanent.

    In fact we were concerned about a lot of things that were really peripheral to what was important. We lived in a distraction because we could not face the truth about what was really important. Sola scriptural or solo scriptura, the result was the same. We were involved in the unimportant and averse to the important.

    Great inspired preaching was involved in the immanent coming of God, even if He wasn’t quite ready to return.

    Now those things sounds so uninspiring, so insipid, so empty. I pray for the Second Coming, but I am not demanding that God meet my timetable.

    It is good to be Catholic, and that is one of the reasons.

  9. Tim,

    Regarding paradox from your article to which you linked:

    She [the Church] has more fire than the charismatics, more miracles than the faith healers, more mystics than the oriental religions, and more alcohol than the secularists, yet she is more sober than any of them. Her doctrine is stricter than the fundamentalists and more forgiving than the liberals.

    That is a truly poignant summary – very Chestertonian! I hope to repeat it in the future with all due attribution to the estimable Tim Troutman :>)

    I have a draft beer tap at my home, next to which I keep a framed photo of papa Benedict drinking God’s brew from a rather large German mug (let’s just say a pint+). I superinposed upon the bottom of the photo “the blessing for beer” from the Roman Ritual – yes the Roman Ritual has a formal prayer for the “blessing of beer” – what’s not to love about being Catholic! The photo provides me a constant reminder (a reminder I occasionally need – depending on which beer is on tap) of the exquisite way in which Catholicism encourages us to utilizes all the goods of this world without becoming enslaved to any of them.

    Pax et Bonum,


  10. David,

    I’m afraid that this “well known Reformed theologian” is guilty of a basic logical fallacy, that of the infamous strawman. His claim that ‘because the RCC does not have definitive interpretations on texts of Scripture, or for that matter a “Vatican Study Bible”‘ confuses various issues and attempts to make Catholics look guilty of something which we never claim for ourselves in the first place, i.e., definitive interpretations of Scriptural texts in a systematic way, such as that for example of the “Ligonier Reformed Study Bible,” or the “Scofield Study Bible,” etc.

    In none of our official documents do we claim to have or even attempt at such an excursus. In fact, the Catholic Councils are well known at leaving knotty issues “open” for theologians and scholars to discuss and develop. The mindset that looks to have definitive and systematic interpretations for every text of Scripture (such as those Protestant works I cited) is completely foreign to the Catholic spirit. Historically, Catholic exegesis has been one that moves and has its being in a certain “hierarchy of truths” as it has been explained in the Regulae Fidei. Official exegesis of texts (which are few indeed) hence, has been looked as supportive of the Great Tradition, not the other way around which is common among Protestants. In other words, Catholic exegesis views hermeneutics with an eye on the larger meta narrative. To reduce this narrative into some kind of artificial “Study Bible” wherein every passage is officially exegeted into a neat ready-made package primed to be mass produced and sold on the markets is silly.

    I will seek to explain this relationship between Scripture and Tradition (among Protestants) in an upcoming paper here at CTC.

    R. E. Aguirre
    General Editor., Paradoseis Journal
    Contributor., Paradoseis Journal Blog

  11. I love the O’Connor excerpt, and can totally relate after pulling up in the parking lot of the parish I’ve been sneaking in lately. As soon as I stopped, a burly guy came walking up to his pickup smoking a cigarette, and he seemed to be really enjoying it. My first thought was that I was so glad that my wife and kids weren’t with me! I really cracked up when I saw the guy passing the offering just a few minutes later!

    Somehow, I was strangely comforted by the whole thing, as I realized that this gent wasn’t the least bit self conscious about having a smoke in the middle of the parking lot. The lack of self consciousness is something I’ve come to appreciate about being around Catholics on Sunday.

  12. Tim T.,
    The article you linked is just simply beautiful. With that kind of diversity it seems the Catholic Church is the only communion with the true “catholicity” that we confess in the creed.

    Ray Stamper,
    O.K. now that is just too cool. To be honest, as a big beer guy myself (I homebrew and use a fridge draft system called tap-a-draft) I have always been most impressed by the beer of the Trappist monks. Their yeast strains are obviously a Divine gift. Second would be a good bavarian oktoberfest or Doppelbock bier to which i’m sure “papa Benedict” would cheer “Ein Prosit der Gemütlichkeit!”. I am somewhat serious when I say that (good) beer can be a form of evangelism. To me excellent beer truly makes me say a heartfelt “thank you” to God. Please link me to that blessing for beer!

    R. E. Aguirre,
    I only quoted the part of his statement that reminded me of this post, but you mentioned the “S” word (strawman) so I will give a bigger quote:

    “Another point worth mentioning is the fact that for all the arguing about the necessity of the Magisterium in order to have an authoritative interpretation of Scripture, it doesn’t happen in real life. Through history and to this day, there are various schools of thought within the Roman catholic church. Theologians and commentators within the Roman church disagree on the interpretation of Scripture, tradition, conciliar decrees, and Papal pronouncements. If you as a Roman Catholic are studying Daniel, and you run across a verse you don’t understand, you’re still not going to be able to find a definitive Roman interpretation. There is no Vatican Study Bible with the definitive interpretation of every text. There’s only handful of biblical texts that have been given anything close to a definitive interpretation (e.g. “this is my body”). And ultimately, you as an individual are going to have to read and interpret the words of the Magisterium just as much as the words of Scripture, thus leading to all the disagreements over the interpretation of those words.”

    So he is right about Daniel, but I think he goes way off track overstating the need to “interpret the words of the magisterium just as much as the words of Scripture”. It is obvious to even a layman like me that Nicaea and Chalcedon need way less interpreting than Scripture. The whole “interpretation of interpretation of interpretation….” argument is provable false (creeds are clear) so perhaps now that I think about it strawman is a good word! Anyway, I look forward to your paper.


    David Meyer

  13. Jim.

    I know exactly what you mean. When I started sneaking into masses during the week several years ago I had to get accustomed to worshiping with people who didn’t look like me.

  14. I’ve been lurking here for several months, so let me finally say how much I appreciate the work being done here, and the spirit in which it is done. I’ve been a lifelong Presbyterian, the past decade in the PCA, and as my avatar indicates, I went through a flirtation with Orthodoxy after traveling to Ukraine and experiencing the beautiful Slavic liturgies.

    Your reading list is excellent. I am currently savoring every page of “A Key to the Doctrine of the Eucharist” by Abbot Vonier. Iwould also like to enthusiastically recommend “We Believe” by the late Monisgnor A.N. Gilbey, which is now back in print, available via Sapienta Press: http://shop.avemaria.edu/Shop/shopexd.asp?id=147

    It is a real treasure of an intro book, written by one of England’s great Churchmen of the last century.

  15. Tim (#7)

    So I’m confused (big surprise, eh?) :-p I’m trying to figure out what you meant in your comment #7, and I’m afraid I can’t get my head around it. You note that you’re fallible. (Oh boy are you fallible! Seriously fallible! ) ;-) So you accepted Roman Catholic claims because they weren’t the same as your own beliefs.

    Your comment reads as if any church that agrees with you (a fallible man) must also therefore be fallible too. And that’s…well, false (just because X agrees with you, and you are fallible, does not make X fallible too.) And, of course, such a position would lead to the unfortunate consequence that whenever you do come to agree with all Roman Catholic claims, that church will become fallible too!

    So I’m quite sure I’ve got what you were trying to say all wrong somehow or other. Trouble is, I can’t figure out any other way to interpret your comment. Sooo…help? :-p

    Sincerely, if Confusedly,
    Benjamin :-p

    PS: Finals are next week, so I’ve probably just been absorbed in books and term papers for so long that I can’t understand regular English sentences anymore. That’s probably it, come to think of it… :-p

  16. Thanks for the article Jonathan. I really enjoyed it.

    The bit about a Protestant church just dissolving under similar circumstances is too often true and says something about authority that only has one level.

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