When “Less” is NOT “More”Dec 20th, 2011 | By Tom Riello | Category: Blog Posts
A priest friend of mine recently remarked to me, “Whenever the Christian faith is allowed to be reduced, the Catholic faith will lose out to Protestantism, for the simple fact that Protestantism began as a reduction.” My friend went on to add, “Now some might still become Catholic, but not for the most important reason: the truth! Thus, when it is believed that all one needs to do in order to become a Christian is to come forward at the beckoning of a preacher and accept Jesus as one’s personal Lord and Savior, the playing field has not been leveled, it has been destroyed.”
The late Father Richard Neuhaus put it this way when comparing the faith of a Catholic compared to that of a Protestant, “For the Protestant, the act of faith is an act of faith in Christ, and only then, if at all, is it an act of faith in the Church. They are two acts of faith. For the Catholic, the act of faith in Christ and His Church is one act of faith” (Catholic Matters, p. 75). This leads the Protestant to finding a Church that agrees with one’s own interpretation of the Bible, reducing the faith to the choice of the consumer.
The Church, when compared to such a reduction, begins to look like a labyrinth, with all its rules and traditions, its so-called accretions from the perceived simplicity of the early Church. If the Church is allowed to be reduced to nothing more than a community of like-minded people, then the Catholic Church, to borrow from the former Cardinal Ratzinger, “has nothing to do with faith or is perceived as an obstacle to it: ‘faith, yes; Church, no. Christ, yes; Church, no’” (Dogma and Preaching, p. 21).
However, the Church, if it really is the Church established by Jesus Christ, cannot be reduced. Rather, the Church is always “More” not “Mere” as it regards the faith (See Father Dwight Longenecker, More Christianity). What does it mean to say the Church is always “More”? Take, for example, Christian hope. To the Protestant this means we will go to heaven when we die, we will be resurrected on the last day and spend eternity with God. The Catholic believes at least that, but more than that. Our hope is that we will share in the very life of God, beholding God as He is, participating in the divine nature. Take grace as another example. Protestants typically conceive of grace as primarily medicinal and restorative. The Church says grace is fundamentally participation in the divine life. What of the Sacraments? Protestants, by and large, accept but two, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The Church teaches that there are seven Sacraments. Protestants believe that Scripture alone is the sole rule of faith. The Church recognizes the Sacred Tradition of the Church alongside Sacred Scripture as the rule of faith. The list could go on but you get the point: the Protestant faith is always “less” to the Catholic faith’s “more”.
Why is it that Protestantism is always “less” to the Catholic Church’s “more”? Pope Benedict XVI, writing as Cardinal Ratzinger, writes of a four-fold standard that provides the Church with the necessary vitality to be “more”, that is, to be more alive and open to the guidance and direction of the Holy Spirit. The four-fold standard of the Church’s preaching and teaching is: 1. The Scripture as the unique norm of the Church’s faith, 2. The Creeds of the Church as the expression of the Church’s faith, 3. The living Magisterium of the living Church as the rightful interpreter of the Church’s faith, and 4. The faith of the faithful in their particular context as the lived reality of the Church’s faith (Dogma and Preaching, p. 26-27).
The first of these standards is the Scripture’s unique importance in the Church because it alone is the sole book of the Church. The Scripture is the soul of sacred theology because sacred theology is dependent upon the Scripture (Dei Verbum, para. 24). Pope Benedict XVI explains that, “where theology is not essentially the interpretation of the Church’s Scripture, such a theology no longer has a foundation” (Verbum Domini, para. 35). Following St. Jerome, the Church maintains that “ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ,” because the Scripture testifies of Christ and bears witness of Him, as Jesus Himself states (John 5:39).
The second standard is the Creeds of the Church. The creeds of the Church express the Church’s faith in a binding way (Dogma and Preaching, p. 26). The creeds of the Church provide the grounding in which to understand the depth of the Scriptural revelation. While it is true that one could arrive at very important insights and understanding apart from the Church by studying Sacred Scripture, “one cannot ultimately understand the Bible as opposed to the Church” (Dogma and Preaching, p. 38). The binding authority of the Church as expressed in the creeds provides the necessary and sure anchor that prevents the Scripture from becoming the play thing of the academy and the weapon of choice for the fundamentalist. The creeds alone prevent the Scripture from being reduced to a subjective authoritarianism, to paraphrase the late Father Louis Bouyer. Such subjective authoritarianism explains the various sects and denominations that exist, all of whom claim the Bible for their various beliefs and practices. Pope Pius XI says of these various Christian groups that, “A good number of them, for example, deny that the Church of Christ must be visible and apparent, at least to such a degree that it appears as one body of faithful, agreeing in one and the same doctrine under one teaching authority and government; but, on the contrary, they understand a visible Church as nothing else than a Federation, composed of various communities of Christians, even though they adhere to different doctrines, which may even be incompatible one with another” (Mortalium animos, para. 6).
The third standard is the living Magisterium of the living Church. The Church is a living reality with a structure given to her by her Divine Founder, Christ Himself. The Magisterium serves the Universal Church providing the genuine interpretation of the Church’s faith. If there was no living Magisterium of the Church, the Church would be relegated to the past and stuck in it, unable to assist the faithful by shedding light, divine light, on matters of great urgency. The Church’s faith is always continually facing new challenges and unforeseen questions. The living Magisterium, as the rightful interpreter of the faith, provides the faithful with guidance and direction needed to address such moral issues as embryonic stem cell research, end of life issues (especially as it regards what is ordinary or extraordinary care), in vitro fertilization, contraception and so much more. Those who have cut themselves off from the guidance and direction of the living Magisterium of the living Church lack this necessary guidance in making such decisions concerning such matters.
The fourth standard of the Church is the concrete faith of her communities. The Church, who is one and universal, is also many and particular. The Church’s universal faith is brought to life in its particular manifestations in the world. If this were not so, the Church’s faith would be an abstraction, an idea and not a lived and practical reality, “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” (Deus Caritas Est, para. 1). The core of the Church’s faith remains in tact but its various manifestations can be and are diverse. Various devotional practices might be more popular in one place than another. The Liturgy, though having an internal reality, as it is practiced and experienced, is diverse, with various rites all having a home within the one Church. Because the Church is the Church, she is able to provide a place for diversity while retaining her unity.
Lastly, it behooves me to close with another significant difference between the “less” of Protestantism and the “more” of Catholicism. This difference has to do with the Church as “Mother.” The Catholic understands the Church not as a something, but as a someone, “Mother.” Thus, as Mother, the Church can and does guide the faithful, not as a tyrant, but as a Mother, with maternal concern for the eternal destiny of her children. Like any Mother, the Church never tires of introducing others to her Son, Jesus Christ, the Lord of the world and its only Savior. This conception of the Church as Mother is rooted in the fact of Mary, the Mother of Christ and Mother of the Church. The Church, like Mary, listens to and receives the word of God, meditates and reflects upon that word, cherishing it within her heart, telling herself and others to do whatever Jesus says. As we close the season of Advent and prepare to enter the season of Christmas, let us remember that the eternal and infinite God humbled Himself to share in our humanity, in order that we, though temporal and finite, might be exalted to share in His divinity.