Apologia pro mutatione mea, pt. VII.

Becoming a Catholic after one has lived life as an Anglican is not an easy thing to do. The belief of many Catholic-minded Anglicans is that whatever the Catholic Church might express in the Catechism and the Missal, the appalling way in which so many of her priests celebrate the Liturgy, the lack of attention paid to the content of homilies, and the rebellion of so many Catholic adherents on so many crucial questions, contradicts, and ultimately undermines, her declared intentions.

And so I had always believed.

A Picture of Vatican II

Even after having studied the Second Vatican Council in detail, I took the view that the Council had served to radically alter the Faith of the Church, and so to make the Catholic Church as protestant as any of her 16th-century offspring. What is more, I thought, she was still seeking to explain the doctrine of Christ according to overwrought definitions and legal decrees, all while allowing the Liturgy – her principal task – to become a tool of populist priests and extroverted, domineering parish busybodies. This, from the Catholic Church: the Church that had withstood the persecution of pagan Roman emperors, the Church that had deigned to crown the new Holy Roman Emperor, the Church that had fostered the best art, the best philosophy, and the best science that the world had ever known. All that thought and beauty and mystery was reduced to Father Personality and his band of ‘lay-popes’ cajoling everyone in the parish into mumbling the latest ditty by the St Louis Jesuits (see this article for a revealing commentary on the state of Catholic music). Or so I thought.

While I would still maintain that the Mass has, in some places, become the victim of zealous de-mystifiers and ultra-subjectivists, and while I could go on at length at how this has betrayed the Church’s patrimony – including all the saints, theologians, and faithful through time who have lived according to the great and mysterious Icon of the Liturgy – as well as her ecumenical commitment to the Orthodox, whose own liturgical traditions have never been treated with such callous insensitivity, I must also acknowledge that her clarity of thought and her comprehensiveness is such that these liturgical (and so theological) errors can be counted as nothing but lapses.

An Ecumenical Proposal

I am well aware that from a traditional Anglican’s perspective, such problems in the Catholic Church will be seen as reflective of precisely the same difficulties and frustrations faced by those seeking to maintain some semblance of faithfulness in Anglicanism. My arguments regarding the subjective nature of Anglican theology notwithstanding, they quite simply are not. It may be that one could argue in favour of shared experience between Anglicans and Catholics were the old ‘branch theory’ to apply, but that is an ecumenical metaphor used by no one except Catholic-minded Anglicans. In other words, if both the Catholic Church and the Anglican Church are under threat from the Enemy, it is from entirely different positions on the battlefield; not as part of the same organic unit.

The picture I would propose as an alternative to the ‘branch theory’ is that of a castle. (Bear with me. I live surrounded by three major ones!)

At the centre of every castle is the keep. The keep is the main repository of stores, and the ultimate safe-haven of the castle’s inhabitants. Outside of the keep are all sorts of sheds, storehouses, and shelters, each serving different purposes within the castle grounds. Well beyond them are the exterior walls of the castle, on which are positioned all those who keep watch over the castle’s well-being.

As an ecumenical model, the keep houses the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. Within the keep, these are separated by a curtain drawn across the building, unfortunately cutting each of the Churches off from the other. The curtain, however, is soft and permeable, proffering hope to those inside that it is not a permanent fixture. The sheds and houses outside represent the various Protestant communities. Well within the safety of the Church, in their desire to serve the Lord of the castle faithfully, they have cut out for themselves a variety of niches. Some are positioned in closer proximity to the keep than others, but all are of the same intent. The Anglican Church, in this case, may even be the structure nearest, but that would be for the Anglican Church to decide. Manning the exterior walls are the theologians of every group in the castle, keeping watch on the horizon for signs of trouble, and surveying the castle itself for places where it might be strengthened.

In this respect, it seems to me, Anglicans and Catholics may be said to be at one in the same war. And that is no small thing. But the difference in perspective it implies for the various battles waged is roughly equivalent to the difference between the Novus Ordo and the modern Anglican liturgies of North America. Kind of similar. But not exactly the same.

Implications

What convinced me of the fundamental difference between the Catholic Church and my own Anglicanism, and of the fact that Catholic problems (even when they shared superficial similarities with Anglican problems) were of a very different nature, was in my experience of the Novus Ordo in numerous Catholic churches and monasteries around Britain, as well as in the Ukrainian Catholic Church my wife and children attended up North. Whether it was the Requiem Mass for Pope John Paul II in Westminster Cathedral, the Easter Vigil at Church of the Holy Name in Manchester, or even Mass at my parents’ local parish church, such exposure helped me to see that the essence of Catholicism was a very different thing from Anglican perception. As mentioned in Part VI, the nature of the Novus Ordo Missae as an evolutionary, as opposed to a revolutionary Liturgy, became clear to me. And as I realised this, my understanding of what happened at Vatican II also began to change.

One important thing I came to see is that what I had always loved about Orthodoxy – the almost chaotic liturgical affirmation of people’s folk culture – was one of the hallmarks of Catholicism as well. For me, this was, and is, a Christological issue. I first witnessed its power when I attended a friend’s ordination to the priesthood in a Russian Orthodox church, and saw it again in the context of the two Ukrainian churches and one Roman Catholic church in the town of my own former parish. And here I am not talking about the inclusion of people plucking away on poorly tuned guitars, or (God forbid) liturgical ‘dancers’. I am talking about the genuine freedom of people within the Liturgy to respond to God as naturally as the Liturgy is supernatural. When this works, it is a testament to the Incarnation; the juxtaposition of ancient ritual with people’s need to shift feet or sit down; the fusion of sublime formality at the Altar with reverential human informality in the Nave. We can see it in medieval paintings of Western liturgical scenes, we can experience it in the Orthodox Liturgy, and we are re-presented with it in the documents of Vatican II.

I think it was either Kendall Harmon or Peter Toon who said that the reason they could not become Catholic, even while many other orthodox Anglicans were, was due to the fact that, in spite of what people may assume about the Catholic Church since Vatican II, in light of reading the Breviary, the Missal, and the Catechism together, it was clear that the Catholic Church had not changed its theology at all. Whoever it was that said it, the statement was made as a reason not to become Catholic. For this reader, however, nothing could have brought a bigger smile to my face. Precisely. The Second Vatican Council may have constituted an aggiornamento, a bringing up to date, but it did not constitute a change in belief. The documents attest to this. However the Council has been interpreted by theologically nescient priests, its clear intention was to direct the Church in a constructive engagement with the modern world, and in the process to enliven people’s faith by inviting them to live again within the Liturgy.

Conclusion

Having said all that I have, I quite accept that what the Catholic Church is may not always be easy to see. The radical iconoclasm of the last forty years in some parts of the Church would obscure the vision of the most clear-sighted person. But this iconoclasm is a lapse, and one that is being addressed all over the world even as I write. What matters is that adherence to Scripture, the teaching of the Fathers, the continual engagement with Tradition, and the manifestation of a full, resplendent Christology in the Liturgy and the Magisterium is all intact in the Catholic Church, and that the people of God are able to enter in, offer what they have, and become swept up in the graceful heavenward movement of the Body of Christ. She remains the living vessel of our Lord’s exitus et reditus: a vocation she has always enjoyed, and which she retains until the end of time.

In this were my former difficulties with becoming a Catholic resolved, and now I wait with happy impatience to learn what Christ would have me do in response.

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12 Responses to Apologia pro mutatione mea, pt. VII.

  1. Pat says:

    Welcome Home! I am a true born and raised Vat II Roman Catholic. I was born on Oct. 15 1962- two days after the opening of the Council. I have returned to full communion in the past two years after lapsing. It is most interesting to hear your remarks on Vat II and Catholicism from the outside. During the entire period of your observations I was just being raised in the very Church that you described prior to becoming Catholic. The Church is truly a wonderful mystery and there is nothing like Full Communion in the Body of Christ. God Bless!

    Pat

  2. Dwight Longenecker says:

    welcome home. I’ve come here from pontifications and will put in a link from my blog. Do be in touch if you would like to talk. Like Fr Kimmel, I’m a former Anglican priest, now a Catholic priest ordained under the pastoral provision. I’ve also lived in UK for 25 years, so may be able to help with contacts if you need them.

  3. Andrew says:

    Welcome home! As an Anglican convert to Catholicism, your account has touched many familiar chords for me. I hope you’ll find, as I have, that coming home to the Church – though not without its difficulties – is only a start in the process of discovering just how gracious and fulfilling a home the Church can be. Best wishes for your future. God bless.

  4. Susan says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your story with us. As a cradle Catholic I rejoice in the many faithful that God is calling home to us; the extraordinary and faith-filled witness of the converts is stirring His Church. When you share your story you enrich us by allowing us to see the Faith anew. Indeed we are made new. Peace be with you.

  5. Susan Peterson says:

    Yes, welcome home. I am glad y ou are here to help us remedy the iconoclasm etc. I began my Christian life as an Episcopalian, baptized at age 20. But by 21 I had read Newman and become a Catholic, with sad backwards looks at the Book of Common Prayer which ought to have turned me into a pillar of salt, but didn’t. Much later on I realized I couldn’t have kept it as an Episcopalian either.

    One correction of your post: At the Ukranian Catholic Church your wife and children attended up north, they would have experienced not any form of the Novus Ordo, but the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostum, the same liturgy used in Orthodox churches.

    Agree with what you say. But the superficial appearances are difficult to live with sometimes. That is why I now attend a Byzantine Rite Catholic parish.

    In Christ,
    Susan Peterson

  6. HanseaticEd says:

    Susan Peterson, thanks for the comment.

    As for the correction to my post, the problem is in the way I phrased it. Had I put ‘Roman’ before ‘Catholic’ in the preceding line, it would not have appeared as if I thought Romans and Ukrainians used the same liturgy.

    Cheers.

  7. David Smith says:

    Hi James,
    I’ve finally had a chance to catch up with your apologica (for those following it I am one of the colleagues from Saskathewan that James describes). I’m very glad to have a fuller idea of what’s been going on with you.

    Now you know that I am not upset at your conversion, so I am not commenting from a desire to refute (except from my delight in a good argument which has nothing to do with any theological position), but I have a few comments on the course of your account so far. As you’ve described it your journey is of one who held to Catholic pirnciples and thought that they could be maintained within the Anglican church, but then discovered that they could not. Key points seem to be an understanding of the liturgywhich you have always taken to be authoritative and a belief in the teachng authority of the church which you share with Richard Neuhaus. Correct me if I’m wrong.

    What I am wondersing is if you are going to be defending these in themselves, rather than showing how they are present in the Roman church and absent in the Anglican church. I am speaking very loosely, without sufficient time to pose the questions properly, but these are the kinds of points i’m hoping you will address. Needless to say I am not expecting succinct but definitive and utterly convincing responses!

    Can you justify historically and theologically the claim that the apostolic church was ever the concrete bastion of true faith and practice that comes across in your images and metaphors? It seems to me that the church has always partaken more of the fallen nature of the world and that the stream of authoritative doctrine and practice that has come down to us has depended more on the inward workings of providence and the current work of the Holy Spirit than you imply. Much of the tradition was under dispute much of the time and much that wasn’t under dispute was accepted because of inertia rather than theological enlightemment. Or am I wrong? Part of the Reformation was the necessary recognition of the contingent nature of much that had been taken to be authoritative tradition. Two age old examples would be the discovery that the almost apostolicly authoritiative neo-Platonic theology of Dionysius was actually written in the 5th century and the discovery that the Donation of Constantine was a forgery. These changed understandings did not rule out the truths that they had bolstered but they put them on a somewhat different basis.

    Are you going to try to engage these questions in a theological way? You cite Newman, and refer to other writings which cite Newman. His example fits the kind of approach you are taking. But are you going to come to grips at all with the larger ecumenical theological tradition – I would say the catholic theological tradition – in which, it seems to me, Hooker is a more important theological thinker than Newman, and Calvin much more than either? In other words are you going to relate your thoughts to a consensus fidelium which gives the theologians of different confessions the importance that their own inttrinsic mertis deserve, and not quote the ones who support your position in what might be described as a sectarian manner? Sorry, you know my argumentative propensities!

    As it stands so far your account leaves someone who did not grow up with the Catholic thoughts and sensibilities that you describe, and whose theological education has not led to all of the same conclusions, rather on the outside.

    However, enjoying what you say very much!

    All the best,

    David

  8. HanseaticEd says:

    Ah, David! Thanks very much for your comments. Your critique of what I have written so far is precisely the kind of thing I had hoped would arise. Now that you ask the question, I can say that, yes, I will try to engage the questions you pose in a theological way. You know, of course, my weaknesses in trying to deal with figures like Calvin, insofar as (and this will be evident from everything I have written so far) he has never really informed my theological vision. However, now that you have written what you have here, I really must rise to the challenge. In which case, stay tuned…

  9. [...] like an appropriate (albeit partial) response to D. Smith’s comments at the bottom of ‘Apologia pro mutatione mea, pt. VII’. At the end of the day, it is my attempt to explain how I understand the Gospel to relates [...]

  10. kentuckyliz says:

    I don’t know why people fuss about Anglican liturgy…to me, it doesn’t seem any better or worse than the average Catholic Mass. I’ve heard some pretty wild preaching at ECUSA churches…made me doubt if the preacher was Christian. Pretty painful.

  11. Susan Peterson says:

    I just read through the whole series.

    When is the next part coming? I want to read how you went about it, how you felt as you did it, if you had serious qualms or got cold feet at any point…

    (I did.)

    Susan Peterson

  12. HanseaticEd says:

    Thanks for the comment, Susan. I sort of continued the story in ‘Concentric Circles’, but not really from a personal point of view. But I could certainly address your questions with another installment, so keep your eyes open, and I will try to get something together in the next short while.

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