Some time ago my friend Churl began a series of posts here on A Christian Thing discussing his frustration at the Evangelical tradition in which he was raised and his attraction to Roman Catholicism. Of course, Churl has always recognized these are not the only options: there is Orthodoxy, of course; and on the Protestant side, there are options like Anglicanism and Lutheranism. Alongside Churl’s posts, Chinglican has been chiming in with his defence of Anglicanism, but the Lutheran on this blog has been remarkably silent. That’s not to say I haven’t any opinions on the subject. I do. In fact, Churl and I have discussed the topic on a number of occasions outside of the blog (you know, in real life). But while I have many opinions, I have much less time in which to write them down.
Part of what has delayed an online response from me has also been the recognition that it would necessarily mean examining Catholic doctrine in detail. Indeed, talking about joining any church must, by definition, include a very real hashing out of doctrine, because it is doctrine that distinguishes one church from another. Such discussions can be very confusing to many people. They also, by definition, tend to make people angry, because if you say you believe X, you must also say you reject Y.
But I have told Churl I would write a response for the blog. So I will. And this is my response: I’m too damn Catholic to be Catholic.
That might sound flippant or even nonsensical. It isn’t intended to be. “But what does it even mean?” you ask. I’ll explain, but before I do, let me explain what I do not mean: I do not mean to say that I think Lutheranism and Roman Catholicism are similar enough that I can simply “act” Catholic while remaining Lutheran.
To be sure, Lutheranism and Roman Catholicism share many things in common. I would even argue that, of all Protestants, Lutherans have the most in common theologically with Roman Catholics. We both confess the efficacy of God’s grace poured out in the Sacraments. We both believe Baptism is for infants (that cuts out most Evangelicals). We both believe in the Real Presence of Christ’s body and blood in Holy Communion (that cuts out everyone else). Sure, some “high church” Anglicans believe in Transubstantiation, but it’s hardly representative of the church at large; in Anglicanism you can also find lowest of the “low church” symbolists, and consubstantiationists, and subscribers to Calvin’s “mystery” language (with its mysterious “spiritual (but not physical) real presence”). It’s notoriously difficult to talk about what Anglicans believe because there seems to be no authoritative voice in the church. Who speaks for Anglicans? No one and everyone. Is it Thomas Cranmer? Shelby Spong? J.I. Packer? Or perhaps it is Katharine Jefferts Schori or Justin Welby?
This kind of anything-goes theology doesn’t jive with Catholic or Lutheran sensibilities; we instead assert that there are authoritative voices who determine what doctrinal teachings are and are not allowed (by now it should be clear that by “Lutheran,” I mean “confessional Lutheran”). Lutherans and Catholics both accept that the Scriptures are God’s very Word and are therefore authoritative for faith and practice. Likewise, Lutherans and Roman Catholics both recognize the witness of the Church historic as normative for the interpretation of these Scriptures: we each assert, for example, the primacy of the three ancient creeds (The Apostle’s, the Nicene, and the Athanasian). If you deny these texts, you can be neither Catholic nor Lutheran.
Indeed, the first Lutherans saw no disagreement between their faith and the faith of the Catholic Church down through the ages. They write, “This is about the Sum of our Doctrine, in which, as can be seen, there is nothing that varies from the Scriptures, or from the Church Catholic, or from the Church of Rome as known from its writers” (AC 21:5). They believed themselves to be faithful to the historic Church’s teachings even as they rejected theologically errant innovation that had arisen in their own time. “Our churches dissent in no article of the faith from the Church Catholic,” they write, “but only omit some abuses which are new, and which have been erroneously accepted by the corruption of the times, contrary to the intent of the Canons” (AC 21:10).
To be sure, Catholics and Lutherans still disagree which of them truly remained faithful to the historic Church’s witness. But we both agree that this historic witness (whatever it is) is normative for the Church up to and including the present day. From the Lutheran perspective, The Book of Concord represents an attempt at codifying a normative, indeed, authoritative interpretation of the Scriptures and the Christian faith, based on biblical exegesis and informed by appeals to the Fathers and the Ecumenical Councils. Roman Catholics, for their part, define a much larger authoritative tradition, including not only the seven ancient councils but also fourteen others in later times, as well as a number of other assorted works like the Catechism and ex-cathedra pronouncements such as Munificentissimus Deus (which, in 1950, made the Assumption of Mary binding dogma for all Catholics).
Let me refer to just one of these authorities: The Council of Trent. To be Roman Catholic means to accept these extraordinary dogmata (ie, doctrines declared necessary by the church to be believed by all); failure to accept even one such dogma places one outside the Church (for such is the Magisterium of Roman Catholicism). To Trent then:
“If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified… let him be anathema” (Session 6: Canon 9). And again: “If any one saith, that men are justified, either by the sole imputation of the justice of Christ, or by the sole remission of sins… let him be anathema” (Session 6: Canon 11). And once more: “If any one saith, that justifying faith is nothing else but confidence in the divine mercy which remits sins for Christ’s sake… let him be anathema” (Session 6: Canon 12).
These anathemata apply to me, for I believe that “men cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works, but are freely justified for Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor, and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake, who, by His death, has made satisfaction for our sins. This faith God imputes for righteousness in His sight. Rom. 3 and 4” (AC 6). Indeed, it seems doubtful that one could read these passages as anything but a deliberate condemnation of Lutherans.
And this is a key point: it is the people they condemn. “Let him be anathema.” In the Lutheran Confessions, we condemn errant teachings frequently enough; for example, “We condemn quite a number of other errors of the Anabaptists [ie, other errors in addition to errant views on baptism]” (AP 9:51). But we do not focus our condemnations on the errant. We draw our doctrines narrow in accordance with the Scriptures; but, equally in accordance with the Scriptures we draw our theology of the Church, the Body of Christ, wide. The visible church on earth is a manifestation of the Body of Christ; but it is not synonymous with the Church Catholic. I repeat, no church body stands in a one-to-one correlation with the invisible Body of Christ.
For, as Roman Catholics and Lutherans both teach, the visible church is made up of Christians as well as “evil men” who do not truly believe. If the visible church were, then, synonymous with the Body of Christ, we would have to say that both the believers and the unbelievers in this earthly fellowship were members of Christ’s Body. As a Lutheran, this seems to me obvious error. Only believers are truly members of the Body of Christ; only believers constitute Christ’s Bride, the Church.
And that goes for all believers, regardless of denominational affiliation. Lutherans do not believe one need hold membership in a Lutheran church in order to be a member of the Body of Christ. That doesn’t mean we diminish Lutheran distinctives; we believe our Lutheran doctrine to be true and that, consequently, the doctrine of others is wrong. But one such doctrine we uphold is the idea of the Universal Church—the belief that the Christ’s Bride is the invisible fellowship of all believers in Christ. “The Church is not only the fellowship of outward objects and rites,” we confess, “but it is originally a fellowship of faith and of the Holy ghost in hearts” (AP 7:4).
By contrast, Roman Catholics threaten non-catholics with damnation over topics like the primacy of the Pope’s authority [“This is the teaching of catholic truth, and no one can depart from it without endangering his faith and salvation” (Vatican I, Session 4 Chapter 3:4)]. There are too many things in Catholicism declared necessary unto salvation, too many things upon which membership in Christ’s Body has been made contingent. John Donne lamented this piling on of dogmata well: “All things are growen deare in our times,” he wrote, “for they have made Salvation deare; Threescore yeares agoe, he might have been saved for beleeving the Apostles Creed; now it will cost him the Trent Creed too” (Sermons Vol. 6, No. 12).
Roman Catholics have long been committed to affirming St. Cyprian of Carthage’s words in a very narrow way: extra Ecclesiam nulla salus—“outside the Church there is no salvation.” And by “Church” they have historically meant the visible Roman church. Indeed, as late as the 20th century, Pope Pius XI could write his in encyclical Mortalium Animos: “The Catholic Church alone is keeping the true worship. This is the font of truth, this is the house of faith, this is the temple of God; if any man enter not here, or if any man go forth from it, he is a stranger to the hope of life and salvation.”
It is in this sense that I say I am too damn Catholic to be Catholic. I believe too strongly in the invisible Church, the “Universal”—which is what “Catholic” means—Church to believe Roman claims that their church is the only true Church. I cannot believe that lack of membership in any particular visible church body makes one “a stranger to the hope of life and salvation,” as Pius XI wrote. No, it is not our membership in visible churches that is necessary for salvation, but rather our membership in the invisible Church—in Christ’s Body, the fellowship of all believers. This is something Lutherans believe, teach, and confess; I cannot say Roman Catholics teach the same—or at least they didn’t until very recently (more on that in a second).
It will not do to simply suggest we reinterpret these condemnations, or to say that our understanding of the Councils’ words have evolved over time. Indeed, Vatican I strictly condemns such reinterpretation of accepted doctrine: “The meaning of the sacred dogmas is ever to be maintained which has once been declared by Holy Mother Church and there must never be abandonment of this sense under the pretext or in the name of a more profound understanding” (Vatican 1, Session 3 Chapter 4:14). Saying we understand better (ie, have a “more profound understanding” of) the dogma than its framers is thus forbidden. And more forcefully: “If anyone says that it is possible that at some time, given the advancement of knowledge, a sense may be assigned to the dogmas propounded by the Church which is different from that which the Church has understood and understands, let him be anathema” (Vatican I, Session 3 Canon 4:3).
That does not mean the Roman Catholic Church has not, in fact, attempted at times to “clarify” (or, more honestly, reinterpret) some of these older doctrines. Indeed, Vatican II provided a very welcome new understanding of extra Ecclesiam nulla salus. Roman Catholics no longer condemn Christians outside the Roman church; instead, they declare that all the baptized have the “right to be called Christian” (though those outside Rome miss some of the benefits given solely to Christ’s Church, which is still defined as the Roman Catholic Church). So too Roman Catholics have in recent years softened their anathemata against the Lutheran understanding of justification by faith. While these things are to be applauded, there nevertheless appears to be a disconnect (to my mind, at least) between the original intent of The Council of Trent—and other texts which drew the definition of Church so narrowly—and Vatican II’s more recent pronouncements. Indeed, this reinterpretation of authoritative texts seems to directly ignore Vatican I’s warning about assigning to established dogma “a sense… different from that which the church has understood.”
And therein lies the problem: either the Roman Catholic Church was right when it narrowly restricted assurance of salvation to being a member of the visible church and accepting all Catholic doctrine (including the primacy/infallibility of the Pope, the assumption of Mary, the condemnation of Protestants at Trent, etc.); or it is right now when it grants the possibility of true Christians existing outside the visible church. If one attempts to fix the problem by saying our understanding of the dogmata in question has simply evolved—that we understand them better now than their own formulators did—we come up against Vatican I’s condemnation: none are to interpret accepted dogma in a way contrary to the Church’s historic understanding. So if we say we can, through new methods of interpretation, make Trent and Vatican II speak with one voice, then we must still reject Vatican I’s condemnation of such reinterpretation. The Tradition to which the Roman Catholic Church attaches authority, then, contradict itself; and if this Tradition—this Magisterium—is the grounds which support the Roman church’s declaration to be the one true Church on earth, I for one therefore find the foundation less than firm.
I agree that one must seek the Church in order to find Christ. She is His Mother, and through her we are brought into communion with Him. But do I believe the Church is to be equated with the visible Roman Catholic Church? No. Instead, I must agree with Martin Luther:
“Therefore he who would find Christ must first find the Church. How should we know where Christ and his faith were, if we did not know where his believers are? And he who would know anything of Christ must not trust himself nor build a bridge to heaven by his own reason; but he must go to the Church, attend and ask her. Now the Church is not wood and stone, but the company of believing people; one must hold to them, and see how they believe, live and teach; they surely have Christ in their midst. For outside of the Christian church there is no truth, no Christ, no salvation” (LW 52:39-40).
This is the Catholic Church. This is the Universal Church—the company of believers. I will not abide any visible church drawing the broad boundaries of the invisible Church more tightly than does God. The dogmata of the Roman Church do just that, and so I reject them; I’m too damn Catholic to be Catholic.
I apologize if anyone found the above reading difficult or insulting. I do not mean to hurt feelings, nor do I question the sincerity of my Christian brothers and sisters’ faiths. But there can be no honest ecumenical agreement where there is not also honest recognition of disagreement.
Do I think I am in the right, theologically speaking? Yes. And I therefore necessarily think that others’ opinions are wrong. But I will forever count upon the mercy of Christ as the means of salvation, not my intellectual capabilities nor anyone else’s (whether used rightly or wrongly). “It does not depend therefore on man’s desire or effort [or, we might add, man’s denominational affiliation], but upon God who has mercy” (Romans 9:16). I count Roman Catholics and Anglicans and Baptists and all manner of other Christians fellow members with me in the Body of Christ. Wherever the Good News of Christ is preached and believed, wherever the Holy Spirit enters into the hearts of the faithful, there the Catholic Church is. There my sisters and brothers are.
 The early Lutherans, while asserting the primacy of Scripture, never suggested that we may approach Scripture in a vacuum, apart from the witness of the Church throughout history. Indeed, as John R. Stephenson writes, the “authors of the Formula of Concord sharply forbid any unbridled exegesis of the inspired text;” Christians are bound by the ancient Church’s witness. For more on this, see Stephenson’s article “Some Thoughts on Why and How Creeds and Confessions Exercise Authority over Lutheran Christendom” (originally delivered at LCC/LCMS/ACNA dialogues, recently published in Lutheran Theological Review 25 (2013):60-73 here).
 To be sure, encyclicals do not have the same authoritative status as some other texts in Roman Catholicism. But Pius XI’s words demonstrate a long-standing Roman interpretation of what St. Cyprian’s ancient words mean.
 “All who have been justified by faith in Baptism are members of Christ’s body, and have a right to be called Christian, and so are correctly accepted as brothers by the children of the Catholic Church. Moreover, some and even very many of the significant elements and endowments which together go to build up and give life to the Church itself, can exist outside the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church… Nevertheless, our separated brethren, whether considered as individuals or as communities and Churches, are not blessed with that unity which Jesus Christ wished to bestow on all those to whom He has given new birth into one body… For it is through Christ’s Catholic Church alone, which is the universal help towards salvation, that the fullness of the means of salvation can be obtained” (Unitatis Redintegratio 3).
 The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification affirms that Lutherans and Catholics have a much closer “consensus on basic truths of the doctrine of justification” now than in the past, and that “the remaining differences in its explication are no longer the occasion for doctrinal condemnations” (5).