On the Other Hand

N.T. Wright on swimming the Tiber–that is, converting to Catholicism–and Protestant-Catholic relations in general:

[The Council of] Trent, and much subsequent RC theology, has had a habit of never spring-cleaning, so you just live in a house with more and more clutter building up, lots of right answers to wrong questions (e.g. transsubstantiation) which then get in the way when you want to get something actually done.

In particular, Trent gave the wrong answer, at a deep level, to the nature/grace question, which is what’s at the root of the Marian dogmas and devotions which, despite contrary claims, are in my view neither sacramental, transformational, communal nor eschatological. Nor biblical.

The best RCs I know (some of whom would strongly disagree with the last point, some would strongly agree) are great conversation partners mainly because they have found ways of pushing the accumulated clutter quietly to one side and creating space for real life. But it’s against the grain of the Tridentine system, in my view. They aren’t allowed to say that but clearly many of them think it. Joining in is just bringing more of your own clutter to an already confused and overcrowded room . . .

To say “Wow, I want that stuff [the sacraments, etc.], I’d better go to Rome” is like someone suddenly discovering (as I’m told Americans occasionally do — sorry, cheap shot) that there are other countries in the world and so getting the first big boat he finds in New York to take him there . . . when there were plenty of planes lined up and waiting at JFK. Rome is a big, splendid, dusty old ocean liner, with lots of grand cabins, and, at present, quite a fine captain and some excellent officers — but also quite a few rooms in need of repair. Yes, it may take you places, but it’s slow and you might get seasick from time to time. And the navigators have been told that they must never acknowledge when they’ve been going in the wrong direction . . .

This seems right to me.  I don’t know much about Roman Catholicism, and although I do find its–well, there’s no other word for it–catholicity and its grandeur to be attractive, it’s just such a beast of a machine.  Once it gets moving, sure, good luck stopping it.  But what if it goes in the wrong direction?  Big theological mistakes (say, the immaculate conception, transsubstantiation, priestly celibacy) take centuries, if not millennia, to correct.

I don’t support schism and I’m a huge critic of Luther and the Protestant Reformation in general.  But it seems to me that one of the virtues of a “lower” ecclesiology is the increased flexibility and mobility that comes as a result.  As long as you have a Catholicism with such a heavy bureaucratic system weighing it down, you’re going to have some problems: one of those being a low tolerance for dissent (a kind of doctrinal ossification), another of being perpetually about three hundred years behind the times.  These kinds of machines—Wright’s cruiseliner analogy is brilliant—have tons of momentum and power, but as a result, have a hard time changing their course.

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