We are not all Catholic now

I’m sitting in the Basilica of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC. For the past couple of weeks, I have gone to the Monday noon mass. It’s been a deep spiritual struggle each week to decide whether or not to go forward for Eucharist, but I think God wanted me to do it. Each time I have been terrified to get “caught” as a Protestant infiltrator. But that fear has been overridden by a longing to be part of Christ’s true body, the one true church. So now that mass is over, against this backdrop of feeling like a filthy Samaritan completely unworthy of God’s mercy, I just read Glenn Beck’s declaration, “We are all Catholics now.” I’m not sure that anything more sacrilegious could possibly be said.

No Glenn, we are not all Catholics now. We are the opposite of catholic because we idolize our opinions above any concept of sacramental unity. And to try to claim the mantle of Catholicism for the sake of scoring cheap political points that perpetuate the ideological schisms of our world mocks the concept of Catholicism about as thoroughly as anyone possibly could. What Catholicism means is unity. Its etymological basis is Greek (kata holo, according to the whole). To a true Catholic, heresy is that which causes schism. Only heretics think that ideological purity is possible and so they come up with litmus tests for excluding others from their increasingly narrow “orthodoxies.”

Let me share an interesting side note about the word “orthodoxy.” in Greek, the word doxa has two meanings: opinion and glory. The way Aristotle used the word, it meant opinion, but when the Old Testament was translated from Hebrew into Greek, the Hebrew word for God’s glory, kabod, was translated as doxa. To some degree, the one “orthodoxy” precludes the other. When we are so focused on having the “right opinion” that our lives become a perpetual punditry of bitter arguments, then we can never experience the “right glory” of God. True orthodoxy means having our minds opened to a “right” perception of God’s glory, which paradoxically requires renouncing the need to be “right” about God that keeps our minds closed.

Anyhow as I was walking around this beautiful cathedral, I was tallying all the statues of Mary and scoffing in my mind about the way that Mary gets more prayers here than Jesus. But then it hit me: the reason that Protestants don’t get Mary and the saints is because we don’t really believe that they’re still alive and capable of intervening in the affairs of our world in whatever form they have. It did bother me how many Holy Mary mother of God’s there were before the mass today. But not enough to undermine my awareness of the overwhelming presence of the Holy Spirit in the room. I don’t know what to do with Mary, but somehow a whole plethora of very fervently devoted disciples of Christ throughout our apostolic lineage had spiritual encounters with Mary which shaped the way that the Roman church sees her today. Who am I to scoff at that? It’s simply something I don’t understand and that somehow has to be okay if I want to share Christ’s body with my brothers and sisters in the Roman church.

I don’t think that I’ll ever ask Mary to pray for me, though I suppose if God revealed to me the merit of doing it, I would. But one thing I am learning from coming to this basilica and listening to God is how worthless theological opinion is compared to the indescribable ecstasy of experiencing God’s presence. I have said one prayer today over and over: kurie iesou christe, huie tou theou, eleison me ton hamartolon (Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner). It’s called the Jesus prayer and people have been saying it for thousands of years.

Nothing else has been necessary. Not a list of my confessions, petitions, thanksgivings, etc, all of which are legitimate prayers at different times. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I have encountered God’s sacramental presence today precisely because I haven’t been mired in the cognitive, or ideological for that matter.

I really think we have to renounce the perpetually-colonizing/categorizing tendency of our Western minds if we want to experience God and not just theorize about Him. As long as the defense of our opinion is our raison d’etre beneath which we subordinate everything else, we will never taste God’s sacraments and we will never experience any real bond of catholicity with other people. People who allow themselves to be shaped by ideologues like Glenn Beck have decided to become the opposite of catholic. The bitter irony of Beck’s statement is that catholicity is the one thing our nation desperately needs right now.

Overwhelm us with Your mystery, O God, that our minds may be silenced and made stupid like Isaiah was before Your throne.


12 thoughts on “We are not all Catholic now

  1. Pingback: Looking Back on 2012: Jan-Feb | Mercy not Sacrifice

  2. I don’t think the East is eisegetical, perhaps because you don’t have to defend the infallibility of individual popes. Instead you’re working with the balance of the tradition of the Fathers, for which I have complete respect.

    I think my issue is that I see the need for Mary’s perpetual virginity arising from the Platonic soul/body duality and not truly Jewish/Christian theological concerns. Since our goal is not just to be pure, sterile rational souls, sex is not inherently anti-holy. There’s no reason aside from Platonism for Mary to need to be a completely anti-sensual being. And the immaculate conception is essentially Docetist because its doctrinal purpose is to shield Mary from being fully human and, so doing, it makes Jesus not fully human either. The virgin birth is totally different because that has to do with Jesus’ divinity.

  3. Actually Morgan, I agree that Adelphos probably doesn’t mean cousins. And that when it talks about Jesus’ brothers and sisters they ARE his brothers and sisters. There’s a third way here though that you didn’t mention. They could be Jesus’ brothers and sisters by Joseph’s previous marriage. This is referred to as the Epiphanian view.

    Richard Bauckham, though not endorsing the view, sees it as definitely plausible:

    “The Epiphanian view, which is the traditional view in the Eastern Orthodox churches, is that they were sons of Joseph by a marriage prior to his marriage to Mary,[p.19] and so were older than Jesus. The Hieronymian view, which through Jerome’s influence became the traditional western Catholic view, is that they were first cousins of Jesus.

    We cannot here enter this debate in any detail. Although the Hieronymian view still has its advocates, it must be said to be the least probable. The Greek word for ‘brother’ can be used for relationships more distant than the modern English ‘brother’. However, the brothers of Jesus are invariably called his brothers in early Christian literature (both within and outside the NT). If they were actually cousins, we should expect that this relationship would be specified more exactly on at least some occasions. In fact, the second-century writer Hegesippus,4 who calls James and Jude ‘brothers of the Lord’, calls Simeon the son of Clopas the ‘cousin of the Lord’, evidently distinguishing the two relationships. But if the Hieronymian view is improbable, it is not easy to decide between the other two views. On the Epiphanian view, the brothers of Jesus would have been his adoptive brothers (assuming the virginal conception of Jesus as historical fact). In that case, we should not expect them to be called anything except ‘brothers’. No NT text offers any further real evidence on this point, but the idea that the brothers and sisters of Jesus were children of Joseph by a previous marriage is found in three second-century Christian works (the Protevangelium of James, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Peter),5 which probably all derive from Syria. It looks as though this was an early second-century Syrian Christian tradition. Reliable tradition about prominent early Christian leaders like the Lord’s brothers could still have been available at this time and place. It is true that the Protevangelium of James implies the perpetual virginity of Mary, and so it is possible that reflection on the idea of the virginity of Mary led to the conclusion that Jesus’ brothers and sisters could not be her children. On the other hand, it is also possible that the notion of the perpetual virginity arose only because Mary was already known not to have been the mother of Jesus’ brothers and sisters. The historical evidence is not sufficient for a firm decision between the Helvidian and Epiphanian views (and so my version of the family tree leaves this open). In any case, we can be sure that the brothers and sisters of Jesus belonged, with him, to the family household of Joseph and Mary in Nazareth. The Gospel traditions regularly refer to Jesus’ brothers in company with his mother.6”

    So one doesn’t have to stretch Adelphos out to still believe in Mary’s perpetual virginity. This would make sense out of the fact that Jesus gives Mary to John at the cross. This is interesting for two reasons. 1. It means Joseph must have died. This supports the idea that he was an older man when he married Mary. Also, since Jewish custom at the time was to give the mother to the care of the second-born if the first-born died, this is certainly an odd instance. It seems to imply that Mary had no children by blood. There is definitely a theological meaning behind this (John being the icon of every disciple Jesus loved), but you nevertheless have to take into account that Jesus is certainly going against strong Jewish custom.

    All that being said, I DON’T believe Mary’s perpetual virginity is a dogma in the Orthodox church. This is actually a debated point.

    Wesley, Luther, Calvin, up until Zwingli I think, all believed in Mary’s perpetual virginity. Not that this means anything. Interesting though.

  4. There is so much veneration of Mary because we are told to venerate her in scripture. “From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me— holy is his name.”

    How many Protestant church’s honor Mary by calling her blessed at any church service?

    Veneration of Mary also has to do with her being the “new ark” of the covenant. If anyone nearly TOUCHED the ark of the covenant, death would come upon them. In the same way, Mary, through grace, had to be one of the most blameless and pure people in the history of the world to bear God. Thinking about Mary as the new ark of the covenant helps to make sense out of why Catholics and Orthodox both believe she was perpetually a virgin as well.

    The language used to describe how Mary becomes pregnant is actually language reminiscent of sexual union in the OT (If you want, I can look up the sources). “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.”

    If you were Joseph, would you wanna hit that after your wife was told this by an angel?

    Pre-Christian Jewish tradition also attests to Moses being celibate after his encounter with God on the mountain. Joseph would have been familiar with these sort of stories/legends.

    Her intercession is also connected with her being Queen mother. In the Old Testament, it was often the mother that made intercessions to the king (her son). This imagery is reused in the book of revelation.

    Also, you didn’t actually go forward to receive the Eucharist, did you? If you love Catholicism that much, you should respect their traditions and not go forward or take an RCIA class and become Catholic. You’re only hurting yourself if you take communion otherwise.

    It’s unfair to the rest of us who have waited years before taking communion to become part of either Orthodoxy or Catholicism. I will take communion this Sunday for the first time in a year and half at an Orthodox church. Finally reached my christmation date!

    It’s been a wonderful, and truly life-transforming year and a half.

    • Adelphos always meant brother in Greek until Jerome decided it meant cousin to protect his Platonically-influenced (and ultimately Docetist) doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity. Why would Jesus’ mother and “cousins” come to get him in Mark 3:31-35? Changing the meaning of scripture to fit into Mariolatry is no less problematic to me than the way the Calvinists change it to fit their covenant theology. Yes, I did go forward to take communion, not without a lot of inner turmoil and prayer, but because I believe that Christ has one body and I also believe that the Holy Spirit has called both me and my wife to ordained ministry. I guess at the end of the day I’m still Protestant. But I’m more catholic than a cynical demagogue like Glenn Beck who thinks that you can declare yourself Catholic for a day for purely politically opportunistic reasons. The Lord be with you.

  5. Thanks for another good post. I also grew up in a Christian denomination which has all but discarded Mary in favor of Jesus/God. She makes an appearance at Christmas, but that’s pretty much it. Since the church I grew up in refuses to ordain women, I strongly feel that I’ve always lacked a spiritual role model (in my home church, even Christmastime lessons tend to downplay Mary’s role in Jesus’s life). I’m a little jealous of folks who grew up in faiths with the influence of a feminine figure, b/c according to most of the clergy of my home church, finding feminine qualities in the divine is practically sacrilege. I think that the consistent denigration of the feminine in worship – whether with a disregard of Mary or with over-emphasized lessons on God’s masculinity, is part of what’s divorced me from the religious certainty I had as a younger person.

    Since you were reflecting on worshiping among those of another denomination, maybe you’ll enjoy a blog post I wrote recently about images of God in different faiths, and whether any person or denomination can ever define God:

  6. Hi Morgan,

    I was there once about 5 years ago and it naturally turns one’s thouhts to God. As a Catholic, I am inspired by the faithfullness of your church to Christ’s teachings of non-violence. This has been largely ignored by my leaders for centuries now, but I am hopeful that this is changing slowly. Dorothy Day opened this door for the Catholics through her opposition to every war from WWI through the Vietnam War. It may take another 50 or 100 years before a total commitment to non-violence takes root, but I will keep praying for it.

  7. I have just come from a weekend spent in community with the Benedictines – time spent in learning and working through issues connected to forgiveness. These are the people with whom I do training in spiritual direction and we go to mass together every morning. I, as a Protestant, am always included in communion and it is a sacred and holy thing, a truly sacramental time. And I am grateful at levels I cannot even describe. Thanks for this reflection. And the Jesus Prayer? It is a lifeline for me – providing focus when anxiety sets in or fatigue overwhelms. (though I do not say it in Greek – i need English to grab hold!)

  8. Well Morgan, you are in one of my most favorite places in the world…..the Basilica of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D. C……and to be there for noon Mass……. you are blessed! The different “Mary” statues depicts how she looked when she appeared in the different countries. Have you checked out the crypt of the church? Just as I ask you to pray for me, instead of just ignoring you as a pastor………Catholics ask Mary for her intercession because how could Jesus refuse his Mother! Please pray for me, Pastor Morgan. Enjoy your blogs!

    • It’s a very beautiful Spirit-filled place. I think what your saying makes sense. I don’t want to do it myself unless I’m really doing it from my heart. Like I said, I think our stumbling block as Protestants is that we forget Mary exists in the present in some form and not just in the past. I had a very moving experience last week in the chapel of Our Lady of Sorrows. I read the inscription where it says “Make our hearts mourn with you” and I burst into tears. Its an amazing place that God is definitely using in my life.

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