My Long and Winding Road to Catholicism – Part 5

catholicismistrueEditor’s note: this post was originally published more than five years ago on a now defunct blog. It was originally published pseudonymously. I have done some editing to clean up the bits that I wanted to keep anonymous. I’ve also updated it a bit to reflect how my thinking has evolved over five years. But the vast majority of this text is untouched.

If you made it through the last installment, you’ll see that I have a pretty long list of issues with Christianity. But over time, I’ve come to realize something. Many of these issues aren’t actually issues with Christianity itself, but rather issues with protestantism.

I’m going to go through this in roughly the same order as the last post, so for some it might be helpful to pull them both up side by side.

Catholic dogma is that Jesus wasn’t just a man, but he was also a God. Also that he rose from the dead on the third day after his Crucifixion and ascended bodily into heaven after that. OK. I’ll admit it – I still have issues with that. But you know what? I can accept it, if not outright believe in it. As I said before, it’s a powerful story. I’m willing to just take it as a premise that can’t be proven and go from there. The only church that would call itself Christian that might not ask me to believe that is the Unitarian church, and that’s just kind of pointless. So OK, I’ll bite… but only if I can accept what follows.

As for the bible… the Catholic stance is that the bible is inerrant (without error), but only when it’s properly understood and interpreted by the church. Now, this may at first seem to open a can of worms of its own. But the church’s position basically is this: Jesus was part of an oral society. He taught orally. He instructed his apostles to teach orally. The scriptures of the New Testament were written down much after the fact in order to capture the oral Tradition of the church. The church itself has maintained that tradition, person to person, for 2000 years.

You know what? I can buy that. Unlike the literalist stance, it matches with the known history of the documents we have today. Is the modern tradition of the church a perfect recreation of the traditions of 2000 years ago? I doubt it. It’s basically a 2000 year old game of telephone. I’m pretty sure that it’s not exactly what Jesus was teaching. I doubt the church would argue with that. They’d probably say that the teaching has evolved, guided by the Holy Spirit, to match the times. Fair enough, I can get behind that. I’m pretty solidly convinced that nobody else is going to be closer to what Jesus actually taught. This is where the idea that Catholics aren’t as big into the bible comes from. It’s not that they don’t honor it. They just claim that the bible captured church traditions rather than being the source of church traditions. Along these lines, they say that some parts of the bible were meant to be taken literally and some were meant to be metaphor, and the oral tradition of the church, handed down priest to priest for 2000 years tells us which was which. To me, this makes infinitely more sense than taking the bible literally. If you believe that the Holy Spirit really has guided the church, then this is pretty pure. Myself, I’m betting that the telephone game has distorted it somewhat… but I’m willing to live with that.

The Catholic church does not preach predestination and never really has. It’s a Protestant idea that came primarily from John Calvin. Free will is, in fact, very important to Catholic dogma in general. This is a big plus to me.

Likewise, the Catholic church doesn’t really have this idea of “being saved” simply by believing in Jesus. It’s not enough. You also have to make a true effort to live a good life, free from sin and doing good deeds. This is a very good social construct, as it encourages people to actually live their morality rather than skating by just because being a believer is good enough. Points here.

Even in the watered down form you find it in modern America, Catholicism asks something from its members. Catholicism doesn’t allow divorce (although it’s far too easy to get an annulment these days, especially in America… but it’s still better than the protestants). Catholicism expects you to confess your sins regularly, a painful but powerful act (and probably the single part of Catholicism that I have the most trouble with). Catholicism expects you to do penance for those sins. Catholicism expects you to actually give up something for Lent, to contribute to charity, to show up to Mass regularly and on special holy days. Yes, there are lots of “bad Catholics” who don’t do these things. But the church still has the balls to stand up there and tell you that you should. It’s better than most. However, Catholicism also doesn’t ask so much of you that it’s absolutely draconian. None of this really will crush you. And… it expects you to fall short.

The Catholic church has had its issues historically with science. Yes, we all remember Galileo. But we mostly remember the story wrong, and that’s our loss. The real story is far more interesting and dramatic (the short version: Galileo and the Pope were frenemies, and his punishment wasn’t religious it was mostly personal). The modern church is very friendly to science, with one big caveat: science is there to tell us how the world works, religion is there to tell us how to make moral judgments about it. As a philosopher, I find this exactly right. Science is fantastic for finding out factual info. It provides no guidelines on its own for morality. My sister-in-law’s uncle is a Catholic priest and a physics teacher [Editor’s note: sadly, this man – who was a major influence in my conversion – has since passed away]. The church views these as compatible, and I approve.

The Catholic church is extremely consistent with its views. They’ve had 2000 years to practice and some of the biggest powerhouses in the history of philosophy to help them get it right. Most of the argument that people have with their views can fall into two categories: coming from a different set of first principles or letting their rationalization hamsters run loose because they don’t want to agree with the church. I doubt that there’s any other sizable organization on the planet that’s as consistent as the church. To be honest, I’m a little bit in awe of it, especially considering its raw size (there are over a billion Catholics in the world). Is it perfect? No. But it’s pretty good.

The Catholic church supports big families. If you’re going to claim birth control is a sin, you kind of have to. Works for us, since we have a big family. The support network is nice – and you can’t find it in many other places these days. I don’t think I really need to explain this one.

The Catholic church more than any other Christian church except perhaps the Orthodox churches maintains a high degree of ritual in what it does. Excess ritual is often associated with paganism and cults, and for good reason. But the rituals capture us because they speak to something fundamental in the human psyche. Even if you believe that the Mass and the Eucharist are a bunch of hogwash, the rituals associated with them are pretty useful as a kind of meditation period – much like the rituals that Buddhist monks go through, only in larger groups. Indeed, all of the seven sacraments serve as pretty powerful rituals to accomplish specific purposes within the human psyche. Baptism as a ritual helps cement your status part of the tribe. Confirmation serves as a rite of passage (something modern western society is sorely lacking). Making marriage a sacramental ritual emphasizes the importance the church places on family. I find this extremely useful, even if a part of me does think it’s all a bit irrational.

Christianity itself could, to some degree, be called the biggest cult of personality of all time – if you consider the big man, JC himself, to be the alpha at the top. But he’s been elsewhere for about 2000 years, and in that time the church has become a large bureaucracy. I’m not overly fond of big bureaucracies… but they’re better than cults of personality. The church has a lot of rules in place specifically to prevent it from becoming too much of that. 2000 years of history will help you figure out that kind of thing.

The church doesn’t claim it’s getting “closer” to the original teachings of Christ. It claims they are the original teachings of Christ, and always have been. They certainly have a better claim to it than anybody else.

This installment has been a response to a bunch of negative ideas about Christianity. The next installment will focus more on positive traits of the church that I find very appealing.

The Whole Series

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3 thoughts on “My Long and Winding Road to Catholicism – Part 5

  1. The Hammer says:

    Hello Russell,

    Dropping in from VP. I followed you because I noticed you had a good comment about learning martial arts for RL situations, and then mentioned teaching it in Alabama. I used to work in NE Alabama and live just across in Tennessee.

    I’ve got some comments about Part 3 and 5. Props for not repeating the skeptical meme that there are thousands of denominations. Your numbers are more accurate when it comes to actual distinctions. On the Resurrection, have you looked into the historical evidence/arguments for it? I find if one learns about sound historical method, it’s pretty the same as the scientific method, except for repeat-ability. It easily demonstrates Jesus’ resurrection as the best explanation of other, undisputed facts. Skeptics almost always never have a sound, philosophically thought-out historical method, even though they love to lecture others on the scientific method. You may enjoy Catholic philosopher Edward Feser on similar subjects of sound thinking making it hard for moderns to think through the issues, and I highly recommend his blog and starter book, The Last Superstition.

    Anyway, on the topic of RC, I had an old roommate, evangelical protestant like I was (but not fundamentalist, so intellectual) that started studying RC’s arguments about authority 2 years ago. At the same time, I had started studying the Jewish roots of the 1st few centuries of Christianity because of my interest in academic biblical studies. We both came a similar view on authority and Sola Scriptura (or you could say I’m much closer to the Catholic view since he is RC now). My conclusion is that the idea of an authoritative body making binding rulings on oral traditions is very Jewish and goes back to Moses (in Numbers and Jesus affirms it in Mt. 23). This also the view of some in modern Messianic Judaism that want to give authority to much church tradition and Rabbinic tradition on how a Jewish person keeps the Torah in a contemporary context.

    But while I have the same methodology, my conclusion is that Church too quickly disobeyed Paul in Romans 9-11 with regard to Israel, and the church quickly “Gentilized”, the opposite error of “Judaizing” Paul criticizes in Galatians. Of course, this doesn’t discount that God was still with the Gentile believers, and they accomplished the greater works of the Torah (Mt. 23), the chief being Western civilization and the greater human flourishing that goes with that. So when it comes to issues of Israel and how Jewish believers live our their faith specifically, we need to go back to the early centuries and Jewish believing communites. The Catholic Church, while having many good things going on through all the centuries, I think more easily elevated errors to dogma that wouldn’t have gotten off the ground in a more Jewish-friendly Church.

    “This was literally viewed as crazy talk by the people of the time.”

    I don’t think it was this simple. In Judaism, there’s the Torah and everything else is just commentary (even other authoritative teachers/books of the Old Testament). Jesus would have been viewed this way, explaining how to live the Torah in their contemporary setting under the oppression of the Roman Empire. The Prophets did mention loving one’s enemies. Jesus brought this out clearly because SOME Jews in the 1st century wanted to use a judicial saying on proper legal punishment (eye for an eye) in a different context obviously not intended (personal vigilante justice).

    I’ll also add that historically speaking, scholars of many religious persuasions are becoming convinced there wasn’t a sharp break between Christian and Jewish leaders until the 2nd century, then it took 2 more centuries at the grassroots level (Gentile believers even participated in synagogue holidays because pagan ones were forbidden by Paul and Christian holidays weren’t widespread yet). With later writings being considered commentary on the Torah, Paul’s Epistles in Messianic Judaism are understood to be about how Gentiles should live out the Torah because Jesus started the prophesied gathering of the nations to worship Israel’s God in an unexpected situation. That is, He as the Messiah wasn’t ruling on a physical throne in Jerusalem and instead was killed and rose from the dead with an immortal body out of historical step with an expected resurrection of everyone.

    • Russell Newquist says:

      Thanks for dropping by! Are you by chance the same person as 6277Hammer on Twitter?

      On the Resurrection, have you looked into the historical evidence/arguments for it?

      In the five years since this post was written, yes, I have looked into it. In fact, I now personally find the most convincing evidence of all for Christianity to be the fact that 11 of the 12 apostles were horribly martyred – and yet they all, to a man, maintained their faith until the end. They didn’t deviate from their story even a little, even when it would have saved them a huge amount of suffering. And that’s backed by extra-biblical sources. Literally nobody of any intellectual repute seriously doubts that this happened. I know people, and I know that doesn’t happen unless they seriously believed their story. And that tells me a lot.

      But while I have the same methodology, my conclusion is that Church too quickly disobeyed Paul in Romans 9-11 with regard to Israel, and the church quickly “Gentilized”, the opposite error of “Judaizing” Paul criticizes in Galatians.

      Wow, this could spark a pretty big discussion all on its own. And this late at night I’m not quite ready to delve into it. For the moment I’ll just say that I can easily see how you came to that conclusion, but I… generally disagree.

      Jesus would have been viewed this way, explaining how to live the Torah in their contemporary setting under the oppression of the Roman Empire.

      Yes and no. Jesus was definitely viewed that way at first. But there’s also not much doubt from the biblical sources that he didn’t view himself that way, and by the end of his ministry he was clearly teaching his disciples differently. I recommend watching the following short video from Bishop Barron on the topic, as he explains it better than me.

      I’ll also add that historically speaking, scholars of many religious persuasions are becoming convinced there wasn’t a sharp break between Christian and Jewish leaders until the 2nd century,

      This is kind of true, but also very much not. The early Christians very much considered themselves Jews for far longer than most of us like to think in the modern world. But their non-Christian Jewish counterparts very much did not consider them Jews. And everyone else spent a long time really uncertain on the matter.

      Consider the Romans, who were extremely tolerant of other religions for the ancient era. They allowed pretty much full freedom of religion amongst the peoples they conquered, with one giant caveat: whatever other gods you worship, you must also worship the Emperor of Rome as a god and the state of Rome itself. Pagans generally didn’t have any problems with this and it worked out very well. But one group eventually managed to get an exception carved out for themselves: the Jews. And it wasn’t because the Romans were feeling charitable. The did everything in their power to get the Jews to bend as well: torture, crucifixion, killings, all kinds of brutality. The Jews simply wouldn’t bend, and eventually the Romans gave up.

      But when the Christians came along, it stirred everything up again. The Romans couldn’t figure out what to do with them. Were they Jews who deserved the exception or non-Jews who didn’t? They came down pretty fast on the side of “not Jews.” In the long run we all know how that worked out for them. But the ancient world pretty clearly saw a difference between these two groups pretty early on.

      Remember, too, that before he converted Paul was persecuting Christians – not in the name of Rome but in the name of the Jews. They pretty clearly saw the distinction even very early on.

      Think of it like modern day Mormons. They call themselves Christians, and one can see their logic. But everybody else in the Christian community is, at best, a bit uncertain about it. And many if not most of us would clearly say that they’re not. But even if you think they are Christian, they’re very clearly also something distinct unto themselves.

      • The Hammer says:

        “Thanks for dropping by! Are you by chance the same person as 6277Hammer on Twitter?”

        No. I follow you on Twitter though. I use this name when commenting on VP too.

        “In fact, I now personally find the most convincing evidence of all for Christianity to be the fact that 11 of the 12 apostles were horribly martyred”

        Yes this can be a strong argument all by itself apart from the Inference to Best Explanation method I mentioned. One thing I tell people though is that James, Stephen, Peter, Paul, and James, Jesus’ brother are the only ones undisputed though. What really brings the argument into overkill is pointing the out his first followers that had first-hand knowledge of the Resurrection’s truth were subjected to all sorts of shaming, and in their honor-shame society, dishonor at that level was considered worse than death. The evidence for their shaming is undisputed.

        “Yes and no. Jesus was definitely viewed that way at first. But there’s also not much doubt from the biblical sources that he didn’t view himself that way, and by the end of his ministry he was clearly teaching his disciples differently. I recommend watching the following short video from Bishop Barron on the topic, as he explains it better than me.”

        Ah I didn’t explain enough to prevent this misunderstanding. Messianic Judaism affirms all these things about Jesus’ identity. What we’re talking about here with things like the Sermon on the Mount and such is the understood genre of Jesus’ practical teaching.

        “But their non-Christian Jewish counterparts very much did not consider them Jews. And everyone else spent a long time really uncertain on the matter.”

        Jesus’ brother James, even though he was considered the leader of the Jerusalem churches, is pretty clearly portrayed as being a part of the Jewish community in his martyrdom accounts in Josephus and Eusebius.

        “But when the Christians came along, it stirred everything up again. The Romans couldn’t figure out what to do with them. Were they Jews who deserved the exception or non-Jews who didn’t? They came down pretty fast on the side of “not Jews.” In the long run we all know how that worked out for them. But the ancient world pretty clearly saw a difference between these two groups pretty early on.”

        Yes this was an issue at least with respect to Gentile believers and ultimately lead to the “formal” separation in the 2nd century. Also, the all Gentile leadership eventually started banning keeping the Torah for Jewish believers in increasing numbers of communities from the 2nd century onward. Notice too though that Tacitus, writing around 115 AD, still considers it a sect of Judaism. The defeat of Simon Bar Kokhba in 136 AD was an impetus too because now the Jewish way of life was in danger of going extinct, so they started getting stricter with their “boundaries”.

        “Remember, too, that before he converted Paul was persecuting Christians – not in the name of Rome but in the name of the Jews. They pretty clearly saw the distinction even very early on.”

        Yes. The Sanhedrin only had authority on legal matters with fellow Jews. I’m not sure how this automatically means it was considered a new religion then, instead of Judaism’s leaders just trying to take care of its deviants so as to not have more problems with Rome.

        Finally, I’ll add in something I forgot earlier. The New Testament is actually the earliest evidence we have that Judaism was universalizing to a degree. That is, with Jesus’ and Act’s mentions of large numbers of Gentile proselytes and “God-Fearers”. Of course, the sect of the Nazarenes/The Way went much further, but it wasn’t a radical break except for the motivation: In Jesus life, death, and resurrection, a new age had dawned.

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