By Fr. Mark Perkins
Onsi A. Kamel's piece in the most recent First Things, "Catholicism Made Me Protestant," is a good example of Rome's misleadingly exclusive cooption of the label "Catholic." Were it written by our Anglican forebears, it would have been more appropriately titled: "Romishness made me Protestant." The failure to distinguish verbally between what is Catholic and what is Roman leads Kamel to such head-spinning phrases as "out-catholic the Catholics." That increasingly conventional use of so-called "little-c catholic" may be popular in Anglican circles, but it is ultimately inscrutable and unhelpful. The proper distinction is not between Catholic and catholic, but rather between what is Roman and what is Catholic.
In any case, I nodded along with Kamel's critiques of the Roman narrative of doctrinal consistency. So too, he rightly perceived an incoherence in the typical Roman rejection of personal judgment. Rome says you cannot rely upon personal judgment -- but then you must use it in the first place to accept Rome's claims. I'm reminded of Bernard Lewis's line about voting in majority-Muslim countries: one man, one vote, one time. (Incidentally, Lewis, one of the greatest scholars of Islam of the past century, was speaking not out of Islamaphobia but out of a profound grasp of Islamic history and jurisprudence -- the kinds of things that perhaps ought to have informed the American response to the Arab Spring more than they did. But I digress.)
A more defensible narrative about tradition -- one that, I would suggest, is perfectly Catholic though not Roman -- recognizes the necessity of personal judgment but narrates it in terms of trust. Who or what is most worthy of your trust? Using your personal judgment to place trust in someone else’s judgment is no contradiction. You do it every time you accept the advice of a physician. Because of this act of trust -- which is necessary for all knowledge -- judgment is inevitably personal and yet never truly private.
Lesslie Newbigin’s The Gospel in a Pluralist Society cogently develops this idea from a generally Protestant perspective, but it is also at least implicit in the fourth of the Jesuit philosopher Bernard Lonergan’s “transcendental imperatives”: be responsible. You cannot avoid responsibility for your own judgment. Becoming Roman might free you from sorting through the particular niceties of individual doctrines -- though, as Kamel points out, given the unreliability of much of the episcopate (and not only among the Romans!), it generally does not these days -- but you are still ultimately held responsible for your initial and undergirding act of trust.
(The Roman Catholic historian John Lukacs likewise argues that truth is ultimately participatory -- the knower participates in that which he knows; intellectual and moral judgment are thus intertwined because both are rooted in a person.)
Here’s the part of Kamel’s piece that most interests me:
I will never forget the moment when, like Luther five hundred years earlier, I discovered justification by faith alone through union with Christ. I was sitting in my dorm room by myself. I had been assigned Luther’s Explanations of the Ninety-Five Theses, and I expected to find it facile. A year or two prior, I had decided that Trent was right about justification: It was entirely a gift of grace consisting of the gradual perfecting of the soul by faith and works—God instigating and me cooperating. For years, I had attempted to live out this model of justification. I had gone to Mass regularly, prayed the rosary with friends, fasted frequently, read the Scriptures daily, prayed earnestly, and sought advice from spiritual directors. I had begun this arduous cooperation with God’s grace full of hope; by the time I sat in that dorm room alone, I was distraught and demoralized. I had learned just how wretched a sinner I was: No good work was unsullied by pride, no repentance unaccompanied by expectations of future sin, no love free from selfishness.
He goes on to explain that Luther’s understanding of justification freed him from this state of despair. Reader, you may be relieved to know that I am not interested in re-litigating five hundred years of Roman-Lutheran dispute over justification. What does interest me is the experiential, even psychological element in Kamel’s “conversion” to Protestantism. While Kamel maintains that Protestantism offers a more consistently biblical and traditional form of Christianity than Roman Catholicism, what actually convinces him is an argument from personal experience. Rome told him that the reality of regeneration should lead to tangible growth in holiness and movement towards perfection. His experience suggested otherwise. (It is not clear whether his attendance at mass included communicating at the altar; obviously, the Roman claim depends upon Eucharistic theology and practice.) He was thus left profoundly open to Luther’s alternative explanation.
What, if anything, does regeneration effect in the human person? Kamel’s essay reveals the competing theological anthropologies at (or very near) the heart of the Lutheran-Catholic divide. The final content of our answer will depend in large part upon the method we use to make our decision. For Kamel, the truth -- or not -- of Rome’s claims came down in practice to his experience of them. A Roman Catholic might reply that Kamel should have relied not on his judgment but that of Rome. But as Kamel rightly suggests, in both cases personal judgment is called for. The question, really, comes down to judging rightly what and whom to trust. Should Kamel have trusted his own anguished experience of Christian living -- or, in spite of his experience, should he have placed his trust in what Rome taught him was possible? In neither case does he escape personal judgment; in both instances he remains responsible.
Of course, as Anglicans we cannot punt to Rome -- nor do we foreground personal experience as the litmus test. If I'm being honest, I must admit that my own (halting, limited, ever-incomplete but nevertheless real) experience of growth in holiness powerfully inclines me towards the view of regeneration that I happen to hold. But I also think that I changed my view of regeneration not through an examination of my own life but, rather, precisely because I came to see regeneration as an incomplete-but-concretely-present reality in St. Paul’s writings -- whereas I had grown up viewing it as, at best, a future reality, if not a complete illusion. Having come to that revised understanding of Scripture, I interpreted my past experiences differently and approached my future with heightened expectations and a new interpretative framework.
Not coincidentally, around the time I changed my understanding of regeneration, I also began attending an Anglican parish, where, for the first time in my life, I partook of the Eucharist on a weekly basis. The union with Christ which Kamel claims to have first seen in Luther I most profoundly understood through the Anglo-Catholic theologian E. L. Mascall. What happens to the sinful soul once united with Christ? If touching the hem of Christ’s garment healed the woman with the issue of blood, what happens when we -- wounded unto death, travailing under the curse -- are grafted into Christ’s very Body? Union with Christ -- effected by baptism, nourished through the Eucharist, concretely evident in his Body the Church -- that union regenerated and sanctifies me. That union merits our trust, and in it we find the heart of the Catholic faith.