Tuesday, August 18, 2009

No Different Than Protestantism?

James Swan's Beggars All blog has some recent postings that assert an oft-repeated contention, namely, that the all-too-obvious turmoil in the Catholic Church today is no different than the divisions within Protestantism. I wrote a "Quick Answer" for Catholic Answers some years ago on this topic and I think it is still valid. As a traditionalist, I have to agree completely with a Protestant or any other sort of interlocutor who insists that it's a scandal for open "dissenters" (a euphemism for heretics) to be allowed to remain visibly within the bosom of the Catholic Church. The substitution of a modern "pastoral approach" to such rebellion instead of the traditional remedy of excommunication for public heresy and blasphemy has caused considerable harm. So their objection has a surface plausibility in today's context that it did not in days when ecclesiastical discpline was taken more seriously. Still, I would contend that there is a difference in kind, in principle between "dissent" within the Catholic ranks and doctrinal divisions within Protestantism:


I have heard a Protestant apologist say that widespread dissent in the Catholic Church is no different than the divisions in Protestantism and this proves that having an infallible Church to interpret the Bible is no better in practice than just reading the Bible by itself. How should I respond?


There is a fundamental difference between the divisions that take place within Protestantism and the “dissent” that takes place in the Catholic Church. The divisions between Protestants take place because they cannot agree on what the Bible teaches on a host of issues. They continually claim that the Bible is clear and easy to understand, but their quarrels about the meaning of the Bible on all these issues undermine that claim. Their differences center fundamentally on how to understand their own central authority.

But the disagreements between orthodox Catholics and “dissenting” Catholics of various kinds are quite different. Dissenters agree with faithful Catholics that the Church does officially teach just what faithful Catholics insist it does—they just want that teaching to change. The question is never whether the Catholic Church officially teaches that contraception is wrong, or that homosexual acts are sinful, or that divorce and remarriage are not permitted, or that women cannot be ordained to the priesthood. Even between Catholics and Protestants the debate never centers on whether the Catholic Church really teaches transubstantiation, or veneration of the saints, or the Eucharist as a sacrifice, or the infallibility of the pope. All parties understand full well what the Church teaches on these and a multitude of other issues. They prove this by insisting not that the Church actually teaches something different, but rather that the Church is wrong and should change her teaching to conform to their own ideas. Groups such as “We Are Church” prove this by calling for the convocation of Vatican III in order to implement their agenda, thus admitting that their beliefs have never been part of the teaching of the Church, including Vatican II.

Thus, the Catholic Church has spoken with clarity throughout the centuries; even her enemies, whether within or from outside the Church, unwittingly admit this. And this clarity is indeed in stark contrast to the inability of Protestants to agree on even central doctrines.