Postcards From Hollister #4
On Reading Jaroslav Pelikan’s The Christian Tradition Volume 4: Reformation of Church and Dogma (1300-1700)
An acquaintance of mine once told me that in the sayings of the Desert Fathers, it is said that if one of the brethren tries to climb up to Heaven, somebody should get him by the foot and drag him back down to earth. This is how I feel about the Protestant Reformation.
I can never really understand Protestantism. As much as I try to wrap my head around it, it just doesn’t make much sense to me. First of all, reading Protestant theology is boring. There is nothing fanciful or cool about it. In all of the obsessions of Protestant theology, like double predestination in Calvin or Luther and justification, a cold logical rigor dominates that has to level everything in its path. Truth be told, I admire this rigor like I admire my fellow students who major in useful things like physics or economics. I admire them, but I really don’t see how they can stand doing what they do day in and day out. And I cannot understand how a Calvinist or a Lutheran believes.
It’s kind of like the old story of the Russian monk who, when he found out that some Anglicans did not used incense at services, asked what they used instead. Protestantism just doesn’t enter into my brain and it never will.
My biggest problem is my upbringing. In my family, if someone is older than you, you respect them. Period. Greeting elders growing up was a quasi-religious ritual that involved hand-kissing and a respectful tone. Things are done that way because they are done that way, end of story. The saying of St. Cyprian that a tradition without truth is an inveterate lie is very problematic in my book. If St. Cyprian had said that to my great-grandmother, he would have got a slipper to the mouth. How do you know that the tradition is false and your interpretation of the truth trumps it? Manioso mocoso….
We always like to cut out the middle man. Why do we have to jump through hoops and take the scenic route when we can just get to the point? Why go through the Church, the saints, and sacraments in order to get to Jesus? How demeaning! How idolatrous! How human! That’s right, because human beings are that way! Again, welcome to the human race….
Another acquaintance of mine, an unorthodox Calvinist who might be reading this, told me rather tongue in cheek that Roman Catholicism is liturgy without theology. While this was meant as a jest that carried some truth to it, I see it from another angle. He is absolutely right. Alleluia! If you read the response of the Roman Church of the Counter-Reformation to the concerns of the Protestants, it is absolutely wrought with contradictions and loose ends. Thanks be to God, because what fun would it be without them? In the mystery of the Trinity and all that flows from It, there can be nothing but necessary contradictions. How does God know all and yet not predestine people to damnation? I don’t know. How can we know if we are saved or not? Beats me. How can one be inside the Church and yet go on sinning? If I knew that, I wouldn’t be writing this stupid blog.
Roman Catholicism does not offer real answers. It just distracts us until death when we really will find out everything. Behind the triumphalist façade of the Roman Catholic Church is hidden its real heart that knows how fragile this fallen world is and how helpless we are to solve any of its problems. That is the reason behind all of the legalism, the bureaucracy, and the superficial character of so much of the Roman religion. Unless a confessor is a Curé d’Ars or a Padre Pio, he really doesn’t have any business guiding souls, so just hand him a manual and tell him to give all of his penitents three Hail Marys as penance. Where was it that I read where someone once observed that behind all of those elegant vestments of a bishop celebrating the traditional Pontifical High Mass was a son of a lowly butcher, a policeman, or a poor drunkard? Do you seriously think we needed the Reformation to point that out to us?
We’ve known that the game has been up for the past two thousand years, ever since a few semi-literate fishermen from Palestine left their homeland in order to push the words of a carpenter who was executed by the Romans. Our religion has always belonged here on earth, in women who spend way too much time dressing their statues of the Infant of Prague, in men who spend way too much time doing things they shouldn’t since they can just confess it on Saturday afternoon, and in altar boys who drink that nasty wine in the sacristy when the Monsignor isn’t looking. Perhaps God is looking down on us and seeing how much we screw up, but He is still trying to find a way to maneuver us toward salvation in spite of it all. God is not just writing straight with crooked lines; in order to save our souls, He might just be settling for the fact that anything is being written at all.
So any serious pretensions of making the Church better, of purging the Gospel of foreign accretions, or of returning to ancient sobriety, are just pompous rubbish in my book. (That tells you what I think of the Church after the Second Vatican Council as well.) Sure, we have to say things like this once in a while to keep up appearances, and once in a great while there is someone actually sent by God who can do some of these things, but to think you can base your Faith on this…. please! The Church works, but it’s just like making sausage. It is the infinite wisdom of God up against the seemingly infinite folly of sinful man. Don’t try to understand it. It will only give you a headache.
What is really important: how people get saved or that they are saved? The Church is a hospital for sinners, not a laboratory for making the perfect society. The best way to know how the Church should be is how it has been passed down to us by our immediate predecessors. As in my family, it is about giving your elders the benefit of the doubt. But what happens when we live in a regime and a society where innovation and eternal youth are the most desirable things? There, my friends, is the rub…..