Leaving Catholicism (Not Primarily Due to Sex Scandals!)

Leaving Catholicism (Not Primarily Due to Sex Scandals!) October 5, 2018

In became aware of a post by a man, Michael Boyle, who recently left the Catholic Church for Anglicanism, entitled, “For the Letter Kills, but the Spirit Gives Life” (10-5-18). He writes (mentioning yours truly):

In the last week, I have found articles from two writers who I have discussed in these electronic pages–Melinda Selmys and Damon Linker–announcing that they are leaving the Roman Catholic Church.  While there are differences in the rationales offered by both for their decisions, I think one can see a thread of commonality between them.  Selmys points to an ethos of control and manipulation from the hierarchy toward the folks in the pews, cleverly set up with the parallel to the archetypal abusive spouse.  Linker points to that same ethos manifesting in a different way, in the form of an aesthetic sense of the “uglyness” of the current situation and the revelations.

Both of those reactions are subjective, emotional reactions, to be sure.  And it was almost a certainty that folks would attack those reactions on precisely those grounds.  You can see that kind of push-back in the comments’ section of Selmys’s posts, but the clearest articulation of the idea can be found in a posting titled “Leaving the Church for Insufficient Reasons (Damon Linker)” by a Dave Armstrong.  In the piece, Armstrong weighs Linker’s “arguments” for leaving the Roman Catholic Church and declares them to be wanting.  “I understand this on a purely emotional / ‘passionate’ level but not at all by a reasonable analysis.”

It is here, in the first paragraph, the Armstrong makes his core mistake.  Linker (and Selmys as well) is not making arguments–he is testifying to an experience.  And Linker and Selmys are altogether right to do so, because Christianity is, at the end of the day, an experience of encounter with God and the risen Jesus in one’s own life.  Faith is the place of encounter between the finite us and the infinite beyond.  The nature of that encounter is what it is, and Linker is reflecting on and testifying to the nature of that encounter in his current situation.

All of theology–doctrines, dogmatics, liturgy, and all the rest–is an explanatory super-structure that is in the service of the individual person making sense of his or her necessarily idiosyncratic encounter with the Divine.  We participate in a tradition in order to make sense of what we are experiencing.  It is unavoidable that we will compare our personal experience to the rubrics laid out by a particular tradition.  And, if we find that there is a disconnect between the tradition and our experience, we will feel that as an internal division.

That’s why Armstrong’s statement that “[p]eople generally leave the Church because they have an insufficient grasp of apologetics and theology” is completely wrong.  People leave a church community because they cannot reconcile a disconnect between their personal experience of faith and the “apologetics and theology” of that church community.  This disconnect could be because they don’t understand the theology sufficiently, but there is no particular reason to assume that is the reason, especially when you are talking about highly educated, committed folks who have studied these issues in substantial depth.  Like, for example, Linker and Selmys.

Having made whatever argument he has, and freely admitting that he doesn’t know me from Adam (that is mutual), he then decides on a course of (surprise!) personal attack:

I don’t know Dave Armstrong.  But in reading his piece, I have to wonder whether he actually has any subjective experience of God or the risen Christ at all.  Because all of this business of whether or not Linker’s answers are “sufficient” (sufficient for whom?) reads like he has turned the Christian faith into the worst and most asinine parts of high school policy debate.  . . .

But there is another element wholly absent from Armstrong’s presentation, and that is the work of the Spirit.  I am becoming more and more convinced that the #1 problem with modern Christianity (in its Roman Catholic, mainline/evangelic Protestant, and Eastern Orthodox forms) is the way it has functionally written the Spirit out of the faith, either shunting it off into mysticism pitched as the province of “elite” believers, or domesticating it as a property of the institutional structure that guarantees its legitimacy. . . .

Armstrong, I suspect, is totally uninterested in that sort of thing [“promptings of the Spirit” — previous paragraph].  After all, he’s got all the answers, and he has a flow sheet to prove it.  But that kind of faith–of proofs and arguments and whether or not reasons are “sufficient”–that’s the faith (or, perhaps, “faith”) of the letter that kills, as St. Paul says.  Armstrong and his dopplegangers in the evangelical and old-line liberal Protestant worlds (who are all playing the same basic game, just with a different set of arguments) are sucking the life out of the Christian faith, making it into this bloodless, frigid intellectual exercise.  And it’s dying, and rightfully so.

What an ability to read souls, Michael has: to say in one place, that he doesn’t “know” me; then to effortlessly move on to conclusions that I couldn’t care less about the Holy Spirit in the Christian life, perhaps have no “subjective experience of God or the risen Christ at all” and am turning Christianity into a “bloodless, frigid intellectual exercise.”

Wow! I give him an A for colorful rhetorical flourish, but an E in charity, cogent thinking, and accurate description of someone else’s viewpoint. Once again we have the supposedly far more “tolerant” person being quite intolerant about others, about whom they know little or nothing. He needs to examine himself, not me.

Oddly enough, it just so happens that I recently wrote several comments in which the Holy Spirit and equally important non-theological aspects of Christianity were front and center. For example, from two days ago (to a former atheist, now Christian):

The Holy Spirit brings about all conversions. My position is that atheists are usually converted (if at all) by being shown profound love; the love of Christ (not a bunch of arguments). I wish I had more opportunities to do so.

And replying to a Jewish atheist, also two days ago:

Christianity is not just a set of beliefs, but also a moral code and way of life: according to our founder, Jesus.

And again, to the same person:

Christianity is not just about doctrinal beliefs. It’s also about a moral code. Hatred and bigotry is not consistent with that code. I also defend the notion that atheists can be good people, and even be saved.

And to another atheist friend of mine, two days ago:

As a Christian, I don’t try to behave according to my moral views in order to escape hell (I worry very little about hell). I do it because it’s right: as I believe I know both in my head and in my heart. And the Christian seeks to be like their Lord Jesus, Who commanded us to “love one another as I have loved you.”

Seeking to do that (as best we can: very imperfectly indeed!) in turn leads to joy, peace, and fulfillment, as I and many millions of Christians have experienced in our own lives. I’m happy to bear witness to it. But again, neither the reward nor the punishment if we don’t act in a loving manner is (or should be) our motivation to do it. It’s because it is right, and more like how our Lord acted.

That’s just in the last two days, in spontaneous combox comments (that I woudn’t have recorded for posterity in a new blog post, but for this exchange). I don’t need to defend myself any further against such ludicrous charges (I’ve given far too much effort to that already), but I would simply note that I also edit books such as Quotable Catholic Mystics and Contemplatives (2014): which can hardly be characterized as “apologetics and theology”; nor is it some “anti-Holy Spirit and Christian experience” effort.

Apologetics is my field of expertise (as a professional apologist and author), but it is not — repeat, NOTALL that I am. So now let’s move away from these asinine personal attacks on my Christian commitment (and even rudimentary understanding of spiritual matters) and back to the topic at hand: why folks are leaving the Catholic Church. Michael has given his theory. I’ve given mine, in my examination of reasons why Damon Linker left, and those of others, such as Rod Dreher and novelist Anne Rice.

In these latest instances (Michael himself and Melinda Selmys), the reason is that the Catholic Church didn’t conform to their own preferences. They wanted to make the Church into their own image, rather than vice versa. Bottom line: it’s good old private judgment and the Protestant rule of faith, rather than belief in one, indefectible, infallible Church: to which one yields, in faith, with the belief that God (not ourselves) has ordained it so. I defended this Catholic rule of faith in a recent article for National Catholic Register: “Catholics Accept All of the Church’s Dogmatic Teaching.”

Melinda and Michael were unwilling to do that. They made themselves — in effect — their own popes. It’s really that simple. Melinda was raised Anglican, and went back to it. I used to be a fervent evangelical Protestant (and was an apologist then, too, for nine years), and so am well-acquainted with how the worldview works.

Michael, a lifelong Catholic, as best I can tell, is now thinking like an Anglican and a Protestant, and so has also migrated there. Dreher became Orthodox. Rice, as far as I can tell, is an “uninstitutional” theist. The issue of homosexuality was key to her, as it is to Michael. He wrote (on 8-27-18):

My doubts really got started when I left the Dominicans in ’03; by the time you get to 2011 or 2012, I was basically intellectually where I am now as an Episcopalian from a doctrinal standpoint.  But it took four years, and one false start, before I was ready to worship full time in an Episcopal Church, and another year before I was received.

This is why it is basically useless, and often counter-productive, to make “arguments” to people to try to get folks to leave the Roman Catholic Church, or any church for that matter.  Anyone who is inclined to listen to any of the arguments has already considered them, and probably agrees with whatever you have to say.  There are thousands and thousands of Roman Catholics in America who are sitting in the pews every Sunday who are horrified by the church’s positions on LGBT people, or are hoping one day to see their daughters up on the altar, or wish they had a say in who their leaders are, or any of the myriad of ideas you could come up with as “arguments.”

He talks about the Holy Spirit and experience, which are great, and I’m all for them (contrary to his false accusations against me; I’ve had many profound spiritual experiences, including miraculous healing, and so have my wife and four children), but I highly suspect that this is the bottom line: belief in the moral permissibility of homosexual sex, female priests, and a democratic rather than hierarchical Church. He put up with contrary teachings for years, despite his “pick-and-choose” / cafeteria Catholic dissent, and then it just became too much: too much “cognitive dissonance.” Oh, but wait; there’s more:

There is also the fact the Roman Catholic Church, just as much if not more than evangelical churches, pushes the notion that it is the only real Christian church.  Yes, yes, Lumen Gentium talks about how other Christian bodies “subsist” in the Catholic Church, but the unspoken message is always that this is the only true game in town.

Yes, there is but one Church (which is quite different from the claim that there are no other Christians, which we absolutely reject: Trent recognizes the validity of Protestant baptism), because that is what the Bible clearly teaches. it knows nothing whatsoever of denominations, or any institutional division at all in the Christian Church, founded by our Lord Jesus Christ, in His commission to St. Peter, as its first leader (Matthew 16). I didn’t come up with all this. It’s in the Bible, clear as day. I merely defend it, as a believing Catholic, who believes in an inspired, infallible Bible as well.

So now, Michael has given three broad theological / moral reasons for rejecting the Catholic Church (note that none of these things are experiential and subjective):

1) The range of moral sexual practice (and definition of marriage).

2) The priesthood (women ought to be allowed for the first time in the history of the Catholic Church). If it is so right and obvious, why didn’t Jesus allow it? The beef is really with Him.

3) Ecclesiology (democracy rather than hierarchy, just like the non-denominational congregation I used to attend: with Al Kresta as pastor, by the way), and a denial of the unique ecclesial status of the Catholic Church (indefectibility and ecclesial infallibility, and of course the papacy is also disposable, in this thinking).

In sum: it’s sex and Church government. I understand these views. I formerly held most of them myself. I used to have extremely liberal views about sexual matters, held to low Church / congregational ecclesiology, and absolutely despised conciliar and papal infallibility (it was the very biggest objection I had to Catholicism, and I fought ferociously against it).  Lastly, Michael explains: “I may not be a Roman Catholic anymore, but I believe in Catholicism just as much as I ever did.”

This is the old Anglican Via Media game. I understand (though reject) that as well, since Cardinal Newman (I’ve edited three quotations books of his thinking: one / two / three) was the primary theological influence in my own conversion, and that was the game he had also played, in the Oxford Movement, of which he was one of the leaders. He dismantled this historically absurd ecclesiological reasoning in his Essay on Development and spiritual autobiography, Apologia pro vita Sua.

Why do you think it is that, out of all the people he could choose to rail against, in defending folks leaving the Catholic Church, Michael Boyle chose me (someone whose writings he has no familiarity with)? Well, it’s because I am defending all of what the Catholic Church actually teaches and requires of her members.

Because he has rejected that (as have the others he mentions), he has to somehow be against me, personally (because, sadly, that is the age we live in: all disagreement becomes personal and acrimonious), as the defender of that which he now despises. You saw how it became personal above, with ugly, completely slanderous attacks on my very Christian walk and commitment to my Lord Jesus.

I don’t have the slightest animus against Michael or against Melinda: fellow Patheos blogger and one whose writing I have often complimented; and she is a Facebook friend, too. I personally like her (we’ve chatted on several occasions), and won’t stop doing so just because of this. I have a principled disagreement with them about the nature of the Catholic Church.

Her exodus from the Catholic Church was not primarily because of the sex scandal, either. It was because of things that she (seemingly) never agreed with, and can no longer “put up with” (my phrase, not hers). This is not merely my speculation. Read her own words on her blog (from the combox):

It’s really not about the child sex abuse scandal. It’s about clericalism and patriarchy. I know patriarchy is less of an issue in Anglicanism and I’m pretty sure clericalism is as well. But I’m not “converting” to Anglicanism in the sense “Now I see the light! The Anglicans are the One True Church.” I’m just going where I’m allowed to say “I worship here, but I think those people over there are also, equally, following Jesus.” (10-4-18)

I’ll be talking in future blog entries about why, specifically, I felt I couldn’t stay Catholic without compromising my intellectual integrity and risking my relationship with God. But the sex abuse crisis was really just the thing that made me decide it was time to go. It wasn’t the cause. (10-4-18)

I don’t see the sex abuse crisis as the essential problem. I think that it’s the really ugly and obvious symptom of the underlying problem, which is essentially clericalism and patriarchy.

I also can’t make out what the difference between consubstantiation and transubstantiation actually is in terms that make actual sense. I think it’s almost certainly one of those disagreements that is more semantic than theological — I know that a group of theologians recently came to the conclusion that one of the big soteriological controversies basically amounted to “We pretty much mean the same thing but we have different definitions of the terms we’re using so it makes it look like we disagree.” I suspect that it might be a similar situation, with the word “substance” being used equivocally.

But honestly, even in the Catholic church it’s understood that a priest having an inadequate Eucharistic theology does not stop the Eucharist from happening. I don’t think Christ is sitting there thinking “No. This denomination didn’t quite describe the mystery with the ideal (completely inadequate) terminology, so I’m just not gonna come and be present in their sacrifice.” Basically, I don’t think the Eucharist works because we do the right things and think the right things. I think it works because the Good Shepherd wants to feed his flock. (10-2-18)

As far as the Eucharist goes, the only reason I ever had for considering the Eucharist to be the sole property of the Catholic Church (plus the Orthodox) is that the Church said so. A few months ago I was visiting my mother’s Anglican church, as I often do when I’m home for important religious holidays. It felt very much like I was in God’s presence there, and I prayed to be allowed to go home. You could think of it like asking for a transfer. I wasn’t given an answer at the time, but I’ve been praying and waiting on it and I finally got the go-ahead — or, at least, I think so. Discerning God’s will is always hard, but on the other hand, the same could be said of the discernment process that led me into the Catholic church in the first place.

Anyway, I consider the Anglican Eucharist to be valid and you’re allowed to be a transubstantiationist if you’re an Anglican. So that problem isn’t really one for me. (10-2-18)

[O]ne of the big issues that I have is that priests are men (in the gender exclusive sense.) I understand about warts and controversies, but the abuse scandal touched on a lot of other things for me — one of which is the fact that I can no longer buy that the hierarchy’s arguments for why we must have a specifically male hierarchy are being made in good faith. And that’s a bigger deal than some priests being evil (which I always understood to be the case.) [10-2-18]

I just don’t have the psychological resources right now to put up with an institution that treats me like a second class citizen, and then insists that this is how God intended it to be. [10-2-18]

I don’t think that the Anglican church is the One True Church. I think the catholic church is one, holy and apostolic — but that membership in it is not defined by fidelity to a particular hierarchical system. I see the church as being like a tree with branches. Or a vine. Or a mustard plant. A living thing that branches out in different directions. I’ve thought that for a long time now — that the insistence that the different churches are not in communion with one another is basically a matter of egos and resentments and not wanting to give up or share power on the parts of various different church leaderships. . . . I partly left because I no longer felt like it was intellectually honest to call myself a Catholic, given the degree to which I think the RCC is in serious error on certain points (like infallibility). I wanted to be able to fight the good fight without the cognitive dissonance. And I needed a safe place where I could take my kids and teach them about God without putting them in the firing line of homophobes and misogynists. (10-2-18)

So what (summarizing) are Melinda’s reasons? Is it not being able to follow Jesus and be led by the Holy Spirit in the Catholic Church? Or sexual abuse by priests and bishops? No: it’s “clericalism” and “patriarchy” (an all-male priesthood) and Anglican ecclesiology and belief that non-Catholic and non-Orthodox ordinations are valid,  in terms of the Real (Substantial) Presence taking place on other altars; and the homosexual issue.

Whether she ever held to the full Catholic teachings (the whole ball of wax) is for her to determine and discuss, if she wishes. But she sure disbelieves several elements of it now. Thus, it shouldn’t come as a big surprise if a person who believes what she has expressed, decides to leave the Catholic Church.

If you see me leave the Church, then you’ll be shocked, because I have firmly believed all of Catholic teaching and defended it, these past 28 years: with no end in sight.

We need to properly understand why people leave, so we can try our best to prevent folks from leaving in the future. If anyone wants to know why Catholics believe what we do, I’ve written about all these issues on my blog, with it’s 2000+ articles, and in my 50 books. It’s what apologists do.

We must know why we believe what we believe, or else we may find ourselves outside the door of the Church, by choice, or strongly tempted to bolt for the door. If we have inadequate reason to believe in something, then we will have no adequate reason to stay, once the critics come after us, and/or what we believe.

[see also discussion with Melinda (or, Mindy) underneath the cross-posting of this on my Facebook page]

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Photo credit: magica (3-12-17) [PixabayCC0 Creative Commons license]

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