The Big Tent and the Catholic Church

The Big Tent and the Catholic Church December 26, 2016
("Posthumous Portrait of Martin Luther as an Augustinian Monk," the Workshop of Lucas Cranach the Elder, after 1546. Source: Wikimedia, Creative Commons License).
(“Posthumous Portrait of Martin Luther as an Augustinian Monk,” the Workshop of Lucas Cranach the Elder, after 1546. Source: Wikimedia, Creative Commons License).

A[c] as I biheeld into the eest an heigh to the sonne,
I seigh a tour on a toft trieliche ymaked,
A deep dale bynethe, a dongeon therinne,
With depe diches and derke and dredfulle of sighte.
A fair feeld ful of folk fond I ther bitwene—
Of alle manere of men, the meene and the riche,
Werchynge and wandrynge as the world asketh. (Piers Plowman, B Text, Prologue, ll. 13-19)

These words come from the beginning of one of my favorite poems in the English language, a masterpiece deeply concerned with the manner and workings of communal and individual salvation in a fallen world filled with corrupt priests, shifty merchants, and braniac theologians disconnected from the realities of the Black Death-scarred English countryside. In case you have trouble with the Middle English, the lines might be summarized in a sentence: I saw a tower [heaven] and a dungeon [hell] and people of all types, rich and poor, but altogether wondrous, in between.

Langland means the world: Middle Earth, the place of being between hell and heaven, an image older than this poem and famously appropriated by Tolkien some 600 years later. In his England, however, virtually everyone was a Catholic, at least nominally. And so, we might not take this observation about “alle manere of men” to be just about the world but also about the Church. In sum, the Church ought to be multifarious. Who can separate the chaff from the wheat? Or, as Augustine asks of us: who can tell whose heart is truly dedicated to the City of God?

This is true of salvation, but how much more of the interpretive fecundity of our Sacred Tradition. Allow me to explain: recently a friend of mine decided to enter the Church; he is currently a Lutheran. I can’t remember if he has said it explicitly, but one thing has been clear about this conversion: he finds it liberating, comforting. In fact, he’s reminded me of something so fundamental to the Church, so unbelievably central to our way of being, that it ought to amaze us how easily we forget it: the Church is a big tent.

Banal? Sure. But true! Between the Dubia and the Culture Wars, you might be excused for forgetting this, but, it’s true: the definition of orthodoxy is a wide one. That is not to say that no boundaries exist; in fact, they exist for good reason: you can’t have meaning without delimitation. Too much delineation and you can’t save anyone, not enough and you end up Episcopalian.

This occurred to me because he is converting from Protestantism, which many Catholics associate with doctrinal laxity. That is true here and there, but is that what really the problem? When I look at Protestantism I see the primary issue as schism, not just with the Church, but with other Protestant sects. Yes, Lutherans left over some large theological issues (depending on how one reads the situation), but look at Protestantism today. Lots of churches aren’t in visible unity not because they have differing positions on the Eucharist, or Mariology, or the nature of the Trinity—no. They’re in disunity because some only read the KJV and disavow anyone who uses another translation. Others have broken over the use of hymnals. The phenomenon of non-denominationalism only further feeds the fire.

As I’ve heard many a Protestant friend say: well, I didn’t like that church (or its pastor), so I found another one.

Some Protestants go the opposite route, of course: they emphasize commonality and ignore, or under-emphasize, differences. But that has little to do with my point here.

When I look at the Catholic Church, I see the opposite of this. I see Byzantines and Latins, West-Syriacs and Syro-Malabars. I see various modes of praying, different ways of working out salvation in distinct, but fundamentally agreeable, languages. But it goes beyond individual traditions. Our unity also means the possibility of diverse interpretations of fundamental doctrine. Ours is a Church big enough both for Dorothy Day and George Weigel, for William Cavanaugh and Edward Feser. In the first case, one might be totally opposed to Modern war as fundamentally unjust. Alternatively, one might think many contemporary conflicts justly fought. Your view hinges on how you interpret the universal doctrine of just war. One Faith with a variety of valid practical applications.

And that is merely one example. I think also of Aquinas, whose philosophical ideas would, in the wake of the re-discovery of Aristotle, change much about theological approaches in the Church. Many of his contemporaries were Augustinians (arguably, Augustine was Aquinas before Aquinas). Today, though Thomism dominates in the West, the Church is home to a variety of theological approaches. Even at the macro-level there are still Scotists, Thomists, and Augustinians, among others. And that’s not even to mention the fusionistic theologies found along the way. Here one might look to the Neoplatonic, Pseudo-Dionysian Thomism of Meister Eckhart or the Marxian Thomism of Fr. Herbert McCabe.

Again, and to repeat myself, this is not to say that the Catholic Church provides license for belief in whatever one wishes. Instead, I mean to highlight how diverse and beautiful unity truly is; schism results in more schism, while obedience flowers in orthodox diversity. This lesson is timely, perhaps, but also timeless.

This is what Augustine taught against the phyletism of the Donatists and the rigorism of the Pelagians; it is, after all, what Paul himself wrote:

As a body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons, and we were all given to drink of one Spirit. Now the body is not a single part, but many. (1 Corinthians 12:12-14)


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