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Reformation day revisited, from the other side of the Tiber

Reformation day revisited, from the other side of the Tiber October 31, 2018

Three years ago, I wrote this rather polemical piece attacking the celebration of “Reformation Day” by Protestants. I still stand by what I wrote there. But, in my usual contrarian fashion, now that I’ve been a Catholic for a year and a half, I have a renewed appreciation for Protestant spirituality. I never rejected that aspect of Protestantism, and I still have problems with the Reformation as a norm. But I’m now much more sympathetic than I used to be to the language many Protestants use about Luther’s teachings as a rediscovery of the Gospel, a source of spiritual liberation.

One of the reasons for this shift is just that I’m a contrarian and always see the other side. As a Protestant I was always siding with Catholics. Now that I’m a Catholic I tend to side with Protestants.

But there’s another reason too. For the past year and a half I have attended the sacrament of confession quite regularly (sometimes as often as every week, sometimes more like every month/six weeks). I now think that no one can really appreciate Luther who hasn’t done this.

The sacrament is, in many ways, a great source of spiritual strength and comfort to me. And contra Luther, I think that the mortal/venial sin distinction can actually help avoid scrupulosity and despair. (If you haven’t committed an objectively serious act with full knowledge and consent, it’s not a mortal sin.) But trying to follow Catholic teaching on confession, and particularly on reception of the Eucharist, really does become difficult. It feels as if you are in a “state of grace” for brief moments at a time. I’ve even read conservative Catholic authors suggesting that most of us should expect to spend much of our lives in a state of unworthiness to receive Communion. At some point in the past year and a half, all of this has stopped feeling like a source of grace and has become more of a set of hoops to jump through. And when I feel that way, I feel once again the power of Luther’s teaching that jumping through hoops is fundamentally not the point, that God’s grace surrounds and precedes and enables us rather than waiting for us to meet the right conditions to receive it. (Yes, I know that Catholic theology teaches prevenient grace.) Ironically, confession is for me most lifegiving when I approach it in a Lutheran spirit, as an admission of my own inability to save myself and a humble acceptance of God’s forgiving and transforming grace.

The bigger problem here is that my desire to become Catholic in the first place was driven by my wish to “get it right,” to follow God’s will, to open myself to grace by living up to the truth I believed I had seen.  And now I’m not sure that whole quest for rightness and purity was one I should have been on in the first place.

None of this is really new. For years before becoming Catholic I argued that perhaps we should all just live in the brokenness and find God’s grace in it as best we could, a la Ephraim Radner. But this always felt like a cop-out. And so I took the leap–I tried to follow what I thought God was calling me to do. And after a year and a half of it I feel exhausted and torn apart.

This kind of “post-conversion blues” is pretty common. People get through it. But the one good thing about it is that I finally think I understand Luther.


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