I was recently interviewed by JD Mays of the Army of One blog. Army of One is part of a large network of "God blogs" -- blogs which have something to do with God. Herewith, and with Mr. Mays' kind permission, is the interview in its entirety. Mr. Mays -- who, I gather, is a Reformed Christian -- says he may take up the cudgels on several points. I look forward to hearing from him, and thank him again for the original interview and permission to post it here. Mr. Mays' words are in blue, mine in black.
You've chosen a Spy Theme for your blog. Other than the fact that it sounds kind of cool are there any reasons for this theme?
Thanks! It started out as my shame-faced way of posting on a message board after I had, with every good intention and very publicly, sworn of message-board posting for Lent. I got ahold of some websites for various anti-popes (guys who think, for some delusional reasons, that they're the pope and that John Paul II is not the pope). There's Lucian Pulvermacher, a/k/a Pius XIII, who's somewhere in the pacific northwest, and then there's "Pope" Michael I in Delia, Kansas (who, if memory serves, has proclaimed the Atkins diet as the official Catholic diet ex cathedra). So I did fisks of their websites and posted them under the name "SecretAgentMan." After that, I just kind of kept the name. There are other reasons as well, of course, one of them being that I don't want to get my vanity mixed up in my writing, which is hard enough to do even using a pseudonym.
Did you ever buy that "History of Food" book that captivated your attention so much?
Yes, I did! It's a wonderful book, although you can't sit around reading it for hours at a time like you could other books. There's too much, you have to slow down and take it in bits and pieces, like a good meal. You have to linger over it, returning occasionally to sample some more. There's no end to the fascinating information in that book. For example, the author notes that the Church didn't consider vegetable oil to be prohibited by fasting regulations but did consider butter to be proscribed, levying rather large payments for indulgences allowing the holder to use butter during periods of fasting. He goes on to consider the fact that most of "Reformation country" (Germany, Scandinavia, England) relied on butter, as opposed to olive oil, for its shortening, and wonders if the onerous burdens created by the Roman system didn't play some role in heightening, or piquing, ordinary peoples' resentment. He's a responsible author, and so he doesn't imply that the Reformation was about butter or anything silly like that. But it's an interesting coincidence of fact insofar as people tend not to embrace revolutionary upheaval unless they feel entirely and inescapably oppressed; taxing and controlling food, doing it in God's name on a culturally-discriminatory basis, is certainly one way to generate a perception of oppression that can itself open or increase individual awareness of larger quarrels.
You seem to be to the right of center in the political spectrum but I can't tell by reading your blog if you are a Libertarian or a Republican or some combination thereof. Who do you tend to support for political office?
I'm definitely not a libertarian. You can't refuse to employ the power of the community against gross evils like prostitution, slavery, and drug-peddling and obey Christ. But that's what libertarianism, strictly defined, means. Now there are people who use "libertarian" as more or less a synonym for favoring economic freedom and private property, but I'm not using that definition in my answer. I tend to favor Republicans because their fascism is much slower and more haphazard than the Democrats'. I'd probably better explain that by pointing out that fascism isn't the same thing as anti-Semitism or a kooky pan-Germanism. Fascism is a serious, though evil, political philosophy. Its real progenitor was Mussolini, who described the fascist attitude thus:
Anti-individualistic, the Fascist conception of life stresses the importance of the State and accepts the individual only in so far as his interests coincide with those of the State, which stands for the conscience and the universal, will of man as a historic entity. It is opposed to classical liberalism which arose as a reaction to absolutism and exhausted its historical function when the State became the expression of the conscience and will of the people. Liberalism denied the State in the name of the individual; Fascism reasserts the rights of the State as expressing the real essence of the individual.Fascism is a direct and open repudiation of the Kingship of Jesus Christ, described so wonderfully in Pius XI's 1925 encyclical Quas Primas. (Which proclaimed the Feast of Christ the King in direct rebuke of Mussolini). The essential outlines of Mussolini's system have been in place for a long time in our education, our culture, our government -- what is Roe v. Wade if not an example of "the State expressing the real essence of the individual" to the exclusion of unborn children? How could abortion and pornography thrive in the United States without our belief that "the State is all embracing; outside of it no human or spiritual values can exist, much less have value"? I could go on and on about this topic, but basically I support (some) Republicans because they're generally ambivalent about the progress of fascism. Democrats, on the other hand, have long since stopped worrying about it. But I wouldn't call myself a Republican by any means.
And if liberty is to he the attribute of living men and not of abstract dummies invented by individualistic liberalism, then Fascism stands for liberty, and for the only liberty worth having, the liberty of the State and of the individual within the State. The Fascist conception of the State is all embracing; outside of it no human or spiritual values can exist, much less have value. Thus understood, Fascism, is totalitarian, and the Fascist State - a synthesis and a unit inclusive of all values - interprets, develops, and potentates the whole life of a people."
Apparently, you're a lawyer of some sort. What led you to that profession?
I'm not really sure. It's certainly not the profession I would have chosen for myself.
Many Catholics feel that the Iraq War was not a just war. They think it was wrong to go to war against Iraq. What do you think?
Well, I guess I need to start out by distancing myself from the"Oh God, we're so corrupt and evil, how dare we defend our society so long as one child remains hungry" bunch who oppose the war. Most of my "writing" about the Iraq war is long lost, since it was only posted on Gary Hoge's message board (which is a great place to visit, by the way) and they don't keep extensive logs of old posts. I don't think the war was "just" inasmuch as a just war has to be conducted according to lawful authority, and the only lawful authority the United States has, by treaty, is the UN Charter which authorizes the use of military force only with the consent of the Security Council or when a threat to national security is so immanent and direct that it is unrealistic to consult the Council. I never heard anything -- including Colin Powell's presentation to the Security Council -- which convinced me Iraq posed that kind of dire threat to the United States. I heard proof that Iraq had an evil and murderous regime, which harbored nothing but malice toward its people, its neighbors and the United States, and that it might have had weapons of mass destruction. If that's enough for us to invade Iraq, then it's enough for me to shoot my neighbor if he's a mean, wife-beating son-of-bitch who hates me and owns a gun. And the Security Council refused to authorize our attack. That about did it for me; I'm not in love with the United Nations. I think it's an insidious organization in many ways. But as long as we're publicly binding ourselves to the Charter then we ought to abide by the Charter.
More to the point, I think the invasion of Iraq was an enormous blunder. It was the brainchild of some very miseducated people who think there's meaning to the term "nation building." Clinton tried that in Somalia, but there's no such thing as a "cultural erector-set" that you can take overseas and spend fifteen minutes (or fifteen years) putting together to build a civilization. The rise of modern Western institutions took about 500 years, all of it was unplanned and brought about by historical accidents and unintended consequences. I simply don't understand a contrary view which ignores religion, culture, and historical experience as guides to the future of a nation and focuses entirely on typing up grand plans for a "free and democratic Iraq" on computers running off the Fourth Infantry Division's portable generators. That's hyperbole, of course, but that's still the sum and substance of how we're going about "civilizing" Iraq. What did Mussolini say? "The Fascist conception of the State is all embracing; outside of it no human or spiritual values can exist, much less have value. Thus understood, Fascism, is totalitarian, and the Fascist State - a synthesis and a unit inclusive of all values - interprets, develops, and potentates the whole life of a people." I can see how, starting there, one ends up with the idea that we can create a whole culture of laws, customs, and politics simply by tinkering with the form of Iraq's state. Unfortunately, I fear all we will end up having done is unseat a dangerous dictator so that the equally-dangerous passions of millions of his former slaves can be unleashed against one another and ourselves. We've made the United States an irredeemable object of disdain, distrust, and outright hatred in every other Arab and Muslim country in the world without any appreciable increase in U.S. security. We shouldn't evaluate our policy on the stark question of whether the U.S. is "safer" now that Saddam is out of power -- of course we are, but the increased safety is both marginal and, if recent events in Iraq are any indication, temporary. I think our policy guarantees that a future Iraq will be ruled by a regime eager to prove that it's not "tainted" by the "Great Satan" and which will, therefore, engage in even more anti-American activity -- perhaps by actually acquiring weapons of mass destruction and actually sponsoring Al-Qaeda or whatever nefarious group replaces it on the world stage.
You've written, "Television is a lice-ridden drunk. Why do I keep saying that? Because if you watch television long enough, you'll see the kind of things you'd see if you hung out with a lice-ridden drunk." There's a lot of truth to that. However, when you do watch television what do you regularly watch?
I don't really watch anything regularly. The last TV series I followed with any kind of consistency (a good deal of consistency, really) was Babylon5. I liked its open repudiation of Gene Rodenberry's vision of the future, which is essentially that everything comes up roses after we toss 10,000 years of human experience out the window in favor of the sentiments in John Lenon's "Imagine." (Kudos to Star Trek's Deep Space Nine series for Commander Eddington's pithy speech about the Federation, and Quark's analogizing the Federation to root beer "soft, sweet, bubbly -- it's insidious!"). I particularly enjoyed B5's open embrace of religion, including Christianity, via Catholic characters like Brother Theo and also Brother Edward in the "Passing Through Gethsemane" episode. Unfortunately the series had an ending that was as mindlessly humanistic and dramatically easy as anything Gene Rodenberry could want. But you take the bitter with the sweet when it comes to television.
I sometimes watch the History Channel, at least on those occasions when it's not obsessing about Adolf Hitler or running stupid shows about Jesus and Christianity. "American Choppers" is amusing, as are reruns of the first year of "Law and Order." Every once in a while there's a decent movie on AMC, Bravo, or the Sci-Fi Channel. CSPAN's programs are worth watching, especially if they're in-depth profiles of authors; I could watch their interview with Shelby Foote over and over again. The political programs are less interesting -- seeing Colin Powell, Orrin Hatch or Ted Kennedy flap their gums is about as edifying as watching my dog chew nits. With people like that at the helm, this country's in for rough times. Yes, I'm a tad cynical about our prospects. Always have been, so take that for what it's worth depending on your view of our prospects.
I find that most of my television experiences are gained via DVD. You can control the content, and sometimes the content's not half bad. I'm currently working my way through Star Trek's DS9 series, which is also more serious about religion than most modern television even if the religious content is repackaged inside an invented culture (Bajor's) and equipped with a materialistic escape hatch ("wormhole aliens" rather than "prophets"). Kai Winn's slide into apostasy is very well done, both intellectually (via pursuit of the Pa Wraiths) and symbolically (her union with Gul Dukat), and the conflict between good and evil is tantalizingly worked out in the way it always is -- in a "real" world which plausibly (but only plausibly) provides a solely-materialistic explanation for people who can't see very much.
Television can also give one a good glimpse of the dementia of modern culture. We're probably the first civilization to openly celebrate dumbness, depravity and decay "live" on a 24/7 basis. MTV is a good way to see that sort of thing. Now I don't recommend watching MTV with any frequency, but there's sometimes the odd bit of value in the programming. For example, once you've seen a single episode of "Newlyweds" you've acquired some interesting evangelical material. The show's proof of the shallowness of materialism. There aren't two people on the face of the earth who are dumber and less talented than Nick and Jessica. If one of them ever had an idea, he or she would instantly become unrecognizable to the other. But they are rich, and live a life of great luxury, which goes to prove that riches and luxury don't produce an admirable life, one which has importance, meaning, and a sense of inherent responsibility to the larger causes of the human race. And Road Rules? The French nobility at Versailles, or the country-house set of 1920s England, look like Plato's Symposium compared to the brainless, amoral stumbling one sees on that show. Who on earth wants to actually live like those people? No one, really, and that makes MTV an occasionally-useful resource for guerilla evangelism.
Not long ago I was doing a fair amount of evangelical work with young people (people in their late teens and early 20s). One thing that interested me is that they all watched MTV. The other thing that interested me is how they all harbor a tacit animosity to MTV and what it stands for. They were almost eager to despise it, because I think deep down they could easily identify the shallow commercialism that motivates every "avante garde" and "rebellious" thing MTV pretends to do. I won't say that MTV is some kind of school for Christ; I think trying to reach people through MTV (as the Diocese of Providence, Rhode Island has tried to do) is a fool's errand which can only interest fools. But the Church Fathers weren't squeamish about describing what went on at the games, and so there's something to be said for knowing how to point out the lice and the stink of alcohol on the next flashy drunk to wander across your TV screen. (And, too, there's an aspect of guilty pleasure involved. The fastest way to feel like John Savage is to turn on the Brave New World television network!)
I fear I've spent a good deal of time talking about MTV, which wasn't my intention. It certainly doesn't reflect the amount of time I spend watching that perpetual celebration of all that is bland, mediocre, and trashy in the human condition.
One of the things I appreciate about Catholicism is that it has reinforced a set of moral values and stuck with them throughout history. Issues such as abortion and homosexuality which seem to be "up for debate" in a lot of Protestant denominations are still solidly held in the Catholic church. Why do you think this is the case?
This reminds me of a remark by John Paul II about the crisis in the Balkans. He said there were two possible solutions, the miraculous and the mundane. The mundane solution, he said, was for Jesus to send the Blessed Virgin with ten legions of angels and restore justice and harmony to the region. The miraculous solution, he said, was for the people living there to achieve justice and harmony. In a similar way there are two reasons for the Church's - relative - steadfastness on traditional moral teaching. The mundane reason is that the Holy Spirit guides the Catholic Church and so the gates of Hell will not prevail against her. The miraculous reason is that God has established the Church so that her legitimacy is inextricably bound up with the idea of an infallible and constant magisterium. Even if Bishops wanted to legitimize abortion and homosexual marriages (and it wouldn't surprise me if there were one or two who did), the act itself would indubitably expose the entire Catholic edifice as a sham. I realize that answer provokes many more questions, but that's it in a nutshell.
When Protestants say "The Church" I think they are using a somewhat different definition than Catholics. So...when I say "The Church" what does that mean to you?
There are so many meanings for that word in Catholicism. It can mean the visible structure of the Church on earth, the papacy, the bishops, the laity, etc. It can also mean what Protestants take it to exclusively mean -- the invisible community of God's friends. It can mean something of both perspectives. The nuances are why the Second Vatican Council deliberately chose the word "subsistare" in Lumen Gentium:
This is the one Church of Christ which in the Creed is professed as one, holy, catholic and apostolic, which our Saviour, after His Resurrection, commissioned Peter to shepherd, and him and the other apostles to extend and direct with authority, which He erected for all ages as "the pillar and mainstay of the truth". This Church constituted and organized in the world as a society, subsists ["subsistare"] in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him, although many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of its visible structure. These elements, as gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, are forces impelling toward catholic unity.You don't seem to like Bishop Spong a whole lot. What do you think is the best way to defeat him and those like him?
Heh. I don't. Not because he's a heretic. It's because he's such a silly, puling, ridiculous heretic. I think the best remedy for that nonsense is ridicule, and plenty of it. The Bible enjoins us not to answer fools according to their folly. If one treats the Spongs, Crossans, and Drinans of the world as though they were serious figures, noteworthy examples of Christian life with significant things to say about our faith, one has ignored good Biblical advice (as well as the entire content of the Bible).
What do you think is causing the growth of evangelical fundamentalism?
As the barbarian invasions produced refugees in early-medieval Europe, the barbarian onslaught on American society and its mainline Christian denominations is producing a similar agitation.
Do you think Priests should be able to marry? Or at the very least, do you think there are some changes that should be made in the Priesthood?
Married men can be priests the East. Men marry before ordination (usually about 24 hours before ordination), and my understanding is that they are not allowed to remarry should they become widowers after ordination and married men may not be elevated to episcopacy. (I think that's true for both the eastern-rite churches in communion with Rome and for those not in communion with Rome). In the Western tradition, celibacy has been the preferred discipline for clergy from the earliest centuries of the Church. Personally, I don't think that discipline should be relaxed. A celibate priest is a walking rebuke to the unwholesome desires of the world and an inspiration to follow Christ in chastity, the use of one's sexuality in a way proper to one's state in life. I know that my priest's only, and entire, loyalty lies with the Church which, for him, is both wife and child. His celibacy is an undeniable commitment to that paternal relationship, and while there are priests who don't even try to live up to that standard, I think religious celibacy is a very wholesome aspect of Catholicism. It's interesting to note how few priests, either proportionately to the whole priesthood, or in comparison with other professions or ministries where men are married, are involved in criminal or scandalous sexual activity. To me that says, "See, it is possible to live chastely. God will provide." The root of the sexual scandals in the Church is essentially a disbelief in the reality of Jesus Christ as King of an eternal moral universe which will triumph over conflicting human desires. Celibacy is a direct repudiation of that disbelief, not a cause of it.
What follows is mostly conjecture and surmise. I would like to see bishops selected from a candidate pool of priests who have served as pastors for at least 15 years and who are no more than five years removed from direct, primary responsibility for a parish or religious community. I suspect that many, if not most, American bishops have been on an "episcopal career-track" and spent far more time in chanceries and bureaucracies than parishes, and I think the overall tone of leadership suffers for it. Perhaps it was easier for Cardinal Law (41 years' service, 12 years as a priest ending 30 years ago, then 29 years as a bishop) to perceive Fr. Shanley as a "personnel problem" than a ravening wolf because of that difference in focus. It's not that Law "didn't care," but that his care was filtered through a managerial perspective which perhaps left him less aware of the best way to solve that problem. That's just a suspicion, however, and I'd be happy to let anyone correct me on it.
As a protestant, the whole idea of confession to a priest has mystified me. Why would the priest have anything to do with the whole forgiveness? Isn't that why Jesus died on the cross, so that I wouldn't need a Priest to intercede for me?
It depends on the view one takes of God's involvement with human life. I would say that Jesus died on the cross so that men could share the joy of confession and absolution, contrition and penance, and the joy of praying for one another on earth and in Heaven. If that seems vain or presumptuous, I'd point out that from the same standpoint one could say it's vain or presumptuous to say that Jesus died for us at all: "It's vain to contend that Jesus died 'for us.' Soli Deo Gloria! Jesus died for God's glory, not man's!" To do that sort of thing only requires imaginarily pitting one truth of Christianity against the others and talking as though you can't believe them all simultaneously. But Jesus died 'for us' and soli deo gloria because God glories in the divine and triumphant condescension of the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection. When it comes to priestly absolution and saintly intercession, Catholics just think God's condescension know no bounds, in that He entrusts men even with a share in His work.
To a Catholic, questions like yours sound nonsensical and frustrating, like asking, "Why would a doctor have anything to do with the whole idea of healing? Isn't Jesus the only healer we need?" There are a few Protestants who have continued that line of thought, going so far as to reject either modern medical care or even any medical care whatsoever. The Catholic Bible contains the Book of Sirach (Ecclesiasticus), in which God, the author of Scripture, says:
My son, in thy sickness be not negligent: but pray unto the Lord, and he will make thee whole. Leave off from sin, and order thine hands aright, and cleanse thy heart from all wickedness. Give a sweet savour, and a memorial of fine flour; and make a fat offering, as not being. Then give place to the physician, for the Lord hath created him: let him not go from thee, for thou hast need of him. There is a time when in their hands there is good success. For they shall also pray unto the Lord, that he would prosper that, which they give for ease and remedy to prolong life. He that sinneth before his Maker, let him fall into the hand of the physician.Commenting on confession and penance, St. Jerome thought of the same analogy:-- Sirach 38:9-15 (KJV).
"If the serpent, the devil, bites someone secretly, he infects that person with the venom of sin. And if the one who has been bitten keeps silence and does not do penance, and does not want to confess his wound to his brother and to his master, who have the word that will cure him, cannot very well assist him. For if the sick man is ashamed to confess his wound to the physician, medicine will not cure that to which it is not applied."To a Catholic, it seems quite sensible to conclude that God, who created men to do His healing work in this world, also created men to do His spiritual work as well. That such men exist doesn't prevent God from healing or forgiving miraculously, without the involvement of men. But still God creates men and expects them to rely on one another in His service.-- Commentary on Ecclesiastes, 10:11.
Protestants believe this somehow denies God's sovereignty, and that attitude totally mystifies me. How is it denying God's sovereignty to say that when a priest absolves sin, he does it because God is more powerful than evil? The answer I usually hear at that point is your question -- if God is doing it all anyway, why do we need priests and saints? That leaves me wondering, "Well, then what the heck are we here for to begin with?" Certainly God wants us here for some reason, and I can heartily agree that it's to witness to His glory and sovereignty, but how that witness can be accomplished without participating in His work is beyond me. I'm sorry if that sounds a bit pugnacious, but I just really am stumped at the source of this particular criticism of Catholic doctrine.
If all we had was the Bible in it's present form today. Do you think Catholicism would still look the same?
Ahh, but if the Bible were really "all" we had, then our God would be a very cruel God wouldn't He? Without the divine person of the God-Man, Jesus Christ, the Bible would be at best a standing unalterable condemnation of man or at worst a sheer waste of paper. What good would it do for us to have the Beatitudes without the Person who grants the grace to understand and live them? How could we avoid damnation by the Beatitudes themselves without His forgiveness and merciful sacrifice? I understand that's not really your question, but I think it's important to say nonetheless. There are too many Protestants who think Catholics only believe in "the Church and the Sacraments" and not Jesus, and too many Catholics who think Protestants only believe in "the Bible" and not Jesus. It's important that we keep praising His name to one another so that our mutual suspicions can be lessened or prevented.
When you say "the Bible in its present form today," I want to know which present form -- with or without dueterocanonicals like Sirach/Ecclesiasticus; the NIV, KJV, or Douai-Rheims translation? Do we read the angel's salutation to Mary in Luke 1:28 as "hail, thou who art highly favored" (KJV) or "hail, full of grace" (DRV)? The Douai-Rheims Bible translates Matthew 6:11 as "give us this day our supersubstantial bread," whereas the King James and Revised Standard translations render it as "daily bread." To make matters more complicated, the American Catholic Bishops have produced a Bible (NAB) which translates Luke 1:28 as "Hail, favored one!" and Matthew 6:11 as "daily bread." To believe in sola scriptura one must affirm that Scripture is the word of God and infallible "in the autographs." But we do not have the autographs. Whose transcription of the autographs should we depend on -- St. Jerome's in the Vulgate? The scholars who produced different renderings of 1 John 5's proof (or non-proof, depending) of the Trinity? (Compare 1 John 5:7 in the 1611 KJV with the same passage in the RSV, NIV, NKJV, etc.). I think one undeniable fact of life in Christ is that Church vouchsafes Scripture, not the other way around. (I leave open the identity of "Church" in that statement, since the idea of vouchsafing Scripture, broadly conceived, doesn't itself require "Romanism"). I think even Scripture attests to this, for our Lord says "the sheep follow him: for they know his voice." John 10:4 (KJV). So, I guess I have to reply that I don't think I can really answer your question. We've never had "only" the Bible. God is too generous and merciful to allow that. Catholics and Protestants agree on this, even if they view the particulars of our divine accompaniment differently.
But, if you're asking where I am on the "material sufficiency / partim-partim debate" regarding Tradition and Scripture, I really don't see merit in the distinction, since Scripture and Tradition have a dynamic interrelationship within the Church's ongoing contemplation of Christ. I don't agree with the more radical "material sufficiency" folks, who sometimes give the impression that you can have sola scriptura Catholicism -- i.e., Catholicism with all its facets growing without the possibility of error from the Scriptures by a process that only differs in degree from completing a jigsaw puzzle. Nor do I agree with the more radical "partim-partim" folks, who sometimes give the impression that God withheld a secret gnosis from the faithful so that he could tell, shibboleth-style, the "real Christians" from the ones who only accepted the written part of His revelation. The existence of Catholicism and Presbyterianism is irrefutable proof that one finds in Scripture what one is predisposed to find via a guiding hermeneutic which is Scriptural, Traditional, spiritual, cultural, familial, historical -- in all the things that God has allowed to make a man. The relationship of Scripture and Tradition occurs within that landscape, and so I think it's ill-advised to regard them as insufficient (radical "partim-partim" theology) or redundant (radical "material sufficiency" theology).
Do you think that receiving communion saves a person from hell?
Yes. No. Forgive me, but I might better answer by a question. Do you think reading the Bible saves a person from Hell? To the extent one answers "Yes," he's making a host (no pun intended) of conclusions about the alignment, if you will, of the Bible, the soul and God. One can answer "no" simply by refusing to make those assumptions or even by making hostile assumptions, such as referring (per the Biblical example) to Satan's use of Scripture recounted in Matthew Chapter 4. The Apostles were very clear that both Scripture and the Eucharist could harm or heal depending on the individual's relationship with the God who made them both. (2 Peter 3:15-16; 1 Cor. 11:29). In the Eucharist and Scripture, God takes hold of the human person -- what happens to the human person can be as wonderful as the Transfiguration or more terrible than Pharaoh's death. Our hope is to seek His grace and be ready, for His day will come like a thief in the night. Fortunately, our God will always ensure that we find such grace because He is a kind and loving Father.
Is the Pope infallible? Does he have the power to forgive sins?
I hope you won't be offended if I reply that the first question has an inherent unclarity which is the cause of a lot of misunderstanding, and I'd like to do what I can to avoid that. Infallibility isn't a fixed status. It's a quality which may be potential or actual. So asking if the Pope "is infallible" is like asking if Joe "is smart." Sometimes Joe does or says smart things, and sometimes he doesn't. But even when we realize that Joe has said something dumb, we still call him "smart" because we're referring to his capability and not to every action which might possibly involve it. We can say that "the pope is infallible" in the same way we can say "Joe received a Ph.D.," namely to denote some abstract ability, or we can say "Pius IX infallibly proclaimed the Immaculate Conception" in the same way we can say "Joe was really smart to connect the presence of clouds with rain," namely to denote a particular use of the ability. In neither case, however, are we committed to believing everything Pius IX or Joe ever said is infallibly true, or even smart.
At this point I should like to go a little further and point out some things which may be very unfamiliar to Protestants. Protestants' experience with divinely-assured truth is bounded by a particular understanding of Scripture which commits them, quite understandably, to identify infallibility only with regard to Scripture and thus as inseparable from other things also identified with Scripture, namely divinity, revelation and inspiration. So I think that when they address papal infallibility they assume, quite naturally but quite incorrectly, that Catholicism regards papal infallibility as an inspired, revelatory act by a divine figure who adds more Scripture to the Gospel. That papal infallibility has often affirmed ideas which contradict the orthodoxy held by Protestants heightens this confusion, since infallible proclamations like Ineffabilis Deus are read from a paradigm that already says the Immaculate Conception appears "nowhere in Scripture." The Catholic biblical exegesis which produced, literally through many centuries, the dogmatic conclusion in Ineffabilis Deus is not "on the radar screen," so to speak, of the Protestant mind. Thus the idea of Pius IX proclaiming that dogma seems far more like the idea of Moses going back to Sinai to get a third tablet than the reasonable conclusion of pre-existing and time- honored streams of thought about grace, redemption, sanctity, and the place of man in God's universe. This isn't to suggest that all Protestant disagreement with papal infallibility is the result of a misunderstanding. It's only by way of explaining why so much Protestant disagreement with papal infallibility is plagued by misunderstandings.
I noted above our Lord's words, "the sheep follow him: for they know his voice." John 10:4 (KJV). That's what infallibility is all about -- the sheep knowing the shepherd's voice. Infalliblity is a divine help, which in Scripture accompanies inspiration and revelation, but which in a particular exercise of the pope's office isn't accompanied by them. Infallibility is a guarantee that the Church, in communion with the Pope, will never bind man's conscience to blasphemy, apostasy, or error. The Church, in communion with the Pope, will by God's grace bind men to the Gospel, the whole Gospel, and nothing but the Gospel. I understand that there are arguments that the uses for which the charism is claimed are not, in fact, the Gospel. But an adequate appreciation of (or dispute with) the dogma of infallibility must recognize that the charism is not a generative faculty. It creates nothing. It affirms and expresses what "the Church", conceived simultaneously as a divine and human institution participating in eternity and passing through history, has always been told by God. Thus "papal infallibility" is an exercise of a gift which Christ grants to His whole Church, so conceived. All that having been said, then yes, of course the Pope is infallible when he undertakes to perform that part of his office which has been blessed by that gift. This brings us to a host of other contentious issues ranging from critiques of Newman's theory of doctrinal development within Christianity to quarrels about the ambiguity which the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church declared by the First Vatican Council allows in the identification of infallible statements, but I've gone on long enough and will leave it at that.
As to the pope's power to forgive sins, he has no special ability apart from that of my parish priest. He obtains his power to absolve by his ordination as a priest. There are rare cases in which Canon Law reserves absolution to the Bishop, or even to the Pope himself, but that is a matter of discipline rather than the nature of the sacramental ministry of confession per se..
I understand and believe in what is known as "The Apostles Creed". Are there any additional things that I must believe in order to be saved?
I think the necessary degree of congruence between one's orthodoxy and salvation is a difficult topic. Your selection of the Apostles' Creed is a good example of the problem. I would say that if Protestants understood "born of the Virgin Mary," they would understand that Mary is ever-virgin and that the "brothers and sisters" of the Lord are not Mary's offspring; if they understood "the holy catholic church" they would understand that it is in communion with the Pope; if they understood "the forgiveness of sins" they would know about regeneration by the sacrament of baptism, about confession and penance; and that if they understood "the communion of saints" they would invoke Mary and the other saints to pray for them. But they don't understand those things and, as a result, don't believe in large and significant parts of the Gospel. You, no doubt, would note that I'm a Roman Catholic and say that I'm actually the one who doesn't understand those articles of the Creed and who doesn't believe large and significant parts of the Gospel. I'm fond of saying that the differences between Catholics and Protestants are fundamental, and this makes them more (not less) difficult to understand. This is a good example of the paradox; we say the same Creed, but we identify it with greatly-divergent theologies and ways of living Christianity.
So, given that the larger portion of my faith is (according to a Reformed perspective) heresy at best, is there any hope I might nonetheless be saved? From what I can tell, the stress which Reformed Christians (and not a few Evangelicals) put on doctrinal orthodoxy as a necessary sign of a happy predestination forbids a favorable answer:
Multitudes undoubtedly believe that God is, and admit the truth of the Gospel History, and the other parts of Scripture, in the same way in which they believe the records of past events, or events which they have actually witnessed. There are some who go even farther: they regard the Word of God as an infallible oracle; they do not altogether disregard its precepts, but are moved to some degree by its threatening and promises. To such the testimony of faith is attributed, but by catachresis; because they do not with open impiety impugn, reject, or condemn, the Word of God, but rather exhibit some semblance of obedience. . . . . But as this shadow or image of faith is of no moment, so it is unworthy of the name. . . .This all seems eminently reasonable to me, given Protestantism's commitment to the mind's translucency as regards the Gospel, and even more reasonable if one believes that grace is irresistible. Some Catholics are offended when the Reformed debate whether we're Christians, but I think the question (if taken, as it should be, within the context of Reformed theology) is unobjectionable.
I am aware it seems unaccountable to some how faith is attributed to the reprobate, seeing that it is declared by Paul to be one of the fruits of election; and yet the difficulty is easily solved: for though none are enlightened into faith, and truly feel the efficacy of the Gospel, with the exception of those who are fore-ordained to salvation, yet experience shows that the reprobate are sometimes affected in a way so similar to the elect, that even in their own judgment there is no difference between them. . . .
Still it is correctly said, that the reprobate believe God to be propitious to them, inasmuch as they accept the gift of reconciliation, though confusedly and without due discernment; not that they are partakers of the same faith or regeneration with the children of God; but because, under a covering of hypocrisy, they seem to have a principle of faith in common with them. Nor do I even deny that God illumines their minds to this extent, that they recognize his grace; but that conviction he distinguishes from the peculiar testimony which he gives to his elect in this respect, that the reprobate never attain to the full result or to fruition.-- Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book III, Chapter 2, §§ 9-11.
I don't want to be uneven in my appreciation of the problem. Catholicism also has a theological impulse towards doctrinal orthodoxy as a criteria of salvation. Some, for example Fr. Feeney, go too far in their estimation of the doctrinal rigor required for salvation. The rigorists only sometimes take direction from an (erroneous) belief in irresistable grace or transposing sola scriptura's belief in the clarity of the saved mind onto the statements of the Magisterium. Mostly, I think, the rigorist attitude results from an excessively-juridical idea of the Church; rigorists enjoy quoting Unam Sanctam repeatedly as though this settled the issue of whether non-Catholics can be saved. That's a mistake, because Boniface VIII was juridically applying a theological principle to a political-ecclesiastical dispute within Catholicism and so quite naturally spoke in a juridical idiom which, however appropriate to that dispute, does not (and was not intended to) blithely address the state of modern schisms or their adherents without further effort. This juridical paradigm was easily applied to the Reformers themselves, many of whom were Catholic clergy acting contrary to vows, and to their followers who had (or were presumed to have had) adequate catechism and instruction in the faith. But the relevance of a moral argument may change. It may become more, or less, just as the case to which it is put changes. Post-Reformation Protestants may go through their entire lives without ever having had a meaningful evangelical encounter with Catholicism; indeed, they may go through their entire lives having heard nothing but abominable nonsense about Catholicism. The position of such men and women is, I think, far less dangerous (and less susceptible to theological/juridical evaluations) than that of Philip IV, who received his crown from the hands of a Roman Catholic bishop.
I think God saves those who love Him and try, whatever the cost, to follow where He leads them. I like to think that every non-Catholic, Christian or otherwise, is on a journey into the Roman Catholic Church. For some, that destination will never be reached. For others, it will be reached in Heaven, or somewhat earlier than that. I don't mean to imply that visible communion with the Pope is the perfect end-point of Christianity; Luke 12:48 would obliterate that kind of triumphalism, even if 1 Cor. 13:12 weren't already enough to do that. What I mean to say is that the only reason anyone should ever become a Catholic is that a lover wants to please his beloved in every possible way. God let me wander through more than thirty years of sin before I saw the possibilities open to me, so why should I begrudge a Presbyterian his thirty years of mere heresy? I say "mere," because all sin is error, but not all error is sin. I know Baptists whose theology is plagued with all kinds of errors touching on the sacraments, Scripture, the saints, the authority of the Roman Pontiff, etc., etc. Each of them loves and follows Jesus Christ more tenderly and with more brave devotion than I ever mustered during my thirty years as a baptized Catholic who was wallowing in all sorts of sin. What did Thomas A'Kempis say? "I would rather feel contrition than be able to define it." I think there are lots of people who go about their lives feeling contrition, so to speak, but who may not be able to define it with any degree of precision. Will God damn them all?
I don't think so, but I also think the real answer to your question can only come from God at the end of your life (or from Him to me at the end of my life). I can say that someone's not pleasing his beloved in every possible way, but is that a comment about the other person's coldness of heart, or only about his ineptitude as a lover? I'm sure there are people whose failure to love Him in every possible way is caused by malice rather than a lack of art, and that their cold-heartedness will end up being more than His dignity can abide or His mercy overcome. But that's really all I could say that responds to the question.
What do you think are the main cultural differences between Catholics and Protestants?
That's a great question. I think one chief difference is that Catholics instinctively love hierarchies while Protestants instinctively abominate them. I think Catholics also have a soft-spot for exuberance, flamboyance, and a "sun-and-wine" attitude which can make our religious experience a little off-putting to people who are used to more restrained and collected ways of doing things.
Have you ever thought of becoming a Presbyterian? (okay that question was asked just for fun. You don't have to answer it.)
No. I once briefly thought of becoming an orthodox Jew, but that's when I was a religious tourist. If I'd applied, they'd have been right to turn me down flat amidst fits of laughter.
Is there anything else you'd like to say?
Yes! But this is more than too long already. Thanks for the interview!