Wednesday, September 23, 2009

blog semper reformanda

Over at the blog, Beggars All: Reformation & Apologetics, there is an entry concerning an answer I gave to a question at the September 3 Wheaton Dialogue in which I participated with Timothy George. Below in bold is the question that was given to me several weeks prior to the event. It is followed by my prepared answer. I forget how closely I stuck to the prepared text when I answered the question that evening. In any event, what follows is the answer that I carried with me to the stage. (Here's the Christianity Today story of the event, if you are interested in reading it)

My friend, Bryan Cross, does a very nice job in responding to some of the mistakes in the entry. You can find Bryan's comments here. This is the reason why I am posting my prepared answer. For it seems that what I said on the video has been misunderstood by the author of the blog entry, though Bryan seemed to get me just right.
Dr. Beckwith: For all of your years as an Evangelical Protestant you failed to observe the Sacrament of Penance and thus found yourself in a state of mortal sin. If you had died during that time, do you suppose you would have been accepted by God?

First, I don’t think it’s healthy to always frame questions of salvation in terms that are anthropocentric. For it tends to reinforce the modern idea that the self is the center of the universe and that the universe has an obligation to make itself real to me. This, I believe, is precisely the problem of the modern mind, one that sees God as a cosmic errand boy that is obligated to save me if I do X, Y, and Z, or obligated to damn me if I don’t do X, Y, and Z. It depends on a consumer-paradigm of the spiritual life, and thus it sees confession and penance as a kind of self-serve carwash for the soul that you better run yourself through before the wife gets home from visiting her mother.

It seems to me that Christians should be more concerned about getting heaven into them rather than just getting into heaven.

Nevertheless, I do think the question has a point, one that I had actually not thought about until it was brought to my attention in an email several weeks ago. So, here’s the way I think about it. I know that God is a just God and that he will judge me based on standards that are inherently fair. He is also fully aware of my ignorance, my obstinance, my stupidity, and my pride. He, I would hope, takes that all into consideration, when assessing the state of my soul. However, you are asking me to answer a counterfactual about my eternal fate. It’s tough enough to answer such a question based in the actual world. So, on this, I will appeal to Woody Allen, who once said, “I'm astounded by people who want to 'know' the universe when it's hard enough to find your way around Chinatown.” So, in this venue, I will stick to Chinatown.

However, I do take great comfort in what the Catholic Church does teach about these matters. First, according to the catechism, “for a sin to be mortal, three conditions must together be met: `Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent.’”[1] I do not believe that I had full knowledge or deliberate consent when I chose not to partake in penance during my years as a Protestant. Second, the Church also teaches that someone can be invincibly ignorant, which I believe I was for many years. The Catholic Encyclopedia defines it in this way: “Ignorance is said to be invincible when a person is unable to rid himself of it [ignorance] notwithstanding the employment of moral diligence, that is, such as under the circumstances is, morally speaking, possible and obligatory.”[2]

The Catechism, as I have already noted, teaches that "’many elements of sanctification and of truth’ are found outside the visible confines of the Catholic Church: `the written Word of God; the life of grace; faith, hope, and charity, with the other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit, as well as visible elements.’”[3] “Christ's Spirit,” the Catechism instructs us, “uses these Churches and ecclesial communities as means of salvation, whose power derives from the fullness of grace and truth that Christ has entrusted to the Catholic Church. All these blessings come from Christ and lead to him, and are in themselves calls to ‘Catholic unity.’”[4] For this reason I am convinced that if not for the Holy Spirit working through the many gifted and devoted Christian scholars and teachers in Evangelical Protestantism, some of whom I have had the privilege to know, love and study under, my present faith would be significantly diminished. Their tenacious defense and practice of their Christian faith is what has sustained and nourished so many of us who have found our way back to the Church of our youth.

So, to answer your question, yes, I think I would have been accepted by God if I had died prior to returing to the Catholic Church. The good thing, though, is that I have lived to tell about it.

[1] The Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1857, quoting, RP 17 # 12.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, 819, quoting Lumen Gentium 8 § 2 and Unitatis Redintegratio 3 § 2.
Ibid. (citations omitted).

1 comment:

Brad said...

In the interest of presenting a scenario that is not hypothetical or contrary to actual fact, I'm very interested to know what you would have said to Chris Castaldo on this matter. (He moderated. You know that, of course).

For those who don't know, Chris Castaldo is the mirror image of you. He left Catholicism and became an Evangelical Protestant, but he continues to have an attitude toward Catholicism that is very similar to yours for Evangelicalism. Since leaving the Catholic Church, he has chosen not to observe a variety of sacraments. He is not too worried about it. I honestly don't think it bothers him one bit.

Should it bother him? Why or why not? I'm not asking you to pronounce him spiritually dead or spiritually alive. That would be unreasonable. I seek an answer for the question exactly as it is stated.

Thank you, and I hope you can get to this. And if you've discussed this with Chris, I hope you can relate some of what came of it.