Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Voting for a lesser evil or against a greater evil?

I think Mitt Romney is not the ideal candidate for the presidency. But four years have shown that Obama is not fit for the office in any regard. Having no experience in executive management when elected, he was unable or unwilling to forge bi-partisan support for one of the most important legislative initiatives in US history. The Democrats pushed through the health care act with arm-twisting and special deals for a few Democratic senators and congressmen. The offers of amendment from the Republicans were ignored, and bi-partisanship was abandoned. Promising before elected that any legislation passed would have ample time for review and careful consideration, the health care act was rushed through, with Nancy Pelosi famously declaring, “you have to pass it before you can know what is in it.”

That is the management style of Barack Obama. He does not unite us, but divides us. And, instead of working on the serious problems facing our nation, he has spent the past year or more campaigning and fund-raising for re-election. Obama apparently has no time to meet with the Prime Minister of Israel, or other foreign leaders, but is always available, it seems, to appear on TV with David Letterman or the ladies of “The View.”

Consider the serious lack of judgment displayed by the president in choosing Joe Biden for the vice-presidency. Who really wants Joe Biden as a potential President? In Danville, Biden plays the race-card as he declares the Republicans want to “put ya'll back in chains.” In Lynchburg, he speaks of his good friend “Tom” Kaine. In the vice-presidential debates he spent over an hour impersonating Chuckles the Clown, rather than engaging in serious consideration of very serious questions. Then, in a moment of apparent sober reflection, he declares that as a “practicing Catholic” he is determined to defy the teaching of his church. Then he asserts that Obamacare offers no threat to the freedom of Catholic and other institutions to provide health care coverage that does not conflict with religious convictions. In this regard Biden is either terribly uninformed or an absolute liar. Over forty religious and private institutions, including Notre Dame and the evangelical Wheaton College, are suing the Obama administration for relief from the requirements of the HHS department. These colleges and businesses and charities would not be hiring attorneys and filing lawsuits if there were not a significant threat. Biden is either a liar or incompetent. The evidence suggests he is both.

We must also consider the administration's response to the tragedy at the Libyan consulate. Who determined to ignore the repeated requests from our embassy in Libya for enhanced protection? Who spun the false narrative that the attack there was a spontaneous demonstration in reaction to a YouTube video? Why did the president, vice-president, secretary of state, our ambassador to the U.N., and many other spokesmen continue to mislead the public about the causes and response to this tragedy? The handling of this affair shows either gross incompetence or gross dishonesty. On the heels of the bungled “fast and furious” guns-for-criminals fiasco, one should be very suspicious of this administration's ability to handle national security matters.

Finally, what of the morality of this administration? Does anyone think it is moral to conduct warfare in such a way that far more civilians are killed than enemy combatants? The Obama administration has greatly increased the number of drone attacks in Pakistan and Yemen. CNN recently reported: “U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan have killed far more people than the United States has acknowledged, have traumatized innocent residents and largely been ineffective, according to a new study released Tuesday. The study by Stanford Law School and New York University's School of Law calls for a re-evaluation of the practice, saying the number of "high-level" targets killed as a percentage of total casualties is extremely low -- about 2%.” Another way of stating that statistic: for every 2 terrorists we kill, 100 civilians (including many children) also die. Authorities of the present administration indicate they intend to increase such attacks. It is unfortunate that Romney has not indicated that he will change this policy. I hope that he would if elected, and we can encourage him to do so, while the President apparently intends to continue this immoral warfare.

I don't suggest voting for the “lesser of two evils.” I do believe in voting against what is evil or foolish. It may be uncertain what Romney will do, but it is clear what Obama has done. Many of the actions of the current administration are at best foolish, and at worst evil, and should not be supported.

Friday, August 10, 2012

The City of God vs. The City of Man

          I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above,
Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love;
The love that asks no question, the love that stands the test,
That lays upon the altar the dearest and the best;
The love that never falters, the love that pays the price,
The love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.

I heard my country calling, away across the sea,
          Across the waste of waters she calls and calls to me.
          Her sword is girded at her side, her helmet on her head,
          And round her feet are lying the dying and the dead.
          I hear the noise of battle, the thunder of her guns,
          I haste to thee my mother, a son among thy sons.
And there's another country, I've heard of long ago,
Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;
We may not count her armies, we may not see her King;
Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;
And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,
And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.
This hymn, "I Vow to Thee My Country," is the composition of Cecil Spring-Rice. According to Wikipedia, the hymn was first composed in 1908, but revised in 1918 when Spring-Rice was serving as England's ambassador to the United States. If you watched the wedding, or the funeral, of Princess Diana, you perhaps recall the singing of this song, a favorite of Diana's, and of many in England. It is sung to a tune adapted from Gustav Holst's Jupiter (in The Planets suite).

Apparently the author originally titled the composition Urbs Dei or "City of God." What are we to think of the sentiments expressed in this song? Is it morally acceptable to give to one's country such "love that asks no question, ... that lays upon the altar the dearest and the best." Is our nation to be worshipped with the sacrifices of our soldiers on the fields of battle wherever and whenever our politicians demand it?

The third stanza recognizes the call to serve another country: "most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know." The Scripture teaches us that as followers of Christ, we are "strangers and pilgrims" on the earth, or "resident aliens." We belong to another country, we serve another king.

I am increasingly conflicted about the demands and expectations of participating in the politics of modern American life. On this day, the feast day of Edith Stein, also known as St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, I am reminded of one who paid the ultimate sacrifice in solidarity with her people as a servant of "another country," a heavenly one.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The School in Jackson Town

(sung to the tune "The House of the Rising Sun")

There is a school in Jackson town
They call it seminary
And its been the place for many a poor boy
To learn theology.

One teacher was a Taylor,
He taught me how to preach.
Another was a Fowler,
Taught me Greek to exegete.

Then there was Greg Bahnsen:
The first Theonomist.
Some say he was a heretic,
Some say a true Calvinist.

There is so much they taught me,
But some things they never did.
If there is but one true Church,
Then why is her oneness hid?

One Lord, one faith, one baptism,
The texts they do seem plain.
Then surely just one body,
Not many, as Protestants claim.

Oh Mother, tell your children
Not to do what I have done.
But listen to the Fathers,
Hear them, as they follow the Son.

Led by the Good Shepherd to the Catholic Church

      In June of 2012 my wife and I were confirmed and received into the Catholic Church. Many friends and family would probably be shocked to hear of this, and I am surprised myself. But throughout my adult life, there have been hints and signs pointing to this, and a yearning in my heart that I now believe is being fulfilled in union with the church of the ancient fathers.
      I was raised in a small-town Southern Baptist church in Virginia where I, along with my sister, my two brothers, and our parents, attended Sunday School and Church nearly every Sunday that I can remember. In my early teen years I responded to a preacher's invitation to accept Christ as my Lord and savior and I was baptized. The experience of the waters of baptism seemed to be one of re-birth. I felt as though my sins were washed away, and there was a new beginning and opportunity for me ahead. However, I did not find much growth in grace during my later high school years, and I went away to college in 1970 very disappointed with my hometown and the Christians that I knew.
      I was a religiously-interested skeptic at that time. But a time of soul-searching and contacts with evangelical friends at college led me back to faith. I begin to seriously pray and study scripture. Within a couple of years I began to consider theological seminary and preparation for ministry.
      During these college years I was involved with a campus ministry (The Navigators) that sought to make disciples of the Lord Jesus through a process of disciple making they saw outlined in II Timothy 2:2, “...and what you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” This campus ministry taught me a deep respect for the Scriptures, but now I think I learned some rather dubious interpretations of the Scripture. Surely Paul’s words to Timothy are in the context of establishing apostolic leadership for the church. Timothy was a bishop, ordained by Paul to have oversight over the Christians in Ephesus and perhaps others cities. Timothy was to ordain elders and deacons, root out heresy, and preserve the faith. The context was nothing like what we were attempting to do with young college men and women.
      We tended to miss the corporate dimension of the New Testament faith—discipleship for us was a very personal, individual thing. During the last year or two of college, some of us began to see the inadequacy of the model we had been taught, and our campus fellowship began to have more the atmosphere of a house church, including celebration of the Lord’s Supper.
      I had come to see that the New Testament had much to say about the Body of Christ—the Church—a divinely appointed organization with structure, discipline, and offices. I finally joined a small Presbyterian church, though I was not yet fully “reformed” or Presbyterian in my theology. The doctrine of the Church along with worship and sacraments would become a major area of interest in my future studies.
      Following graduation I was married; a year later we were blessed with a child. Then in the summer of 1976 we moved to Jackson, MS where I began studies at Reformed Seminary. Our move several hundred miles away from family was a significant step of faith. The Lord provided our needs.
      We lived in an apartment a few miles from campus in downtown Jackson, just a few blocks from the state capitol building. Also downtown was a Catholic church. One Saturday I rode out on my bike for a time of prayer, and passed this church. I stopped, went in, and noticed the inscription over the doorway, taken from John 10:16: “there shall be one flock, one shepherd.” I entered the sanctuary, impressed with its beauty. I prayed. Something stirred within me. I went away with a small glimmer of Catholicism traced on my consciousness.
      In the first year of seminary we studied church history, one of my favorite fields of study. I went beyond the required readings and explored the writings of the early fathers. I found there a world very different from that of the evangelical and reformed Christianity of my experience.
      During this time we began to worship with a house church that was called “New Covenant Catholic Church.” This was a group of young people, mostly in their 20’s and 30’s, who were led by a group of men formerly in leadership positions with the evangelical ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ. Mildly charismatic, much of the teaching of this group was concerned with recovering the teaching of the early church. There was also a heavy emphasis of “shepherding,” which was found in many new house churches in that era. We left this fellowship, mostly because of this “shepherding” approach to community that we found heavy handed and suspicious. A few years later, this group became part of the Evangelical Orthodox Church, which was later received by the Antiochian Orthodox Church.
      I was seeking a more ancient, catholic expression of the faith, which these folks also were seeking, though at the time we were there, they had not yet quite figured out where they were going. The rest of our years in Jackson we worshiped with a non-denominational church that was heavily involved in social outreach and community development. I never felt really at home there theologically, but I admired and supported the mission work of this community, and it was a place of good fellowship and support. This was a church that transcended racial and cultural lines—a thing not often seen in the Deep South in those days, at least in my experience. But it was like the kingdom of God should be. I later found this concern for racial inclusiveness and social justice very effectively realized in the Catholic Church.
      My seminary experience was an enjoyable one. I studied hard; it was intellectually fulfilling; I made good grades. I grew more Calvinistic in my thinking, but was slow to embrace a consistently “reformed” way of thinking. To my shame, however, it seems I absorbed an anti-Catholic bias during my time there, or perhaps the bias was already there, and the seminary only reinforced it. The reality was that I knew hardly any Catholics, and never seriously studied what the Catholic Church taught.
      I did come to embrace, however, a deep respect for the ancient creeds, and therefore for the teaching of the early church. It was my understanding that the reformers also were going back to the fathers, and reforming the church to what it was before the corruption of the Middle Ages. I have since learned that reformation era scholarship knew comparatively little of the writings of the earliest centuries beyond the New Testament. While Lutherans retained much of Catholic tradition and liturgy, the reformed, and especially the Presbyterians, generally threw out anything that could not be found in the Bible.
      The principle of “sola scriptura” was the touchstone of orthodoxy at my seminary. It was a given, an axiom, not debatable. To question this principle was practically to question the faith itself. One might as well object to the deity of Christ as to question that the Bible alone is the final authority for faith and practice. I don’t think I ever asked, “but does the Bible itself teach that the Bible is the only authority?” Now I have come to see that the Bible does not teach that the Bible is the only authority. And I now see that the Bible does teach that Christians are to observe the traditions, and the teachings, as well as the writings of the apostles.
      I will credit my seminary professors for clarifying for me the shaping of the New Testament canon. I did learn there that it was the church that determined the canon. I don’t think the implications of this were drawn out for me then, as I see them now, of course. Nevertheless, the historical reality is that the church did form a canon. It was not left up to the interpretation of individuals.
      By the time of my seminary graduation, I had come to embrace most of the reformed faith as taught in the Westminster Standards (the doctrinal standards of historic Presbyterianism), though I could not see the teaching of a “limited atonement” in the scriptures. This made me what we called a “four-point” as opposed to a “five-point” Calvinist. I struggled with the doctrine of infant baptism until my senior year. Writing a research paper attempting to prove the opposite, I became convinced that infant baptism was proper.
      After graduation, I was called to a small Presbyterian Church near Chattanooga, where I was ordained and served as a pastor. A few years later my family, now with two daughters and two sons, moved to Shreveport, Louisiana, where I was pastor of another Presbyterian church for several years. In Shreveport I first had the opportunity to come to know several Catholics, both clergy and laity. In knowing these dear Christians, many of my prejudices against Catholicism were demolished.
      In Shreveport, I was active in the right to life movement, eventually heading up and helping reestablish the local chapter of the National Right to Life committee. Of course, many of the most dedicated advocates for the life of the unborn are Catholic. As I got to know them, I found them to be devout, sincere, men and women who loved Christ. I was able to spend time with several priests, and once had a visit with the local Catholic bishop. I was always warmly received, and my position as a protestant pastor acknowledged with respect. During this time my wife taught at the local Catholic high school, which gave us both more opportunity to see the world of Catholic life and faith. One of our Catholic friends from Shreveport has prayed for me over the years, and has gently urged me towards considering the Catholic Church, with gifts of tapes and books now and then. I now believe her faithfulness in prayer and giving were divinely instrumental in our coming into communion with the Catholic Church.
      I returned to Virginia a few years later, as pastor of another Presbyterian church. But I had become increasingly restless in pastoral ministry, and resigned from the pastorate to open a bookshop in downtown Lynchburg. At this same time, my wife and I became involved in the work of a classical, Christian School, associated with the Reformed Episcopal Church. The small parish affiliated with the school was without a minister, and I was asked to preach for them on a few occasions. This became a regular, part-time job, and as I learned the prayer book liturgy and studied the Episcopal tradition, I found it increasingly appealing. In January of 1997 I was received into that denomination and became rector of that parish.
      Over nearly fifteen years of using the prayer book and studying Anglicanism, I moved farther away from my Calvinistic perspective, though for most of my time in that church I would have thought of myself as an evangelical catholic. That is, I had a high regard for the ancient church, particularly the creeds and the liturgy (in a fairly low-church expression). Yet I came to believe in a real presence of Christ in the Eucharist and the sacramental efficacy of baptism. I once would have seen these as primarily symbolic, now I regard these as vehicles of grace, and among the ordinary appointed means for salvation. I came to believe that “outside the church there is no salvation,” that the Church is the Ark of God, but I still thought of that “one, holy, Catholic church” as the “invisible” church, as it was obviously broken into too many pieces to think of it as having a visible unity.
      But, if the church is one, as Paul declares, “there is one body and one spirit,... one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Eph. 4:4.5) how is that unity to be known today? If our Lord prays for the unity of the church, what is our responsibility to seek and affect that unity?
      Protestants seem to love the hymn “Onward Christian Soldiers.” But how can we sing this line in good conscience: “We are not divided, all one body we, one in hope and doctrine, one in charity?” I am not aware of anything in current hymnody that seems so profoundly false as this statement. The disunity of the church is a dreadful scandal, and it seems to me that any serious Christian should do all in his or her power to remedy the disunity of the church. It now seems to be highly ironic that Biblical literalists interpret a concept such as the “body of Christ” in primarily spiritual terms. Isn’t a “body” a material thing? Shouldn’t we be able to see a body? Yet over and over, Protestants interpret the body of Christ, the Church, as primarily an invisible, spiritual entity.
     When I was still a Presbyterian, the many divisions among the heirs of Calvin often distressed me. In the Anglican world it is no better, or perhaps it is worse. Dozens of small “Anglican” groups can be found on the Internet. Apparently it is fairly easy to find a bishop who is willing to lay hands of “consecration” on another, making another bishop and another Anglican jurisdiction.
      Throughout the protestant world, it is the same. For any reason a person may start a church, and a new schism, a new denomination, is born. This seems to be the inevitable result of the doctrine of sola scriptura and the lack of a teaching authority or magesterium. In the protestant world, the final arbiter of doctrine is not the Bible, nor the tradition, nor a council, but the sovereign individual. It is one man’s interpretation of the Bible over against another’s. When a man says, “the Bible alone is my authority,” what he really means is “only my interpretation of the Bible is my authority,” or else he cedes that role to some pastor or teacher that he, for whatever reason, has come to trust. Protestants complain the Catholics have a Pope, yet they don’t see that Protestants also have popes: indeed there may be as many popes as there are Protestants.
      Of course, my reformed friends would see the problem, and deny it is this bad. For this reason we have the confessions, they would say—the Westminster Confession, the Heidelberg catechism, etc. Many of my reformed friends seem to think the Calvinism as articulated by the Westminster standards is the full-flowering of Christianity. But why should anyone regard the assembly of pastors and theologians at Westminster as more likely to have the right interpretation of the Scripture than the councils that produced the Lutheran statements of faith, or, for that matter, the Council of Trent? But even when we have confessions of faith, we must interpret those confessions. Whose interpretation shall be regarded as most accurate and reliable? We go from disputes about the meaning of scripture, to disputes about the meaning of the confessions. And so in recent years we have seen the sad phenomenon of pastors of one Presbyterian denomination pronouncing anathemas upon ministers of other Presbyterian denominations for not holding the same interpretation of the Westminster standards on the doctrine of justification as held by themselves.
      Another largely unexamined presupposition of the whole protestant project as it stands today is this: using the tools of modern Biblical exegesis, we can discern the true meaning of Scripture. I don’t know why I never saw this before, but in recent months it seems an absurd notion that a modern exegete can jump back over 2,000 years and have a better understanding of the New Testament and the teaching of the apostles than did those men we call the early church fathers. If a modern scholar interprets the New Testament in a way not in accord with the Didache, or Clement, or Ignatius, or Irenaeus, or Cyprian, who is more likely to be right? Until recently, I tended to read the fathers and found affirmation for what I already believed. If they contradicted my confessional stance (first Westminster, then The Thirty-Nine articles) I would set the earlier teaching aside, or perhaps intend to come back to it later. But some of these questions concern the very core of the Christian faith. One may put off deciding for a time, but one can’t do that forever. One must take a stand eventually. If I must decide, who is more likely to have the correct interpretation? I think a safer bet, or a more logical, reasonable decision, would be to side with the early church fathers.
      Another significant change in my perception of spiritual reality has to do with the doctrine of the communion of saints. In the creed I have confessed to believe in the communion of the saints, but what is this really? A few years ago I discovered the Charles Wesley hymn, “Let saints on earth in concert sing, with those whose work is done; for all the servants of our king in heaven and earth are one…E’en now we join our hands with those who went before, and greet the ever-living bands, on the eternal shore.” Hearing this for the first time moved me deeply, and the vision it unfolds is a wonderful one. Those who have crossed the stream of death are still living; they sing with us. If they may sing with us, why may they not pray for us? If we are in communion with them, why may we not seek their intercessions for us?
      As I was drawn to the doctrine of the communion of saints, I happened to watch a video on the life of Edith Stein. She was a remarkable woman: a Jewish university teacher of philosophy in Germany between the wars; as a young adult, she became an atheist, then later was converted to Christ and became a Carmelite nun. She died in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. She was later canonized as St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. I was moved by her story, and found myself invoking her prayers for my son. I no longer find it a strange thing to think of asking for the prayers of the Blessed Virgin, or other saints. There is an inscription from around AD 250 that says, “Pray for your parents Matronata Matrona. She lived one year, fifty-two days.” What a beautiful vision this brings to mind: an infant alive in the presence of God and the holy angels and interceding for her parents.
      I have always been intrigued by the parables of the kingdom. The theme of the kingdom of God is so crucial to understanding the teaching of our Lord. How closely related are the church and kingdom? Are they the same? Is the church the gate of the kingdom, or something like the visible expression in time of the timeless, transcendent kingdom? That they are very closely related seems clear in such passages as Matthew 16:18-20. Jesus speaks of the building of the church on the Rock (Petros) and the keys of the kingdom are given to Peter.
      Surely the kingdom of God is not a democracy. A flock of sheep is not a democracy. Families are not democracies. Kingdoms have a top-down government. Several of the kingdom parables speak of a ruler, or landowner, going away and leaving a trusted servant in charge. Peter and the apostles are the trusted servants. The New Testament clearly puts Peter in a position of some prestige or respect above the rest of the twelve. It would seem reasonable, even necessary, that upon Peter’s death, another would take his place. A precedent for filling the place of a departed apostle is set in Acts 1, with the appointment of Matthias to take the place of Judas.
      Therefore, it is surely not unreasonable to expect that the rule of the Church, or Kingdom of God on earth, should be under a visible head or regent in place of the Lord and King, Jesus. If anyone fills that role in the church between AD 30 and 60, then it is surely Peter. And it would then seem most reasonable that upon his demise, someone would be recognized to take his place. Of course, the records from the second century on indicate that this is indeed what happened--the fathers are careful to trace the succession of the bishops of Rome back to Peter (see Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 3, chapters 2-4).
      Irenaeus’ Against Heresies seems especially appropriate for modern times when heresy and schism abound. Irenaeus counsels: “What if there should be a dispute about some matter of moderate importance? Should we not run to the oldest churches, where the apostles themselves were known, and find from them the clear and certain answer to the problem now being raised?”(Book 3, Chapter 4.1). Ireaneus counsels that to settle disputes we need both scripture and tradition. For this tradition we look ad fontes, to the source in the oldest churches.
      Cardinal Newman famously observed: “to be deep in history is to cease to be protestant.” I found this to be true in my case. As I read more church history, especially the early fathers, and reformation history from Catholic writers, my protestant viewpoint was slowly eroded. It became clear to me that if there is one church which Jesus established, the Catholic church under the bishop of Rome has the most clear and convincing claim to be that church.
      It became to me then a matter of conscience. I was convinced that the denominations to which I had belonged are in schism from the one church which our Lord established. I came to believe that to continue in separation from that church would be to sin against my conscience and my Lord. My wife and I enrolled in our local parish's RCIA program (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) and after several months of study, we were received into the Church on June 24, 2012.
      Though I am deeply sorry for the schism of protestantism, and my part in perpetuating that schism, I rejoice in the ministry I have received from the churches and teachers of my former denominations. In my childhood church I became aware of the reality of God, was first awakened to faith and was baptized. In the college ministry of the Navigators I was taught to be zealous for Scripture and learned a concern for evangelism and mission. In my seminary I was instructed by good and godly men who taught me to think and helped me learn to write. In my sojourn among Presbyterians I saw a zeal for social concern and among the Anglicans I learned to love beautiful liturgy. Along the way many Catholic ministries such as Catholic Answers, as well as local parishes and friends have been been very helpful. And finally, through the Coming Home Network's ministry, especially through the Deep in History conference, we were enabled to see the intellectual integrity, spiritual depth and amazing beauty of Catholic faith. Along the way our gracious good Shepherd has patiently led us, and we now rejoice to be at home in his flock. Thanks be to God.

The Feast of St. Dominic, 2012

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Answering the Prayer of Jesus, or Why I am a Catholic Christian

My first encounter with Catholicism that I can remember occurred in 1976 or 1977 when I was a first-year seminary student in Jackson, Mississippi. I lived with my wife and young daughter in downtown Jackson, just a few blocks from a Catholic church. One day I stopped at the church to go inside to pray. Over the door of this church were the words taken from John 10: “there will be one flock, and one shepherd.” This witness to our Lord's intention for the unity of His Church was written on my heart that day.

Over the years I came to be impressed with the expectation of unity found throughout the New Testament. The apostle Paul declares that there is “one body and one spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling. One Lord, one faith, one baptism.” We are admonished to “maintain the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.” Paul rebuked the Corinthians for their factionalism, when they were saying “I am of Paul, I am of Apollos, I am of Cephas.” I came to see that in protestantism we were in effect saying “I am of Calvin, I am of Luther, I am of Cranmer.” The works of the flesh (Galatians 5) include “dissension” and “party spirit.'” So there is much to condemn disunity. But I return again to the Gospel of John for the most convicting passage concerning the unity of the church. In John 17 is recorded the prayer of our Lord on the night before his crucifixion. As Jesus pours out his heart to the Father, he prays for his disciples, and for those who will believe in him because of their testimony, “that they all may be one...that they may be perfected in unity, that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them....”

Surely it was and is our Lord's desire that there be only one Church.

Over the years I confessed the Christian faith in the words of the Nicene Creed. In that creed we declare, “I believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.” For years I was somewhat uncomfortable saying this, though I found justification in the usual protestant apologetic that the unity of the church is an invisible, spiritual unity. But I came to see that an invisible unity surely could not be the intention of our Lord in his prayer in John 17. The unity Christ prays for is a unity that can be seen, a unity that bears witness to the love of God. And in the 4th century as the Creed was being adopted, the fathers set this forth as a statement against the heresies and schisms of the day, and declaring that the true church had always been one church, and to be outside of that church was to be outside the ark of God's salvation.

And so seeking more conformity to the Nicene Creed, I did endeavor to live a more catholic faith and to pursue unity with other believers. I moved from Presbyterianism to what seemed a more catholic expression of the faith in the Reformed Episcopal Church. I found this Anglican style of Christianity in the writings of C. S. Lewis. The idea of “Mere Christianity,” was very appealing. I followed Lewis in desiring to emphasize the things all Christians, protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, evangelical, have in common, while trying not to focus on those issues that divide. I embraced Lewis' analogy of the large house with many rooms. The guests in the house naturally find affinity with others of like mind and taste in the various rooms—the rooms corresponding to the various denominations. In those different rooms we find friendship, enjoy conversation, and have our meals perhaps. But the problem with this illustration is that the Church is not a mere social gathering, a clubhouse, or a dinner party at a grand English estate. The Church gathers to worship the one true God. It is the gathering at court of the people of the kingdom in the presence of the King. And while some things that divide Christians are indeed trivial, the matters that form denominations are usually not. These matters are not simply walls of a room, or the atmosphere or d├ęcor therein. It is rather questions about the nature of the King and His Kingdom; questions about the King's plans and purposes and the laws governing that kingdom. They are questions about how to live as a faithful subject of the King.

Democratic egalitarianism is a stumbling block to understanding the Kingdom of God. It is difficult for Americans to accept that the Kingdom of God is not a democracy. Kingdoms are governed from the top. Laws are established by the king, not voted on by the citizens. Kingdoms are not ruled by a consensus or an ever-changing majority opinion. I began to wonder then, “if our Lord desires for the Church to be one, how can this be possible?” I came to believe that if our Lord desired that unity, then surely our Lord would give us a method or mechanism for that unity to be attained. As a protestant, I said that our Lord gave us the Scriptures and the Holy Spirit to “guide us into all the truth.” I affirmed that the Scriptures contain the “deposit of faith” and that by studying them, with the guidance of the Spirit, we could know all truth necessary for salvation and the good order of the church. But then, if that is so, why is the church in such disarray? Why are there thousands of denominations? We could simply say, “because of human sin.” But isn't it more than that? Isn't the principle of sola scriptura itself the problem? A former evangelical, Christian Smith, argues that the protestant application of sola scriptura has resulted in The Bible Made Impossible, to quote the title of his recent book. It seems to me that sola scriptura in practice means that every Bible reader is his own interpreter, her own authority, his own pope.

So I came to a point where I could no longer believe that it was our Lord's intention, or the practice of the apostles or the early Church, to simply turn disciples loose with the Scriptures and the Spirit, without an authoritative tradition of interpretation to guide them in the Way.

In considering what would be necessary for the Church to have unity, I came to see our Lord's teaching about the Kingdom of God in a new light. I noticed again the several parables wherein a lord of the estate goes away for a time, leaving others in charge. And then I considered the story of Jesus and his disciples at Caesarea Philippi, told in Matthew 16. In the impressive surroundings of this new imperial city, Jesus affirms his own Lordship, over against the kingdoms of the world. When the disciple Simon Bar-Jona speaks the truth of Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, our Lord reveals that Simon is Rock (Petros or Peter) and that on this Rock the church would be built. Simon is given the keys of the kingdom-- in other words, he is appointed as that steward left in charge of his master's possessions while the master goes on the long journey.

It is surely then no accident that throughout the gospels and through the first half of the book of Acts, the role of Simon Peter is so prominent. It seems clear that Peter has a role of preeminence among the apostles. Was Peter only a “first among equals?” It seems to me that one may well answer “yes and no.” There does seem to be an equality in calling as apostles; others, such as Paul, could act in apostolic ministry with authority similar to Peter's. But in other respects he seems to exercise a unique role, perhaps following the directives of our Lord in Luke 22 (strengthen your brethren) and John 21 (“feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep”), and shown in his actions in the inclusion of the Gentiles (using the keys to open the door to the Church) in Acts 10-15.

If then our Lord gave to Peter a unique role as his steward for the kingdom, surely this role would need to continue following Peter's death. Following the example of the replacement of Judas by Matthias, “let another his office take,” then it would be most reasonable that Peter's office would be filled by another. And of course this is what did happen, according to the writings of the early church fathers.

In seeing these things in the Scriptures and the early church fathers, it became more and more certain to me that our Lord did intend one visible Church, one organizational structure to further his Kingdom on the earth. And then I had to ask the question, if this is so, where is that Church now? The only reasonable conclusion for me seemed to be the Catholic Church with the bishop of Rome filling the office first given by our Lord to Simon Peter.

There is much more that happened along the way of my conversion. But perhaps this is enough to bear witness to those who may read it, and to at least raise the question in your mind: “what am I doing to answer the prayer of Jesus?” Could it be that whereas all Christian churches have truth, there may still be one church that is most fully true? Could it be that while many Christian churches have much to commend them, all these churches are in fact separated in schism from the one church established by our Lord? And could it be that while the Catholic church is certainly not perfect, it will never be perfect so long as the protestant schism remains? It is my plea that those who read this may prayerfully consider that their part in answering the prayer of Jesus may be simply to come home.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

We need some Jeffersonian democracy.

"To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical" said Thomas Jefferson in the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. How much more tyrannical it would be to compel employers to purchase products they believe to be morally illicit, as the President and Kathleen Sebelius intend to do.

Jimmy Akin has done a fine job (and is somewhat provocative) in analyzing this matter. The headline is a bit over the top, but I think the analysis is sound:

Does the Left now want to ban private education?

     The February 1, 2012 edition of the Lynchburg News and Advance published a letter to the editor that suggests it would be a good thing if private schools were banned "so the rich would be forced to invest in the public system." The writer, Mr. David McLoughlin of Forest, attributes this notion to Warren Buffet, whom McLoughlin regards as "a wise old man with values."
     I did an Internet search to try to find the context for this idea attributed to Mr. Buffet. Apparently, in a conversation with Michelle Rhee, then chancellor of the abysmal District of Columbia public school system, Mr. Buffet said something to the effect that the public school disaster could be "easily" fixed by outlawing private education in the district. Whether or not this was a serious suggestion on Buffet's part is unclear. That McLoughlin thinks it is a good idea, I have no doubt.
     Consider what McLoughlin is suggesting: "to ban private schools so the rich would be forced to invest in the public system." One wonders if McLoughlin is aware of the constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion and assembly.
    What McLoughlin is proposing is a fascist state--a nation controlled from top to bottom by a tyrannical government. Yes, he wants a state where "the rich" will be "forced" to invest in something they might prefer not to invest in. Of course, they are already being "forced" through taxation to support public education, whether or not their own children benefit from those schools. But apparently this is not enough. No, McLoughlin wants a state where there is no choice in education, where the government closes private schools--an Orwellian state where persons are forced into conformity with the ideals of people like McLoughlin.
     I wonder into what other areas of society such "wisdom" might be applied? The Federal post office is struggling--well let’s just "ban" UPS and FedEx and "force" everyone to "invest" in the United States Post Office. Is Social Security broke? McLoughlin might suggest an easy solution--just outlaw private retirement investments and "force" more participation in the government plan.
     Of course, these notions are extreme, and would never be adopted by our government, would they? I am not so sure. In recent days the Obama administration has demanded that Catholic and other religious organizations, if offering health care benefits to employees, must provide contraceptive and sterilization coverage in health insurance plans. Of course, everyone knows this would violate fundamental teachings of the Catholic Church, and the consciences of many others as well. But those who craft such policies are not concerned with upholding the freedom of religion, but just the opposite. They know, if the Catholic Church is forced to comply, it will mean the end of Catholic hospitals, charities, and schools across this nation.
     What a few years ago would have been unthinkable is now near at hand. If those of the extreme left, like Mr. McLoughlin have their way, freedom in America will one day be a thing of distant memory.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Health Care Regulations Threaten Religious Freedom

     A few days ago the Secretary of the U S Department of Health and Human Services issued a ruling that mandated almost all employers, including the Catholic church and other religious organizations, must provide in their health insurance plans, the coverage of all FDA approved contraceptive services. Approved “contraceptives” include sterilization and abortifacient drugs. Exceptions may be had for those whose services are “primarily to members of their own constituency.” Perhaps this sounds like a reasonable exception. However, through its hospitals and charities, it is hardly likely the Catholic Church would be exempt. Catholic health care and charity is certainly not limited to those of the Catholic faith.
     The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has issued a strong objection, as have many of the bishops around the nation. Here is the letter from Francis DiLorenzo, the bishop of the diocese of Richmond:
     I wrote my senators about this matter. I received this reply from Senator Mark Warner:

Thank you for contacting me regarding reforms to our health care system. I appreciate your thoughts on this issue.
Following a recommendation from the nonprofit, independent Institute of Medicine, the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued final guidelines on January 20, 2012, regarding what constitutes preventive health services. These preventive services will be offered by most private health insurance plans without the requirement of cost-sharing or co-payments. Under these new rules, preventive services for women will include screening for various diseases, well-woman visits, and all FDA-approved forms of contraception. Abortion is not part of the covered services.
I have heard from advocates on both sides of the reproductive health debate, and I understand that positions on the issue come from moral, religious and political values that, for many, cannot be compromised. Nothing in this new guideline changes the existing conscience laws that give service providers the right to refuse to perform certain medical procedures to which they are morally opposed. It also does not change the Hyde Amendment, which restricts the use of federal dollars to fund abortions.

     I think Warner’s office either doesn’t understand my concern, or else they are trying to dodge the issue. The real issue is will Catholics and others opposed to “FDA-approved forms of contraception” have to pay for these in their employee health care plans, and thus violate their consciences? Warner’s statement above says, “nothing in this new guideline changes the existing conscience laws that give service providers the right to refuse to perform certain procedures.” But this is not what the concern is about! The concern being raised is not performing but paying for those procedures. This new law will require those opposed to these practices to PAY for them!
     And, apparently, the Obama administration, and I’m guessing most of the Democrats in Congress, have no intention of allowing employers the freedom to follow their consciences.