This week is World Youth Day in Sydney, with Catholic pilgrims from all over the world pouring into Sydney for special events with the pope. It’s all a bit bemusing for the non-Catholic rest of us and, to be honest, I haven’t tried to keep up with it. Since it’s all being held in the inner city, and I rarely go near the city in business hours (going to the theatre, galleries, museums etc at other times is something I’m always keen to do), and my husband’s practice is in the leafy streets of outer suburbia, it hasn’t really touched us at all. But it does put Catholicism on the front page.
Now I don’t want to get into all the old arguments about Catholic/Protestant doctrinal differences. I grew up with that. My grandmother, an ardently low church Anglican, made me promise when I was a little girl (about 7 or 8) that I would never marry a catholic. Well, I married a Presbyterian, so I guess that was ok. And credit where credit is due: I think the Catholics beat us hands down when it comes to pastoral theology, and reverence and such. But I still think most of those Catholic distinctives are wrong: praying to saints, the cult of virginity, Mary as co-redemptrix, purgatory, indulgences, transubstantiation, And I’ve read the Council of Trent documents on justification, in fact did my major tut paper on them, and felt the doctrine was very muddled, and based on premises that are simply not biblical. But there’s a couple of other aspects of Catholicism I would like to address.
One of the things that strikes me about the whole culture of Catholicism is how very paternalistic it is. Now some people may like that, I’ve lived long enough to know that some people thrive under authoritarian systems and find their security there. I guess I haven’t lived long enough to understand those feelings. I don’t want to spend my life sitting back in blissful ignorance while someone else does the thinking for me; I’m a questioner by nature (though I do try hard not rock other people’s boats with my wonderings) and I’m never happy about something till I’ve figured it out for myself. And the thought of calling my minister “Father” (which Jesus expressly said we were not to do) really troubles me, let alone thinking of the pope as Il Papa. God is my father, the imagery of the church should be feminine, and I’m uncomfortable with the implied patriarchy of the Catholic usage.
Which leads straight to my second point, which is my bottom line for “why I could never be a Catholic” It’s the issue of authority. I simply cannot conceive just taking church tradition (or recent rulings, e.g. contraception) on board without deciding for myself what I thought. No man, whatever line of apostolic succession lies behind him, has that sort of claim on my conscience. The Word of God (because He authoritatively speaks through it) has that sort of claim on my life, the Holy Spirit is promised to me to guide me into all truth. I am not discarding tradition willy-nilly, anyone who thinks they have invented all the truth for themselves is just being silly and presumptuous, but while we listen to and weigh the words of those who are our elders in the faith, we very soon discover that there is much on which they do not speak in unison. We ponder their wisdom, we prayerfully consider the scriptures, and then we decide for ourselves. And along the way we may well change our minds about some things – certainly I don’t believe exactly what I believed when I was 20. And some of the things I still have the same opinion about, I believe for different reasons. That’s ok. It’s called growth, and as long as it doesn’t involve discarding the heart of the gospel, it’s probably a good thing. But if I don’t always agree with myself the chances of my agreeing with the magisterium are even slimmer!