By rights, I should explain what might be called my procedural decisions. I did not, for example, demand a sign from the Lord as to which denomination is correct.
My very strong intuition and inspiration, amounting to a personal dogma, is that the Lord of Light is more concerned for whether a man is helping the poor, visiting the prisoner, aiding the widow, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and baptizing the lost, that He is concerned about our opinions about mysteries the human mind is not constructed to be able, in this life, to understand. I am convinced that the Lord regards discussions of the differences between denominations with hatred. I expected no sign.
Nonetheless, thanks to the followers of Christ who ignored and betrayed Christ’s last prayer spoken on Earth, which was for radical unity between His followers, I nonetheless had to choose between the denominations. Staying at home on Sunday and inventing my own personal brand of Christianity, known perhaps as Wrightinanity, was not an option, and departing the house required I either take the road to the left or to the right, since the church buildings of the different denominations lay in different directions. Which way to go?
Not without prayer, I set about to reason my way through the conflicting accounts of history and theology. I knew that I had no formal training in theology, nor any but a smattering of Greek and Latin and nothing of Aramaic or Hebrew, so I knew that revisiting each and every case of every opinion called heretical was beyond my powers. Even to read two or three books on the history of heresies was nearly beyond my powers, or at least my patience. I knew I had no ability to come to an independent yet sound conclusion about the nature of the Filioque controversy, nor to comb through such records as the obliterating gluttony of history had spared of the debates of the councils and synods grappling with that issue.
I decided at once not to heed any argument about non-essentials, that is, arguments which, even if proved true, would not change the verdict on the merits. For example, suppose that the Council of Trent is wrong about the doctrine of the Real Presence, or wrong about the doctrine of justification by faith alone rather than faith and works? Would I in either case refuse to take the Eucharist or refuse to have faith or refuse to do good works? Would anything in my behavior be changed, or anything in my prospects of salvation be changed?
The answer was no.
The idea that if the Host was merely symbolic but that I thought it was the real presence of Christ due to honest mistake by paying too much heed to the ministers set by Christ over me in his stead, that St Peter would body-tackle me at the Golden Gates and command the ferocious many-eyed warrior angels standing nearby to cast me into the jaws of Cerberus was absurd.
The parable of the sheep and the goats does not contain the line, “But, Lord, when were we supposed to know that you were two natures in one person rather than one nature?” Nor does it say, “Lord, when were we supposed to know the Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son rather than from the Father and the Son?” Nor does it say, “Lord, when where we supposed to know that Justification is through faith alone and grace alone?”
It says, “Lord, when did we fail to feed and cloth you?” To which the answer is, “Whatever you failed to do for the least of mine, you failed to do for me.”
The answer is not “The Donatists of the Fifth Century in Northern Africa were the only correct and true Church. Everyone else is damned.”
The only thing I saw that would be changed was that I would have to give up the practice of using contraception. Since (1 ) the use of contraception viscerally disgusted me, and since (2) my lovely bride was a Christian Scientist (whose church does not believe in the use of medicine in any case), and since (3) the evils of contraception (not the least of which is the harm to the woman’s hormonal system, a fact under-reported in our sex-crazed yet sex-bored society) is the main point which convinced me, back when I was an atheist, that the Christians were sane and the world insane, I saw that joining with the Catholics would in effect force me to live up to what my conscience already told me was correct, whereas joining with any other denomination or Church would not.
This cleared the docket of all but the crucial arguments.
The argument was not over whether or not Christ had one nature or two natures or two wills or coeternity with the Father. I was not competent to decide such subtle matters. The argument was over who was competent to decide such matters. More importantly, the argument was whether or not the claim that the authority competent to decide such matters had abdicated her authority by malfeasance, and on whom if anyone had that authority devolved. That was a matter I, or any man of ordinary prudence, could decide by a brief examination of the claims of authority.
I went to several churches of several denominations during this period, but by no means visited them all. In one of them, a part of the regular Sunday service was for the pastor to repeat that on such and such a date, a group of the founder’s students met and voted to establish a church in order to help spread the founder’s message, allegedly a return to the primitive Christianity as practiced by Christ and the early disciples.
I could not help but hear the voice of King Arthur from MONTY PYTHON’S HOLY GRAIL saying querulously to a socialist * Jacqueirie, “You don’t vote for kings!”
Logically, if anyone could start a church by vote, then the word “church” merely means “club” or “ethical society” or “political party” or “school of thought.” By this claim, a Christian church is one that adopts the King James Bible (or some other well regarded translation) they way my local Ethical Society club might adopt Robert’s Rule of Order. This claim is that churches are worldly institutions organized for the convenience of the members, who happen to share in common a desire to seek a closer spiritual relation with Christ.
The claim made by the ancient Churches, the Catholic, the Orthodox, and the Nestorian, is that the Church was founded by Christ Himself, and that He gave to the Apostles something they were charged to pass along to their disciples and hence to us. One of the most striking things to me about the debate over, let us say, gay marriage or the ordination of priestesses, when some modernistic voice calls on the Catholic Church to change her ways and get with the latest worldly fashion, the reply of the Church is that she does not have the authority to make those changes. Rome could (and does) make decisions about whether priests can marry. That is a matter of discipline, which is in human hands. Rome cannot (and does not) make any decisions about whether priests can be priestesses. That is a matter of dogma, which comes from Christ.
Without reaching the merit of these two claims, the significant thing is that they are not the same claim. A church that is voted into existence by the students of some charismatic founder is not basing its claim of authority on an authorizing act; it is not, indeed, even claiming to have authorization properly so called, but merely be acting on its own behalf, not as vicar or representative of anyone. A church taken over by a monarch or czar and rendered into an organ of the secular power, is basing its claim of authority on the coronation, that is, on the sacred nature of the kingship, and the duty of the king to defend the faith and maintain orthodoxy within his domain. The ancient Churches (Catholic, Orthodox, Nestorian) claim that they are authorized by the authority of Christ who is authorized by God Almighty.
Again, without deciding the merit of the claim, it is clear as a matter of logic that the claim of a denomination voted into existence cannot be inferior to the claim of the ancient Churches. If Mary Baker Eddy and a group of her students can vote to establish a church, so can St Peter. And again, as a matter of logic, the claim of a denomination ordained into existence by a monarch cannot be inferior to the claim of the ancient Churches. If King Henry can bring the Anglican Church into existence by royal degree, so can Jesus Christ, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, or, for that matter, so can Constantine.
Hence, I found I did not need to decide the merits of the claims of the various heterodox and orthodox opinions and dogmas. I only needed to decide whose claims of authority were in keeping with sound logic and the historical facts. Any historical fact which was disputed, I held in abeyance.
But there were certain claims I dismissed without hearing any evidence: whenever a Protestant gave an atheist argument, I discarded it as irrelevant.
Let me explain what I mean. Back in my atheist days, when I read Gibbon’s DECLINE AND FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE, so much mockery was heaped on Christianity, that I knew I was reading an atheist. There was not a single thing that author had to say about the Church or the disputes which tore the early Church which was not said in a tone of scorn. Whenever possible, the toleration of the pagans or the discipline of the Mohammedans was contrasted favorably to the bigotry and violence of the Christians in their the priest-plagued over-complexity of gross superstitions.
When I found out later that Gibbon was a Christian but merely an anti-Catholic, I laughed aloud in scorn, because the man was so blinded by partisanship that he did not see every single argument and phrase he delivered against his hated enemies, the Catholics, could be delivered with equal justice against him and his denomination.
Indeed, during my lifetime, I have seen the public discourse suffer exactly this change. When I was young, traveling missionaries once came to my door and told me earnestly that the Catholic Church was pagan. You can now go online to any number of brainless atheist sites and see little cartoon versions of the same arguments telling you earnestly that all Christianity is pagan, that Christmas trees are pagan, and the Easter eggs are symbols of the worship of Isis. The arguments are exactly the same in terms of their historicity and logic (little to none), and they use the same events and same references.
Ninth tenths of the enmity between Protestant and Catholic is concerned in non-serious but very bitter arguments of exactly this type, where the Protestant is uttering some slander against Catholicism that can with equal justice be turned against the Protestants.
If a Protestant says to a Catholic, for example, “You revere Mary, who is both a virgin and a mother, which is impossible! This is merely a pagan worship of Ishtar or Isis in disguise!” then the Atheist can say to the Protestant, “You revere Christ, who is both dead and alive, both man and god, which is impossible! This is merely the pagan worship of Adonis or Atis in disguise!”
Some of my readers seem to think this is the ground on which the decision between the denominations is to be made: like some sort of game where Constantine or Torquemada is blamed for some act of cruelty or bigotry, and Queen Elizabeth is blamed in return. Any denomination whose members commit crimes is not truly Christian. By that logic, since Judas was a traitor, and yet was a disciple of Christ, ergo Christ is not truly Christian.
Denunciations of Medieval Popes or Renaissance Antipopes have no persuasive value whatsoever to me. If anything, it proves the claim that the Church is preserved from error by the Holy Spirit—because if those crooks could not ruin the Church, no one can. Your denunciations have never rang as loud and strong and wrathfully as what Dante says about Church corruption, and he was a faithful son of the Church, and sang her beauty with a voice like an angel.
In any case, any denunciation of pre-Reformation Christianity by the Protestants is self-denunciation, since that is the stock from which you spring. It is as ungrateful and self-defeating as those modern Americans who think it cute or clever to denounce the American founding fathers on the grounds that these men were religious fanatics and smugglers or slave-holders. It is an illogical argument: the founding fathers were just as evil in their religion and smuggling and slave-holding when they were subjects of the King as when they were citizens of a Republic, only they were less free. And I solemnly assure any of my historically illiterate readers out there that the Romans were worse, far worse, when they were pagans. Julian the Apostate, for example, had a slavegirl slain via disembowelment by Egyptian priests so they could read her entrails to discover his fortunes in the upcoming war with the Persians.
Such was the savagery of the culture of the time: and yet I hear people complaining that Constantine sat in on the Council of Nicaea and observed its workings, as this is apparently some act of gross tyranny, and an offense against our God-given right to invent new and promote new doctrines and new blasphemies.
And the worse, by which I mean the least persuasive and stupidest argument, is the argument that runs that since Richard the Lionheart was a Catholic, Catholicism is bad, because it fights holy wars. By the same logic, Richard the Lionheart was a Christian, Christianity is bad, because it fights holy wars.
To the contrary, holy wars are the only wars worth fighting. Holy wars are not about something, they are about everything. Even someone who claims nothing is worth fighting for must agree that everything is worth fighting for.
To be quite frank, such arguments about blaming Christians for being warlike has the opposite from the intended effect. I have never started from the proposition that all Christians were Quakers, and it is clear enough that no Christian can be a pacifist, not and heed Our Lord’s command to sell our coats and buy swords.
To the contrary, the idea that the warrior kings from Richard the Lionheart to King Arthur were all Catholic, not to mention rogues and thieves like Robin Hood and Friar Tuck, as was every soul in Western Christendom before the Reformation, and in all of Christendom before the Great Schism, strongly recommends that ancient sect to my imagination, and brightens rather than darkens her luster in my eyes.