Apologetics or Apologies?
by Mark Shea
I am a "completed Evangelical." That is, I am a Catholic who sees my faith as the crown, glory and consummation of everything I was taught to love about the gospel when I first was nurtured in the Christian life as an Evangelical. In becoming a Catholic, I received in abundance everything I was rightly taught to desire by my Protestant fathers and mothers.
Among these things are a deep relationship of love with Christ, a deep love of his holy word in Scripture and a deep love of his people, particularly those people with whom I share the most intimate things, my family. Thus, whenever I can, I try to do apologetics for the Catholic faith since I love both my Evangelical and Catholic families and feel it incumbent upon me to create understanding between them by helping each to really see what it is the other loves and cares about.
Happily, I have seen some fruit in these attempts. My Catholic friends are coming to see what it is that makes Evangelicals tick and to love their purity of devotion. My Evangelical friends and I have, in turn, worked through many misunderstandings about the Church (everything from the fear of idolatry to the misconception of "works salvation.") They have learned what I myself have learned: that the Church does not fear Scripture and seek to subvert it with "traditions of men." They have come to a newfound respect for the Catholic sacramental worldview and the way in which the Incarnation informs the Catholic view of Scripture.
Or at any rate, the Magisterium's view of Scripture.
But sadly, I (and many of my fellow apologists) find our efforts to speak out for the Faith frequently embarrassed by the disheartening lack of knowledge and respect for the Faith at the parish level, especially among the very ministers given us laypeople to teach and encourage us. As a Protestant friend told me, "The problem many Protestants have is not necessarily with the teachings of the Church but with the complete lack of understanding among Catholics of those teachings." And I can scarcely gainsay him. Indeed, for many of us laypeople attempting to obey and defend Catholic teaching, there are many parishes in America where we are not only unsupported and dreadfully uncatechized by the ministry, but are actively opposed by clergy and religious who make us feel somehow quaint or backward. How then, given such soft-pedaling and shamefacedness concerning the Faith among my own clergy and religious, am I to give my Evangelical family apologetics and not apologies?
Consider, for example, the following problem. I make a serious effort every day to live out the teaching of Scripture concerning marriage. I hunger for a community to challenge and help me in the difficult task of love and its corollary, mutual submission between husband and wife. I try (and it is hard work for someone as egocentric as me) to take seriously the reality that, in the love of Christ, everyone (and especially my spouse) is greater than I am. In this, my wife and I are living out what I learned as an Evangelical and what we have both learned from the Church's Magisterium.
But in contrast, our parish ministry appears downright ashamed of this vision of marriage. This was starkly illustrated not long ago when the Sunday epistle was to be Paul's exhortation to husbands and wives in Ephesians 5. For our local feminist lector suddenly announced (as did countless feminist lectors across America) that part of the epistle was to be "deleted" per some allowance made by some nameless, faceless liturgical committee. Ephesians was then read with the entire exhortation to wives (all that non-PC stuff about submission) simply snipped out and the focus left solely on Paul's exhortation to husbands.
Now I make all due deference to our lector (who is, no doubt, serious about the Faith). But I must also say that I learned long ago (in my own reading on Catholic theology since I couldn't convince any of my parish catechists to teach me) that this whole passage from Ephesians depends on the idea of marriage as a sacrament imaging the love of Christ and the Church. Beginning with the command for all parties to "Defer to one another out of reverence for Christ," Paul then speaks to women (imaging humanity and the Church) and tells them they are to submit to their husbands, not as chattel (which was normal in the First Century) but as free moral agents with dignity. Husbands, for their part are to love their wives as Christ loved the Church. ("The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as ransom for many.") That is, men are to die for their wives each day out of a consuming desire for their good. In short, Paul's thought is wholly dominated by the love of Christ and the dignity of human beings, not the power of men and the oppression of women.
But from my seat in the pews, the liturgical committee people who decided to censor Ephesians appear to be utterly unaware of this. Instead, they behave as if they regard power, not love, as the summum bonum. As near as this sheep could tell, they subscribe to the modern ideology that all relationships are power relationships, not love relationships, and that this reading was a particularly egregious example of Pauline endorsement of patriarchy. And since everyone is either an oppressor or a victim, the liturgical committee and our lector decided to "side with the oppressed."
Result: So far from anyone being freed, we were all forced to endure the dehumanizing subtext of the hysterectomy they performed on Holy Scripture. For in the name of "pastoral concern" and the "need to end the disempowerment of women by patriarchy" thousands of American Catholic women were told, in effect, "You are not responsible moral agents. Men are incapable of love (and therefore must be singled out for scolding by the new improved Paul like the O.J. Simpsons they all are.) Power and gender conflict, not love, is the bottom line in all relationships."
In so mutilating Scripture, those entrusted to teach authentic Catholic truth (sheesh! authentic human truth) capitulated to a shrill and ephemeral political agenda. In the name of Power, they effectively denied the central fact of the universe--Love--to us who most need to hear about it. Women got ripped off, insulted and treated like children; men got to be the butt of a none-too-subtle ideological slam and no one got to hear anything different than the sort of droning and scraping one encounters on Oprah or Phil Donahue every afternoon. Coming up next: "Overcoming Religious Co-Dependence: Catholic Women Break Free of the 'Ephesians Trap'."
Ironically, the gospel reading was the account of the disciples abandoning Jesus after the Bread of Life discourse: "This is a hard saying! Who can hear it?" We sure couldn't. Because to my deep pain and frustration, the ministers we laypersons trust to tell us the truth didn't even dare to speak it!
Now, as an informed sheep, I am aware of the great kaffuffle over women in the Church. I am aware of the justifiable frustrations Catholic women (some of them devout and orthodox) feel. But in our culture, grievance has taken on the character of moral carte blanche. And moral carte blanche, in a fallen race, leads (particularly for ideologues) directly to arrogance and the assumption that the duties of love and humility can't be incumbent on Me, who have suffered so much. So yesterday's victim becomes today's oppressor, unless someone calls them back to sanity. And the only one who can do so is the Church--the same Church which that Sunday instead attempted to make Catholic teaching "palatable" by simply ignoring it since it offended the pride of ideologues.
Yet let's face it, aggrieved ideologues will greet the gospel demand for humility with huffy catcalls no matter what form it takes. I know because I am an arrogant man who has found out the hard way that if faithful Catholics did not lovingly challenge my ongoing hatred of humility, I would have no escape from the prison of my aggrieved ego. So I am convinced from bitter experience that if the preachers of the Church abdicate Christ's demand for love and humility (especially between the sexes) and fall prey to vacuous social fads and cosmetic surgery on holy writ, they doom our self-absorbed culture to drowning in an ocean of its own lukewarm drivel.
The gospel is not drivel. It is a mountain we must climb. It calls us laypersons to a tough job. It demands my faithfulness, my time, my talent, my treasure and my very life. It says to me (and this I learned as an Evangelical) that I am not my own. It frankly says to everyone that we are the very least of all people (especially in relation to each other). And I would resist all of this tooth and nail...if the Church and her beautiful Lord had not also convinced me we live in a universe bound for glory and that each choice to love and renounce pride is a step toward some unthinkable joy.
And that is the problem. For the American Church, so long immersed in the American obsession with the spirit of "I'm as good as you" (known by the ancients as pride and envy) seems to have forgotten we live in such a universe (despite the Holy Father's desperate attempts to remind it). So instead of proclaiming the liberating scandal of mutual surrender for the love of Christ, we are falling prey to the Spirit of the Age and (in this instance at least) ceasing to proclaim the one and only cure there will ever be for the chaos of competing demands for power: love and mutual humility.
Which leaves me in a peculiar pass. For I know that my beautiful Catholic communion is far better than the way some of her foolish members talk. I know (for I have tasted it) that the sweetness of the gospel in the Catholic Church is something so rich and satisfying that it can feed the whole world.
But if we are to do so we must, as Paul essentially demanded of the Corinthians, "become what we are" and stop truckling to the world and its hate-filled, inch-deep agendas of conflict, balkanization and "empowerment" which are, in all actual practice, the same old scrimmage to see who is Top Dog or Queen Bitch. We must give up the notion that power and warfare (between man and woman, black and white, rich and poor) are what make the world go round. We must have the courage of our own radical teachings and the moxie to explain what they mean (love) and why (for Christ!) rather than simply deleting uncomfortable Scripture and burbling stale pap about "I'm as good as you."
Then we lay apologists will know that the local parish will back us up when we speak about the thunderous realities of our Faith. Then my wife and I will not feel as though we are amusing relics for pursuing love rather than gender conflict. Then I will be able to answer my friend that we Catholic sheep in the pews have indeed come to know and embrace the gospel of which Paul was not ashamed: the word of truth, (not ideology) and the humble love (not domination) that is foolishness to the Gentiles.
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'Sheavings' reproduced with permission from Mark Shea
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