Watching the Tiber Go By (Part 5)

Part 1 is here.
Part 2 is here.
Part 3 is here.
Part 4 is here.

St. Paul tells us, “Test everything; hold fast to what is good.” Intellectually, and practically, Catholicism seemed to do this. As an example, consider virtue. Or, rather, a virtue. Bravery, say. What is it? According to the Catholic tradition, which goes back to antiquity (to Aristotle, as a matter of fact), a virtue is, simply enough, a good habit. If you have the virtue of bravery, that means that you are in the habit of standing firm in times of danger, even though you are afraid. If you have the virtue of honesty, that means that you are in the habit of telling the truth, even though it might benefit you to lie.

This is important. This description of virtue not only tells me what virtue is; it tells me how to get it. How can I become brave? By getting in the habit of behaving bravely. And how can I do that? By choosing to stand firm when the going gets tough. I can start with small things, indeed I’ll have to start with small things. Major battles don’t come every day. But if I can get in the habit of standing firm, then when the crisis comes and there is no time to think, I can trust that my established habits will take over and I will do the right thing. The same applies to honesty, chastity, or any other virtue.

Now, this is basic moral philosophy. But despite my having been a Christian my entire life, and having been actively involved in a church for all of my adult life, I’d never heard virtue described in that way–to the extent it was talked about at all.

But the Roman Catholic writers I was reading all seemed to take it as a matter of course. They referred to it, and they all seemed to be on the same page. And when I thought about it, so was C.S. Lewis. In his writings, though, he tends to avoid using the standard well-known terms so as to present the material freshly, as he does in The Abolition of Man where he spends an entire book writing about the Natural Law and never once uses the term. For this is basic moral philosophy, and it used to be that everyone knew it. And yet I hadn’t, despite having every opportunity. But the Catholic bloggers and writers did.

This is a humble example, but it illustrates my point. The Catholic tradition tests everything and holds on to what is good. I don’t mean to imply, by the way, that every Roman Catholic knows these things, or that the definition of virtue is preached in every parish. But this wealth of knowledge is readily available if you look for it, and it’s all of a piece. It hangs together.

It’s hard to find this kind of unity of thought in Protestantism. There’s unity on basic things, but there are so many different streams of theology in Protestantism that unity is not to be looked for; and then there’s the tendency of Protestants (myself not excluded) when presented with an issue to pick up the Bible, find something that applies, and wing it.

As I commented in the previous post, it was at about this time that I read Mark Shea’s By What Authority: An Evangelical Discovers Catholic Tradition. Mark points out the verse from Matthew, “And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it,” and observes that here Jesus is promising to look after his church…which should include preserving it from error.

Oh, dear. And that accumulated body of Catholic tradition made it appear that perhaps this was true. That perhaps the Roman Catholic Church really was the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church and that Jesus had really taken special care of it over the last 2000 years.

This was a glorious and dreadful thought. Glorious, because of the vision of God’s power working through the sweep of history to preserve His church, His body, from error; dreadful, because, of course, I was Anglican rather than Roman Catholic.

And I mean really, truly dreadful. I discussed my thinking with a close friend of ours, who told me (more or less), “I hear what you’re saying, but don’t forget the importance of Christian community. You’ve got a great community there at St. Luke’s–can you find that in a Catholic parish?” I won’t try to tell Jane’s story here, as mine is complicated enough, but it suffices to say that she shared this concern–in spades. Anyway, I didn’t want to be Catholic. I love St. Luke’s; I love the people at St. Luke’s; I love the worship at St. Luke’s; and Jesus is clearly both sought and found at St. Luke’s. Jane had attended there from a child, we were married there, our four children were baptized there, we’d taken our stand for orthodoxy there when we’d voted to leave the Episcopal Church and take refuge in the Anglican Church of Uganda.

But of course, Anglicanism is a branch of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. So I’d always been taught; couldn’t I claim the same tradition while remaining at St. Luke’s?

Part 6 is here.

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