Why am I not a Roman Catholic?


Jeremiah 31:31-34
Psalm 46
Romans 3:19-28
John 8:31-36

Prayer of the Day: Gracious Father, we pray for your holy catholic church. Fill it with all truth and peace. Where it is corrupt, purify it; where it is in error, direct it; where in anything it is amiss, reform it; where it is right, strengthen it; where it is in need, provide for it; where it is divided, reunite it; for the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Initially, I had thought to entitle this Reformation Day reflection: “Why I am still a Lutheran.” On further consideration,  however, I decided to change it into a question and entitle it “Why am I not a Roman Catholic?” That title reflects what has become an ever more urgent and personal inquiry for me. Several people I know and admire have “crossed the Tiber,” so to speak, and become Roman Catholics these last few years. They all have their own reasons. Some of my friends tell me that they are drawn to the “depth” and “texture” of the Mass next to which our protestant worship seems shallow and austere. One of my friends made the switch because she feels that the urgency of living our discipleship as a global communion which transcends all racial, ethnic and national loyalties is greater than any other moral or theological issue dividing the church. She feels the Roman Catholic Church is the strongest and best expression of that commitment. My friend is appalled at the way American protestant churches, in her view, have become little more than civic organizations dedicated to upholding middle class values and promoting some version of the American dream. I know a few people who have become Roman Catholics for no better reason than to escape the controversies sparked within the protestant churches over sexuality issues. (Good luck to them with that. I have a feeling their relief will be short lived.)

Whatever reasons these folks may have for turning to the Church of Rome, it is obvious that they do not find the theological controversies of the Reformation worth fighting about anymore. Or perhaps they feel that these controversies have been largely resolved or never really existed in the first place. Maybe we have been talking (or shouting) past each other all the time. I take seriously the decisions of my friends. After all, it was never the intent of the Reformation (for Lutherans anyway) to form a new Church. It was always our desire merely to reform the old one. At our best, we Lutherans have understood ourselves as a reform movement within the Church Catholic rather than another church. So, if the issues dividing us have been resolved or no longer matter, what excuse do I have for continuing to perpetuate a rift within the Church? If the Church is both One and Catholic, it should live that way and its unity should not be disturbed absent a clear departure from the gospel.

Of course, I can point to a lot of things I don’t like about the Roman Catholic Church. It’s stance on the place of women, contraception, treatment of gay and lesbian persons as well as several of its practices are deeply troubling to me. Yet for much of my life, the Lutheran Church held many similar positions and had its own practices that troubled me. Still, I remained Lutheran and worked for change within my church. These matters were not deal breakers then. Why should they be now? Why not join the Roman Catholic church recognizing that, just as in any church community, there will be need for change and reform as well as opportunities for witness and ministry?

Then there is the whole branding issue. Back in the days when there were enough dyed in the wool Lutherans around looking for a church, it made sense for a church to hang out the Lutheran shingle prominently. That way, all those Lutherans would come to our door before some other Lutheran church snatched them up. But those days are long gone. Few people are looking for churches of any kind these days and those that are don’t seem overly concerned about the brand. Over the last couple of decades, the Lutheran brand has become a liability. I find it increasingly difficult and awkward to explain to people I meet just what it means to be “Lutheran.” If I respond that we are a church that proclaims Jesus as Lord, I seem to be implying that Roman Catholics (and other churches) do not proclaim Jesus or at least do not do it as well as us. If I try to answer that question from a historical perspective and explain how the Lutheran Church was a product of the Reformation in the 16th century, their eyes glaze over. I am tired of explaining what a Lutheran is. I would rather talk about Jesus from within a united, or better, “catholic” church. About the only thing the Lutheran label is doing for us anymore is making clear to people who see it on our signs that they are not one of us.

So, why am I not a Roman Catholic? The best answer I can give is that the faith community in which I was baptized, in which I have been nurtured and under which I have sought to follow Jesus happens to have been Lutheran. The Lutheran churches were institutionally severed from the Roman Catholic Church centuries before I was born. Over those centuries, we each confronted the same issues presented by the modern world from our separate perspectives and arrived at some very different resolutions. Our separate paths have created new chasms that make “crossing over” profoundly difficult for those of us on both sides at a deeply personal level. I have to ask myself, could I join a church in which my daughter’s call to the ministry of Word and Sacrament is not recognized? Could I join a church in which the marriages of my gay and trans friends are deemed sinful? Could I join a church in which my family members would not be welcome to join me at the Lord’s Table? Make no mistake about it, the fractures in the Church Catholic occasioned by the Reformation are grievous wounds to the Body of Christ which must be healed. But I don’t believe that tearing myself away from the faith community that has shaped my relationship to Jesus and continues to inform my practice of discipleship will assist in such healing. In fact, it would most likely aggravate the wound.

Thus, even if I were entirely comfortable with the idea of joining the Roman Catholic Church (I am not yet), I probably would not do it. I would be just one soldier switching sides in a war that should not have been declared in the first place. I want reconciliation to the Church of Rome with all my heart, but not without the rest of my faith family. I want healing for the whole Body of Christ, not just for myself. That means living with the pain of separation while continuing the hard work of dialogue, listening, repenting, forgiving and, above all, praying for the Holy Spirit to make us one.

Here is a poem by Barbara Howes about homecoming, which I think we can read as a prayer for return to the home where we have never truly been, but which we earnestly seek and to which Jesus would call us: the oneness he shares with his Father in the binding love of the Holy Spirit.

The Homecoming

All the great voyagers return
Homeward as on an arc of thought;
Home like a ruby beacon burns
As they crest wind, scale wave, soar air;
All the great voyagers return,

Though we who wait never have done
Fearing the piteous accidents,
The coral reef sharp as the bones
It has betrayed, fate’s cormorant
Unleashed, whose diving’s never done.

Even the voyager of mind
May fail beneath behemoth’s weight;
Oh, the world’s bawdy carcass blinds
All but the boldest, rots the sails
And swamps the voyaging of the mind.

But all the great voyagers return
Home like the hunter, like the hare
To its burrow; below, earth’s axle turns
To speed their coming, the following fair
Winds bless their voyage, blow their safe return.

Source: Collected Poems 1945-1990, (c. 1954 by Barbara Howes,  pub. by Grove/Atlantic, Inc.) Barbara Howes (1914-1996) was an American poet. She was adopted by a well-to-do Massachusetts family and reared in Chestnut Hill.  She graduated from Bennington College in 1937 and worked briefly for the Southern Tenant Farmers Union in Mississippi. From 1943-1947 Howes edited the literary magazine, Chimera, living in Greenwich Village. In 1947 she married the poet William Jay Smith, and they lived for a time in England and Italy. They had two sons, David and Gregory, and divorced in the mid-1960s. The book from which the above poem is taken received a nomination for the 1995 National Book Award. You can read more about Barbara Howes and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

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