I have never had much insight into the eastern tradition of the Church. I have tried a couple of books on Orthodoxy but I have found each culturally difficult to comprehend. So this post, as all the posts on this blog, is my relation to the western Catholic tradition.
I have been reading a couple of posts by ex-Lutheran pastors now Roman Catholics which touch on the topic of identity and the Catholic Church: Being Catholic does not mean being “Anti-Protestant” and Why I am NOT a Convert. These two posts touch on what it means to be a non-cradle Catholic. How is one to regard one’s own past, and the leading of God in one’s past, as a present day Roman Catholic? These two men have much greater insights into what the fullness of the Catholic faith means in their daily lives than I do. They are better thinkers and clearer writers than me as well. (Enough sucking up?)
Yes, there is subjective faith, devotion, holiness outside of the Roman Catholic Church! There are people whose life has been deeply touched by God’s working and who live out their divine calling in their daily lives. These people may attend (or be members) of Anglican, Lutheran, Baptist, or Pentecostal communities. All these communities have developed individual cultural identities which establish them.
I think it was John Locke (please correct me) who first looked at the idea of distinctiveness in relation to particular denominations. The question shifted sometime in the 16th or 17th century from what unites to what makes us distinctive. I was very much influenced by that idea. (Long time readers will remember the many posts about Anglican distinctiveness on this blog.) If we just work out what makes us as Anglicans distinctive, we will be able to provide Rome with a purchase option. We were going to add something to the Roman Catholic Church to make it more catholic.
Yet a pressing question entered my thoughts: is there anything these communities of faith outside of the Roman Catholic Church can add to the Church which it does not already have? If the Roman Catholic Church has the fullness of the objective faith in which I am called to make my personal response to God, what of those distinctive elements of other Christian communities? These must be heretical – a choice and departure from the objective faith. All that is good, holy, edifying, and true within communities not in visible communion with the successor of Saint Peter, must already be part of the Catholic Church!
The only exception (if you can call it that) is the cultural expression of the faith which is embodied in these communities. Anglicanism embodies an English expression of the faith and Lutheran a Germanic/Norwegian. But in terms of theology there is nothing which any of these communities can add to the Roman Catholic Church. (I am, BTW, a little so-so about theological method which comes to the same conclusion – does the end justify the means?)
Spencer John Jones, an Anglo-Papist priest in England, wrote in one of his books: “… our differences (with Rome) are due to our separation, not our separation to our differences”. That might be true but in the end the Roman Catholic Church has no necessity for other Christian communities. Taking Saint Thomas, I have always rejoiced in truth no matter where I may find it. The Roman Catholic Church has a divine duty to bring back into her fold all the separated brethren. But even without them, it holds within itself the fullness of the faith. Other Christian communities need the Roman Catholic Church. Lutheran, Anglicans, Baptists, Pentecostals share some (if not all) of their history with the Roman Church. Those who maintain a sacramental system have inherited this from the Roman Church. And those of the Reformed tradition, received their Scriptures from the Roman Church.
So how am I to regard my spiritual past? As God’s leading into the fullness of the faith. My wife compares the Roman Catholic Church to a magnet: either one is attracted to it, or repelled from it. The truth and faith I received from my Christian upbringing drew me into the fountain of that truth: Jesus and his Church.