Below is the second (slightly edited) email I sent to a few friends about what got me questioning Catholicism and Christianity in general. Like the previous one, my thoughts have developed since this email, but I think it illustrates some of the bigger questions that got me doubting. I hope to flesh out some personal circumstances that influenced my doubts and delve deeper into individual questions in the near future.
I’ve done some more thinking on this and I thought I’d expand on some of the stuff I mentioned in passing. I also want to note that I’m not trying to attack the Catholic Church – my focus there is because I don’t take (most of) Protestantism seriously and Orthodoxy is too culturally diverse to group together (a cradle Orthodox in Kiev is going to have a different take on most things than a convert in suburban America) – not to mention I live in a very Western society.
There were 7 Ecumenical Councils (in order to be ecumenical, it must include bishops of the universal Church and apply to the Church universally). All other Roman Catholic councils are specific only to the Roman Church – Eastern bishops were not members of these councils (although Eastern Catholic bishops were invited to Vatican I and Vatican II) and the decrees do not apply to Eastern churches. The Roman Catholic Church, in its relationship with Eastern Catholic Churches, has acknowledged this. However, the RCC continues to tell Roman Catholics that all 21 councils are necessary for the faithful to adhere to – meaning that they’re infallible. I’ve been told that it would scandalize the RC faithful to change course on this. Yes, the RCC tells Eastern Christians that it’s okay to not believe in papal infallibility (and by extension, the Immaculate Conception and Assumption since those dogmas were proclaimed by popes post-Vatican I) or the Western understanding of Original Sin, but then turns around and tells RCs that it is necessary for them to believe it.
THIS is an example of the inability to admit fallibility and vulnerability in the Church. The Church is too concerned with how its credibility will be perceived than with being upfront about the truth.
The general concept of mankind suffering for the “sin of Adam” has biblical and apostolic roots. Every early development came in reaction against certain heresies to emphasize that humanity is indeed fallen or even depraved, but that we aren’t totally depraved or incapable of grace.
Western Christianity went on to extend original sin to not only say that we all share in the consequences of Original Sin, but that we also share in the guilt of original sin. This is why the teaching of the Immaculate Conception developed – the Theotokos could not be guilty of sin. And, it was taken a step further by some by saying she could not have died, because death is a consequence of the Fall, and a consequence implies guilt.
Eastern Christianity, however, did not accept the idea of the hereditary guilt of ancestral sin (aka original sin). This renders the Immaculate Conception (a dogma of the Roman Catholic Church) unnecessary, because the Theotokos would not need to be freed from the guilt of ancestral sin.
From the Western understanding of Original Sin, it is easy to see how the teaching of “Total Depravity” came into being, given that we all share in the sin of Adam. While the CCC states, “Although it is proper to each individual, original sin does not have the character of a personal fault in any of Adam’s descendants” (contrary to prior teachings of the RCC), the attitude of guilt still exists. Whether we are, or are not, guilty of original sin, has huge implications for salvation – especially salvation for those outside the Church and those who’ve never heard of Christ. And, the Church has changed (“developed”) this concept throughout the centuries, and in one century the Church’s teaching would render some damned, while in another century those same people would be rendered saved or unknown.
I’m not sure there is a clearer example (except maybe papal infallibility) of how changeable and fallible the Church can be than marriage. Originally the Church didn’t celebrate marriages – marriage (as well as divorce) was in the hands of families and governments. The Church gradually involved itself in marriage, but marriage as a sacrament didn’t take hold until the Synod of Verona in the 12th Century (mostly to combat the “errors” of the Cathars), although it had been called such here and there as early as the 3rd Century. The regulations for a valid marriage weren’t defined in the Roman Catholic Church until Trent.
Initially, re-marriages after widowing or divorce were prohibited. Obviously this is impractical, and we know that people would just shack up with a partner after their spouse died or left. So, in the interest of legitimizing these shack-ups so that at the snap of the finger it would go from sin to not, the Eastern churches decided to allow up to three marriages in a lifetime – only the first one would be sacramental, while the other two would be bestowed in a liturgy of sorrow and penance for human weakness, and the married couple would have to do penance for an extended period of time before being permitted back to communion (obviously, it’s evolved, while there’s still a liturgy of sorrow for human weakness, second and third marriages as sins to be repented has gone out the window). The Roman Catholic Church took a different approach and didn’t limit the number of times a person could be sacramentally married after being widowed or having marriages “annulled.”
The status of marriage, in relation to celibacy, has changed dramatically throughout history (and not in a linear, “organic” way – it’s gone back and forth). Early in the Church’s history (and again later), marriage was seen as greatly inferior to a celibate state, taking a very literalist interpretation of St. Paul’s words. Indeed, at times sex and marriage were seen as inherently bad, even if necessary – of course, this is what led to the mindset in the West that marriage and the priesthood were inherently incompatible. The current mindset (perhaps in response to non-“traditional” ideas of marriage) is that marriage is nearly always a great thing (which has led to a breakdown of any coherent argument for mandatory clerical celibacy). My point being, the view of marriage has gone to the extremes of necessary evil and absolute good, and everything in between.
The Council of Trent claimed that divorce cannot happen, even in the case of adultery (an actual example of allowable divorce given by Jesus – remember that guy?) – even though divorce happened at various times in various places in the Western Church (and where it didn’t happen, it happened in practice through separation and re-coupling). Of course, this is impractical, and everyone (except Catholics) knows that annulments are really just “Catholic divorces.” To further this, the Western Church had to say that the couple administers the sacrament (the only sacrament that isn’t ordinarily administered by clergy) in order to easily invalidate it (if a priest conferred the sacrament to a consenting couple, and the marriage was consummated, there is no argument that the marriage could be invalid). How a marriage can be invalidated after years of living as husband and wife, because of some new-found epiphany that maybe there was some portion of intent that was withheld at the time of the ceremony is beyond me – especially because no one knows what they’re getting into with marriage, and no marriage ends up being what the couple intended. If my wife and I were to get divorced, I wouldn’t seek an annulment – if we got divorced, it’s not because the marriage was invalid, it’s because the marriage failed (which the Orthodox and most Protestants understand).
I also don’t understand this whole, “some marriages are valid but not sacramental” thing. I don’t hear that “some ordinations are valid but not sacramental” (or pick any sacrament). Really, to be coherent in sacramental theology, either marriages are a civil matter about which the Church has a theology, or marriage is strictly sacramental and all non-sacramental marriages aren’t really marriages.
Age of reason
This is another one of those “justify practices with theology after the fact” moments. “Age of reason” has become a doctrinal concept in much of Christianity (especially Protestants when it comes to baptism and Catholics when it comes to the Eucharist and Confirmation), but it developed in order to justify not admitting infants to communion because of the switch to the use of unleavened bread, which can be difficult for little ones to consume. Not only have they made those who Jesus called “the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” second class citizens, but this has been used to deny the Eucharist to the cognitively challenged. This also ignores the fact that none of us really understand the great mysteries of life and faith. If you want to have an age for first communion for cultural purposes (First Communion is a big deal in a lot of places), fine, but keep it a universal age regardless of mental capabilities – but don’t hide behind a conveniently manufactured theology – and don’t be afraid to say that you were wrong on this (it’s more scandalous to continue misleading than for the faithful to know you can be wrong).
To expand on why I think there are simultaneously “more non-negotiables and no non-negotiables” – what I mean is that there are many social concerns that a follower of Jesus of Nazareth must be worried about – much more than 5. However, there are so many ways to address these concerns that they are negotiable in a political context. Fighting poverty is a non-negotiable principle – but, how do we address it? Raising the minimum wage? What if isolating the minimum wage from the greater systemic economic problems ends up increasing cost of living and results in loss of jobs? Likewise, if abortion is undesirable, what if legal restrictions aren’t the best way to reduce abortions? You can’t say that not actively opposing legal access to abortion will place you in hell, while actively advocating for a exploitative economic system is a prudential decision. At least, not if you’re a follower of Jesus of Nazareth.
Gender roles and purity culture
Although things have progressed greatly in the last 50 years, there still exists a great chasm between the status of women and men in Christianity. I’m not going to get into access to the priesthood or the role of women in the Church today, but rather how women are viewed in marriage and sexual situations. We are taught that men and women are different – not just biologically, but ontologically. The refusal of many Christians to consider what is a social construct and what is natural in gender is a problem. Accepted Christian teaching on gender roles (much of which is a hangover from Victorian Protestantism) starts from the point that because men and women are “different” there are clear, definitive roles for men and women. It completely ignores cultural differences, or even individual differences. Why this goes largely unquestioned in practicing Catholic circles, I don’t know.
Another thing that concerns me is the adoption of Evangelical “purity”/“modesty” culture by Catholics and Orthodox. My first problem is its effect on marriage – women are told to guard their physical and emotional “purity” from men until marriage (lest you be a “chewed piece of gum“) and to cover their bodies because the female body entices sin – and then, they are expected to turn the switch on their magical wedding night switch and undo years of shame and repression and get naked and have sex with a man. Remember, men are sex-craved animals who want nothing but sex from you, but all of a sudden you have to make yourself vulnerable to a man. And gays having sex is what’s ruining marriage?
Also, the idea that sex is something that happens to women greatly harms gender equality. When a man has sex with a virgin, he’s “ruined her” – he’s done something to her. If a virginal man has sex with a non-virginal woman, “meh.” Additionally, there is still this concept of a duty of having sex with your spouse – this turns sex into a chore, which while it’s not rape (in fact the other spouse may wish that their spouse wouldn’t just put out), it’s self-imposed (although often encouraged by the other spouse) non-consensual sex – and this behavior stems from a repressive view of sexuality and is the source of a lot of the libido differences. Side note (well, actually the point of this): I find it interesting that conservative Christians tend to report a libido difference that suggests the female libido is lower, while secularists tend toward a more equal libido. And then I’m told that men are more naturally sex-crazed – I’m calling bullshit.
I’ll go more into purity/modesty culture another time – there’s a lot to talk about, especially how the burden of “purity” is placed almost exclusively on the (covered) shoulders of women.