Why not Roman Catholicism? Part II

For a while I was very seriously considering becoming Roman Catholic. Then I decided against it. I have in the meantime managed to clarify to myself a number of reasons why I do not think Roman Catholicism is true. In a previous post, I raised three issues. Here I will provide a brief summary of some more of these reasons. I discuss these points in greater detail in my forthcoming volume titled Theology of the Manifest: Christianity without Metaphysics.

4. Tradition and Hierarchy Roman Catholicism places a great emphasis on tradition and hierarchy in theology. The emphasis on “tradition” means that later generations in the Church are essentially beholden to certain ideas, understandings, and preoccupations of earlier generations. The faith functions by means of a “traditionalist” deference to figures from the past. And exactly which traditional ideas enjoy such privilege is defined by reference to the “hierarchy” of the Church. There are certain persons within the community of God’s people that are especially authoritative and demand the obedience of other persons, such as the doctors and bishops of the Church and especially the bishop of Rome.

I am against both of these ideas. I think Jesus plainly does not think that any one generation of God’s people is necessarily beholden to the ideas and preoccupations of a previous generation. For example, He and His disciples not ritually wash their hands before eating despite the fact that this was a tradition of the elders (Matt. 15:1-9). He even blames the Pharisees of preferring their traditions to the word of God. His point is therefore clear: only God’s word is ultimately authoritative. And Jesus also teaches that all of His disciples are to think of each other as equally brothers and students of the Messiah (Matt. 23:8-10). People within the Church may be variously appointed to certain tasks, but only Jesus’s words can be definitively binding on anyone else. Thus, I do not think that the Church as the messianic community of Jesus functions or is structured the way that Roman Catholicism thinks it is.

5. Eucharist The Roman Catholic Church affirms a doctrine of the Real Presence, more specifically the notion of transubstantiation. This is the view that during the celebration of the Eucharist, the “substance” of the bread and the wine are changed into the substance of the body and blood of Jesus. The accidents of bread and wine on the other hand remain without subsisting in anything. This idea can be understood as follows. There is some further dimension of things beyond what becomes apparent in experience. This “deeper” dimension of the bread and wine is converted into the corresponding “deeper” dimension of Jesus’s body and blood. But the appearances of bread and wine remain without being attached to the “deeper” dimension of anything.

I reject this picture of things for a number of reasons. For reasons familiar to those who have studied phenomenology, I deny that there is something further, “deeper” dimension of things beyond and independent of what appears in the world of experience. If you propose such a thing and further accept that the world of experience and this “deeper” dimension can come apart, as the doctrine of transubstantiation implies, it leads to skepticism. This view admits that there is no experiential difference between merely apparent bread and true, substantial bread. One had might as well as argue that all we have in experience are mere appearances that do not belong to anything substantial at all. A person may merely appear to be a human being but actually be a frog or nothing at all. There would be no way of proving this false. Even Jesus would not be able to prove that He had risen from the dead by showing His wounds (John 20:20). He could have had a merely apparently resurrected body. Against all this, appearance must be strictly correlated with being.

I also reject this view because it does not make good sense of the teaching of the Bible about the Eucharist. Jesus says that we have to eat His flesh and drink His blood if we are to have life (John 6:53-58). Roman Catholics interpret this literally. They say that we need really to eat Jesus’s body and blood in the Eucharist. But how is Christ’s body being eaten on their view? They admit that Christ is not locally present; He is not “there” where the Eucharist is being celebrated. How then can He be really eaten if He is not in the same place where the eating is taking place? A thing has to go into the mouth and down into the stomach to be eaten. That is why you cannot eat your cake and have it in the hands, too. Yet they do not think that this happens to Jesus. So He is not literally being eaten! Why then do they posit that He is really present if He is not literally being eaten?

Jesus rejects the idea that His body must really be eaten. He says: “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (John 6:63). When Jesus says that “the flesh is useless,” He clearly cannot be contradicting what He says earlier about His flesh being “true food” (John 6:55). Obviously He does not mean that He does not have true flesh, either. He is rather contradicting what His audience understood Him to mean. They thought He was proposing that they actually eat His body. He corrects them by saying: “The flesh is useless.” He is not saying that His Incarnation is useless. He is saying rather that it would not help a person any actually to eat His body, as they took Him to mean. It is rather the words that He has spoken – namely, about believing in Him, about His giving His body (on the cross) for the life of the world, and so on — which are spirit and life. These words and more specifically what they refer to are what give true spiritual life. Thus, Jesus is clear that what will give us life is not eating His body in any literal sense but rather believing in Him and His sacrifice on behalf of the whole world. To “eat Christ’s flesh” is to believe in Him: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be hungry” (John 6:35).

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