Wednesday, March 29, 2006

The Perils of Self-Determination

Fr. John Fenton has a depressing but illuminating post about Lutheran Platonism -- that is, the belief prevalent in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod that a Luthero-Baptist and a Luthero-Catholic can equally express "Lutheranism." Although he writes from one background, his words apply to a wide spectrum of denominations -- Episcopalians, traditional Presbyterians, Roman Catholics, and even (perhaps to his horror) ELCA Lutherans.

Fr. Fenton notes his parish is High Church -- he prefers the term "Western Catholic" -- because "they determined to be, self-consciously, an historic liturgical Lutheran parish." He notes:
[T]his is not as it should be. One should not be traditional, liturgical, sacramental, catholic (or whatever other adjective you wish to use) because one has determined to be such. Rather, that is what the Church is, and so that is what you are to be--by definition, not by decision.
In other words, the Church should nurture this environment for every child to spring from Her spiritual womb. No denomination should merely allow one to be an historical, traditional, orthodox, liturgical Christian. As history doth ever teach us, those denominations that permit exceptions to traditional faith, order, or morals soon find the exception becomes the rule -- and the normative rule becomes verboten.

This leads to a few conclusions:

1. Truth is a higher ecclesiastical good than peace found at the lowest common denominator. To be sure, differences in style give no scandal to the Church, but if a denomination is sufficiently "diverse" to make an historical Catholic churchmanship a matter of self-determination, perhaps that is altogether too much libertas in dubiis.
2. Our frailty must humbly acknowledge the need for the Church's guidance. As Fr. Fenton asks, "when 'swimming against the current,' who's to say that you're actually swimming the right way?" The misguided Protestant ideal of anointing every man his own Pope works nearly as well in the ecclesiastical order as anointing every man his own Sovereign works in the secular. We are all-too-human, too far from apatheia ("dispassion") to know the right way, perhaps even to discover it. Our passion-riddled lives require a guide from cradle-to-grave (and beyond!), from pronouncing our first Paters and Aves to mumbling our last.
3. Much of Protestantism is a house of cards. Elizabethan settlements, or truces between "confessional" Lutherans and pietists, inevitably unravel at some point, when one party imposes its will upon another. All the while, the world, the flesh, and the Devil are inconspicuously asserting their own will upon us all. This divided house cannot long withstand their unified assault.
4. The self-determined effort could be better applied. I am by no means diminishing the work so many do to assure their parishes worship in an historical, Catholic manner -- nor the reward God has laid in store for them. I merely mean struggles against the tide of one's church home are praiseworthy, but synergistic struggles with the tide of one's Church are more productive.
5. Even a "nice" church may be worth leaving. If your heart worships in the Orthodox-Catholic manner, and your denomination does not, you have already left. Perhaps it is time to reunite your heart with your body in His Body, His Bride, and our Mother.

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