Can the Catholic Church Gain from non-Catholic churches?

This is a most important question. And one the answer to which will surprise people on all sides.

For, one group will say, “Of course the Catholic Church can gain. She is not the full Church of Christ anyway. There are many churches of the Church of Christ that are not Catholic and which therefore can teach the Catholic churches.”

Another group will say, “If the Catholic Church is the very Church founded by Jesus Christ, then she can gain nothing from non-Catholic churches.”

To answer this question, we must begin with some basics. First of all, the second group states a truth of dogmatic authority in its “if” clause: The Catholic Church most certain is the very Church founded by Jesus Christ. There is a “full identity” here; hence, no distinction at all.

But second, this does not mean that the Catholic Church can gain nothing from non-Catholic churches. Why not?

We must distinguish the essence of the Church – the ingredients of which I refer to as her intensive plenitude, e.g. her sanctifying power, her governing power, his teaching power, her holiness, catholicity, etc. – from her “lived life”. The “lived life” of the Church refers to the quality of the lives of her individual members, the quality of the theological reflection at some given age in some given place, the quality of the relations among the members, the quality of the liturgy, etc. The “lived life” of the Church may suffer in one age or another. There come times when Catholics do not live their faith well, run through the motions of the liturgy, do not study theology and philosophy, do not love the poor, do not order the temporal order to Christ the King, etc. For instance, before St. Francis, the Italians were far from the way of Christ and his Church. St. Francis brought about a renewal. At the times of the Protestant objections, many Catholics including priests were not living holy lives ordered to Christ the King. At different times in the Church’s history, liturgical reforms were made that were not so edifying. For example, the reform of the Divine Office in the early 16th century. It was a badly done reform; the Church eventually went back to her prior practice.

When we make these distinctions between the essence and the lived life, we can further reflect on our non-Catholic brothers and sisters. We can ask ourselves, “Is it possible that a Greek Orthodox liturgy is more beautiful than the liturgy as practiced in many Catholic parishes?” Now, I think just about anyone who assists at an Orthodox liturgy will agree: “Yes, they do liturgy better than do many Catholic parishes.” Thus, we can ask, “Can the Orthodox teach us how to do liturgy better?” I think surely everyone will now agree: “Yes, they most certainly can.”

Let’s continue. We can even ask more incisively: “Does the Orthodox liturgy itself – not just in its practice – not give us an objectively more beautiful presentation and more comprehensive catechetical portrait of our faith (excepting of course the Roman primacy and certain other crucial truths, such as some Marian dogmas) than that given in the Novus Ordo? Here, I contend the answer is, “Yes, it surely does.”

But someone will object: If you say that, you are questioning the validity of the Novus Ordo. Answer: No I am not. One can hold – and on grounds – that some liturgy is more adequate an expression of the Eternal Faith than another liturgy. Adequate here would be judged in terms of the comprehensive and articulate expression of the Church’s faith and in terms of the goal of liturgy, the pointing of man to God in fitting religious worship. Of secondary concern, but not of no concern, would be the “accessibility” of the liturgical reality. This is a concern, but it is of secondary importance.

Now, a full evaluation of the matter would be complex. It would involve analysis of the precise prayers, the order, the movements, the vestments, etc., of the liturgies. How well do the prayers convey, substantially, the faith of the Church? That Christ died for our sins to snatch us from the fires of hell! That Christ is God and man! That the Holy Trinity accepts the sacrifice of Christ our High Priest. That through the liturgy we are sanctified and ushered towards glory. That we must repent of our sins. That the saints are in heaven with us as we pray. That we rely on them. Etc. Now at the liturgies of John Chrysostom, the congregation sings again and again to God implorying his mercy and repenting of sin. Sanctification in light, removal of darkness. These are stressed. Christ as God and man. These are stressed. The liturgy is accessible though transcendent and even foreign. It lifts us up to worship.

Is that level of richness present expressively in the Novus Ordo? Is the saving sacrifice of Christ as abundantly expressively present in the Novus Ordo as in the Greek Orthodox liturgy? What of his holy Godhead, his exalted humanity, his kingly power and rule, etc.? These are serious questions. Of course, the one same sacrifice of the Mass is present; that is not in question.

Let’s return to our opening question: Can the Catholic Church gain from non-Catholic churches. The answer is indeed surprising. The answer is yes, contrary to what some, who love Tradition, may think. Yet paradoxically, this answer does not mean a dilution of Tradition, contrary to the misguided and the rebels. It means that we must be insightful enough to realize that the current “lived life” of the Church may be very sick, just as it was at the time of St. Francis. She may, in her members and expressed life, need to undergo an authentic reformation. And sometimes non-Catholic churches can point the way towards a healthier lived life.

Further, as should be evident by now for the reader, the Ordinary Form of the liturgy might stand to gain from consideration of the Extraordinary Form. The Novus Ordo may stand to gain from consideration of the Mass of many ages. The prayers, the gestures, the movements, the vestments, the sequences; the deep theology of the Cross, the battle of sin and grace, the transcendence of God, etc. Could it be that in an age in which we focus on the secondary concern – accessibility – we have lost sight of the primary concerns of liturgy? Could it be that accessibility thus stressed has eclipsed the Theo-centric character of liturgy?

The questions are double edged. Chiefly and immediately, they target the bad performances of the Novus Ordo. That is the chief ill of the day. For it is evident that the transcendence of God is not infrequently eclipsed by the very character of the way the Mass is celebrated. Balloon masses, etc. These are utterly banal; an insult to the human person. But secondly, and less forcefully but not without all force, the foregoing questions may well target the Novus Ordo itself. Not as anything illicit much less invalid. Not as anything false. Indeed, not. But rather as, perhaps, something less comprehensively expressive of the faith as would be desirable. See, e.g., the concerns of Siri, Ottaviani, even J. Ratzinger, et alia.

Final objection: But even to raise such questions is disobedience.

Final retort: Do you accept Paul VI’s missal? (He answers: Yes.) What are its roots? (Vatican II). You’re correct, though of course the normal interpretation of Vatican II might be different from what the texts themselves stipulate. For instance, the next never said that Latin should go on holiday. By the way, I got that expression from Cardinal Arinze. But back to my retort: What are the roots of Vatican II? (The liturgical movement of the 1900s). And was that movement suggesting a change in the then current liturgy? (Yes.) So it is not per se rebellious to suggest a change? (Well, hmm. I guess not.) No indeed. It must be done with tact and respect, loyalty to Rome and to the Great Tradition, and with an eye on the eternal glory of God and the salvation of souls.

Again and on a different note: Can a community of reformed Christians teach the Catholic Church anything? Indeed yes. How zealous many are! How deeply immersed in the bible. And yes how thoughtful. No, not all evangelicals are “fundamentalists” without brains. Many are very thoughtful. Indeed, I heard Denis Prager on the radio yesterday talking with a group of Christians who are scientists arguing scientifically for the perspective of an ordered, divinely ordered, world. This is excellent. And much needed. How much of the bible and history do Catholics know? Do they know how to go to a disaster area and lend a hand? Do they challenge the culture or just go along with it? Well, our evangelical brothers and sisters can teach us considerably on this score.

By the way, none of this is new to God’s plans. Who was it who told Moses how to organize the people in the desert? Not Aaron. Not Moses himself. No. His non-Jewish father-in-law! The bible is filled with surprises such as this.

The point is, we must measure our standards not by current practice alone but by the weight of Tradition, Divine Transcendence, etc. It just is a fact: Many people are currently bored with the current parochial practice of Catholicism.

If man is deep and built for transcendence, we will become relevant in the measure to which our lived Catholicism becomes deep and transcendent (not fickle and flighty), radically theo-centric (not anthropocentric), Godward (not manward), accessible yet difficult and wonderful (not conquerable, banal and forgettable).

13 thoughts on “Can the Catholic Church Gain from non-Catholic churches?

  1. So much verbiage to try to twist your way into saying “MAYBE we can.” I think you answered the question correctly in the third paragraph. The rest was balderdash. It may look pretty but it doesn’t get you to heaven. And that is the sole purpose of THE Church.

    1. Not verbiage at all, Woody.

      Let me give you one example from history of just this sort of learning. John of Antioch was supportive of Nestorius. Hence, at Ephesus he was condemned (431). But Cyril knew that he could work with John. So, John drew up a “statement of reunion”. Cyril accepted it. In that statement, John declared that Jesus is “Consubstantial with us as to his humanity”. Now, John came up with that theological precision as someone in bad standing, even ousted from full communion. Yet, by 451 at Chalcedon, the Holy Church accepted that very phraseology, as had Cyril. Thus, it is now DOGMA that Jesus is consubstantial w/ us. But this precise way of wording the matter was introduced by someone then outside full communion.

      Nothing Balderdash about this. Is there one Church? Yes. Which? The Catholic Church. Period. Is the Catholic Church in her lived life always healthy? No. Just look around today. Are there elements of health that are better stressed by non-Catholics? Yes: e.g. original sin is taken seriously by the Lutherans of the Missouri Synod. They do go too far; however, they at least acknowledge it. They are very clear: Hell exists and people go there. Now, do individual Catholics stand to learn something from such Lutherans? Yes indeed.

      What is the ultimate reason this is possible? Because the Church is a complex of nature and grace. And in the “nature” part, humans bring their contributions and defects. When a culture is corrupt, corruptions enter the liturgy. When a culture is magnificent, magnificence enters.

      1. Okay. Let’s look at the first example. 5th Century. How many other dogmas have come about since the 5th Century? Sorry but the Church is still in Her infancy at that time. Second, who did the Lutherans get that idea about original sin from? Yes, the Catholic Church. Do you think you and I need to go to them for how to approach original sin? The fact that many catholics (small c) do not know or have been taught improperly does not mean they need to look outside the Church for correct Catholic theology. In fact, Luther did not abandon all Catholic dogmas but that doesn’t mean we should look to his church for direction, even if some of them are heading back on the road that took them astray.

      2. Woody, yes the origin and proper possessor of all these elements of sanctification and truth is the Catholic Church (as gifted by God, not herself). That is not in question.

        You raise a good point about where one should seek counsel. You are correct that one should send a Catholic to proper sources for formation. That would mean not to the nearby non-Catholic community. My point is not on the order of where to send an individual. Rather, it is collective. Can we not take a look at ourselves – the way we are doing liturgy, e.g. – and then look at another group (say, the High Anglicans or the Orthodox) and “wake up” to our own destitution? I believe we can.

        Can we not look to the Reformed communities and see that they are highly organized in the charitable works they accomplish for disaster victims? Yes, some of them are. Then why aren’t we doing this? (Of course, some great parish probably is. That’s the point: Not many are. But we can learn from those who are implementing the Gospel wisely.)

        But we can also look to our past. We can look to our own East. And as I said in the post: We can also look to the Extraordinary Form! This is the “other” in our bosom. The EF can teach us many things. I am discovering more and more riches of the faith in the sacrifice of the Mass, etc., precisely by doing this.

        Would I counsel a Catholic to go

  2. I also forgot to mention that any arguments about dogma prior to the reformation were all internal disputes. Since the reformation, those that have split knew then and certainly know now where the truth of Christ is located. The one and only Catholic Church.

  3. It seems at least imprudent to say without qualification that the lived life of the Church can gain from non-Catholic churches/communities. The distinction between essence of the Church and lived life of the Church is necessary but insufficient.

    The qualification, I think, that needs to be added is that the lived life of the Church can gain from non-Catholic churches/communities {but not insofar as they are non-Catholic}.

    A parallel comes to mind vis-à-vis the controversy over the recent Synod and different comments offered therein on homosexuality. While it is true that homosexuals can have some good to offer the Church, this is not because of their homosexuality. Similarly, a non-Catholic can have some good to offer the lived life of the members of the Church, but this is not because of his being non-Catholic. It thus seems that one shouldn’t say that the Church can gain from non-Catholic churches.

    1. Spot on John.

      As a matter of fact, the blessings that the lived life can gain are really on the order of gifts of nature. Because of course the Church has nothing to gain as to her essence or essential principles. However, individuals living her life might be dull, etc. And they might be enlightened by the manner in which a non-Catholic group appreciates the saving elements. That “manner” of course indicates gifts coming from nature (cooperation, intelligence, artistry, etc.).

      In addition, we might add this note. That by some group (Say, the Irish) becoming Catholic, the Church gains in her extensive reach. She can also act now through the Irish people. This is a gain.

      Or is the Church not the better for the organ, for the chants, for the incense, for the vestments, for the cathedrals, for the philosophies, etc. which her holy members have employed in the service of God?

  4. Chris, the liturgy was fine, in fact splendid, 50 years ago. We know that now after the “great experiment” of the Novus Ordo. It did not take any protestant denomination to make us realize that fact.
    And prior to 1969, did not the Roman Catholic Church have charitable organizations helping the downtrodden? Didn’t the Church establish charitable organizations that were copied by protestant denominations? Again, we don’t need to look to the protestants on how to help people. We’ve always had them. The problem now is that we do it the protestant way today which includes non-Catholic actions like contraception, abortion, acceptance of deviant sexual behavior and same sex unions, all in the name of “helping” the poor. We desperately need to abandon these methods and get back to the way we, the RCC, used to do it. That is morally, God’s way. Not man’s way.
    And I agree with you about the PAST. Those poor, misguided priests who instituted the change to the liturgy in order to bring the Church into the “modern” era have failed miserably. Only now they don’t have the courage to say “we screwed up.” (And I do say that includes some prior popes!) At some point in the middle of the 20th Century, these clergy thought the protestants had the right idea. For unity’s sake, they thought if we did things their way, they would flock back to the Church. It didn’t happen. Today’s “Catholic Social Justice” mimics protestantism with all its immoral behavior in order to please man. You are so correct that what is needed to save us is a return to the past….what is know as the Traditional Latin Mass. Lex orandi, lex credendi.
    And if I have not said so in the past, let me say it now. I really like your blog. You do a great job. Thank you.

    1. Woody, thanks for the positive comments. Very much appreciated.

      I agree with you as to the defects, etc., of what has happened. I think there are more factors at play and more things to say, of course. However, I largely agree. If we simply study vocations in the past 50 years and compare them to the previous 50 years, anyone in the world who examines the data must conclude that something is terribly wrong. It will take courage to spell out what that is.

      Suffice it to say, however, two things in response:

      1) Notwithstanding my broad agreement, I find it possible to find Protestants who are doing amazing things in an organized fashion. “Reasons to Believe” is an example. I’m not saying I buy everything hook, line, sinker. However, it has notable merits in my admittedly cursory examination. And I do think we can learn from that. NOW: I would say that in doing so, we are really “despoiling the Egyptians”. Why? Because all nature is commanded to obey God and to give glory to him by being of service to the Catholic Church, who herself is in service of God (not out for self-aggrandizement). Hence, if there are talents and discoveries out there which could be incorporated into a holy life, these are “forces impelling towards CATHOLIC unity” as Lumen gentium, art. 8 states.

      2. Also, not negligible is a rhetorical point I am making. Rather, a rhetorical strategy. Since it is possible, at least abstractly, to state what I stated (that Catholics can learn from non-Catholics at least some things, thereby ‘rediscovering’ the way of living that ought to flourish in the Catholic world), THEN we can use apply this truth to the real situation. We can turn people’s minds (I mean esp. our leaders, but also the lay faithful) to beautiful things in the East (Liturgy, Theology), and in the West (the Lutherans still believe in hell and original sin), SO AS TO POINT OUT THE HERESIES THAT RUN RAMPANT AMONG MEMBERS OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH, EVEN LEADERS.

      Thus, we have taken a true ecumenical strategy and employed it for the glory of GOD, not the self-affection of man. We have used a TROJAN HORSE. Not falsely. Truly. We need to be clever and do things like this more and more. WHY? Because many Catholics have become modernists, no longer believing in Christ. So, instead of immediately giving them PASCENDI, we simply say: “HEY, don’t you agree we should be ecumenical?” They say “Of course.” We reply, “Then we really should throw Rahner away on Original Sin, and recall (wake up from our heretical slumber) the marvelous fact that our Lutheran brothers are not Rahnerian but believe in original sin.” This puts Catholics who are occult heretics to shame.

      Got the strategy?

  5. “The declared enemies of God and His Church, heretics and schismatics, must be criticized as much as possible, as long as truth is not denied. It is a work of charity to shout: ‘Here is the wolf!’ when it enters the flock or anywhere else.”
    –St. Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life, Part III, Chapter 29

    “Even on the plea of promoting unity it is not allowed to dissemble one single dogma; for, as the Patriarch of Alexandria warns us, ‘although the desire of peace is a noble and excellent thing, yet we must not for its sake neglect the virtue of loyalty in Christ.’ Consequently, the much desired return of erring sons to true and genuine unity in Christ will not be furthered by exclusive concentration on those doctrines which all, or most, communities glorying in the Christian name accept in common. The only successful method will be that which bases harmony and agreement among Christ’s faithful ones upon all the truths, and the whole of the truths, which God has revealed.”
    –Pope Pius XII, Encyclical Orientalis Ecclesiae (1944), par. 16

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