This blog post is a reaction to Richard John Neuhaus’ book, Catholic Matters. Neuhaus was a Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod pastor who received ordination through his studies at Concordia Seminary in Saint Louis. He then left the LC-MS to join the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. Finally, he went to Rome and became a Roman Catholic priest. This post is not a review. It’s just a reaction.
Neuhaus points out that church-hopping, even switching between denominations, is common place and expected among most American Protestants today. This occurs because people are looking for their needs, more aptly their preferences to be met, and the desire for these preferences to be met are placed above what is true in accordance to God’s norming word. I visited at least ten or more congregations of various stripes while in high school for mid-week services outside of Lent and Advent and I distinctively recognized teachings and rituals that were not just issues of preference; I heard things that if I thought were true, I’d have to leave my Lutheran congregation. My church-visiting occurred in the late 90s, close to when Neuhaus wrote Catholic Matters, so I imagine I must have been more of an anomaly of a church-hopping visitor at that time.
Neuhaus also points out that such church-hopping preferential judgment is not just relegated to denominational affiliation, but that in each and every denomination, American individualism has made inroads into turning religious allegiance into spiritual preference. Doctrine is treated as an ala carte cafeteria menu that allows each individual congregation or believer to pick and choose which teachings they’ll confess, teach, and live. In my experience in the LC-MS, I have seen such treatment of doctrine. One of the primary ways I’ve seen this is what we spoke about in class through the Sasse reading, in which congregations of the LC-MS are no longer reading and using the Book of Concord, and thus they are also not ensuring that our confessions are a true exposition of Scripture. This jettison of the Book of Concord in congregational life is so common that many, if not most, LC-MS members are not even aware that the Book of Concord is our church body’s confessions, which also indicates that they are almost certainly unaware of what it is that our church body actually confesses and expects of our pastors and teachers.
My take away from these Neuhaus observations is that when I am a pastor, I should emphasize the “why does this matter” element to each “what does this mean” catechetical moment to ensure that there is no room for doctrinal truths to be thought of as simply a preference of opinion. I also must ensure that all the teachings from our confessions are demonstrated to be from Scripture, which would also mean actually using the confessions to teach the flock and not just using snippets of the Small Catechism.
History of the term Evangelical in America
I loved the brief but extensive history lesson on the emergence of “evangelicalism” in America that Neuhaus provides in the first chapter. I will likely reference this section again in the future, or better yet, outline the main points and save a file of it that I can quickly access. I personally want to identify as an evangelical, because we truly are those who share good news. Lutherans are by etymological standards the legitimate evangelicals. I have also heard that Luther didn’t want his followers to be known as Lutherans but wanted his followers to be called evangelicals. I never quite understood why LC-MS Lutherans avoid wanting to make the evangelical label their own today, or why we aren’t typically lumped into that group in some capacity by others, but knowing the history as presented by Neuhaus has helped me understand why we are not lumped into the evangelical squad and why we don’t want to mix-it up in that camp.
Shocked by the Charity
Neuhaus spent much time on stressing that all Christians are Roman Catholics. He says we’re just not in full communion – yet. I had never heard such charity extended to myself from someone who is in full communion with Rome. I was always under the impression that I was outside of the Church by not being Roman Catholic. This was charity that I was shocked to receive. It’s also a level of charity that I do not so easily extend to others, and if I do extend it, it is probably prefaced with a few asterisk marks.
I struggle to recognize unity with Rome, even unity with other Protestants. I do not consider everyone to be Lutheran who confesses “Jesus is Lord.” Neuhaus said that in his youth, “the Protestant-Catholic difference was hardly experienced as a matter of life-or-death urgency.” From my youth, these sorts of distinctions were life and death; I got the very real sense that my family left the Church by having left Rome, and I realized pretty early on that because I didn’t have a date in which I gave my life to Christ and because I was baptized as a baby, I was on the skids and about as bad off as a Roman Catholic among the many Baptist breeds inhabiting “good ole Rocky Top, TN.”
When I first announced almost two decades ago that I was working towards ordination in the Lutheran Church, I was approached by someone in great seriousness to understand why “Lutheran.” It wasn’t spoken, but it seemed to me as if the transgression of being outside of Rome had been excused of me as a child, but now that I was actually seeking to be a pastor in the LC-MS and was an adult, it was time for me to be held to task for not being in the true fold of God. Our conversation led me to see that by the confession of the member of Rome that he had no certainty of salvation, that his salvation was not won for him by Christ alone, but that he was very much active in his right-standing before God through attendance of mass every week, through meeting the annual obligatory confessions, and by doing good the best he could. I know of Roman Catholics who can only hope (with much uncertainty) that they are saved, who when facing death are assured through Last Rites and being reminded that they have met x, y, and z obligations. After death, monetary collections for a mass for the departed will be collected (the mass in which the Roman Catholic Church will pray for their souls). Doctrine matters. Truth matters. It’s all life or death.
I have many examples of friends, co-workers, and family members who are not Roman Catholic, but are of various Protestant stripes who have been robbed of the certainty and assurance of salvation that Christ has won for them through their churches’ weakening of the Law or their mingling of Law and Gospel. Doctrine matters. Truth matters. It’s all life or death. As such, I cannot so easily extend the charity that Neuhaus did to me by saying that he’s Lutheran, just not in full communion yet. Of course, he didn’t say what it means for my salvation because I am not in full communion with Rome, so maybe it wasn’t that much charity being extended to me. He seemed to act as if it was just all hakuna matata and that everything was going to be OK because I was Roman Catholic (by his labeling of course). Based on Romans 4:4-5, I can’t just simply say those who are in Rome and under the authority of the pope, who is in the office of the Antichrist by the way according to the Lutheran confessions, have no worries in their right-standing before God in which they are by the doctrine of Rome very much active and not righty passive in their justification.
I certainly saw the helpfulness of his language however on this subject in describing my relationship with other Christians who I am not in full-communion at this time. I’d still have to work out how exactly to use such language, but it was most certainly helpful to think upon.
Big T Tradition vs. Little t tradition
I thought his use of tradition vs. Tradition to be a tad disingenuous, since he used both tradition and Tradition in the text with no clear distinction or explanation between the two. When he first introduced this concept, he was pointing out that Protestants rejected Catholicism’s “two source” theory of revealed truth – the Bible and tradition” (page 71). I’m not sure why he calls it a theory, since it is clearly a doctrine of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and not just a theory, but we certainly do reject that teaching of Rome. Here he used tradition and not Tradition. I find that to be very misleading because he immediately refers to a 2002 statement made by Evangelicals and Catholics Together that says:
Together we affirm that Scripture is the divinely inspired and uniquely authoritative written revelation of God; as such it is normative for teaching and life of the Church. We also affirm that tradition, rightly understood as the proper reflection of biblical teaching, is the faithful transmission of the truth of the gospel from generation to generation through the power of the Holy Spirit. As Evangelicals and Catholics fully committed to our respective heritages, we affirm together the coinherence of Scripture and tradition: Tradition is not a second source of revelation alongside the Bible but must ever be corrected and informed by it, and Scripture itself is not understood in a vacuum apart from the historical existence and life of the community of faith. (page 72)
In this quote, tradition must be normed by the Scriptures and it is not a source of revelation itself, so lower case tradition was being used (except he also capitalized it), but Rome’s “two-source theory of revelation” uses upper case Tradition. Rome’s Sacred Tradition is part of God’s Word. Rome teaches that Scripture and Tradition together make up a sum deposit of God’s Word. Neuhaus very soon after the Evangelicals and Catholics Together quote says that when he became a Catholic priest he had to profess: “With firm faith, I also believe everything contained in the Word of God, whether written or handed down in Tradition, which the Church, either by solemn judgement or by the ordinary and universal Magisterium, sets forth to be believed as divinely revealed” (page 75). The fact that he seems to interchange between tradition and Tradition with no clear recognition of what he is doing for the reader, while also trying to make me think that I should be accepting of Rome because their tradition (little t) is normed by Scripture, while not admitting and making it clear that their Tradition (big T) must be held in equal sentiment and devotion to Scripture, while also not letting me know that large and important parts of their Tradition (big T) are not even mentioned in Scripture to in any way possibly be normed by Scripture, leads me to distrust Neuhaus. I am left to think he’s just trying to trick me and suck me into all the “more” stuff that Rome has to offer (and the fact that many times a sentence would start with the word tradition so as I couldn’t even easily discern if he was speaking of tradition or Tradition made it all the more less likely that he was going to win me over into full communion with Rome).
We Got More; Don’t You Want More?
Neuhaus never clearly explained why he jumped ship from the LC-MS to the ELCA to Rome. The best I got was that, “It seemed that, of all the good things we had, they had more.” And since he knew the good things that we do have all came from Rome, he thought, “Why not just join Rome?” It seems to me that Neuhaus has succumbed to the American individualism that he’s railing against by his full-communion with Rome. He chose the spiritual preference of the Roman Catholic Church’s “more” over religious affiliation; it’s just that his preference had him bail out of Protestantism altogether into the open arms of mother Rome, instead of flopping around like a fish within Protestantism from Episcopalian to Pentecostalism, or what have you. At least he didn’t go to the Hotel California with Anton LaVey, because there is no extension of charity to the Church of Satan that definitely lies outside of the one, holy, catholic Church.
 Taken from the Catechism of the Catholic Church (Part 1, Section 1, Chapter 2, Article 2, Lines 80-82 emphasis added). “Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture, then, are bound closely together, and communicate one with the other. For both of them, flowing out from the same divine well-spring, come together in some fashion to form one thing, and move towards the same goal.” Each of them makes present and fruitful in the Church the mystery of Christ, who promised to remain with his own “always, to the close of the age.” “Sacred Scripture is the speech of God as it is put down in writing under the breath of the Holy Spirit.” “And [Holy] Tradition transmits in its entirety the Word of God which has been entrusted to the apostles by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit. It transmits it to the successors of the apostles so that, enlightened by the Spirit of truth, they may faithfully preserve, expound and spread it abroad by their preaching.” As a result the Church, to whom the transmission and interpretation of Revelation is entrusted, “does not derive her certainty about all revealed truths from the holy Scriptures alone. Both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honored with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence.”
Consider reading my book Contradict – They Can’t All Be True and writing a reaction or review to it.