There was a time when I thought I’d never say this, but I’m worried that I’m, how shall I put it, turning Protestant. The awful thought dawned on me when I realised that although my parish church has a Door of Mercy – going through which, with appropriate prayers, would give me an indulgence – I’ve never actually been through it. Not once. I do know about the doctrine of the Church’s treasury of merits which underlies the teaching, but a stubborn little voice inside me says that the mercy of God is boundless, and accessible to all, door or no door, indulgences or no indulgences.
…The religious practice of indulgences reawakens trust and hope in a full reconciliation with God the Father, but in such a way as will not justify any negligence nor in any way diminish the effort to acquire the dispositions required for full communion with God. Although indulgences are in fact free gifts, nevertheless they are granted for the living as well as for the dead only on determined conditions. To acquire them, it is indeed required on the one hand that prescribed works be performed, and on the other that the faithful have the necessary dispositions, that is to say, that they love God, detest sin, place their trust in the merits of Christ and believe firmly in the great assistance they derive from the Communion of Saints. Apostolic Constitution on Indulgences, Indulgentiarum Doctrina, Pope Paul VI, January, 1, 1967
Of course it’s excellent that people are thinking about mercy – as you go through the door you’re meant to reflect on how to receive it from God and extend it to others – but I’m not moved by the symbolism myself. Not to put too fine a point on it, I’ve come to the pass of going straight to God without the aids extended by the Church.
Being a naturally sectarian Catholic, this is a troubling development. Next year is the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation, an event I propose to mark by wearing funereal colour. But underneath the black and purple, I find myself sympathetic to bits of the Protestant project. The idea of the priesthood of all believers, squarely based on St Paul, is not antipathetical to an ordained priesthood, and never fails to cheer me up, especially when people complain about the dearth of vocations. The priestly character of all the baptised is rather a comfort, don’t you think, when it turns out, yet again, that the institutional church has failed to deal with some egregious scandal.
Actually, the most egregious ones of all, the child abuse scandals, have not had the effect of unsettling my faith in the slightest, notwithstanding my seeing that rather overrated film, Spotlight. I mean, things were worse prior to the Reformation, no? And every human institution is bound to be flawed one way or another.
All the same, now that we know about the inability of the Church, notably the bishops, to recognise the compulsive psychology of child abusers, it does make you question Cardinal Newman’s insistence that because of its longevity, the Church has seen everything and knows everything about the nature of man, which was the same in the 5th century as it was 1500 years later. In fact the Church, notwithstanding encountering the phenomenon of paedophilia again and again over the course of centuries, has been remarkably bad at identifying its character. Making the same mistake over the course of 2,000 years may be consistent but it’s not inerrancy. Secular institutions and other religions were just as clueless, but the Church is held to different standards.
And then there’s the fundamental aspect of Protestantism: the reliance on Scripture. I don’t buy the notion that a believer just needs a Bible, but it does unsettle me that Catholics are so much less scripturally literate than paid-up Protestants. Bishops in the Anglican synod quote cheerfully from the Old Testament; I never hear Catholic priests preach from it. Bertie Wooster in PG Wodehouse won a prize for Scripture Knowledge; I mean, he was bound to be CofE, wasn’t he? The one exception I know is a priest from Kerala in India who baffles the congregation in my home parish in Ireland by actually asking them questions about the Old Testament. Where he comes from, this is normal practice; here, young Catholics are familiar with perhaps half a dozen or so episodes from the Hebrew Scriptures and that’s it.
And what about popular devotion? I respect it, of course, but there are times when I can see why Protestants find it too close to superstition. There are those prayer cards to the Sacred Heart or Saint Anthony that you find in the back of churches which assure you that if you say the prayers specified a given number of times correctly, your prayers are bound to be answered. That’s more like magic than prayer. And while I have an instinctive devotion to Our Lady, I do feel uneasy at the extent to which devotion to the Virgin has overshadowed that historically given to other scriptural saints – John the Baptist, say. And places like Medugorje, which lots of people find beneficial, present the Virgin in a very different guise from the Mary of the Gospels; it puts me off.
Naturally, I’d never actually be anything but a Catholic. As James Joyce said, when he was asked why, given his disaffection with the Church, he did not become a Protestant: “Madam, I have lost my faith; I have not lost my self-respect”. But although I intend to die a Catholic, I’m becoming a Protestant sort of Catholic. Worrying, I know, but there it is. Source: Catholic Herald
Melanie McDonagh is comment editor of the London Evening Standard
Melanie McDonagh is not alone in her Protestantised Catholicism. We have one some-time blogger who has bemoaned the Catholic custom of venerating relics. Same mindset. However, my first thought on reading the above article in today’s Catholic Herald was: “at last! They’re coming out openly in the Catholic press and admitting that they’ve been Protestantised. It’s a start!”
Don’t get me wrong. There is no requirement on Catholics to avail ourselves of the Church’s treasury – whether it be devotions to particular saints, indulgences or the veneration of relics. Still, I think there is something significant, not to say very sad, about such a public disavowal, perhaps especially in the case of Melanie McDonagh’s Protestantised view of Our Lady – notable, not least because she selects the unapproved, indeed, hoax phenomenon of Medjugorje, as an example of the kind of Marian piety that she rejects! Still, if she means she dislikes pilgrimages to approved shrines such as Lourdes, Fatima, etc., lighting candles, submitting petitions, taking Lourdes water, buying Fatima rosaries – that sort of thing – then, yes, to quote her own words, she IS “turning Protestant” – a true daughter of Martin Luther.
Again, of course, we are not bound to accept or have devotion to each and every approved apparition (although it is important to note Pope Benedict’s statement that Fatima places an obligation on the entire Church). Whatever, it is a very strange Catholic who would express Protestant sentiments towards any of the Marian shrines and devotions. And it is a very sad thing, indeed, to read an article, penned by a Catholic journalist, in a Catholic newspaper, joining battle with the Protestant revolutionary, Martin Luther, to attack the doctrine of indulgences.
Click on the image to read Pope Paul’s Apostolic Constitution on Indulgences, and tell us if you agree. Or maybe you share Melanie McDonagh’s dislike of indulgences, and other Protestant leanings?