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What If "To Be Deep in History" is to Cease to Be Catholic? PDF Print E-mail
Written by Sherry   
Tuesday, 17 November 2009 08:26
A note from the author:

THIS POST IS NOT ABOUT JOHN HENRY NEWMAN'S THEORY OF THE DEVELOPMENT OF DOCTRINE.

So there is not need to keep saying "You've got Newman all wrong." Cause this post is not about that. Which is why you'll notice that I didn't write about Newman's understanding of the development of Doctrine at all. Really. Capiche?

This post is about how people actually experience and understand the meaning of their conversion at the personal level. The current popular understanding of Newman’s famous phrase is that Christian history is European history and that an essential and nearly universal motivation for becoming Catholic is (and should be) seeking to connect with one's historic roots in western Christendom, and that anyone who is "deep in history" will become Catholic.

Which is not true for the hundreds of millions of new Catholics in Africa and Asia whose familial, historical, and cultural roots are in one of the ancient non-Christian faiths. How instead of the common experience in the west of coming home to one's historical and cultural roots in Catholicism, many African and Asian converts experience becoming Catholic as a new thing, that requires a significant break from their own historical and cultural roots.

My point is how real people understand what becoming Catholic means in light of their own lived cultural and historical context. And how different that looks in the west with our historical experience and in the new Catholic communities of the global south. Not that the western pattern is bad or invalid. Just that it isn't the only pattern.

And now back to the original post.


One corollary of becoming a "World Church" as John Allen terms it.

How often have I heard Catholic apologists and writers quote John Henry Newman: "To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant"?

Fr. Dwight Longenecker over at Standing on My Head has another thoughtful post this morning on the proposed Anglican Ordinariate and after reading Allen this weekend, I was struck afresh by the language he uses:

"I believe that the new Anglican Ordinariate will eventually become a bridge into full communion with the historic Church for Protestants of many different backgrounds. Many Catholics do not realize that there are large numbers of Evangelical Christians who look very longingly at the historic liturgical churches. They hold to the historic faith, but they want to belong to a historic church."

And all this is very true - for western European culture Christians. Catholicism is the historic church for western Christians and Protestantism is the Johnny-come-lately. It was most certainly true for Newman, steeped in the writing of the early Fathers, and writing as the most English of men.

A love of and longing for historical depth and continuity is one of the most common themes in the sort of English language conversion stories that conservative Catholics love to read. It is a very common theme on Catholic blogs. To the point that those of us where aren't primarily drawn to the Church by a longing for historicity, authority, and a bulwark against western secularism, can feel very much out of place in the contemporary Catholic scene.

As though those were the only possible reasons for a 21st century man or woman to choose to follow Jesus Christ in the heart of his Body on earth.

But what about those Catholics who live in a world where Catholicism, indeed Christianity of any kind, is brand new? John Allen points out that most Catholic growth in sub-saharan Africa has happened in the late 20th century. And the same is true in large parts of Asia and in those parts of the Muslim world which are starting to see significant conversions to Christianity. One, or at most, two generations deep.

A large part of Catholicism where to be "deep in history" is to be Buddhist or Hindu, or Muslim or animist. Or perhaps another kind of Christian: Nestorian or Orthodox or Coptic or Melkite?

Where being a Catholic is profoundly new and literally "ahistorical" as far as your own family or culture or national history is concerned.

Where being a Catholic looks historically a lot more like being an evangelical in the west. Like a break with history in order to follow Christ, not a return to historical cultural roots.

Where a "thick" Catholic culture won't exist for generations, if not centuries, because it has to be created from scratch.

History is critical for European culture peoples who lived through the historical break of the Reformation. Particularly in the western English speaking world where the trauma and historical amnesia was great.

But we are not the whole world. We are, in fact, a fairly small minority within the larger Church. For large parts of the southern majority, in Africa and Asia, Catholicism is mostly new and the spiritual hunger it answers is usually not historical.

Fr. Benedict Groeschel pointed out years ago in his wonderful book "Spiritual Passages" that Catholic spiritual theology has long recognized that people seek God under many guises. The Good. The Beautiful. The True. The One. Not The Historical. (And I write this as someone who has been passionately interested in history since I was a small child and for the historical dimensions of Catholicism are very important - but not the reason I became Catholic.)

If it is legitimate and fitting for southern Christians to seek Christ without reference to history, as a wholly new revelation of God, it is surely appropriate for western Christians to do the same. Every historic Christian culture began that way. Even the Irish and the Poles had a first generation of Christians. Throughout history and around the world, people have sought and encountered Christ and Christianity as something fresh and revolutionary that called them beyond their individual and collective history.

Which is important to remember because so many millions of young adults in the west now no long have any living connection to Christianity as a culture or a historical past. For them, the fall of the Berlin wall is ancient history and there are no memories of Christendom at all. And a genuine living Christian faith is something absolutely new in their experience.

In every generation, the first mission of ecclesial insiders is not to create a dream church for ourselves, but to proclaim Christ to our own generation. For so many of whom, today - in Europe or Asia or Africa - the Catholic faith is truly something new.

And for whom, to be deep in history is to to be anything but Catholic.
 

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