In a theological autobiography of his conversion to Catholicism, Rusty Reno makes a very interesting statement about the ‘non-theoretical’ nature of the Roman Church:
The ocean needs no justification. It needs no theory to support the movement of its tides. In the end, as an Episcopalian I needed a theory to stay put, and I came to realize that a theory is a thin thread easily broken. The Catholic Church needs no theories. She is the mother of theologies; she does not need to be propped up by theologies. As Newman put it in one of his Anglican essays, “the Church of Rome preoccupies the ground.” She is a given, a primary substance within the economy of denominationalism. One could rightly say that I became a Catholic by default, and that possibility is the simple gift I received from the Catholic Church. Mater ecclesia, she needed neither reasons, nor theories, nor ideas from me.
Now, I for one deplore the fragmented world of denominations and the proliferation of independent Bible churches. But, I think that Reno’s statement here is made more of romantic fantasy than reality. “The Catholic Church needs no theories”? This is pure lunacy. All social bodies are in some sense constituted by the ideas and commitments (“theories”) which perpetuate their particular ethos. Catholicism not only needs theories to prop it up, it is full of them. The theory of apostolic succession, of papal primacy, of transubstantiation, etc. All of these theological distinctives are formed on the basis of a theory, an explanatory framework that is offered to people as an object of faith to which they must commit themselves.
Unless Reno is using the term “theory” in some wildly elastic sense, I don’t see how his comments can really have any meaning. How is a person whose theological convictions compel him to become a Methodist doing something which is formally or epistemologically different from someone whose convictions compel them to convert to Catholicism? In both cases people are simply acting in concert with their convictions, the act of the one is not somehow more “theoretical” than the other.
The idea that the Catholic church is this utterly given, self-justifying ocean of stability is one that I have often encountered. However, I think that such rhetoric does little more than express the ecstasies of new converts who feel they have “come home”. This isn’t to say that such experiences are illegitimate or to be despised, only that they cannot be taken seriously as theological claims.
In the end there is no escape for anyone from the vulnerability of living by conviction in the world of chance and change. We are not given a bedrock security of sheer, unquestionable givenness in which we can find epistemic and existential serenity. Such rhetoric ignores the fundamentally apocalyptic nature of the church. The church exists between the aeons and her entire existence is one of warfare. The church is not a serene ocean of givenness and security, but the site of primordial conflict between Christ and the powers of this age. If we are expecting to find a church in which we will be submerged into an ocean of self-justifying security and givenness we will always be disappointed, no matter what communion we choose into.
None of this speaks to whether we should be Catholics or Protestants, the point is that converting to Catholicism, or any denomination in search of some sort of unshakable security blanket is a quixotic quest that is best abandoned.