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A Church Without Theory?

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.


  1. Hill wrote:

    If you agreed with Reno, you’d be a Catholic. You don’t (yet!). Your disagreements with him are not matters of fact, however. There are fundamental metaphysical and theological disputes at issue that cannot be simply arbitrated by logic and fact. You are also doing a profound disservice to Reno by implying he is “in search of some sort of unshakable security blanket.” As I’ve said before, Catholicism is not simply a denominational option among other denominational options. When one realizes this, one converts. One need not agree with me here, but I cannot say otherwise. I would say that being apart of an institution over which the gates of Hell shall not prevail ought to offer some sense of security.

    Thursday, November 29, 2007 at 3:20 pm | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    I don’t think I’m inflating his rhetoric when I say that, Hill.

    My point is ultimately that all acts of commiting oneself to a religion, denomination, or whatever are of a type. The idea that one is theoretical and the other is not is just a bunch of words. All acts of knowing and commitment involve theoretical elements. Being a Catholic is no exception.

    Thursday, November 29, 2007 at 3:30 pm | Permalink
  3. Ben wrote:

    I don’t agree with Reno, and I’m Catholic.

    Reno’s thinking reminds me the fundamentalist types where I live, “NO CREED BUT CHRIST!” When you point out that, in fact, “No Creed But Christ” is itself a creed, they’re disgusted with your boneheaded obtuseness.

    I think Halden’s overall point is correct: in the end, whatever we choose in life, there is no final empirical certainty, and we will have to make a choice on faith. This is as true of Catholicism as it is of atheism.

    Thursday, November 29, 2007 at 3:31 pm | Permalink
  4. Hill wrote:

    I don’t think he’s making the claim that the Catholic Church isn’t theoretical or doesn’t have theories. If you think he somehow disagrees with your claim that “all acts of knowing and commitment involve theoretical elements” you are being uncharitable to him. I read him as saying that in Roman Catholicism a material and historical substance which met and in some since precedes theory, in that the Church is the pillar and foundation of all truth. I mean… how does Reno go from being the paragon of how to in good faith not become Catholic to suddenly being an idiot? Your comments reflect a fairly common reading of this man post conversion. He was once the paragon of thoughtful Evangelical catholic Protestantism and a example of how and why to not become a Catholic. Many of the people that once hailed him has such are now offended by virtually everything he says.

    Thursday, November 29, 2007 at 3:58 pm | Permalink
  5. Halden wrote:

    I’m not offended by him. I’ve never read any of Reno’s other works, so they aren’t exercising some sort of retroactive annoyance on me or anything.

    How am I being uncharitable? You don’t have to do much creative reading of this article to see that he’s saying that one doesn’t need a theory to become a Catholic. My point is simply that his statement that “The Catholic Church needs no theories” is big on rhetoric and low on meaningful content. If I were to convert to Catholicism, it would have to be because I came to accept a great many “theories” which are essential to believe if one wishes to be a Catholic. But Reno seems to be saying that somehow the Catholic church is atheoretical and needs no theology. I just think that’s false and disingenuous.

    Thursday, November 29, 2007 at 4:07 pm | Permalink
  6. Hill wrote:

    I really don’t understand how you think he’s saying the Catholic Church doesn’t need theology. She is the mother of theology. My understanding that I ultimately impute to him (as I feel it is consonant with his thought) is that the theological issues which ultimately convinced him to convert to Catholicism find themselves integrated into a context which is pretheological, to sound like a broken record, a context which can sensibly claim that the Church is the pillar and foundation of all truth (1 Tim 3:15). This is what he means. The Church must precede and in fact be the ground of all theology. He is merely articulating a view in which he sees Roman Catholicism, understanding itself as the fullness of the Church, to match up with that vision.

    Thursday, November 29, 2007 at 4:27 pm | Permalink
  7. Halden wrote:

    The church is not pretheological. The church came into existence precisely within the framework of the Israel’s historical-theological narrative. It has theological assumptions underlying it from the begining which the Apostles were constantly expounding and defending.

    We all give theological reasons for belonging to the church we belong to. There are theological doctrines which support and sustain the ethos that is Catholicism.

    Also, I think you can find a better translation of 1 Tim 3:15. The church is the pillar and buttress of truth. It supports and upholds the truth which lies beyond it and on which it is founded.

    What I hear Reno saying loud and clear is that to be a Catholic one does not need a “theory”, which in the context of his article appears to be some system of ideas that give a rationale for one’s commitment. Such a statement is false. We all have a system of ideas that give a rationale for our commitments.

    Thursday, November 29, 2007 at 4:45 pm | Permalink
  8. Hill wrote:

    I think that’s a definitional issue. The historical-theological narrative of Israel is not ultimately distinct from the historical-theological narrative of the Church. They are the contiguous narrative of God’s ultimate revelation of himself to humanity, which is prior to theology. It is in that sense that I claim that the Church, like Israel, is pretheological. They are first the elect of God and His chosen people.

    You would have to engage in some primary text work in Greek to convince me that’s a better translation. I think the force of the verse still stands. Virtually every translation I can find refers to the “pillar and foundation,” “the pillar and ground,” “the pillar and base,” or even “the pillar and foundation-stone.” If anyone can comment on the original Greek, I’d be really interested to hear it.

    What I hear Reno saying is that his collection of rationales for remaining an Episcopalian was a (mere) theory in the sense that his collection of rationales for becoming a Catholic was not. The word theory can be intended in different ways, and I don’t think Reno would claim that the Catholic Church is not associated in anyway with “theories.” I think this is consonant with what he says in the article with out attributing clearly absurd ideas to him.

    Thursday, November 29, 2007 at 5:08 pm | Permalink
  9. Hill wrote:

    I’m going to have to work so I don’t get fired. Thanks for obliging me so far with these discussions. I was beginning to worry that things were dying down around here.

    Thursday, November 29, 2007 at 5:17 pm | Permalink
  10. Halden wrote:

    I was referring more the “all” that you inserted into the verse which isn’t really there. I found a wide variety of translations ranging from “ground”, “foundation”, “bulwark”, “buttress”, “support”, and so on. But I’m no Greek scholar. However, I don’t think that the translation really matters all that much. The point is that the church is the upholder of truth, its witness, not its ontological source or something like that.

    To clarify, I don’t think Reno’s reasons for remaining Episcopalian were good ones, nor do I defend them. My fundamental point (and I’ve not come across any substantial reasons to disuade me from this) is that the volitional action of choosing into being a Catholic is not different than the act of choosing into any other religon or system of thought.

    The sense I get from Reno is that he was bitter and pissed off about the unfaithfulness in his church (the reference to Gene Robinson for example) and thus came up with a theory about why to stay. And in his view he doesn’t need to come up with an analogous theory to remain Catholic. I certainly don’t want to say his feelings of relief and happiness are invalid, but I think a great many Catholics have to come up with exactly the same kind of “theories” for remaining Catholic. A case in point is the existential struggle that many Catholic have been thrust into with the various sexual-abuse scandals that keep coming to light among the priesthood.

    We all have “theories” about why to “stay put” as Reno phrases things. And those theories are not formally different from one another.

    Thursday, November 29, 2007 at 5:26 pm | Permalink
  11. Hill wrote:

    I probably shouldn’t open this can of worms but I’d be curious just what you mean by “the existential struggle that many Catholic have been thrust into with the various sexual-abuse scandals that keep coming to light among the priesthood.” Anyone for whom that might bear on the question of becoming or remaining a Catholic has serious misconceptions about Catholicism, unless they were an actual victim of abuse, in which case the psychological dimensions of the issue are separate issue altogether.

    Thursday, November 29, 2007 at 5:32 pm | Permalink
  12. Halden wrote:

    I’m not saying that has much bearing on one becoming Catholic, but I know Catholics that get fed up with the abuse and consider leaving on that basis, only staying on the basis of other “reasons” or “theories”.

    And, on the other hand, if the source of all such individuals’ inclinations to leave Catholicism stem solely from such “serious misconceptions” about Catholicism and that is the sole reason for their need of a “theory” to stay, we can just as easily say that Reno’s feeling of needing a “theory” to remain Episcopalian was based on a “serious misconception” of the nature of Episcopalianism.

    People remain Catholic for all kinds of reasons, just like in any other religon or denomination.

    Thursday, November 29, 2007 at 5:40 pm | Permalink
  13. Hill wrote:

    “Remaining Catholic” because of a “theory” implies one has encountered a good reason to leave. I’m curious what those reasons might be. Reno’s reason (and that of many others) is at least logically sound and understandable. Having a “theory” that leads one to remain Catholic “in light of” the sexual abuse scandal is actually a totally different conceptual phenomenon. My point being that in the situations you’ve offered, people “remaining” Catholic is definitely not just like any other religion or denomination. This has come up before, but I still stand by my claim that there is no parity whatsoever on the historical frequency and theological character of conversions to Catholicism versus conversions from Catholicism. That the sexual abuse scandal constitutes a reason for leaving Catholicism akin to the reasons many join the Catholic Church is a misconception. The nature and validity of one’s reasons for remaining in a place depend on the nature and validity of the competing reasons for doing otherwise. The kind of parity you are attempting to establish simply does not exist. I could explicate the misconception involved in feeling compelled to leave the Catholic due to the sexual abuse scandal. Could you explicate an analogous hypothetical misconception in Reno’s case? Is it not absurd to accuse Russell Reno of having failing to understand Episcopalianism?

    Thursday, November 29, 2007 at 6:06 pm | Permalink
  14. Halden wrote:

    I disagree that it’s a different conceptual phenomenon. Look, dude, I already know that you believe your tradition to be superior to everything else, and I don’t begrudge you that. But just repeating it ad infinitum doesn’t constitute a good argument or an all too interesting discussion.

    It is clear to me how much you love your Roman Catholic faith, and I admire that. But, I think you would do well to consider that maybe some people who really do understand Catholicism might question its tenets in an intelligent manner. The fact that a large handfull of intellectuals have converted to Catholicism does not invalidate the experience of many others.

    The simple fact is this. You think there could not possibly be a good reason for leaving Catholicism. I think there are such reasons. We disagree on that and I don’t think wrangling about it over-long will really make for an interesting discussion.

    If you can really show me rather than merely asserting that Catholicism is somehow completely different than any other church or denomination, I’d be interested in that. But, if you’re just going to assert it over and over, I’ll happily let you have the last word and be done with it.

    Thursday, November 29, 2007 at 6:49 pm | Permalink
  15. Hill wrote:

    You have made vague claims regarding the parity of staying in or leaving the Catholic Church and Russell Reno’s experience of staying in or leaving the Episcopal Church. I’ve asked you to clarify those claims, given that the only concrete aspect to them was a comparison to the sexual abuse scandal. I have made no claims about the “superiority” of Catholicism in this discussion (although I couldn’t make claims to the contrary) and I have no intention of discussing that topic in isolation. But if you think that Reno’s leaving the Episcopal Church is analogous in a helpful way to someone leaving the Catholic Church over the sexual abuse scandal, you are simply wrong. I’m willing to grant that you just haven’t explained yourself well enough and have asked you to flesh out what you mean. In this case, you have copped out by accusing me of a partisanship that I have been trying very carefully to avoid. You are employing dubious arguments to equate things that really deserve finer distinction and more careful analysis, and I’m calling you on that.

    You have yet to question the tenets of Catholicism or bring up any concrete experiences of other peoples experience of Catholicism in this post. Likewise, I have not cast aspersions on you or others for things that have not been mentioned here. You are imputing opinions to me that I do not hold and claims to me that I have not made, certainly at least, not in this discussion. I seriously just want to address what good reasons there are for leaving the Catholic Church. I want to have a conversation about objective content rather than vague generalizations. If I have generalized vaguely then I ask for your correction on the matter. It isn’t fair to accuse me of belittling these reasons when you have as yet not provided them. The lone gesture towards the sexual abuse scandal I won’t abide, as it is a cop out and has nothing to do the issue at hand. The fact that people even see it as relevant to this discussion reveals the prejudice I’m trying to work against.

    I sincerely apologize if my tenacity has come across as malicious or uncharitable. When I have replied, I have done so because I thought this conversation still had fruit to bear. At the very least, I’d like to know the content upon which we disagree rather than just knowing that you disagree with me. If you’d rather end the discussion here, I respect that, as this is your space, and we shall speak further on similar topics some other time, I’m sure. If so, allow me to say at least that I wouldn’t have pursued this discussion as far as I have if I didn’t actually value understanding your view of this issue. I just don’t feel like I do yet. There will be other days and other posts for that I suppose.

    Thursday, November 29, 2007 at 7:20 pm | Permalink
  16. Halden wrote:

    Hill, the analogy I see is something like this, to put to crudely. The Episcopal church has begun ordaining practicing homosexuals, which is clearly contrary to the gospel. This puts Reno in the position of feeling that he is unable, in good conscience to be a part of this denomination any more, but he comes up with other reasons to stay put. The Catholic church has protected and covered up a great many child-molesting priests. Joe Catholic sees this and feels that he is unable, in good conscience to submit to such a corrupt heirarchy. He also comes up with reasons to stay put.

    I am not claiming that those two situations are exactly alike, let alone equating them. I am also fully aware that the interpretation of the Catholic church’s way of dealing with the abuse could be interpreted differently. However, I think there is a formal analogy insofar as both scenarios are asking Christians to stay within corrupt and broken ecclesial hierarchies. It may be that I am ‘simply wrong’, but you’re going to have to do more than just say that if you want me change my mind. Assertion without argument gets boring for me really fast. If I have been doing that as well, I apologize and hope I am being more clear.

    I hope that clarifies what I’m saying. Now, you need to deal in return. You’ve repeatedly said that the Catholic church ‘is definitely not just like any other religion or denomination’ and that therefore any analogy between leaving a protestant church and leaving a Catholic church does not hold. YOU need to demonstrate that one if you want me to give such an assertion a moments thought.

    As to good reasons for leaving the Catholic church, I don’t know that I can speak to that directly, since I have never been part of it. I could give you all manner of reasons for why I am not a Catholic but that would be an entirely different and utterly complex discussion. I’m not opposed to having such discussions, but that’s not what we have been talking about here.

    All I have argued all along is that everyone remains where they are on the basis of theories about why they should stay there. I am not conviced that protestantism is formally different from Catholicism in this regard. You keep asserting that it is, but you have yet to give me any sort of concrete argument about how this is so. Frankly, the onus is on you on this one.

    Thursday, November 29, 2007 at 8:28 pm | Permalink
  17. On a completely different line of thought…

    I largely agree with you on this, Halden, but I do recognize on some visceral level the difference Reno’s marking. I would have framed it, though, around the order of the theological axiom–which seems to me remarkably to have been kept–of lex orandi, lex credendi. To put it starkly and unfairly: without denying your point, that even the lex orandi can in no way be said to be ‘atheoretical’, there still seems to me a difference between a church whose primordial act is to stand in prayerful awe of the resurrected Christ and one whose primordial act is to write the 95 Theses. The latter is ‘theoretical’ in a way that the former is not.

    I’m quite aware, of course, that to locate the origin of a church in an act like the writing of the 95 Theses is already to admit its theological impossibility as a church. What I’m hoping is that you’ll be able to provide some account of the ‘origin’ and continuity of the radical reformation that avoids such a mess. As I say, my empathy with Reno is only visceral, perhaps ‘pretheological’ in the same sense as the church ought to be–since I maintain hope that that account of continuity can be given, despite my own inability yet to follow it through.

    Thursday, November 29, 2007 at 8:53 pm | Permalink
  18. Dennis wrote:


    “converting to Catholicism, or any denomination in search of some sort of unshakable security blanket is a quixotic quest”

    I guess I disagree with you on this.

    From what I gather about Protestantism is that it appears to be a “pick and choose”type theology. Many times I read how someone is a “Five Point Calvinist” or a Dispensationalist or a four point amillenial weak cessationist…huh???

    As a Catholic, you can say, “I’m Catholic.” There are some ranges but it’s far more limited. A person CAN’T say I’m Catholic but don’t agree on their stance on pre-marital sex. Guess what? They’re not really Catholic!

    So, there’s a security in not having to make the decisions as to what type of Christian you are. You’re Catholic and submit fully to her authority.

    Additionally, when you submit to her authority…when you accept her teachings as truth, they are no longer theory. They are reality. Transubstantiation is not a “theory” to Catholics. It’s the Truth. The bread and wine isn’t theoretically the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. It is the Body and Blood of our Lord and Savior.

    I’m not saying there aren’t disagreements among Catholics or that there aren’t theories abounding. It’s just that there is agreement on all things that the Church has declared infallible.

    And there’s great comfort in that.

    Thursday, November 29, 2007 at 9:30 pm | Permalink
  19. Hill wrote:

    I haven’t been totally clear on some of the points you’ve addressed, that is true. As to your analogy as you’ve clarified it, my only qualification is that in the case of the Episcopal Church, the action constitutes a kind of magisterial approval of a certain pattern of behavior which many have deemed at odds with the Gospel. In the case of the sexual abuse scandal, there is no implicit magisterial pronouncement on sexual abuse that one could construe from the events as they have transpired. Basically, the Episcopal Church proper has made something that amounts to doctrinal claims regarding the status of homosexual and divorced clergy in the Gene Robinson incident. That can’t be said in an analogous sense of the Catholic Church and its response to the sexual abuse scandal. I’m sorry if I have made too big of a deal about that, but hopefully I’ve made it clear how I feel like one is an issue with how a church formally understands itself and the other is not. There are plenty of things to be upset about with the sexual abuse scandal, but the Catholic Church per se is not one of them.

    When I have said that the Catholic Church is not just another denominational choice, I don’t mean that in the sense of “it is objectively apparent that the Catholic Church is not just another denominational choice.” I mean that the Catholic Church’s self understanding is not one of a denomination among other denominations. Regardless of whether or not one agrees with this self understanding, it sets it apart from many other churches. That is the point I was trying to make. Many of my (admittedly unreflective) Protestant friends have the impression that you could be Methodist or Baptist or Catholic and it doesn’t amount to much either way. A Catholic couldn’t say that. This implies a kind of formal “superiority” to Catholicism, and I’m afraid I haven’t sufficiently tempered that in some of my comments. It doesn’t speak at all, however, to the complexities of navigating the ecclesial landscape as a 21st century human being. I think we’ve discussed something like this before. When I have attempted to distinguish Catholicism from other denominations, I don’t mean it as a point to be proven, but in the sense of “Catholics do not understand themselves as members of a denomination among many.” They understand themselves as members of the Church and there is only one Church. I acknowledge that existentially and operationally, when one surveys the landscape, Catholicism appears as another option and various rationale will advocate for it or perhaps against it. The difference is that entering the Catholic Church, phenomenologically speaking, takes the form of being called beyond one’s own “choice” in this matter, to the fullness of Christ’s Church, which ultimately never was just another option. Again, I’m speaking here not as someone trying to convince another but as someone offering his testimony. It is not a dialectical claim. Nor do I ascribe a failure in reason to someone who doesn’t agree with me. The entire issue is inextricably pneumatological and personal. I am truly sorry if this has come across in an argumentative way at any point. It isn’t really intelligible in that context.

    In response to your last paragraph, I agree that by and large our actions and theological allegiances are dictated by “theories.” It was likely a “theory” the drew me to Catholicism, but I can only ascribe where I am today to the grace of God. As someone who believes that the Catholic Church is what she says she is and someone who feels as though he’s been lead there by the grace of God, I’m bound to certain conclusions. To address your point in a more mundane manner, however, as someone who has undergone adult initiation both as a Baptist and as a Roman Catholic, my self understanding of each process was fundamentally different. Along similarly anecdotal lines, imagine feeling compelled to attend a Presbyterian Church rather than an Episcopalian. I would suggest that this process is rather different than joining the Roman Catholic Church coming from the Episcopal Church and likely accompanied by altogether different kinds of theories. In even simpler terms, in the West, and adopting your advice regarding the relationship of Protestants and Eastern Orthodoxy, when one moves from one denomination to another, one either moves from one Protestantism to another Protestantism or one moves from Protestantism to Catholicism.

    So I guess I don’t really disagree with what you said in your most recent comment, I’m just trying to flesh out additional aspects to some of the questions you’ve raised that I think I are important and that help me personally to clarify. I think there is a sense in which Catholicism appears on the ecclesial horizon just like various other options, and furthermore, one has a view from “somewhere” rather than “nowhere.” At the same time, the Catholic Church’s missionary witness is not one of an option among other options. I could be wrong, but Methodists, Presbyterians and Baptists don’t understand themselves in this way, although they clearly differ on a number of important points. I hope that has clarified my position. Much of what I have said I don’t intend polemically and I’m sorry if it has come across that way. I appreciate your bearing with me.

    Thursday, November 29, 2007 at 9:34 pm | Permalink
  20. Andy wrote:

    Hey Halden,

    I don’t know if the discussion thus far is completely germane. I think you’ve simply misunderstood what he was getting at.

    First, yes, Reno was a bit hyperbolic with his rhetoric. But, second, his hyperbolic attack on theory is against…himself. His whole point in his explanation is to defend his choice to convert in light of his book, In the Ruins of the Church (which I happen to be reading right now). When he says the Catholic Church needs no theories he’s making a very personal assertion. From an outside perspective we can see clearly that when faced with the Episcopal Church, Reno needed his theory of living in the ruins of the church in order to remain. When faced with the Roman Church, he needed no buttresses to persuade him. That is, the Episcopal Church required an external, supplemental theory to support its own theories. The Catholic Church, on the other hand, required only its intrinsic theories, not a supplement.

    In order to survive in the ruins of the Episcopal Church, Reno needed a theory of living in the ruins. We can hardly blame him if he tired from living such a life. After all, Nehemiah (Reno’s paragon of living in the ruins) had confreres who also contributed to the rebuilding of Jerusalem. Reno felt almost completely alone. That he felt compelled to convert to Rome is either the direction of the Spirit, or the mutual failure of the Episcopal Church and Reno…or both. I cannot blame him for converting, his apparent activity within and commitment to the renewal of the Episcopal Church has earned him that right.

    I think you do abuse him to assume he is looking simply for “self-justifying security.” More importantly, I think Reno is striving to listen to the direction of the Spirit in the apostolic faith, and he finally despaired of finding it in the Episcopal Church. At any rate, I think you’ve misunderstood him here. Which makes your remarks about the “apocalyptic” nature of the church off the mark as well. The opposition is not between a church at war and a utopia for Reno, but between a ruined, dead church and a living church. The difference for Reno is between a warring church and a church that has laid down its arms and is perishing.


    Friday, November 30, 2007 at 10:27 am | Permalink
  21. Halden wrote:

    Hill, that helpfully clarifies things. And I cede you the point that there are crucial differences between the two examples I put forth. Thank you.

    Andy, perhaps I allowed Reno’s inflated rhetoric to push me into some of the same! To be clear, I don’t in the least blame Reno for converting to Catholicism. I doubt I would see any good reason for not doing so were I an Episcopalian. I am not, so my situation is different. My problem was with the way in which he, through rhetorical flourish made some claims that I think are a bit inflated about the givenness of Catholicism. If Reno had phrased his own narrative the way you charitably interpret him, perhaps I would not have felt the need to question it.

    Friday, November 30, 2007 at 1:15 pm | Permalink
  22. Andy wrote:


    Yes, there is no doubt he has enjoyed a bit of flourish in his acceptance of Catholicism, but then again, when in Rome…



    Friday, November 30, 2007 at 2:57 pm | Permalink
  23. freder1ck wrote:

    Heh. Reno gushes a bit on themes that Joseph Ratzinger and Don Giussani have explored in a more careful and precise way. That said, this Catholic claim to adhere to something (Someone) other than a theory cannot be verified merely on a theoretical basis. To do that, one would need to visit in person, for example, daily Mass and talk to the priest or people afterward. It takes time, commitment, and personal contact….

    Friday, November 30, 2007 at 3:31 pm | Permalink
  24. Pontificator wrote:

    I have been pondering this post and the comments for a while and am still confused in my own mind. Reno writes:

    “The Catholic Church needs no theories. She is the mother of theologies; she does not need to be propped up by theologies.”

    What precisely does this mean? Clearly it does not mean that Reno had no reasons to become Catholic, nor does it mean that the Catholic Church does not possess “an explanatory framework that is offered to people as an object of faith to which they must commit themselves.”

    Yet Reno is pointing us to something here that is part of the Catholic experience. Becoming Catholic is not like joining a denomination, and it is not like joining a denomination because the Catholic Church does not understand herself (note the pronoun–Protestants do not typically refer to their denomination by personal pronouns) as a denomination. Rightly or wrongly, she understands herself as Church in a primary, primordial sense. This primacy cannot be proven; it can only be discerned, much in the same way that one discerns Isaiah or Jeremiah to be a true prophet. And upon discerning the primordial reality and authority of the Catholic Church, all one can do is submit.

    Perhaps Newman’s experience is illuminating here. Newman frequently stated that he did not become Catholic because he became persuaded that the Bishop of Rome was infallible. Rather, he became Catholic because he discerned in her the notes of Church:

    “How then do I know which is the true Church? I know it by the tokens of its unity, its apostolicity, its pretensions etc etc. I admit that there are able men who have been led into the Church through belief in the Pope’s prerogatives. But a man need not believe in the jus divinum of the see of St. Peter in order to submit himself to the church which is in communion with it. This was my own case. I did not distinctly believe in the jus divinum of the Holy See till I joined the Church. I then believed in it as I believed in any other doctrine of the Church, because she was the Church, the oracle of Christ.”

    I suspect that Reno is alluding to something similar when he speaks of the Catholic Church as the mother of all theologies.

    Saturday, December 1, 2007 at 7:13 am | Permalink

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