The sacramental vision and the fullness of faith

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Since my entry into the Catholic Church in 1997, I have sometimes given talks on my conversion from Protestantism to the Catholic faith. I usually focus on eight people who were instrumental in this process.

Among them are my parents (who remain fundamentalists), TS Eliot, Chesterton and Walker Percy – as well as Newman, Knox, CS Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, Charles Williams and Flannery O’Connor.

I discovered Eliot and Lewis as a teenager; I was introduced to the writings of O’Connor, Williams and Gerard Manley Hopkins at Bible college. Literature opened the door through which theology and doctrine entered like fresh, cool waters to me. One without the other would have left something less. O’Connor’s startling stories, for example, opened my mind to a sacramental view of reality, just as Eliot’s poetry challenged my superficial understanding of the Incarnation.

This all came to mind recently as I was reading a brief essay by Jessica Hooten Wilson titled “The Ecumenical Imagination”. Wilson has written several excellent articles and books on Percy and O’Connor, appeared on EWTN and “Bishop Barron Presents,” and has taught and lectured at several Catholic institutions, including my alma mater, the University of Dallas.

She is currently studying Dorothy Day, Sigrid Undset and Edith Stein, and expresses her love for the Catholic Church: “the sacramental imagination, respect for the saints, the beauty of their literature and tradition, the encouragement of life and large families”.

But Wilson is not Catholic.

“I am fully and delightfully Protestant,” she writes, “at home in the Church of England, the middle way, which I don’t see as a road to anything but heaven.” Further: “I used to say that I was theologically and literary Catholic, but ecclesially Protestant. But the more exact truth is that I am just an Anglican.

Wilson apparently gets upset that people ask her why she’s not Catholic, saying the question “seems to them like a necessary reflection for every believer.” But it’s a reasonable question: she’s a Protestant whose work focuses on Catholic authors and the “Catholic imaginary”. Catholics ask the question because they understand that Protestantism rejects many of the things it loves about the Catholic faith.

She notes that Catholic art historian Elizabeth (“Liz”) Lev, in a seemingly private conversation, “endorsed my reasons. With an authority and confidence that only Liz Lev can assert, she declared that my choice was wise.

Lev is a wonderful art historian, but the authority attributed to her here is baffling, because no Catholic has the “authority” to tell a non-Catholic to stay out of the Church. Moreover – and this is where theological distinctions demand attention – the Anglican Communion, whatever graces exist within it, is not a “Church” in the eyes of the Catholic Church.

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Like the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith explained in June 2007, these “Christian communities born of the Reformation of the sixteenth century do not enjoy apostolic succession in the sacrament of Holy Orders, and are therefore deprived of a constituent element of the Church”. Anglican communities have no valid holy orders or Eucharist, and therefore “cannot, according to Catholic doctrine, be called ‘Churches’ in the proper sense”.

It’s not triumphant or arrogant; it is simply catholic, factual, vital. Despite many examples to the contrary, the Catholic faith is not a sideboard. “A convert comes to learn,” writes Newman, “not to choose.” It’s all or nothing – and Wilson seems to recognize that fact.

One of the reasons she gives for not becoming a Catholic is disappointing: While studying at Baylor University, she was advised by Ralph Wood – a self-proclaimed “Bapto-Catholic” who helped start “an Anglican Church ” – “Never give up the tradition that gave you the gospel.”

“I took that to heart,” says Wilson, “that missionary call to be a bridge between the good I find in one church and the home I find in the other.

I wonder if Wood – author of books on O’Connor, Chesterton and Tolkien – would have given such advice to, say, Newman, Chesterton, Knox, Christopher Dawson, Evelyn Waugh, Robert Hugh Benson, and so many others?

And more importantly: would they have taken it?

Moreover, it avoids confronting the deeply fractured nature of Protestantism, which has countless competing (and mutually denouncing) traditions. Wilson herself was raised in the Churches of Christ, later attended Baylor (a Baptist-affiliated school) and is now Anglican. Having left the tradition of her youth, she apparently regards the vague Protestant tradition as the one that gave her the Gospel.

I was raised in a small fundamentalist Bible chapel affiliated with the Plymouth Brethren movement; I became a Catholic precisely because I learned how the Plymouth Brethren movement grew out of Anglicanism and Methodism, which resulted from Henry VIII’s break with the Catholic Church.

It turns out that it was the Catholic Tradition that gave me the Gospel.

The essential problem here is ecclesiology. Wilson invokes the “middle way” of Anglicanism, which is an attractive but empty mythology. Maybe I’m being nice saying that. Father John Chapman (1865-1930), a former Anglican who entered the Catholic Church in his twenties, wrote: “The divisibility of the Church is the cardinal doctrine of Anglicanism and its most fundamental heresy.

Wilson is clearly (and understandably) in love with the Catholic imagination, but seems determined to circumvent both Catholic doctrine and the Church itself. But all great Catholic literature, art, and music flow from the body of doctrine, devotion, and practice of Catholic dogma.

A good friend earned his doctorate in English at Baylor shortly after Wilson graduated. An evangelical Protestant, he entered the Catholic Church in Baylor. After reading Wilson’s post, he wrote to me: “Is what the Catholic Church says about itself true? Otherwise, she is not worthy of your admiration. If so, your obedience is not a matter of choice – or rather, your choice is not without consequence.

To which I add: Jesus Christ did not found Protestantism or Anglicanism – and it doesn’t take much imagination (Catholic or otherwise) to see the Church He established at Pentecost.

Bishop Robert Barron with Jessica Hooten Wilson

*Image: The conversion of Mary Magdalene by Paolo Veronese, c. 1548 [National Gallery, London]

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Brad Miner conversion history

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