Schisms Within the Church

Having thought the subject through to my own satisfaction, I’d like to share with you here my own viewpoint on the issue. I’ll limit this initial discussion to the one regarding the various schisms within Christianity itself. But before I attempt to assert the very real presence of the true Church in the face of these schisms, it is necessary that I first describe at least the most significant of them.

Schisms abound. Perhaps the largest and most glaring one is the Catholic/Protestant split. It’s not insignificant. In opposition to the rather shallow modern attempts to affect a reconciliation among the two groups, those Christians who truly understand the issues that separate them don’t see an easy solution to the matter.

Perhaps the most important of the issues is the difference with which the two sides view Scripture and salvation. On the one hand, Protestants see Scripture as written under the supervision of the Holy Spirit and as such is inerrant, at least in the original writing. Catholics may also make the same claim, but have a more difficult time doing so under the proviso that the authority of Scripture is shared with that of the Church, as interpreted by Church tradition and leadership. The problem with that sharing of authority is that sometimes the Catholic Church, as represented by its catechism, traditions and papal pronouncements, is in conflict with Scripture. In many cases this conflict is anything but trivial. Pope John Paul II, for example, announced his belief that the theory of evolution could be reconciled with both the Catholic view of the origin of life and Scripture itself. All but the shallowest of Protestant theologians, on the other hand, view such reconciliation as an impossibility. Another glaring contradiction between Scripture and Catholic tradition is the Catholic insistence upon the life-long celibacy of both Mary and Peter. A casual reading of Matthew 13 in the King James Version of the Bible puts the lie to this stance regarding Mary, while Matthew 8:14 puts Peter’s supposed celibacy to rest. Given the havoc that the Catholic Church’s insistence on priestly celibacy has caused within their ranks, the lack of Scriptural justification for it renders of dubious merit the Church elevation of tradition as authoritative.

Regarding salvation, the Catholic Church views it as being accomplished by a combination of faith in Jesus’ work on the cross and by good works. While Protestants agree that true faith will always result in good works, they firmly stand on the principle of sola fide, or that our salvation comes from faith alone in Jesus’ work on the cross, rather than anything we ourselves might contribute to this happy state.

Other issues, more peripheral than the two above but still of significance, include the Catholic claim that the Church, having been founded by Peter in accordance with her interpretation of Matthew 16:13-19 is, by Apostolic succession, the only true Church. Protestants reject that claim, asserting instead that the true Church is simply the body of believers and followers of Christ, regardless of whatever organization of man they may be found within. Also of importance is the split over whether any so-called representative of God such as the Catholic Pope should be inserted between man and God, and the equally contentious Protestant claim that many of the elements of tradition-bound Catholicism came not from Christianity but rather of the pagan belief systems that Christianity supposedly replaced. Yet more disagreement may be found in the Protestant understanding of eschatology, or the end-time scenario. Protestants tend to interpret the Book of Revelation more literally than Catholics do, viewing its symbolism in the light of Isaiah, Daniel, and Jesus’ Olivet and Temple Discourses (Matthew 24, Mark 13 and Luke 21), and treating the Millennium of Revelation 20 to be an actual thousand-year reign of Christ on earth with His Church following a seven-year tribulation. Catholics, on the other hand, take the Book of Revelation more allegorically, considering Christ’s Second Coming as occurring at the end of time. Any so-called Millennium, in the Catholic understanding, would precede this event.

The Catholic Church possesses a rich, colorful and intricate devotion to Mary, the mother in the flesh of Jesus Christ. This well-developed branch of Catholic theology, of which the Protestant Church has no counterpart, is called Mariology. The Catholic veneration of Mary, to the Protestant sensibility, is an over-the-top adoration of Mary that, despite Catholic assurances to the contrary, amounts to a virtual worship of her as a Goddess. The Protestant claims in this regard appear to be substantiated by Catholic appellations of her as “Queen of Heaven”, “Mother of God” and “Co-Redemptrix”, and assertions of her “Immaculate Conception” and “Perpetual Virginity”, the latter assertion being in clear opposition to Matthew 13:55 and 56. Yet there indeed have been numerous supernatural apparitions of Mary that, despite the Protestant haste to associate the same with demonic activity, indicate by their nature that a better answer would be that God is their author despite the probable misapplication to Mary of attributes and events that actually belong to the Godhead. It is here that we find a merciful God that allows us to worship him to the best of our understanding, despite our propensity to garble His attributes and message to us. Two quite moving elements of the Mariology repertoire are given below. They are well worth a short digression from our primary topic of cataloging schisms within the Church followed by the assertion that the true Church exists in spite of them.

In the little book written just after the Second World War by Dominican Father Gerald Vann entitled Mary’s Answer for our Troubled Times, he addressed the hatred and suffering in the world during that terrible conflict. Like the title suggests, he wrote about Mary’s own suffering while Jesus was on the cross. Father Vann may not always have been Scripturally accurate down to the last detail in all he wrote about Mary. Nevertheless, he captured the essence of Scripture in a magnificent way in presenting a stunning demonstration of nobility on Mary’s part during that time.

He talked of Mary’s concentration of gaze and rapt, exclusive focus on Jesus as He endured His suffering. He contrasted the mutual sorrow-laden silence between her and Jesus with the noisier, more self-serving lamentations of the other women, developing a picture of Mary of stoic determination. She had a task, Vann claimed. This task involved the double sorrow of the mother as she watched the torments of the Son, and of the girl who flinched at the sight of naked evil and cruelty destroying innocence and beauty and love. She remained silent, because it was not for her to find an emotional outlet for her grief, for she is here because of Him, to fulfill her vocation as mother by helping Him to fulfill His as Savior. In her, as Vann claims, there are two conflicting agonies: the longing to save Him from His agony and the effort to help Him to finish His work. It is the second that she must do, giving Him to the world on the Cross as she has given Him to the world in the stable.

One easily can include the Holy Spirit in that beautiful picture. There’s a more famous picture of Mary in Catholic tradition, and it’s also very beautiful. Father John Macquarrie, Oxford’s Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity, wrote about it in his 1970 work Mary for all Christians. Interestingly, UFO researcher Jacques Vallee noted the same incident in his book Dimensions, in which he speculated on the spiritual side of UFO encounters. It involves Mary in an appearance in the year 1531 to one Juan Diego, a peasant who lived just outside of Mexico City. According to Vallee, Juan’s uncle was very ill, to the point of near-death. He spent a day trying to relieve his uncle’s sufferings and left him only on Tuesday, to get a priest. An apparition of Mary barred his way. She told him, according to Vallee,

“‘My little son, do not be distressed and afraid. Am I not here who am your Mother? Are you not under my shadow and protection? Your uncle will not die at this time. This very moment his health is restored. There is no reason now for the errand you set out on, and you can peacefully attend to mine. Go up to the top of the hill: cut the flowers that are growing there and bring them to me.’

“As Juan’s uncle was awaiting the priest, his room was filled with light. A luminous figure of a young woman appeared. He was indeed cured, but that’s not the essence of this story. The main event occurs with Juan, who obeys the order to go to the flowers on the hill.

“Juan Diego didn’t expect to see flowers on the hill because it was the middle of winter. But he did indeed find flowers there. They were Castilian roses. He cut them as Mary had instructed and carried them back to her in his crudely-woven cape. She spent some time arranging the flowers, and then tied the corners of the cape behind his neck to prevent the roses from falling out. She told him to let only the bishop see the sign that she had given him.

“When he reached the bishop’s palace several servants made sport of him, pushing him around and trying to snatch the flowers from his cape. But the flowers dissolved when they reached for them. Amazed, they let him go. When he reached the bishop, Juan Diego untied the corners of the cape and as the ends dropped the flowers fell out in a jumbled heap. The disappointed peasant became confused as to the purpose of his visit. But then he was astonished to see that the bishop had come over to him and was kneeling at his feet. Soon everyone else in the room had come near and were kneeling with the bishop.

“Juan Diego’s cape now hangs over the altar in the basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. Over eight million persons were baptized there in the six years that followed this event. Many millions more of people since that time have knelt before the two-piece cape, coarsely-woven of maguey fibers, for imprinted on it is an intricately detailed, beautiful figure of Mary. In her graceful posture she appears kind and lovable. She is surrounded by golden rays.”

Fifteen hundred persons a day still visit the shrine. The image on Juan Diego’s cape is available to all by Googling “Juan Diego” on the Internet.

[to be continued]


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