The last two times I have attended Catholic Mass while on the road, I have encountered youngish priests who, though they did not lead their congregations in the Traditional Latin Mass, brimmed with conservative Catholic fervor. One of these experiences was in the mountains of western North Carolina, with a priest who announced that he would miss the next Sunday because was heading off to a conference that he would lead entirely in Latin. The other was in Greensboro, NC. Meanwhile, my own Catholic parish in suburban Atlanta is led by a group of wonderful monks, who strike me as playing it very middle-of-the-road while offering a rich, apolitical, theologically robust, traditional yet contemporary version of American Catholicism.
At this point it is reasonable for anyone who is paying attention to this post to ask why in the world the Baptist author is speaking in this way. That’s because my religious journey began in the post-Vatican II northern Virginia Catholicism in which my mother raised me, saw me drift away after Confirmation and eventually into born-again Southern Baptist life as a high-schooler, a path I have pursued personally and professionally through Baptist ordination and a career teaching at three Baptist schools. However, my Southern Baptist wife fell hard for Catholicism about 20 years ago, and about 6 years ago I rejoined her in limited Catholic practice while not abandoning my Baptist credentials, service, or church involvement. My spiritual life now feels whole, reflecting the entire religious trajectory of my often fragmented life and with each Christian tradition offering dimensions of liturgy, theology, tradition, church culture, and ethics that speak profoundly to me. This is religious hybridity, which is not unusual in these days but certainly not what I expected my journey would look like.
My most recent book, After Evangelicalism, is the first one to reflect this hybrid experience and I think is all the better for it, though of course I cannot claim to “represent” either Baptists or Catholics. Just myself — and, yes, maybe a whole bunch of post-fundamentalists and post-evangelicals, yet another community in which I now claim some measure of religious identity.
Here is one thing I am sure of about Catholicism — it has been deeply divided by the innovations unleashed by and through the Vatican II conference (1962-1965), with many millions of Catholics cherishing aspects of Vatican II and others resistant to any and all of its changes. I cannot help but read Christina Wassell as belonging to one of the most resistant anti-Vatican II sectors of American Catholicism. I find myself in near-complete disagreement on that score.
Here’s what I learned from Vatican II about following Jesus in the modern world: The Church showed itself shockingly able to learn new things and open itself to relevant cultural developments. The Church became a leading exponent of peace and justice, offering astute analysis of pressing global economic, political, and international relations challenges. The Church decided to eschew anti-Protestant and indeed anti-modernist, anti-democratic, anti-liberal reaction (breaking with over 400 years of being defined by such reaction, as in the Council of Trent and the Syllabus of Errors). The Church was able, more or less, to renounce its own long, disastrous history of antisemitism and to revise its liturgy so as not to feed the anti-Jewish passions that had been easily read off of certain New Testament passages and church liturgies and had contributed to pogroms and finally the Holocaust. More broadly, the Church articulated a respectful attitude to people of other religions. The Church now understood itself as belonging to the people, not just to the “religious” and the magisterium; and as a pilgrim people, not one that has already arrived. The Church decided that majesty and mystery needed to be balanced with accessibility and clarity. Meanwhile the Church ultimately did not give ground on such matters as abortion, women priests, contraception, divorce, Marian theology, and a whole host of other traditions and beliefs.
Ultraconservative Catholicism and Protestantism are finding massive common ground in America. The theology may be different, but the spirit — and usually the politics — are the same. Neither holds much appeal for me or for most of the Baptists, Catholics, and post-evangelicals that I know, but perhaps I need to get out a bit more.
I can give you chapter and verse on what is wrong with wimpy liberal Protestantism and liberal Catholicism. Yes, the music is often lame in both. Yes, they have trouble keeping their young. Yes, they can become all social ethics, no theology. Yes, sometimes the abandonment of Tradition simply leaves a vacuum for Culture to dominate.
But still: My path looks more like creative, critical, appropriation of scripture and tradition by modern Christian people who want to bring the best insights of the faith to bear in their lives and churches for the reign of God, care of creation, and human flourishing in this broken world. The riches of the Catholic tradition, including the insights of Vatican II, are a key part of that. Count me as one who honors the legacy of Vatican II and has attempted to weave its best work into my own efforts to follow Jesus.