Excerpts from Jim Tonkowich, My Catholic Story, 2015
In 2006, I left BreakPoint to become president of the Institute on Religion & Democracy (IRD). The IRD was part of the Mainline Protestant renewal movement, and my first summer at the IRD included trips to three national denominational meetings: the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) General Assembly, the Episcopal Church (TEC) General Convention, and my own Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) General Assembly.
At the PCUSA and TEC meetings I saw first-hand how, in contrast to Christians through the ages, the liberal denominations have substituted feelings for facts, passions for authority, and sentiment for reason. Their belief seems to be that if they “create space for dialogue,” emote, and vote, they can determine the New Revised Standard Version of God’s truth by Roberts Rule’s and simple majority — and Christian orthodoxy, their own confessional documents, and dissenters can all pound sand. (I should add that there were and are good, solidly orthodox dissenters who are still fighting the good fight in those groups. They are courageous men and women who deserve our prayers — and invitations to attend RCIA.)
The impact of the first two meetings sank in as I flew between TEC’s General Convention and my own PCA General Assembly.
I was reading Dutch theologian and politician Abraham Kuyper’s discussion of “the sovereignty of the individual person” and the individual conscience before God in his Lectures on Calvinism when a conversation began in the row behind me. Two women who did not know each other discovered that they had both been volunteers at the TEC General Convention. “Were you there,” asked one, “when Katherine Jefferts Schori was elected presiding bishop?” The General Convention had elected Schori, one of its few female bishops, to lead the denomination.
“Oh, yes I was there and it was wonderful,” replied the other. “Couldn’t you just feel the Spirit?”
“Yes, yes. I felt the Spirit.”
Hmm, I thought, here we have “the sovereignty of the individual person” writ large. I was not encouraged.
Katherine Jefferts Schori’s theological positions are troubling, to say the least. In her inaugural sermon as presiding bishop-elect, she announced, “Our mother Jesus gives birth to a new creation and we are His children.” No doubt many in attendance including the women in the row behind me thought this creative, panentheist, gender-bending was wonderfully profound. In truth, it is self-evident gibberish and heretical gibberish at that. Yet, there were at least two women who “could feel the Spirit.”
I arrived at my own General Assembly sobered. What, I asked myself, is keeping our thoroughly orthodox denomination from voting to affirm same-sex marriage, ordain practicing homosexuals, and rewrite or reject the doctrine of the Trinity? (Live issues at the PCUSA and TEC meetings)? What will keep us on the straight and narrow? The PCA’s Westminster Confession is already an edited version of the original. What was keeping us from doing more editing? (Good news: They removed all the anti-Catholic “whore of Babylon” references that were in the 1646 Puritan original.)
I could only come up with one answer: the good will of a converted clergy. And while that is a truly marvelous thing — something for which we should praise God — it also struck me as a very slender reed on which to hang the future. Given the right provocation, the PCA could, claiming the guidance of the Holy Spirit, make radical changes in Christian doctrine to accommodate the spirit of the age just as surely as the PCUSA and the Episcopalians have.
How long, I began wondering, can the PCA, any other Protestant group, or for that matter Protestantism in general maintain orthodoxy in a post-modern world? Protestantism began with a strong nominalist streak (cf. Louis Bouyer, The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism), and what is post-modernism if not nominalism on steroids? The seeds of its destruction were inherent in the Protestant system from the beginning as historian Brad Gregory argues in his book The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society.
Every individual Protestant and every Protestant denomination — really just a collection of (more or less) like-minded individuals — claims the authority to interpret the Bible and define doctrine. But the buck has to stop somewhere. In the final analysis, the buck either stops with me and the like-minded group I have chosen to join (and can choose to leave) — a very scary prospect — or it stops with a Church that actually has the authority to decide, an authority given to her by God.
This was the crucial issue, settled finally as I read in Blessed John Henry Newman’s argument by inference in his Apologia Pro Vita Sua. In light of the evil brought by original sin, he wrote, the Catholic Church’s infallibility is “a provision, adapted by the mercy of the Creator, to preserve religion in the world, and to restrain freedom of thought, which of course in itself is one of the greatest of our natural gifts, and to rescue it from its own suicidal tendencies” (p. 220).
It is those suicidal tendencies of freedom of thought that are killing the Protestant Mainline and infecting Evangelicalism. This is Protestantism’s Achilles heel and without the authority of the Catholic Church, the dissolution will continue. Given that state of affairs in Protestantism, it is wise, as Newman knew, to opt out of “private judgment” into the security of the Catholic Church.