I find it very difficult to put a distinguishing label on my Christian faith. I pray frequently for the holy catholic and apostolic Church, but I’m not a Catholic with a capital C. I recite the Apostles’ Creed and Nicene Creed with full sincerity, so I trust that my beliefs are orthodox; but I’m not Orthodox with a capital O. The term “Protestant” probably best conveys the right idea to someone about my faith, but I’m not protesting anything. I think Paul warns us against labels in I Corinthians 1, but I’m only one against about two billion Christians who seem comfortable with labels, so I accept my eccentricity.
Perhaps rather than finding a single word to stamp me with, it would paint a clearer picture for me to say that while I’m not a Roman Catholic, I love Thomas Aquinas. I look forward to reading him for about a month each year, and every time, I draw tremendous amounts of enlightenment and encouragement from him. He’s not perfect, though. His method of framing every issue in a yes-and-no question, for instance, doesn’t always work: his answer is frequently some version of “It depends.” More importantly, I just don’t think he’s always right. Not holding any formal obligation to the Papacy, I don’t have any obligation to believe everything this Doctor of the Church says. Still, after about fifteen ample yearly samples of the Summa Theologica, I’ve found very little I couldn’t imagine myself conceivably agreeing with. Until now.
This year, I’ve begun the section on the theological virtues: Faith, Hope, and Charity. At the end of the long part on faith, Thomas treats vices opposed to faith: unbelief, heresy, and apostasy. And in the part on heresy, he says that after warning a person two or three times who has previously declared allegiance to Christ but now refuses to agree with approved doctrine, the Church may rightfully put that person to death. It seems to come out of the blue (or possibly the black). His method normally sets up laboriously and meticulously every supporting point that he plans to make use of eight-hundred pages down the road. Then here suddenly, there’s not just a little wacky confusion of truth and culture that we can excuse with a smile, but rationalization for a horrifying part of history without any logical build-up. He cites Titus 3:10-11 as support, but that verse says to avoid the entrenched heretic, not to kill him.
I had a Catholic friend once who spent a lot of time with me talking about matters of faith, Christian history, and biblical interpretation. We had a good time. We ate meals together. We traveled to conferences together. But I discovered ultimately that his relationship with me was founded entirely on a unidirectional agenda. He told me I was separated from my true home, from my Mother, and that he was trying to make me realize how much I wanted to enter into the communion of the Roman Catholic Church. His statement that I was not a member of the Body of Christ but rather a fly hovering around the Body didn’t help entice me at all.
Eventually this friend asked me point-blank if I would become Catholic (with a capital C), and I said, no. Then he asked if (a) I was convinced and just didn’t want to submit to the truth or (b) I remained unconvinced. My answer to him filled in box (b) in his head. I never had another meal with him. He lost all interest in me. I think I was his project, and he realized that he had failed. He had never met a Protestant who liked Aquinas, so I think he felt a lot of hope in the beginning. I guess I ended up wasting a lot of his time.
I thought about him a lot reading these passages on unbelief and heresy. And now I’m reinterpreting his final multiple-choice question and realizing that had I given him answer (a), it may have earned me a new label: heretic. As melodramatic as this sounds, I wonder now if he was trying to ascertain whether I deserved execution.