(from Called to Communion)
Does the Center Hold? The Story of Fr. Albert Scharbach’s Journey from Westminster Theological Seminary to Catholic Priest
Oct 30th, 2014
The following is a guest post by Fr. Albert Scharbach. One of the ironies of my new job as a College Guidance Counselor at Mount de Sales Academy in Catonsville, MD is that I get to attend daily mass offered by a priest who graduated from Westminster Theological Seminary. This Fall I have come to know Fr. Albert Scharbach as a true man of God, an excellent homilist, and a wonderful dad to his seven children. He currently serves on the staff of Bishop Denis Madden and as administrator of Mount Calvary Church. – Jeremy Tate
After World War I, the poet William Butler Yeats surveyed the disarray of Europe and wrote, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” What would he say about Christianity? Does the center hold?
Clearly, the lack of church unity in the modern world is a problem–analogous to the disarray that Yeats witnessed after the war. We may not know how Yeats would answer, but it is a question that we all need to address.
When I was a Reformed Presbyterian, I was confident that the center holds with Christ, despite the disarray. I was happy to have found a niche of the evangelical world with good theology. And I was certain that the Catholic Church was not the answer. If anything, the Catholic Church seemed to be the biggest obstacle to any Christian consensus because it was at odds with the broader evangelical church.
A hush at the Westminster Library
But then as an M.Div. student at Westminster Theological Seminary I was asked to write an essay on the development of the papacy from a Roman Catholic perspective. It seemed like a waste of time. I knew that it would be a circular argument based on Tradition, which of course I did not accept as an authority alongside Scripture. So I quickly gathered some sources to bang out a response. As I skimmed some texts, I was stopped in my tracks. The arguments were cogent, even compelling. It was like a hush came over that library carrel. A door was opened that day. I still could never see myself becoming a Roman Catholic, but I had a new respect for the Catholic Church. And I was willing to learn more.
A showdown at the local Episcopal Church
I was under the care of a PCA Presbytery, but with their permission we were attending an Episcopal Church that was closely involved with Westminster Seminary. While we were there, the congregation decided to separate from the Episcopal Church because of that denomination’s doctrinal decline. The local bishop could no longer even give public assent to the Nicene Creed. I was excited to be with the parish at this time. Being familiar with all the church splits that have happened among Presbyterians, this seemed like a normal course of action.
The Bishop made plans to visit the parish one Sunday in order to ask the congregation to stay in the Episcopal Church. I looked forward to the showdown. It was like a front row seat in the fight for orthodoxy! But to my surprise, I was disturbed when the confrontation finally took place. What was happening struck me as completely unnatural. If the Church is the body of Christ, then it should not be dividing like this.
Please understand that I had no sympathies with the Episcopal Church and I remained certain that this congregation was doing the right thing in light of their circumstances. But as the service ended and the bishop left, I found myself longing to be in an undivided Church. Going back to the Anglican Church, even if it were orthodox, would not solve anything, as it was also a product of a church split. Then the unthinkable question came to mind for a student at Westminster. Could the answer mean going back to Rome? I did my best to squelch that thought.
But one thing was becoming more clear: the center in the broader Protestant world did not hold.
The recurring question
The Catholic question kept returning. It was distant and abstract because I thought no one, knowing what I knew as a Protestant, could seriously consider Rome in its current state. But what do we make of her claims to truth? Specifically the Catholic Church claims primacy for the See of Peter. Following this, she claims that the entire Church “subsists in” the Catholic Church, “creating forces impelling toward catholic unity” (Lumen Gentium, 8). In other words, the Catholic Church claims that the center holds in her alone. I tuned into Catholic radio on occasion. At times I was intrigued, at times inspired, and often revolted. But it was a way to listen in on their world, and I was challenged to counter what I learned with what I thought to be true.
Objections easily addressed
Over the next five years, things began to change as I grappled with the usual objections about the Catholic faith. As most converts will say, many objections just went away once I found out what the Church really teaches, rather than what others say about the Catholic Church. As the Venerable Fulton Sheen said, “There are not one hundred people in the United States who hate the Catholic Church, but there are millions who hate what they wrongly perceive the Catholic Church to be.”
The first objection to go was praying to saints. This did not quickly become my practice, but I could see at least that Catholics don’t worship saints. It is like asking a friend for prayer. I reasoned that if God does not allow the saints to hear the prayers, then it was no worse than having an email get lost in cyber space. This is not some kind of idolatry.
Most other issues were dealt with one by one as I better understood Catholic teaching. But how could I let go of the reformation tenets of sola scriptura, sola fide, and sola gratia? Well, the answer is that I did not really have to give anything up.
A higher view of Scripture than the Reformation could offer
Okay, Sola Scriptura did have to go. In fact, problems with this doctrine are what finally caused me to take the Catholic Church seriously. But I had to think this through more in a Reformed context than if I were some other kind of evangelical. I had finally come to the conclusion that the existence of hundreds of thousands of denominations is scandalous. This conclusion is the only reasonable response in light of Jesus’ prayer “that they all be one” (John 17:21). Members of each group believe they have the corner on truth. Many have brilliant theologians, but how can we be sure who is right?
As any convert knows, Scripture itself does not teach that the Bible is our sole source of doctrine, but rather that the Church is the pillar and foundation of the truth (1 Tim 3:15). J.I. Packer argued that most evangelicals can agree across denominational lines about what is essential to salvation. But the closer you look, the more you see how deep and unresolvable are the bitter divisions about how this can be explained. The center, even among evangelicals, still does not hold.
But you might say that Reformed Christians are in a different category. Even the Roman Catholic convert and writer Thomas Howard told me that he could have a better dialog with me as a Presbyterian than he can with most other Protestants, because both Presbyterians and Catholics are confessional Churches–they have substantial historical documents that define their doctrine. But the Westminster Standards are frozen in time.
There will be no new Westminster Assembly that can expand them to meet the questions that arise today. Unlike the Catholic Church, the Presbyterians have no living magisterium. When it comes to interpretation, even about critical issues that threaten to divide churches, there is no way to come to a new consensus. The the two small denominations that supported my seminary–the PCA and OPC–remained divided despite an attempt to unite. So even among the Reformed, we have to conclude that the center does not hold. But look at the Catechism of the Catholic Church and you will find that Scripture is referenced throughout. Read the Vatican II document Dei Verbum and see if you can find a higher view of Scripture in the Protestant world. The Catholic Church preserves the integrity of Scripture through her magisterium. The Church accords Scripture more authority because it is not abused by every person trying to become his own Pope.
The doctrine of faith alone was saved by grace alone
Most converts have one last objection that we hold onto that keeps us from becoming Catholic. For me, it was justification by faith. I found that the way many Catholics emphasized the importance of works seemed to take the focus off Christ and lessen a sense of our total dependence on him. Yet it does not have to be this way.
The Boston College theologian Peter Kreeft helped to clarify this matter in his book Catholic Christianity, which is his own summary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Kreeft points out that in Romans and Galatians, Paul uses a broad definition of faith that includes a full assent of the heart and will. In this sense, he says, that we are justified by faith alone. Yes, he can say that in a Catholic book that has an nihil obstat and an imprimatur, declaring it free from error. Kreeft distinguishes this from the way James defines faith and Paul does elsewhere, such as in 1 Corinthians 13, where faith is distinguished from hope and love. In this narrower sense, saving faith does not stand alone. God calls us to truly supernatural change in life. True faith will produce good works.
This is, in fact, what most Reformed Christians already believe, but the commonality is often lost in translation. Of course, there is more to the discussion which cannot be covered here. But suffice it to say that Catholics most certainly believe that we are saved by grace alone. The Catechism tells us that man, “‘without God’s grace, … cannot by his own free will move himself towards justice in God’s sight’” (CCC 1993). This quotation does away with a lot of straw-man arguments that Reformed Christians use against the Catholic Church.
Where the center holds
The more I understood Catholic doctrine, the more I could appreciate the need for the Church and the magisterium. Clarity of theology and ecclesiology go hand-in-hand. This was first true for the Early Church. Back to that moment when the papacy made sense in the Westminster library. One interesting observation I found was that a greater understanding of the significance of the papacy developed alongside the development of Christology. As we study Early Church history, we find that writings in the first two centuries paled in clarity when compared with Scripture. But doctrinal clarity in the writings of the Early Church Fathers dramatically increased as questions of Christology were resolved in the fifth century. This happens to be at the same time that ecclesiology became more defined through the strengthening of the papacy. The broad parallels suggest that this is no mere coincidence. In order to define the faith in the early Church, the center had to hold. That was found through the papacy in the Catholic Church. The need today is no different–both for the broader Church and in our individual lives.
What finally tipped the scales
But even when this all made sense, I still delayed in becoming Catholic. In the midst of all this discovery, I had become an Anglican priest serving in a faithful Episcopal Church outside of Philadelphia. Ministry was going very well, and without any significant authority over us, we could do whatever we wanted. I kept Calvin’s commentaries to reference for homilies, and on the same shelf was a picture of the Holy Father. I figured that our parish would reconcile with the Catholic Church eventually, and there was no rush.
Besides, there was a lot about the Catholic Church that I still did not like.
Two things tipped the scales.
Even the great 20th Century theologian and convert Avery Cardinal Dulles said that he had to accept some aspects of Church teaching that he could not fully understand. But over time, he said, the haze over those issues would lift a little more, and he would understand why the Catholic Church came to those conclusions. Likewise, I had to admit that I should not expect to like everything about the Catholic Church. I, too, needed to submit to a Church that is greater than my own understanding.
Then, one day, it occurred to me that I did not want to die without being Catholic. Why? Because I was convinced that the Catholic Church was at the center. This is where Christ is most fully revealed. To be found on the last day still outside of the Church would be the same as being outside of fullness of the body of Christ. That was it. If I did not want to die outside of the Church, then I was bound by conscience to make plans to enter the Church today.
God provided a way
There was no guarantee that I would ever be ordained to the Catholic priesthood, so the big question was, “How will I support my family?” At this point, we had six children. It sounded like swinging from one trapeze to the other … without a net. I did not doubt that God would provide a way to follow my conscience. And you know what? There was no trapeze involved. God built a bridge. God built the bridge while I was walking on it, but He built it all the same. In the end, I was able to work for the Archdiocese of Baltimore as a layman until being ordained a Catholic priest.
I could trust God during the transition because Christ was the center of my life. You could say that Christ was the stabilizing presence, leading me to the center of His Church. God’s gift of the Petrine primacy and the magisterium, in turn, makes the Catholic Church a stabilizing presence for the world.
In the Catholic Church, we find at last, that the center does hold.