Thursday, August 21, 2014

My Baptism (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Vatican II)


[Originally written July 18]

When I was first thinking about the Catholic Church, there was one sticking point that would have kept me from joining. It wasn’t transubstantiation, or confession, or Marion theology. It was baptism. While I hadn’t given much particular thought to what baptism does as a sacrament, I still held is as important. I was strongly paedo-baptist. I held my baptism as sacred and would not accept any discrediting of my baptism, even from the Catholic Church. I would align with my baptism before any other theological beliefs. Even though I believed in the real presence and longed for the Eucharist, I wasn’t joining a church that didn’t acknowledge that I was baptized. 

Fortunately, in her great wisdom, the Church agrees with me. My baptism was acknowledged as a proper and valid baptism, and I joined the Church not as a convert but as a Christian reaching full communion. It’s an important distinction to make. Although I talk about my conversion or refer to myself as a convert, that word is inappropriate for me. I was a Christian, as a four-month-old baptizee and as a twenty-two-year-old Presbyterian, and I am a Christian now, as a twenty-five-year-old Catholic. My understanding of Christ and his Church has evolved, but I’ve never been not-Christian. I feel complete now as a Catholic, but that isn’t a denial of what I previously held; Catholicism is the continuation and fulfillment of what I learned about Christ in a Protestant background. 

It’s easy to point out the major differences in catholic-orthodox belief and Protestant belief, because there are some very major differences. But it’s important to realize that both sides still fit under the Christian umbrella. There are major similarities as well. Trinitarianism, Christ dying for our salvation, and belief in the Resurrection are shared across Christian lines. While I find error in Protestant theology and believe the Catholic Church has the fullness of truth, I would never deny that Protestants are Christian. I pray for the unification of schismatic and heretical fractures, and I hope all Christians (and all people really) find the fullness of truth. 

I think that hope is what led to a lot of the ecumenical language of Vatican II. I have a love/hate relationship with Vatican II. The hate part is really directed at the “spirit of Vatican II” and the interpretations of the council that seem to go far beyond what the council actually said. The “spirit of Vatican II” says form and function doesn’t matter as much, as long as God is present. Think holding hands during the Our Father. Think stripped down churches. Think happy-clappy worship songs and liturgical dancing. Think clown masses. Basically, the “spirit of Vatican II” takes all the history and beauty out of the Church in an effort to make it hip and personalized. If I wanted to find Jesus at a rock concert/ coffee shop, I would have just become evangelical. 

Fortunately, the actual documents of Vatican II don’t diminish history or beauty. The council got a lot done, including calling for greater emphasis on scripture, restoring the permanent deaconate, and renewing the liturgy of the mass, the liturgy of the hours, and the liturgical calendar. This was not to diminish or change what existed before the council, but to revitalize the Church and make the laity greater participants in their faith. Another result of Vatican II was the reinstitution of the baptismal catechumenate. This meant a formation process (RCIA) for adults seeking baptism and Church membership. 

Since the fracturing of the many Protestant sects, Catholics were not sure what to do about baptized Protestants that sought to join the Church. Protestantism was a heresy, so were Protestant baptisms valid? Did Protestants need to be rebaptized? There was a formula in place for conditional baptism. This was done if the baptism status of a person was unsure. That person could be baptized with a caveat (“If you are not already baptized, then I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”). In many places, particularly the South, conditional baptisms had become the de facto formula for Protestants joining the Church. Protestants and the unbaptized were treated pretty much the same. Vatican II stressed the importance of points of unity between Christian sects. All Trinitarian baptisms are valid baptisms. Protestants are Christians, even if they are missing key theological points. Therefore, Protestants seeking communion with the Church must be treated differently than non-Christians joining the Church. For small parishes in particular, they might still be in the same faith formation class as the unbaptized and receive confirmation at Easter Vigil. But it is only in appearance that the two groups look the same. Baptism is a sacrament; it makes a difference. The relationship between Catholic and Protestant is still unsure. At least with the Orthodox, we know we are in schism, but with Protestants it’s more complicated. For the most part it seems that the movements are heretical but the people within the movements aren’t necessarily heretics. So Protestants are Christians who are missing the fullness of faith, but Christians nonetheless. And a baptism (done properly) is accepted as valid. 

I don’t remember my baptism, so maybe it’s strange that it means so much to me that the Church acknowledges it. It’s as if I have this little ball of grace entrusted to me, and I have to hold onto it. When people dismiss it (credo-baptists), that just makes me hold on tighter.

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