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Good Morning Nanty Glo!

       Wednesday, September 15 2004 

Jon Kennedy, webmaster

Methodists and Catholics

A recent column that I read about the religion of the two big national parties' candidates for President, compared John Kerry's declining to follow Catholic teaching on abortion with George Bush's declining to follow Methodist teachings on war and capital punishment. Without getting into the candidates themselves, I'd like to unpack the question this raised, which can be called a classical case of comparing apples and oranges, with regard to the two Christian communions and their approaches to such issues. The differences between them are deep, wide, and profound. Having been an editor of interdenominational Christian newspapers, magazines, and webzines most of my adult life, it has been necessary for me to study such inner workings of the denominations, and I think it behooves us all to have at least some knowledge of any segment of our fellow citizens as large as Methodists (which are approximately as large a segment as American Jews, for example), not to mention the many times bigger segment that is Roman Catholic.

Dogma and discipline. The Catholic Church, despite its liberalization since Vatican II (the 1960s), epitomizes a dogmatic approach to the faith and it is known as a strong enforcer of discipline (withholding communion and requiring pennances to keep its faithful following church positions). Dogmas are those teachings of the church that must be adhered to to remain a member in good standing in that particular church (in the sense of denomination or, as Catholics would prefer, communion). In Catholicism, the doctrine that abortion is a mortal sin must be adhered to dogmatically (on the other hand, though the Pope opposes capital punishment, the church has never dogmatically banned its use by duly constituted governments, and the same ambiguity about war also is present in Catholic teaching).

Methodism, on the other hand, knows little of dogma and virtually no discipline (enforcement). Recent national conferences of the denomination have concluded (at least for now) that it is still dogmatic about homosexuality; practicing homosexuals are not accepted in the official ministry of the denomination, though the conferences have been considering and reconsidering that question time and again and will continue to do so because its way of establishing what's dogmatic is by polling its constituents in duly constituted assemblies. Though Methodism pays lipservice to being under all teachings of the Bible, its interpretation of biblical doctrines can be changed if a majority of its voting commissioners so agree.

In a stance 180 degrees away from the Catholics' on abortion, the Methodists have long since agreed to allow for disagreement on that issue within the church. It is, effectively, a personal matter to Methodists. And though many Methodists have strong opinions against war (especially wars conducted under Republican administrations), and on capital punishment, there is no more dogma available to appeal to in that denomination than there is on abortion. Methodists, like their parent denomination the Anglicans (Episcopalians, in this country), pride themselves on their diversity of such views. The fact that an individual belongs to either a conservative or liberal congregation is more important to rank and file Methodists than what may be promoted as the "denominational position" on moral and doctrinal issues.

Communion. Both Catholic and Methodist churches consider communion to be a required part of Christ's teachings, to be partaken of by all members periodically. But beyond that loose definition, there is a chasm of difference between their views in practice. To Methodists, communion is a pious observance, a form of obedience and affirming membership in the church. To Catholics, it is one of the sacraments, a means of grace, which is not just optional but absolutely required for salvation (allowing for rare exceptions like "the thief on the cross" who was saved without ever receiving communion in a literal sense). In the Methodist churches I've been in, communion grapejuice and bread are passed through the congregation with no restriction on who may receive it and with the at-least-tacit understanding that to receive is a symbol of solidarity with the congregation and the denomination. Though Methodists, like most other Protestants, are asked to examine their consciences and make sure there are no unconfessed sins before partaking of communion, the confession can be as simple as reciting a prayer of "general confession" as part of the communion liturgy, or silently saying "I'm sorry, God," before partaking; there is no clergy-administered confession, and no penance, in Methodism and in the vast majority of other Protestant churches.

In Catholicism, the teaching is that any member who has committed a serious sin since last having received the sacrament of confession with penance through direct interaction with a priest is not to take communion, and only such Catholics are permitted (in principle if not practice) to do so. In practice, however, most Catholic clergy do not ask any questions when serving communion; the individual is honor bound to examine his or her own conscience only; I've personally known, even, of a non-Catholic taking communion under this honor system. However, the church teaches that receiving communion "unworthily" cancels out the sacrament's grace or effectiveness.

Casuistry and clear conscience. Politicans who are members of Methodist and most other Protestant churches can claim clear consciences on their personal opinions on such things as the death penalty and their involvement in war. Those in the Catholic church who disagree with their bishops over their support of "abortion rights" are often described as falling back on a casuistry or rationalization. They may personally oppose abortion for themselves while defending its being available for others. I personally, and many other people, compare that to Bill Clinton's plea when he was cross-examined about adultery that, "It depends upon what the meaning of the word 'is' is."

Webmaster Jon Kennedy 


Two hydrogen atoms walk into a bar. One says, "I've lost my electron." The other says, "Are you sure?" The first replies, "Yes, I'm positive...."

Sent by Mary Ann Losiewicz  

Thought for today

I look on all the world as my parish; thus far I mean, that, in whatever part of it I am, I judge it meet, right, and my bounden duty, to declare unto all that are willing to hear, the glad tidings of salvation.

John Wesley, Anglican clergyman and founder of Methodism  

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