How Cohesive Sacramental Theology Can Lead a Person to the [Catholic] Church of Christ

Below is an email discussion I recently had with Matthew (name changed), a member of the Protestant Church of Christ.  I see a lot of myself in him, and he’s coming to the realization that the Catholic Church entertains the fullness of Christianity.  Matthew’s words will be in blue, and my words will be in red. 
Notice how a cohesive (responsible) sacramental theology can lead a truth-seeker to the Catholic Church!   
I’ve been meaning to write for some time.  I didn’t want to impose, but I wondered if it would be alright if we corresponded for a bit?  I guess I’m part of your website’s “target audience,” a born-and-raised Church of Christ guy, but I’ve grown increasingly uncomfortable there.  The CofC/Restoration vision has largely lost whatever appeal it had for me and I find I’m increasingly drawn to the Catholic Church.  I did an M.Div at Abilene Christian, and ever since I graduated in 2007, I’ve been haunted by things Catholic.  I went to RCIA a couple of years ago, but my wife had concerns about becoming Catholic that she wanted me to really think through, so I backed off. Funny thing is that no matter how much I’ve tried to avoid things Catholic (and I have tried), there’s something of a magnetic pull that continues to draw me back.   You’ve made the journey I’m contemplating and I’d appreciate any insight you could offer.  This is a big deal for me and I’m tired of sitting in a church week after week where I love the people but that drives me theologically crazy.
Thanks for reaching out to me, and yes, I’m more than happy to have a dialog with you. At your pace, and about anything, please feel free to bring up any topic.  
I really appreciate it. 
Out of curiosity, how did you go about talking to your extended family about becoming Catholic?  I didn’t know if they were CofC also or perhaps something else…
One of the central attractions of Catholicism for me is the rich sacramental theology.  I’ve downloaded a number of talks by a priest from Michigan (Fr. John Riccardo) and find his presentation of the sacraments very helpful and insightful.  I think it is this, sacramental theology,  where the crux of the issue lies between me and the CofC, the whole “Lord’s Supper as representing Christ’s body and blood” versus Jesus’ blunt statements about making himself present in the elements themselves.  Try as I might, I can’t avoid what Jesus has to say.  Whenever I’ve tried to engage our elders and minister on these subjects, prodding them with the interpretive problems posed by scripture itself (John 6, 1 Cor 10, etc.), they basically don’t know what to do with either the scripture or me.  Our minister has the same level of theological training I do, and even he can’t seem to fully face scripture’s implications.  I don’t think he’s being intellectually dishonest; perhaps it’s more an emotional deal?
I think what really pushed my thinking in this area was the CofC theology of Baptism, and while it’s incomplete, it’s better than others in Evangelical land. In Baptism, a person effectively dies and is raised to a new life in Christ.  In order for that to be effected, a person submits to water Baptism… so we believed (at least in practice) that God uses physical means to “communicate” salvation to people.  It was not enough to recite a sinner’s prayer, only Baptism would effect that change.  Extending that logic to the Lord’s Supper seems perfectly reasonable; if we’re willing to claim that God effects salvation by physical means in Baptism, why could we not then believe it was at least possible for God to make his flesh and blood available to sustain us through physical means as well?  Yet, there is a strange disconnect…is that a kind of anti-Catholic reflex that derails people, where prior emotional and intellectual commitments prevent people from believing something to be true in spite of evidence?
Am I at least pointing in the right direction as far as the Catholic understanding of sacraments go? 
My journey was a bit easier than yours because my parents were not religious.  My wife’s journey progressed along with mine, so I had no real obstacles in that regard. Her family, however, is Presbyterian; a Faith that has actually written in its confession that the pope is the antichrist, so I don’t think they were too excited.  
Regarding Baptism:  You’ve figured it out!  Yes, the sacraments consist of two parts: form and matter.  Humans are embodied spirits, and God chooses to work with us through both avenues: the spiritual and physical (matter/stuff).  The form of Baptism is the “formula”:  baptize in the name of F,S, and HS.  The matter is pouring or immersion in water (I wrote a book that covers proper modes here).
The Eucharist (Lord’s Supper) consists of both parts as well. The form is “this is my body, this is my blood”, and the matter is the bread (body) and wine (blood).
The bread and the wine are Jesus–it is a miracle. There is little in the Bible that is as clear as John 6.  The truth of Jesus’ statement wouldn’t have shocked so many people if he didn’t mean it, and he wouldn’t have called it a “hard teaching” if it were so simple and rationalized away as some sort of figure of speech.  (A friend/apologist of mine just wrote a good post about this.) And, as 1 Cor 11 shows, anyone who takes the cup in an unworthy manner sins… but if it were just a symbol, then how could one “profane the body and blood of Christ” (11:27); Paul did not say we profane a symbol!  
The CofC’s roots are icononclastic (Campbells were both Presbyterian), and I think that is where a lot of the reflexive suspicion of “matter” (stuff) comes from.  With Baptism, however, I think the Scriptures are SO clear and that the matter (water) is so obvious that it cannot be ignored, and thank goodness that the CofC has retained that ancient (Catholic) truth.  I believe the reason why many Protestant groups have denied the proper form and matter of the Eucharist is because they cannot perform it in the historical manner–with a priest (a sacramental priesthood); and they don’t have priests because they deny the sacrament of Holy Orders (apostolic authority).  
I consider CofC Christians to be some of the Catholic Church’s closest Protestant brothers in that they have for the most part retained Baptism–but most CofC’ers hate the “Catholic Church” that they’ve created in their own minds–not the real Catholic Church.  True, the “Evangelical world” has really watered (or unwatered) the sacrament to an “ordinance”, but your tradition has kept more of the historical Faith, and in that regard, you’re already more “Catholic” than you think;)  Zing!
So I think you’re on the right track.  Catholicism is gorgeous when it is understood, and you’ve detected a glimmer of the absolute reasonableness of Catholic theology.
Your note was helpful to consider the form/matter facets of the sacraments; I thought about your description applied to reconciliation/confession.  If I understand it accurately, the Catholic Church teaches that when you’re confessing sins to a priest, what you’re actually doing is confessing to Jesus with the priest serving as a conduit.  Thus, assuming the priest extends absolution, it’s not so much the priest—it’s Jesus absolving you.  It’s just like Baptism, wherein the water (matter) is the vehicle for delivering God’s grace… the Eucharistic bread and wine are the vehicles for communicating Jesus’ actual body and blood, i.e. his grace, and so on with the other sacraments. In confession then, while the priest can be the most imperfect of instruments, it doesn’t prevent God from using him as a conduit.  If I’m remembering rightly, that’s prominent in St. Augustine’s thought, that the sacraments work ex opere operato, which I would think to be a considerable comfort — that you can count on God to faithfully work through the sacraments without being hindered by the people he uses to do it.  This reminds me of the stories I’ve heard over the years of “bad” priests (fill in the “badness” blank with whatever sin could be imagined) as proof that holy orders are invalid; I have a hunch that even if/when the priest was incompetent in some capacity, the priest’s “validity” comes not from his innate goodness but instead from his willingness to show up and be used for God’s purposes, whatever they may be.  Is this close to the mark?
As to the Eucharist, the examples you pointed to (1 Cor 11 especially) have been the most paradigm shaking—how could I continue to believe that the Supper was only symbolic given John 6 (most unsettling) and 1 Cor 11?  I’ve come to the same conclusion you drew in your note… how could you possibly be accused of profaning Jesus’ body and blood if they were not in fact present?  Obviously you can’t.  It was these scriptures (along with material I read for a class I taught on the church fathers) that convinced me that “supper as symbol” view did not have any traction with the early church, but was in fact a product of the Protestant Reformation, courtesy of Ulrich Zwingli. I don’t know how much is too much detail for you; how this is working out for me is that I informed the person in charge of scheduling communion servers and speakers that I couldn’t continue to participate, not only because most people rarely listened to communion reflections anyway, but  I couldn’t in good conscience express my changed conviction about the Lord’s Supper from the communion table, just because I had the platform and something of a captive audience.
So… the CofC being the Catholic Church’s closest cousins.  You may not believe it, but I’ve thought this for some time and never really heard anyone else articulate it.  As I’ve investigated things Catholic, I find myself thinking these people out-“Church of Christ” the Church of Christ, if that makes sense.  I’ve tried talking to other close friends about it, and while they see certain similarities, it’s usually too much for them.  What I see is that truths retained, often in seed form in the CofC, find their full fruition in the Catholic Church.  This is really cool for a history major like me, to see in the Catholic Church that there the whole history of Christian belief, teaching and practice are embraced, guts and all, in contrast to the CofC which tends strongly toward being ahistorical.  I think you’re right that this springs from both the Campbells and Stone’s iconoclasm (never really heard them described this way, but I believe it holds up), which the majority of modern CofC’ers have no sense of, given the lack of historical sensibility inherent within the tradition.  So yeah, I am more Catholic than I think… and here I thought it was just me that was the strange one.
First, this is all very refreshing, and exciting.  You’re figuring it out!  Second, you’ve said a lot–so I probably won’t address all your points (sorry).
There are lots of “proofs” for the Real Presence, but Jesus’ own words are sufficient.  As a CofC member, I was never fully satisfied with our denial of the Real Presence.  I was a convert to the CofC from nothing-ism in my teens, so I simply “went along” with the ministers, but I remember sitting in the pew thinking, “Why do we take Jesus literally on almost everything but not this very ‘Catholic’ position?”  I quickly learned that a lot of our beliefs were not gleaned from Scripture, but from agenda (agenda = we are not Catholic).  I had no CofC “roots”–I was a free agent to investigate other Faiths.  I initially joined the CofC because I believed that the CofC’s appeal to the “Bible only” was logical and true, but leaned that it was not only unbiblical, illogical and untrue, but an impossible goal.  I never found the “autonomous” local churches in the Bible that the CofC insists on, I never concluded that Jesus intended for people to rely ONLY on a Bible that would not exist for centuries in the future–created by an “apostate” Catholic Church.  I also realized that, even though we told ourselves over and over that we are world’s Bible experts, that we were very blind to portions of it (such as with the passages that you just mentioned).  
I wrote all of that for a reason:  the Bible, although sacred and inerrant, is only a book if it is not allowed to “speak” within the context of the living Church–the living Catholic Church–the Church that matter-of-factly created it, and has the authority to correctly interpret it. And in that context, sacramental and covenant theology become much more “insightful” endeavors to understand the family of God–the [true] Church of Christ.
And you are noticing it!  The grace of Baptism (initiation) is communicated through form and matter (not one or the other). You’ve noticed the similarities with the Eucharist, and how form and matter constitute the validity of the real sacrament.  And now, you’re learning that the sacrament of Confession is similar.
Absolutely, there are bad priests (if you are referring to the CofC’s fondness of bringing up our perverts… statistically the Catholic Church has less than Protestant ministers, cops, teachers, coaches, and parents; it’s just not P.C. to point out the facts).  A bad priest is still a priest.  Judas was bad; 1/12 of Jesus’ hand-picked Apostles were bad from the start.  The Church is not impeccable–never was–so you are right to realize that a priest’s status does not invalidate his position.  A person does not become “un-baptized” when he sins, a person does not become “un-married” when he sins, a person does not become “un-confirmed” when he sins, and a priest does not become “un-ordained” when he sins.  
True, the priest does not forgive us; Jesus forgives us.  When the priest says, “You are forgiven”, Catholics know that it is Jesus saying, “You are forgiven.”  When the pope publicly says, “I love you” and the crowd erupts in cheers, Catholics know that it is not only the pope saying it, but it is Jesus saying “I love you.”  The priest acts in persona Christi–in the person of Christ. 
The priest, given authority by the successors of the Apostles who were given authority by God, forgives sins in Christ’s name. Only in Christ’s name can sins be forgiven; “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).  The harmonizing theology regarding the Catholic stance could be stated as:  
• Jesus was given all authority by the Father (cf. Mt 28:18; Eph 1:20-22; CCC 553, 1441),
• was sent by the Father to offer forgiveness of sins (cf. Mt 9:6; Mk 2:10; Lk 5:21; CCC 1441).
• gave his authority to the Apostles (cf. Jn 13:20; 17:18;  20:21; CCC 852-62),
 •to forgive sins by the authority given to them (cf. Jn 20:23, Mt 16:19; 2 Cor: 2:10; CCC 553, 730).
Ergo, a conduit of mediation offering forgiveness of sins by virtue of a legitimately ordained priest acting in persona Christi (in the person of Christ)—a theology in perfect harmony with 1 Timothy 2:5,6; completely faithful to the meaning of the text:  “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, the testimony to which was borne at the proper time.”  These truths are often blurred in Protestant Bibles because they purposely muddy the translations (for example, the NIV’s 2 Cor 2:10 passage reads that priests are in the “presence of Christ” instead of “in the person of Christ”).
You commented on how the sacraments allow people to come to Jesus in a real way. YES!!! The Eucharist and Confession allow that–daily if you choose.  The CofC’s Baptisms are valid, and your adults do encounter grace at that moment–I’m sure you remember your own Baptism!  At least for that day, you “knew” you were walking in a holy way, a unique way, you knew God was with you. Unfortunately, that is the beginning and the end for CofC members. However, you KNEW that you would sin eventually, yet you tried to see how long you could last before you sinned.  Catholics, however, encounter Jesus every time they receive him in the Eucharist, and we encounter him every time we receive forgiveness.  We cannot live without it–nor was the Church intended to live without it.
I’m sure you, or someone you know, has at one time in his or her life wanted to be “re-baptized”.  In college, I wanted to!  My heart ached, I knew I was a sinner, and I wanted to experience Jesus in a more real way than the CofC could explain.  I’ve come to learn that man is designed to thirst, but the CofC cannot provide the drink. In other words, I’ve found that CofC’ers don’t really want re-Baptism, but rather, want something that their model doesn’t know how to identify:  Confession.  Confession is the Sacrament that I wanted, that I didn’t know how to identify, that was the elusive means of coming to Jesus that I wanted–I was trapped in a model that kept it from me, because, after all (as I was taught) “just go to Jesus yourself–you don’t need a priest–Jesus is the only mediator, etc. etc. etc.).”  Such words made “biblical” sense to a person who was already within the tribe, but I’ve come to learn that “going to Jesus” isn’t a formless state of mind, but rather, that Jesus intended for a ministerial priesthood to hear and forgive sins in His name, and going to him in the manner He intended is how one actually goes to Him.
Thanks for replying, Pat.  I’ll read and digest and we’ll visit again soon.  Know that I appreciate your effort and willingness to talk.
The remainder of the conversation is kept private.
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