Regular readers will be familiar with quasi-Catholicism, a term coined by Anthony to describe the phenomenon of theologically educated Christians who deeply admire the Roman Catholic Church and even ascribe it a certain degree of practical authority, yet do not actually become Roman Catholic. In milieux such as Anglican or Lutheran confessions, such a stance is perhaps understandable as a kind of drive toward unity that recognizes we’re not quite there yet, but in more evangelical settings, it is arguably much more strange. After all, most evangelical groups have tended to have a deep suspicion of the RCC and are generally very congregational in practice if not in explicit polity — reflecting a more “democratic” ethos that distrusts hierarchical authority and intellectual elites.
Yet it is precisely this last aspect that may explain why intellectually-oriented evangelicals are attracted to Roman Catholicism (and here I would claim some personal insight, as I was at one time an intellectually-oriented evangelical and actually converted to Roman Catholicism, albeit without the intermediation of academic “quasi-Catholic” discourse). Think of how the RCC appears to someone in an anti-intellectual evangelical setting — a place where there is a clear line of authority, where theology has a chance of becoming enforcible doctrine, where education in general is highly valued and intellectual authorities have a great deal of day-to-day power, where ministers must go through a rigorous program of study and formation rather than relying on personal charisma, etc. This is somewhere they could feel welcome, finally! What’s more, this is somewhere that people like them are in charge, rather than being a marginalized and distrusted element. Surely, this is how things should be, this is what “the church” that is “really the church” looks like!
Why not become Roman Catholic, then? Well, frankly, there is a lot of “weird shit” going on in actual existing Roman Catholicism, especially from the perspective of evangelicals — devotion to Mary and the saints, folksy practices that appear to be both “unbiblical” and “superstitious,” etc. The irony here is great, since the power of the binding authority that evangelical quasi-Catholics so badly want to exist has been established in the modern era precisely in relationship to the Marian doctrines that an evangelical cannot accept. So the RCC becomes a kind of fantasy-object, a model for the idealized evangelical version of “the church” that the quasi-Catholic intellectual would create and enforce if given half the chance.
Now I realize that I’ll get some defensive comments here, so I want to be clear that I’m talking about gut-level appeal rather than conscious belief. Obviously intellectually-oriented people are very good at coming up with compelling intellectual reasons for what they’re doing. But given that it’s young adults who tend to become “quasi-Catholic,” it doesn’t seem implausible or offensive to me to think that there is more going on here than objective assessment of the theological data. This gut-level appeal may also explain why “the church” is such a third rail among theology bloggers — what one is challenging in critiquing the fashionable strong ecclesiology is not an actual existing institution or a “regulative ideal” to which that institution should aspire, but the quasi-Catholic intellectuals’ fantasy of their own power and authority.