Credibility: First-World Adventist and Roman Catholic Church Traditional Leaderships Face Similar Problems with Educated Members
by Ervin Taylor, February 13, 2017: Back in 2011, under the headline, “Competing Conferences Show Division Among U.S. Catholics,” a news story appearing in the Detroit Free Press reported that, over the weekend of June 11-12 of that year, Catholic liberals met in Detroit, Michigan. At the same time, a few miles away, Catholic traditionalists held their own series of meetings. Unlike the liberals, the conservatives came together with the support and blessing of the local Catholic archbishop. He had warned local deacons and priests to stay away from the meeting of liberals. The archbishop was quoted as saying that any member of the clergy attending the liberals’ meeting would be in danger of being defrocked.
The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life in 2008 reported that about a third of those raised Catholic in the U.S. have left the church. The exposure of the long-term abuse of children by Catholic priests had grave consequences for a number of Catholic parishes and dioceses. In the eyes of many Catholic laymen, the credibility of the Catholic hierarchy in the U.S. has never been lower. A number of Catholic intellectuals are aware that many traditional teachings of the Catholic Church are a product of issues of importance to European Medieval Christianity. These issues have, at best, a highly limited relevance in the modern Western world.
Catholic liberals and conservatives agree that their church has many problems. Both agree that at the heart of the problem is the question of what it means to be Catholic living in the modern world in the 21st Century. They agree on the nature of many of the problems. What they can’t agree on are the solutions.
The liberal Catholic meeting in downtown Detroit was sponsored by the American Catholic Council, a coordinating organization of 30 Catholic reform groups from across the U.S. The Council was asking for more democratic decision-making in the Catholic Church, as well as allowing women into the priesthood and a married priesthood. They insisted their church needs to change to survive as a viable institution in 21st-Century America and other developed countries.
The Catholic conservatives met with the sponsorship of the Archdiocese of Detroit in a Detroit suburb. Their agenda included a critique of the American Catholic Council agenda and the presentation of the official, sanctioned views of the church. A conservative spokesperson involved in the organization of the meeting of traditional Catholics was quoted as saying, “The liberals want the Catholic Church to change. But truth doesn’t change.”
Does any of this sound familiar to members of the contemporary Seventh-day Adventist (Adventist) faith tradition in North America, Europe and most First-World nations?
The Roman Catholic Church is more than a thousand years old while the Adventist Church has been in existence for less than two centuries. On the surface, it might appear these two vastly different religious institutions would have no problem in common. While their histories obviously are very different and a number of the specific issues that exist for each one may indeed be vastly divergent, surprisingly many core problems currently manifesting themselves in American Catholic circles are also increasingly plaguing the North American Adventist Church and other Adventist communities in other First-World nations. Many of the problems boil down to the degree to which contemporary traditional Catholicism for modern Catholics and contemporary traditional Adventism for modern Adventists is relevant to the real modern world where the members of both churches live and work.
One interesting observation that is generated by comparing the Roman Catholic and Adventist Churches is to contrast and compare their organizational structures in the context of the size of their respective memberships. This contrast has been pointed out several times. The Roman Catholic Church, with nearly 1.2 billion members, operates with three levels of organization: first, a series of local parishes with one or more priests; second, a series of regional dioceses with a bishop or archdioceses in major cities with an archbishop and some staff; and third, the Papal establishment in Rome where the head of the Church, the Pope, elected by a College of Cardinals, resides.
By contrast, the contemporary Adventist Church, with less than one-fiftieth of the Catholic membership, currently operates with five administrative levels in most areas. First, a series of local churches with one or more pastors (some small local churches share pastors); second, a series of local regional conferences with a president and staff; third, a series of union conferences with a president and a larger staff; fourth, a set of divisions with a president with an even larger staff; and finally, fifth, a General Conference (GC) establishment, currently located in a suburb of Washington, D.C., in the United States, where there is a president and an even larger staff. The GC president is officially “elected” at a general conference session by the delegates assembled. At least, that is what the official story is.
In fact, up until recently, the selection of the General Conference president was, for all practical purposes, in the hands of an Adventist version of the Catholic College of Cardinals. In the Adventist version, the Adventist “Cardinals” were the most powerful Division presidents plus the most powerful Union presidents from United States. The traditional criteria of who are the most powerful administrators can be related to which jurisdictions supplied the largest percentage of the funds used to keep the General Conference operating.
The membership of this functional Adventist “College of Cardinals” has been slightly modified within the last several decades as a result of dramatic increase in membership of the Adventist Church outside of North America. These new areas of much higher Adventist membership numbers are where over 90% of the claimed Adventist lay membership now resides. This is in Third World regions of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The national leadership of the Divisions and larger Union Conferences in these regions want their share of power and control of funds. One outcome of this shift was the “election” of the current GC president in 2010 and “reelection” in 2015. The contrasts and comparisons between the current head of the Roman Catholic Church and the current head of the Adventist GC is quite revealing.
In the United States, organizational and theological disputes within Adventism rarely get much coverage from the secular press because Adventist membership in North America is between one and two percent of that of American Catholicism. In addition, Adventism’s public image and name recognition is relatively low except around three or four of our major medical institutions. In addition, Adventism is widely confused with Mormonism and the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Watchtower Society in the general public consciousness.
Within official Adventism, most of the real problems are either ignored or covered over with sometimes pious platitudes. As might be expected, the institutional Adventist press, led by the house journal of the Adventist General Conference, the Adventist Review, understandably focuses on publishing materials supporting the official understanding that all problems will be solved if we could return to the days when members did not question the God-ordained leadership and accepted without question the conventional Adventist understanding of the Bible as stipulated in the writings of Ellen G. White (EGW).
According to the regime currently in place in Silver Spring, all that is needed is a reformation and revival which will return the church to the old landmarks. These were the landmarks which were accepted by almost all Adventists as valid religious markers even in North America up to about the 1960s. And then some embarrassing historical facts started to be made public.
The volume Prophetess of Health, written by a distinguished American historian, revealed the sources where EGW obtained many of her health-related ideas. For example, the information that EGW indicated that she was getting in her visions about the dangers of using some of the drugs being used at that time was right in line with the warnings of many of EGW’s contemporaries who did not claim they were receiving their information from supernatural agents.
The White Lie provided chapter and verse about where EGW and her “helpers” copied much material and then was introduced with “I was shown…” in the prophetess’ “inspired” writings. In addition, an 1845 newspaper article surfaced which described events transpiring in the house of one Israel Dammon and what one young lady by the name of Ellen Harmon was doing and saying in that house.
At about this time, scientifically educated members came to realize that the evidence provided by apologists such as George McCready Price and his successors at the Adventist General Conference Geoscience Research Institute, in their attempts to salvage Adventism’s adherence to a fundamentalist Young Life creationism, was being built up with scientifically untenable arguments.
There was, in addition, the decision of a widely-admired Adventist evangelist and theologian, Dr. Desmond Ford, to go public with information that had been well known to many Adventist theologians for many decades. It was that the centerpiece of traditional Adventist theology, the Investigative Judgment, could not stand careful scrutiny if one wished to support it only with biblical texts. The fact was that this doctrine of the Adventist Church was supported only by a tradition which had been endorsed by the Adventist prophetess, EGW.
Conservative Adventists had always criticized the Roman Catholic Church for holding theological views on the basis of tradition, not on the basis of the Bible. In making the Investigative Judgment doctrine the core piece of Adventist theology, Adventism had committed the same error that they had charged the Roman Catholic faith with making. The reaction of the Adventist establishment to the public revelations of Ford was entirely predictable. They had to get rid of him, and they were able to get him dismissed from the Adventist clergy. In Australia, that act resulted in fully one-third of all Adventist pastors leaving the Adventist clergy. This episode was one of the most disgraceful episodes in the history of the Adventist Church and one of the most illuminating about the true agenda of Adventist conservatives.
To be even-handed, Catholic liberal scholars over the last several hundred years, and especially after the Vatican II Council have raised a number of questions pointing out what they see as problems of a number of Roman Catholic beliefs that needed to be rethought. The Catholic Church’s official attitude toward birth control is usually the first mentioned. Depending on which scholar one quotes, some of these official Catholic dogmas which have been targeted include the view that the Pope, when speaking ex cathedra, can exercise infallible authority. Another is the problem of the veneration given to Mary, the mother of Jesus. In the view of some Catholic liberals, the practices involved in Mariolatry, as they term it, creates a lot of theological credibility problems among educated Catholics in the Western World. The election of the present Pope, Francis, to replace the very conservative Benedict XVI, is widely viewed among Catholic liberals and progressives as evidence that some group high up in the Catholic Church had finally got at least a part of their message. The question was how much even Francis could accomplish in the face of traditional Catholic opposition.
Thus obviously, many of the specific issues are very different but, may I submit, the spirit that animates conservative traditionalists in their objections to the stand of liberals both in Adventism and Catholicism has a number of elements in common. Several years ago, this was vividly illustrated when the Los Angeles Times published letters received from traditional Catholics responding to an article entitled “Faithful, Yet Not Traditional Catholics.” One letter read: “For someone to reject the core beliefs of an organization yet claim to be part of that organization flies in the face of logic, reason and common sense … If people want to call themselves Catholics, they are obliged to accept the teachings and the authority of the church. If they want to leave the church, there is nothing to stop them. But if they leave, they’re no longer Catholics and should not identify themselves as such.” The second letter writer comments, “The individuals described in the Times’ article defiantly invent a right to select whichever theological principles to accept or reject. To what are they being faithful? If they have the power to ignore certain doctrinal precepts of the church, then which ones should be followed? These breakaway Catholics argue that the church is not inclusive enough. This is merely code for the concept that the church will not change its doctrine to suit their ego-driven behavior. Without standards, the church is nothing more than a social fraternity…” If one substituted “Adventists” for “Catholics,” in these letters and changed not one other word, most Adventist traditionalists would fully and completely resonate with all of the views expressed.
On the surface, Roman Catholic and Adventist clerical administrative authorities may appear to have few problems in common. On the contrary, many of their core problems are very similar. An example: How to keep an educated membership in an open society from increasing their influence and raising so many questions about the validity of traditional theology and polity that the ability of the institutional church to influence opinions and continue to receive income from members will be severely damaged. This is probably relatively simple to deal with in most Third World environments. In the First World, the strains created by this process can be easily seen and can only get worse. It appears that today, Adventists living in the First World are indeed “Living in Interesting Times.”
Ervin Taylor is Emeritus Professor of Anthropology and Past Director of the Radiocarbon Laboratory at the University of California, Riverside. He is also currently a Visiting Professor at the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA and Visiting Scientist at the Keck Carbon Cycle Accelerator Mass Spectrometry Laboratory at the University of California, Irvine. He has served as the Executive Editor of Adventist Today.