NOTE: This piece is similar to an essay on Catholicism I wrote two years ago, but the differences are significant. Read them both. There has been some evolution in the meantime. My apologies to the Catholic bashers who will get upset at this piece. Maybe you shouldn’t read it.
I was born in 1956, so when I was in elementary school, I dimly remember the image of “good” Pope John XXIII appearing on the television, and the image of Paul VI is impressed in my mind from many pictures throughout my high school and college years. In those days, I couldn’t have told you what a Pope was or what Catholics believed, because I was still submerged in a world where the one thing my family and peers could always say to justify themselves as better than others was “We aren’t Catholic.”
My education regarding Catholicism ran something like this: Catholics aren’t saved, and if you marry a Catholic girl the priest will take your babies. Catholics worship Mary, not Jesus. They pray to dead people and worship statues. They baptize babies and speak in Latin. Anyone who used to be a Catholic and is now a Christian will tell you that Catholicism is a big racket to make money. They drink and play Bingo, then go to confession and expect everything to be alright. The Pope is dedicated to taking over the world and destroying all non-Catholics. They call church mass. Their schools make their kids dress up every day. They have to eat fish on Friday. Read this Chick comic book and it will explain everything, but stay away from Catholics yourself.
Further down the road, I picked up more substantial doctrinal differences than this caricature, but the preceding paragraph always furnished the bright, flashing background of what I knew of Catholicism, as it does for many of my friends and readers today.
Of course, in my town, a third of the residents were Catholics, so I was doomed to cross paths with them sooner or later. I knew a few Catholic kids at public school. We resented them because they took off days with the Catholic school kids. But I didn’t really know any Catholics well, until I became friends with the Ivey family down the street. Jim, their youngest son, was my age, loved basketball as I did, and soon became one of my constant companions.
Hanging around the Ivey household for several years, I can verify the following: Catholics do go to mass. They rarely go to confession. They do drink beer. They don’t understand a thing about the Baptist notion of “getting saved.” I never saw a Bible in the house. I heard no prayers to Mary. I did see pictures and small plastic statues of Jesus, Mary and some guys I assume were saints. There seemed to be a lot of fundraisers that involved barbecue. They were really serious about having their kids in Catholic schools and baptizing their grandchildren. They never tried to make me into a Catholic. They prayed before meals and seemed like very nice people. I took them all to a Billy Graham movie once and no one had the slightest idea what it meant.
I’ll admit that I went to mass with the Ivey’s on one occasion, the wedding of an older sibling. I was so freaked out by whatever was going on up front that I exited myself to the porch of the church as soon as possible. When people started going forward to receive communion, I assumed it was an invitation, and I wanted to be nowhere in the vicinity. If the rapture happened I was in the wrong place.
By the time I was a sophomore in high school, I was a new Christian, and some of the Christian kids in our “CSU” at school were Catholics. “Witnessing opportunity” was how I looked at it. So in the name of evangelism, I dated a Catholic girl, easily one of the more dangerous things I ever did. Carolyn was a great person, and we had a super time going out. So good, in fact, that I contemplated if I were willing to pay the price of coming out of the closet and revealing to my church and parents that I was dangerously close to offering up my babies on the altar of a possible relationship with a Catholic girl. Alas, we called the whole thing off. Too much pressure on both of us from the real world. She married a doctor, which I’m pretty sure was adequate compensation for losing me. (That’s sarcasm.)
Around the same time, the Charismatic movement entered our community, and through a strange series of events, I wound up going to a weekly charismatic prayer meeting at a Catholic church Parrish hall. While all denominations were present, the Catholics were the majority, and my long-ingrained prejudices were in trouble. These weren’t the Catholics I’d been told about. Nosirree Bob.
No mention of Mary and the saints. Bibles everywhere. Testimonies of experiences with God were common. Hands in the air. Choruses. Tongues. Frequent healing prayer and manifestations of “Pentecostal stuff” were common as well. The priest in charge was “on fire” for God, as we used to say. They sang songs to and about Jesus, not Mary. It was a Christ-centered, joy-filled time of prayer, worship and fellowship. These Catholics were acting like the evangelists at our church always tried to get us to act. Saved and happy about it. It seemed that combining Pentecostal theology with Roman Catholicism yielded real Christians.
My worldview was crumbling. First friends, then a girl, now my fellow Christians. All Catholics and all quite different from what I’d been told. The Pope was out to get me.
The next step was indeed sinister. Even as a young Christian, I was a reader of Christian books and a fan of contemporary Christian music, and I was particularly susceptible to the lure of the Christian bookstore. The local “Baptist Book Store” was my fix, but soon the plot thickened. A Catholic bookstore opened, and with the innocence of a Protestant wandering into a cathedral, I was lured in by the promise of John Michael Talbot albums.
I discovered two things. First, books. Excellent Catholic books, classical and contemporary. The names didn’t mean much at the time, but over the years I would become acquainted with many Catholic writers, as well as discovering that Catholics liked C.S. Lewis, J.I. Packer and many other Protestants authors. (I also noted a complete absence of polemical and poisonous anti-Protestant bile in print. Since I was used to seeing the anti-Catholic version of this at my church, I was impressed. The “chip on the shoulder” seemed to be a one-way street.)
Second, I discovered delightful Catholic people, who soon became my friends. The two ladies who owned the store were particularly friendly to me, and once they were aware that I was a Baptist prodigal wandering far from my own bookstore, they became as helpful as possible. They answered questions and recommended books, so that my ignorance was rapidly repaired. They became people I genuinely counted as sisters in the Lord.
Soon I discovered that almost everything I had been told was wrong, or at least perversely misstated; that the Catholic church was in a tremendous state of flux as it came to grips with the effects of Vatican II. Most shocking of all, I discovered that I was considered a Christian in good standing by my Catholic friends. Since I was still surrounded by a majority of family and friends who thought Catholics were rank unbelievers who only accepted those who kissed the papal ring as saved, this was quite a shock.
It was in this bookstore that I also discovered something that is intangible, but quite real to me, even to this day. The best way I know to describe it is with an illustration. The Catholic church was deep. Deep in history. Deep in spirituality. Deep in its appreciation of culture. Deep in its engagement with human life. The Catholic church seemed like a great river, the Mississippi perhaps. Deep and wide, with the accumulated brush and trash of many years, but with such a depth and volume of water that it was still majestic and powerful.
My own tradition seemed shallow. Like a creek or a stream. Yes, it might contain purer water (or not), but it was not deep and did not want to be deep. It bubbled and gurgled on the rocks of excitement. It seemed to want to be far away from the world, a small stream unconnected to the river. It was not, however, a river. The fact is, of course, the stream and the river are connected. They cannot deny the connection, even if they do not want to talk about it. If nothing else, both are headed for the sea.
My illustration breaks down in many ways, but I hope you understand the idea and feeling behind it. It’s quite subjective, but it is very real to me as I consider the Catholic church now. The greatness and vast scope of Catholicism dwarfed my own tradition. As a Landmark Baptist, I had been exposed to our own contrived version of Baptist history, invented for the purpose of countering the historical claims of Catholicism and Campbellism.
My Baptist tradition stressed evangelism to the point that everything else served the purpose and cause of evangelism. Prayer was evangelism or it was worthless. Worship was evangelism. Music was evangelistic. The spiritual life was the soul-winning life. The paradigm for all the Christian experience was winning others. This kind of “wretched urgency” was not present in the Catholic church, and I had been told that this was a great deficiency. In fact, it was a different focus and a healthy, dare I say, more Biblical focus on God. I had to admit that despite all I had been told, and all the flaws that I could observe myself, the Catholic church was seemingly far more God-centered than my own church.
Perhaps it was the fact that Catholics had not eliminated the arts. Perhaps it was the ancient spiritual tradition of monasticism I read about in Thomas Merton. Perhaps it was the obviously Spirit-filled people I was meeting as I tentatively explored the world outside of my Baptist ghetto. Perhaps it was the sense that the Catholic church somehow originally “owned” so much of the faith that we as Protestants were using, and we Baptists just couldn’t admit it. I can’t put my finger on it. All I know is that my encounter with the God-centeredness and depth of Catholicism stood in stark contrast to the shallow pragmatism and manipulative evangelism of my own tradition.
The great attraction of Catholicism for me wasn’t its doctrinal correctness. Like an elderly grandparent, the church believed a lot I could never believe. But I was attracted to its maturity and beauty. It’s confidence in God rather than in human urgency and zealotry. Even among those who were living lives of amazing sacrifice, there was a quiet, settled center that I found wonderful. Merton experienced it in his conversion, and I could sense it whenever I came near to Catholic spirituality and tradition.
“Tradition” is an important item in my enlightenment and acceptance of Catholicism. I knew that Catholic bashers never tired of pointing out that we believed only what the Bible taught, and paid no attention to tradition. “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” Right. “Tradition” was one of those words preachers spit out with disgust, right alongside “religion.” But I was far enough down the road now to realize that my Baptist experience had all kinds of traditions that we reverenced as untouchable, yet we did not want to admit the truth. We waved our Bibles around and then stayed safely within the traditions we’d received from our culture, our denomination and our churches. (Listing those traditions is another essay, or a comment thread, but if you haven’t figured out that Protestants of every kind are steeped in their own traditions, you need to wake up.)
I particularly benefited from coming to see that Catholics believed in openly acknowledging the interaction between scripture and tradition. Though they gave authority to church traditions and papal encyclicals that I could never agree with, I appreciated the fact that you could talk about tradition with Catholics. They understood that the Bible didn’t canonize itself, and that the doctrine of the Trinity isn’t explicitly found in the second chapter of Philemon. Holding scripture and tradition in a kind of tension, with both influencing the other, makes tremendous sense, and always has, even though in the end, I cannot agree with the position of the Catholic church on how the authority of tradition stands in relation to the authority of scripture. (It seems to me that the church has created for itself a conundrum where scripture can never correct tradition, and therefore the church is doomed to an accumulation of errors that can never be totally reversed.)
Bu the time I was out of college, I had begun going to two monasteries regularly for personal retreats. I was reading as much Thomas Merton as I could get my hands on. I took church history in seminary from Dr. Timothy George and saw the Catholic church from an intelligent, truly “catholic,” but reformed standpoint. I was attending mass several times a year in order to understand the liturgy and worship of the church. I came a long way under George’s astute guidance and through reading Catholic books and talking with Catholic friends. I especially found help in Catholic Biblical scholars like Raymond Brown, who were unsurpassed in their scholarly approach to the Biblical text.
I came to better understood the place of Mary in Catholic theology (bad) and devotion (not as bad), and the ambivalence of many American Catholics to Marian excesses in other countries. I finally understood the difference between veneration and worship. Sacramentalism began to become clearer to me. I came to see the saints as the teachers of the church down through the ages. I saw the hierarchy of the church not just as a chain of authority by-passing the Bible, but as pastoral leaders, teaching and shepherding the flock. I was confirmed in my disagreements with Catholic beliefs in many places, but I came to see that Catholics who believed their faith did, along with their errors, believe that Jesus Christ was the only savior, mediator and Lord, and that faith in that Christ was the essence of Christianity. I could say the Apostle’s Creed with my Catholic friends with confidence that we were part of one and the same church. While we would never agree on the precise understanding of justification, we believed that God was just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
I realize this puts me opposite many of my Protestant, Baptist and Calvinistic friends. I want to assure them that I have not overlooked the many errors and injustices perpetuated by the Roman Church. I understand them well. I agree that the church of Rome maintains the errors that prevent true unity among Christians, especially in maintaining the infallibility of the Pope. But Protestants have grievous errors of our own, and our insistence on sola scriptura does not erase the fact that it is the Catholic Church that gave us the first 400 years of Christianity, and all that comes to us in those early years. We may be a divided family, but we are a family. I cannot speak for the salvation of every Catholic, or every Christian, but I will continue to receive my Catholic friends as they have received me: as a brother in Jesus Christ.
Of course, I lived through the deaths of Paul VI and John Paul I. With more understanding of Catholicism, I identified greatly with what the church was going through in those tumultuous days. The selection of John Paul II was earthshaking at the time, and as I close this essay, I want to say a few words about what this Pope meant to my faith as an evangelical Christian.
The Pope is the most visible Christian leader in the world. It is in the interest of Christians everywhere that he be a man devoted to Jesus Christ and aware of the witness of the Gospel in this broken world. The Pope can be a bureaucrat heading up an organization, or he can be a witness and a shepherd of the flock. John Paul II was that witness and that shepherd. He was a deeply devoted Christian, unafraid to witness and ready to suffer. He was a hero to many of us, and I am not ashamed to say I aspire to live and die as well as he did.
Even with his traditional Catholicism and intense, mystical devotion to Mary, it was not hard to see that Christ and the cross were centerpieces in the Pope’s Christian vision. He was firmly committed to issues of life, justice and peace, and these commitments grew out of a definitively Christian worldview. He frustrated many of the liberal theologians and activists in America and Europe, because he not only refused to discuss the more liberal, radical currents of post-Vatican II Catholicism, he banned the discussion of many of those topics. After 26 years and thousands of appointments in the church, John Paul left the church far more orthodox and classically Catholic than ever before. The church is still wounded and embattled, but where would it be without him? In a secular, relativistic age, he was a prophet, standing against a cold wind of nihilism and materialism, lifting high the cross.
As a young man, I had been taught that Catholics prayed to saints and cowered before popes. I still understand that certain kinds of lay Catholicism can go to bizarre excesses in their adoration of human beings. What I didn’t understand then, and do understand now, is that Catholicism really believes in the presence of the Holy Spirit in the church, just as Protestants do. But the Catholic Church will point to those whose lives have given evidence of the presence of the Spirit, and direct the church to note those lives as windows and teachers of Christ. I am sure there are Catholics who don’t understand this and go to excess, like there are Baptists that don’t understand that walking the aisle isn’t salvation. Still, the whole of Catholic teaching says that the Christian can look at the lives of all those diverse saints and shepherds, and see the Holy Spirit at work in our world. The saints are “little Christs,” and I know few Protestants who do not, in some way, recognize this reality in some way.
In other words, the church isn’t designating people to be worshiped. It is telling the world that these lives proclaim the truth of the Gospel and show the love of God. Imitate them. Learn from them. Be inspired by them. Protestants don’t do this, of course. And as a result, we have our own “saints”: Christian celebrities, CCM artists, megachurch pastors, TV preachers and best-selling authors. Who would you rather be the examples for your church? The current CCM Top 40, or the saints whose days populate the Christian calendar?
The search for a Pope is a way of seeking God’s spiritual guidance and presence in his church now. It may seem to Protestants to be an insult to scripture, but I can recall pastor search committees whose rhetoric often sounded as serious as Cardinals seeking a pontiff. The Cardinals and all Catholics know that the Pope may not be a saint now or ever, but they are willing to gamble on God’s commitment to His church on earth. I think with John Paul II they did extremely well. God was with him. Errors and all- and yes, his Marian devotion was offensive- John Paul carried high the cross of Christ to more than 120 countries and before millions of people. I know that many evangelicals feel he was our Pope, too, because he stood for so many of the truths of the whole church and the true Gospel.
Catholic bashing is a sport that will always be popular among Protestants. It is the type of teenage behavior one expects from kids who leave home after a big fight. It’s not necessary, and even when we take stock of the many serious issues that separate us, we still say the same Apostle’s Creed, worship the same Trinity, share the same first four centuries of the church and believe in the same Christ of John 3:16. I prefer to acknowledge this unity. I don’t care if you don’t. I’m rewarded without applause on this one, I assure you.
Today, Catholic apologists like Scott Hahn are bringing more converts to Rome than ever before. I won’t be one of them, though when I walk in a Lifeway store and see more Prayer of Jabez books I have to laugh. Pope Rick Warren the Great rules in the Vatican City of evangelical publishing. The small streams of evangelicalism are sometimes so polluted that the river- with all its accumulated pollutants- still seems far more appealing. I have decided to wish the Roman Catholic Church well. I have decided to accept the kindnesses shown to me and to enjoy the status given me in the new Catholic Catechism- separated brother. As much as I can, I won’t be separated. I am part of the church Catholic, and I pray that the new Pope will be a shepherd and teacher of all Christians.
I believe one can be wrong about much doctrine, yet still trust Christ, know Christ, show Christ and belong to Christ. Chesterton. St. Francis. Augustine. Merton. John Paul II. Many of my Catholic friends. I expect to see them all in the Kingdom, and in the meantime, I count them as my friends here on the pilgrim way.
(If you haven’t read the Catechism of the Catholic Church, I suggest you purchase a copy, or read an online version, and discover for yourself what Roman Catholics believe.)