I have a confession to make: I’m not Catholic. In fact, for much of my life “Catholic” was a four-letter word. My childhood church thought heaven was going to be a small place because: (1) most other Baptists were going to hell. (2) All non-Baptist denominations were going to hell. (3) The Catholic church was hell. I was raised to believe my church was right, and pretty much no one else was. I’m happy to say that I’ve been redeemed from such sinful beliefs. And yet, being the good Protestant that I am, point number three was the final stronghold to fall in my belief system, and it held on for quite some time.
Fast forward to present day. Having recently completed the most engaging, life-changing, and eye-opening seminary class I’ve ever had the privilige of taking–on church history no less–I feel a need to clear the air, if for no other reason than that my children will not suffer from the religious bigotry that I once did.
First, we Protestants have much more in common with Catholics than we realize. I grew up believing that the 2,000 or so years between the Book of Revelation and my birth held nothing of importance. I now know that much of what we stand on in our theology and practice today comes from Catholic roots. For much of the history of the church there was no Protestant/Catholic distinction. Study the early church and you will feel very much at home with other Catholics. We believe many of the same things.
Second, we Protestants would do well to learn from Catholics; there are many ways in which they believe more truly and practice more faithfully than us. Every Protestant has made a “confession” joke at one point or another. But how many Protestants ever confess anything at all? I often wonder if it’s the Protestants who are showing up for church on Sunday and then sinning on Monday, not the Catholics. Further, the Catholic Church has made service to the poor a benchmark of its ministry for quite a long time. Sadly, it’s only a recent phenomenon that the Evangelical movement has broadly taken this type of ministry seriously. Their faith is often very deep, rich, and willing to admit that they don’t know all of the answers. There is a place for mystery in their faith that most of us know nothing about.
Finally, I wonder if we are bigoted concerning Catholicism because we don’t want to understand (or try to understand) their perspective on Scripture. One of the main problems with the idea of ‘good, solid, evangelical Christianity’ is the bubble we live in. We think that being ‘solid’ means choosing a ‘safe’ environment, something like an incubator, all warm and cozy and affirming, in which to develop our own beliefs and practices. But this is absolute nonsense. I’m talking about testing and confrontation on the ideological level. We need to have our ideas challenged, too. We need to have the categories we use to think about God broken open from time to time. We need to have our blind spots exposed. This will only happen if we’re willing to enter environments that are less like incubators and more like testing grounds. It’s in the breaking and remaking that happens in such a setting that we find our eyes opened to see again.
I often wonder if the Protestant church of the new millennium has become the Catholic church of the Reformation. If Martin Luther were alive today, would he be nailing a list of thesis to the door of the church you (or even I) attend?
My Pastor has been talking a lot lately about the idea of a “real church” and what that looks like. I am more convinced than ever that it would not necessarily have the word Protestant attached to it any more than it would the word Catholic. It would not necessarily be reformed or free, and certainly not postmodern or missional.
I’m not advocating weak theology or even tolerance. I am advocating knowledge and learning, study and openness, discussion and an end to religious bigotry. I am advocating a return to study about the history of the church lest we enter a second Dark Ages.
portions of the content for this article have been re-purposed from “Why I Chose Notre Dame” at commonjason.com, a discussion of an evangelical student’s decision to do Master’s work at a catholic institution.
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