Why it is more than doctrine that keeps Catholics and Protestants apart
I will never forget the first time I entered a Catholic Church and attended my first Mass. It was a strange, otherworldly experience. Not because I felt I was entering the holy of holies, but I was entering into an experience I had come to intellectually believe, but had never personally witnessed. I had lived 36 years as a Pentecostal Protestant and 13 of those as a pastor. I had spent my life trying to construct a Christian experience that was as far from the Catholic experience as one could get.
I chose to attend my first Mass while on vacation in Utah, 800 miles away from home. I had not yet gone public with my decision to become Catholic and as a pastor, I had to be cautious. As my wife and I and three daughters entered the Church, we had little idea of what to expect and it felt like everyone could tell we did not belong. I walked past a rack of missalettes and hesitated before taking one, thinking to myself, “I’m sure the locals don’t use these. I don’t want to stand out.” We sat down, and I was sure people were staring at us.
The Mass began and we tried to follow along. At times it was interesting, other times confusing. To my relief, my fear of being stared at was soon allayed. While my three daughters sat quietly and watched, a mom with three boys in front of me proceeded to draw all the attention. The boys sat on the pew, then on the floor. They faced forward and backward, laid on the pew and the floor, all while mom fed them snacks and helped them color their Joseph Smith coloring books (they were Mormon). By the end, it was clear they were not Catholic, but had come to Church with Grandma who was.
At the end of the liturgy, God gave me the greatest gift possible for my first Mass. As soon as the final song ended, the pious grandma, with the rambunctious grandsons, turned to my wife and me and said, “Hello, my name is Sharon. I can tell you are new. Would you like to join me for coffee and donuts?”
I was shocked! I could not believe it!
She seemed… normal.
She was friendly, hospitable, relational — and Catholic! After I overcame my shock, I thought to myself, “I could do this. If this is what Catholics are like, I can do this.” I was afraid that Catholics would be cold, disinterested and inhospitable, and while I eventually did find plenty of those people, I was regularly surprised how often I found zealous and engaging people with whom I could connect. She proceeded to introduce us to several people and we had a wonderful afternoon. The next day was my birthday and a group of men invited me out to breakfast and wanted to hear about my journey toward the Catholic Church. Less than 24 hours since I stepped foot in my first Catholic Church, I had met more people than some meet in a year.
Again, I thought to myself, “I could do this.” What I came to believe intellectually began to come alive experientially. Eventually, my greatest joy and experience was receiving my Lord and Savior in the Eucharist, but that is a story for another time.
I tell you this story to illustrate one of the most significant obstacles for many Protestants: the thought of being Catholic and the experience of Catholicism. Throughout the rest of this article, I would like to outline three specific that are often overlooked in discussions between Catholics and Protestants. My goal is to help Catholics realize that it is more than doctrine that keeps Catholics and Protestants apart and for many, the real obstacle is simply the thought of being Catholic. The Protestant groups I have in mind are not the shrinking traditional mainline groups, but the engaged, growing evangelical denominations and independent churches.
Authentic Witness: The First Means of Evangelization
In recent decades, there has been much talk about the relationship between content and method. Different teachers emphasize one or the other depending on where they perceive the weakness. Pope John Paul II made it very clear that method must serve content[i], but that doesn’t necessarily mean content always comes first in ecumenical and evangelistic dialogue.
On the tenth anniversary of the close of the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI set out to clarify, for all the Catholic faithful, their “mission as evangelizers”[ii] by writing Evangelii Nuntiandi. In this document he makes explicit where evangelization must begin.
“For the Church, the first means of evangelization is the witness of an authentically Christian life, given over to God in a communion that nothing should destroy and at the same time given to one's neighbor with limitless zeal. As we said recently to a group of lay people, ‘Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.’”[iii]
These words are easy to read and difficult to live. The pope is reminding us that it is extremely difficult for anyone to hear our words if our lives do not give witness to the very words we profess. While this is true for all people, it is even more important when dealing with people whose common title, Protestant, is directly oriented toward Catholics. To be Protestant, is to protest the Catholic Church.
Towards the end of the document, Paul VI echoes the Second Vatican Council in saying that, “we wish to emphasize the sign of unity among all Christians as the way and instrument of evangelization. The division among Christians is a serious reality which impedes the very work of Christ.”[iv] I assert to you that the ball is in our court. Namely, we cannot cite the deficiencies of non-Catholic Christians as the reason for continued disunity. We must be proactive and work to overcome every obstacle. This is exactly what Jesus has done for us, “But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.”[v] The Father did not wait for us to straighten our lives out before He sent His Son. The Father sent His Son to be our example for living. We must do the same: demonstrate with our lives the truth we know in our hearts.
The Experience of Holiness
There are thousands of non-Catholic Christian denominations and independent churches in the world. Have you ever wondered why there are so many? Sometimes, well meaning Catholics will point to the multiplicity of groups as a sign of the weakness and failure of Protestantism.
While there is some truth to this, that is not the main reason for the proliferation. Most groups started because there were some who became dissatisfied with the apathy and lack of holiness present and set out to start a new group that would truly live for Christ. Most of the growing sectors of Protestantism believe that Jesus should be powerfully transforming one’s life.
Herein lies a significant cultural disconnect. Since many Protestants are comfortable switching groups when holiness is lacking, they do not understand why there areso many people in Catholic churches with no visible signs of conversion. Active Protestants have a hard time understanding why the Catholic Church tolerates so many unholy people.
What they often miss is that in the Catholic Church, we truly believe what the apostle Paul said, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the parts of the body which seem to be weaker are indispensable.”[vi]
The Catholic family is just like your family: you do not get to choose who participates. When you have a family reunion, the whole family comes: the drunken uncle, the obnoxious aunt, the pleasant child and the pious grandma. The Church is the same way. We do not separate or segregate just because some people are weaker and struggling with their faith. This means that in general, engaged Protestant churches have a higher percentage of people active in their faith, while Catholic Churches can have a much lower percentage. I would assert that there are just as many active, faithful Catholics (if not more) as there are Protestants. It is just more difficult to find them because they are dispersed throughout our Churches.
For many Protestants, what they need is to see that there are active, engaged Jesus loving Catholics in the Catholic Church.
Worldview: Jesus is my personal Lord and Savior
For many active Protestants, there is a strong sense of Jesus as their personal savior. This is a good thing. Jesus does not save people in an abstract manner, but through the Incarnation has entered into the human experience to reach us at a profoundly personal level. The problem is that the personal aspect of salvation often becomes the lens through which is seen the entire Christian experience. As previously stated, there is often a lack of understanding that we are saved into the body of Christ and that we live in relation to each other.
Here are some examples of how an overly personalized view of Christianity informs a Protestant worldview (again, the growing evangelical Protestant or independent church).
Many evangelical Protestants are largely ignorant of Church history. The focus is often placed on the gospel presented in Scripture and how one is living for Jesus today. The emphasis is constantly placed on how the individual personally responds to a given Scripture and not how the whole Church has traditionally understood this Scripture. It is good to know Scripture and to personally apply it, but it makes doctrinal discussions more difficult when one is completely disconnected from a historical understanding of Scripture and doctrine.
Denominations or Churches
For many evangelical Protestants, it matters less to which denomination one belongs or which congregation one attends, as long as he is personally faithful to Jesus and living for Him. The emphasis is on faithfulness, not affiliation. In this postmodern world, denominational brand loyalty is much lower. This means it is more difficult for an evangelical Protestant to see the value of a single, universal Church, which would contain the fullness of truth.
When most people think of the Protestant approach to Scripture they think of the role of private interpretation. While this is a real issue, there is another that is often overlooked when trying to understand the obstacles and worldview of the evangelical Protestant. A Catholic understands that God can use any Scripture subjectively to encourage an individual through personal Bible reading. A Catholic also understands that certain sayings in the Bible are given objectively to certain individuals in Scripture. For example, Catholics understand that Jesus gave only Peter the keys[vii]. Many evangelical believers read these verses as representative of Jesus giving the keys to everyone, through Peter. When Jesus says in John 14:26 and 16:13 that the Holy Spirit will teach them all things and lead them to the truth, an evangelical reads that personally. There can be a personal application for a Catholic, but it is objectively speaking about the role of the Holy Spirit in the apostles and their successors (Magisterium) to guide the Church into all truth.
This personal outlook to everything means it can be difficult to talk about doctrines that require apostolic authority (pope, bishops, Confirmation, Eucharist, Holy Orders, authority, interpretation and more).There are many more examples of this, but these are sufficient to lay the foundation that the entire worldview of many Protestants is completely different that a Catholic’s and it takes time to work through this obstacle if one desires fruitful discussion.
The main point is that today, it is more than doctrine that separates Catholics and Protestants. There is a significant disconnect between the religious cultures. One’s ecclesiology and religious worldview make a huge difference in how one approaches doctrinal discussions.
Let me close by telling the story of how I came into contact with the Catholic Church and why I came back.
It was the summer of 1999 and I had just moved to Seattle, Washington to start a new congregation with my denomination. One day I started scanning radio stations to see what new talk radio I could find. I found a station and began to listen. I could tell it was religious and to my surprise, discovered it was Catholic. I had never heard of Catholic radio. I did not know any Catholics and wondered who would even listen to such a station.
As I listened for the next hour, I was captivated and very surprised. First I was surprised how unapologetically Catholic the hosts were. They talked about transubstantiation, the pope, authority, the Mass and more. They said one cannot be truly Catholic if they want to pick and chose what to believe—to be Catholic is to receive and believe the whole deposit of faith.
I was surprised at their boldness and they were clearly wrong in their doctrine (from my perspective at that moment).
What captivated me, were the two men I heard talking. They were Christ centered, evangelistic, soaked in Scripture, charitable… and Catholic. I had never met someone who was Catholic and those other things. I new many people who were Christ centered, evangelistic, soaked in Scripture and charitable, but it seemed the moment you added Catholic to that list, the other traits scattered like repelling magnets.
I was not sure how to process this. These two men were kindred spirits. I felt that if we talked over coffee we would have a lot in common, but they were Catholic.
I literally tuned back in the next day for only one reason. I wanted to see if those two men were the only excited Catholics on the planet, or if there were more of these people. To my surprise, there were more.
This one event led to years of study and reflection, which paved the way for me to leave everything behind and enter the Catholic Church.
That first day I listened to an hour of doctrinal error (from my perspective at the time), but I was captivated by their witness. I came back because of their witness. Their witness allowed me to stay long enough to begin to understand and accept the doctrine.
We must engage our separated brethren on doctrinal issues, but we must think beyond doctrine and lead with our lives. We must work hard to understand the worldview that shapes their outlook and at all times remember that it is not us, but Christ that should be the stumbling stone.[viii]
[i]CatechesiTradendae 51, 52
[v] Romans 5:8, Revised Standard Version
[vi] 1Cor 12:21-22
[vii] Mat 16:19, CCC 553
[viii] 1Cor 1:23
This article is originally found on pages 16-18 of the printed edition.