A summing up and a personal word on my own experiences of Catholicism.
I hope that you, the reader, have found this short introduction to Roman Catholicism worthwhile and useful. It serves as a simple introduction to what is a vast subject.
My respect for Catholics
This is my personal reply to Dave Armstrong’s article My respect for Protestants. Dave is a former Protestant, now Catholic who has written several books on Catholic apologetics. Please check out the link for further information. Dave’s words are in bold and my reply follows.
“I greatly admire and respect conservative, orthodox Protestantism. I once was an evangelical Protestant, and praise God for that experience, which was exceedingly beneficial to my spiritual advancement and theological education. I now consider myself an evangelical Catholic.”
Evangelicals are by nature, people concerned with the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the impact that gospel has on the lives of men and women. The term is not just confined to Protestants. In the Catholic devotion to the ‘Divine Mercy’, Christ reveals to Saint Faustina that:
“The loss of each soul plunges Me into mortal sadness. You always console Me when you pray for sinners. The prayer most pleasing to Me is prayer for the conversion of sinners.”
The increasing secularisation of our society and decline of Christian belief in some parts of the West has meant renewed calls for evangelism amongst Catholic and Protestant alike. I admire conservative, Orthodox Catholicism. I admire it for its stance against pluralism, secularism and relativism, amongst other things.
“Catholics can benefit greatly from much of Protestantism. I hope to show that the converse is also true. My goal is to build bridges of understanding among Christians of all stripes, who are brothers in Christ (John 17:20-23). Catholics believe that the fullness of apostolic Christianity resides in their Church, but this does not at all mean that great, profound amounts of truth and goodness are not to be found in other Christian communions as well. All validly baptized Christians are our brothers and sisters in Christ, and ought to be accorded the proper amount of respect befitting that status, as well as charity at all times.”
Yes, Protestants can learn from Catholicism ! One way in which this could be done is a greater appreciation of our shared Christian History. History should draw us together, not apart. History should teach us that God’s spirit has worked in the church since its inception. The Spirit never deserts the church, it is present within, drawing us into the heart of God himself. That is the exciting part !
Note especially Dave’s comment that “All validly baptized Christians are our brothers and sisters in Christ”. This is precisely the attitude that came out of the Vatican II council. If that is true, can we do anything less than work together as part of the ‘Body of Christ’ ? Perhaps a quote from the Apostle Paul would explain it best:
“That there might be no schism in the body: but the members might be mutually careful one for another. And if one member suffer any thing, all the members suffer with it: or if one member glory, all the members rejoice with it. Now you are the body of Christ and members of member.”
1 Corinthians 12:25-27 (DRB).
Truth is truth, wherever it is found. This must be acknowledged and indeed, emphasised. The respect that is due then, I believe flows naturally.
“Ecumenism is a great emphasis in the Catholic Church today, especially with Pope John Paul II, and one stressed by Vatican II and the last several popes. What is ecumenism if not attempting to find common ground with our non-Catholic Christian brethren?”
Absolutely – and the discovery that Protestants and Catholics have so much ‘common ground’ should come as no great surprise to either party. It is my sincere belief that we need each other.
“That is my attitude towards Protestantism in general. I continue to admire it, and believe that Catholics can learn much from it, for the simple reason that it possesses much Christian and biblical truth, and because individual Protestants (or even denominations) often excel (especially in practice) at particular aspects of the Christian life or theology (e.g., Bible study, prayer, outreach, teen ministry, fellowship) in a way that puts Catholics to shame.”
Kind words indeed and thank you, Dave for them. I’ve seen at first hand the wonderful work carried out by Bible-based Protestants. Who can forget the Salvation Army, for example, whose founder William Booth (1829-1912) proclaimed on his last public address:
“While women weep, as they do now, I’ll fight; while little children go hungry, as they do now, I’ll fight; while men go to prison, in and out, in and out, as they do now, I’ll fight; while there is a drunkard left, while there is a poor lost girl upon the streets, while there remains one dark soul without the light of God, I’ll fight – I’ll fight to the very end!”
I will reciprocate Dave’s comments: I admire Catholicism and believe Protestants can learn from it. Take for example the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) – everything you could ever need to know about Catholic belief is in there. Some of the sections can be studied and applied by Protestants to enrich their Christian life. For example, here is what it has to say about Man and his search for God:
“The desire for God is written in the human heart, because man is created by God and for God; and God never ceases to draw man to himself. Only in God will he find the truth and happiness he never stops searching for: The dignity of man rests above all on the fact that he is called to communion with God. This invitation to converse with God is addressed to man as soon as he comes into being. For if man exists it is because God has created him through love, and through love continues to hold him in existence. He cannot live fully according to truth unless he freely acknowledges that love and entrusts himself to his creator.”
“There is a right way to disagree and a wrong way. We are to love at all times, but there are also occasions when we must disagree, in principle. The latter is not exclusive of the former, and indeed, it ought to always incorporate it, if we are to conduct ourselves in a manner worthy of a disciple of Jesus Christ. We all fall frequently, of course, but the biblical guidelines for handling disagreements (doctrinal or otherwise) are clear and straightforward:”
“Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, who is Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly, makes bodily growth and upbuilds itself in love.”
Ephesians 4:15-16 (RSV)
I totally agree. Our disagreements should never lead us to lose sight of our common understandings, as part of the body of Christ.
“For as the body is one and hath many members; and all the members of the body, whereas they are many, yet are one body: So also is Christ. For in one Spirit were we all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Gentiles, whether bond or free: and in one Spirit we have all been made to drink.”
1 Corinthians 12:12-13 (DRB).
Statue of John Paul II, Catedral de la Almudena, Madrid.
What is my own personal experience of Catholicism ?
My personal experience of Catholicism stretches back some 5 years: from attending Mass occasionally, to visiting the Marian shrine at Walsingham and reading Catholic books such as the The imitation of Christ*. I have received much warmth and friendliness from many Catholic believers and have seen the undoubted devotion to God within many of them. What began for me as a journey of understanding, still continues today. I am and expect to remain a Protestant, yet I have opened my heart to a greater understanding of the Catholic church. I welcome ecumenism, as I do the sharing of common worship and prayer.
* The Imitation of Christ is a spiritual classic and one of most popular of all devotionals. Written by Thomas a Kempis (c.1380-1471), it describes how a Christian should seek to achieve spiritual growth by learning from Christ’s example. A full copy of the Imitation is available for download in PDF format (file size 652K). To view the file, you will require the free Adobe Reader. To download, right click and choose “Save Link As…” or “Save Target As…”.
Perhaps a defining moment for me occurred with my discovery of the general rule that non-Catholics are not allowed to receive communion in a Catholic church. There are a few exceptions, such as grave illness, but the general rule is that so-called intercommunion between Protestants and Catholics is forbidden. This whole issue was my launchpad – what is the rationale behind this exclusion ? Well, in the section ‘The Sacraments’, we saw that the Mass is of vital importance for all Catholics – it is the supreme sacrament, and like all sacraments, it conveys grace to whoever participates in it worthily. The Reformation resulted in divergent ideas about the presence of Christ in the Eucharist and a general rejection of the Catholic beliefs around it. The Catholic church views the Eucharist as a sign of unity of belief and practice, so simply put, those who are not in full communion with the church cannot participate in it. This view is also taken by the Orthodox churches.
Both Catholics and Protestants may find much to disagree on, but they agree on what C.S. Lewis termed Mere Christianity. The last 30 years or so has seen a great deal of work in promoting a shared understanding in this area. Let us focus on our shared heritage and realise that in Christ, our hope is found. Jesus’ own prayer in John 17 provides us with something to start from.
John 17 is a prayer for unity – a unity grounded in Christ. With that in mind, I thoroughly recommend the Catholic Stations of the Cross as a form of meditation and reflection.
Perhaps the most remarkable event in recent times regarding Catholic and Protestant relations was the Vatican II council (1962-5), which did much to foster the attitude of mutual respect and understanding. The Vatican II documents are all available online.
In response to a question about salvation on the Catholic View web site, I received this wonderful answer:
“Salvation can be had by obeying, through faith, what the Lord has taught us. We must trust that Jesus Christ paid for our salvation. If you believe this, and live a good, Christian life you will be welcomed into the sacred kingdom of heaven. When Judgment Day comes, when we stand before the Lord, He will ask us if we followed His commandments, if we lived according to what He taught, and if we love and honor God and Himself, not what denomination we follow. Go in peace, continue to live a clean life by walking in the footsteps of Jesus. And always remember, our doors are always open. God bless you. – CatholicView Staff.”
I believe the words below from John Wesley sum everything up and are a lesson for all Christians, no matter what their differences. Wesley had an excellent friendship with Richard Challoner, a well-known Catholic prelate and contemporary.
“…Let us resolve, first, not to hurt one another, to do nothing unkind or unfriendly to each other… Let us resolve, secondly, God being our helper, to speak nothing harsh or unkind of each other… to say all the good we can, both of and to one another… Let us, thirdly, resolve to harbour no unkind thought, no unfriendly temper towards each other… Let us, fourthly, endeavour to help each other on in whatever we are agreed leads to the Kingdom. So far as we can, let us always rejoice to strengthen each other’s hands in God.”
Extract from John Wesley’s Ecumenical Letter to Catholics, 1749.
We are all part of Christ’s body, brothers and sisters for whom Christ died, and for whom love has been revealed in a wonderful way.