Some Catholics Just Don’t Understand: Thoughts on the New Evangelization

Posted: February 18, 2013 in Catholic Worship, Church History, Church Organization, Prayer, Rosary, Saints, Scripture
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In my conversations with Protestants and fellow Catholics, in my own experience leaving and returning to the Catholic faith, and especially in watching my wife on her journey to Rome, one thing has become painfully clear. 20130218-213114.jpgMost faithful Catholics simply do not understand Protestant reasoning. Moreover, they fail to grasp the degree to which anti-catholic sentiment truly reaches. Even for those who recognize on some level the opposition to Catholicism, too often they can’t wrap their brains around the notion that many catholic practices that they assumed were universally held would actually be repulsive to some otherwise faithful Christians.

A clarification is in order. In using the term “anti catholic,” I don’t mean to imply that fundamentalist Christians hold any hatred or malice toward Catholics (though undoubtedly, some do hate what they believe the church teaches and practices). Rather, I simply mean that they are opposed to the catholic faith. At times, vehemently so.

Rocking the Cradle

For cradle Catholics, who have grown up in the faith, many practices that are uniquely catholic seem perfectly normal to them. Nearly everyone they associate with do the same things, so there’s never been any reason to question them. Even for many converts to the faith, after making the decision to become catholic and to enter into full communion with the church, the truths of the faith have become so clear to them that they, too, begin wonder why it’s not so obvious to everyone.

Catholics read the words of The Lord’s Prayer and think, “well, what Christian on Earth can have a problem with that?” Meanwhile, many fundamentalist Christians are disgusted by what they call vain and repetitious prayer, which Jesus warns us against (Matthew 6:7). The same is true for such seemingly innocuous things like the sign of the cross, holy water, the tabernacle, priests’ vestments, opulent church buildings; the list goes on and on. So much of Catholicism is so foreign to many American Protestants that they can’t get through the vestibule without being overcome with disgust.

Impetus Impeded

After months and months of intense bible study and reading of history, my wife became convinced that the catholic church truly was the one true church. But even with all of the knowledge she had gained and the amazing conclusions she had come to, after she attended her first Mass she worried she would not be able to continue, so deeply ingrained were the notions that catholic practices were unscriptural and wrong and yes, even evil.

While this seems outrageous and unthinkable to the cradle catholic, it’s a very real impediment to the acceptance of Catholicism by many non Catholics. Too many Catholics are surprised to learn that most fundamentalists don’t even consider them to be Christians, which is why fundamentalists are so adept at convincing many Catholics to leave the faith. They never see it coming.

Legitimate Concerns?

The truth is, independent bible church and fundamentalist Christians have very real and very (they think) legitimate concerns and objections to the Catholic Church. While I have come to the conclusion that these objections are ultimately flawed, I can nonetheless understand why they feel the way they do, especially in light of the fact that these thoughts and misgivings about Catholicism have been ingrained into their heads for generations. Going further, I believe that all catholics should make an attempt to understand why good, God-fearing people would object to Catholicism.

For example, fundamentalists are abhorred by the notion that Catholics worship statues. Now, every catholic knows that they don’t, and quickly dismisses this as a complete misunderstanding of catholic practices and doctrine. However, at the same time, they ignore what fundamentalists see as the underlying issue of idolatry and the apparent biblical prohibition against graven images.

When an unprepared catholic is confronted with a passage that explicitly states that you must not make any image of anything in heaven or on the earth or in the sea, they are easily taken aback. The verses from Exodus 21:4-5 look pretty damning (literally, in this case) to the Catholic church. When taken alone and outside of the context of the entire Bible and Judeo-Christian history, it would seem that this passage condemns the Catholic use of statues.

And that’s just one verse. There is a plethora of so-called “proof texts” that are used to supposedly invalidate Catholic teaching or to prove other denominations’ positions. Jesus’ exhortation to “call no man father” comes to mind, as do a host of others too numerous to address here.

Herein lies the problem with proof texts: they don’t tell the whole story. At the same time, though, when presented out of context they can easily trip up the unsuspecting catholic. Countless cradle catholics have been swayed by these arguments, including myself.

Old, Weird and Out of Touch?

The fact of the matter is that Catholic practices look weird and archaic to the average Protestant. Yes, Catholics have been doing what they do for 2,000 years, but Protestants don’t know that. If you haven’t seen it, do a quick internet search for “Catholic Inventions.” In no time, you’ll be bombarded with website after website peddling the same list of practices and doctrines that they claim are unscriptural and that the Catholic Church invented. On the list, you’ll find items such as prayers for the dead, the sign of the cross, Holy water, the pope, veneration of statues (if the list is charitable; otherwise, it will say “idol worship”), the doctrine of purgatory and the last rites.

Faithful Cradle Catholics will quickly view this list and dismiss it as ridiculous. And truth be told, if one were willing to do the work to look it up, they would see that it is in fact ridiculous. Nonetheless, many Protestant and Bible-believing Christians believe the list to be true, and because they are already convinced they have the truth, they feel they have no need to look further. What’s worse is that the wayward catholic, the uncatechized and those who have drifted away will be very quickly confused and easily swayed.

What catholics need to take away from this is that Protestants take these to be serious affronts to the Christian religion. Many catholic practices are huge barriers to fallen away Catholics and Protestants who may otherwise consider joining the faith.

Unfortunately, too many Catholics don’t recognize or understand the depth to which the mistrust of these practices really go. A catholic will often have no understanding that a simple gesture like the sign of the cross could keep someone from entering into communion with the church.

Why, Why, Why?

During my wife’s conversion process, she had to reconcile with every single practice imaginable, from the sign of the cross to genuflection to prayers. After months of studying, she had come to the inescapable conclusion that the Catholic Church was the one true church founded by Jesus Christ, but even so she struggled to dip Her fingers in Holy water the first several times she attended Mass. She refused to make the sign of the cross until she learned its reasons and its origins. She was in such despair because here she was, ready to go against everything she had been taught with regards to religion, and yet she couldn’t bring herself to take that final step into full Catholicity.

Keep On Keeping On

Now, don’t misunderstand me. I am not proposing that we should stop doing what we do. Our practices are beautiful, and after having been away for so long, I have grown to love them now more than ever. I smile when I make the sign of the cross. I feel immense joy when I genuflect before the tabernacle, so grateful to be in the presence of my King. I have been on my knees praying the rosary and overcome with such emotion that I wept. As Catholics, we pray with our whole body, mind and soul. Our very actions are prayers. I understand that now.

Protestants, though, do not. We must be sensitive to this fact in our conversations with Protestants and in aiding in their conversions. What we need to realize is that while our gestures and our practices and our chanting and singing and recitation of creeds is perfectly normal and beautiful to us, it’s totally weird to the outsider.

A Different World View

Catholicism, at first blush, flies in the face of American culture. As Americans, we value independence and individualism. We have no notion of a king or how to even speak to or about a regent. We don’t bow or kneel to anyone. We are a prideful culture, and rightly so. Americans are among the most charitable people on Earth. The poorest among us would be considered immensely wealthy in most countries. Catholicism just doesn’t fit our world view.

We have to understand this when we deal with fundamentalists and mainstream Protestants. They don’t understand Catholicism because they have no frame of reference for it. Protestantism stresses the “personal relationship with their Lord and Savior,” which is a beautiful concept. In the Protestant view, this personal relationship almost views Jesus as a buddy or, at best, something akin to your boss. This fits right in with our American worldview, where we elect presidents based on who we’d rather have a beer with.

The catholic reality is that we are all citizens first of Christ’s Kingdom. Our worldly governments are secondary to the heavenly realm in which are all called to live. In Catholicism, we see the Kingdom of Heaven and Earth joined as one. We do what people do when they are in the presence of a King or His representative. This, perhaps above most everything else, is what sets our religion apart. It is also what makes it appear so foreign to the American Protestant.

Living in the Kingdom

This is where the conversation can start. Catholics are citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven first, and this affects our entire way of doing things. Non Catholics, while they understand on an abstract level that they are brothers and sisters of the one King, have no frame of reference because their culture has been so heavily influenced by independent Americanism that all references to and reflection of the trappings of monarchy have been jettisoned.

The New Evangelization

It is incumbent upon all Catholics to understand that there truly are reasonable objections to the Catholic faith. In many respects, Catholics are our own worst enemies when they fail to realize first of all that there are reasons why one may have difficulty accepting the faith and second when they themselves fail to be able to adequately explain just why they do what they do.

Catholicism is absolutely beautiful, precisely because it is so simple and at the same time so complex. It is easy enough for the least intelligent and most vulnerable among us to participate in their own way, through the gestures and the pictures and the statues and stained glass. At the exact same time, it is so very complex that the most learned among us could spend a lifetime reading and studying and still come away not having learned a fraction of what has been revealed to us.

This is exactly what both attracts and repels most non Catholics. It is so very intriguing and amazing and yes, many would admit, beautiful. It is at the same time strange and hard to understand. As Catholics, it is up to us to recognize the beauty and gift of our faith and to shine that light to others. In order to do that, we have to acknowledge that non Catholics have questions that must be answered. In order to shine Christ’s light and share the fullness the faith, we need to learn those questions and we need to provide those answers.

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Comments
  1. Debilis says:

    As a Protestant who happens to be extremely positive in my view of Catholicism, I’ve been very frustrated by lifetime protestants who reject Catholic practices with little to no study into their meaning.

    This, I think, is the value of the clash of worldviews. It requires all of us to ask ourselves why we do those things that are simply “obvious”. If we respond correctly, a great deal of good can come out of that.

  2. oarubioTony says:

    Yes, It has been eye-opening for me in my 57 years that what is obvious (e.g. the sanctity of marriage) isn’t to all non-Catholic Christians and to a distressing number of pseudo-Catholics. And, I agree, we need to UNDERSTAND what we do.

    For example, do Catholics believe in the Bible? Definitely, the entire Bible, not just a couple of verses which appear to contradict the rest of Scriptures and some of our Catholic practices.

    Or, are we “saved?” Rather, we are redeemed, but we can still lose eternal life through our choices up until the moment we die. The list goes on.

    Best wishes to all Christians and non-Christians seeking Truth! 🙂

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