Can Protestants and Catholics Find Truly Common Ground?
What stereotypes or misinformed views about Catholicism might we need to let go of?
I made the mistake of visiting a new church on Sunday, April 3, 2005. The day before, Pope John Paul II had died. And the young pastor of the small church we visited decided to include John Paul’s death in his sermon, which went something like this...
Let’s just say that was our only visit to that little congregation. (The sermon got it wrong on so many levels!) Yet his beliefs about Catholicism, though perhaps not so insensitively expressed, are quite common among evangelicals. His disdain for a fancy or ostentatious church building, the misinformed idea that Catholics worship the pope, the strongly implied suggestion that John Paul was not actually a Christian (and was likely in hell), and further the insinuation that Catholics in general are not Christians.
I’ve heard similar sentiments among evangelical friends. Some evangelical ideas about Catholicism come directly from former Catholics who are speaking honestly about their own experience of Catholicism and what they understood it to be about. But often times, sadly, Protestants perpetuate ideas about Catholicism that are simply ill-founded and misinformed.
Now before you stop reading, hear me say this: there are key, essential, and significant differences between Catholicism and evangelical Protestantism. I definitely recognize these crucial differences, and I believe that these differences ought not be ignored or overlooked—as a matter of fact, recently Kyria.com put together a download resource discussing the Catholic-Protestant Divide. And of equal importance, I believe these differences ought to be fairly and accurately understood.
I’ve come to this belief through a habit I’ve formed over the past few years of periodically listening to Catholic radio. The shows I like are call-in shows in which Catholics, Protestants, agnostics, and atheists call in with questions and chat on-air with a priest, theologian, or lay leader. The value I’ve found in these shows is that I’ve gotten to hear informed, committed Catholics explain what they believe and why—rather than getting the evangelical version of what Catholics believe.
I’ve discovered that some of our differences are more a matter of semantics than true disagreement. For example, though Catholics may not gravitate toward phrases like “born again” or having a “personal relationship with Jesus,” that does not mean that they are not born again or that they don’t have a devoted relationship with Jesus infused with prayer, worship, Scripture reading, and more.
I’ve also discovered that some of my ideas about what Catholics believe were simply wrong. These ideas about Catholicism often come from nominal Catholics—people who are Catholic in name but who do not follow (or may not even know) the actual, official doctrines of the Catholic church. Just like I wouldn’t want a lapsed evangelical with no active faith and no commitment to Jesus claiming to represent what I believe, I think we ought to be careful not to base our understanding of Catholicism on the actions or words of people who are Catholic in name only.
And I’ve discovered that in the remaining key areas of disagreement, there is a great value in aiming to understand why Catholics believe as they do. I’ve had conversations with devout Catholic friends asking questions like, “Why do you pray to Mary?” and “Do you really believe that the bread and wine transform into actual flesh and blood?” In a dialogue of mutual respect, empathy, and a sincere desire to understand, I’ve learned a great deal from these Catholic friends.
While I still hold firmly to my own conclusions on these matters as an evangelical Protestant, I’ve found a deep and meaningful sense of spiritual sisterhood with these friends whose profound love of Jesus inspires my own walk with him.
I’ve personally been blessed by my fellowship with Catholics and by engaging in thought-provoking discussion with them over theological matters. How about you? What stereotypes or misinformed views about Catholicism might you need to let go of? How might intentional and honest dialogue with a Catholic strengthen your own convictions and nurture your faith in Christ?