In my transition from Evangelical Protestant to (Roman) Catholic, there was an orderly process of understanding that allowed me to slowly release my grip on the presuppositions and perks of Protestantism. The three steps I’ve outlined below are the foundation upon which Catholic understanding was established in my mind and heart:
- Truth is not relative. In other words, Jesus’ death on the cross does not mean whatever we want it to mean. If you want real Christianity, you need to venture outside the realm of preference. Important: misunderstanding Christ and His Church does not equal condemnation. However, every Christian should want to pursue the most accurate version of Christianity possible. Christians should desire the fullness of the faith. It seems rather dangerous to cling to a minimalist understanding of Christ and trust that God will look mercifully upon a refusal to look deeper. For too many people, it is simply convenient that Catholicism looks wrong to them, and an honest examination of Catholic beliefs is not on their to-do list. If someone is stuck at step 1, and they believe Christianity can be defined according to their preferences, then an explanation of Catholic doctrines can be a frustrating exercise.
- History matters. The accumulated knowledge of Christians throughout the centuries far surpasses my own knowledge. As someone with a degree in history I can vouch for the value of reading primary source material. Basically… if you want to better understand America, read the writings of the Founding Fathers. If you want to better understand Christianity, read the writings of the early Church Fathers. If nothing else, they offer some of the best possible commentary on Scripture that you can find. I began to really ponder how orthodox (authentic) Christian beliefs could be preserved against heresies through the centuries. The fact that heresies can be fueled by a misunderstanding of Scripture should be disconcerting to Protestants (of course an acknowledgment that heresy is bad should be part of step 1). Find a Protestant who cares about history, and you’ve got someone who can learn… and can grasp the need for apostolic succession and the value of Sacred Tradition.
- The Protestant concept of “Sola Scriptura” (“Scripture Alone” as the doctrinal authority for Christians) simply doesn’t work… nor is it biblically defendable. This was the death blow to my Protestant assumptions. Unity in the Body of Christ is important (again, step 1 is necessary), and Sola Scriptura causes tragic division among Christians. Sola Scriptura is not defined or demanded in Scripture itself. Perhaps even more importantly, there is no definitive scriptural way of knowing which books should be in the Bible, thereby creating uncertainty within the confines of Sola Scriptura about the reliability of the Bible’s contents.
Backed by history, and guided by the Church, Catholics are able to rely on Scripture with confidence and accuracy.
As a Protestant, I wholeheartedly embraced the first two steps in regard to secular subjects, but Catholics demonstrated how the principles could (and should) be applied to my faith as well. Also, it isn’t that I clung to the Protestant doctrine of Sola Scriptura in opposition to the evidence… it’s just that I didn’t know any better. Finally, I was able to see that personal interpretation of Scripture is unreliable, and I began to seek solid answers to some tough questions. Watch for others like me, and be able to point them to the Church.
After the basic steps were covered, I was able to seriously consider what is perhaps the most important question I faced in my conversion process: the question of doctrinal/spiritual authority.
I think most Protestants never imagine that Sola Scriptura is wrong, and that is why they talk as though they are defending the Bible against the “men” or “traditions” of the Catholic Church. In reality they are defending their personal interpretation of the Bible against the Church that God has placed on this earth to guide all Christians. I had to learn that the Scriptures were intended to be part of the Church’s guidance and not our excuse to protest the Church’s guidance.
I’m planning on taking the month of August off from the blog, but I want to leave you with a month’s worth of random ruminations for while I’m gone…
As you saw previously in my book review, I encourage you to read The Guns of August this month in remembrance of WWI beginning a century ago. Feel free to share your thoughts and recommend other books on the subject.
I just finished listening to a quality audiobook version of The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien, and it gave me a glimpse of what it must have been like centuries ago to sit next to a crackling fire while an old-timer of the village told tales of ages past. The Silmarillion is a history of Tolkien’s Middle Earth, but it’s also much more than that. It is very much like mythology, and it’s about as epic as a story can get.
Now, before you run off to grab a copy of The Silmarillion and start reading, I should caution you. Personally, it does me a lot of good to have already read The Lord of the Rings trilogy (a couple of times) and The Hobbit. Also, I’ve waded through a handful of ancient classics like The Aenied, Beowulf, and Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. Why was it helpful to have these ultimately rewarding albeit challenging books under my belt? Two reasons: First of all, Tolkien spent a large portion of his lifetime imagining and writing The Silmarillion, and in the process his style was greatly influenced by his studies of ancient stories and linguistics. It helps to have a basic foundational knowledge of his style. Secondly, anyone who reads classic literature can tell you that this sort of reading requires serious discipline and appreciation of quality. It’s not fast food we’re talking about here.
But before I come across as too much of a smarty pants, let me admit forthwith that I will eventually have to go through this book a second or third time in order to better follow what’s going on. This first time I just concentrated on enjoying it. I take a lot of comfort in the fact that if I can fully understand something at first glance, it’s not that impressive.
As many of you already know, J.R.R. Tolkien was seriously Catholic, and this week I came across some good quotes here.
Today’s Gospel in Mass was taken from Matthew chapter 13, and it really reminds me of my personal testimony in finding the Catholic Church:
“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.”
The concept of the kingdom of heaven has been especially intriguing to me lately. Jesus said almost 2,000 years ago “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 4:17), and Daniel’s interpretation of king Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in Daniel 2:34-35 describes a stone that crushes a statue representing the kingdoms of the earth, and “the stone that struck the image became a great mountain and filled the whole earth.”
If I understand Catholic theologians correctly, we are now in “the thousand-year reign”. The Church is not only visible, but is also the kingdom of heaven on earth, wherein the leadership structure (including the pope) of this spiritual kingdom makes so much more sense apart from my former Protestant perspective of the invisible, underground church.
By the way, historical examples of this concept in action can be really cool to read about. Look up Pope Leo the Great confronting Attila the Hun.
Thanks to motivation from Fr. Robert Barron’s insightful movie review on youtube, I watched the movie The Tree of Life recently. I tend to enjoy movies that I would call deep and contemplative (but my wife would call weird and depressing) and this movie fits the bill. The verse from the book of Job at the beginning is crucial to remember throughout, and it helps to watch the movie on a good quality TV and appreciate it as a work of art. Watch Fr. Barron’s video insights, and let me know what you think of the movie. I did not totally understand all of it, but like I said, I like stuff that’s deeper than my ability to understand at first glance. I was struck by the examination of fatherhood through observation, and the influence of grace as a balance to nature.
Lastly, I’m not exactly sure how to word this, and I don’t want to dwell too much on it, but over the last few months I have been amazed at the unwillingness of many of my friends and family to truly understand why I am becoming Catholic, or examine the sources that I’ve been pointing to. Even my desire to supply books for people to read seems to have little or no effect. I wish that I could sit down with each person for as many weekends as necessary and have heart-to-heart discussions, with Truth as the final goal. I believe that I’ve found something amazing… but it seems that people frankly do not want to know. I don’t want to start sounding like Jack Nicholson’s character in A Few Good Men: “YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH!” Even if someone could effectively point out to me how I might be wrong, it would be better than resignation or benign silence. I guess people don’t realize how their beliefs look really weak and all the more questionable when they are unwilling to examine them carefully.
But I know that God works in His own time. He sure took His time with me, and I’m eternally grateful to Him. I want to be gracious at all times, even if I feel a bit frustrated.
If anyone… ever… wants to talk with me about my spiritual journey… please don’t hesitate. It seems like people should want to understand…
I hope that you all have a wonderful month! May God bless you.
I sat down to write out reasons why Catholics don’t have a problem referring to Christianity as a religion (but of course the true religion), while Protestants often refer to religion in a negative way (I know I used to). What I came up with is an outline of my thoughts in bullet-point form and I think it illustrates some of the main points of contention on this issue. This is not an all-encompassing overview, but rather an off-the-cuff summary of my current thoughts on the matter.
Religion Requires Effort
- You must learn and understand history to adequately explain and defend religion. Catholics usually see Church history as being defendable and worthy of study, whereas others seem disinclined to study or defend the past as it is apparently not only risky but also unnecessary when beliefs are entirely personal anyway.
- Things like prayer times, holy days, fasting, sacraments, and attendance are all important aspects of religion that require sacrifice. Taking up one’s cross is not simply a vague philosophical concept for good Catholics. At its core, Christian religion involves not only cultivating a relationship with God, but also a commitment to do His will that reaches beyond our personal preferences and individual understanding.
Religion Involves Rules
- You don’t get to decide for yourself what Christianity is if it’s a religion.
- Many people who cannot stand rules also cannot stand religion.
- For many, Jesus is thought of as their best friend, and their best friend would not expect them to do anything religious. By that reasoning He would surely suspend any rules in their particular case anyway.*
- Some people go so far as to say “My god isn’t like that” and not bother to consider the religious aspects of Christianity. Oops, did I forget to capitalize something? Probably not.
Religion is Countercultural
- Compromise, fun, and comfort are not priorities of a religion. People who seriously seek truth are welcomed, but standards are not lowered to fill seats.
- Religion is a constant target of ridicule, and people naturally prefer to avoid the persecution that a religion undergoes. Of course if the religion is true, then it is defendable, but secular culture often does not wait around to hear the explanation.
Religion Provides Structure
- Religion is not just handing people a Bible, it’s explaining how to understand the Bible.
- Religious Christianity involves actual motivation and actual instruction.
- Catholics around the world share common doctrine and liturgy in a truly universal way, and this is only possible through a structure recognized by all. The religious/structural unity that actually unites the body of Christ around the world is more difficult to understand in cultures that take individualism to a “religious” extent.
The word religion is potentially a misleading term. The concern among many Christians is that by using a word for their beliefs that also describes other beliefs it is somehow lowering Christianity to be just another belief system. However, Catholics know that even though the word religion does not fully express the greatness of Christianity it is not a bad word either.
I have discovered that the structure of religious Christianity is a wonderful thing to have, even at the expense of my preferences. Others might consider doctrinal anarchy a worthwhile price to pay in order to avoid expectations being placed upon them by others. Is Christianity a religion? I say yes. There are too many easy ways to avoid the religious aspects of Christianity at the smallest excuse. But there is a price. People sacrifice truth on the altar of freedom and then sit around wondering what they’re missing that could make their faith seem more real. They’re missing what could be called religion, but what I would call the fullness of the faith.
*8/6/14: I should clarify that the best possible friendship with Jesus is good, but it needs to be on His terms and not our own. Jesus said, “You are my friends if you do what I command you” (John 15:14).
“Many men like to live in a whirl, in some excitement or other which keeps their minds employed, and keeps them from thinking of themselves. How many a man, e.g. employs all his leisure time in learning merely the news of the day. He likes to read the periodical publications, he likes to know what is going on in the four quarters of the earth. He fills his mind with matters which either do not concern him, or concern only his temporal welfare… he descends to little matters of no importance, rather than entertain that thought which must come on him, if not before, at least in the evening of life and when he stands before his Judge. Others are full of projects for making money; be they high or be they low, that is their pursuit, they covet wealth and they live in the thought how they may get it. They are alive to inventions and improvements in their particular trade, and to nothing else. They rival each other. They as it were, run a race with each other, not a heavenly race, such as the Apostle’s who ran for a crown incorruptible, but a low earthly race, each trying by all means in his power to distance his neighbour in what is called the favour of the public, making this their one end, and thinking nothing at all of religion. And others take up some doctrine whether of politics or of trade or of philosophy, and spend their lives upon it; they go about to recommend it in every way they can. They speak, they write, they labour for an object which will perish with this world, which cannot pass with them through the grave. The holy Apostle says “Blessed are they that die in the Lord, for their works do follow them” (Apoc. 14). Good works follow us, bad works follow us, but everything else is worth nothing; everything else is but chaff. The whirl and dance of worldy matters is but like the whirling of chaff or dust, nothing comes of it; it lasts through the day, but it is not to be found in the evening. And yet how many immortal souls spend their lives in nothing better than making themselves giddy with this whirl of politics, of party, or religious opinion, or money getting, of which nothing can ever come.
“Observe in the parable the Master of the Vineyard did but one thing. He told his servant to “call the labourers and give them their hire.” He did but ask what they had done. He did not ask what their opinion was about science, or about art, or about the means of wealth, or about public affairs; he did not ask them if they knew the nature of the vine for which they had been labouring. They were not required to know how many kinds of vines there were in the world, and what countries vines could grow in, and where they could not. They were not called upon to give their opinion what soils were best for the vines. They were not examined in the minerals, or the shrubs, or in anything else which was found in the vineyard, but this was the sole question, whether they had worked in the vineyard. First they must be in the vineyard, then they must work in it; these were the two things. So will it be with us after death. When we come into God’s presence, we shall be asked two things, whether we were in the Church, and whether we worked in the Church. Everything else is worthless. Whether we have been rich or poor, whether we have been learned or unlearned, whether we have been prosperous or afflicted, whether we have been sick or well, whether we have had a good name or a bad one, all this will be far from the work of that day. The single question will be, are we Catholics and are we good Catholics? If we have not been, it will avail nothing that we have been ever so honoured here, ever so successful, have had ever so good a name. And if we have been, it will matter nothing though we have been ever so despised, ever so poor, ever so hardly pressed, ever so troubled, ever so unfriended. Christ will make up everything to us, if we have been faithful to Him; and He will take everything away from us, if we have lived to the world.”
-John Henry Newman, 1848, in his sermon Preparation for the Judgment
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If you ask any random Evangelical Protestant on an American street if he is Catholic, chances are he’ll quickly and vehemently deny it, and proudly too. However, lately I have noticed an interesting trend… Protestants who study Church history all too often come to the uncomfortable realization that the early Church was Catholic. It’s in the creeds, it’s in the writings, and it’s in the practices of the early Christians. I knew I wasn’t crazy! But instead of seeing this as reason to seriously re-examine the Catholic Church’s teachings as I did, some people prefer a different approach…
They simply claim the term “Catholic” for themselves! Of course this requires them to remind people to an embarrassing extent that they’re not ROMAN Catholic.
Roman Catholics have no need to mention Rome all the time. “Roman Catholic” is practically redundant.
Functional authority is necessary for an actual (visible) Church that spans the globe. This means apostolic authority (dating back to Christ himself) possessing the spiritual keys of the kingdom, with the ability to call a council like in Acts 15, even to this day. Jesus left men in charge, not a book, and He has equipped them for the job. He has also ensured that the gates of hell have not prevailed against his Church (see Matt. 16:18-19). Why Rome? The bishop of Rome is Peter’s successor. Legitimate succession is necessary for legitimate authority, and authority is a necessary aspect of sound doctrine.
Here’s an example of why this is important: I used to be under the impression that the Catholic Church taught things that contradict the Bible, but why would they teach things that contradict the very Scriptures they have preserved and cherished for centuries? It wouldn’t make sense. Yet for years I simply assumed that the Bible disproved Catholicism because of my modern Protestant understanding of the Scriptures, not aware that ancient cultures understood the Scriptures very differently. And why bother to question our modern beliefs if we’re comfortable? Protestants consider their own personal interpretation to be authoritative, but how can they claim this authority? Who do you trust? Authority matters.
Point to Ponder: One of the earliest statements of Christian belief is known as the “Old Roman Creed”, and I learned of it in a Protestant Sunday school class!
The truly universal Catholic Church so obviously involves Rome that there’s no need to mention it incessantly. Roman Catholics are free to just be Catholic. Catholics don’t feel the need to specify “Roman” Catholic all the time, because people all over the world know what Catholic means. Protestants like to think of the ROMAN Catholic Church as being just another denomination (containing one-sixth of the world’s population?), but Catholics know their Church is the “pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). The Roman Catholic Church can be described in a word: Christendom. The kingdom of heaven is at hand, and everyone on earth is invited.
It’s the people who are trying to hijack the term “Catholic” that tend to get all divisive and denominational about it. You can spot the Protestants in disguise because they can hardly utter the word Catholic without protesting against Rome as Protestants have been doing for nearly 500 years (a tragic legacy to say the least… see John 17:20-23).
It’s sort of a catch-22 if you wish to claim the term “Catholic” for yourself. If you say you’re Catholic, then people will assume you’re Roman Catholic, but if you mention that you’re not ROMAN Catholic, they’ll have good reason to wonder why you sound so Protestant.
There might be someone out there reading this who isn’t playing word games. If you actually wish to understand what it means to be Catholic, may God bless you in your search for Truth! Here are a couple clues that helped me realize the necessity of being truly Catholic: John 6:51-66 and 1 Cor. 10:16-17.
The last few generations may have been content to simply re-define words, but I believe this generation has the courage to see that the real thing is much older and better in the end.
If you are feeling brave, read one of the books I have listed on my page Catholic: to be or not to be, and at least give (Roman) Catholics a fair chance to explain themselves.
But the easiest thing to do is just avoid studying history in the first place.