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.
“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.
I’ve been listening to Bram Stoker’s Dracula on audiobook, and getting quite a bit of enjoyment out of it. I might write more about the book later, but for now I wanted to share this quote that I feel is quite relevant:
[Van Helsing:] “My thesis is this, I want you to believe.”
[Dr. Seward:]“To believe what?”
[Van Helsing:] “To believe in things that you cannot. Let me illustrate. I heard once of an American who so defined faith, `that faculty which enables us to believe things which we know to be untrue.’ For one, I follow that man. He meant that we shall have an open mind, and not let a little bit of truth check the rush of the big truth, like a small rock does a railway truck. We get the small truth first. Good! We keep him, and we value him, but all the same we must not let him think himself all the truth in the universe.”
[Dr. Seward:] “Then you want me not to let some previous conviction inure the receptivity of my mind with regard to some strange matter. Do I read your lesson aright?”
[Van Helsing:] “Ah, you are my favorite pupil still. It is worth to teach you. Now that you are willing to understand, you have taken the first step to understand…”
-Dracula, by Bram Stoker, ch. 14
Some things in life, especially involving the spiritual, are not lacking in truth so much as people are lacking in imagination. Apparently it pays to have a Roman Catholic professor around when things get weird. But seriously, on a much smaller scale than vampires, I’ve been amazed to see people’s unwillingness to believe things not so much due to actual reasons as much as an inability to look beyond their “small truth”.
Since discovering it, I have spent countless hours scouring the archives of the Catholic Answers website, attempting to re-learn Christianity efficiently, so that I can better understand the Church and answer questions about the faith. In the process of this, I’ve come across some articles that are particularly interesting across various subjects. I have gathered 5 of them here for your benefit:
-The Catholic Church explained and defended in a nutshell.
-Ever wanted to get back to basics by attempting to re-create the New Testament church? It’s an American pastime with some interesting cultural roots.
-The forces of evil are no joke, and the Catholic Church has been successfully fighting evil for a long time. In spiritual warfare, it helps to know what really bothers demons, and Catholics have all the advantages.
-Catholic history rocks!
-Thoughtful Christians who desperately wish to avoid both Calvinism AND Rome will probably find themselves considering Eastern Orthodoxy.