“I believe and profess all that the holy Catholic Church teaches, believes and proclaims to be revealed by God” – this is what many converts, former mavericks finally on the path home, recite as they saddle up for that wild ride known as Catholicism. And we mean it – we truly do believe and profess all the teachings of the Church… inasmuch as we have heard and comprehended those teachings. But we usually aren’t entirely aware of the burrs of Protestant thought that cling to our understanding, as much a part of our lives as the language we speak and the thoughts that pop unexpectedly into our minds. We sometimes lumber along with these undiscovered burrs for years before we recognize them for what they are.
A good example of this was an experience I had after I had already gone through RCIA (the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) and been reconciled to the Church. My kids and I were at Mass one Sunday morning when Father Jim, midway through his homily, said something about obeying the Ten Commandments. My eyes flew open and my jaw dropped. “We have to obey the Ten Commandments????”
I know what you’re thinking – what kind of a doofus can be a Christian for 45 years and not figure out that we’re supposed to obey the Ten Commandments! My confusion was due to the fact that as a Protestant I had been attending churches that preached justification by faith ALONE and once-saved, always saved. Those churches taught that, according to the book of Romans, we as Christians don’t have to obey the Old Testament law because we are saved by faith ALONE. So stuff like the Ten Commandments is just not for us Christians (they would then go on to say that of course we good Christians would all end up obeying the Ten Commandments inadvertently out of sheer love for God, BUT WE DIDN’T HAVE TO. They put so much emphasis on the DON’T HAVE TO part that that, I’m afraid, is what sticks with the average believer.) It was a real news flash when Father matter-of-factly commented that obeying the Ten Commandments was something that, yes, we were supposed to be doing.
Now, mind you, this was AFTER I’d gone through RCIA. You would think that a topic like this would be considered kind of important, something along the lines of “What must I do to be saved?” and therefore something we might talk about in RCIA. Not necessarily. My RCIA was run by cradle Catholics who could not possibly have known what doctrinal deviations a former Protestant might have been exposed to. They just took it for granted that, this being the 21st century, everybody must have gotten the millennia-old memo that they were supposed to obey the Ten Commandments. I mean, really, why did God even bother issuing them??
It took me a long time to iron out the kinks in my theology, and after nearly 10 years as a Catholic I still check obsessively whenever I approach a new Catholic subject to make sure that I’m aware of orthodox Catholic teaching on that subject – I don’t trust myself because I can’t know what I don’t know! (This is one reason I believe that converts should not expect to be granted positions of theological influence in the Church immediately upon conversion.)
Another one of these pesky burrs would be the Protestant tendency to want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I think almost all former Protestants bring this attitude with them when they become Catholic – I know I did. It can be a shock when you’re sitting in Mass and the choir starts singing “Amazing Grace.” What??? Is this a Catholic church or a Protestant church??? If I wanted to sing Protestant hymns, I would have stayed Baptist!!!
This ties into yet another burr issue. When I was in the process of becoming Catholic, I started to get angry. After doing some serious reading, I realized that so much of what Protestants teach and repeat about Catholicism is flat-out false. There are two obvious reasons for this. One is ignorance. After all, every Protestant trusts his pastor – if you begin to feel that you can’t, you leave that pastor’s church and find one pastored by someone you can trust. So when your pastor tells you from the pulpit that Catholics believe that they must work their way to heaven – well, of course it must be true. What Protestants don’t realize is that their pastor picked up that theological turd from people he trusted, people like his seminary professors, who themselves picked it up from people they trusted, and so on. Nobody’s deliberately falsifying anything , but nobody’s doing any fact-finding, either. The other explanation for stinkbombs like the “Catholics are working their way to Heaven” fallacy is, unfortunately, ill will and sometimes outright deceit. And that made me angry. When I first became Catholic I loved (still do) to read Catholic apologetics. My only complaint was that so many of the former Protestant/now Catholic apologists were so darn irenic. Sheesh, guys, don’t you know there’s a war on? The anti-Catholic apologists are a bunch of fire-breathing dragons!!! Instead of countering them with Catholic fire-breathing dragons, we have soppy olive-branchers who preface all their apologetic efforts with assurances of how much they love their former Protestant churches and how much they learned there, praising all the great things those churches have done and will do. That really rubbed me the wrong way. Protestants are wrong, you could hear me muttering. Case closed! No further comments allowed! Let’s just show ’em where they’re wrong so they can convert!
Fortunately, over the years I have figured out that my aggressively anti-Protestant attitude was very… Protestant! After all, it’s Protestants who, in many cases, refuse to believe that Catholics could even possibly be Christians. It’s Protestants who “re-baptize” Catholics when they convert to one of the Protestant denominations. It’s Protestants who very often think they need to stay as far away as possible from anything or anyone not affiliated with their denomination because their pristine doctrine might become contaminated by exposure to heresy. It’s Protestants who have a reputation for shooting their wounded, because when those wounded folks go “astray,” they become an embarrassment and a supposed threat to the faithful.
This is not a Catholic perspective on faith.
Catholics sing “Amazing Grace” because there isn’t anything in that hymn that contradicts Catholic theology. Of course it was written by an Anglican evangelical, and of course his church’s theology differs from ours in key respects, but the sentiments expressed in that particular hymn are orthodox and encouraging to Christians trying to fight the good fight. After all, the Catholic answer to “sola fide” was a resounding “SOLA GRATIA!” We don’t throw Amazing Grace out just because a Protestant wrote it. Taking things on a case-by-case basis, we say “This hymn is good – we’ll use it. The Protestant doctrine of ‘faith alone’ is bad – we’ll avoid it.” As St. Justin Martyr, an apologist himself, put it: “Whatever all men have uttered aright is the property of us Christians.”
Protestants are correct about wanting to keep our pristine doctrine uncontaminated by heresy – the Church is committed to doing that. I think, though, that because the Church is an authoritative source of truth, Catholics can be a little less hypersensitive. Lacking an authoritative source of truth (each Protestant’s interpretation of Holy Scripture can hardly be depended upon as an authoritative source of truth!), Protestants feel very insecure when exposed to denominations which teach differently, leading in many cases to a bad allergic reaction. But this is not Christ-like or even sensible. Steve Ray, in his phenomenal Crossing the Tiber, writes a lot about the insistence on an “either/or” attitude in Evangelical Protestantism that messes up a lot of their theology. The Catholic attitude is more of a “both/and.” Anything that is good, even if it was written or designed by a Protestant, is praiseworthy from a Catholic perspective. We don’t reject it out of hand “because it comes from those contaminated Evangelicals!” It was hard for me to drop my Protestant, hypersensitive, “but this isn’t Catholic!” attitude and do what the Church does: sift through everything and keep what is good – with charity.
So, nowadays I try with the help of God the Holy Spirit to emulate those darn irenic Catholic apologists. For, by the grace of God, it has dawned on me that the world doesn’t need more “fire-breathing dragons.” What it needs are more knights doing battle against those dragons, their hearts bowed in prayer, and their feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace.
On the Feast of St. Monica
Deo omnis gloria