I’ve recently done some reading on Catholicism. I don’t really know why. I am a lifelong Baptist and happy to stay that way. I think it all started with a couple of church history courses in my Master’s program. The great church fathers so many of us evangelicals love to quote, I was startled to find, were . . . well . . . Catholic. Ignatius, Augustine, and many others. They unequivocally loved the Church of Rome and talked about her with fondness and passion.
I’d also grown up assuming Catholics were well meaning and many very faithful believers. They were just a little naive in relying in medieval relics based on human tradition, not on the Bible. My eyes were about to be opened.
As I progressed in my studies, I took a seminar on biblical ethics. The locus for ethics is of course authority. The question the class came back to again and again was, “In what way does the bible function as an authority over us?” Is it even possible to read it without reading our own preferences into it? How come when we all read it we end up with a finished product that looks just like us? The work of Stanley Hauweras was especially impactful on me at this time. Hauweras is adamant that we cannot read the bible on our own. We can only read it and understand it correctly if we are already living obediently in Christian community guided by tradition. But what church teaches something like that? Let’s just say you can count them on one hand.
Therefore, for the last couple of years I read several different Catholic books from a variety of viewpoints. I must admit. The case for Catholicism is stronger than I expected. I know it’s stronger than 99% of evangelicals realize. The faith is captivating in many ways.
- The deep roots in history seem to offer some relief from the ever elusive search for “relevance” ensnaring so many evangelical congregations. Maybe it started with Peter, maybe it didn’t, but either way, the Roman church is very, very, very old.
- The liturgy is appealing for some of the same reasons mentioned above. Additionally, it seems to be an escape from the everyday world, a means to something bigger. The Catholic church has an “otherness” quality to it. It is not just a sociological fad or new growth strategy. I think Christian Smith captures the appeal of liturgy best with his phrase “sacramental imagination,” something definitely absent from us “low churchers.”
- The Catholic emphasis on holistic community. Evangelical individualism is tiring. Evangelical emphasis on the head and the heart is tiring. It’s just God and I by ourselves all the time. Evangelical infatuation with the end times is intellectually bankrupt and damaging to life here and now. The Catholic faith is one that takes the whole body to love and care for whole communities, drawing from a rich deposit of social justice teaching.
I could go on. However, despite these admirable qualities, in the end Catholicism comes apart at the seams over the issue of sin. Catholic teaching divides sins in to two types, mortal and venial. Mortals sins are those which unless confessed will damn a person to hell. You can read about what constitutes a mortal sin here. What about this idea cause Catholic teaching to come apart? Succinctly put, I cannot stop mortally sinning. As I read through the list, I could identify several that are constantly afflicting my life and spirit. With the help of the Spirit and Church, I confess them. I strive against them. I am slowly being healed from them. But they are always a part of me. They will always be a part of me in some way or another until the I am completely made anew in the age to come. As an example of what I mean, take a look at the “Offense Against Charity”
- Indifference—This grave sin entails neglect or refusal on divine charity (a.k.a. divine love). Those who sin in indifference fail to consider the goodness of charity, and deny its power (CCC 2094).
- Ingratitude—An ungrateful sinner fails or refuses to acknowledge and return the love and charity of God (CCC 2094).
- Lukewarmness—Lukewarmness is negligence in response to God’s charity. It can also mean the refusal to give oneself to the prompting of charity (CCC 2094).
- Acedia (spiritual sloth)—Spiritual sloth, a capital sin, is the refusal of joy that comes from God. An sinner who indulges in acedia may even be repelled by divine goodness (CCC 2094).
Is there ever I time when I am NOT indifferent, ingratitude, lukewarm, or slothful about something important. No! Never! My mortal sin per second rate must be in the dozens. A sin is not merely a wrong action or thought I commit, is is inherent in who I am as a fallen human. Only the FINISHED work on the cross that gives me any hope to keep moving forward. It is that sanctity and security that compels my perseverance, not my ability to recall and confess every slothful neglect. I think God daily for this truth. I sing this truth weekly to my church. I teach it constantly to my children. I am learning to live it continually in my marriage. By the grace of God I can ever more confidently say, “It is well with my soul.” Can the Catholic every really by sure of this?
I love my Catholic brothers and sisters. We are on the same team. We serve one Lord. I am ever more thankful for their valuable contributions, for safeguarding truth through the dark of vicious ages, for pooling a deep reservoir of concern and care for the world, for the unified witness upheld for so long. I’m excited about the new pope and his championing of the “least of these.” But it is only on the basis of the perfect high priest who went through the heavens and now pleads for me before the throne that I may boast. My boasting cannot rest on confessing a far from complete list of my wrongs. As flawed and shallow as modern evangelicism can be, it is the centrality of this truth, the Good News, which powered the Reformation and drives it still. It is why I am proud to be a Baptist and a Baptist I will remain.
I haven’t finished thinking about this yet. I have many questions about biblical authority, sacramentalism, and unity. Life and faith are certainly journeys without end. It’s also entirely possible I am mischaracterizing Catholicism’s harmitology. I don’t think so, but I’m open to discussion. It’s a conversation I’m wanting to have here, not more division.