The common ground upon which Catholics and Protestants can stand together is significant. We can agree that Jesus Christ is our Lord and Savior, and that salvation is through Him alone. We can agree that salvation is by grace. We can agree that the Scriptures are authoritative and God-breathed. Protestants are considered our “brethren in the Lord” precisely because of our fairly substantial common ground.
But, of course, we have our differences.
Despite the existing areas of agreement, my ecumenical frustrations are greatly kindled when I see the general ignorance among Protestants in regard to what Catholics really believe.
This article is about an observation: namely, that most Protestants have no clue what Catholics really believe. They’ve only ever known caricatures of the true Catholic faith.
I was thinking about writing an article on why the crucifix is an appropriate, Bible-based symbol of Christianity. As I was skimming Protestant websites in order to get a general sense of the objections (while fully recognizing that not all Protestants object to the crucifix), I came across the following article at ChristianityToday.com. I was initially impressed with the thoughtful response to the question regarding the crucifix:
Q. I’m a Protestant Christian and have worn a crucifix for a while now. I just found out that a crucifix (with Jesus on the cross) is normally considered to be Catholic. Protestants just wear empty crosses. Are Protestants so different from Catholics that it would matter whether or not I wear it?
A. I’m also a Protestant Christian and I love the crucifix, too. Seeing Christ on the cross inspires me because I think of God’s sacrificial love. Does it matter that the crucifix is normally considered Catholic? Nope. I think it’s great when Protestants wear a crucifix or Catholics wear an empty cross because both symbolize God’s unfailing love for us. While the crucifix is a vivid reminder of the sacrificial love of God, the empty cross is a reminder that he rose from the dead.
This would have been a great response—if only it had ended there. The answerer continued with the following qualifier, “[W]e must be careful about making too many generalizations or assumptions”—and then this:
Protestants and Catholics tend to have five major differences:
The Catholic church teaches that Mary, like Jesus, was born without original sin. They also believe that she, like other Catholic saints, can speak to God for them.
Catholics have a different leadership hierarchy than Protestants and look to one leader, the Pope. They believe that Scripture gives the Pope supreme and unquestionable authority to set church doctrine and interpret the Bible. Protestants believe that no matter what leaders or church councils say, the Bible has ultimate authority.
Catholics believe in heaven and hell like Protestants, but also in a purgatory where souls are cleansed by punishment before entering heaven.
Although it is often debated by theologians, Catholics put slightly more weight on doing good works (and acts like confessing their sins) to get to heaven than Protestants, who believe people are saved solely by God’s grace.
To Catholics, Christ’s blood and body are physically present in communion and are consumed by believers. Most Protestants think of communion as a symbolic remembrance of what Christ did.
Now I agree that there are important differences between Catholic and Protestant belief. But let’s look at the five listed by the writer at ChristianityToday.com:
1.The Catholic church teaches that Mary, like Jesus, was born without original sin. They also believe that she, like other Catholic saints, can speak to God for them.
Yes we do. But this vagueness, particularly in regard to Mary’s sinlessness, is rather misleading. Catholics believe that Jesus was born without original sin because he was divine and perfect by nature; and we believe that Mary was born without sin because she was saved by God at the moment of her conception (Lk 1:47). Jesus’ victory on the cross was, in a sense, anticipated (although all things are present to God in one eternal now).
Is Mary’s sinlessness explicitly taught in the Bible? No, but almost.
The angel’s unprecedented “full of grace” or kecharitomene greeting of reverence towards Mary is a good example of this implicit doctrine, as is Luke’s portrayal of Mary as the “Ark of the New Covenant” (read Lk 1:39-56 alongside 2 Samuel 6:2-11). The Fathers also came to see her as the “New Eve” in the early Church—contrasting Mary with Eve who was born without sin but was disobedient to the will of God—which was reflected in writings as early as Ireneaus and Justin Martyr in the 2nd century.
Also note that the belief in Mary’s sinlessness was never considered a heresy in the early Church—it was accepted as apostolic tradition. This acceptance is exemplified, for example, in these words from St. Ambrose (the mentor of St. Augustine) in the 4th century:
“Lift me up not from Sarah but from Mary, a virgin not only undefiled, but a virgin whom grace had made inviolate, free of every stain of sin….” (Commentary on Psalm 118:22–30 [A.D. 387])
And praying to Mary and the saints? Well again, this was never seen as a problem in the early Church, nor is it condemned in the Bible. It has always been common Christian practice. We are encouraged to pray for one another on earth; and since even death does not separate us (the Church) from the love of Christ—see Romans 8—we are able to ask the saints to pray for us even when they are in heaven.
Do they hear our prayers by their own power? Of course not. They hear our prayers in heaven by God’s power and take them before the throne of God as “spirits of the just made perfect” (Heb 12:23). Remember, “the prayer of a righteous man is great in its effects” (James 5:16); thus the prayers of the perfectly righteous – the saints and angels – are greatest in their effects.
See also Rev 5:8 and Rev 8:3-4 for an image of the intercession of the saints and angels before the throne of God.
2. Catholics have a different leadership hierarchy than Protestants and look to one leader, the Pope. They believe that Scripture gives the Pope supreme and unquestionable authority to set church doctrine and interpret the Bible. Protestants believe that no matter what leaders or church councils say, the Bible has ultimate authority.
The Word of God has ultimate authority, which has been passed down in both written and oral forms (see 2 Thess 2:15).
It is true that Catholics have a different leadership hierarchy than Protestants; and it is also true that the Catholic (and Eastern Orthodox) hierarchy of “bishop, priest, and deacon” goes right back to the earliest centuries of Christianity. Go straight to the sources, beginning in the first century with Clement of Rome, and into the second century with Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, and Ireneaus.
In regard to the idea of a pope, isn’t it just common sense to designate a leader among the leaders? We see the idea of “chief” in the Old Testament with Moses and King David. We see it in the modern business model. And we see it in the Catholic Church.
The Pope does not set or “make” doctrine. He simply declares it. He confirms it. When Jesus gave Peter the keys, it was a gift to the Church—not to Peter. We have a pope so that even if most of the bishops in the Church are lead astray in doctrinal matters (may God forbid this—although it has almost happened before) we can always look to the pope who—despite being a lowly sinner like the rest of us—has been endowed with a special charism of infallibility in matters of faith and morals for the sake of doctrinal purity; and for the sake of the Church
The Bible is authoritative, yes, but it requires an interpretive authority. Protestants interpret the Bible, generally, according to the tradition of the Reformers. Catholics interpret the Bible according to the tradition of the apostles. This is the difference; and the early ecclesial writers are the litmus test for this. To avoid all extra-biblical tradition forthright, Protestants must either accept the Bible as a “fallible collection of infallible books” or they must trust in at least one Catholic tradition—that being that the books in the Bible belong in the Bible (or the “tradition of the table of contents”). The inspired pages do not reveal an inspired table of contents themselves.
3. Catholics believe in heaven and hell like Protestants, but also in a purgatory where souls are cleansed by punishment before entering heaven.
A slight clarification is needed here. Catholics believe that souls are cleansed by suffering (not punishment) in purgatory. As far as we know this purification by suffering may be momentary, a collision with the fiery love of God (as Pope Benedict XVI considered). There is no official Catholic teaching that purgatory is a place in space and time. It is more properly understood as an event; and since “nothing unclean shall enter [heaven]” (see Rev 21:27) it only makes sense that God would perfect our sin-stained souls on their way to heavenly paradise. Remember that the idea of purification after death is not a Catholic invention—it comes to us from the Jews (see 1 Maccabees 12 for instance).
4. Although it is often debated by theologians, Catholics put slightly more weight on doing good works (and acts like confessing their sins) to get to heaven than Protestants, who believe people are saved solely by God’s grace.
Kay. Catholics believe that we are saved by grace because that’s what St. Paul teaches (Eph 2:8-10). The initial free gift of salvation, however, has a tangible context within which it takes place: it occurs through baptism, for as 1 Peter 3:21 says, “baptism…now saves us.” This was unanimous among the Church Fathers; in fact the first Reformer to teach a symbolic and non-regenerating baptism was Ulrich Zwingli. We also believe that salvation, properly understood, is a process which is why St. Paul refers to his own salvation—and salvation in general—as past, present, and future (see 1 Cor 1:18). Finally, we believe that our works are the form of true interior faith. Faith without works is dead, as St. James teaches in his epistles. Faith working in love is what avails (see Gal 5:6).
In short, we believe that we are saved by grace, through faith, which works in love which is perfectly consistent with the theology of St. Paul, Peter, and James in the New Testament. It’s also worth mentioning that sometimes it might be that a particular translation of the Scriptures—usually as an unfortunate result of trying to sound more modern or colloquial—may get in the way of Christians properly understanding what St. Paul and perhaps other NT authors meant in their writings (Protestant historian N.T. Wright has criticised the NIV translation for this reason). Working for—or earning—one’s own salvation is a heresy the Catholic Church condemns called Pelagianism.
And as to confessing sins: in short, we confess our sins because “if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn 1:9); and we confess our sins to the priests because they, as ordained ministers of the Church, were given the authority to do so on Christ’s behalf when he said to the apostles, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them” (John 20:21-23).
5. To Catholics, Christ’s blood and body are physically present in communion and are consumed by believers. Most Protestants think of communion as a symbolic remembrance of what Christ did.
True. Now a few comments on why Catholics believe in the a literal “communion” with Christ.
The Bible is meant to be read in context, remembering with St. Augustine that the NT is concealed in OT and the OT is revealed in the NT. Catholics and Protestants will agree on this without much difficulty. Thus the case for the literal interpretation of Jesus’ words “Take. Eat. This is my body” and “My flesh is true food…” and “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood you have no life in you” seems quite sound and sensible.
Consider how the miraculous manna in the OT points towards a miraculous Eucharistic; and how the OT Passover required the sacrificial lamb to be eaten, just as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” is consumed in the Mass, the New Passover (it is no coincidence that the Last Supper occurred on the night of the Jewish Passover. The Gospel writers are telling us something). Thus the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist is a tradition that stretches back centuries before the Reformation in Catholic and Eastern Orthodox worship.
The sacrament of the Eucharist (in the context of the Mass) is one of the best attested doctrines of the early Church. If Jesus’ words in the Gospels and St. Paul’s epistles (particularly 1 Cor 10-11) aren’t enough, turn to the early Church writers. Referred to as a sacrifice in the first-century Didache, and explicitly taught as a the true body and blood of Christ by the second century Christian fathers, there is plenty of testimony and no theological resistance to the Catholic belief in a literal communion with the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ in the early Church. Only after the turn of the second millennium, was this belief condemned by a notable Christian writer (Berengarius of Tours). For the first thousand years of Christianity, the “Real Presence” was examined but never rejected in any kind of formal way by a notable Christian writer, teacher, or leader.
Ever been asked (or wondered yourself): Why do Catholics care so much about evangelizing Protestants when there are “bigger issues” out there? In short, because we want our separated brothers and sisters to encounter Jesus Christ in the Eucharist.
There is not one single answer as to why so many Protestants don’t “get” Catholicism. To an extent, many Catholics are guilty for not knowing their faith—for being ignorant of their own religion. As a result the faith is inaccurately communicated or not communicated at all. To another extent, many Protestants are guilty for not taking Catholicism seriously (especially in light of the unanimously “Catholic” writings of the Church Fathers).
The bottom line is this: as Catholics become more familiar with their own faith, they will better understand why Catholicism should matter in a big way to Protestant Christians; and in the long run, more Protestants will get to know the real Catholicism.
And then things will get interesting; because “real Catholicism” is a billion times more compelling than the faint sniffs and caricatures of Catholicism that most Protestants have been exposed to.