Catholics are all goin' ta hell. Right?
I recently recieved from Harvest House the new Tony Coffee book, Answers to Questions Catholics Ask. Hmm, I thought, maybe we can actually have an intelligent evangelical response to Catholic theology. After all, one does weary of evangelicals converting to Catholicism, then becoming more fundamentalist in their new enthusiasms than they were in their old ones. For a jaded soul like me, there are elements of the comic in formerly evangelical folk such as Peter Kreeft who explain -- straight-faced -- that it was the doctrine of the Eucharist that convinced them that Rome had it right.
But those folks are merely an irritant, and in light of the mess we evangelicals are in these days, an understandable one. Even Kreeft's astonishing (at least to this skeptic) statement can be explained as one where someone with a creative artist's temperament conflates image (bread and wine) with reality (the Body of our Lord). It is a lovely error, and one easily forgiven if not easily understood. (I imagine Professor Kreeft smiling at that, or groaning at my superficiality.)
The evangelical response to Catholicism has varied, but many (I hope most) evangelicals do view Catholics much as the Catholic Church officially views Protestants -- "separated bretheren" (and sisteren, too). That is, we know we don't agree on Papal infallibility, the nature of Scriptural authority vs. Church authority, Purgatory, praying to the saints, Mary's role and alleged immaculate conception. Less "central to the faith" issues such as birth control, divorce & remarriage, and clergy celibacy also divide us.
The bottom line is that we accept one another as
sisters and brothers in Christ.
But the bottom line for many on both sides is that we accept one another as sisters and brothers in Christ.
Let me get personal here. I get more devotional and spiritual help from Catholic writers than Protestant ones. Jean Vanier, Henri Nouwen, Dorothy Day, Gabriel Marcel, Fenelon... heck, that's a short list. As far as fiction writers, Catholic vs. Protestant? Oh, my. Walker Percy, Francois Mauriac, Flannery O'Connor, the afore-mentioned Gabriel Marcel, George Bernanos, Graham Greene... you get the picture. Protestants? Sigh... the former Catholic Larry Wiowode, C. S. Lewis, and... uh... well... Tim LaHaye!? Scratch that last one and add George MacDonald. (Ah, and I mustn't forget the enigmatic Charles Williams and his strangely unique contribution.)
So back to my Harvest House book. Does Mr. Coffey think Catholics are Christians? That was my question before opening the book.
His answer, apparently, is "No." And by so saying, he creates a false dichotomy, an "either/or" where in reality many (including lil' ol' me) would assert it is "both/and" at least to some degree. In other words, just because the Catholic Church teaches some things I do not believe to be biblical, this does not mean the Catholic Church is not a Christian Church.
In fact, I have to put my hand over my mouth not to laugh, thinking about that. If the Catholic Church (which is historically the mother of Protestantism) is not Christian, then why would her children be Christian? She may be mistaken -- fair enough. But in these dark times I don't need to look as far as Rome to find error -- I only need to log on to John Hagee's (surreal!) pro-zionist website or Christianity Today's Weblog re various doctrinal and political ruckuses recorded there to find plenty of error. Or I can just take a few moments of silence, pray a bit, and ponder my own thoughts and actions over the past day or so... Nah!
A few quotes from Answers to Questions Catholics Ask:
"The gospel that frees us from our sins is not the gospel preached by the Roman Catholic Church.... And why would anyone who has been truly converted to Christ want to remain in a church whose doctrines undermine the glorious sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ?" - p. 111
Strange. I often ask myself that exact same question about Evangelicalism. How much have we undermined the glorious sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ?! I shudder to think. How's that old saying go? "Splinter. Meet Log."
"The model of the Roman Catholic Church is not one Jesus would endorse." - p. 17
Hmm. And you think the model of the American Evangelical Church is one he would endorse?
"How could their [the Roman Catholic] Church have provided protection for sex abusers?" - p. 24.
Welllll.... seems to me we Protestants have had more than a little trouble with "protecting" pastors involved in immorality of various kinds. I recall a book by Jerry Kirk years ago on Homosexuality and the (Protestant) Church. He spent half the book castigating evangelicals for the systemic protection they offered pastors involved in various adulterous affairs, often doing exactly what the Catholics were--moving the pastor from church to church.
I'm no apologist for the obtuseness of Catholic higher-ups re sexual abuse of children; it is a mess and those folks made it that way on a number of levels. But let's just say it smells funny when a guy starts a book by saying he wants to be reasonable and not beat up those in disagreement with him -- an intro that reads like an attempt at sounding emergent without being emergent -- but by page 18 is whipping up on Catholics for the child molestation scandal. Cheap shot. Oh, and it goes on about sexual abuse of kids for the next eight pages, ending this way:
"The Roman Catholic Church is like a wineskin that cannot contain the new wine of grace and truth. It's an old wineskin that has been shown to be corrupt in that it concealed the evil of pedophile priests while also providing them with repeated opportunities to abuse the innocent and justifying its inaction by its oath of silence. It has grown rich, powerful, and, in the process, corrupt."
Wow. Rich, powerful, corrupt. Now who does that sound like that we know? In fact, maybe the Catholics ought to adopt the corporate model we evangelicals have perfected. You know, the ultra-streamlined ministry / college / TV network with one guy who runs the whole thing like Bill Gates runs Microsoft? That way, these leaks of Church wrongdoing can be sealed up tight as a drum with "non-disclosure agreements" and such, preventing former employees from squealing. That's how evangelicals do it. Take a tip, Pope Benedict! As one Catholic wag once said, "We have one pope and you have a thousand of 'em."
I'm going to leave the book for Catholics to further thrash, and I suspect their careful analysis will do greater damage than my admittedly rant-and-rave treatment. There are moments I could find where I agreed with Mr. Coffey's critique, but not his overall "Rome isn't Christian" thrust.
Let me close with a story about my wife and I attending a Catholic mass two years ago Christmas Eve. Why were we attending a mass? Well, I guess we just wanted to see how the devil does it. No, seriously we were there with some friends who go every year and told us it was a wonderful place to meet Christ in worship. They were right.
Saint Mary's of the Lake Catholic Church is a neighborhood church near us in the poor Uptown community currently under attack by developers building condos and such. And as I worshipped, my wretched "observer within" clinically watched the priest, who's face struck me as both stern and sad. It struck me suddenly, forcefully, how the child abuse scandal must have hit rank and file priests and nuns who had been faithful to Christ in thier service. Now remember, I am Protestant, and don't believe in the idea of a forced celebacy for priests.
But as I watched him throughout the service, the thought of this one man, this single priest in his vocation, revolved in my head and heart. I was moved deeply. He, like me, was trying to do the will of Jesus Christ. And whether his premise was wrong or not, his sacrifice was real. His sexuality had been gifted to Christ. And here he was, serving this congregation while knowing many of us were looking at him while thinking about child abuse and evil men masquerading as servants of Christ. His own offering was, through the actions of others, thrown into doubt. And he must have felt our eyes collectively on him.
Sure, I may have been projecting my own impressions onto the man. Perhaps he was deep in worship, lost in the service himself. Or perhaps he was not at all, and was thinking about a TV show or what he was going to eat or where he was going for Christmas.
Whether wrong or not, his sacrifice was real.
His sexuality had been gifted to Christ.
But I looked at him, and felt a terrible sadness for him, so much so that I had the momentary urge to offer him words of comfort and support. "But what would you say that wouldn't be misunderstood?" the observer within chided. I chickened out, gutless wonder that I am.
Yet I think of him there, at the front of this church, holding up the chalice and bread and holding within his faith and doubts just like me. By their fruits you will know them. Not all who claim the name Christian are Christian, no matter whether Catholic or Protestant. But all of us can pray for one another, continue our occasional wrestling matches over issues from papal infallibility to birth control, and most of all attempt to exhibit love. After all, that is the fruit Christ says will identify us to the watching world.
So, are Catholics goin' ta hell?
I guess I'd rather ask, Are we?