Joel Wentz

contending for thoughtful Christianity

3 Things We (Evangelicals) Need to Stop Saying About the Catholic Church

I love being Evangelical. Our movement has a rich history of meaningful dialogue with culture and serious engagement with scripture. I start with this declaration, because I'm about to level a pointed critique at us.

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We need to seriously think about the ways we talk about our Catholic brothers and sisters. This type of reflection is long overdue, but particularly with the massive (and continually growing) popularity of Pope Francis, I believe now is as good a time as any to pause and reflect. So, I offer the following 3 statements, which I still routinely hear from fellow Evangelicals, as examples of outdated and ill-informed language that only serves to divide and alienate people who are .following the same Jesus, who incidentally prayed in his final moments that his followers would be united (John 17.20-23).

1. "The Catholic church is not part of the Christian faith."

The sheer audacity of this statement is stunning. According to the BBC, in 2013 there were over 1.2 billion members of the Catholic church worldwide, with over 40 percent of that figure (483 million) in Latin America alone. Now, I suspect that when people say this, they don't realize that they are effectively sitting in judgement of about one-seventh of the world's population. 

The sheer hubris of claiming that a population almost equal to the size of China has been duped into believing a "false form of Christianity" should be reason enough to stop saying this, but any crash course in history will also dismantle the logic behind it.

In my interactions with people who say this, it usually becomes clear that my conversation partner believes his/her own faith tradition (read: Evangelicalism) is the actual true form of Christianity. Now, it's important to guard against false doctrines and cults when they appear, but it's also important to understand that the form of Evangelicalism that is being held up here as "pure Christianity" didn't come into being until, at the very earliest one could possibly argue, the 16th century. So, I suppose that leaves 15 centuries of organized religion that was misguided and leading people to damnation. Thank God Luther came along, or else we would still be participating in something today that's not "part of the Christian faith!" In this view, then, Luther (and the other reformers) become almost more historically important to our movement than Jesus himself! Sure, he may have launched the Christian community, but then it languished in over 1500 years of corruption before the "true" version of it was finally and graciously unveiled to the world, which leads to statement number two...

2. "The Catholic church is corrupt."

The Catholic church is an institution. Like any other institution, it has had it's fair share of scandal: the horrible cover-up of sexually abusive priests in our own day, the descent of the papacy into greed and power-mongering during the Renaissance as evidenced by the infamous Borgias,  the medieval practice of buying and selling church offices like cardinals and bishoprics, and oh yeah, those Crusades into the Holy Land in the 11th and 12th centuries.

  Rodrigo Borgia, aka Pope Alexander VI

Rodrigo Borgia, aka Pope Alexander VI

These things happened, and while it's no use ignoring them, two points can be made in response. First, the majority of this corruption occurred in the 11th-15th centuries. It's certainly no coincidence that the Reformation was triggered in the 1500s, and Luther and Calvin were very reluctant to break up the church - they saw it as their mission to simply fix what was wrong!

In the wake of the Reformation, the Catholic Church has gone through it's own series of reformations, which have addressed and clarified many of the issues brought up by people like Luther and Calvin. As a result, the Renaissance-era Catholic church that was riddled with crime and greed simply doesn't exist anymore. If you imagine the Pope as a thoroughly wealthy man, who indulges himself in fine foods and pulls strings in politics and the church to benefit his own family or interests, you are imagining a Pope that hasn't been in power for 500 years. Instead, I encourage you to look at the current Pope, who drives around a used, donated car from 1984, suspends bishops who waste money, and prioritizes time with the homeless in his busy schedule.

Second, it's also worth noting that the institution of Evangelicalism has had plenty of its own missteps: pastors like Creflo Dollar who scam congregants into funding private jets; sexual scandals from someone like Ted Haggard, or even Mark Driscoll's recent fall from grace

The point here is that any organized institution is not safe from making serious mistakes, and these mistakes seem more and more likely as the institution gets larger and more powerful. Such "principalities and powers"  don't always function the way God would intend, and churches are no exception to this. We even have a theological word for this: sin.

Now, this is not an attempt to explain away corruption as the inevitable result of institutional growth. That would be a depressing conclusion, and wouldn't further the conversation. Rather, I hope that we Evangelicals can see that we are simply no different from our Catholic brothers and sisters. We all function in some type of organized religious system (whether it's a single, highly-organized institution under the authority of the Pope, or a loosely organized expression of various traditions under the authority of local pastors/elders). and both our chosen institutions are in need of grace.

3. "The Catholic faith is a 'works-based religion.'"

We Evangelicals love faith and grace, almost as much as we squirm when someone talks about "works." We have mantras like "saved by grace" and "justified by faith." Our hero, Luther, wanted to strike the letter of James out of the Biblical canon because of the phrase "a person is justified by works and not by faith alone." (NRSV, James 2.24) This is built into our DNA, as it goes the whole way back to Luther's problems with practices like "Indulgences."

This is largely a good thing - we claim no credit for our own salvation! For most Evangelicals, if you, in any way, can claim to have "done something to earn your status before God," then you have left the bounds of grace. It is this firm commitment to such an interpretation of God's grace that makes many Evangelicals uncomfortable with the way the Catholic church encourages practicing sacraments (read: works) like prayer, confession, or baptism to receive grace and forgiveness. Well, if you have to do something, then aren't you practicing a "saved-by-works" religion?

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First, the Catholic church wholeheartedly affirms grace. According to the Catechism, grace is "the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call." It is "first and foremost the gift of the Spirit who justifies and sanctifies us." And furthermore, in a very telling phrase, "there is no strict right to any merit on the part of man. Between God and us there is an immeasurable inequality, for we have received everything from him, our Creator."

Sounds pretty Evangelical, doesn't it?

I want to suggest that the Catholic practice of sacraments is just as biblical as the Evangelical focus on grace and faith. After all, Jesus commanded us to pray, and Paul seemed to think that things like Confession and Baptism were pretty important in the Christian community (see especially Romans and Galatians).

I won't argue that the culture of Catholic practice could encourage a "works-based" mindset (just show up to confession and say your "Hail Marys" and you're good!) if not done carefully and critically. However, I also won't argue that the culture of most Evangelical churches can encourage a "head-based" mindset (just believe all the right theological statements and ignore physical actions or expressions, for they can't be trusted!) if not practiced carefully and critically.

My life and faith has been personally enriched by the presence of Catholic writers, priests, and friends. Therefore, I end with a plea to my Evangelical brothers and sisters: stop adhering to ill-informed notions of our Catholic siblings. For the sake of God's Kingdom on Earth, stop perpetuating out-dated rivalries and barriers. The world needs to hear the Gospel too badly for this to continue.

Lord, have mercy. Grace and peace to you.