Too many people confuse ancient Christianity with Catholicism—and need to get over their anti-Catholic prejudices.
In some of my posts about the stations of the cross, which I was writing about as Easter 2016 approached, I got trolled. Certain commenters (whom I’ve deleted and blacklisted, obviously) objected, profanely, to my writing about “Catholic stuff.”
I get this kind of pushback every so often. Because I write about Christianity, every so often I’m gonna write about medieval and ancient Christianity. The medieval stuff would be the Christianity which took place before Protestantism was invented in 1517. And the ancient stuff would be the Christianity which took place before Catholicism was invented—back when there was only one universal church, back before the Christians split into Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholics by holding separate Fourth Councils of Constantinople in the 870s (and finalized in the Great Schism of 1054).
But your average person nowadays doesn’t know jack squat about history, much less Christian history. So as soon as I start writing about any Christian practices outside of their own particular denomination, some of ’em immediately assume I’m trying to push the denomination where those events took place. If it happened among Lutherans, they assume I’ve gone Lutheran; if it happened in the Church of England, they leap to the conclusion I’m a secret Episcopalian; and if among Catholics, I must be some kind of crypto-Catholic.
And they absolutely aren’t Catholic. On the contrary: They’re very, very anti-Catholic.
Usually they were raised to be. As was I. ’Member I mentioned I grew up Fundamentalist? I’d been baptized Catholic, but Mom left Catholicism for Protestantism when I was a preschooler. Well, we very quickly wound up in the sort of Fundie churches which were quick to warn us against the “dangers” and “evils” of the Roman church.
How their many customs were simply repurposed pagan rituals. How they did holy communion and baptism wrong. How they prayed rote prayers instead of real prayers. How they prayed to Mary and saints instead of Jesus and the Father. How they followed the pope instead of Jesus—and sometimes how the pope was destined to become the beast of
Complete with “proof”—lots of scary diagrams they showed us on the overhead projectors, showing us what Catholic practices and symbols really mean. Take this one, found in the literature published by anti-Catholic (really, anti-everything) tract-pusher Jack T. Chick:
From Jack T. Chick’s anti-Catholic propaganda, “Are Roman Catholics Christians?” based in part on conspiracy theorist Alexander Hislop. [Jack T. Chick]
Chick’s literature is notorious for how often he mangles simple facts; he can’t even quote the King James Version accurately. But he’s far from alone. His tract is just one of many distorted, slanderous, or just-pain-invented-from-scratch “facts” anti-Catholics will claim.
Hang out with these people (though I really recommend you don’t), and you’ll quickly get the idea Catholics aren’t just heretics, but a dangerous, devil-plagued cult. The bit in the recent years about kiddy-fiddling priests? Great anti-Catholic fodder. (Even though far more Protestant pastors have been caught covering up the very same things in their own churches.)
Where’d it come from? Politics.
There are a lot of anti-Catholics in the United States. There have been ever since our founding.
Y’see, the British colonies in North America were founded in the 1600s, decades after King Henry 8 left the Church of Rome in 1534 to create the Church of England. Henry didn’t leave that church over theological differences. On the contrary; Henry had famously sided with the Catholics when it came to Martin Luther and Protestantism, with his 1521 book Defense of the Seven Sacraments. (It’s what got him that title “Defender of the Faith” from Pope Leo 10.) Henry left the church over a power struggle: He wanted a divorce, and Pope Clement 7 wouldn’t grant him one. So Henry took over the English church, and appointed an archbishop who granted him one.
Back then there was no such thing as separation of church and state. If you were a loyal British subject, you were either in the Church of England or the Scots Kirk. You might join one of the other denominations like the Quakers, but people would consider you weird and suspect. And Catholics were considered traitors and conspirators, who were either Irish insurgents, foreigners who wanted to overthrow the king and realign the state with Rome, or nutjobs who wished to blow up Parliament like Guy Fawkes. If you wanted to demonstrate your fealty towards Henry and his successors (except his Catholic daughter Mary, of course) you were expected to show your disdain for the Church of Rome and the papacy. For any reason: If you didn’t know any real reasons, invented ones would do.
This mandatory Catholic-bashing leaked into the English, Scottish, and American churches, and we’ve been doing it ever since. Don’t always realize why we do it. Don’t care, either. We’re quick to assume the worst, and reluctant to investigate rumors. Heck, I’ve encountered many people who are furious when I point out the rumors they spread are false. How dare I tell ’em to stop bashing the opposition? What kind of disloyal Protestant am I?
See, this partisanship—a work of the flesh, by the by
Are Roman Catholics Christians?
If a Catholic is truly Catholic, they’re an authentic, orthodox Christian.
’Cause a lot of self-described Catholics aren’t truly Catholic. They’re simply Christianists who figure they’re Catholic because they were born to a Catholic family, or born into a Catholic community, or were baptized Catholic. (Like me. Whenever one of those folks call themselves Catholic ’cause they were baptized, I’ll quickly pipe up, “Then I guess I’m Catholic too!—but a really lousy one, considering I keep going to Protestant churches.”)
Problem is, there’s a very large, almost disproportionate number, of Christianists who consider themselves Catholic. The older a denomination gets, the more things get this way. To pagans, big and old mean institutional and successful, and that’s how they wanna be seen. They belong to a “proper” church, a “real” church—and to them that’s Catholicism. You’ll find the very same attitude among the Orthodox and the mainline Protestants. And if your community has a big impressive megachurch, you’ll see a lot of hypocrites join that crowd too. Everybody loves a winner.
Hence tons of so-called “Catholics” never go to Mass, disagree with half the stuff the pope teaches, have no clue what Jesus teaches, and wouldn’t listen to him any more than they do their priests. Culturally they’re “Catholic,” but personally they’re pagan. It’s why I’ve learned to disregard our labels: When I meet people who call themselves Catholic, I pry to find out whether they’re really Catholic. Likewise people who call themselves Baptist, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, a “bible-believing Christian,” and so forth. Labels are far too often misapplied. Can’t trust ’em.
So when I really want to know what a person believes, I get specific: Is Jesus God? Is the Holy Spirit a person? What’s the purpose of communion? What’s the purpose of confession? How’s God’s grace work? (Catholics have a slightly different answer from Protestants, but it’s still good.) And if I wanna push their political buttons: How do you feel about abortion and the death penalty?
See, I’ve learned how a true Catholic should answer such questions. I read the Catechism. I know what their church officially teaches. If they can’t answer these questions adequately, I know I’ve got a fake Catholic. Real Catholics not only know the answers, they care about these answers. Because they care about their relationship with Jesus—and the reason they participate in the life and teachings of their church, their one and only goal, is growing that relationship. In other words, true religion. ’Cause they’re true Christians.
Yep, true Christians. They trust God’s grace for their salvation. They can say the creeds and mean ’em. We might definitely differ on a lot of issues—and we might even mistakenly try to turn these issues into dealbreakers. But at the end of the day we’re sisters and brothers in Christ.
Whereas fake Christians or fake Catholics: They won’t seek and find any common ground. Or even bother to look for it.
Got an anti-Catholic? Then you may not have a Christian.
We’re not saved by orthodoxy. We’re saved by a having a relationship with God, through Jesus. What’s the proof of this relationship? Such Christians are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and as a result we produce fruit. Just that simple. No fruit, no Christian.
Fake Christians claim isn’t not fruit which proves our Christianity; it’s orthodoxy. If we don’t believe all the right things, we’re not Christian—and by this metric, they figure they’re Christian, Catholics aren’t, I’m not, and probably you aren’t. It’s often a mighty narrow metric.
But it’s not Jesus’s metric, it’s not the scripture’s metric, and Jesus isn’t gonna give us a theology quiz before he lets us into the kingdom. He’s gonna point to what we did—our fruit.
What kind of fruit do we see in your average anti-Catholic? It’s not a compassionate concern for anyone’s salvation. It’s usually bile. Argumentativeness, partisanship, anger, fighting, slander; a whole lot of abusive behavior, and self-justification for every rotten thing they do and say.
So what’re we really dealing with when we come across most anti-Catholics? Frankly, someone who wants to contribute to the works of the devil—and get away with it by claiming they’re fighting for Jesus.
I’m not saying Protestants won’t disagree with Catholics on various beliefs. Of course we will—and do. Heck, we disagree with fellow Protestants on various beliefs. We disagree with fellow members of our churches. Even siblings and spouses will argue! But like Paul instructed, anger needs to be cut off before the end of the day
Our debates need to remain civil and respectful. And truthful—if we’ve misrepresented the other side, we need to admit it and repent, not defend our misbehavior because we desperately wanna win the fight. If we win any debate dishonestly, we’ve certainly not won it for God.
And at the end of the day—tough as this can be to swallow for certain know-it-alls—we must close with the recognition we’re all trying to follow the same Lord, worship the same God, and obey the same Spirit. Maybe not perfectly, ’cause none of us have it right. But that’s why we’re saved by grace, right?