As a child I had almost no direct contact with Catholicism. My family attended a small backwoods fundamentalist congregation — The First Church of Hellfire and Damnation, or something to that effect — and the preacher would often mention the Pope and Catholicism in one of his “Identifying the Antichrist” sermons. The Antichrist was hard to pin down and his identity invariably rotated between one of the select “heathen” groups: Chinese communists, the Russians, secular humanists, New England Senators. The Pope, though, was the favored candidate for ushering in the End of Days. And the “Whore of Babylon” was indisputably the Catholic Church.
This Jack Chick-style anti-Catholic bias was regrettably prevalent in rural Texas during my childhood. Fortunately, it never took root and as I grew up, I became more intrigued by both John Paul II and the Catholic Church. Over the years I’ve engaged more directly with Catholics and the teachings of the RC Church and my admiration and appreciation continues to grow.
Indeed, I’m often amazed when I consider how my thinking is shaped by Catholic social thought, the Just War tradition, and Natural Law theory. Although I do not always find myself in complete agreement, the Catholic perspective often causes me to rethink my views on such matters as contraception, IVF, just wages, and the death penalty.
As attached as I am to my own theological traditions (Reformed, Baptist, evangelical) there are many issues where they have historically come up short. In fact, I would argue that there are dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of areas in which we evangelicals should acknowledge a debt owed to our Catholic brothers and sisters.
Consider, for instance, three areas in which our fellow Christians within the Catholic faith have led the way:
On Mary, the mother of God — Many evangelicals suffer from a mild case of Maryphobia – the fear that any appreciation of Mary will be viewed as a sign that we’re closet Catholics. Oddly, while we are quick to defend the virgin birth, we are often hesitant to praise the virgin mother. Even during Christmas we often pay more attention to the magi than we do to the woman who gave birth to our Savior.
Our complete renunciation of Marian theology, however, often causes me to downplay the importance of Mary herself, indisputably one of the most incredible humans who every lived. How can we not be in awe of this woman when we realize she held God in her womb? Our Catholic friends remind us that Jesus wasn’t just the son of God; He was Mary’s son too.
On the Sanctity of Life — In a 1971 resolution on abortion, the Southern Baptist Convention resolved that “society has a responsibility to affirm through the laws of the state a high view of the sanctity of human life, including fetal life.” The largest Protestant denomination in America had a peculiar definition of “sanctity of human life”, however, for the very next sentence called upon Southern Baptists to “work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion” under such conditions as “fetal deformity” and damage to the “emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.” Three years later—and two years after Roe codified this position—the SBC reaffirmed the resolution. It wasn’t until 1980 that the SBC finally condemned abortion as a grave evil, a position that has always been maintained by the Catholic Church.
For nearly thirty years, evangelicals have been working to catch up to our Catholic brothers and sisters on issues of the sanctity of life. Even today, the Catholic Church is more consistent in its application. Sadly, many evangelicals are willing to turn a blind eye to embryo destruction when it occurs for purposes of in vitro fertilization or for biomedical research. We still have much to learn from the Catholics about how to respect the life that God has created.
Ecclesiology — One of the first principles of Reformed ecclesiology is that there is but one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. Because this principle is difficult to square with the existence 10,000+ different Protestant denominations, we claim that this refers only to the invisible church. But what about the church that is visible? After all, it is Jesus desire to “gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.” (John 11:51-52)
Although the split with the Catholic Church was tragically necessary, the reconciliation into one visible body should be an ecclesiological goal. In this area Catholics have often taken the lead in imparting a spirit of ecumenism. Documents such as Ut unum sint reflect the seriousness which Catholics approach the “call for Christian unity.”
Such unity, of course, must be predicated on acceptance of Biblical truths. Evangelicals can never abandon our commitment to such doctrines as sola fide (salvation by faith alone) in order to achieve consensus. We should, however, be constantly praying that the Spirit will reconcile the invisible church into one holy, catholic, apostolic, and visible Body of Christ.
Unlike Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, Sen. Sam Brownback, and Professor Steve Bainbridge, I won’t be crossing the Tiber. Because the theological differences I have with Catholicism are deep-rooted and currently irresolvable, I’ll remain an unabashedly Reformed evangelical. Yet I, like many evangelicals, have a deep love, respect, and admiration for my fellow believers in the Catholic Church. However much we might disagree, we evangelicals owe them a debt of gratitude for being co-belligerents, fellow servants, and exemplars of the faith.