Most Evangelicals will be confused by the headline. Of course Evangelicals shouldn’t become Catholic — for a long list of doctrinal reasons. If that’s your perspective I ask you to bear with me and accept the possibility that those doctrinal reasons don’t convince everybody, and, in fact, that some people find the Catholic arguments quite compelling.
Those are the people I’m addressing. So, all you Evangelicals out there who are considering the Catholic Church, please take a minute and listen to somebody who’s been through it. Yes, there are some pretty good doctrinal reasons to become Catholic. At least I used to think so, and many people still do. But with the wisdom of hindsight, I would like to ask you to consider that the practical, everyday mediocrity of the Catholic Church is the more important issue.
Evangelicals and Catholics measure churches by a completely different set of standards. Your average Evangelical might leave a church because he’s “not getting fed,” or because the Sunday School program is better somewhere else. There are reasons to criticize that kind of approach, but there are good reasons to admire it as well. It’s pretty practical. It realizes that the life of faith is like a muscle that has to be exercised.
Sometimes an Evangelical will leave a church and say that it was “dead.” It’s not just the lack of happy clappy songs or the predominance of old people. The “deadness” of the church may be a result of the content and style of the sermons, or it may refer to the education program. But in general it’s an assessment of how well the church makes the gospel compelling. How much it makes you want to live the Christian life.
Evangelicals have their standards like anybody else, but they have a fondness for results.
When I decided to enter the Catholic Church back in 1999, I knew what I was getting into. I knew the sermons would be tepid. I knew the educational program would be trite. I knew my kids wouldn’t be getting the same kind of faith-building discipleship they might receive at the local Awanas club. Yet despite urgent warnings from friends, I decided the doctrinal issues were more important.
I was wrong.
And I eventually lost all interest in Catholicism and, generally, in religion.
But I’m not out to ruin anybody’s faith. Rather, I’d like to help people who are happy in their faith to stay that way by avoiding the train wreck that is modern Catholicism. So if you’re an Evangelical who’s been taken by some of the fine-sounding apologetic arguments, please listen up.
You’ve probably heard the stories of happy converts. I ask you to stop and think critically about that for a moment. Might there be some confirmation bias going on?
How many people are going to say that they spent lots of time and energy fussing over the doctrine, finally converted and now … oops — it didn’t really work out that well.
It’s not a very compelling story.
And among those few who might want to tell that story, what publishing company is going to sponsor the project? There’s a market for “stories of ten people who found what they were looking for,” but maybe not so much for a collection of essays about people who converted to Catholicism and now wish they hadn’t. They’re out there, believe me. But how many magazines or blogs cover that topic?
The internet is full of convert stories, and lots of Catholics want you to believe that life is so much fuller and richer on that side of the Tiber. In fact, it is for some people. That’s great and I’m very happy for them. May their tribe increase.
But there is another story to be told.
It really does take a village
Parents can’t be everywhere at once. The fact that the neighbors might also be watching helps children to behave. More than that, the village has to support what the parents are saying. If everything the parents say around the dinner table is contradicted by the culture, the kids will eventually decide that their parents are out of touch … and maybe a little crazy.
When I was in high school my band teacher told me something that contradicted something my father said. I mentioned that, and the band teacher (an old Italian guy) immediately said, “That’s right. Listen to your father.”
That’s the way it should be. The culture should be supporting parents. Unfortunately it’s not that way today, and most of the culture undermines parents.
It’s very hard to limit those negative influences. But one place a parent has a clear choice is in what church to attend, and it’s important that what the kids hear on Sunday reinforces what they hear at home.
While there may be limited exceptions, you’re not going to get that support in the Catholic Church! It’s not that they say the wrong things. At least not most of the time. It’s that on the extremely rare occasion when any kind of practical topic is even addressed in the church, it’s done in such a milquetoast way that nobody even notices. And the pastor is so doggone boring that the kids zone out. Even in those very rare occasions where the priest is a good preacher and says all the right things, there’s no support structure surrounding the message. It’s just the silly guy in the robe talking. And Mom and Dad pay him to say that stuff!
Contrast that with a good Evangelical church. The whole structure supports families. Not just the sermons, but Sunday School and youth groups and activities and the volunteers who lead these things. A parent who wants their child to hear a conservative, “family values” message — in a context that will actually do some good — is almost certainly going to do better at an Evangelican church than at the Catholic parish.
So my first message to the Evangelical who is interested in Catholicism is to put a little perspective in your measurements. What’s more important to you — being in the “right” church, from some bookish, doctrinal perspective, or being in a church that helps your kids grow up with the values you want?
Since you won’t find the support you want in the parish, conservative Catholics have to look for it somewhere else. And, fortunately, there are such groups in the Catholic Church, although they can be hard to find. One of them is Opus Dei. Another is … (cue eerie music) … Regnum Christi. (Add horror show sound effect.)
Of course you’ve heard of the abuse crisis in the Catholic Church. Fr. Marcial Maciel was one of the abusers. He was also the force behind the Legion of Christ and its lay affiliate, Regnum Christi.
These groups are mind-control cults designed to support the late Fr. Maciel in his delusions of sainthood. They’re also incredibly effective organizations that do cool stuff, support good family values and help familes raise decent kids.
Bizarre is hardly the word for it.
Fr. Maciel was a favorite of John Paul II, and it’s pretty astonishing how many high muckety mucks and influential people were deceived by this fraud. The late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus famously wagged an accusing finger at anybody who dared credit the negative stories.
Catholics like to make fun of the anarchy that seems endemic to Protestantism. All these denominations teaching all these different things. What a mess. Who’s in charge?
Well …. Who’s in charge of the Catholic Church? The pope and, apparently, just about everybody at the Vatican was deceived by Maciel. For all their organization and oversight and such, how come nobody knew about this guy? Maciel’s life shows that all those Catholic claims about the bishops and the hierarchy and the Holy Spirit guiding the church and such don’t amount to much, practically speaking.
And Maciel isn’t the only creep, and Regnum Christi isn’t the only cult. There’s Miles Christi and the fringe characters who obsess on Garabandal and Medjugorje, just to name a few.
Sure, Protestants argue about baptism and the rapture and can get into some weird obsessions about the end times. From a strictly doctrinal perspective, Catholicism might look like a haven of stability and sanity. But that’s only if you look at it the way they want you to look at it. Catholics are just as fractured and confused — just over different things. And some of those things are really, really creepy.
So please imagine that you’re holding an old-fashioned scale, like the one Lady Justice has. On the one side, put “Protestants are fractured on doctrinal issues.” On the other side put the abuse crisis and all the associated bad management. Now hold it at arms’ length and see which way it’s leaning.
The Sissiness of it All
I’m going to lose some friends on this one, but I bought some extras to cover my losses, so it should be okay.
The Catholic Church is not a welcoming place for men. I know that doesn’t sound right, because all we hear about in the press is how the Catholic Church is a male-dominated institution. It’s not. In the least.
Yes, men are nominally in charge, although in most cases it’s the women who fill the pews and run the parishes. But that’s not really what I’m talking about. The problem isn’t that woman run the ministries. The problem is that Catholicism is culturally effeminate, and without some kind of strenuous intervention it will alienate men and make boys think that religion is for sissies.
There are lots of reasons for this, and some very interesting things have been written on the topic it you want to pursue it. Just to give you a tidbit, women, like Catholics, are more contemplative and emotional while men, like Protestants, are more interested in practical issues and getting something done.
Yes, I know that’s a broad generalization, but I’m talking in broad generalities. Call me a Neanderthal if it makes you feel better. And I’m not going to try to convince you in this short article. I just want to plant the seed in your mind and let you stew on the thought for a while, because as soon as you let the concept rattle around in your brain it will become so horribly obvious that you won’t be able to miss it. It will start to leap out at you and you’ll wonder how you didn’t see it before.
Right along with this problem is the feeling you’ll get about every other week at mass when they’re reading that horrible “translation” they use. You’ll feel like you’ve been poked in the eye with a sharp stick, because the American bishops have allowed some committee to mangle and neuter the Bible. They’re so intent on keeping patriarchy out of the readings that they’ll stoop to the most God-awful translations imaginable to avoid it.
And then you’ve got to reckon with John Paul II, the alleged hero of conservatives, who piles on the anti-male agenda. He went completely off the rails with a somewhat ridiculous attempt to undermine the biblical and traditional teachings about male headship. (I’m not kidding. Look it up. And as a general review of whether JPII was a conservative, read David Palm’s article, Catholic Confusion at the Very Top)
I don’t like writing about this topic because calling the church “effeminate” makes it sound like there’s something wrong with femininity. There absolutely is not. That’s why “sissiness” is the better word.
So be warned. If you’re a conservative Evangelical, you probably agree with the biblical teaching that the father is the head of the home. That belief will be undermined and attacked in ways you can hardly imagine at your local Catholic Church.
Once again, put your issues on the scales and see what’s more important to you — an allegedly infallible Magisterium, or a church that completely misunderstands the biblical teachings on fatherhood.
Music and Liturgy
While I’ve got you thinking about the lousy translation of the Bible used at mass, don’t think that’s the end of it. They not only mangle the passages they do read, they make “controversial” readings optional. Yep, that’s right. If somebody doesn’t want to hear the “offensive” parts of Ephesians 5, they just don’t read it.
There’s reverence for you. And a great example for the kids, right?
When you hear “The Word of the Lord,” you’re trained to say, “Thanks be to God.” But if it bothers you, well … never mind. I guess that wasn’t God after all.
Of course the neutering isn’t limited to the text of the Bible. They also change hymns and Christmas carols to avoid offending the feminists. And the other songs they sing …. It’s hard to describe them, but I’ll give it my best shot.
If you imagine what you’d get from group of scared, neurotic, musical bunny rabbits in velour, turtle-neck sweaters, drinking sherry and composing little ditties on one of those really old synthesizers, that’s about what you can expect for music in the Catholic Church.
I have a musically talented friend who approached me after mass one day with a pained expression on his face. He said, “You know, sometimes I look around the church and I ask myself, ‘Is everybody here insane?’”
The apologists like to portray the Catholic Church as an old, wise institution that takes the long view and isn’t swayed by passing fads. Don’t believe a word of it. Fads rule.
Take out those scales again. What’s more important to you, being in the “correct” church, or being in a church that lives up to its alleged standards?
The Magisterium as Professor Trelawney
A couple times I’ve alluded to the Catholic doctrine of the infallibility of the church. Just to be clear, the Catholic Church teaches that the decrees of an ecumenical council are infallible when they address faith or morals, and that the pope is infallible when he addresses the entire church on faith or morals.
It’s a pretty complicated issue, with lots of historical twists and turns. For example, not all of the decrees of the Council of Constance are considered infallible because the pope only approved some of them. You won’t be surprised to read that he didn’t approve the decrees that said a council can overrule a pope, which, if you think about it, is somewhat like that Star Trek episode where Kirk tells the android Norman that everything Harry Mudd says is a lie, and then Mudd says “I’m lying.”
Anyway, the allegedly infallible stuff is a small part of what the church does. Most of the rest is from the local bishop or a local council. That stuff is reliably lame, and when it addresses a political issue, reliably left of center. Except, of course, on abortion and same-sex marriage.
If you want to do a little homework on this, go find Robert Bork’s response (in an old issue of First Things) to the bishops’ recent position on the death penalty. It’s quite instructive.
The overall impression you get, after listening to these guys for a while, is that the folks who make up this mystical “Magisterium” are a bunch of barely competent old guys with limited talent who are always making silly pronouncements on things they don’t quite understand, but you’re supposed to believe that when they meet in ecumenical council … abracazam … they prophesy.
It reminds me of Professor Trelawney in the Harry Potter books. She spends most of her time acting like a complete loon, but a couple times she goes into a trance and genuinely blurts out a real prediction.
Take out your scales again, friends. On the left, put the doctrinal certainty you might get if you believed that the Magisterium had actually ruled on something infallibly, and on the right put the day to day reality that most of what they say and do is pedestrian at best.
Word and Sacrament
The trump card for many Catholics is that they “have the Eucharist.” And you don’t.
In Catholic theology, the Eucharist is the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ, and believers receive all kinds of “graces” when they partake.
The longer I’ve been Catholic the more I’ve realized that this is the old hammer and nail problem. You know the saying, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem begins to look like a nail.”
The mass is repetitive and boring. The music is trite. The translation of the Bible is sophomoric. The preaching is weak. Their only unique selling proposition is a collection of specially ordained priests who can say the words and transform bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ.
Since that’s their only real claim to fame, that’s often the default message. “Okay, all this other stuff may be true. You have better preaching. You have Sunday School. You have a congregation of people who love the Lord and live like they mean it. But we have the Eucharist, and the Eucharist is Jesus, and that’s all there is to it.”
This article is for people who are tempted by Catholic apologetics, so let’s assume for the sake of argument that Catholic theology is correct on this point. How do we put this issue on the scales?
I’ve seen and felt the practical impact of good preaching, and if you’re an Evangelical, you have too.
Have you ever seen the practical impact of good sacraments?
Okay, maybe a few of you have, maybe a little. Maybe you’ve seen someone deepen their prayer life by praying in front of the Eucharist. But how big of an impact is it?
Everything about the sacraments is this hidden stuff that you’re just supposed to believe. There’s no evidence. There’s no clear effect. There’s just words and promises that don’t seem to have any reality behind them.
I’ve seen word without sacrament, and I’ve seen sacrament without word, and I think I can see a pretty profound difference. Word without sacrament works. Hearts are touched and lives are changed.
Sacrament without word isn’t very impressive. Which leads me to believe that of the two, the word is more important.
Obedience is what matters
Conservative Protestants have more in common with conservative Catholics than either have with the liberals in the pew next to them. That’s because conservatives believe in the idea of being discipled. They recognize a standard above and outisde of themselves, and they’re willing to be changed to conform to it.
In Protestant churches that means obedience to the Bible. In Catholic churches it means obedience to the Magisterium. What seems to make all the difference is the willingness to be transformed.
No, that’s not quite it. It’s the joy in being a disciple. The yoke is easy and light because it’s accepted gladly.
That’s what’s going to make the difference in your faith. Doctrine won’t. Abstract notions of the “right” church won’t. What’s going to matter to you in the long haul is being somewhere that encourages and supports you in your decision to take that yoke upon you.
I don’t think you’re going to get that encouragement or support in the Catholic Church. I know that I did not.
The final appeal
Most Catholics will chafe and argue with a lot of what I’ve said, but some will say, “Okay, all that may be true. So come and help us! We need people like you.”
There’s an appeal to that. If you’re an Evangelical, you like a good mission. You might think you’ll be able to bring some life to the frozen chosen.
Don’t fall for it. The Catholic Church isn’t what you’re used to. There aren’t adult Sunday School classes you can teach. You will have little or no outlet for your gifts and few opportunities to serve. Except soup kitchens and things. And I’m not knocking soup kitchens in any way, but it hardly answers the promise of the “we need people like you” talk.
They’ll just draft you to teach 5th grade CCD, and you’ll be fielding questions from kids who want to know if it’s a sin to wear a rosary. You’ll have doctrinal questions for the pastor and he won’t have any idea what you’re talking about. You’ll have a hard time finding like-minded souls.
If you’re single, if you have enormous patience and if you believe that you’re called to this sort of mind-numbing sacrifice, … well, okay. Don’t forget that I warned you, but if that’s what you want.
Think of this the way you would think of a mission trip into hostile territory. You can sacrifice your own life on some crazy idea, but don’t think about bringing a wife or kids along with you.
They won’t be eaten by cannibals. They’ll be lulled into spiritual torpor. They’ll get accustomed to thinking that the Bible is really boring, only to be read out of duty, and practically irrelevant. They’ll think that their chief moral obligation in life is to feed the homeless.
Or, perhaps worse, they’ll get caught up in weird Catholic devotions that will make you feel like an alien in your own home. They’ll actually believe Catholic rhetoric, and you’ll be grinding your teeth and pulling out your hair.