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One's basic religious assumptions act as a lens onto the world; like the proverbial rose-colored glasses, they color everything one sees, and the Protestant and Catholic lenses are no different. From what I've seen, the differences between these worldviews boil down to differences in the following:
- our various perceptions of the Incarnation
- sheer scope, i.e., the Catholic sense of time, space, and supernatural, preternatural, and natural orders
- our respective views of our co-operation with God and our interconnectedness
- the common Protestant “either/or” phenomenon -vs- the Catholic "both/and" way of dealing with various concepts
One of the basic distinctions between the two views of the world is that the Catholic worldview is grounded firmly in the reality and ramifications of the Incarnation. God's universe, created perfect, is now broken -- but it is marbled with sanctification, especially since God Himself took on flesh. Many brands of Protestantism, on the other hand, tend to see (or at least behave as though they see) matter as evil and man only as "utterly depraved," leading to a Puritanism that strips Christianity of its rich lushness and very humane-ness. The soul is seen as totally distinct from the body, the latter being a prison to the former and a hindrance in every way to the desire to become holy. For Catholics, this dualism does not exist.
There seems to be great offense taken, for example, at the Catholic use of Crucifixes instead of Crosses, of statues and icons instead of bare plaster walls, our use of "mere things" to enhance our relationship with God. This reaction, sometimes hysterical on the part of members of certain denominations, is the product of a religious outlook that would almost have to be scandalized by the Second Person of the Trinity's very Incarnation to be consistent. He "came eating and drinking," He wept, He bled, He died! "Yes, yes," they might say, "but He rose again! Why don't you focus on that instead of all that other -- dirty -- stuff?"
First, the very reason we worship on Sunday instead of the old Shabbat is because the Resurrection happened on Sunday! Second, the main Mystery of Christianity, however, is not His Resurrection, but His redemptive Sacrifice -- that same Sacrifice whose fruits are offered to us in an unbloody manner at the Mass. This is the key to understanding Catholic spirituality: many Protestants tend to focus only on "the Paschal Mystery," on Christ's having walked out of His tomb. But it wasn't His Resurrection alone that saved us; it was, and is, His Blood that redeems.
At any rate, even though it's obvious that the Resurrection is central to the faith (um, isn't that the greatest evidence of the Truth of Christianity?), neither do Catholics gloss over the Incarnation, or try to "prettify" it, because it is an essential Mystery of the Faith. God became man!
God became man...
Meditating on the Mysteries of His incarnate life (in addition to His glorious Mysteries) 1 is to dive into a profound sea of riches. It is in imagining God Himself as a tiny baby in Mary's arms that we understand humility and the wonderful graces given to our Blessed Mother. The Second Person of the Trinity, helpless but for her and St. Joseph! Incredible! In meditating on the various stages and events of His life, we learn how to live, how to act, how to react, how to be. And in empathizing with the sufferings He endured on the Cross, we learn to offer our own sufferings up, joining them together with His own. Colossians 1:23-24: "If so ye continue in the faith, grounded and settled, and immoveable from the hope of the gospel which you have heard, which is preached in all the creation that is under heaven: whereof I Paul am made a minister. Who now rejoice in my sufferings for you and fill up those things that are wanting of the sufferings of Christ, in my flesh, for his body, which is the church. "
Remembering His sufferings and that He took on flesh that was heir to the "slings and arrows" Shakespeare wrote about helps give meaning and depth to our own sufferings. It makes our pains, large or small, holy and gives them cosmic significance. Lose your job? Think of Jesus on the Cross. House burn down? Think of Jesus on the Cross. And if you get really good at the Catholic approach to life, you can think of Him the second you stub your toe! (If you're like me, it might be after you scream &^%$ first! Hey, I'm working on it!) When you hear one Catholic tell another who's going through some hardship to "offer it up," what is being said is, "Remember the meaning of what you are going through! Give this suffering to Jesus; join it with the pain He endured on the Cross..." In those three short words, "offer it up," is a universe of solace and dignity.
Because of His Passion and Sacrifice that we Catholics love to contemplate, matter can be sanctified, suffering can be sanctified, flesh can be sanctified, we can be sanctified. Who but a Catholic could have written Canticle of the Creatures, as St. Francis of Assisi did?:
Most High, all powerful, good Lord God, Thine are the praises, the glory, the honour, and every blessing, To Thee alone, most High, do they belong, and no man is worthy to mention Thy name.
Praised be Thee, my Lord, with all Thy creatures, especially Sir Brother Sun, Who is the day and through whom Thou givest us light. And he is beautiful and radiant with great splendour; and bears a likeness of Thee, Most High One.
Praised be Thee, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars, in heaven Thou hast formed them clear and precious and beautiful.
Praised be Thee, my Lord, through Brother Wind, and through the air, cloudy and serene, and every kind of weather through which Thou givest sustenance to Thy creatures.
Praised be Thee, my Lord, through Sister Water, which is very useful and humble and precious and chaste.
Praised be Thee, my Lord, through Brother Fire, through whom Thou lightest the night, and he is beautiful and playful and robust and strong.
Praised be Thee, My Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces varied fruits with coloured flowers and herbs.
Praised be Thee, My Lord, through those who give pardon for the sake of Thy love, and bear infirmity and tribulation. Blessed are they who endure in peace, for by Thee, Most High, they shall be crowned.
Praised be Thee, my Lord, through our Sister Death, from whom no living man can escape. Woe only to those who die in mortal sin. Blessed are those whom death will find in Thy most holy will, for the second death shall do them no harm.
Praise and bless my Lord and give Him thanks And serve Him with great humility.
When St. Francis looked about and saw God's creation, he saw the Divine Will that created it and sustains it from moment to moment. In its beauty, he saw evidence, he saw "sacrament"! This is the Catholic way. 2
Nowhere is this acknowledgement of His Incarnation more evident than in the Catholic reverence of the Eucharist, an often mocked phenomenon. To Jack Chick and his ilk, the Eucharist is "the death cookie"; to some it is an idol or just plain silly. The sociologically fascinating thing about this rhetoric is that most of these same people wouldn't dream of laughing at the Israelites' bowing before the Ark of the Covenant or their insistence that God truly was present in the Holy of Holies. Why, that would be "anti-semitic," you know -- at the least not politically correct and culturally sensitive! Somehow those Old Testament practices don't violate the tenets of that common "Christian" dualism. But when a Catholic honors God in the Eucharist, it's open season.
I guess that while it's almost reluctantly admitted that, yes, God became man, it is, to some, out of the question that He could, would, and does become bread and wine -- rather, that bread and wine become Him. This denial is maintained despite the fact that He held up bread and wine and said, "This IS my body, this IS my blood," "My flesh is meat indeed, and My blood is drink indeed" -- and despite the fact that every single Church Father, from Ignatius to Irenaeus to Augustine, believed what their fellow Catholics still believe today. I often wonder what these people think of when they contemplate (if they do) that Jesus took mud and spit and used it to heal a man's eyes. Why? Why mud and spit? Why didn't He just say "allakhazam" and be done with it? Beats me, but that's what He did. Mud and spit. Bread and wine. Matter sanctified. Take it up with God, not with Catholics. [read more on Sacramentalism]
Another difference is that the Catholic worldview is -- bigger than that of most Protestants. We see the Church as consisting not only of those saints on earth, but of those "poor souls" who are in Purgatory and those who are in Heaven. We are all brothers and sisters in Christ, bound as true family by His blood, collapsing space and time into a divine singularity, the Church. The souls of those Christians whose bodies have lain for two millennia in the dank Roman and Neapolitan catacombs, the souls of the medieval canonized Saints, the Catholics who preserved the faith during the Protestant persecutions and the French Revolution -- all these are our brothers and sisters, still members of that one Church. And this Church isn't thought of as a "denomination," as one choice among many or a variation on a theme that one "prefers" or doesn't; She is The Church founded by Christ through Peter. Beyond that, She is older than Her 2,000 -- two thousand -- years; as Israel, She reaches back to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. She is both in time and timeless. Like a Platonic Idea, She's an idea in the mind of God and of which the earthly Church is the manifestation. This is why Catholics typically don't speak of Protestant "churches" but of Protestant "faith communities" or some such; there is only one Church -- and those non-Catholic groups aren't it in any formal sense. This isn't a matter of disrespect toward individual Protestants or a denial of their individual holiness, their relationship with Christ or of their potential for salvation if they act in invincible ignorance; it's a simple statement of fact.
The Catholic is reminded of this -- this vastness, this connection to both the past and eternity, by the things he sees every day. Every priest has been ordained by a bishop who's been ordained by a bishop who's been ordained by a bishop... who was ordained by the Apostles who were ordained by Christ, the very Ancient of Days, the Eternal One; the Sacraments are based on New Testament commands, which were prefigured in the Old Covenant's ways; our liturgical forms and gestures are rooted in the Temple and post-Exile synagogues... What we do on Sundays has been done for two millenia by countless Catholic saints, is being done at Churches all over the earth, and is being done in Heaven. The Church spans and transcends history, and the Church Militant transcends the natural order when the Catholic has a mystical experience, prays to a Saint, or goes to Mass -- where God is in the Tabernacle -- and actually worships instead of only engaging in "fellowship." The Catholic Church is big; Her view of God is not only immanent, but transcendent.
Our co-operation with God and our interconnectedness
Another difference between the Catholic view of things and that of many Protestant groups concerns our respective ideas about the meaning of our sanctification and the nature of our relationship with Christ. I know it's tricky to speak of these things as there are so many different non-Catholic Christian groups, all with differing theologies, but my general experience has been that while many of these have the right formula concerning man's nature -- i.e., "we are made in the image of God but are fallen" -- it is often lived as though man is utterly vile and can in no way co-operate with his redemption. Some go so far as to deny free will, turning man from a creature made in the image of God to a creature more like an evil Charlie McCarthy whom, if he's lucky, God will choose to elect and save despite himself.
Now, when a Catholic says what I've just said, he is often accused of somehow "taking away" from Christ; to even intimate that our being made in the image of God is a deep truth with real theological implications is often considered blasphemous somehow when those implications are spelled out. We all agree that man's nature is fallen, that we can't save ourselves no matter what we do, that Christ is the Redeemer, the Way, the Truth, the Life, and that no man can see the Father but through Him. The differences come in how we relate to these Truths.
For Catholics, we are to put on Christ so that we can become divinized (theosis) and share in His Sonship, becoming true heirs of the Father. In doing this, we work out our salvation in fear and trembling (Phillipians 2:12) and assist one another, pray for one another, teach one another, and participate in the Sacramental life of Christ's Church. We are our brother's keeper... it does take a village (but it doesn't take government programs, Hillary!).
For many non-Catholic "Christians," it's just "the individual, the Bible, and Jesus," and, ignoring the question of where the Bible came from in the first place, any mention of man and his institutions assisting in the plan of salvation is seen as a contradiction of 1 Timothy 2:5, "For there is one God, and one mediator of God and men, the man Christ Jesus." This, of course, ignores that which comes four verses before --
I desire therefore, first of all, that supplications, prayers, intercessions and thanksgivings be made for all men.
and two verses after --
Whereunto I am appointed a preacher and an apostle (I say the truth, I lie not), a doctor of the Gentiles in faith and truth.
-- let alone the rest of the Book which is filled with teachings and exhortations, showing clearly that Paul acted as a "mediator" among the Word, the word, and the people. James 5:19-20 clearly speaks of the roles we humans play in salvation --
My brethren, if any of you err from the truth and one convert him: He must know that he who causeth a sinner to be converted from the error of his way shall save his soul from death and shall cover a multitude of sins.
-- as does 1 Timothy 4:16:
Take heed to thyself and to doctrine: be earnest in them. For in doing this thou shalt both save thyself and them that hear thee.
The philosophy seen in some brands of Protestantism ignores Scripture like the above and overlooks obvious anthropological Truths: we are born in time, in space, of flesh, and totally dependent on a myriad of things -- social structures, our families, culture and language, etc. The Catholic Church isn't so radically individualistic, and it doesn't deny the roles we, as Christians, play in salvation -- both our own and others'. When speaking to members of some of the more anti-Catholic groups about such things as, for ex., the role Mary plays in salvation history (g'head and try to deny it), it is sad that the Catholic use of a word (say "mediator") is latched onto with a pitbull's bite, BAM! -- out comes the I Timothy "proof text," and the idea is attacked with the same lack of consideration given to the context of the very chapter that contains the "proof text." One can almost hear a steel door slam shut in the course of this strange display of verbal dogmatism: "Aha! You said 'mediator'! That's all I have to know because I know my I Timothy 2:5, heathen!" This in spite of the fact that there are huge Protestant televangelist empires, Bible printing and distribution industries, and much time is wonderfully spent with prayer groups praying for one another (dare I say "interceding" for one another?) and in evangelizing. If that's not "mediation," then what is? It's almost as though there is either a double-standard, one for Catholics and one for others, or there's in effect a Pharisaic interpretation of the word "mediator" that precludes common sense and every day experience!
The same sort of eisegesis applies to things like Mary's sinlessness (the use of the word "all" in Romans 3 while ignoring obvious exceptions), Mary's perpetual virginity (latching onto the mention of Jesus' "brothers" and the word "firstborn" while ignoring the rest of the verses that tell who the real mothers of those "brothers" are and while ignoring Jewish law), faith "-vs-" works (latching on to Ephesians 2:8-9 while ignoring a boatload of other verses, including the entire Book of James), etc. While this is certainly not true of all Protestant denominations, it is true that the leaders and members of some Protestant groups lack -- how shall we say? -- subtlety. Eh, and so it goes.
Either/Or -vs- Both/And
This brings us to the "either/or" phenomenon found in some Christian groups. It appears to work like this:
- "if you don't believe that faith alone saves, then you must believe that you can work your way into Heaven (something Catholics are constantly falsely accused of believing),"
- "if you don't believe in sola scriptura, then you are a follower of the 'traditions of men',"
- "if you think we can cooperate in our salvation, then you're saying that Christ isn't enough,"
- "if you believe that one can freely turn his back on God, then you're denying God's omnipotence," etc.
These either/or arguments consist of an "if" statement, coupled with an implied premise that amounts to a false dichotomy, and followed by an invalid conclusion.
Catholic rebuttals to these sorts of assertions often rely on the heavy use of prepositions:
- "we are saved by grace, through faith and works inspired by the Holy Spirit's love,"
- "the source of Christian Truth is the Church that is guided by the Holy Spirit and which is both the source of and is bound by Sacred Scripture,"
- "we are saved solely by the grace of the Cross, with which we must co-operate,"
- "God can do whatever He wants that doesn't contradict His Nature and Goodness, but He chose to give us free will with which we can freely choose Him," etc.
It's been said that the Catholic Church is a "both/and" Church; another way of saying it is that, when arguing with Protestants, we are a "Yes, but..." Church:
- "Yes, grace saves through faith -- but a faith that works,"
- "Yes, Christ is the only way to the Father, but we Christians co-operate with Him in His divine plan and therefore, in a real but limited sense, play a co-redemptive role in salvation history,"
- "Yes, we must be born again, but 'born again' refers to Baptism,"
- "Yes, Christ is the Spiritual Rock of the Church, but He made Peter the earthly Rock" etc.
Like I intimated, subtlety required. We don't see dichotomies where none exist.
1 Meditating on the Mysteries of the lives of Jesus and Mary is precisely what praying the Rosary is all about. When one prays the Rosary, one meditates on one of three groups of Mysteries -- the Glorious, the Sorrowful, or the Joyful -- while praying the "Hail Mary," the "Our Father," and the "Glory Be" prayers and using prayer beads to count those prayers so that one's mind can be kept free to meditate on the Mysteries in question.
2 This respect for the sacramentalism (small "S") of His creation must be absolutely separated from any ideas of pantheism, an increasingly common religious attitude, especially in those whose thinking has been corrupted by "New Age" thinking. God, in His Divine Essence, is wholly separate from His creation by not being at all bound by it or limited to it. He created it, sustains it, and uses it for our good, and it is in that sense that He is "in" it (of course, too, He became man in the womb of the Virgin!). You are not God, I am not God, collectively we are not God, and the universe is not God; God is God, and it is for this reason that the traditional Catholic liturgical emphasis on God's transcendence, rooted in both the Old and New Testaments, is extremely important. This emphasis is often mocked by some Charismatics and modernists as being "stodgy" or not "Spirit-filled" (spirit-filled?), but it's a dangerous road to walk when emotional experience is emphasized at the cost of recognizing God's "Otherness" and the virtue of humility. By using the term "sacramental" (small "S"), I in no way mean to imply that His creation is no different from the Christ-instituted seven Sacraments! I only mean to imply that all that is good and true and beautiful points to Him, and that nature sings of His glory. In other words, rather than being a Sacrament, nature is like a sacrament in that it is a visible sign of His goodness. It is like a sacramental in that pondering His work predisposes us to piety.