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
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
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
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
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.
difference is that the Catholic worldview is -- bigger than
that of most Protestants. We see the Church as consisting not only of
the Church Militant (those saints on earth), but of the Church
Suffering (those "poor souls" who are in Purgatory)
and the Church Triumphant (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,
The Church is One, Catholic, Apostolic -- and Holy. She is the
unblemished Bride of Christ, and no matter how filthy some of her human
members can be, no matter what evils some -- even priests and Popes --
might do, no matter how some may soil and tear the Bride's garments,
there is still only one Church that Christ founded, and that Church
in Her essence, remains
pure. All who will be saved will be purified in the end.
Our co-operation with God and our
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
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 necessarily 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 --
therefore, first of all, that supplications, prayers, intercessions and
thanksgivings be made for all men.
and two verses
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
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.
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.
arguments consist of an "if" statement, coupled with an implied premise
that amounts to a false dichotomy, and followed by an invalid
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
- "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
- "we are saved
solely by the grace of the Cross, with which we must
- "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
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..."
grace saves through faith -- but a faith that works,"
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,"
Christ is the Spiritual Rock of the Church, but He made Peter
the earthly Rock" etc.
intimated, subtlety required. We don't see dichotomies where none
One thing Catholics do have in common with Protestants, though, is the
sense of history having a deep meaning. The story of the universe isn't
a matter of elements -- which came from nowhere -- randomly forming
and stars and then coming together to form RNA, DNA, cells, and
organisms, all to no end; it's a drama. A tragi-comedy, actually, in
is a "vale of tears" that has a happy ending for those who are of God.
God created us as free
beings with the ability to reason. We live according to His law, or we
don't. Peace or chaos ensues depending on what we choose. And at the
end of time, Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead,
and the saved will have eternal life with Him. History is the great
movement toward this end: the end of time, and the beginning of our
experience of eternity. And in that regard, "...eye hath not
seen, nor ear heard, neither hath it entered into the heart of man,
what things God hath prepared for them that love Him."
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.