As a younger Evangelical I painted a clear distinction between Catholics and Christians. The two were not synonymous and, more often than not, a Catholic was not, in my estimation, a Christian.
When Catholics figured into our Evangelical exegesis of the New Testament they were squarely identified with one specific people group: the Pharisees. The Pharisees with their religion. “Stupid Pharisees,” we thought, “wouldn’t even recognize the Messiah if he rubbed mud in their eyes!” Did I mention we were clever?
Now, to be fair, we were slightly off base and what we made was the prototypical Protestant mistake: Equating the Pharisees with religion and religion with badness. Jesus condemned the Pharisees. The Pharisees were religious. Ergo, religion is bad.
The logic seems airtight.
Zwingli, father of the Anabaptist movement, thought so too. In his view, the sacramental life of the medieval Christian Church was far too religious. A point-of-view which persists to this day in Evangelicalism.
Catholicism is unattractive to Evangelicals, I think, for two reasons.
First of all, myself and many of my Evangelical comrades are inherently wary of religion. This stems, largely, from a misunderstanding of Jesus’ interactions with the Pharisees and from our historical roots in the Reformation. Reformers like Zwingli dismantled the Christian sacramental system and we, modern day Evangelicals, inherited what remained.
In hindsight, a much better reading of Jesus’ condemnation of the Pharisees, a reading which is more consistent with his overall behavior and orientation towards these Jewish leaders, is a condemnation of their empty religion. Their naked piety.
Nonetheless, in a room full of Evangelical converts I would safely bet that we’ve all heard that sermon before: religion is bad. We are naturally nervous about anything that looks religious for fear of falling into the supposed trap of the Pharisees.
So, we are naturally put off by Catholicism in all its religious trappings.
What of the Catholics? For one thing, Jesus’ condemnation of the Pharisees wasn’t a wholesale condemnation of religion.
The Early Christian Church—which closely reflects the modern day Catholic Church—was roundly religious. The Didache, one of the oldest glimpses we have of how the Early Christians worshipped, is unapologetic in its religious approach to Christian worship. Jesus didn’t condemn religion. Religion is not bad. But, unfortunately, “religion” has become synonymous with “bad religion.” Inseparable in the minds of some.
Second, Evangelicals find Catholicism unattractive because of the Catholic witness. The lack of Catholics with a personal relationship with Christ.
As an Evangelical the Catholic faith was so unattractive, so un-Christian, because the Catholics we knew lacked a personal, genuine relationship with Christ. They weren’t, as Evangelical writers would put it, “disciples.” They didn’t strive to model their lives after Christ—His compassion, His integrity, His generosity—and that made them not Christians.
And, actually, that seems pretty fair because Jesus did condemn the Pharisees for their empty religion.
And these two go hand-in-hand: a practice of [empty] religion replaces a relationship with Christ. Strip away the religion and focus on Christ.
It’s a fair argument and, in my opinion, our response shouldn’t be strike back, it should be to agree.
Empty religion is a barrier to a life in Christ. Empty religion is dangerous. Jesus did condemn it. And we, as Catholics, need to be wary of falling into the empty religion of the Pharisees.
I was an Evangelical, and I agree. But then I became a Catholic. We needn’t argue. We need to demonstrate instead.
Demonstrate the life-giving power of the Eucharist. Demonstrate the freedom that comes from the Rite of Penance. Demonstrate the incredible, incarnational life that begins at Baptism and is vouchsafed at Confirmation. Champion the blessing of the priestly model that Jesus gave to us. Stand up and celebrate the beauty of a sacramental marriage.
Why is Catholicism so unattractive to Evangelicals?
Because Evangelicals don’t see a Catholic spiritual life lived out, celebrated, and wholeheartedly embraced. Evangelicals see an empty religion, and can we blame them? When our pews are packed with Catholics going through the motions? When Catholic catechesis is so poor that a wide margin of Catholics don’t even understand the real presence? When Catholics mistake judgement for God’s most imitable attribute rather than mercy?
The minute I saw, and understood, a Catholic faith lived out I was convinced. The minute I understood the historical claims of the Catholic Church, the beauty of the sacraments, and that Catholics could be that close to Jesus in an incarnational life, I was sold.
As soon as I realized that what I thought I knew about Catholicism—what many bad Catholics had convinced me was true about Catholicism—was actually fully backward, I knew I could no longer resist.
What do we need to do as Catholics? We need to be Catholic. For real.
If what is unattractive to Evangelicals is what looks like empty piety and a lack of genuine relationship than we need to ask the Holy Spirit to fill us with a life more Catholic. An unabashed embrace of the Catholic faith which, at its center, is a personal relationship with Christ. A relationship, for goodness sake, that is so close that we actually consume Jesus in His flesh and blood.
Does it sound too glib to say what’s more personal than that?
Because if we Catholics truly lived out the life that we’re meant to, the life that our faith dictates, we would live the most Christ-centered, beautiful life imaginable. Truly. But, sadly, we don’t. And, sadly, the picture that I had of Catholics, as an Evangelical, is largely accurate.
I am not satisfied with this, and none of us should be.
If we have, as the Catholic Church professes, the “fullness” of Christ then our Evangelicals brothers and sister should see something other than what they do. We should look different than we do.
After all, as Catholics we have the trifecta: the historical reality of a two-thousand year old Church, a wealth of weighty intellectual rigour, and the appeal of the sheer beauty of our faith.
But without a lived reality—with a demonstration that we love Jesus—we are, in the end, no better than the Pharisees.
And that is unattractive.
[See also: Why I Left My Parish: A Cautionary Tale]
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