The Catholic Temptation: An Evangelical’s Second Thoughts

Although I was born Episcopalian and embraced evangelical Protestantism because it takes religion much more seriously, of late I have found myself sorely tempted by the riches of the Catholic faith. I find myself most strongly propelled in that direction when Protestant clergy reveal their trendier-than¬thou mentality; for example, when Bishop John Spong of Newark, New Jersey, ordains a practicing homosexual; when Anglican Bishop David Jenkins denies the divinity of Jesus; when Presiding Bishop Edmond Browning compares Nelson Mandela to Martin Luther King, Jr. As with other people I know, the main force which seems to keep us from making the move to Rome is our fiercely Protestant wives.

Nevertheless, even if I remain a Protestant, I cannot acquiesce in the anti-Catholic prejudices that unfortunately characterize a segment of the evangelical churches. On the contrary, I find at least ten things profoundly appealing about Roman Catholicism—qualities that are not always absent in Protestantism, but more deeply developed or realized in Catholicism. Ultimately, these Catholic virtues will bring more conversions, as well as fortify the respect of other denominations for Christianity’s most ancient and most universal church.

Her orthodox Christology. While the Episcopal Church experiments with liturgies that eschew such patriarchal titles as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Catholicism still proclaims Jesus as God incarnate. Most evangelicals feel some discomfort with Catholicism’s reverence for the Virgin Mary and the saints. They forget, though, that evangelicals and Catholics agree on the basics of Jesus: that He was born of a virgin, that He led a sinless life despite being tempted in every way common to men, that He was crucified to atone for our sins, that He was resurrected in body, and that He will return in glory as the righteous judge of humanity. We can no longer expect agreement even on those basics from most mainline (or sideline) denominations, which are far more concerned about apartheid, the homeless, and the greenhouse effect than about proclaiming Jesus as Lord.

Her teaching authority. The Catholic Church has her share of those who would bowdlerize the Mass or reduce Jesus to the status of Nicest Person Who Ever Lived. Because of the authority vested in the pope and his brother bishops, however, such would-be reformers have little chance of becoming dominant. Any good Catholic knows the Church is not a democracy. The typical Episcopalian, and even the typical evangelical, either thinks the Church is a democracy or that it ought to be.

In the Episcopal Church, all truth ultimately is subject to majority votes of our triennial General Convention, and to the whims of our presiding bishop, who happens to be rather squishy on theology. Many evangelical churches lack even as much hierarchical structure as the Episcopal Church. As a result, the founding pastor functions as a benevolent dictator until the next schism leads to yet another independent, non-denominational church being founded. Evangelicals have a healthy concern for correct doctrine, but often lack the checks and balances of an authority strong enough to preserve such doctrine. The magisterium offers a challenging model of such an authority.

Her leaders, especially Pope John Paul II and Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. I am encouraged by the two men who so infuriate Hans Kiing, Leonardo Boff, and Matthew Fox. That the first non-Italian pope in centuries is Polish proves not only that God exists, but he has a delightful sense of irony. That the same pope struggled against Nazi and Communist tyrannies and has played no small part in the democratic renewal of Eastern Europe proves that all things indeed work together for the good of Christ’s followers.

It is no irony that the pope emphasizes hierarchy over democracy in leading the Church. He makes a proper distinction between what freedom is appropriate for a secular culture and what freedom is helpful for Christ’s disciples. That is not to say the pope and Cardinal Ratzinger rule the Church with an iron fist, as those on the dissident fringe would have us believe. Rather, they have exercised compassion and patience in dealing with the most egregious examples of theologians who follow the Zeitgeist rather than the Holy Spirit. The pope and the cardinal have redirected the Church toward a true realization of the Vatican II documents, rather than blessing every bizarre action taken in the vaguely defined “spirit of Vatican II.” They are the strict constructionists of Vatican II, compared to the deconstructionists who favor libertinism, modernist readings of Scripture and old Beatles songs as processional music.

Her reverence for liturgy. Already, this has drawn one evangelical into Catholicism (see Thomas Howard’s Evangelical Is Not Enough, Ignatius Press). Liturgy has drawn other evangelicals as far as the Episcopal Church (see Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail, Morehouse). Many evangelicals use the word liturgy pejoratively, if at all, without realizing that all Christians have some sort of liturgy. For Southern Baptists it is a weekly altar call, an occasional full-immersion baptism, and maybe a quarterly celebration of the Lord’s Supper as a memorial service. Evangelicals are welcome to debate until they’re blue in the face about what Catholics mean by “the sacrifice of the Mass,” or whether Jesus is crucified repeatedly, but I know how much a reverent Mass has meant to me on visits to Catholic churches. Indeed, the ancient prayers and creeds are so fraught with meaning and power that they’re not even ruined by off-key folk songs, boring homilies, or misguided attempts to modernize the language.

Her rich heritage in works of mercy. Thousands of Catholic hospitals and orphanages, the works of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity, even the cliché about leaving a baby on the steps of a convent—all speak volumes about the Catholic willingness to take seriously the commands of Jesus. Evangelicals may dismiss all this as rooted in “works righteousness,” the idea that people can earn salvation, but one does not have to believe that works alone lead to heaven in order to learn a lot from Catholicism about demonstrating our faith through goodness: “By their fruits ye shall know them.”

Her reverence for the mind. For years, having a Jesuit education meant having the finest education available. (G. Gordon Liddy once said a prison warden kept Liddy and Timothy Leary separated because he knew they were both Jesuit-educated and, therefore, might attempt a takeover of the prison.) The Catholic reverence for the mind lives on today in thousands of parochial schools and universities, and in numerous periodicals. Catholics in the United States have four diverse weekly newspapers (The Wanderer, National Catholic Register, Our Sunday Visitor, National Catholic Reporter) and a number of lucid magazines, including America, Commonweal, 30 Days, New Covenant, and Crisis. Evangelicals can turn to Christianity Today, Cornerstone, and World, but most other evangelical magazines lack the lively and thoughtful exchanges to be found in Catholic periodicals.

Her fidelity to God’s standards of sexuality. Most evangelicals agree with the Catholic Church’s teachings on homosexuality, fornication, and adultery, but differ on forbidding priests to marry and banning artificial contraception, although a number of recent evangelical books favorably discuss natural family planning. Catholicism, and Pope John Paul II in particular, courageously challenge our culture with Christ’s demands for sexual purity. Dissidents from the Church’s historic teachings on sexuality argue that she must accommodate peoples’ sexual choices if she wishes to survive or to be “relevant.” Yet when I was a religion writer in Louisiana, I saw the Superdome in New Orleans packed with teenagers cheering not only the pope, but also his exhortations to chastity. They were not perfect in their own lives, to be sure, but they recognized the difference between sin and virtue. Charlie Curran should enter that datum into his word processor before writing his next book.

Her commitment to the sanctity of human life. When I attended my first Mass with my best friend from high school, it was on a Respect Life Sunday. The priest’s homily was a gentle, logical defense of life that helped awaken my conscience to the violence of abortion. It was the first time I had heard abortion condemned from a pulpit. Today, Bishops Austin Vaughan, John J. Myers, and Leo Maher, Cardinals John J. O’Connor and Bernard Law, and other leaders of the Church take considerable criticism for upholding the sanctity of life. This is one area where evangelicals and Catholics are discovering solid common ground. The rescue movement not only saves the lives of babies, it is bringing about a grass-roots ecumenism, which is the only kind of ecumenism with lasting value. Evangelicals are learning the depths of Catholic prayer disciplines, while Catholics sing evangelical praise choruses.

Her love of the arts. From the glories of the Vatican art collection to the Church in Poland holding shows of artists hounded by the Communist regime, the Catholic Church has long helped artists give glory to God through their work. This even applies to contemporary work: Peter Occhiogrosso’s book Once a Catholic demonstrates how Catholicism left a permanent impression even on artists who now struggle against it, such as novelist Robert Stone, film director Martin Scorsese, comedian George Carlin, and rock musician Frank Zappa. Although there is a renaissance among evangelical writers and musicians, too many evangelicals still must argue for the validity of the imagination, an issue Catholics seem to have resolved hundreds of years ago.

Her Catholic nature. Catholics sent missionaries to non-Christian peoples long before the Protestant Reformation occurred, so we evangelicals have no room for smugness about being mission-minded. Pope John Paul II celebrates this catholic aspect of Catholicism by traveling frequently; he encourages his flock to be faithful even when surrounded by Muslims, Hindus, or Buddhists.

That brings me to a final aspect of global Catholicism that is less encouraging. Some Catholics are not as ecumenically-minded as their counterparts in the United States. I grieve when reading about mobs attacking evangelicals in Mexico City, or of evangelicals being linked glibly with Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses into the tidy category of non-Catholic “sects.” I hope that someday, if my Catholic brothers and sisters consider what they like about evangelicals, they will know us well enough to realize we worship the same Jesus, regardless of our differences on liturgy or the finer points of theology. If Catholics consider us separated brethren, the most Catholic action they can take is to pray for us, not to pick up a stone.


  • Doug LeBlanc

    Douglas LeBlanc, a veteran religion journalist, is a former editor with Christianity Today and Compassion International. He is the author of Tithing: Test Me in This (Thomas Nelson, 2010). He has written for Christian Research Journal, Episcopal Life, and the weblog His writing has appeared in the collections Changing Boundaries: The Best Religion News Writing (Seabury, 2005) and Classical Techniques, Contemporary Arguments (Longman, 2006). Doug and his wife, Monica, attend St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia.

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