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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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 Sacraments are based on New Testament commands, which were prefigured
in the Old; 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
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
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
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:
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),"
don't believe in sola scriptura, then you are a follower of the
'traditions of men',"
think we can cooperate in our salvation, then you're saying that Christ
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 conclusion.
Catholic rebuttals to these sorts of assertions often rely on the heavy use
"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 Scripture,"
"we are saved solely
by the grace of the Cross, with which we must co-operate,"
"God can do whatever
He wants, whenever He wants, 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:
saves through faith -- but a faith that works,"
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,"
must be born again, but 'born again' refers to Baptism,"
is the Spiritual Rock of the Church, but He made Peter the earthly
Like I intimated,
subtlety required. We don't see dichotomies where none exist.
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
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 some Charismatic circles. 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. And by using the term "sacramental" (small "S"),
I in no way mean to imply that His creation is like 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 like 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.