Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Catholics - how do you want a Protestant to encourage other Catholics in their faith?

I have a question. Some of you newer readers don't know that when I started writing this blog I was intensely wrestling with Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, and that is reflected in my early writing. I think many of the Catholics and Orthodox who used to read this are long-gone, having given up on me coming to a conclusion that will satisfy them.

But - for those of you that are still here, I have a question.

Many of you know that Isaac and I volunteer as mentors for newly arrived refugee families - we've been through two families. The second family is just absolutely precious - Tee Reh and Soh Meh and their little girl are a darling couple. Tee Reh is intelligent and hard-working and they are kind and motivated and flexible. I just love them.

So there's the thing. They are Catholic. We are great with that. When they first told us they are Catholic they put it like this, "We are Catholic, not Christian."

So, there is a basic misunderstanding in what "Christian" means and how it relates to "Catholic". They think that "Christian" mean "Protestant" and that Catholicism and Protestantism are at odds with each other. They are right historically, of course.

But really, we are Protestants but we don't care if they are or aren't. As long as they are under the broad "Christian" umbrella, I believe they can know Christ and salvation, and I have no reason to persuade them to join us in our particular camp.

Here is the dilemma. How do we encourage them in their faith without seeming to push them away from their Church? See, I'm nervous that they may not actually understand the Gospel or the faith they verbally adhere to. This is not because they are Catholic, I think it could be just as true if they said they were "Baptist" (as did the first refugee couple - and indeed I think when they got to the US they were merely Christian because that's what their tribe is and had no understanding of scripture or the Gospel). Cultural Christianity is a problem in all areas of the Church. The thing is, if they were Protestants I would feel free to talk to them about their church, their faith, scripture, etc. I would feel free to pray for them, I could go to their church and talk to to the leaders, etc.

Because they are Catholic, though, they think I do not share their faith and so any encouragement I may have about faith would be viewed as suspect. How can a Protestant encourage a Catholic to take their own church and faith seriously? They have told us that they go to a Catholic church and they participate in the rituals but they don't understand what anyone is saying.

So, if you are Catholic - how would you want a Protestant to talk to someone who is culturally Catholic but hasn't yet engaged with the church or their faith very seriously? I do not wish to pull them away - I wish to encourage them to know Christ more and more in the context of the Catholic church.


Amy B said...

I'm not really your target audience, so maybe you don't want my opinion. But Imma give it to you anyway. ;)

As a former Catholic, who has major problems with many aspects of Catholic faith and practice, I think you should focus on elements of the Catholic faith that Catholics and Protestants share. That way you are not doing something that leads them away from their faith (at least not overtly), but you also aren't encouraging them to do something that your Protestant conscience might not be ok with. (For example, I could not in good conscience encourage a Catholic to pray certain Catholic prayers, like the Hail Holy Queen.) Top of the list of course would be to read the Scriptures! But also things like prayer and service to others. Unless they don't even understand their own faith well, they cannot possibly object to these kinds of things which cannot but help point them to Jesus.

My approach of course would be eventually to encourage them away from Catholicism. It sounds like you would not share that conviction with me. SO, if you really believe that this family needs to better understand Catholicism so they can practice it more seriously, perhaps you should get copies of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and study it together. That way you could all get a better understanding of Catholicism....and maybe if you do it in conjunction with the studying the Bible, you could all get a better understanding of how (or IF) Catholicism teaches and practices the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles.

Whatever you end up doing, listen to the Holy Spirit. It is so awesome that you are loving this family and letting them love you in return!

Charlotte said...

"The thing is, if they were Protestants I would feel free to talk to them about their church, their faith, scripture, etc. I would feel free to pray for them, I could go to their church and talk to to the leaders, etc."

You've answered your own question.

Especially about the church - find them a Catholic Church (talk to a couple of priests) - and make a fit where a refugee family will be accepted and integrated. Pray with them and make the sign of the cross with them - show them that you act in the spirit and love of Christ. (If you can't sign yourself with the cross, then you probably shouldn't wear a cross or have one hanging in your home.)

Note that many Catholics have been molded or trained or impressed into saying "We're Catholic, not Christian" because jerk Protestants have told them so and made them feel as if they really weren't Christian.

Amy B - you are only able to be Protestant because of the Catholic Church. Just remember that. To accuse the Catholic Church of possbibly ("if") not teaching what Christ and the Apostles knew and taught is grossly ignorant. (Sorry Casey - but she said her part, I'm saying mine.)

Kacie said...

Thanks to both of you. I read both of your blogs through my own contemplations of the RCC, so your responses are highly valued.

Charlotte - they are in a Catholic church, attend regularly, but I don't think they can understand anything. We've read children's Bible stories together in English lessons and many of them are completely unfamiliar to them. A discussion of why Christ was born showed they understood next to nothing about that.

Perhaps you're right, Charlotte. Perhaps I need to humbly speak with the church they attend and ask how we can partner together for their spiritual health. If they are willing, I am as well.

Charlotte said...

Talk to the PRIEST, not the secretary. Don't take no for an answer.

Amy B said...

Charlotte, I would say that the only reason I can be a Christian today is that there were people who faithfully followed Christ and passed on his teachings, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Of course for much of history, that took place in a time when the Roman Catholic Church was the dominant (never the only) church authority. I am not ignorant of history. I don't even have a problem with acknowledging and being grateful for the wonderful things that did and still do come from Roman Catholics. But the institutional Church in history is not necessarily what I think I owe my present faith to. Historical succession is no guarantee of faithfulness.

When I said "if" the Catholic Church adheres to the teachings of Jesus and the apostles, I didn't mean that as a dig or a snark. I really sincerely mean that they should study the teachings of the Catholic Church and compare them to the Scriptures. That is what Paul commended the Bereans for doing in the book of Acts, and what he says repeatedly in his epistles. If what he says does not match up with the Gospel, then you shouldn't listen to him. So, if such study confirms their Catholic faith, then so be it! God be with them!

I hope this doesn't turn into a debate. I completely understand your point of view and took no offense to your comment. If you knew my story, you would know how well I wrestled with all this, and didn't come to my convictions lightly or ignorantly.

Anyway, I think your advice to Kacie is good. If she intends to encourage them AS CATHOLICS, then maybe she should partner with their church. It only makes sense.

Invictus_88 said...

Depending on their home language, the local parish or diocese might be able to source a copy of the Youth Catechism in their language. I'd definitely recommend that!
If not, it shouldn't be impossible to find some other sound orthdox theology they can read in their own language. Ebay.com, maybe.

Keep us posted!

Kacie said...

Invictus, good advice, but I actually doubt it. They are from an obscure tribe in the hills of Myanmar.

Nate Johnson said...


It's great that you thought to ask the question. The Catholic Church leaders have repeatedly recognized that a significant element of the Church's contemporary evangelization is the mission to the baptized (already Christian), so it's certainly not problematic to note that there are many many poorly catechized Catholics.

Like what others said, I think working with the parish community to the extent possible would be great. I think that Scripture study could also be great, especially expanding their basic Biblical literacy by working through the OT and reading the Gospels. As a bystander Catholic I would feel far less threatened by Protestants studying Matthew or James with a poorly catechized Catholic than Romans. If they're weary of a non-Catholic Bible, you can just buy one that says "Catholic Bible" or "Catholic Study Bible" in big letters across the front. It would probably be better to have a Catholic Bible anyways, although if they're Biblical literacy is low, they may not really be able to tell the difference.

The language barrier may be part of a hindrance to their full and active participation in the Mass (at least in this country). Helping with English, which I presume you or others are already helping with, would obviously be helpful in that sense.

And lastly (sorry to write so much), I think praying for them is of course a win-win. If you pray for them to grow closer to Jesus in Word and Sacrament (or just word if you don't feel comfortable with that), to invite Jesus into their marriage and family, to pray more and seek sanctification and holiness--these are all things that certainly wouldn't involve pulling them away from their faith!

Isaac said...

"I would feel far less threatened by Protestants studying Matthew or James with a poorly catechized Catholic than Romans."

Nate, I am curious about your not wanting a Protestant to read Romans with a Catholic. I understand that there is a long history between the two churches which has often been characterized by Protestants emphasizing Romans. However, shouldn't we study all portions of the Bible? The church in all the world, especially the church claiming allegiance to the Roman church, should seek every opportunity to study the letter from the Apostle to the Roman church.

Of course, I know that it does come down to an issue of interpretation, and I assume that you're nervous that a Protestant, such as myself, would apply novel interpretations to the letter. What if I promised to read the letter as did St. Augustine, the theologian of the Roman Catholic Church?

Nate Johnson said...


For starters, I definitely agree with you that we should all be studying all portions of the Bible. Please understand that we're on the same page in that regard. I don't think there's anything in Romans that needs to be hidden from Catholics.

I think I used the word "threatened" in that context because if an evangelical were out to pull a Catholic Christian into their own style of Christianity, they would most likely make use of the "Romans road". Am I right?

St. Augustine is a (although not "the") theologian within the Catholic Church--even a doctor, so very important and indeed if I heard someone was reading through Augustine's commentaries or sermons on Romans with a poorly catechized Catholic I think I'd actually be quite glad. I can't say that appealing to Augustine as an authority on interpretation would solve all of our problems, though, because both Catholics and Protestants claim that Augustine supports their points of view in some cases. He was writing well before the controversies of the Reformation so we can't pretend that his writing always places him clearly on one side of the issues or another. That said, I still think I could say that if Protestants were reading through Augustine on Romans (and not just pulling out quotes), I don't think I would feel "threatened" in the sense I previously stated. There are certainly ways such a study could happen that could be mutually beneficial for all involved.

I guess the point is that if a Protestant really wanted to encourage a poorly catechized Catholic in their faith, then it could be done by studying Romans--although it will be more difficult for the Protestant to not force (even subconsciously) their own interpretation which doesn't agree with Church teaching onto the Scriptural text. Do you agree?

Isaac said...

I don’t know that in a study of Romans most Protestants would place much emphasis on the Romans Road in particular. I don’t even think that most Catholics would be extremely opposed to the tenants summarized in the RR. It’s pretty basic stuff.

I appreciate that you mention that Protestants can appeal to Augustine in support of their views sometimes. Although he certainly was not inerrant, I think it is a shame that Catholics and Protestants have not stuck closer to his theology. One of the biggest problems that both churches face right now, the heresy of Pelagianism, is rampant in our churches and is killing us. We could both use a good healthy does of Augustinianism.

I agree that many Protestants would probably find it difficult to limit themselves to “common ground” interpretations when reading Romans. So I can see how you would feel threatened by that.

One final point. You said that a Protestant interpretation “doesn’t agree with Church teaching on the Scriptural text.” I’d suggest that there isn’t a “(Roman Catholic) Church teaching” on Romans. There is a current RC interpretation of the text, but many of it’s tenants have only officially been in place for the past 450 years. And they have only begun to take root in various parts of the church for maybe (at most) the last 1500 years. We shouldn’t put too much weight on interpretation; much of Romans has been consistently interpreted throughout church history by Catholics and Protestants. I just mean to say that there isn’t a monolithic, timeless way that the RCC has always taught.

As I’m rereading what I’ve just written, I don’t want you to think that I hate Catholics or anything. I consider Catholics to be in line with the broad orthodox tenants of the faith. But as someone who studies historical theology, I get frustrated sometimes by the Catholic perception (or lack of perception) of their own doctrinal development. But… Protestants often have exactly the same problem. Oh well.

Nate Johnson said...


Thanks for the thoughtful response and sorry it's taken me a couple days to post back.

I guess it really matters who and what type of Protestant is studying Romans with the person, too. I think I made the mistake of not assuming good faith and lack of a desire to convert the poorly catechized Catholic to some version of Protestantism on the part of the Protestants involved (as Kacie explicitly stated in the post).

If I understand you right, then I disagree with your statement that there is no Church teaching on Romans.

For starters, though, I agree with you that it's frustrating when both Catholics and Protestants ignore doctrinal development and try to pretend that figures in the early Church (like Augustine) teach the same faith in the same words as anyone does now.

That said, I think you'd agree with me that the Christian faith itself has not changed--just our understanding and articulation of it. Over time, and especially in response to erroneous teaching, our articulation develops as guided by the Holy Spirit through the teaching offices of the Church.

In regards to Scriptural interpretation, for sure there's no document that says "the proper interpretation of the Epistle to the Romans" which excludes all other possibilities. By contrast, the inexhaustibility of Scriptural interpretation is one of the hallmarks of our approach to Scripture. But there are certain interpretations that can be pronounced to be in error and thus do not agree with Church teaching. I've been reading Luther's commentary on Galatians (not Romans) so for example some problematic interpretations might be the identification of "the law" with all human action instead of the Mosaic law and a resultant belief in "faith alone", and the assertion that baptism covers but does not remove sin can be said to disagree with "Church teaching" - even if this was only explicitly declared to be the case yesterday.

It just occurred to me, though, that you might just be trying to say that the Church does not promote one, wooden interpretation of Scripture as official Church teaching. If that's the case, then we definitely agree. I definitely agree with you that we can't claim an interpretation is against RCC teaching just because it's not the way we've taught it from the beginning. Not at all.

Isaac said...

Thanks for your reply, Nate.

I'm sure we could spend forever nuancing all of this, but I think we agree in general. Of course we would probably still define "the Church" differently etc, but I like where this conversation has gotten, so I'm happy to leave it where it is. Nice to meet you. I really do enjoy a good discussion.

Rae said...

So I am way behind with the blog world and just catching up now, but I do want to comment on this at least to say how great you are to care about thinking through things in this sort of way.

I don't have great ideas for you to encourage them in Catholicism in particular unless you have resources to help them find a parish that can better accommodate them (there are often smaller masses said in various languages in most large cities). I think that you should feel comfortable simply sharing your faith and encouraging them toward God in the best ways that you know since it isn't like you can be any sort of Christian other than what you are... so the biggest problem could be the cultural concern of them coming from a situation of greater division/animosity between Catholics and Protestants and seeing all talk of religion as proselytization.

So, back to trying to answer your question, what I would want is for you to keep doing the best that you can and working through cultural barriers with love. Encouraging people toward God is never a bad thing, even if it is confused by both doctrinal division and cultural barriers. And from the outside it looks like the latter is the bigger problem here.

That Married Couple said...

Ditto to Rae - I'm way late on this one, but bravo to you! Really, Kacie, I think you have a wonderful approach. You've probably already dealt with all this, but if you can't get the language assistance through their parish (which I doubt you can), you may want to contact your archdiocese and see if there are any other masses in the area said in their (or a related) language. Perhaps if there is, they could also find a study group of other refugees? Hope all is going well with this situation!