Thursday, October 4, 2012
Catholics Are Christians Too
Last week, on two different occasions, high school students told me that they were “Catholic, not Christian.” I’ve heard this over and over during my time as a high school teacher, from both teenagers and adults. I’m convinced that this represents a deeply ingrained inferiority complex from the Protestant—fundamentalist-Evangelical majority who consistently disregards the legitimacy of Catholicism in both historic and contemporary forms.
I remember from the time I was 10 years old, teachers at the fundamentalist Christian elementary school I attended persuaded me that Catholics weren’t real Christians. Those misguided Catholics, they proclaimed, adhered to “a religion, not a relationship.” After all, they attempted to worship God through a series of routines and rites that amounted to idolatry and a "salvation by works"—-so these teachers told us. The Catholics, of course, get their orders from a pope and they were trying to work their way to heaven with their confessions, sacraments and liturgical chants.
I remember attending Loyola Marymount University as a freshman thinking it wasn’t a real "Christian" school. After all, those Jesuit priests drank beer (!) and didn’t believe in a literal 6-day creation. My Old Testament professor Daniel Smith-Christopher (a Quaker) had the audacity to teach that there were various authors (JDEP) embedded within the first 5 books of Scripture (I, of course, was taught to believe that these books were authored by Moses—-through divine dictation—-in his last dying days).
Friends I met at LMU, through their sincere devotion to God—planted an ecumenical seed, slowly breaking through the soil of my final adolescent years. More than a decade later, by the time I reached Fuller Theological Seminary, ironically the largest Evangelical graduate school in America, I was finally ready for the works of Catholic Bible scholars and theologians (assigned by my Protestant & Anabaptist professors) like Luke Timothy Johnson, Brendan Byrne, Lisa Sowle Cahill, William Cavanaugh and Henri Nouwen, who’s words our family read just last weekend in a short ceremony honoring my late father-in-law in a boat just off the California coast:
If the God who revealed life to us, and whose only desire is to bring us to life, loved us so much that he wanted to experience with us the total absurdity of death, then—yes, then there must be hope; then there must be something more than death; then there must be a promise that is not fulfilled in our short existence in this world…
In short, I have been deeply transformed by the blend of incisive scholarship and passion for faith that these Catholic writers embody.
Eventually, I have become overwhelmed by the powerfully prophetic life and writing of Thomas Merton, Jon Sobrino, Oscar Romero (who, like Jesus Himself, was murdered in 1980 while confronting the political establishment in El Salvador) and Richard Rohr, whose who own deep thoughts about Christian conversion open us to a much deeper and wider vision of Christian vocation:
In the spiritual journey you come to the day where you know you’re not just living your own life. You realize that Someone Else is living in you and through you, that you are part of a much Bigger Mystery. You realize that you’re a mere drop in a Bigger Ocean, and what’s happening in the ocean is happening in you.
These theological giants portray a faith so vibrant and virile that the brand of Fundamentalist-Evangelical Christianity represented by adults I looked up to at my elementary school (and many of the churches and non-profits I had served in the 2 decades from 4th grade to my 30th birthday) is virtually impotent in comparison. A righteous indignation rises within me at my own “lost years” of dismissing all other forms of Christian faith as entirely out of the fold. The Christian leaders of my youth helped shape me into a triumphalist and arrogant “believer” (albeit sincerely teaching what was passed on to them). And, certainly, I confess my own agency in this mysterious process of faith.
Each year, my Advanced Placement World History students—-both Protestant & Catholic-—are utterly shocked when I explain to them that the first 1500 years of Western Christianity was entirely “Catholic,” and that once the Protestants and Radical Reformers scandalously broke from “the popes and councils,” the Catholics staged their own counter-reformation(s). Indeed, Christians of all stripes are indebted to the historic Catholic Tradition.
As a post-Evangelical Anabaptist who acknowledges the imperfection of our own tradition, I am compelled that some convictions within both Protestant and Catholic circles consistently fall short of the way of Christ: the patriarchy, the willingness to justify violence and wealth, the hierarchical leadership models, the rampant nominalism, the often uncritical marriage to political party and equating “salvation” with entrance through the heavenly gates after death. However, we ought to take every opportunity to stand in solidarity with our too-often-dismissed Catholic brothers and sisters. Where would we be without them?