Some years ago while I ordered lunch at a restaurant in the food court at the University Centre, at the university where I work, I asked the young man serving me if he and his family celebrated the Day of the Dead. I had gotten to know him a little in snippets of conversation we had during times he served me and I learned he was from Mexico.
He replied that they did not as this was a Catholic custom, adding, in referring to himself and his family, “we’re Christian.” I was startled by the remark, though it was not the first time I was confronted with this point of view.
The first time I remember being confronted by someone with this attitude toward Roman Catholicism was when I was in my first year at university. I was introduced to people from different Christian denominations on campus and at a meet and greet I was speaking to a man who asked to which church I was a member.
When I told him I was Roman Catholic, he retorted “I used to be Catholic, but now I am a Christian.” Later during my years at university I was given a book by an acquaintance who was forever trying to get me to join his Church, the title escapes me, but it was the account of a Pentecostal Christian and the subtitle was a young Catholic encounters Christ.
While I am no longer practicing Roman Catholicism, or the “catholic religion” as some people call it, it continues to puzzle me that people hold these attitudes toward Catholicism: Roman Catholic and Orthodox. I understand there are profound doctrinal differences between Catholicism and Protestantism, but observe that relations between the Catholic Church and the varied Protestant denominations are much improved in the present, as opposed to the not so distant past. Mika’s mother is a devout Lutheran married to a Roman Catholic.
Their marriage ceremony was celebrated in a Roman Catholic Church with both the parish priest and the Lutheran pastor from the Church Mika’s mother attends presiding. I remember my mother telling me of a family whose Roman Catholic daughter married a Jewish man. This marriage was not discussed in front of an elderly relative, a nun, for fear she might not have understood or approved of the marriage, but when someone let the cat out of the bag, the elderly sister smiled and said “they are just like Bridget loves Bernie.”
To be Christian, as I understand it, means at the most basic level you have faith in the Risen Christ. Surely this applies to both Catholics and Protestants for whom faith in the Risen Christ is essential. For the years I was practicing Roman Catholicism what I believed is summed up in the Nicene Creed.
The major difference between Catholicism and Protestantism remains, of course, the disagreement over Sacred Scripture and the Apostolic Tradition. Christianity started as a sectarian movement in Judaism and inherited the belief in the authority of sacred scripture (Torah) and an oral tradition (Talmud) in which the sacred scripture is interpreted. The Christian Sacred Scriptures, the Bible, were edited together under the direction of the First Council of Nicea in 325. The Apostolic Tradition is described in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) as follows:
(CCC 96) What Christ entrusted to the apostles, they in turn handed on by their preaching and writing, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, to all generations, until Christ returns in glory. (CCC 98) “The Church, in her doctrine, life and worship, perpetuates and transmits to every generation all that she herself is, all that she believes. ( as cited in Spirit and Life)
Sola scriptura is a prominent doctrinal statement in Martin Luther’s Ninety-five Theses, that is, the belief that “authentication of Scripture is governed by the discernible excellence of the text as well as the personal witness of the Holy Spirit to the heart of each man.” (Wikipedia) This doctrinal statement is defined in greater detail in the Westminster Confession of Faith:
Chapter 1, Section VII. All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them. (as cited in Wikipedia)
This difference of opinion concerning the place of Sacred Scripture and the Apostolic Tradition caused a deep rift in Christendom and unfortunately led to centuries of internecine conflict between Christians, Catholic and Protestant. The Thirty Years War (1618-1648) was perhaps the nastiest manifestation of this conflict which resulted in widespread carnage, destruction of property and witch hunts.
While this kind of conflict between Catholics and Protestants is happily a thing of the past, the kind of thinking, that somehow you are not Christian if you are Catholic persists in some Protestant sects. To be fair, I will add that this attitude was once commonplace among Catholics: you were not really Christian unless you were Catholic.
I remember a joke which alludes to this belief. A Protestant lives out his life, dies and is welcomed to heaven. He notices on the horizon a wall that extends as far as the eye can see. He is curious and scales the wall to see what is on the other side. He finds more people milling about. He finds and asks St. Peter who are these people on the other side of the wall and St. Peter replies, “oh them, they’re the Catholics; we keep them there, because they like to think they are the only ones up here.”
Finally, I remember when I enrolled in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA), to prepare for my Confirmation in the Roman Catholic Church, another man in the class had come to Christianity through the Jesus Movement, then through membership in a Baptist Church where anti-Catholicism was pronounced.
He told us this anti-Catholic attitude sparked an interest to find out what was so bad about the Roman Catholic Church and upon learning the truth, he chose to convert. In commenting on the anti-Catholic attitude he encountered among the Baptists, he likened it to the story of Robinson Crusoe: “the ship may be wrecked, but they keep coming back to it.”
Despite differences in doctrine, Catholics and Protestants are all Christians and to be true to their faith should love one another and those who are not Christian, unconditionally. Though I am no longer practicing Christianity, I can find it in my heart to forgive those who cling to these petty attitudes that would presume to decide who is and is not Christian.
From my understanding of Christian theology, there is Grace enough for everyone who is true to his conscience, strives to do good and avoid doing evil, but then, in the end who but God only knows?