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Could I Be, Should I Be, a Catholic?

The Papal Conclave is here. With no presidential horserace to handicap, the media has turned its attention to Rome. People who don’t seem to have a religious bone in their body pronounce they find this all “fascinating”—similar to the way they find snake handlers in Appalachia and headhunters in Borneo fascinating. 

For me, this focus on the election of a new pope and the Roman Catholic Church raises the question of why am I not a Roman Catholic? What separates me from my Catholic brothers and sisters? What keeps me from joining them? Not much, or is it?

Many years ago, I recall feeling guilty while reading A Reformation Debate: John Calvin & Jacopo Sadoleto, because I thought Sadoleto made a lot good points. A few years ago, I wrote a Reformation Day note to my congregation suggesting that given the Pandora’s Box the Reformation opened, an appropriate way to mark the day might be to repent. I was amazed at the pushback I received. 

The key doctrinal issues that divided Catholic and Protestant 500 years ago have largely evaporated. Justification by grace alone through faith is universally accepted—at least formally. I would say the Catholics have become Protestant! The centrality and uniqueness of Jesus Christ is agreed upon. Last January, leaders of Catholic and Reformed churches in North America signed a “Common Agreement on Mutual Recognition of Baptism” in Austin, Texas

Of course, there are still differences. Do I accept transubstantiation? Not exactly, but also not in a way that would keep me from the Catholics. It might, however, keep them from accepting me. Seven sacraments versus two? I’d opt for two, but don’t find seven to be anathema. Saints? I like saints. Birth control? I know many faithful Catholics who reject their church’s teaching about it—and not with an apathetic shrug, but a compelling theological argument. Semi-Pelagian? So are most people in Reformed churches!

I appreciate Catholic worship, not just its form, but that there are typically both day-laborers and blue haired ladies in attendance. In many areas, the diversity in Catholic congregations looks like the United Nations General Assembly. When my church assemblies and governing bodies are clunky and dysfunctional, I envy a hierarchical episcopate. There is something almost primal, clean, about a Catholic understanding of the Church, even if in modern America it also almost incomprehensible. I wince, but usually don’t correct them, when I hear even Catholic friends refer to Catholicism as their “denomination”!  

With all this being true, why when I see the Cardinals in Rome, do I feel unmoved, unsettled, not fascinated, not attracted? It is hard for me to put my finger on it exactly, to find a single word for what separates us. I want it to be more than just “style” or familiarity or preference.

Is the maleness of it all merely incidental? It doesn’t seem that way to me. Why isn’t the maleness of the Catholic church just as easy to ignore as the Catholic teaching on birth-control or transubstantiation? Is celibacy for priests reason enough to remain separate from Catholicism? It hardly seems so. Yet an all-male celibate clergy is emblematic of something that I distrust. It all feels so detached, off-putting, unsuitable for the church of Jesus Christ.

Those clergy—all male, all in their regalia, all vowed to celibacy—flitting around St. Peter’s Square seem artificial and unreal. Isn’t there delicious irony in calling the Catholic church “unnatural”? But that’s what I think. It isn’t real, or at least real enough. My critique isn’t about opulence or materialism. And I’m not a longing for some pure and primitive church from the Book of Acts.

My reaction to the conclave makes me wonder about how others experience my form of Christianity. How are guests in my congregation left to feel? What do they observe among us? Are they deterred by our fixation on Jesus? Probably not. Does it bother them that we insist on hearing from the Bible a lot? Meh. I wonder if it isn’t more about impressions, atmosphere, and ethos—and less about “exclusionary” doctrine. Do they find us authentic? Or do we feel artificial and out of touch?

I don’t want my objections to Catholicism to be about simply “my way of doing things” or being uncomfortable with the unfamiliar. We Protestants owe it ourselves occasionally to figure out why we’re not Catholic—not in the sense of how wrong they are. But if there aren’t significant differences should we go back?

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell is a recently retired minister of the Reformed Church in America. He has been the convener of the Reformed Journal’s daily blog since its inception in 2011. He and his wife, Sophie, reside in Des Moines, Iowa.


  • Annie says:

    Very true–too often the thought process regarding Catholicism is how it differs, rather than the similarities it holds. Most painful is hearing how there are "Catholics" and "Christians," as if to say that Protestants have a monopoly on Truth. However, I disagree that people might find the focus on the Bible and Jesus in protestant circles to be off-putting; it can be overwhelming and frustrating, the endless harping and obsessing over Jesus. Perhaps the seeming "distance" portrayed by Catholics, the separation of "holy" and "unholy," is something Protestants would do well to learn from, rather than (what I see as) an exhausting over-emphasis on a "relationship with Jesus." (And vice-versa, the hierarchy in Catholicism could very well be something that causes harsh reactions against the Church.)

  • Jes says:

    Steve, I enjoyed this post. A good third of my early life I grew up in the Roman Catholic church. To this day, when I am on vacation, I will often retreat to a RC house of worship. The reverence I feel is incredibly grounding for me. I miss crossing myself with holy water when I enter the house of worship I am called to shepherd here in NYC.

    While some in your congregation might not feel weird by the centrality of Jesus or the rootedness in Scripture, that is certainly not the case here in NYC. Just this weekend I had a minister friend of mine say "I think our congregations are addicted to Jesus, at least their version of Jesus. I think the Bible is also another cultural addiction in our churches." He is not making the argument that Christ shouldn't be the head of the church or that the Bible isn't what we should preach every week but instead we've become addicted to how we talk about Jesus and the Bible. I've had others in my congregation say similar things.

    This–>"How are guests in my congregation left to feel? What do they observe among us?" We must never stop asking, imho.


  • Ed says:

    I was raised Christian Reformed, married into the Lutheran church and have a very good friend that is a Catholic priest. I have learned and continue to appreciate the seperation and the common ground of all religions. I am as comfortable at a mass as I am at a CRC service. When I was raised being catholic was not a good thing. Now the denominations are much more respectful of each other. That is good. Enjoyed your post..

  • Steve MVW says:

    Thanks all for your comments. Interesting to know how much respect and appreciation for the Catholic church there is out there. Just a clarification about my own comments on our Protestant "fixation on Jesus" and insistence on the Bible. I do realize it can be off-putting and wearisome to outsiders when Protestants smack them, using Jesus and the Bible as a cudgel. That's not what I'm advocating, of course. But rather than giving up on Jesus and the Bible because they are so often used destructively, my task as a Protestant is to figure out how to hang on to the best of our heritage–to have christocentric faith, to have worship steeped in scripture in a genuine, helpful manner. I don't think that is off-putting or wearisome at all

  • Steve MVW says:

    Two quotes attributed to Luther (I can't vouch for their authenticity since I got them from Facebook!) that I find enlightening in this whole Protestant-Catholic conversation, the election of Francic I, etc.
    This one makes me think we should return to Rome, or at least Luther would if he were still with us today,
    "My dear pope, I will kiss your feet and acknowledge you as supreme bishop if you will worship my Christ and grant that through his death and resurrection, not through keeping your traditions, we have forgiveness of sins and life eternal."
    The second one should give pause to we of the Reformed tribe, and our "realistic" self-appraisal/"total depravity" anthropology,
    "I am more afraid of my own heart than of the pope and all his cardinals. I have within me the great pope, Self."

  • Thanks for the clarification, Steve. I found a lot of energy around these words of yours –> But rather than giving up on Jesus and the Bible because they are so often used destructively, my task as a Protestant is to figure out how to hang on to the best of our heritage–to have christocentric faith, to have worship steeped in scripture in a genuine, helpful manner. I don't think that is off-putting or wearisome at all.

    I also tweeted the Luther quote you share here. It's a good one. Thanks!

  • Paul Janssen says:

    It's really no surprise you got a lot of push back. I noticed a long time ago that sooner or later in ecumenical conversation every participant has to reckon with the "blood of the ancestors." I've had a congregant tell me this pretty much literally — "Why are you asking us to mark ourselves with ashes? My ancestors gave their lives so we wouldn't be bound by Roman traditions." It's not so direct when you put a bunch of academics in a room, but the blood of the martyrs is always a presence. Where, in your self-understanding, do you find place for the sacrifice that others made? It's not a matter of whether we should repent on our own behalf – but on behalf of those who died? Do we cheapen their sacrifice? Those are the kinds of questions that arise, usually well below the surface.

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