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How Can Catholicism Be True When Catholics Are So Dead?
Several people wrote to me recently to express their skepticism about Catholicism based on their experience with actual Catholics.
G.K. Chesterton once said that the best argument against Christianity is Christians. That is certainly true of Catholicism. Pope John Paul II, putting it politely, says, “The Catholic Church does not forget that many among her members cause God’s plan to be discernible only with difficulty.” (Ut Unum Sint, 11). But is that really an argument against the truth of the faith? I don’t see how. To argue that Catholicism is untrue because it doesn’t transform the lives of those who don’t practice it, is like arguing that aspirin doesn’t work because it doesn’t relieve the headaches of those who don’t take it.
My family claims to be Catholic, but they don’t take it seriously, either.
Try to remember that many people are Catholic by default. If you ask them what they are, they’ll say, “Oh, I’m Catholic.” But what they mean is, “My ancestors were Catholic.” It’s more an ethnicity than a religion for some people. It’s what they are, not what they believe.
I agree with the basic teachings and traditions of the Catholic Church. But, I am still in the Baptist church. That is because I don’t see enough fruits coming from the Catholic Church.
Actually, it’s an individual (not a church) that’s supposed to produce good fruit. A church can only proclaim the Gospel and introduce people to the One Who alone can make them bear fruit, but it can’t make people believe its teachings, and it can’t make people live its life. Good fruit, then, is how we tell if an individual is a faithful disciple. The fact is, you can find plenty of good fruit in the Catholic Church, and you can find plenty of good fruit in the various Protestant churches, too. And that’s because the secret to bearing fruit is to have a living, vital relationship with Jesus Christ, who is the source of all grace and life. And because the Catholic Church has been endowed with the fullness of the means of grace that Christ established, a Catholic is able to have the closest possible relationship with Jesus, including even the reality of physical communion with Him.
But notice I say, “is able to have,” not “is guaranteed to have.” There are indeed plenty of people who call themselves Catholic, but who refuse to believe the Church’s teachings, refuse to obey its precepts, and refuse to live the life it calls them to live. Not surprisingly, these people aren’t magically converted into living saints just by walking through the Church door. So, if you want to look for fruit, be sure you look on the tree. You can’t expect to find fruit on the dried-up branches that have severed themselves from the tree, and that are strewn all about it. I’ll be the first to admit that the Catholic faith doesn’t work if you don’t practice it. It doesn’t work by osmosis, or by genetics, or by proximity. You actually have to believe it, and live it. You have to have a living relationship with the Lord Jesus in order to bear fruit, and many “Catholics” have rejected that relationship, despite being given every opportunity to embrace it.
How can the Catholic Church's claims be true when so many Catholics are so dead?
The Church only claims to announce the Good News of Jesus Christ, and it invites everyone to embrace the life of grace He offers. It does not claim that people who spurn its teachings and reject its life will be transformed into faithful disciples anyway. Nor does it claim that being born to Catholic parents guarantees that a person will inherit his parents’ faith. If you want to see the fruit of the Catholic faith, you have to look at the people who are committed to the faith, who take it seriously and put it into practice every day. It’s pointless to look at those who are cultural Catholics only, who say they’re Catholic if you ask them, but who don’t try to live the life, even though they may go to Mass out of habit, or guilt, or whatever. People aren’t magically transformed into good Christians just by walking into a Catholic church (even if they do it every week). Repentance and conversion of heart are the keys to the Christian life. Without them, everything else is sterile and false, whether one calls oneself “Catholic” or not.
I don’t see many truly saved people with transformed lives; instead I see many cultural Catholics that think going to Mass one hour a week will get them into Heaven even though they are living otherwise sinful lives.
I’ve known such people. It’s truly sad. But to compare the best Evangelicals with the worst Catholics is hardly fair. If you want to see the real fruit of the Catholic faith, look at the people who actually put it into practice. As you know, the Catholic Church has produced some of the greatest, most on-fire saints the world has ever known. Some of them converted whole nations to Christ. We still marvel at their faith and holiness many centuries after they died.
How can I move from such a dynamic soul-winning church that I am in now into such a seemingly dead church seemingly full of untransformed people?
Before I became Catholic, I asked myself the same question, because I’d heard all sorts of horror stories about how dead the Catholic Church was, and since I’d known several Catholics who were as worldly as any pagan, I believed them. So as I became more and more convinced that the Catholic Church taught the truth, I thought, “But Lord, they’re all so dead.” And then I remembered His words: “What is that to you? You follow me.” And I realized that it really wasn’t important whether the guy in the pew next to me was living the faith, it was important whether I was. It was as if the Lord was saying to me, “You need to follow the truth, even if you’re the only one who does.”
Happily, my fears turned out to be unfounded. I’ve met plenty of on-fire Catholics since I’ve joined the Church, and I’ve found several local parishes where the faith is truly lived and preached.
A girl that I am friends with, who has little knowledge of the theological issues between Catholics and Protestants said simply, “I am not a Catholic because they don’t emphasize a personal relationship with Jesus.” I am sure that many committed catholics such as yourself have vastly different experiences, but you must admit, the problem of simply going through the motions with little understanding of the significance seems rampant in the Church. Am I being unfair?
Yes. As I said, you’re comparing the best Evangelicals with the worst Catholics. But I do think it’s easier to be a nominal Catholic than to be a nominal Evangelical. Catholicism is an embodied faith. It’s very physical, expressing itself through signs and meaningful rituals and practices. Ideally, those practices are joyful ways of expressing the interior reality of God’s grace in our lives. They give form and substance to the reality of our faith. But if that reality isn’t there, it’s still possible to go through the physical motions of the faith because of habit, or whatever. In other words, it’s possible to mistake faith’s expression for faith itself, as if the outward signs of our faith, and not the reality they are meant to express, are what’s important. That does happen, and it’s a shame, because going through the motions won’t get anybody to Heaven.
On the other hand, Evangelicalism is largely devoid of physicality. It is a religion almost exclusively characterized by intellectual committment. Therefore, if you don’t have that committment, there’s nothing else there, so you leave. This is good in the sense that it focuses on the primary importance of belief and conversion of heart, and because it’s more difficult to fool yourself into thinking you’re a “good Christian” when you’re not, but Evangelicals really are missing something by not having a rich physical tradition with which to express their faith. When you combine real interior faith with meaningful exterior expression, the result is incredible, believe me. And the best Catholics, like the best Evangelicals, know that a personal relationship with Jesus is the goal of the Christian life. We just have a whole lot of ways to express and experience that relationship.
I spent a summer in Mexico City and a semester in Santiago de Compostela, but with the exception of one little old lady, for all of the students that I met, I can’t say that I met any committed Catholics, and this in Catholic countries where virtually everyone would at least say that they are Catholics.
Well, what else would you expect in a “Catholic country”? In some countries, Catholicism is the “default religion.” It’s what you say you are when someone asks, even if you haven’t set foot in a church in years. It’s the same with Protestant Christianity in this country. If you ask most Americans what religion they are, they’ll say “Well, gee, I’m not Jewish, I’m not Moslem, I’m not Hindu, so I guess I must be Christian.” In this country, Christianity is the default religion. And if you ask these people whether they’re Catholic or Protestant, most will say “Well, I’m not Catholic, so I guess I must be Protestant.” Protestantism is the default version of Christianity in this country. But it would hardly be fair to judge Protestantism based on the people who, if pressed, would say they’re Protestants, but who may never have seen the inside of a church, or read a single verse of Scripture. Same goes for judging Catholicism by the so-called Catholics in “Catholic countries.”
And yet the Evangelicals that I met almost always were “set apart,” meaning they read their Bibles, took their faith seriously, etc.
In a nominally Catholic country, wouldn’t you expect the Evangelicals to stand out? And since they’ve deliberately chosen a religion other than the default religion, wouldn’t you expect them to take it more seriously than those who’ve opted for the default just out of habit or family tradition?
Gary Hoge "How Can Catholicism Be True When Catholics Are So Dead?" Catholic Outlook.
Reprinted with permission of Gary Hoge.
Gary Hoge explains his Catholic Outlook website. "My goal for this site is simply to try to explain the Catholic faith in a way that Evangelical Protestants will understand, and to explain why I think it makes more sense than the alternatives. What you do with that information is, of course, up to you. Together, we'll cut through the myths and the misconceptions, and spell out as plainly as possible what the Catholic Church really teaches. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised by what you learn here."
In his own words, Gary Hoge "was an atheist for many years, but was saved in a little Baptist church in 1986. For about the next twelve years I was an Evangelical, non-denominational Protestant, until the day I made the “mistake” of trying to refute Catholic theology. What I learned convinced me that not only could I not refute it, but that as a Bible-believing Christian, I should embrace it. I’m not a scholar, or an expert of any kind, but I’ve learned a lot in the last few years, and I’d like to share it with you."
Copyright © 2001 Gary Hoge