I used to think the Catholic Church was creepy.
Truth, friends. As a Protestant, I was immersed in my own culture, and looking in, good grief. All this praying to dead people, and burning incense, and…the bones. I went to a cathedral in Guatemala City once, and bones. People bones. It creeped me out for days.
The thing is, we shouldn’t judge Truth on whether we’re used to it or not. The biggest barrier to my conversion to the Catholic Church was the layers and layers of confusion, misinformation, and misunderstanding that clouded my vision.
Catholics are obsessed with death.
Well, you know. The relics. The crucifixes. Good Friday. All Souls Day.
I never liked crucifixes even as a child raised outside of church. I refused to believe that Jesus had really had nails driven through His hands. It was too graphic for me, I guess.
As a convert coming in from a conservative Presbyterian background, where any pictures of Christ are considered to violate the 2nd Commandment, I had a hard time with the crucifix in church. I could hardly look at it, for months.
But I’ve found that it’s not that Catholics are obsessed with death and suffering. It’s that they don’t fear it. Not just in an esoteric, I’m going to heaven kind of way, but in an everyday mercy kind of way. They feel the call to be messengers of mercy, healing, and love in the very darkest places – including the deathbed. They know that our suffering has great value in the eyes of God, and that it is a critical part of our growth as His children.
Catholics think they have to get married to go to heaven.
I didn’t think this one myself, but friends have challenged me with it. This example highlights how otherwise highly informed Protestants have been seriously misinformed about the Church. The splintering that goes on and on feeds on this kind of thing. (And it goes both ways, for sure.)
No. Of course not. Priests, nuns, etc., are celibate, for one thing, so that would be an extremely odd doctrine. Marriage is a sacrament, but so are Holy Orders, so most people don’t receive all seven sacraments in their lifetime – only a rare minority, such as perhaps a widower who then became a priest. Neither is required – it depends on one’s vocation and state of life.
Catholics live in a state of medieval superstition and fear.
This one I did think. In the sign of the cross, in the incense, in the candles, the holy water, the different gestures…I saw all these things as superstitious nonsense, silly things probably done to ward off evil spirits or something. My more austere Reformed spirituality seemed more logical and more Biblical, free of outward tangible signs of spiritual realities, beyond the two sacraments I accepted at the time.
But as I mentioned in my previous list of misconceptions, we are beings who are both physical and spiritual. Catholic practice is not superstitious – these practices all express and point to spiritual realities which are, for the most part, also accepted by our Protestant brothers and sisters. But, they do so in a way that understands that people are more than just a brain, or more than just a heart. We are physical beings, and our minds and hearts are informed and strengthened by things we encounter in the physical world.
Catholicism teaches that the Pope is never wrong, which is silly, because everybody knows that popes have lived scandalously and contradicted each other.
This is one I took as a given. It was incomprehensible to me that anybody could be so gullible as to actually believe that the Pope was infallible. It was patently obvious that, throughout history, there have been immoral popes who certainly weren’t infallible. And those pesky contradictions! Catholics were, to be sure, mindless automatons who never bothered to crack open a history book.
It was a top objection for me, in the early days. The problems here come really from two major misconceptions, not one:
Papal infallibility means that the Pope is perfect in every way. He does not forget phone numbers, and he sure doesn’t sin.
Nope. No, no, no. Here is an excerpt from an excellent article on the subject put out by Catholic Answers:
“…Fundamentalists and other “Bible Christians” often confuse the charism of papal ‘infallibility’ with ‘impeccability.’ They imagine Catholics believe the pope cannot sin…Given these common misapprehensions regarding the basic tenets of papal infallibility, it is necessary to explain exactly what infallibility is not. Infallibility is not the absence of sin…Some ask how popes can be infallible if some of them lived scandalously. This objection of course, illustrates the common confusion between infallibility and impeccability. There is no guarantee that popes won’t sin or give bad example. (The truly remarkable thing is the great degree of sanctity found in the papacy throughout history; the “bad popes” stand out precisely because they are so rare.)”
Catholics aren’t blind to the scandalous popes. They just know that it doesn’t have anything to do with the doctrine of infallibility.
Popes can’t be infallible because they have contradicted each other.
The historical record of this really surprised me. As a Protestant, it was a working assumption that popes had contradicted each other, not once or twice, but so many times that the whole doctrine was ridiculous.
More from the same article:
“Other people wonder how infallibility could exist if some popes disagreed with others. This, too, shows an inaccurate understanding of infallibility, which applies only to solemn, official teachings on faith and morals, not to disciplinary decisions or even to unofficial comments on faith and morals. A pope’s private theological opinions are not infallible, only what he solemnly defines is considered to be infallible teaching.
Even Fundamentalists and Evangelicals who do not have these common misunderstandings often think infallibility means that popes are given some special grace that allows them to teach positively whatever truths need to be known, but that is not quite correct, either. Infallibility is not a substitute for theological study on the part of the pope.
What infallibility does do is prevent a pope from solemnly and formally teaching as “truth” something that is, in fact, error. It does not help him know what is true, nor does it “inspire” him to teach what is true. He has to learn the truth the way we all do—through study—though, to be sure, he has certain advantages because of his position…Turning to history, critics of the Church cite certain “errors of the popes.” Their argument is really reduced to three cases, those of Popes Liberius, Vigilius, and Honorius, the three cases to which all opponents of papal infallibility turn; because they are the only cases that do not collapse as soon as they are mentioned. There is no point in giving the details here—any good history of the Church will supply the facts—but it is enough to note that none of the cases meet the requirements outlined by the description of papal infallibility given at Vatican I (cf. Pastor Aeternus 4).”
Some books on the Papacy:
Catholics have gone liberal and don’t practice what they preach anymore.
I talked about this a little in my first misconceptions post, but this one keeps on surprising me. Sure, yes, there are plenty of “Catholics” who aren’t serious. There are also plenty of Evangelicals who aren’t serious, who don’t read their Bible or take their morality or faith seriously. It doesn’t mean that the Evangelicals aren’t serious. It just means that the Evangelical churches have, well, people, in them. Those people are not all at the same place in their journey.
The un-serious Catholics that I met and, even more, Knew About (through hearsay) gave me an unrealistic view of the seriousness of Catholics in general. I keep meeting an endless stream of serious, sincere, practicing Catholics; I keep being surprised when I do. It’s a lovely, heart-cheering surprise, like so many facets of the Church, but I do hope my flawed, ingrained expectations begin to catch up to reality, one day.
For more Quick Takes, visit Kelly at This Ain’t The Lyceum.
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