Ruminating on Touchstone’s difficulty in appealing to certain kinds of Evangelical, a long-time friend of the magazine reminded the editors about a group that is dissatisfied with where Evangelicalism is going, but nervous about anything smacking too much of Catholicism. We agreed, I think, that the cure for this is in simply reading the magazine, not because we tend to avoid publishing much on disputed subjects (we have never viewed reconciliation on these matters, at least by direct argumentation, as part of our mission), but because the fundamental question troubling these traditional Evangelicals—whether Catholics, especially perhaps the unapologetically Catholic Catholics such as write for Touchstone, can be heard as Christians—will very likely be answered in the reading. I expect there to come a point at which this kind of reader either abandons us, deciding there is some subtle deceit at work here, or remains, feeling it absurd for him to question the Christianity of at least “this kind of Catholic.”
The conservative Evangelical church of my youth, full of converts from Catholicism, tried for years to convince me that Catholics would
go to hell if we did not convert them because they believed they could buy
their way into heaven with good works and didn't believe in being born
again. But I lived in a pre-Vatican II Catholic neighborhood, had many
Catholic friends--most of them girls who were interested in converting me, too--and intuited there was something wrong with what my
church was trying to teach me here long before I could articulate the
Fundamentally what I noticed was that the Catholics I knew were like the Baptists I knew, rather than the caricatures and worst-cases I was given by my ministers (and my Catholics friends were evidently given by some of their priests and nuns) who occasionally seemed at war with a Bible which, to its everlasting credit, my church made sure even its children knew very well.
There were some Catholics in whom Charity dwelt, and whose
confession, which included their manner of life, was the same as the holy ones
among the Baptists. The language they
used was often very different; the faith seemed the same. Their devotion
to Mary seemed reasonable and proportionate--they made it very clear to me that they did not "worship" her as they did Jesus and God the Father--and did not distort their devotion to the Lord,
whom they seemed to treat with more respect than we did. Which was worse,
I wondered: being somewhat afraid of the Lord, as the Catholics seemed to be, or
treating him as your “buddy,” as we were encouraged to do? I saw Jesus pretty much as I saw my
father. While I was confident of his
love, he was certainly not my chum. He
was a friend, but not of that sort, for a friend and The
Friend seemed to me categorically different. Old buddies are not terrors to
evil deeds. Jesus and my father,
however, were. I had no criticisms of
the Catholics on that account, whereas my church, where salvation was not
recognized apart from the profession of friendly or even quasi-romantic
intimacy with Jesus, did.
The few Catholic fanatics I encountered, including the Marian ones, looked very much like Protestant fanatics I knew--just with different objects for their fanaticism. A lot of the Catholic nuts clustered around Mary just like the Protestant nuts (in my church, anyway) clustered around end-times prophecy—but a nut is a nut, wherever you find him. The Catholics who hated Protestants suffered from the same personality flaws as their Protestant counterparts. As far as earning their salvation by good works was concerned, I knew no official Catholic doctrine, but did notice that Catholic legalists and bean-counters, who really thought they could, were the kind of people who you would expect to: either obsessive types or people who relied on their baptisms for salvation because they preferred this to walking with God. They were a lot like the Baptists who thought their souls were eternally secure because at some time in their lives a preacher got them whupped up enough to get saved. Neither of them seemed to be trusting in the God of the Bible, who clearly was not the kind of salvation machine they took him for.
When I got a little older, my curiosity about why priests and ministers said what they did to keep us apart—and here I am talking men with orthodox sensibilities and dutiful, soldierly hearts—led to the belief, which I retain, that they belonged to religious parties that demanded it of them as a condition of belonging, and hence of their lives, livelihoods, and personal identities. Strong allegiance to, strong, if not avowed, personal investment in these parties, was secured when the clerics were young and relatively inexperienced men. When more mature reflection brought them not to denials of its basic faith or practice, but doubt of the distinctive party—the “denominational”--line, a deep melancholy, if not cynicism and a crisis of faith, often claimed them in their later years.
The divisive preaching and teaching, the deliberate ignorance and lack of sympathy, was a sign first of the dogmatism of youth, or perhaps of the convert reveling in the convert’s exultations, but later of a growing insecurity that sought to deny itself by beating back steadily encroaching doubt. Party activity toward this end intensified in mid-career, and thus came to mark the largest part of an orthodox clerical life which refused to collapse into easy liberalism on one hand, but on the other was forbidden by a church that still retained the truth of the faith to step outside the walls it had built on its own initiative to enhance and defend it. In this way the life of a faithful, orthodox presbyter became that of not only of a defender of the Christian faith against heresy and error, but at the same time, against his deeper will and desire, the life of a sectarian bigot creating other sectarian bigots in his image.
Although I knew none of this as a boy, I did recognize that the effect of this kind of clerical life was to separate us from Christian friends on what seemed to me dubious and insufficient grounds, even though I recognized, as I still do, that the kind of separation that was urged is under certain conditions good, necessary, and demanded by the Lord and his apostles. For this reason there are members of the Catholic and Protestant parties with whom I (by default, a Protestant) cannot maintain ecumenical relationships. This very separation, however, has thrown me into the company of people like the Touchstone Catholics. I think it possible a good many Evangelicals, aroused in the course of their own tribal wars, may find the same happening to them.