As a child I had almost no direct contact with Catholicism. My family attended a small backwoods fundamentalist congregation—The First Church of Hellfire and Damnation, or something similarly named—and the preacher would often mention the Pope and Catholicism in one of his “Identifying the Antichrist" sermons. The Antichrist was a slippery chameleon, his identity rotating between “usual suspects” among a handful of heathen groups: Chinese communists, the Russians, secular humanists, New England Senators, Episcopalians.
The Pope, though, was our preacher’s favored candidate for ushering in the End of Days. And the Whore of Babylon was indisputably the Catholic Church
I was nine years old when I first saw the new Pope—John Paul II—on television. Since this was the man who would be ushering in Armageddon, I figured I'd better get to know the enemy. I watched as he stood in front of thousands of Catholics, waving and smiling, and noticed that something wasn't quite right. His wasn't the charming smile of "The Beast" that Brother Bob had warned his flock against. It was more of a sly grin. In fact, this new John Paul seemed like a nice guy; he might even pass for a Christian. Surely, I thought, he couldn't be the Antichrist. After all, he was Polish. The Beast could be Russian or German, but not Polish. Even as a nine-year-old I knew that Poles couldn’t be scary.
This was the beginning of the end for my Jack Chick-style anti-Catholic bias, an inclination that was regrettably prevalent in many parts of rural Texas during my childhood. I became more intrigued by John Paul II, the Catholic Church, and the Catholic girls at my school. Over the years, I’ve engaged more directly with Catholics and the teachings of the Catholic Church, and my admiration and appreciation continues to grow.
Indeed, I’m often amazed when I consider how much of my thinking is shaped by papist scholars’ writing about such issues as bioethics, social thought, natural law theory, and the Just War tradition. Although I do not always find myself in complete agreement with it, the Catholic perspective has caused me to rethink my views on such matters as contraception, in-vitro fertilization, just wages, and the death penalty.
As deeply and irrevocably attached as I am to my own theological traditions (Reformed, Baptist, evangelical) there are many issues where they have historically come up short. In fact, I would argue that there are dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of areas in which we evangelicals should acknowledge a debt owed to our Catholic brothers and sisters.
Consider, for instance, three areas in which our fellow Christians within the Catholic faith have led the way:
On Mary, the mother of God: Many evangelicals suffer from a mild case of Marianphobia—the fear that any appreciation of Mary will be viewed as a sign that we’re closet Catholics. Oddly, while we are quick to defend the virgin birth, we are often hesitant to praise the virgin mother. Even during Christmas, we pay more attention to the magi than we do to the woman who gave birth to our Savior.
Our complete renunciation of Marian theology often causes us to downplay the importance of Mary herself, despite the fact that she is one of the most incredible humans who ever lived. How can we not be in awe of this woman when we realize she held God in her womb?
Our Catholic friends have helped to remind us that Jesus wasn’t just the Son of God—he was Mary’s son, too.
On the Sanctity of Life: In a 1971 resolution on abortion, the Southern Baptist Convention resolved that “society has a responsibility to affirm through the laws of the state a high view of the sanctity of human life, including fetal life.” However, the largest Protestant denomination in America had a peculiar definition of this “sanctity of human life.” In the very next sentence the resolution called on Southern Baptists to “work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion‚” under such conditions as “fetal deformity” and damage to the “emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.” Three years later—and two years after Roe codified this position into law—the SBC reaffirmed the resolution. It wasn’t until 1980 that the SBC finally condemned abortion as a grave evil, a position that had always been maintained by the Catholic Church.
For thirty years, evangelicals have been working to catch up to our Catholic brothers and sisters on issues related to the sanctity of life. Even today, the Catholic Church remains more consistent in its application of pro-life moral theology. Sadly, many evangelicals are willing to turn a blind eye to the embryo destruction prevalent in biomedical research and in vitro fertilization.
We still have much to learn from Catholics about how to respect the life that God has created.
Ecclesiology: One of the first principles of Reformed ecclesiology is that there is but one holy, catholic, apostolic Church. Because this principle is difficult to square with the existence of over 10,000 different Protestant denominations, we claim that this refers only to the invisible church. I don’t disagree, but I do wonder: What about the church that is visible? After all, it is Jesus’ desire to “gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.” (John 11:51-52)
Although the Reformation’s split with the Catholic Church was tragically necessary, reconciliation of Christians into one visible body should be our ecclesiological goal. In this area Catholics have often taken the lead in imparting a spirit of ecumenism. Documents such as Ut unum sint reflect the seriousness with which Catholics approach the “call for Christian unity.”
Such unity, of course, must be predicated on acceptance of Biblical truths. Evangelicals can never abandon our commitment to such doctrines as sola fide (salvation by faith alone) in order to achieve consensus.
We should, however, be constantly praying that the Spirit will reconcile the invisible church into one holy, catholic, apostolic, and visible Body of Christ.
When I first came to work for First Things some Catholic friends jokingly asked how long it would be before I joined the other folks on the masthead who had swum the Tiber. With respect to my friends and fellow editors, I won’t be putting on my theological swim trunks and making the crossing anytime soon. Because the theological differences I have with Catholicism are deep-rooted and unlikely to be resolved in this century, I’ll likely remain a Reformed evangelical for the rest of my days.
Nevertheless, I will continue, like many evangelicals, to express my deep love, respect, and admiration for my fellow believers in the Catholic Church. However much we may disagree on important matters of doctrine, we evangelicals owe Catholics a debt of gratitude for being co-belligerents, fellow servants, and exemplars of the faith.
Joe Carter is web editor of First Things and the co-author of How to Argue Like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator. His previous articles for “On the Square” can be found here.