Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
A reader writes:
I realize you are a busy person and may be tempted not to respond to this e-mail. I pray you will find the time to look over what I have written and are able to offer some insights and comments regarding whether or not it is easier to become a Christian in a Protestant Church than in the Roman Catholic Church.
I’m not asking you to agree with what I have to say, but perhaps you might understand why I believe it seems much more difficult and complex to become a Christian in the Roman Catholic Church. If the goal is to get as many people as possible into heaven through the saving work of Jesus, I find the Catholic “way” of evangelism very frustrating and discouraging at times. Whatever happened to the simplicity of the salvation preaching, experience and reality that we see so often in the Book of Acts? To be honest with you, if the mission and goal of the Church is evangelism, as Pope Benedict has stated, I believe that Protestants are doing a better job of bringing people to Christ and populating heaven than the Catholic Church.
I am a convert to Roman Catholicism, coming from a non-denominational background. In February of 1974, I had what I refer to as a “born again” experience, when I gave my heart to Christ and received Him as my Savior and Lord. In the Spring of that same year, I was Baptized by a Congregational pastor.
When I was received into the Roman Catholic Church, I was received as a “Christian” and confirmed; my Protestant Trinitarian Baptism being recognized as valid. Since that time, I have had difficulty in trying to reconcile what I would say is the Catholic “way” to becoming a Christian and the Billy Graham (Baptist) “way” of becoming a Christian.
When I read the Catechism, it speaks of those Christians outside of the Catholic Church as separated brethren, pointing to the fact that they are not under the Bishop of Rome while admitting and agreeing that they are in fact Christians. The significant point here is that a person can actually and truly become a Christian outside the Roman Catholic Church. In other words, according to our Catechism, a person can genuinely become a Christian following and believing either the Catholic “way” or the Billy Graham “way”.
One of my primary concerns regarding this is how difficult (annulments, RCIA, etc.) and complex becoming a Christian in the Catholic Church can be. I spoke with my pastor concerning this and he agreed that it is much easier to become a Christian as a Protestant outside the Church than to become a Christian in the Catholic Church.
It seems to me that in spite of the soteriological differences between the Catholic and Billy Graham/Baptist “ways” to becoming a Christian, they end up at the same place. That is, both the Catholic Church and the Protestant Church would agree and confirm that they have become a Christian. In other words, a person can genuinely become a Christian following and believing either the Catholic “way” or the Billy Graham “way”. They both require acceptance of the Gospel salvation message and a personal faith in Jesus Christ as the Savior of their soul.
The following example illustrates two different approaches to evangelism and why I believe it is more difficult, and can be at times a discouragement, to become a Christian in the Roman Catholic Church:
As a lay Catholic, I had a neighbor who I had been witnessing to for many months. We would talk about God, Jesus and life after death. There were times we opened the Bible together and my neighbor was beginning to recognize his need for Christ, his need to be “born again”, his need to become a Christian.
One evening, as we were talking about the Gospel, my neighbor asked me, “What must I do to be born again, to be saved?” If I were to use the Billy Graham approach, I would have said something like, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved. Let us pray and you can ask God to forgive you of your sins and invite Jesus into your heart and life to be your Savior and Lord.”
Upon praying this prayer, I would assure my neighbor that he was “born again” and had become a “new creature” in Christ, a new Christian. I would explain to him, “This is only the “beginning”. You need to be baptized as soon as possible, continue in the teachings of Christ, become a faithful member of a church and live a holy life unto God. You need to live out this “reality” of your Salvation. This is not a “one-time” decision. Your decision of faith must continue with corresponding actions (works) that demonstrate that you are a “new creature” in Christ. For the Book of James tells us, “Faith without works (corresponding actions) is dead”. It is essential for you to live “in” and “for” Christ.”
However, as a lay Catholic, I was obliged to take the Catholic approach in answering my neighbor’s question, “What must I do to be saved?”
In answering his question I said, “Let us pray and you can invite Jesus into your life and ask Him to help you draw closer to Him.” I also added, “However, you cannot be “born again”, you cannot become a Christian, until you are baptized.”
Then he asked me, “When can I be baptized?”
I answered, “Well, you will have to sign up for the RCIA program and once you complete it, a time will be set for you to be baptized and then you can be “born again”; that’s when you become a Christian. My parish’s RCIA program is not going to start for another 7 weeks, so you will have to wait until then. The program usually takes about 4 months to complete and then you can be baptized.”
Then my neighbor said, “You know, I have been married, divorced and remarried. Do you think that will affect anything?”
“Well”, I answered, “That does make things a little more complicated. Rather than enroll in the RCIA program, what you will need to do is to submit an application for an Annulment to the Tribunal. You will also need to write lengthy explanations of what really happened before and after, including intimate details, your first marriage and provide personal information regarding your ex-wife. The investigators of the Tribunal would then conduct personal interviews with your ex-wife and others. They would gather all the information and make a judicial evaluation of your request for an Annulment. If they grant you an Annulment, which can take up to 12 months or more, then you will be able to enroll in the next available RICA program and upon completion, a time will be set for you to be baptized and be received into the Church.”
My neighbor asked, “What if they don’t grant me an Annulment?”
I replied, “If you don’t get an Annulment, which is a possibility, then you can still be a member of the Church, but you cannot receive Holy Communion. However, if you and your present wife would be willing to sign a binding agreement promising to live as brother and sister, you would then be able to receive Holy Communion.”
With a dismayed look and a disheartened voice, my neighbor said, “I didn’t realize that getting “born again”, that becoming a Christian, was so complicated and so conditional. I don’t know if I am ready to face the Tribunal, the awful pains of my past and go through all that it takes to become a Christian in the Catholic Church. I guess I’m not ready to be “saved”. With that being said, our conversation ends and the salvation opportunity of one soul is lost.
I don’t believe the above example is an exaggeration or represents an isolated or exceptional case. Current statistics state that 1 out of every 2 marriages in the United States ends in divorce. This means there is a 50 percent chance that anyone I wish to evangelize has experienced a divorced and has likely remarried. I understand the Church’s teaching on the unrepeatable nature of the Sacraments and why it teaches that the Annulment process is necessary. However, which is a greater loss, infringement of a Sacrament or the loss of a soul?
Although the above example is hypothetical, I believe it aptly expresses the reasons why evangelism, bringing people into a “born again” reality in Christ, is more difficult in the Catholic Church than in a Protestant Church. I think you would agree that becoming a Christian has got to be the most important thing we could do in this life for the next life? Someone was once asked what his life’s goal was. He answered, “To get to heaven and take as many people with me as I can.” In the end, what Church we belonged to, while on earth, won’t matter. What really matters is whether or not you and those around you make it to heaven, whether or not you or they possess the Gift of Eternal Life before leaving this life.
Thank you for allowing me to share my concerns and thoughts with you. Your comments and insights are greatly appreciated.
I can empathize with the frustration my reader feels, but at the same time, I think there are severe problems with the “simpler is always better” argument. The fact is, we are not supposed to be asking “Which is more convenient, Billy Graham’s approach or the Church’s?” We are supposed be asking, “Which is rooted in the Faith once entrusted to the apostles?” And the fact is, the Church’s approach is, because it takes into account *all* that Jesus entrusted to the apostles, not just bits and pieces.
For instance, it is Jesus, not some Catholic bureaucrat, who declared that divorce is a metaphysical impossibility:
Now when Jesus had finished these sayings, he went away from Galilee and entered the region of Judea beyond the Jordan; and large crowds followed him, and he healed them there. And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one’? So they are no longer two but one. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?” He said to them, “For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery; and he who marries a divorced woman, commits adultery.” (Matthew 19:1-9)
You and I may not like that, but so what? Jesus says that a validly married couple *cannot* divorce and that anybody who marries a partner in a valid marriage is committing the grave sin of adultery. So it becomes imperative to ascertain whether somebody is validly married or not and it becomes equally imperative that somebody in the grave sin of adultery not approach the sacrament.
In short, Catholic theology is not about just making up complexity for the sake of complexity. It’s about trying to actually face and deal with the world and the revelation of Christ honestly.
Perhaps an illustration will help. G.K. Chesterton confronted a similar complaint in the 1920s in a letter to the editor he called “The Usual Article”. I’ll let him take it from here:
It is not only too usual; it has become intolerably, insupportably, unbearably usual. It is appropriately described as “A Woman’s Cry to the Churches.” And I beg to announce that, though I am of a heavy and placid habit, and have never been accused of any such feminine graces as hysteria, yet, if I have to read this article three more times, I shall scream. My scream will be entitled, “A Man’s Cry to the Newspapers.”
I will repeat somewhat hurriedly what the lady in question cried; for the reader knows it already by heart. The message of Christ was perfectly “simple”: that the cure of everything is Love; but since He was killed (I do not quite know why) for making this remark, great temples have been put up to Him and horrid people called priests have given the world nothing but “stones, amulets, formulas, shibboleths.” They also “quarrel eternally among themselves as to the placing of a button or the bending of a knee.” All this gives no comfort to the unhappy Christian, who apparently wishes to be comforted only by being told that he has a duty to his neighbour. “How many men in the time of their passing get comfort out of the thought of the Thirty-Nine Articles, Predestination, Transubstantiation, the doctrine of eternal punishment, and the belief that Christ will return on the Seventh Day?” The items make a curious catalogue; and the last item I find especially mysterious. But I can only say that, if Christ was the giver of the original and really comforting message of love, I should have thought it DID make a difference whether He returned on the Seventh Day. For the rest of that singular list, I should probably find it necessary to distinguish. I certainly never gained any deep and heartfelt consolation from the thought of the Thirty-Nine Articles. I never heard of anybody in particular who did. Of the idea of Predestination there are broadly two views; the Calvinist and the Catholic; and it would make a most uncommon difference to MY comfort, if I held the former instead of the latter. It is the difference between believing that God knows, as a fact, that I choose to go to the devil; and believing that God has given me to the devil, without my having any choice at all. As to Transubstantiation, it is less easy to talk currently about that; but I would gently suggest that, to most ordinary outsiders with any common sense, there would be a considerable practical difference between Jehovah pervading the universe and Jesus Christ coming into the room.
But I touch rapidly and reluctantly on these examples, because they exemplify a much wider question of this interminable way of talking. It consists of talking as if the moral problem of man were perfectly simple, as everyone knows it is not; and then depreciating attempts to solve it by quoting long technical words, and talking about senseless ceremonies without enquiring about their sense. In other words, it is exactly as if somebody were to say about the science of medicine: “All I ask is Health; what could be simpler than the beautiful gift of Health? Why not be content to enjoy for ever the glow of youth and the fresh enjoyment of being fit? Why study dry and dismal sciences of anatomy and physiology; why enquire about the whereabouts of obscure organs of the human body? Why pedantically distinguish between what is labelled a poison and what is labelled an antidote, when it is so simple to enjoy Health? Why worry with a minute exactitude about the number of drops of laudanum or the strength of a dose of chloral, when it is so nice to be healthy? Away with your priestly apparatus of stethoscopes and clinical thermometers; with your ritualistic mummery of feeling pulses, putting out tongues, examining teeth, and the rest! The god Esculapius came on earth solely to inform us that Life is on the whole preferable to Death; and this thought will console many dying persons unattended by doctors.”
In other words, the Usual Article, which is now some ten thousand issues old, was always stuff and nonsense even when it was new. There may be, and there has been, pedantry in the medical profession. There may be, and there has been, theology that was thin or dry or without consolation for men. But to talk as if it were possible for any science to attack any problem, without developing a technical language, and a method always methodical and often minute, merely means that you are a fool and have never really attacked a problem at all. Quite apart from the theory of a Church, if Christ had remained on earth for an indefinite time, trying to induce men to love one another, He would have found it necessary to have some tests, some methods, some way of dividing true love from false love, some way of distinguishing between tendencies that would ruin love and tendencies that would restore it. You cannot make a success of anything, even loving, entirely without thinking.
Replace “Health” with salvation and you have your answer. The notion that lies behind your complaint about the alleged simplicity of the Evangelical approach to evangelism vs. the complexity of RCIA and so forth overlooks the fact that Christianity is not a “once saved, always saved affair”. Jesus warns about this in the parable of the sower. Merely receiving the seed is not enough. If you let it get eaten by the birds, or dry up and wither, or get choked by thorns, it does not good. The branch that breaks off from the vine dries up and is burned. That’s why Jesus says to “Abide in him”. Evangelicals face exactly the same problems as Catholics do, and have a huge attrition rate (as Catholics do too). The complication of Catholic theology and sacramental practice face these facts squarely. Simplistic once saved, always saved theology shuts its eyes to the fact that humans remain capable of rejecting Christ after baptism and that we remain in need of grace even after inking the salvation deal and being baptized.
In short, the Faith is complicated because life is complicated. Demanding eternal life that is perfectly simple is like demanding eternal health while complaining that medicine is too complicated and wishing that, because an aspirin once made you feel better, everything should be treated with aspirin. Life doesn’t work that way.