Wednesday, February 19, 2014

What I thought I knew about Catholics

When you grow up in the Bible Belt going to a Southern Baptist school and a Presbyterian church, you learn a lot of things about Catholics, none of which are true. Much of it I learned through osmosis: there wasn't an "Anti-Catholics 101" class or anything, but anti-Catholicism is part of the culture. At school it was pretty incidental, but at church and home it was quite purposeful as well, partly for historical reasons.

You see, back in the day when Europe blew up in what is called the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, tolerance was not exactly the top priority. There was no such thing as separation of church and state, and the heads of state in most countries were absolute monarchs. Live and let live was not an option because a difference in religion meant an upending of all life. It's hard for modern Americans to even fathom what it was like, but the closest analogies are places like Central Africa Republic. In that country Muslim extremists took over the government and terrorized the country, and now a Christian group has retaliated are engaging in ethnic cleansing of Muslims. (That is a really simplistic summary: check out the BBC for more in-depth information).

English history is fascinating because you get to see how it went down when Henry VIII forced a very Catholic-styled Protestantism on the country, followed by the very Protestant Edward VI, followed by the lovely debacle of evangelical Jane Grey and "Bloody Mary" and mid-way-but-who-really-knows-because-she-was-just-creating-a-middle-way-national-church Elizabeth, and later the coup of Cromwell and the beheading of Catholic King James. (Seriously, English history is amazing, but I digress. Henry VIII's multiple wives and children really threw a monkey wrench in the royal succession). Point being that religion was life and death, and countries went through a debilitating and neck-wrenching back and forth between Protestant and Catholic monarchs, not to mention all the different Protestant sects that didn't play well with each other. And the poor Quakers just got hated on wherever they went. Lots of blood, lots of political coups and intrigue and religious wars.

My family is proudly of Protestant vintage. We know which Scottish clans we had members of (MacMillan, McDuffy), and I grew up going to an annual get-together of descendants of Scottish ancestors who created a Scottish Presbyterian church in the Deep South. I had Dutch Reformed ancestors and survivors of the Saint Bartholomew's massacre in Paris France. Pretty much all of my ancestors on one side were from staunchly Calvinist European countries, and as they say, blood is thicker than water. Calvinists are big on tradition and family history, so I was reared on the mythology of good saintly Protestants persecuted by evil Catholics. Until college I didn't realize just how damned confusing the reality was outside of Fox's Book of Martyrs and Pilgrim's Progress.

As a result of this history, Catholics were Those Papist Oppressors Who Persecuted Our Ancestors. We weren't as extreme as what you see in modern-day North Ireland, but close enough that when I visited there in college I wasn't completely shocked. After all, I had always heard that "Catholics could be Christians, but it would be hard because there was so much baggage to get past."

What baggage? I'm glad you asked. Well for starters, everyone knew that:

- Catholics thought baptism saved you
- But that somehow they believed in works-salvation too
- But that's not surprising since they didn't want their members to read the Bible
- And really it was a big cult because they worshiped the Pope and thought he couldn't sin
- Not to mention all the Hail Mary nonsense, and the fact that they put Mary almost on equal footing with Jesus
- Not to mention that they prayed to saints and disobeyed the second commandment by having graven images in their churches and were rife with superstitions
- Not to mention that they added things to the Bible and were slaves to man-made traditions -
- Like having to confess your sins to a priest when the Bible clearly says "there is one mediator between God and man" -
- And having priests when we are all a royal priesthood -
- And calling those priests "Father" when our only Father is in heaven -
- And calling certain dead people "saint so and so" when all Christians are saints*
- And it's actually idolatrous to go to a Catholic church since they bow down to bread and call it God
- And it's sad how they think that these trappings will get them into heaven, although -
- Most Catholics are just cultural anyway and they only go to church on Christmas and Easter so clearly they don't really believe anything

And then there's general American pop culture about nuns and Catholic school girls, so there really wasn't anything positive to say except that at least they were anti-abortion.

Certain Catholic practices are making a come-back in Protestant churches. For instance, many churches do some form of Advent now - shoot, even my church did an Advent wreath. (My grandmama was very unhappy with this development because it was compromising with the truth and becoming too Catholic). Mainline churches have adopted Lent in various ways, and more churches are doing weekly Eucharist or the Lord's Supper. The Episcopal church is definitely more Catholic in its liturgy than it was mid-20th century, mainly thanks to the 1979 Prayer Book, but Episcopalians are odd ducks and not really representative of Protestants as a whole. The "new perspective on Paul" (which isn't new at all) threatened to break my childhood denomination in two before the elders clamped down because, and I quote, "this is a Catholic heresy and not part of the historic Christian faith." This is also political in part: some evangelical Christians are willing to join with Catholics in order to elect Republicans, although there are those who keep a firm separatist approach like good ole RC Sproul.

Now all y'all Catholic readers can take a nice calming walk, deep breaths, in and out.

* Fun fact: all Calvinists call Augustine "Saint Augustine," but they see no contradiction in this. Probably because they claim him as one of their own.


  1. This was very interesting to read. It's funny, in a frustrating sort of way, to know that there is still so much anti-Catholicism out there, and that it's almost more a matter of family tradition than anything. "Why do we do it? Because that's the way we've always done things, of course!" ;)

    It's also sad that there are so many misconceptions about what Catholics believe, especially when those misconceptions are so easily corrected with accurate information (as I'm sure you've found out in you're internet travels).

    I can't honestly say that I remember any anti-Protestantism in my upbringing. Maybe because I have some Methodist and Baptist extended family members, as well as Catholic family. I remember being confused as to why all my family wasn't Catholic, and being kind of annoyed at Christmas when grace before meals was a long spontaneous prayer from my uncle-the-Methodist-preacher, instead of the short and familiar formula prayer I was used to! Haha!

    1. I truly believe that most of the hatred and intolerance comes down to ignorance. I was taught so many things that were just factually inaccurate about Catholics, Armenians, Muslims, the Civil War (excuse me, the War between the States lol), evolution, and on and on - basically anyone we felt threatened by. It's a sad way to live.

      My mother in law grew up Catholic prior to Vatican II - Catholic school taught by nuns and all that. Is the prayer you said "Bless us oh Lord for these thy gifts which we are about to receive from thy bounty through Christ our Lord?" She still says that one.

    2. Yep, that's the prayer. It's the standard grace before meals in America (in English). I'm sure different cultures probably have different versions, though.

      Yes, you're right. Ignorance is the big problem. And unfortunately, learned prejudice makes some people unwilling and/or unable to acknowledge and fix the ignorance. It is very sad.

      I'm a big fan of the truth and trying to be as informed about it as possible. I think it's why I've developed a real liking for philosophy! :)

    3. That's funny about the long spontaneous praying. One thing I've had to adjust to with becoming Episcopalian is that they're more like Catholics that way - really big on liturgical prayers, not so much on spontaneous ones. Being in a room full of Episcopalians is always so awkward when they're asked to pray "off the cuff," whereas in my background everyone knew the game so to speak :) At one Episcopal college gathering they had a ball with different short prayers before the meal that someone would throw to you so you didn't have to come up with something on the spot, which I thought was clever.

  2. Oh my, this is so interesting. I'm amazed at how many on the list I learned by osmosis too. To be fair, ALL religion's were suspect and unfavorably depicted by my family growing up, not just the Catholic's. Great post!

    1. What was your background, more agnostic, atheist?

  3. Religious history is so interesting, isn't it? My best friend growing up was/is Catholic and I still grew up with a bunch of misconceptions -- which turned out to be a good thing because when I married a Catholic, I had a bunch of questions about Sacraments and Mary and Eucharist, that ended up developing my own faith. I grew up Church of England (but in Australia) and my husband and I are now Episcopal. When my hubby was received into the Episcopal Church, he said he was able to make the decision because the liturgy was basically the same, but a different bureaucracy. Which is what Cranmer and Henry VIII was all about.

    What's really interesting is how mainland Europe informed the UK's religion -- from Luther to Calvin -- they all influenced Anglicanism (C of E), Presbyterianism, etc and so forth to varying degrees. Each Book of Common Prayer represents a pendulum swing between Catholic thought and Calvinist (I guess) thought. Starts out pretty Catholic, becomes very Protestant (no raising of the host, no church decorations), and back again, ad infinitum to varying degrees. I think it would change more frequently if it didn't take so long for a prayer book to get through committee in the Episcopal Church. :)

    Maybe I should blog about this :)

    1. You should totally blog about it! I'm having all kinds of nerdy euphoria just thinking about all that history.

      Before I joined the Episcopal church last Easter I went through a pretty intensive catechumenit class (similar to RCIA) and we had a history professor come and talk about church history. He talked about some of the prayer book changes, and how each English monarch made different changes, and the difference between 1928 and 1979. Do you watch Downton Abbey? I thought it was hilarious when Robert makes a big fuss about all the "papist" traditions like kneeling and genuflecting at his granddaughter's baptism. Nowadays tons of Anglicans cross themselves and kneel.

    2. I converted to Catholicism ten years ago after kind of making the rounds through Presbyterian, Quaker,(not for long), Mennonite(charismatic) and then just plan old non-denom Evangelical. I LOLd at your post describing the prayer sessions! True dat! But I have talked on my own blog about seeing Catholicism from both sides. I agree with your list and would add devotion to Mary in among the thorny issues. :) I also see a lot more that we have in common now as well.

    3. Yes, the Mary thing is one of those Forbidden Topics that I just don't discuss with non-Episcopalian Protestants. And even in Episcopal circles I sometimes hear things that make me grind my teeth, like when people misinterpret things and think that the Immaculate Conception somehow made Mary less human. I'll have to look at your blog - I'm addicted to conversion stories of all kinds :) It's so fascinating to see how people journey to different places in life.