In light of the discussions going on below, I thought I'd repost a piece I wrote a year ago about the entrenched working assumptions that Catholics and Protestants (especially evangelical Protestants) have about one another. I called it "Catholics are Dead. Protestants are Stupid."
First Things hosted a terrific article by Gerardine Luongo, (link: http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/2009/11/a-catholic-among-the-evangelicals) a Catholic - the sole Catholic - working in an evangelical missionary organization, CURE, in Africa. Luongo has written an all too familiar description of the historic, hard-wired assumptions that Catholics and Evangelicals have about each other’s spiritual state. Assumptions that I long ago summed up for myself (painting with the broadest possible brush) as "Catholics are dead. Protestants are stupid." Luongo uses the word "stunned" three times in her article. Her colleagues are stunned to learn that she, who seems to be a real Christian, is a Catholic. She is stunned to hear what they believe Catholics believe.
I didn't know whether to laugh or cry while reading so I settled for a strangled chuckle. Reading her recent experience brought back so many memories of my early days as a Catholic. There was the young Dominican to whom I tried to explain why evangelical Protestants are so uneasy about Catholic devotion to Mary. He cut me off. "That's ridiculous." Everyone knows that we don't worship Mary." he insisted. "They are just stupid."
I can laugh now but at the time, I was certain that what was going on was simple confusion. No cultural insider had ever explained to the young priest what evangelicals really thought. A little catechesis would just clear everything right up. So I tried again.
"Well, you see, most evangelicals are afraid of undermining the glory and sovereignty of God . . .", I began. But this newly minted product of Dominican formation cut me off again. "They are just stupid!" And I was the one left open-mouthed and mystified. Stunned. With the first faint question rising in my mind: perhaps the "stupidity" involved wasn't all on one side?
Gerardine Luongo has had the same experience in reverse while trying to explain Catholic devotion to Mary to her colleagues. Her evangelical colleagues' concern? That Catholics are essentially spiritually "dead." Geraldine writes, "I was told that Catholics worship idols. Another stunned look (mine) and more questions followed. What idols? (Visions of golden calves popped into my head.) Wait, were they talking about Mary and the saints?"
Yep. Because (ran the script that was hammered into me as a blue eyed baby fundie) Catholics are dead. People who are spiritually "dead" do things that horrify and enrage God, like worship idols instead of the living God - because spiritually “dead” people don’t know the difference.
To this knee-jerk assumption, Luongo has a beautiful response:
"Every day, women in the developing world defy their communities and bring their children to CURE for help. These are mothers who have been told by village leaders that their disabled children are cursed and therefore to be feared. The mothers of such children are encouraged to kill their cursed infants. If they do not, they may be shunned by their villages and divorced by their husbands. These women travel long distances in search of help. These are radical women—women whose lives would be easier if they listened to their communities and abandoned or killed their disabled children. Because of their mothers’ hope, these children are offered hope through healing at CURE.
Is Mary not a role model—maybe even the role model—for these women? Mary and the saints offer us a wide range of examples of how to live a life of faith. To seek the intercession of the saints is not to place faith in them. It is to place faith in the power of prayer to the Father through the Son while recognizing the power of the communion of saints—a communion that includes all Christians, living and dead—to offer prayers to God on our behalf."
From the Catholic side, how many times have I heard intelligent Catholics casually dismiss evangelical worship as merely "entertainment"? It happened again last month when I was working with a group of pastors and pastoral leaders at a seminar on evangelization. I asked them, "What have the lapsed Catholics that you know personally told you about why they left"?
The obvious goal of that particular discussion was to hear what people who have left the Church have to tell us. There was a broad spectrum of familiar answers: people didn't agree with certain teachings, didn't believe anymore, looking for community, the desire to be "fed," etc. Then one woman said, "mega-church services are entertainment. They just want entertainment," and a number of heads nodded in agreement.
I had to ask, "Is that the language that your friends actually used? Did they say that wanted to be ‘entertained’? Did they actually use the word ‘entertainment’? Since our goal is to understand what motivates lapsed Catholics, we need to actually listen to the language they actually use."
The woman looked puzzled by my question. I had to repeat the question to the whole group. "Have you actually heard former Catholics tell you that they have started attending evangelical churches in order to be ‘entertained’?”
Slowly it dawned upon us all. The "entertainment" thesis reflected our Catholic insider judgments about what must have motivated those who had left the Catholic Church for evangelical communities. But none of us had ever heard an actual, living, former Catholic use that language.
Certainly I never have. No former Catholic that I have met in the evangelical world ever talks about a desire for "entertainment" as a motivation for ceasing to attend Mass. In fact, the gap between the dominant "storyline" that you hear from former Catholics whom you meet in the evangelical world (which is usually some variation on “I never met Jesus in a living way as a Catholic”) and the judgment that so many Catholic pastoral leaders blithely make about why they left in the first place is staggering.
When we casually dismiss mega-church worship in general as "entertainment," we mean that we regard it as shallow, emotionally-driven, ephemeral, and without spiritual or theological substance or seriousness; the spiritual equivalent of a crude, popular sit-com. That it is, essentially, spiritually "stupid.”
But that is an unjust caricature of the incredible breadth and often remarkable depth of worship that I knew in the evangelical world. Since the externals are often so different, it can be hard for Catholics who only have a superficial exposure to the evangelical world (often in the form of TV preachers) and who are steeped in certain liturgical assumptions to recognize that depth. But truly, it is there.
In some circles, thank God, the "Catholics are dead, Protestants are stupid" assumptions have disintegrated over the past twenty years. But even so, you can hardly describe the current relationship between evangelicals and Catholics as bland. These days, I am less likely to be regarded as "dead," than as the object of fascination among a certain kind of sophisticated evangelical. Sometimes it is because they are hovering on the brink of entering the Church. For others, it is because they are discovering the spiritual riches of historical Christianity.
There is a whole movement called "spiritual formation" in the evangelical world whose content and inspiration is almost entirely Catholic. I have spent some time lately with a local evangelical group committed to spiritual formation: a group in which I am the only Catholic. They are an evangelical group using only Catholic resources, including the writings of Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross. They have told me that evangelical seminaries and colleges around the country are developing new courses of study in spiritual formation that are simply saturated with the writings of the great Catholic saints and mystics.
However, the old shibboleths can die hard outside specialized movements. I have found this especially true in evangelical missionary circles like the one that Geraldine Luongo is now moving in. In that community, everyone cheerfully accepts me as a "real believer" until they ask what church I attend. Then they look stunned and the conversation immediately changes in subtle ways. Usually no one says anything out loud because they want to be polite.
I know where the hesitancy comes from. They find it hard to believe that I am a true disciple and therefore, "spiritually alive." Because if I were “alive,” I wouldn't have intentionally entered the Catholic Church where, by definition, almost everyone is "dead."
In spite of changes happening within evangelical circles, many evangelicals still presume that Catholics are spiritually “dead.” Many Catholics remain comfortable presuming that Protestants are spiritually “stupid.” Which means that those of us who are truly “bi-cultural” and know that neither is true, have some important and practical ecumenical work to do.