Monday, September 19, 2011

If the Catholic Church Isn't Main-Stream Christianity, I'm Not Sure What Is

A few months ago, I had the opportunity to talk to one of my old evangelical friends from high school about the Catholic Church and why I felt compelled to join. At one point in our conversation, he asked:
"If the Catholic Church was the original church, why is it no longer in main-stream Christianity?" (1)

And in response to my recent post The Holy Spirit Told Me To Change The Bible, this was one of the comments:
"Hi Brantley, you are absolutely correct in saying that if any megachurch or even Billy Graham himself tried to alter the 66 book canon, heresy would be yelled from the rooftops(or facebook). There's no way it would fly. But Luther and Calvin's alteration did fly. People were sold on it and went with it. Why? Where was the uproar that you know would happen today, then. Why did the faithful accept the shortened canon?"

Here are the quick answers to their questions:
To the first, Catholicism never 'left main-stream Christianity'. It's still in whatever stream it's always been.

To the second, the vast majority of Christians did not, and still do not, accept the new biblical canon of the Reformers. The uproar you're wondering about was the Church's entire response to the Reformation, which included the 18-year-long and greatly prolific Council of Trent, widespread reforms of the inner-workings of the Church, the founding of several new religious orders, countless Catholic martyrs attempting to re-evangelize those who left the Church (yes, Protestants died as well), and the rise of six new doctors of the Church.

In any event, both individuals asked their questions in good faith. But both encounters represent a very common misconception among evangelicals.

Many evangelicals, it seems, have the mistaken notion that Protestantism, and then later American evangelicalism in particular, is Christianity since the 16th century; in other words, that, while the Catholic Church had been the place of Christianity in the centuries prior, the 16th century Protestants sort of "took over from there". This view of history leads many evangelicals who reject the Catholic Church, even considering it some sort of cult, to look back fondly on St Francis of Assisi or St Augustine or many other great saints and understand them to "be on the same team" as them. Great Catholic saints of the last few centuries are largely ignored, while great Protestants are held up in their place. The idea is that whatever stream St Francis and St Augustine were in, Protestantism, and perhaps now evangelicalism - but certainly not the modern Catholic Church - is the continuation of that.

Here are two great examples of what I'm talking about:
Mark Driscoll
(a) Check out the Rotunda of Witnesses in the Billy Graham Center Museum on Wheaton College's campus where you'll find St Justin the Martyr, St Gregory the Great, St Francis of Assisi, and Blaise Pascal alongside Martin Luther, Jonathon Edwards and other Protestants in a display that holds them all up as great Christian witnesses as the name suggests. (I gave more of my thoughts about this in my most recent post.)

(b) Another great example is how non-denominational evangelical pastor Mark Driscoll absurdly pretends that St Patrick, St Athanasius, and St Augustine - all of whom were Catholic bishops - were somehow not Catholic (I specifically respond to the idea that St Augustine was not a Catholic in my post St Augustine Was A Devout Catholic).

All of this would make sense if Protestants had in some way overthrown the Church, or taken her over in a coup d'├ętat, or if Catholicism had died away after the Reformation leaving only Protestants to keep Christianity going, or even if Protestantism had restored the Christian faith as it had existed for most of history - the faith of St Patrick, St Francis, St Augustine, and St Athanasius, etc.

But none of those things happened.

In point of fact, the Catholic Church didn't go anywhere. The Catholic Church existed before, during, and after the Reformation and is still going strong in the present day. The Catholic Church today is the same Catholic Church of the 4th century, the 12th century, the 18th century, or any of the last 20 centuries - the same Catholic Church of all of the saints of history (of course, with our eyes wide open to legitimate development). The Reformers, on the other hand, left the Church of the ages and rejected dogma after dogma that had been held by all Christians of all times, even changing the Bible (see "Those Extra Books": Who Really Changed the Bible and The Holy Spirit Told Me To Change The Bible). In other words, modern day evangelicals are not fully a part of the same thing of which the great saints of the first 1500 years were a part: the Catholic Church. (2)

A World Youth Day crowd
And besides, it's still the case today that the vast majority of people who follow Christ are Catholic (3). Not that it proves that the Catholic Church is the true Church of Christ, but it certainly means that Catholics are at least a part of whatever one might construe as 'main-stream Christianity'.

That is - unless of course you don't think that Catholics are Christians. But then Catholics only 'left the main-stream' in your mind because you decided to define them out of it, not because anything at all has changed or happened to Catholics. Plus, since the only individuals that evangelicals might look to for Christian inspiration before the Reformation were all Catholic, if Catholics aren't Christians, I'm not sure what Christian stream Protestantism took over. One can't lambast the modern Church's doctrines of, let's say, the real presence or apostolic succession and at the same time embrace the saints who lived and defended those very doctrines.

It is precisely this realization, it seems to me, that the Catholic Church is the uninterrupted Church of Christian history - or put another way, that the Catholic Church is the continuation of the Catholic Church - that is at the heart of many of the conversions of evangelicals to the Catholic Church in recent years.

(1) I can't remember his exact words, so this "quote" is a paraphrase
(2) I say "not fully" because evangelicals are, in virtue of their baptism, in partial communion with the Catholic Church
(3) Granted, it's always difficult to ever get an accurate count of the number of sincere, practicing adherents to any religion, so any stats regarding the number of Catholics, evangelicals, or what have you, is always somewhat fuzzy. Nonetheless, all statistics on the issue show that there are several times more Catholics in the world than evangelicals.


  1. I remember in college when my wonderful evangelical Presbyterian Bible prof mentioned that there were >1 billion Catholics on the planet, compared to how many ever Protestants. It's true the way we teach history is from a Protestant/modern perspective, which essentially pretends 500 years of Catholic history is unimportant.

  2. "If the Catholic Church was the original church, why is it no longer in main-stream Christianity?"

    "I didn't leave the Democratic Party. The party left me."

    R. Reagan

  3. I'm loving all of the activity on the blog lately.

  4. Brantley, you've given me some great ideas for my Confirmation prep kids. They are bombarded by pressure from evangelicals to attend their more "vibrant" youth programs. One of my past students declined confirmation a couple years ago and I just learned she was "re-baptized" at a big Christian Center here in town.

    Kids-AND their parents- need to know enough about history and their faith to understand that if they leave for evangelical protestantism they are embracing a worship style and easier doctrine based on feelings, not intellectual honesty regarding what the Church has always been and has always believed.

  5. The problem is most people are not really interested in the truth, they choose or follow a religion for numerous emotional reasons. A thorough study of history, philosophy, and theology will soon rule out protestantism from being the proper version of Christianity. Also, people have to think clearly about religion and Christianity in particular.

    The first question people should ask is did Jesus Christ found a particular church for us to follow, a particular way to follow him? Or, did he not establish a Church and therefore any version of Christianity has no authority over any other and no claim to authority. If Christ did found a Church, which is the true Church? Why are there so many denominations, why is Christianity not unified? These are basic questions a person of intelligence should ask, not just look at the Bible alone. Where did the Bible come from? Who decided what should be put in there? Basic philosophizing should lead people to the truth, the problem is most people do not have the philosophical habit, or lack curiosity completely about things that really matter.

    A protestant can only be logically consistent and sane in his beliefs if he has only examined the Bible, and not done further research into the early origins and progression of Christianity.

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