With the 40th March for Life just about a week away, a very imprudently timed fight has apparently broken out among pro-lifers over some Facebook comments of Toby Harmon, one of the founding members of Abolish Human Abortion. The offending comment that started it all:
“...[W]e do not consider Catholics brothers in Christ or Christian at all. We will not seek unity with a Satanic religious system. The only unity that can come is for Catholics to repent of false religion and idolatry and put their faith in Jesus Christ alone (not rituals, not Mary, not the Church of Rome or any mere man). AHA does not believe Catholicism is a Christian religion, but will fight alongside Catholic pro-lifers in various tactics against abortion. However since AHA is gospel centered, believing that that the gospel is the only hope to end abortion, and since RCC does not preach the gospel, then Catholics cannot be abolitionists any more than a Mormon can be. I have said numerous times, even on the AHA page that We are anti-Catholic doctrine/theology/faith/religion, but that does not mean we hate Catholic people, we love them. Everyone at AHA loves them. We also believe that in LARGE part Western Protestantism is dead, very dead as well.”
This is just one element of the small amount of this conversation I've really read, so please do correct me if I'm misinterpreting the situation. Regarding this comment though, I'm certainly surprised to hear that I worship people other than Jesus, or that I put my faith in the Pope. Toby is certainly mistaken, not only in his ultimate assessment of the Catholic Church, but obviously about what the Catholic Church actually teaches and practices. No, we don’t worship Mary or the Pope or think that the Church died for our sins. That’s just old-time Protestant propaganda that got old a long time ago. The first rule of healthy religious debate is having an accurate understanding of your opponents beliefs.
But Toby is right about one thing: the Catholic Church does have an essentially different view of what true Christian doctrine and practice is than Protestants (whatever variety Toby might be). While I hope Toby would be pleasantly surprised to know that Catholics believe as infallible dogma in the unique mediation of Christ, the necessity of the grace of Christ for salvation, and the necessity of faith, there are indeed many very significant points of difference. We Catholics do indeed believe that Jesus instituted the seven Sacraments as signs and instruments of his grace, that Jesus founded a Church and left the Apostles in charge, that the Apostles ordained successors who have passed on their authority to the present day in the bishops, that Mary and the saints are rightly honored as individuals made holy by Christ, and, probably most importantly for Toby, we do indeed unflinchingly reject sola fide and sola scriptura as heresy which, like all heresy, if knowingly, obstinately, and unrepentantly believed post-baptism, makes a person a heretic and damns them to hell. If Catholics are shocked by Toby saying that the Catholic Church doesn’t have the Gospel, I recommend they read the Sixth Session of the Council of Trent on justification, paying careful attention to the last sentence of chapter XVI and the canons.
Yes, there are real, essential differences between Protestants and Catholics. The Reformation wasn’t just a big misunderstanding. I joined the Catholic Church after being raised as an evangelical Christian because I was convinced that only the Catholic Church had the fullness of the Gospel and the means of grace and that I was obligated to do so in order to follow Christ. While the Catholic Church differs with Toby by recognizing that all those who have faith in Christ and are baptized do rightfully claim the title of ‘Christian’, it is nonetheless the case that, as much as Toby hopes Catholics will leave the Catholic Church, I also hope Toby and other Protestants will join the Catholic Church.
And this doesn’t mean that Toby or orthodox Catholics are “anti-” anyone, hate anyone, are bigots, or are intolerant. It means we both take religious truth claims seriously. Yes, it is very possible to think that another person’s religious beliefs are wrong - even Satanic - and still love the person deeply. There is absolutely no contradiction in that. If fact, it is that very love that will spur the person on to try help the other see the supposed error of his ways.
Religious beliefs are not just opinions or expressions of the person such that they cannot be disagreed with. Toby rightfully takes his beliefs seriously. He knows, based on logic, that if he believes x, and Catholics believe y, but x and y are mutually exclusive, then either x or y (or both) must be wrong. Since he of course believes x to be the case, he logically concludes that the Catholic belief y (or at least what he believes is a Catholic belief) is false. This is just simple logic.
Toby also correctly understands that, not only is there such a thing as religious truth, but religious truth matters - and can matter a great deal. A correct understanding of the Gospel is not a matter of indifference; it is not just a matter for ivory tower theologians who are splitting hairs: it is the very essence of the faith. The only thing that will matter in eternity is whether one avoided hell and gained heaven. How one understands the Gospel is precisely how one believes that is accomplished. Toby and the Catholic Church both agree that God’s grace is necessary, that Jesus alone died for all of our sins, and that one must put their faith in Christ alone to be saved. While I don’t know for sure Toby’s beliefs, I’m assuming that we part ways from that point on, regarding such things as the necessity (or lack thereof) of the Sacraments as means of applying the grace of Christ to our lives and our cooperation with God’s grace in living the Christian life to go to heaven.
If Toby believes that the Catholic Church is fundamentally wrong on this point, he very rationally keeps his distance. Though I generally withhold certain judgment about the particular activities of the Evil One, indeed, it would not be unreasonable for Toby to think that, given the size and historical longevity of the Catholic Church, if the Catholic Church is not of God, she is of Satan.
Which brings me to another point on which I’d like to commend Toby: he believes in Satan. It would seem that anyone who would call the Catholic Church a “Satanic religious system” would have to be someone who takes Satan seriously, which I applaud! While most of the world unfortunately scoffs at the very existence of their spiritual enemy, Toby may find that he’ll be increasingly left in the company of orthodox Catholics on this matter.
Far from being offended by Toby’s comment, I find it refreshing in a way. Gosh, he actually believes in objective religious truth! And he seems to take what he believes the Catholic Church teaches seriously. Though we sharply disagree on matters of the utmost importance, I nonetheless have a certain respect for him, recognizing, in his desire to take the Christian faith seriously, a fellow brother. I feel much closer to someone who consciously rejects the Catholic Church for honest theological reasons than someone who thinks Catholics are “just fine” due to religious indifferentism.
And so, if for some reason Toby has read this long piece on a Catholic blog, I’d like to offer him an invitation. I’m assuming he’ll be in Washington DC for the March for Life. I’ll be flying in from Minnesota to be there, too. I’d be more than happy either to grab a beer or coffee (depending on the time of day as well as Toby’s preferences) and have a real, friendly discussion about the religious truths we both take seriously. The drinks will be on me. I'm serious: I can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter, or by email.
Toby, I’ll hear you out, I'll let you explain to me why I should return to the protestant evangelicalism I left in 2010 - and I’ll hit you back with the arguments that convinced me to join the Catholic Church, no holds barred. We can even laugh at a few jokes, or strategize about how to best accomplish the only thing that will stop the March for Life from happening year after year: succeeding in abolishing human abortion.