Over the last couple of months I have been under conviction to earnestly and academically interact with the official teachings of the Roman Catholic church in order to prepare myself for ministry to people who come out of a Catholic background. Even though many of these people are likely going to be Catholic in name only, I should be prepared to accurately speak on the doctrines of their church, which is a task that as of two months ago I was wholly unequipped to do. Like I told my wife, I want to be able to know more about Catholicism than Catholics.
So, to start myself along that path I have been reading from two sources.
The first one is a book written by Thomas Howard, a former evangelical who has “returned to Rome.” It is entitled On Being Catholic and offers a broad, though at most points theologically shallow, perspective on Roman Catholicism. Addressing issues ranging from ecclessiology to Mariology to soteriology, Howard does his best to give an insight into the life of a doctrinally aware Catholic. At the same time he makes an argument for evangelicals to say that our two traditions are not as far apart as we often think. Throughout the book I found myself seeing how the different doctrines logically sprang from one another, even though I ultimately had to reject the premises upon which most of them were built. All in all the author manages to give a very clear layman’s understanding of why Catholics do what they do.
The second text I read is historian Mark Noll’s venture with journalist Carolyn Nystrom into answering the question Is the Reformation Over? This is a very interesting look at the current state of relations between Protestantism and the Catholic church. Because of the nature of Catholicism, where official teachings are set down by the Magisterium, one can look at the document containing them, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and (surprisingly?) see that much of what they have to say is tolerable, likely even identical, to the teachings coming out of evangelical pulpits. Place on top of this the growing calls from voices on both sides of the Reformation divide to join together in evangelistic cooperation and you find that the question of whether or not the Reformation is over is not as cut-and-dry as on the surface it may seem.
I am convinced that it is time for American evangelicals to reassess their understanding of Catholic doctrine. In the end I believe that there are still many points on which the differences are irreconcilable, but the attitude that is commonly brought to the table makes seeing the similarities nearly impossible. If we are ever to reach the nominally Christian individual in this post-Christian/post-Catholic nation then a good first step is cutting through the stereotypes and misinformation that most of us cling to when it comes to the Catholic church.