Updated: Sep 4, 2021
What would I say to a young Protestant marrying a young Catholic (and perhaps vice versa)? And in a roundabout way what would I say to the parents? For full disclosure purposes, I do not usually consider myself Protestant. I consider myself catholic (lower case c) and orthodox (lower case o) primarily, and then look for other designators. For easy designation for any Roman Catholic readers, you will consider me Protestant because of my not being in “full communion with Rome.” If only things were so simple. 😊
My Short Answer: As lovers of God we must find a way to live beyond the bias’s and prejudices that developed after the wake of the Reformation. This is not to say that we cannot have the same kinds of debates. In many ways we must to get to the bottom of things, but the bias’s that Catholics and Protestants often have toward one another are not helpful to loving our neighbor’s. At worst, Catholics are considered the Whore of Babylon and the Anti-Christ. A label that may have felt necessary 500 years ago by those Reforming, but now the repetition of such is hollow. Moreover, the idea that Protestants are somehow sub-Christian or even worse, wicked heretics, is not taking into consideration what great teaching and doctrine has come about in at least some Protestant groups. Finally, I want to say that the debates of today are to be had on different footing. The reason for this is that after the Reformation period, The Catholic Church had The Council of Trent but did not stop there. Hundreds of years (and much progress later), Catholics today live in the wake of the 2nd Vatican Council. Huge updates have been made on subjects such as Protestantism, worship practice, focus of missions, and the unevangelized.
The first questions to ask any couple on the way to marriage?
Are they in love? Do they believe in God/Christ/Trinity/Cross/Resurrection/Salvation? Do they want to grow in holy love? Do they care about attending church? How is their character? Are they in love?
In a sense, a lot else is secondary. But, since you asked about some of these secondary’s, we best get to them.
Wide Agreement: Much moral teaching and creedal teaching is identical between Catholics and Protestants (at least in their conclusions, not necessarily in their causes). Literally, thousands of pages of information could be written as to the agreements. That is good news for anyone getting married across the Tiber.
Denominations: From a 30,000-foot view, we know there are difficulties in Catholicism. We may think that should obviously close the door to thinking about Catholicism. However, Protestants have equally difficult problems in their various branches. Where can we look to one group that isn't lacking in doctrinal truth in some area? Anywhere that we look we find errors. In the Word of Faith Movement, Charismatic and Pentecostal Groups, Evangelicalism, Lutheranism/s, Anglicanism/s, and more. The point is that if a child is marrying into a denomination, we will have plenty of errors to consider everywhere. Some errors are as serious as what the Reformers were trying to reform in Catholicism 500 years ago.
An Important Distinction: “Popular Forms of Catholicism versus what the Catechism says.” The Catholic Catechism is the official beliefs of the Catholic Church. In our quest to understand Catholicism, we should read the Catechism and not books by those rabidly opposed to Catholicism. I have found you can see what they believe by getting it from their own official teaching. And…minus only a few aspects, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches tons of truth. From the Ten Commandments, to the Apostle’s Creed, to the Lord’s Prayer, and much more. If you want to know their official thinking, look up the topic of your choice in the Catechism. This distinction protects us from adopting the biases of the non-traditionalists as well also serves as a correction from some popular forms of Catholicism that are getting it wrong about their own faith. If you listen to Relevant Radio, you will find some great programming at times. But you will also find endless focus on Mary. It’s annoying and oversteps the bounds of their own catechism a lot. There is very little on Mary in the Catechism, yet they make it such a focus.
Contraception – The Catholic church does not think using artificial contraception is a moral good. I only mention this as something to be known and not as a deal breaker. But, if you are the parents reading this, it might be the case that you will be grandparents sooner than you think. 😊
Justification: The idea that we are justified by grace through faith has large agreement these days. In fact, there may have been a bunch of ‘talking over each other’s heads’ in some cases during the Reformation. When a Protestant says “Faith Alone” they are talking about entering the doorway of Salvation and are very clear that works cannot get you in that door. When Catholics say “Faith and Works” they are talking about the life of salvation. Namely, what you do when you are in the door. I first read this from a Catholic Philosopher named Peter Kreeft (Handbook of Christian Apologetics). Thus, Ephesians 2:8-10 holds up even for the Catholic. In these verses we find grace, faith, and then works. Today, you can find some Catholic priests, missionaries, and laity talking about having a relationship with God in almost the same way that Evangelicals do. However, there is (usually) still real disdain for the words “faith alone,” because of what it represents from the Reformation.
Mary Did you Know – In this Sunday’s Sermon, I am talking quite a bit about Mary (it’s Christmas!). LINK The Catholic Church does officially believe Mary was without sin…but in a qualified sense. The qualification is that Jesus’ merits on the cross were applied to her in advance to keep her pure for the incarnation. Thus, even under Catholicism Mary needed a Savior, and Jesus was her Savior. Moreover, Catholicism officially believes that either before death or right at death, Mary was assumed bodily into heaven. Once again, we have a so called “infallible” teaching here. Both of which were not ‘official’ till the 1800’s and the 1900’s. As non-Roman Catholics, we can be happy to still see Mary as a young human Jewish Woman whom God favored with this great task of bearing the Son of God, without having to go further. Catholics often go way beyond these two doctrines with their devotion, but this is the teaching.
More Mary – Titles like “Mother of God” and “Queen of Heaven” are pushed too much by some Catholics for Protestants to digest. The titles themselves, as basic designators and should not worry us too much. “Mother of God” was chosen in the 400’s to properly protect Jesus being truly God and truly man. If we say that she was not the mother of God (which is not implying that she created God, but only bore Him in her womb), then we will have to say that Jesus was not God. Thus, the original title was protecting Jesus. Too much emphasis on this title since, which exalts Mary unduly is unneeded. “Queen of Heaven” is also a theological designator and is not wrong if it just thinking about Revelation 12 (which was about Israel first, and possibly Mary as well). But, if we mean it in any sense more than Revelation 12 (which Catholics in practice sometimes do), then we would do right to hold back.
If you are Protestant however and worrying about your Son/Daughter, then please know that most of Sunday worship (sermons, songs, readings, practices etc.), have little to do with focusing on Mary. There is 1 or maybe 2 Sundays a year that remember Mary in a special way. Catholics are Trinitarian. Most of the focus is on Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Thus, feel settled about your Son or Daughter going to Catholic Mass and hearing most of the Bible read over a three-year period. Perhaps challenge them considerably when it comes to Marian Devotional groups outside of Sunday’s.
Also, Catholics should reflect on Mark 3, where his mother and family try to prevent him from doing his work, and then later Jesus says, “My mother and brothers are those who do the will of God and keep it.” It is not that Catholics have had not reflection on this verse, but I often find it missing from Relevant Radio discussions.
Prayers to Mary – Although Catholics are not allowed to worship Mary (their Catechism makes this clear), they can honor her. For us on the outside, we can barely tell the difference in some practices. At a wedding of a family member of mine, the couple wanted to pay special tribute to Mary and bowed down in front of a statue of her and prayed. Obviously, this is troubling to the Protestant who thinks this betrays the First Commandment. I think Protestants have the right feel on this. It is not that there is no avenue to incorporate statues in worship. The eventual view of the church of the first 1000 years was that imagery is something God himself gave us in the incarnation with Jesus Christ. Therefore, images themselves are not wrong and can add to the imagination and development of Christian awareness etc. Anglican Churches are often built the same way as Catholic ones. Then there are the Eastern Orthodox Churches which are known for their imagery. I am fine with all of this and think that the council in around the 700’s or so that weighed into this topic was likely correct. Still, that does not mean that we should be bowing in front of a statue of the things that are to be filling our imagination. Thus, Protestants can lighten up regarding the use of images and statues in general to enhance the worship environment. Yet, they should press hard to their son or daughter that this is as far as it goes. Keep our prayers and bows to God.
Prayer and Mary 2 - Before a critique of this, I want to offer a helpful distinction. If a son or daughter of mine were joining the Catholic Church, I would remind them of them this. Prayer is often reflective and not just about “asking” God for things. Catholics often do this reflective prayer better than we. When they are saying the Creed or praying the Rosary, sometimes this is just reflection on the great truths of the Bible (most of the “Hail Mary” prayer comes right from Scripture passages). The Creed’s reflections have of course been considered true reflections from as early as Christianity itself. Therefore, when it comes to praying the Rosary, if all it is reflection on the great truth of the incarnation of God, such as with the Angelic announcement in Luke 1, then we can jive somewhat with these prayers (although we could encourage more diversification by inserting the prayers from Ephesians 1 and 3 instead of the numerous Hail Mary’s).
However, if one is talking to Mary and developing their devotional life around Mary herself, then I think even Mary would be annoyed at this. The Catholic is allowed to say, “prayers to Mary,” (as referenced in their Catechism), but we object to this practice for several reasons and we will hope our child remains quite critical in this area as they ‘become Catholic.’ We will want our child to treat ‘prayers to Mary’ like an area in need of reform. Why? We call our Catholic brothers and sisters to remember how Jesus taught us to pray. “Our Father.” He never taught us to pray, “Our Mother.” For sure, some Protestants are scared to talk about Mary because it might sound too Catholic. But this is no reason to start saying prayers to Mary.
Moreover, we strongly object to the endless devotion witnessed on Relevant Radio. The talk of Mary on some shows gives the impression that she is God rather than God himself. I mean this by their emphasis on her, their titles of her, their prayers to her, and at times their lack thereof regarding Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Finally, we object on historical grounds as well. Prayers to Mary did not get started for a long time. I wrote a paper a while back on its development, and from a Catholic perspective (Scott Hahn, who is perhaps the most famous Protestant Convert to Catholicism) dated prayers to Mary to about 270A.D. From a Protestant perspective (Phillip Schaff, one of the great Historians), dated prayers to Mary to just after the 300’s A.D. I suppose it depends on your definitions of prayer. The point however is that these prayers are very late. We should stick to prayers that are directed to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The Catholic reader of this might object at this last thought. What does time of inception have to do with the truth of something? That of course would be the Genetic Fallacy. Agreed. That is not my argument. My argument is making a broader point about the teaching of the church from its inception onward. I also admit that we should not always look to the purity of the early church for direction. There are difficulties on this number. However, Catholics too often cite early Church Fathers to prove their doctrines where it is favorable to them. This is one area where they simply have no power to do so! Both from the New Testament as well as the first several hundred years of Christianity. There are no supports.
I can already hear the Catholic Apologist saying, “Well the Trinity was not mentioned till the middle of the 2nd Century.” But the difference is that the teaching of the Trinity is highly confirmed in Scripture as well as in the first few centuries of the Church. Prayers to Mary are not. Thus, if we undercut the basis for this doctrine in some of the most cherished documents of Catholics, then it should at least give Catholics pause. There is of course no problem following Jesus’ advice to pray “Our Father.” There are questionable grounds (at best) to pray “Our Mother.”
Papal Infallibility: Was Peter given the Keys in Matthew 16 or was he not? Should we front load the whole idea of the keys as meaning Jesus “meant for Peter to perfectly pass on the keys to one key leader for the next several thousand years, and those not in line with the person who has the keys are not part of the true church?”
Well, I think we can happily agree that Jesus gives Peter the keys but disagree with all the extra that goes along with this. I am not very convinced by some Protestants who try to say Jesus was talking directly about himself when he said, “Upon this Rock I will build my church.” There are problems with this, even though of course, that is ultimately where the church is built (Chief cornerstone!). Moreover, where does this understanding of the Keys imply that Peter will be without error? One could argue for “good enough” doctrinal leadership, and not have to think it means infallible for all time.
Moreover, I do think Protestants can and should accept Peter’s pre-eminent place in the Gospels and the early part of the book of Acts. We are to follow Scripture, we will find and agree that Peter is constantly mentioned first and leads the church into new mission fields. Moreover, the earliest Church documents after the Bible do say (such as in Clement of Rome) that the early Apostles handed over their leadership to Bishops so the work/truth of the Gospel could continue. Protestants often have difficult with Apostolic Succession, but the idea is implicit in the close of the New Testament. That of course does not answer all the historical questions about legitimacy centuries later, but it does not hurt to admit the truth of something. In fact, we are asking Catholics to admit the truth of some things we are pointing out, why cannot we return the favor?
Back to Papal Infallibility: There is the question over the practical benefit of this doctrine. Does it really help if it is only used once every so many hundreds of years? Perhaps it does. Perhaps there are no new issues that God really wants to make clear all that often. However, sometimes the faithful are really looking for an answer about the clarity of Scripture on a topic. It would be nice for that direction.
But one more thing. There are places in Scripture to think about true participants in Christ who are on the same exact team but may not have all the same information or always run in the same circles. Acts 18:24 onward has Apollos being shown more of the way by Priscilla and Aquila. He continued his ministry though and there is little check and balance for if he is a participant in the keys (in communion with Peter). There is acceptance because he was following the same Savior. This is what we are hoping for from Catholics to at least some Protestant groups.
Even more, the Church Fathers offer some helpful perspective on this subject that does not always play well into the hands of the final Catholic view. Reading the Church Fathers Origen or Chrysostom on this idea leaves one with the clear impression that it was Peter’s confession that the Church was built upon, and that we can make that same confession and be part of the same church. Protestants do make the same confession, which is a great argument that we are not to be left out.
If one is interested in a fair treatment of the development of the terms “Bishop, priest, and deacon” on the way to “Pope” I recommend reading J.B. Lightfoot’s essay “On the Christian ministry,” which documents the development of Bishops, Elders, and Pope. Plus, the author was an Anglican, and has often been trustworthy on both sides of the Catholic/Protestant arguments. Years ago I found it for free on Google Books.
Communion: Protestants and Catholics should both agree that the bread and the wine is sacramental. Namely, that it conveys God’s grace. Moreover, it is good for both Catholics and Protestants to agree that Christ is REALLY present somehow. However, I also think it is safe and wise to avoid strongly defining “how.” Catholics have offered Transubstantiation to make sense of this, which is rooted in Aristotle’s distinction between substance and accidents. A very helpful distinction, but we can stick with the Eastern Christians on this one and just keep it “Mysterious,” for we are not really capable of defining such a thing.
I also personally lean a bit Wesleyan on this topic, in that the Symbol of Bread and Wine (Symbol is much more than a sign in the ancient world), participates in the reality itself. Namely, this is like the American Flag participating in the reality that is America, even if the Flag itself is not America.
“Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break a sharing in the body of Christ?” (1Co 10:16 NAS)
The debates about this were not started right away in Church history and did not get settled till the 1200’s or so. That is why I think Christians can find common ground in the basic idea that Christ is really present without having to define how. There is a problem in Catholicism on this point though. Catholicism requires Catholic priests/bishops to be the ones that bring forth this “miracle.” I simply cannot find that in the early Church documents of the Bible or the first few hundred years after the Bible. Their priestly system pushes Protestants out from a true Lord’s Supper, but the earliest leaders of the Church (such as Irenaeus in the 2nd century), would have rejoiced at most Protestants being such doctrinally rich believers and would have accepted most of them.
What about books of the Bible? There were two canon traditions. The Protestants went with Canon rooted in Palestinian Judaism, and the Catholics largely went with the canon as developing in Alexandria. From my own quick thought on this, I think Jesus focus’ was on the classic Jewish divisions offered in what is now our Protestant Bibles. However, he would have been aware of the other books and would not have been shy to draw on their history, as his own actions seem to do for Palm Sunday (Maccabees). However, he never quotes from them, nor do any of the Apostles. Thus, I think there is good reason to think there was some level of separation between the two groupings. One can use the extra books as history and interpretive helps to the time period without having to think they are inspired in any significant sense. Even some Catholics call those other books “deuterocanonical” which means second canon. Still, the official teaching of the Catholic Church is that they are included. When I myself read those books, I do not worry too much about them. I know back in Luther’s day a few of those books were used to prop up some teachings by Catholics, but my own reading is that they offer only scant support for uniquely Catholic doctrines, if any at all.
Read the Church Fathers Together – Catholics often think Protestants would convert if they read the Christian leaders (Church Fathers) after the Apostles. Although I can see how this may work for some minds, I think the careful reader has much to point out back to the Catholic from these documents. I love the earliest writers after the Apostles, and there is so much that we all need to learn from them. I highly recommend reading through these letters, and then books, together (parent and child). The Protestant will likely be surprised to find apostolic succession ideas present in some of these writers. The Catholic should be surprised to find that Protestants believe all the required beliefs to be part of the universal Church and connected to the Apostles (See Irenaeus). These readings will enrich the theology of each of you and may help each to grow in ways that help Catholics and Protestants be more catholic (lower case c). I have some copies of the earliest writers if you want to look. They are still writing the Corinthians and the Ephesians and more.
Plus, you could read them all on www.ccel.org
There is so much more that could be said on the above and even more topics.
I wish the Catholic becoming Protestant many blessings and the Protestant becoming Catholic many blessings as well as they both grow in the truth of Jesus Christ.