Growing up as a traditional Southern Baptist, I always felt rather suspicious of Catholics. It wasn’t that I necessarily believed, or was taught, that Catholics wouldn’t go to heaven (in fact, I can even remember arguing that such an idea was absurd – a Christian is a Christian, after all), but my Southern Baptist background caused me to view Catholicism, at the very least, as a misguided interpretation of Christianity.
I can remember contemplating how Catholicism could make some of the claims it made. Why did people have to confess sins to their priests? When you did confess, why did you have to say mantras and such to be adequately forgiven? Why couldn’t priests or nuns get married and have children? If the Church is in the business of saving souls, why did the Church sometimes kick people out (excommunication)? How come so many Catholics don’t act like Christians? (For me, “acting like a Christian” would have included not smoking, not drinking, and not gambling – things that I perceived Catholics loved to do!) What’s with the whole Mary-worship thing? Why do we need a Pope?
I didn’t know any practicing Catholics, nor did I have any exposure to first-hand Catholicism at all, so my impressions of Catholicism were twisted utterly by my Southern Baptist view of the world.
My general impression was that Protestantism, despite some faults and some obvious disagreements between denominations, at least stuck primarily to actual biblical teachings. I remember specifically contemplating the tradition of Catholics referring to priests as “Father.” The bible, I knew, specifically taught that no one should call another man “Father,” in a spiritual sense, except for the Heavenly Father (Matthew 23:9). Why then did Catholics practice something that not only wasn’t biblical, but was precisely the opposite of what the bible taught?
Additionally, I looked to other seemingly non-biblical doctrines: the existence of the Church hierarchy, from the Pope down through the Cardinals, etc., and the suggestion that those people are “intermediaries” to God, when, in fact, the bible says that all people are equal and can equally approach God; the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, which states that Mary was conceived by the Holy Spirit, despite no such teaching in the bible; priests and nuns being barred from marriage, despite all the early Christians being married, including Peter, whom the Church claims was the first Pope.
As I have gotten older and begun studying religions more in depth, I have come to view Catholicism differently. More important, I have come to realize that my previous notions that only Catholicism was guilty of twisting the bible were simply misinformed, and the result of being so caught up in what I perceived as the Ultimate Truth of Southern Baptist theology.
I can’t say that I no longer have those “suspicions” about Catholicism. Indeed, I feel that all the issues I raised above are still valid issues regarding Catholicism’s interpretation of scripture. In fact, I probably have more awareness of apparently unbiblical beliefs and actions of some Catholics than I did when I was a kid. One that I recently began to contemplate was the seemingly widespread action of treating crucifixes like they are somehow “holier” than some other manmade item. Praying and/or kneeling before a crucifix, for instance. Or the way crucifixes have been used as a means of exorcism – as if the crucifix itself has some holy power that, say, a plastic set of headphones doesn’t have. There is also the tendency to believe it’s a sin to turn a crucifix upside down, or to destroy a crucifix – again, suggesting that the crucifix is imbued with some special holiness that other inanimate objects don’t have.
The same could be said for holy water. To quote Stan Freeburg, “I mean, the name says it, man.” “Holy” water, presumably, has some special attribute that regular old tap water doesn’t have. Is this not the textbook definition of idolatry? Applying supernatural attributes to an inanimate object?
Of course, there are many Protestants who do similar things with crosses and crucifixes, and even holy water. So this isn’t an issue exclusive to Catholicism. In fact, I believe idolatry, in various forms, is widespread among all classes of Christians.
And that really leads me to my next point: What I have discovered, as I have grown and matured in my spirituality, is that all brands of Christianity are guilty of adding and subtracting to the bible. Southern Baptists, for instance, have long taught that dancing and drinking were sins. I certainly grew up believing this (I was suspicious of the dancing thing, but I definitely believed drinking was a sin). Yet, the bible not only depicts Jesus and everyone else drinking wine (Jesus’s first miracle, for crying out loud, was turning water to wine so that guests at a wedding party had plenty to drink!), but it also implies that dancing can be used as a way to celebrate and worship God (as was so eloquently pointed out by Kevin Bacon’s character in the movie “Footloose”).
I think that many people probably still have the impression that Catholics “make stuff up,” while Protestants don’t. Even atheists, agnostics, and skeptics are sometimes guilty of this. Just today (in fact, it was the inspiration for this post), an atheist on the Rush Message Board made just such a comment – suggesting that, even though he was neither Catholic nor Protestant, he believed at least Protestants went primarily “by the bible,” whereas Catholics didn’t.
I think it’s important to realize, whether you are Protestant, Catholic, or otherwise, that every brand of Christianity is guilty of adding (and subtracting) from the bible, as it benefits its own pre-determined doctrines and dogmas. There is no such thing as a “bias-free” version of Christianity, or a version of Christianity that just “goes straight by the bible.” Many Protestant denominations bill themselves, and truly believe, that they are simply a “bible-based congregation of believers,” following the bible just as it reads, no more, no less.
Unfortunately, no such thing exists, in either the Protestant world or the Catholic world.
So let’s not unfairly market Catholicism as the only brand of Christianity that “makes stuff up.” If we’re going to point fingers, let’s point them fairly at all brands of Christianity.