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Confessions of a “Socially Catholic” Protestant: Part 1

May 8, 2010

“I give you [Erasmus] hearty praise and commendation…that you alone…have not wearied me with those extraneous issues about the Papacy, purgatory, indulgences and such like—trifles, rather than issues…you, and you alone, have seen the hinge on which all turns, and aimed for the vital spot.”  -Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will 

Protestant-light or Catholic-wannabe? 

Ever since I started describing myself as “theologically Reformed, politically conservative, socially Catholic”, several of you have inquired, “what is a ‘social Catholic'”?  

I was hoping you’d ask.

But before I answer that question, I feel compelled to provide a backdrop of my “theologically Reformed” (Protestant) convictions.   

From the outside, people who see me joining Catholic social causes, studying papal encyclicals, and quoting from Pope John Paul II might assume that I am either “Protestant light”, or on my way to Catholic conversion. Both assumptions would be wrong, and to what extent I have fostered those misconceptions, I am now here to make my true confessions. 

Three Errors 

In the last year, I have been richly blessed with many new friendships in the Catholic pro-life community.  Their devotion to the cause is infectious and inspiring. Through a variety of interactions, many of my false conceptions about Catholics have been corrected, while at the same time, my Protestant convictions have been reaffirmed.  I am not alone in this experience, David Neff writes in the introduction to The Gospel of Jesus Christ: an Evangelical Celebration, that

“through collaboration with Catholic and Orthodox activists in the prolife movement, many evangelicals have discovered a genuine appreciation for and developed friendships with them. This deeper friendship has required that Protestants know their Protestantism (and that Catholics know their Catholicism and the Orthodox, their Orthodoxy).

In becoming more sensitive towards inaccurate stereotypes, three major errors have become apparent to me in the way Protestants often interact with Roman Catholicism: 

1) Advocating “Big-tent Christianity” 

2) Mischaracterizing Catholic doctrine 

3) Focusing on the “trifles” 

Big Tent Protestants 

From party politics to family camping, “big tents” are fashionable these days. Actually, they have been fashionable for some time. Nineteenth and twentieth century Liberalism spread through all of Christendom, having a major effect on so-called “mainline” Protestant denominations and some Catholic theologians as well. 

In liberal theology, unity and therefore, relativism, are valued more highly than strict adherence to “doctrine” which is derisive and…no fun at all. St. Augustine is credited with the powerful phrase: “In essentials, unity. In nonessentials, liberty. In all things, love”–a great motto for any Christian to live by, but in the age of relativism and doctrinal illiteracy, this idea can be misapplied to camouflage a multitude of fundamental differences. 

When Protestants or Catholics use language which dismisses the differences between the two faiths, it indicates either a lack of conviction regarding their own church’s doctrine, or a misunderstanding of what the other side truly teaches.

They believe what? 

I’m just going to guess, and say that Protestants are generally more guilty of the following crime than Catholics: mischaracterizing what the other side believes

Some of the claims you might hear leveled against Catholics are that (1)they don’t study the Bible (2) they don’t believe in justification by faith, (3) they believe you are saved by works, (4) they believe that the pope is perfect, (5) they worship the saints and (6) they see visions of Mary imprinted on their toast. 

Not so fast. 

A quick study in Roman Catholicism will show that (1)practicing Catholics have a very high view of the Bible, believing it to be the inerrant word of God, (2) that faith is a necessary part of salvation, (3)that you cannot simply “work” your way to heaven, apart from the grace of God, (4) that the infallibility of the pope is not absolute and inherent, but  limited to certain applications and contexts, (5) that saints are never to be worshiped, and (6) that (most) Catholics don’t see apparitions of Mary during their morning breakfast. 

In fact, it might surprise some Protestants to realize on how many things we do agree on: the divine and human nature of Christ, the virgin birth, the bodily resurrection, etc. The entire Apostles Creed could be agreed upon by many Catholics and Protestants alike. 

So where does that leave us? Can we all climb comfortably back inside that big tent? 

Again, not so fast! 

The fundamental difference between Roman Catholicism, and orthodox Protestantism is found in the Reformers’ favorite word: sola, or “alone”. The easy, and admittedly over-simplified way to view the two faiths is through the lense of the Reformation’s five Solas

Orthodox Protestants: Saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. Special revelation is found in scripture alone, and glory is due to God alone.  

Catholics: Saved by grace, through faith, in Christ. Special revelation is found in the scripture, and glory is due to God. 

When Protestants try to accentuate the differences between the two faiths through false caricatures, it only diminishes their credibility when entering into honest and meaningful debate. There are enough core differences between the two faiths based on that single word “alone”, to warrant a vigorous dialogue: no embellishment is necessary. 

“That’s weird” 

As a hard-core Protestant with many Catholic friends, I sometimes find myself it that awkward position of defending Catholics against Protestant attacks. A conversation I had with another Protestant last year went something like this: 

Friend: “The Eucharist…you realize they believe that the bread and wine actually turn into Christ’s body and blood?!” 

Me: “Yeah?” 

Friend: “That’s weird.” 

Me: “So is the doctrine of the trinity.” 

Friend: “Hmmm….” 

My point was not to defend the doctrine of transubstantiation (which I do find deeply troubling), rather, I was trying to point out that the knee jerk reaction to reject Catholic doctrine, simply because “it’s weird”, does not make for good apologetics. Let’s face it, from a worldly perspective much of our faith is outside the realms of “normal”: the story of creation: weird. Parting of the Red Sea: weird. The virgin birth: weird.  

In the realm of theology, “weird” is not sufficient grounds for heresy. If we are going to engage in meaningful discussion, it’s time to approach the art and science of biblical interpretation a little more seriously. 


Ask the average Protestant for their thoughts on Catholicism, and chances are they will list off criticisms, regarding the practice of confession, “worshiping” Mary, praying to the saints, priests not being able to marry, too many sacraments, etc., etc. In essence, it is the outward tradition that stands out to the average Protestant, rather than the core beliefs behind the traditions. 

It is interesting that the reformer himself, Martin Luther, would come to refer to such controversies (purgatory, the Papacy, indulgences) as “trifles”–interesting because it was the very practice of indulgences which ignited Luther’s fervor  in the first place. But Luther came to realize that his trouble with the teachings of Rome went much deeper than the issue of indulgences.

As Christians today, I submit that we too should look past the liturgical traditions that first capture our attention, and test the deeper doctrine. It is not that these “trifles” don’t matter, rather, they point us to the underlying chasms. 

If you are a Protestant, ask yourself:

Is it the practice of confession that bothers you, or the associated sacrament of penance?

Is it the recitation of the  Hail Mary that bothers you, or the underlying doctrine of (Mary’s) immaculate conception and her role as intercessor and as some Catholics believe, “Co-redemtrix”. 

Is it the belief in purgatory that most troubles you, or the logic behind purgatory, that Christ’s work of redemption alone is not enough to usher the believer immediately into the presence of God?  

The Hinge on Which All Else Turns 

What was Luther referring to when he wrote about the “the hinge on which all else turns”.  The answer might seem odd to many Catholics and Protestants alike:

The doctrine of Free-will

The Bondage of the Will, which Luther considered his most important book, was a vehemet refutation of Free-will, or the belief that people have the ability to freely choose God in their fallen, human nature. Again, for the “faith alone” reformer, this seems like a bizarre issue to make into a legacy. 

But Luther does not leave us guessing as to his reason for claiming the necessity of rejecting the notion of free-will, “If any man ascribes anything of salvation, even the very least thing, to the free will of man, he knows nothing of grace, and he has not learned Jesus Christ rightly.”

For Luther, it all came down to grace. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God–” (Ephesians 2:8). When he spoke of free will as the “hinge on which all else turns”, it was because he considered this doctrine to be directly related to “Grace Alone” and the Gospel itself–whether we are saved completely by the grace of God, through the gift of faith in the perfect sacrifice of His Son, or whether there is something we contribute: our faith, our merit, our acts of penance, in order to remain in a state of grace.

Grace Alone is the “issue upon which the church stands or falls”, but I will grant: it is uncomfortable.

The Gospel

I suspect that the reason we as Protestants get caught up in the extraneous issues when engaging Catholics, rather than focusing on the gospel, is that we ourselves struggle with the very concept of grace.  How can we articulate that which we don’t understand?

This trend within the church spured the drafting of The Gospel of Jesus Christ in 1999 by a committee of Evangelical leaders. In the introduction David Neff explains: 

 “Human beings seem to have an infinite capacity for getting things wrong, and unfortunately, we have often gotten the gospel wrong, looking for ways to take some of the credit for our own rescue or fearing that giving God all the credit robs sinners of responsibility.”

I too am tempted by “big tent” acceptance of other doctrines, or focusing on the more bite-size “trifles”, but in the end, as someone who is “theologically Protestant” I must hold firm to the biblical centrality of Grace Alone.

I am grateful for the unity Catholics and Protestants can share in promoting pro-life and pro-family causes. There are a great deal of issues we can find agreement on. One of those issues upon which Catholics and Protestants alike can agree is that the core difference in our theologies is found not in the outward manifestations of tradition, but in the very heart of how we define the Gospel itself.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. Ed Mohs permalink
    May 9, 2010 3:18 am


    Indeed, you are a blessing to us (Catholics) who are honored to call you our friend in the pro-life ministry. Thank you for all that you and the Mork family bring to us in Everett.
    An excellent lay analysis of not only our differences, but also what we agree upon.

    BTW: If you are interested, you might enjoy studying Scott Hahn, who has travelled many of the questions and thoughts in your article.

    Blessings to you, Terra!

    • May 9, 2010 3:59 am

      Thanks Ed! You are truly an inspiration, and it’s been an honor getting to know you this past year!

  2. May 12, 2010 2:37 pm

    Great article, well done.

    Have you considered orthodox forms of Anglicanism? This is the American conservative wing of Anglicanism (i.e., it is not Episcopalian). They try to give you the best of both worlds – Reformation solas with all the cool parts of RC. 🙂 Something to consider.

    BTW, “In essentials unity…” is from Meldenius (not Augustine, although he most often receives the credit). 🙂

    • May 12, 2010 8:01 pm

      Thanks Doug! No, haven’t looked into Anglicanism. Actually, I have a great church already (shout out to Calvary Fellowship! 🙂 )

  3. Del Sydebothom permalink
    June 15, 2010 1:28 pm

    Thank you for posting this! If I may do so without coming across as a pushy Catholic (I really don’t want to come off that way) I’d like to explain that the doctrine of purgatory isn’t something we put forward as a statement against the power of Christ’s work. In fact, in every study I’ve read on the subject, Catholic theologians insist that Purgatory exists only *because* of Christ’s work, and does its “job” through the power of His work. Because really, Purgatory is nothing less than the love of God itself, coming into contact with a saved, yet imperfect human soul. Our God is a burning fire, whose love will not allow his children to spend eternity with blemishes left over from an imperfect life. Instead, he purges them away with the fire of His love, which we can enter into through the power of Christ’s saving work.

    This isn’t so much a defense of the doctrine (thought I certainly believe it) as it is an explanation. Take it as a handshake! Pax!

    • June 17, 2010 11:20 pm

      Thanks Del,

      I think this is a clear illustration on the difference between the Catholic and Reformed views on justification. Catholics (as I understand) believe they are infused with the righteousness of Christ, and are thereby empowered to live righteously, and become righteous. On the otherhand, the reformers (and I believe the book of Romans) taught that men are imputed with the righteousness of Christ: made and declared legally, or “forensically” righteous in the sight of God because of the work of Christ. Because of this, there is no more “purging” to do in the legal sense of making us righteous: it is finished!

      Thanks for the comments, I hope you’ll keep reading,


  4. David Sutherland permalink
    July 10, 2010 6:04 pm

    found your blog through your FB comments on Kourtney’s articles (having worked with Joey Cox and Amanda Lord when they interned a summer at Center for Bio-Ethical Reform).

    How wonderfully refreshing is an active mind engaged on these issues.

    I appreciate your analysis and explanations. Please keep them up.

    David Sutherland
    Lindale, TX

  5. October 4, 2010 5:01 am

    Thank you. I am a Presbyterian and in our adult study class, we have been studying the 5 solas. We touched on the differences between Reformed and Roman Catholic but I like the way that you defined and categorized them.

    • October 4, 2010 8:40 am

      Thank you Gail. There are lots of differences, but I think we easily get distracted by the more minor differences. Sounds like an interesting class you are taking!

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