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Confessions of a “Socially Catholic” Protestant: Part 2

May 12, 2010

Back to the original question: what is a “Social Catholic”?

Well…there’s no such thing.

Either you are a bona fide Catholic, or you are not. I am not.

So why the use of erroneous labels? Partly out of my sloppy attempt at shorthand, but also in hopes of sparking questions. It worked.

How are Catholic values different from your average Protestant-Evangelical values? For me, it is not simply a difference of substance, but of approach.

More specifically, the three areas that distinguish the two cultures are:

1. Dissemination

2. Clarity of Application

3. Integration

Advantage of Dissemination

Pope Paul VI

Though as a Protestant, I struggle with the level of the authority given to the pope as the Vicar of Christ, I will grant that there are certain advantages afforded through the structure of the papacy.  When a pope speaks ex cathedra, through a papal encyclical, he is able to clarify and apply morality to particular issues of the day. Those utterances are then disseminated throughout the universal Roman Church, carrying with them the weight of papal infallibility. In other words, the Roman Catholic Church is able to respond quickly and universally to new crisises of ethics that arise within society.

This is what occurred when Pope Paul VI issued his renowned encyclical Humanae Vitae, in 1968, clarifying the church’s position on contraception and marriage in response to the cultural revolution inflamed by the newly introduced birth control pill.  The message was clear, and Catholics (though many would disregard the message) could not in good conscience claim that the use of artificial birth control was “a grey area.”

Protestants, on the other hand, were all over the map regarding contraception. I consider it a good thing that scripture is our only source of divinely inspired special revelation, but admittedly, the Bible does not “update” (Well…at least it shouldn’t). When new ethical questions arise then, there is not an “infallible”, authoritative, universal structure of doctrinal dissemination to respond to the issue. 

Application is left to individuals, pastors, and church leaders, who hopefully, will carefully apply the universal truths found in sacred scripture to the modern situation. However, even if pastors and theologians find the right application, their words are only prescriptive and do not automatically carry the weight of infallibility. “That’s just your interpretation,” we could say to the theologian who comes up with a disagreeable application.

Clarity of Application

On most issues, the values espoused by conservative Protestants and Roman Catholics, are nearly identical. Both would say, for example, that human life is sacred, and must be protected from conception (fertilization) to natural death. 

The difference is that Catholicism takes the next logical step and prescribes clear applications of how these values are to be lived out.  Guesswork and personal discernment are taken out of the equation in exchange for moral clarity.

This is the principle we see at work regarding such ethical issues as contraception and in-vitro fertilization. There are a variety of reasons why the Catholic church opposes artificial contraception, one of them being the possible abortifacient effect of “The Pill”, and certainly other contraceptive methods (IUD’s, patches, shots, etc.).

Evangelical-Protestant author, Randy Alcorn, discusses birth control.

Rome’s clear stance, is “don’t go there!” Likewise, the Catholic church’s formal opposition on such things as egg and sperm donation, in-vitro fertilization (IVF) and artificial insemination (which almost always result in, or facilitate the destruction of human life), is simply a logical application of pro-life values.  

Unfortunately, this clarity of application is often missing on the Protestant side, due in part to a lack of scientific and bio-ethical awareness, and perhaps also from an allergy to what some might view as “rigid morality” or “legalism”.  There are some notable exceptions, however, of Protestant leaders and organizations that take a definitive stand against hormonal birth control, and IVF (Randy Alcorn of Eternal Perspective MinistriesHank Hanegraff of the Christian Research Institute, and my Protestant friends at the American Life League, to name a few.)

But these views are in no way widespread, or even understood within much of Protestant culture. Even among some of the most conservative Evangelical organizations, the message seems to go something like this: “Human life is sacred, we are not 100% sure if birth control pills cause abortions, so pray for the Holy Spirit’s discernment.”  In contrast, the message from Catholic authority and the aforementioned Protestant leaders goes like this, “Human life is sacred, we are not 100% sure if birth control pills cause abortions, so if in doubt, err on the side of life!” 

I have the sneaking suspicion that the Holy Spirit would agree with the latter of the two sentiments.

(Dr. William Topher, MD, member of Focus on the Family Physicians Resource Council, addresses a similar inconsistency in his courageous article, Why does Focus on the Family take a stand against Emergency Contraception (EC) but not the Birth Control Pill (BCP)?  )

Integrated-Sacramental Worldview

Prior to my “conversion” to sort-of-Catholic-social-values, I had a jaded understanding of Rome’s teaching on such things as birth control, being under the impression that their goal was to keep women “perma-pregnant”. But now that I can have a fuller picture, I can appreciate the beauty of a worldview that celebrates womanhood, motherhood, and fertility in context.

One of the distinguishing themes of Catholicism is a special emphasis on integration–integration of the natural with the spiritual and integration of the parts with the whole. This is both manifested in and facilitated by the structure and tradition of the Roman Church. The emphasis on sacraments reinforces this worldview.

As Reformed theologian, Dr. R.C. Sproul explains, “In the Roman Catholic church, there has always been a strong view of the sacramental character of life, and one of the reasons why the Roman church has seven sacraments, rather than two…is that a fundamental, sacramental approach to man underlies this whole notion of what a sacrament is.”

Just as everyday life points to spiritual truths, so also, these spiritual truths seamlessly inform everyday life. This may explain why pro-life issues are so integrated within the character of devout Catholic parishes–it is not seen as a “social teaching” but as part of the fabric of theology itself. It is fitting then, that Pope John Paul II’s literary work on human love and sexuality is titled, Theology of the Body. Tabor Life Institute loftily describes Theology of the Body as “a worldview which in fact holds the answer to all of life’s questions precisely because it is the most honest and fully integrated vision of reality.” 

Pro-life activist Kortney Blythe explains how her own journey to “Social Catholicism” was due in part to the unwavering and integrated approach the Catholic church takes in addressing life issues.  “I discovered Theology of the Body and recognized the gross inadequacies of teaching only abstinence (‘Just don’t have sex till marriage’) rather than holistic chastity,” writes Blythe,” I guess you could say, that’s when I embraced my fate as a ‘socially Catholic’ evangelical Protestant.”

Pathway to Conversion?

There are some aspects of Theology of the Body that are particularly “Catholic” in nature, but much of the teaching can be agreed upon by Catholics and Protestants alike. Given the virtue of its integrated approach, it is not suprising that many former Protestants are first attracted to Catholicism because of the church’s teaching on relationships and sexuality. Though I can sympathize with this sentiment, and remain grateful for the contributions Rome has made in clarifying the issues of human life, I cannot embrace the core doctrines of Catholicism with any peace of mind.

My own “faith journey” has consisted largely of seeking an answer to my problem of guilt–the reality of my own sin and my inability to repay my own moral debt.  I learned early on that I could find no hope in “thinking positive”, denying my guilt, or “trying harder” to satisfy the demands of a holy God.

My sole relief, and continued assurance of salvation comes only through understanding the biblical doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, as defended emphatically by the apostle Paul in Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians. (“For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the Law.” Romans 3:28)  Having tried–and failed–to make my salvation secure by relying on my own works of righteousness, I see nothing to gain, and much to lose in a conversion from “grace alone”, to “grace plus works”.

Choosing Sides?

It might seem as though I’m conflicted–torn between two faith traditions, but to the contrary, because I hold to an integrated view of life, I do not need to be concerned with picking a “side”. Rather, my only aim ought to be seeking the truth, as it is revealed harmoniously in scripture and in nature.  I might find elements of truth that are uniquely expressed by the Roman church, but that does not make them uniquely “Catholic” truths.  As Augustine and Aquinas argued: all truth is God’s truth, and all truth meets at the top.

St. Augustine of Hippo

As a small, but growing number of Protestants have demonstrated, there is nothing contradictory about embracing the Five Solas, while simultaneously promoting the teachings on human life and sexuality traditionally associated with Catholicism. Rather than “choosing sides” I encourage people of all faiths to test their assumptions against the standard of biblical truth, and then to bring that message of truth to the people in their own communities. (I wish I could say that I’m faithful in doing this…I am not.)

I confess that the labels I use to describe myself  in terms of separate social and theological titles has the effect of setting up a false dichotomy, implying a fractured identity that is not accurate. Perhaps I should abandon these erroneous titles altogether. But then again, it did get us discussing the all-important question of what, exactly, a “Social Catholic” is.

Aren’t you glad you asked?

10 Comments leave one →
  1. Hannah permalink
    May 12, 2010 8:42 am

    You are such a good writer, Terra! I just have to say, why couldn’t St. Paul have been clearer when talking about justification by Faith and works? There are passages asserting one or the other as the way to salvation. Obviously, I think both are necessary because I’m Catholic… and because there are passages asserting that both are necessary. 🙂

    I think Catholics, though, definitely agree that the grace of God is the root cause of our Faith and works. Its about as mind-boggling to me as the idea of the Trinity that we can have free will to choose to do good, but if we do good, its only by the grace of God. 🙂 Paradoxes, paradoxes, paradoxes… 🙂

    • May 23, 2010 4:46 am

      Thanks Hannah! I always appreciate your comments 🙂 I agree that there are many paradoxes in the Bible…but not contradictions. It does seem tricky then when comparing Paul’s writing about justification to James’. However, in context, I believe these two writers are in complete agreement. The “faith” that James talks about is not the same faith that Paul talks about in regards to justification. The dead faith that James condemns in his epistle is basically “head knowledge” about who God is. Saving faith, however, is a reliance on God for salvation and through regeneration will naturally produce good works. Protestants, and I believe the Bible (especially in Paul’s letters) makes it clear that those works are a natural/necessary result of faith, but not the grounds of justification.

      Thanks for reading!


  2. May 12, 2010 2:00 pm

    I, for one, am glad they asked. 🙂

  3. Christie permalink
    May 17, 2010 12:56 pm

    Could not have said it better myself! Now when I am trying to state why I am not Catholic, but very catholic like in my social views I will simply point them to this blog!

    • May 17, 2010 3:49 pm

      Thank you Christie. It took a lot of wrestling to define what I believed. Now I’m discovering there are many of us out there!

  4. May 19, 2010 10:30 pm

    What a great article…

    When we Protestants, came up over the hill into the battle for life, the Catholics were already there and whenever we walk away they will still be there…

    Catholics are the heros of the movement and everything I know I learned from their love & dedication to the unborn…

    Thanks for giving a name to my feelings…

  5. PilgrimToChrist permalink
    June 16, 2010 4:40 pm

    (I bumped the “post” button, please remove the above comment)

    Interesting two articles. There are a few clarifications I would like to make:

    Papal encyclicals are not entirely infallible, they may contain infallibly pronounced definitions (e.g. “Ineffabilis Deus”, proclaiming the Immaculate Conception as dogmatic) but as a whole they are not. There are different levels of authority and certainty of Church teachings.

    We are bound to the teachings of bishops and popes based on their ordinary authority, but we are not assured of their infallibility. Contraception is illicit not because it was defined as such in a papal encyclical but rather because it has been held to be illicit “always, everywhere, and by all” (“quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab omnibus”). We think of contraception as a modern phenomenon but it’s not really, for example, St. Augustine not only condemns abortifacents but also “potions of sterility”. St. Paul condemns as a “work of the flesh” φαρμακεία (“pharmakeia”, VUL – “veneficia”, KJV – “witchcraft”) in Gal 5:20, which carries many definitions of not only magic but also medicine and drugs (it’s the origin of our words “pharmacy” and “pharmaceutical”). It is not unlikely that it refers to contraceptive drugs or abortifacients, which were well known at the time. Also note that contraception/abortion was a major business for herbalists/witches until more recent times.

    It wasn’t until the 20th c. that Protestants started questioning the licity of contraception, the first being the Anglicans in 1930. The rest of the Protestant denominations followed suit, based on their idea that everyone should determine for themselves what is true or false, right or wrong. The case of Onan was also re-interpreted to be a condemnation of disobedience, not condemning the act which he committed — turning the reproductive act into a mere act of pleasure by “pulling out”.

    >>> Even among some of the most conservative Evangelical organizations, the message seems to go something like this: ”Human life is sacred, we are not 100% sure if birth control pills cause abortions, so pray for the Holy Spirit’s discernment.” In contrast, the message from Catholic authority and the aforementioned Protestant leaders goes like this, “Human life is sacred, we are not 100% sure if birth control pills cause abortions, so if in doubt, err on the side of life!” <<<

    That characterizes what I understand the common Protestant position on contraception to be but not the Catholic position. Contraception is immoral even if it has no possibility of causing abortion (e.g. condoms) because it violates the procreative and unitive aspects of the sexual act and reduces sex to mere pleasure-seeking, no more procreative or unitive than masturbation. Contraception which causes implantation difficulties (e.g. hormonal birth control) or purposefully prevents implantation (e.g. IUDs) which is, in essence, a micro-abortion, is a side-effect of the contraceptive act. It is the contraceptive act itself, regardless of whether or not it harms the child, which is illicit. Protestant teachings regarding sexuality tend to be very shallow and simply focus on licit (married sex) vs illicit (fornication, adultery, homosexual acts, etc.) rather than taking a holistic approach.

    That is something that I would like to commend you on, which is something I have struggled to get Protestants to understand when we discuss religion. Protestants tend to see doctrines as disconnected, a denomination, church or ministry might have a "Statement of Faith" which lists different things they believe but everything is disconnected. When discussing Catholic teachings, they will bounce from topic to topic — papal infallibility (sometimes also infallibility of Ecumenical Councils), purgatory, various Marian doctrines, confession, sacrificial aspect of the Mass, Eucharist, etc. — all while missing the point that these aren't just the Church declaring that we believe X, Y, and Z but rather form a cohesive, organic whole along with those doctrines that we share with most Protestants (e.g. Trinity, the Incarnation, Heaven, Hell, the Bible, etc.). Likewise, a faithful Catholic's life should also be a cohesive, organic whole and everything should be ordered towards God and salvation.

    It is good that you are seeking a deeper understanding of the faith. God bless you in your journey.

    ~ Pilgrim

  6. Aly permalink
    September 29, 2010 12:02 pm

    (Edited for clarity and poor word choice on my part!)

    Beautiful! Know that I am praying for your entry into full communion with the Catholic Church! I think you will be pleasantly surprised at the cohesiveness and clarity that is found therein.

    I would also add that the faith+works (which is grace+grace) concept is actually pretty easily understood if looked at as a bigger picture. So many people have explained it better than I ever could (Scott Hahn, Frank Beckwith, David B Currie, etc… all protestant-to-Catholic converts)but essentially, it can be understood, and it does not detract from the grace of God, but it allows us to appreciate it to a fuller, more complete extent. I do not need to rely on myself to be able to sin less and produce more fruit, because God gives me the grace to do so. Faith-alone, to me, is the unnecessary severing of the body from the brain, or reason from action. Unless you are calvinist, and I don’t believe you are, you believe in free will, right? So your “act of faith” is still an act that is on YOUR part, though inspired by the holy spirit. We have the choice to act or not. Works, similarly, are acts of charity, which we do with our bodies, but are also inspired by the holy spirit.

    I hope this helps, and I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed reading this. I always think upon how powerful the pro-life cause could be if protestants grasped that the acceptance of contraception is directly connected to the acceptance of abortion. God bless you and your courageous stance!

    With love in Christ,
    Aly, Protestant to Catholic convert

    • October 3, 2010 11:01 pm

      Thank you for your affirmation Aly, I take it as a sign of love when my Catholic friends pray for my conversion 🙂

      I should confess that I am indeed a Calvinist. Election and predestination are difficult doctrines, but that is the best way I can make sense of Grace Alone. It is also the best way I can make sense of the passages in Ephesians and elsewhere which talk about us being “chosen before the foundations of the world” and that our faith is of ourselves, but a gift from God, for we were formerly “dead”, and a dead man cannot even reach out for help until he is quickened unto life.

      God bless you,


  7. Markie Works permalink
    January 25, 2011 12:24 pm

    Hi I Just read your Article. I Enjoyed it! One point I would Try to focus on is that when a Protestant reads The Bible with the Sola Scriptura Lense,it’s then that the beauty and depth from Catholicism gets obstructed. Dr. Scott Hahn is one of the premier modern theologians on Biblical Exegesis and hermeneutics,as well as former protestant pastor . His website is so user friendly I highly recommend it. The One Fact That The Bible was codified by The Catholic Church is Key to seeing the authority thru a Catholic Lense and it is the surest way to understand what the Early Church Fathers were writing about Catholicism. The Fact That Anyone Would hold to a Sola Scriptura position doesn’t really make sense,because that person is in fact accepting the Authority of The Catholic Church on What Books Compiled The Bible,yet all the while rejecting all other Authority is inconsistent in my view as a Catholic. Blessings to You, I hope you use the website because it has led many thousands back into the fullness and beauty and Truth of Catholicism. However Intellectual Honesty is a Must!

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