I’m thinking of a person who describes himself as a Christian, gets his beliefs from the Bible, and has a passion for sharing Jesus with others. What kind of person comes to mind?
I bet the first thought most people have is an evangelical Protestant.
But not a Catholic.
And that’s a problem.
One of my more recent articles was an open letter to evangelicals. This one’s for Catholics.
How did we get here? Catholics are members of the Church that compiled the Scriptures, the Church of the great missionary saints and, the Church established by Christ himself – how did it come about that other people are more known for being evangelizing, Bible-believing Christians?
I’m sure our status as a cultural minority here in the U.S. has been a factor in forming these perceptions (the Protestant majority has had more power in setting linguistic norms, etc). And the widespread lack of faithfulness to Catholic doctrine among self-identifying Catholics in the last few decades certainly hasn’t helped.
But whatever the reasons, I think we Catholics have come to accept these perceptions to a large degree, and in doing so have ceded far too much to our Protestant brothers and sisters.
This is injurious both to our own self-understanding as Catholics and to our relations with non-Catholics. It’s hard to live the faith right and accurately share it with others if we’ve accepted false cultural narratives, false dichotomies, and improper terminology.
To be clear, I’m not saying Catholics should demand that others stop identifying themselves with these things or that we should try to force others to speak about us a certain way. Other people can express themselves from the point of view of their faith or worldview.
But so can we. So I propose that, in our speech, minds, and actions, Catholics more confidently own these three things:
1) The term “Christian”
How many times have you heard someone make a distinction between “Catholics” and “Christians,” using the latter to refer to Protestants? Now compare that to the number of times you’ve heard Catholics call themselves “Christians” in ordinary conversation.
This is a fairly serious identity crisis. The Catholic Church teaches that she alone has the fullness of the Christian faith. Indeed, “Catholicism” is just another name for the Christian religion. So insofar as we follow our faith, Catholics are Christians in the fullest sense of the term.
And if we really believe that, it should be reflected in our speech.
I’m not saying we should abandon the term “Catholic” – I’m obviously using it throughout this article. The Church holds that non-Catholic baptized followers of Christ are also rightly termed “Christians” (Unitatis Redintegratio, 3), so we need the term “Catholic” to help distinguish ourselves.
But we should also confidently call ourselves “Christians.” Or at least “Catholic Christians.” We shouldn’t let “Christian” be a synonym for “Protestant.”
2) The Bible
The Bible teaches Catholic doctrine. It does not teach Protestant doctrine.
Is that strange to hear? I might be more affected by this since I was raised Protestant, but it seems to me that since many Protestants, particularly evangelicals, have been so insistent for so long that their beliefs are what the Bible teaches, it’s as if Catholics have ceded them the point. We’ve let them have the Bible, at least culturally speaking.
But we shouldn’t. Let me be even more specific: the Bible does not teach sola fide or sola scriptura. Purgatory, on the other hand, is entirely biblical (cf. 1 Cor 3.11-15, Mt 12.32, et al.). So is the authority of oral Tradition (2 Thess 2.15), the power of priests to absolve your sins (Jn 20.22-23), and the practice of praying for the dead (2 Maccabees 12.39-45).
Also, if it caught your eye that my last Scripture reference was from a deuterocanonical book, and if you had the sense that it somehow “doesn’t count,” here’s my response: we Catholics believe that 2 Maccabees is just as inspired and canonical as Genesis or the Gospel of Matthew, and we should treat it as such. They are all equally the Word of God and equally authoritative.
Which means, by the way, the Bible has 73 books, not 66. All 66-book Bibles are incomplete, missing vital sections of God’s precious, life-giving Word.
Catholics were believing the Bible is the inspired Word of God and final in all it teaches many centuries before there were any Protestants. And it is precisely this study of God’s Word that has lead us to Catholic doctrine.
I’m not trying to encourage animosity between Catholics and Protestants, and this article isn’t meant to demonstrate how the Bible teaches Catholic doctrine. I’m just trying to help us Catholics have clarity about our beliefs.
And from our point of view, the Bible is completely Catholic. So let’s act like it is.
Evangelizing is something evangelicals, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses do – and they sometimes get made fun of for it. Good thing we’re Catholics! We’re more sophisticated. Evangelicals, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, let them have the reputation for evangelization. In thi
s modern, pluralistic world, we don’t want to be associated with trying to push our beliefs on other people. Right?
Actually, evangelization is the primary mission of the Catholic Church.
We don’t need to copy all the methods of evangelicals, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, but really, we Catholics need to believe that our mission is to evangelize, we need to live it, and we need to be upfront about it: “The Catholic Church: we think you need to know Jesus for the salvation of your soul, and that the way to do that is in the Catholic Church.”
The whole world should know exactly what we’re about. If people don’t know that the salvation of souls is our mission, they are missing the whole point of the Catholic Church. If a Catholic doesn’t know it or believe it, they don’t really know what it means to be Catholic.
Evangelization should be such a focus in Catholic preaching, conversation, and daily living that a person couldn’t possibly conceive of Catholicism without evangelization.
As with the other things on my list, evangelization isn’t something we’re just copying from other people. We’ve been evangelizing since Pentecost. We evangelized the Roman Empire, took the Gospel as far east as the Philippines, and as far west as California (notice all the cities named after saints?).
We’ve always been evangelists and we can be evangelists again.
The “new evangelization” inaugurated by Bl. John Paul II, and continued by Benedict XVI and Francis, has done a lot to simply get the word “evangelization” back into the normal parlance of Catholics and the idea back on the map.
That’s a good start. We Catholics need to follow their lead, make it our own, and, like the saints before us, reclaim our role of being evangelists for Jesus.
Brantly Milleganis Assistant Editor for Aleteia. He is also Co-Editor of Second Nature and Co-Director of the International Institute for the Study of Technology and Christianity. He is finishing up a M.A. in Theology at the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity and will begin working on a Ph.D. in theology at the Catholic University of America this fall. He lives with his wife and children in South St. Paul, MN. His personal website is brantlymillegan.com.