Monday, May 23, 2011

Short-Circuiting Catholic-Protestant Dialogue: An Illustration

Why is it that 500 years after the Protestant Reformation Christians remain divided? Well, this might give you some insight. . . Pay close attention.

When I posted my first response to Jim's fair-minded questions about the Catholic understanding of saints a cynical Catholic friend of mine chided me: "It doesn't matter what you write. You will be misrepresented and it won't help at all. People really don't listen to one another."

I'm far less cynical. Having spent most of my life studying under and with non-Catholic Christian scholars I know that real dialogue is not only possible but fruitful. We may not fully agree with one another but at least we can better understand why we disagree. That's why I decided to try my best to answer Jim's questions.

Unfortunately, though, some people just refuse to open up the lines of communication.

How does Protestant-Catholic dialogue often get stalled out? Here's a perfect illustration.

Yesterday I tried to explain that Catholics understand that the holiness of the saints is the result of God's grace--as the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, it is "pure grace" (no. 2011). Whatever holiness Catholics attribute to the saints is understood to be the result of the work of Jesus in their lives.

I essentially said: if Catholics are guilty of anything in honoring the saints it's not idolatry but it's that we "give Jesus too much credit". That, of course, was meant tongue in cheek, as I think any fair reading of my post would have made clear. Here's the immediate context:
"Do Catholics in fact give saints too much credit? Non-Catholics will say so. I understand the concern.

But as a Catholic I think the concern is misguided. If we’re giving anyone too much credit, it’s Jesus. Whatever we believe about the saints’ holiness flows from our understanding of the power of the grace of Christ."
The whole point of the post was that all of the honor, power, and glory belong to Christ.

Clear enough, right?

Well, you wouldn't have got that from "Gerard", a commenter over at Jim's blog.  Here's his comment on Jim's link to my post:
"Michael Barber’s claim that we give Jesus too much credit is bizarre."
His terse comment may have even led some to think that I even suggested non-Catholic Christians give Jesus too much credit.

Thankfully, another reader, "Steve", chimed in with the following rejoinder:
"Clearly not his meaning looking at context actually I read it meaning the opposite of your interpretation."
Thanks Girard for illustrating my point about how Catholics and Protestants continually misrepresent each other.

And thanks Steve for restoring my hope that we can engage in sincere dialogue. Before you commented I was working up a response which included the word "furious" and the phrase "bordering on libel". Your response was better.

I hope people will seriously look at what just happened here. It is a powerful example of what can go wrong in Protestant-Catholic dialogue.


Ricky said...

I agree whole-heartedly with you on this. With my in-laws being Catholics-turned-Evangelicals I've had my fair share of run-ins with this exact scenario. In the end there cannot be be open dialog unless both parties are in fact "open" to hearing each other's perspective, which most of the time doesn't happen. It is understandable because even as a Catholic I often find myself trying not to hear their view because I have already prejudged anything non-Catholic as false. It's something we all need to work on, but it's definitely not easy!

Doug Chaplin said...


As a more positive contribution to your debate, might I point out a rather more nuanced Anglican via media I was arguing for a year or so ago – more in line with your argument than the Protestant one, offering some arguments from scripture for putting the doctrine of "the communion of saints" into liturgical and prayerful practice. See here and here if you're interested.

Doug Chaplin said...

Sorry, that first link doesn't seem to have worked. It should be this one

gerardk said...

As I commented on Jim West's blog ... I am learning. And make mistakes. I misread, sorry. But I can’t deny what I have heard, seen and said at church, and done in private, most of my life. I did pray to others apart from God, because as a Catholic I was encouraged to do so. For instance, the well known Catholic hymn ‘Hail Queen of Heaven’ refers to Mary as “the
guide of the wanderer”, implores Mary to “save us from peril and from woe”, it goes on, “Mother of Christ, Star of the sea. Pray for the wanderer,
pray for me ”, then “O gentle chaste and spotless maid, we sinners make our prayer to thee. Remind thy Son that He has paid, the price of our iniquity ”. I have sung this so
many times – is someone going to tell me I wasn’t praying to Mary when I sang
this? ... To add - I was praying to Mary, as do other people. For anyone to claim that, generally, Catholics do not pray "to" Mary and the rubber-stamped saints, ignores the reality.

Tom said...

As a recent initiate to the Catholic faith who was raised in an unchurched home, I am fascinated by this discussion and the endless nature of theological discussion, sometimes charitable, sometimes not, that occurs between Protestants and Catholics.

The fact that we pray "to" Mary does not mean that we view her as equal to or superior to God. My evolving understanding of my faith is that we ask her, as we ask the saints, to intercede on our behalf with God. As Catholics, our faith teaches us that we do not "worship" Mary, we venerate her.

As a recently certified catechist in our parish, I am, regretfully, amazed at the lack of basic understanding of Catholic teaching among many Catholics. The fact that many Catholics do not understand their faith tradition deeply and accurately does not discredit the tradition, it discredits their understanding. This lack of a faithful, and faith-filled catechesis within the Church is a tragedy.

Sister Mary Agnes said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sister Mary Agnes said...

Gerard, I second what Tom just said. Catholic do not pray to Mary and the saints in the same sense that we pray to God. We ask Mary and the saints to pray to God for us. We ask for their intercession. Don't you ever ask your friends to pray for you?

Maybe the misunderstanding is in the word "pray." When Catholics "pray" to God we offer worship. When we "pray" to the saints and Mary we ask them to intercede for us with God. There is a very big difference. I hope this is helpful to you.

Anneg said...

Excellent points, Michael. I've run into the same things, but haven't responded as charitably as you. One other issue: when many Protestants, especially evangelicals, say pray, they mean worship, but usually are just doing intercessions. When Catholics say pray, we mean intercession. We have liturgical worship at mass and other liturgies. We also have devotional lives, which, generally, are much different from what the many protestants I know practice or understand as prayer. So, Gerard, we are NOT talking about the same thing.