Catholic or Protestant…Does it Matter?

Posted: 9 July 2013

pope and queenMy wife and I were travelling recently and we found ourselves on a shuttle bus from the airport to the car rental terminal. While sitting in our seat studying the map, a somewhat friendly man decided to spark up a conversation with us. This man, named Doug, was on his way to an evangelical Protestant retreat weekend with several hundred others from across the country. Upon finding out that we were Catholic, Doug shared that he was raised a Catholic and attended Catholic schooling but had some years back found his way into his particular brand of Protestantism. He didn’t seem too concerned by his change in identity. In the few minutes we had left I tried to offer Doug a few reasons to consider again Catholicism and with a smile reminded him that he was still a member of the Catholic family and an empty pew awaited him at any time.

Doug’s story is neither new nor unique, on that trip alone I met another two former Catholics-turned-Protestants. You probably have family or friends in a similar situation, perhaps you are in that situation. A recent US study identified that one in three people raised as Catholic (that is baptised Catholic) no longer identified as such. The figures would not be hugely inaccurate for Australia. Almost half of those who leave the Catholic Church become unaffiliated from any faith and most of the other half become active in a Protestant denomination. Those who leave Catholicism to worship in a Protestant community are by no means lazy Christians; in fact the same study showed that Catholics who became Protestants had a higher weekly church practice rate than those who remained Catholic.

The renowned preacher of the 20th century Archbishop Fulton Sheen once stated, “There are not a hundred people in the world who hate the Catholic Church, but there are millions who hate what they wrongly perceive the Catholic Church to be”. His words speak of an ignorance that existed in his day, and continues to exist even more so in our day. All one needs to do is absorb a media report to understand that people simply do not understand the mission or teachings of the Catholic Church. However it is not sufficient to speak of the ‘outside world’ as some random force not understanding Catholicism; the truth is that many Catholics have little idea of what the faith of their baptism is all about.

Catholicism makes some pretty intense claims about itself, yet the vast majority of those I have encountered who have left the Catholic Church, have seemingly been unaware of these claims. The Catholic Church traces its history through 2000 years right back to Jesus Christ who commissioned the Apostle Peter to govern in His name; the oldest Protestant community is less than 500 years old (and there are now thousands of differing Protestant communities). For 2000 years the Catholic Church has taught, based on the teachings of Jesus Christ, that at the Mass the bread and wine is substantially transformed into the actual body and blood of that same Jesus; no Protestant community holds that to be true (nor do they maintain a priesthood that would allow it to be true). Even the very name ‘Protestant’ was given because those early revolutionaries were ‘protesting’ about the Catholic faith.

Granted, a number of those who leave Catholicism find in their new Protestant community a love for Christ which they did not see in Catholicism. That does not mean though that Catholicism was lacking, it more likely indicates that for a host of reasons a person was not shown correctly, or was inadequately receptive, to what was before them. To be baptised into the Catholic faith is to be baptised into something bigger than oneself. Those who casually state they were “raised Catholic” but now go to another denomination, in the same way is one might switch political preferences, demonstrate they probably didn’t understand the Catholic faith they left. To move from the fullness of Catholicism to the shallowness of Protestantism is always a shame. There is of course truth in aspects of Protestantism and truth is truth, but when one receives an invitation to a royal banquet it would be considered foolhardy to trade that in for a Happy Meal at McDonalds even if both provide some level of sustenance. The point is not to condemn those who have left Catholicism but rather to stop and ask ourselves what Catholicism is worth, and if we don’t know we should probably make the effort to find out.