Holy Ground: Walking With Jesus as a Former Catholic by Chris Castaldo

Takeaway: Someone that has found meaning in a new stream of Christianity may not be the best person to talk about the stream of Christianity that they walked away from.

Over the past couple years I have been intentionally trying to read books about Catholicism and part of that has been reading several stories of Evangelicals that have become Catholic, like Scott Hahn, Francis Beckwith, and Christian Smith. I have been less interested in stories of Catholics that have become Evangelicals but I did think I needed to read ‘the other side.’

Chris Castaldo, has a chapter in Journey of Faith, a book telling the story of people converting from one Stream of Christianity to another, so I was somewhat familiar with his story. Holy Ground, however, is not so much about Castaldo’s own story as it is a book about Catholicism for Evangelicals. And I think that is where my problem really started.

The overall approach was to explain Catholicism to Evangelicals primarily using the reasons that former Catholics became Evangelical. This is has the inherent problem of not looking at those that are happy with their Catholic faith, but looking at those that are unhappy (or in most cases just unaware of their Catholic faith because of a lack of participating in it.) Castaldo is a good example of that.  While he was baptized as an infant and seems to have participated fairly frequently as a young child, once he was confirmed neither he nor the rest of his family actively participated in the church. And from my experience, this seems to be common with Catholic converts. I honestly don’t know a single person that has become Evangelical as a former Catholic if they were active. (While most Evangelical converts to Catholicism that I know of are very active in their church, theologically trained and often clergy.)

The beginning of the book looks at the five most common reasons that former Catholics that participated in his focus groups became Evangelicals, which Castaldo summarizes this as differences in understanding authority. These five areas are 1) Clergy/Laity divide, 2) Relationship with God vs Rule-keeping, 3) Indirect access to God, 4) Objects of Devotion and 5) Grace vs Guilt Motivation. What seemed clear from the beginning is that all five of these areas could also apply to Protestants as well as Catholics. Anglican have a very clear understanding of the role of the Clergy, holiness groups often have problems with guilt and rule keeping as being more important than grace and the Gospel Coalition had a very public spat over the concept of sanctification, which is really at the root of this issue.

I don’t want to dispute that for those that move from Catholicism to Evangelicalism, authority might be a factor. (It is certainly a factor with why I have not become a Catholic.) However, when I talk to my friends that have become Catholic (and many that are generally moving more liturgically even if not Catholic) their main issue is also authority. But instead of questioning the centralized role of the church’s authority, those that became Catholic question Evanglicalism’s lack of authority. Christian Smith’s The Bible Made Impossible directly confronts the problem of ‘Pervasive Interpretive Pluralism’ which is his phrase to look at the idea that Evangelicals claim sola scriptura, but there is no method of understanding which meanings that are found by the reader are actually the intended (or orthodox) meanings.

I do want to affirm that Castaldo is speaking out against a real anti-Catholic bias. While that is diminishing in the Evangelical world, it exists and I have certainly run up against it. So anything that can move people to understand Catholicism as not pure heresy from the pit of hell, is good. The problem is that I think Castaldo needs to move further. I may have missed it, but I did not hear one mention of the fact that Catholics could be full Christians. In fact in his section on Evangelism he mentions that it may be unwise to ask older relatives to move away from the actual Catholic church to a local evangelical church, but there was a clear undercurrent that when possible that would be prefered.

The Catholic church is well aware of the problem of nominal Catholics that have not really heard or understood the true meaning of the gospel. That is why ‘The New Evanglism’ has been such of focus, to re-evanglize Catholics. The problem is same thing is true about nominal Protestants and Evangelicals. Nearly every week with our church, we have a baptism, and every baptism as a short video telling their story. Most of those have a variation of, ‘I grew up in a loving Christian home where we actively went to church, but I never really understood what the gospel was all about and when I grew up I stopped going.’ This is essentially Castaldo’s story.

There were some good parts in his section on Evangelism. He was clear that evangelism should be less about ‘witnessing to the checkout person at the grocery store’ and more about building a relationship with people. I am all for that, but the way he described it seems more about relationships as projects for evangelism. And he broadened the definition of evangelism to include virtually all conversations about Christianity including discipleship. I am all for not separating discipleship and evangelism as completely separate things. But I also am uncomfortable saying I need to ‘evangelize’ everyone in my church to help them move more toward Christ. If anything using discipleship as the more inclusive term instead of evangelism would be the better idea, especially because of the baggage that the word evangelism has.

I did think his section on the different ways that Evangelicals and Catholics understood different words was helpful. Words have meanings, and if you are using a word with one understanding of a meaning and someone else has a different understanding, you will not be able to really communicate. So pointing out some of those differences is useful, although I disagreed with some of the examples, for example saying Evangelicals understanding of the word church was primarily not the building but the body of Christ.  (I think the root of the problem is that while Castaldo never says it, the term Evangelical for him is primarily describing non-denominational Christians.)

I think Castaldo’s background has actually hurt the book more than helped. There was a brief story of when he met and talked to Scott Hahn, a former Presbyterian minister and now Catholic apologist. Castaldo joked about Hahn’s ability to use Jedi mind trick to convert Evangelicals to Catholicism and how he was careful to turn his head away occasionally. That joke, and he was clearly joking, was all too telling because it was in a section about Evangelical Catholics and vibrant of faith they have (although again, he still talks about needing to evangelize them instead of affirming that Evangelical Catholics has a real Christian faith.)

I also have some differences of opinion about dialogue, ecumenism and truth claims. There are a number of places where he talks about dialogue, but in outside of some of the discussions of evangelism, the concept of friendship seems to be missing. When I talk to my Catholic friends, sometimes we are having theological discussions, and we are dealing with differences of opinion, but first we are friends and friendship seems to be occasionally lost in this book.

I am honestly confused about his use of the word ecumenism. At times Castaldo speaks against those that see the word only as something negative. But there are not really any places where he speaks of it positively. And the general message of the book is that Catholics and Evangelicals have much that we agree about, but because he never comes out and says that Catholics can be Christians, it is unclear if he believes that ecumenical activities (which he basically limits to social justice issues) are within Christianity or that he believes that ecumenical activities with Catholics are essentially the same as those that can be done with Mormons or Muslims that are clearly not Christian.

The final area of real disagreement is his ideas around truth claims. I disagree with many evangelicals around this, so it is not just Castaldo. In fact, I think Catholics are more likely to agree with him in general than with me (which is why I find his repeated focus on it odd). My understanding is probably best summed up by James KA Smith’s book The Fall of Interpretation, but the summary is that while absolute truth exists, absolute truth exists absolutely only in God. Everything else is an interpretation of that absolute truth and therefore not full or complete. His free use of ‘truth’ and dismissal of ‘relativism’ or ‘post-modernism’ I think misses the actual point of many of those that want to question the use of absolute truth by humans.

I listened to the audiobook from Scribd. The reader was fine, nothing special but fine. The problem was that the book seemed to cut the last 30 seconds or so from each chapter. It was an odd error and it was problematic because Castaldo tried to sum up the chapter and introduce the next and much of that was cut off.


Holy Ground: Walking With Jesus as a Former Catholic by Chris Castaldo Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition, Audible.com Audiobook 


Adam, do you consider yourself to be a Christian postmodernist? I’m trying to understand your skepticism about the Bible’s clarity and, thus, its sufficiency. One would think that if the infinitely wise and good God wanted to give the creatures, He made in his image, a verbal, written revelation, He would have endowed them with the capacity to understand language and that his revelation would have been sufficiently clear that they could be sure they understood what they needed to understand. Of course, there are verses that could be taken in different ways, but when you look at the entirety of Scripture, it becomes clear which way they should be understood.

    I think the bible is sufficient, with assistance from the Holy Spirit and appropriate learning and community around the reader. But I don’t think every passage is equally clear. Every act reading is an interpretation and therefore limited. When most agree there is probably some good reason. But if you look at the entirety of the church then I think it is clear that scripture by itself is not sufficient for us to come to a single understanding. There are pretty fundamental differences that come from reading the same scripture. So either we can say ‘God created us limited and we will know truth but not fully and therefore we must be humble about our faith in our interpretation’ or we can say “we believe that scripture is clear and our understanding is the right one.”

    I don’t think saying that we are limited in our understanding takes away from the capacity of knowing our savior or being confident in our faith. But I do think that it should make us careful and how and why we criticize other Christians that have different understandings about some issues. Not that we don’t have disagreements, but that our disagreements happen within a context of (God created) limitation.

Those troubled by conflicting interpretations sometimes go to Rome, thinking that an infallible interpreter will solve the problem. Yet, it does nothing of the sort, since there are any number of interpretations of what the Magisterium has said. Even if the Pope were to answer my questions face-to-face, there is the definite possibility that I would misunderstand what he said. As for your response, Adam, I appreciate it and will give it some thought as the day goes along. If I don’t get back to you day, I hope your Thanksgiving is full of love and great food!

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