If you have not noticed, I have been reading about Catholic theology, practice and conversion lately. This is a personal project to understand a stream of Christian faith that is large, important and often quite misunderstood by Evangelical Protestants.
The subtitle of this book: 40 Catholic Customs and their Biblical Roots, seemed like a perfect book to further my education. And it was useful, even if not really what I was expecting. It is designed to be read like a daily devotional. There are forty short chapters with an explanation of the custom and a little devotional quote from a modern or ancient Christian figure.
This book is designed for Catholics that do not really know much about their faith. So it is pretty basic. About half of the book is what I was expecting, exploration of Catholics practices like praying the rosary, using holy water, using incense and candles in worship, confession, indulgences, etc.
What I did not anticipate (but I should have) is that much of the book is focused on basic spiritual development that is true for non-Catholics as well. So things like prayer, reading the bible, fasting, giving alms, following the church calendar are also included.
Three things struck me most about this book. First, it was surprising to me how many of the disputed practices (indulgences, purgatory, etc.) are biblically based. But based on portions of scripture that Evangelicals don’t recognize. I have never really studied the Apocrypha. I have read a couple of parts of it, but I don’t think I have even read an entire book, let alone the whole thing. And the fact that Protestants basically stopped reading a portion of scripture that was recognized for 1200-1500 years really showed starkly here. It is not just that Catholic tradition recognizes purgatory or indulgences or praying with the saints or relics. It is that there really are some biblical reasons for why the tradition recognizes these things, just not always evidence that Evangelicals would accept.
Second, it was very clear about how much tradition influences our reading of scripture. Even in areas where Protestants and Catholics agree on the practice, the theological/biblical backing for the practices may be different because the traditions are different. If you have tried to explain scripture to someone completely unfamiliar with the bible, you will have heard yourself say (or at least thought) something like “but that is not what it really means.” We all have been taught about scripture and we view scripture through the eyes of that teaching. That is not bad, it is part of spiritual development.
But it is also confirmation for me about why it is important to read outside your tradition. If we only read inside our tradition, then we only hear a single set of voices. It is the symphony of voices that really does the best job of reflecting the whole body of Christ.
Third, language matters. One of the things that keeps coming up for me is that I am not always sure I really understand what is being talked about because I am pretty sure there are slight, but important differences in the way that words are being defined. So I keep hearing a word that is used in a Catholic way, but I am hearing it through Protestant ears. My problems is that even though I am often sure there is a difference I don’t alway know what that difference is. The only way I am going to really get past that is to find authors that can translate and to find people that can help teach me.