Sects and Jazzy T-Shirts

Last Saturday when we arrived at Greenville Spartanburg airport we had to jostle for a place to check in because there was a group of 70 Baptist young people wearing jazzy T-shirts with Bible verses on them. They were off to Nicaragua on a mission trip. When we got to Atlanta there must have been another twelve such groups. They were clearly well organized, well funded and well, pretty annoying.

Now I’m one who has a lot of time for the Evangelical Protestants. I value the solid Christian faith I received as an Protestant. I like their zeal, their love for the Scriptures, their willingness to give sacrificially, their desire to spread the gospel and they usually do pretty good covered dish suppers.

However, I am annoyed by their open and aggressive missionary efforts in Catholic lands. I’m annoyed by it because it is based on the underlying assumption that “these people are held bondage in the darkness of Catholicism.” The language coming from Protestants may not be the old “Pope as Anti-Christ” stuff, but the foundational belief is still that Catholics aren’t really Christians, and that they need to get saved. Furthermore, the religion they are marketing is distinctly American. It comes with a whole slew of American assumptions about the world, and the Protestant American religion they are promoting is inevitably loaded with cultural exports that actually undermine already existing cultures.

The Protestant may respond that they are simply filling a need, and if the Catholic Church were doing it’s job, the people wouldn’t respond so readily to the Evangelical message. There may be some truth to that, and maybe the Catholic church has failed to evangelize successfully. This is pretty galling, considering that the Catholic Church evangelized these lands at great sacrifice in the sixteenth and seventeenth century far more effectivelly than the Protestants did in North America. You only have to read the stories of the amazing courage and sacrifice of the Jesuits and Franciscans of the time to see that the Catholics were busy as fantastic missionaries and martyrs while the Protestant Calvinists up North were (for the most part) ignoring the savages because they thought they could not possibly be part of the ‘elect’.

I’ve tried hard to see the Protestant missionary efforts in Catholic lands positively, but I can’t. Here’s why: by very definition, in making a Catholic a Protestant they must narrow down the faith and make the convert deny his membership in the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church to join a sect. The convert himself may enjoy his new religion. He may actually gain some benefit in terms of belonging to a warm fellowship of believers or getting more knowledge of the Bible. He may feel ‘closer to Jesus’, but if, in the process, he has actually left the fullness of the faith, the experience has been illusory and subjective. In addition he has actually embraced much that is simply false teaching.

I have heard of some Evangelical missionary efforts to Catholic lands which are laudable. These are the ones that come in with the undoubted gifts of the Evangelical movement, and help Catholics to understand their faith better, and to become better Catholics. These groups, while remaining Evangelical, seek to work with the Catholic Church to catechize and evangelize. The best ones understand Catholicism, respect Catholic faith and culture and seek to renew it from within.

In the meantime, let’s get more of our own Catholic mission teams down to Central America, and let’s get some jazzy T-shirts with a big bold print of Our Lady of Guadalupe on the back and for a Bible verse–Ephesians 4.4-5 will do:

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  • Nancy

    How much of that Evangelical missionary effort is composed of that “prosperity gospel” claptrap? I’m a former Pentecostal and even before I converted to the Church I thought that kind of stuff was awful. And I can see lots of poor people, with no apparent end in sight to their situation, being sucked into what appears to be an easy answer to their problems. That’s exploitation, of a potentially very destructive kind.

  • Father you’re speaking my language on this one. I have thought many times how annoying it is that American Protestants don’t realize that Latin American Catholics are Christians. I’m glad to see good American Catholics like you guys at St. Mary’s Greenville going down to Latin America to help evangelize our fellow Roman Catholic Brothers and Sisters down there. God Bless Ya!

  • There must be oodles of bad evangelical Prot missionaries, who preach in RC countries out of jealousy and quarrelsomeness, as to which see Php. 1:15-18 for the proper response. (Hint: “Rejoice.”)I have never been to South America. However, a friend of mine whom you’d count as a bad missionary on his annual summer trips to Brazil (preaching a Gospel of trusting Jesus and not the RCC) tells a sad tale of what he sees there–the grossest superstition, flagrant semi- and 3/4-pelagianism, striving and straining to perform enough rituals to please a demanding God, etc. He would not be much interested in the 16th and 17th century RC missionaries, whose preaching, which cannot be heard today, he would consider pretty much irrelevant to what 21st century people need now.(And by the way, while I think it’s true that, in the savage-converting contest, the RCC was indeed ahead in the 16th- and 17th-century innings, you haven’t reported the score as of the close of the 20th century.)Evangelical North American Catholics sometimes admit that there are Catholics who have been sacramentalized without being evangelized. Isn’t it likely that this is even more true in Central and South America? (And why is that? Perhaps the answer has something to do with the influence of Protestantism in North America.) You could be glad that these nuance-deficient missionaries are bringing people to faith in Jesus, and then you could follow up and sacramentalize their converts in the True Church. Believe it or not, some people do actually and authentically meet Jesus in fundamentalist Protestantism and then go on the be bona fide Catholics.So rejoice that the Babdists are doing your spade work.

  • Catachumen Missionary

    As someone who has been living in the developing world as a Protestant missionary, I have seen a disturbing attitude toward the poor by missionaries and other Westerners which is nothing other than a modern form of gnosticism. The attitude goes like this, “If I, as a literate, well-off, educated person with leisure time to study scripture and discern spiritual things has developed a relationship with Jesus because of these advantages, how can these poor people, often illiterate, ill-educated, working forever in squalor, etc, etc, ever get to know Him?”Western Evangelical Christians begin to equate ‘being a Christian’ with personal Bible study, special knowledge, and self-improvement. There is also a heavy dose of technology thrown into the mix, usually involving contraception and education at any cost. Suffering is to be overcome by all of these means. Unfortunately, the cross often goes missing, replaced by ‘Jesus’ as ultimate self-improvement guru. Meanwhile, I see the Catholic Church helping the poor to understand suffering as something that can be used by God. Holiness- and not technology-is preached as God’s plan for our life. There is very little separation between mind and body — which can often look to Westerners like superstition — but which is often the best antidote to gnosticism. I am not trying to pretend the RC Church in the developing world doesn’t have problems. It does. However, it alone, it seems to me, is successfully addressing the challenge of modernity. Not without a fight, of course. I’ve decided to join in. I came to Africa a Protestant, but will go home a Catholic.

  • DGus. Your missionary friend is biased isn’t he? He must be. He believes the Catholic system is wrong, and that it produces superstition, pelagianism and ‘rituals to please a demanding God.’Let’s put the shoe on the other foot. As a Catholic I come to America and witness Protestant Christianity. What I see is gross superstition. They believe if they tithe God will make them rich. The charismatics among them scream and yell and imagine they are being healed by Jeezus. Some of them bark like dogs and howl like wolves in their meetings. Other Protestants are engaged in the New Age Movement. Talk about superstition? They’re involved in everything from crystal healing, channelling of spirits Eastern religions. Shall we talk about the moral stance of the Protestants? Shall we begin with the Episcopalians? Better left unsaid don’t you think?Now what about pelagianism? I see Protestants trying so hard to live up the demands of middle class smiling protestant religion. They all have to succeed all the time to really be a good Christian. They have to have their perfect families, their perfect smiles, their perfect lives or Jesus hasn’t really blessed them. They’re such do-gooders these Protestants–trying so hard to please a demanding God.They just really need to hear the gospel of acceptance and total reliance on the grace of the sacraments rather than thinking that they must please God all the time.You should tell you missionary friend to stay home and convert Protestants.

  • Well, I suppose it is God who should tell those Prot missionaries where to go to try to convert people. And btw, if God tells RC missionaries to evangelize the barking charismatics, you won’t hear me objecting–nor assuring you that the RCs are biased and have it all wrong.And if you tell me that RC missionaries feel called to evangelize Episcopalians (or “Anglicans”), I’ll say God bless ’em and to whom can I write a check. That is, I will rejoice that the Gospel is preached.You can’t turn the tables on me with this argument, because I do not feel for RC missions the antipathy that you feel for Prot missions, nor do I feel the defensiveness to insist that nominal Protestants are just fine and could not need to be (cough) “saved,” as you seem to feel the need to insist for nominal Catholics. I guess that’s because, for me, the main thing is (as you put it) Jeezus.I think of someone whom I love who is in need of God’s grace. I would rejoice if a RC evangelist succeeded in convincing him of the truth of Roman Catholic Christianity–even if, as part of the bargain, he also taught him to sneer at my church as a “sect.” It would be a small price to pay.

  • I respect and admire Prot missionaries when they either preach to their own or seek to convert those who have never been baptized. Nor do I object to Prot missionaries who work to evangelize Catholics and then encourage them to be better Catholics. What I object to are Prot missionaries who seek to convert Catholics on the basic assumption that just because they are Catholic they need conversion. Protestants need to think it through. Either they really do believe that all Catholics cannot possibly be Christians, and need conversion or not. If this is what they think, then they’re just wrong, and we are right to be insulted and offended by their missionary efforts. If, on the other hand, they believe Catholics can be good Christians and remain Catholics, then let them learn more about Catholicism and seek to convert Catholics to be better Catholics.But those kind of Prots are very few and far between.The vast majority of Prot missionaries believe Catholics need not only to be converted to Christ, but to be converted from Catholicism.

  • A Protestant Evangelical point of view here-Saying something like “Nicaragua is Catholic and does not need to be evangelized” is equal to calling the “United States a Christian nation without need of missions.” Couldn’t it be that these people went to learn something about the inheritance of the Kingdom of God from the poor?

  • Ginger


  • I’m not saying any particular country doesn’t need to be evangelized. Every country and every individual needs to be evangelized. What we don’t need is for Evangelicals to assume that all Catholics need to become Evangelicals in order to become Christians.

  • As a 16-year-old Catholic, I was evangelized by Baptist friends. I needed to be evangelized, but the problem was it didn’t stop there. I was told I needed to leave the Catholic Church, receive “believer’s baptism” (declaring my infant baptism invalid) and join their church.And I bought into it for a long time. As a 24-year-old Baptist seminarian, I spent a summer evangelizing in Zambia. Among our many converts were quite a few papists. God had the last laugh, though: Last month, a year after my return to the OHCAC, I met a Zambian priest, studying in Rome but spending his summers in my diocese, who was from the same city I worked in that summer. (We’re probably the only two people in town who speak any Cibemba.)We had a Franklin Graham crusade a few years back, I was still a Baptist. I was grateful to see Catholics participating, but was also pleased that Catholics who made a public profession of some kind were referred back to their Catholic parishes for follow-up, whatever that might entail.

  • “What we don’t need is for Evangelicals to assume that all Catholics need to become Evangelicals in order to become Christians.”I don’t speak for all evangelicals, but I don’t have this assumption.

  • DP

    I wonder how many Protestant Church’s that support sending missionaries to Mexico, Central and South America, work at converting emigrants from those places, and fold them into their “home” churches here. I live in Rural Kansas, our parish reaches out to the emigrants that have located here, but I see no interest from the Evangelical churches in the area, which actively support missionaries south of the US boarder, in trying to bring these new Catholic immigrants into their places of worship. Seems strange.

  • Here in South Carolina the Evangelical churches are very pro active in evangelizing the Hispanic community. They lay on English language classes, nursery care for children and even work agencies for them.Our priest visited a pentecostal church and even found a statue of OL Guadalupe at the back!We are doing our bit however, all candidates for the priesthood in the diocese have to learn Spanish. I’m studying the language now myself. We also have started Spanish language Catholic radio, and have a regular outreach going on.

  • Fr.What a good post. I see this every year when I go to Haiti for a medical mission. Sadly, the Protestant missionaries all remark how Haiti is all voodoo syncretized with eeeevil Catholicism. I admire the faith and zeal of the young kids, but don’t admire the desire to take people out of the Catholic Church.

  • OL Guadalupe…statue? It’s a two dimensional image. ???