My Evangelical friend David comments that a missionary friend of his went to Brazil and was dismayed to find Catholics there bound by superstition, Pelagianism (the belief in salvation by works) and the repetition of vain rituals to please a demanding God.
What are we to say to such charges? First of all, our sincere Evangelical friend must be biased. The very foundation of his particular denomination is a certain and sure anti-Catholicism. He would not be a Protestant if he were not also anti-Catholic. One of his most basic and rock solid convictions is not only that Catholics are wrong, but that they are (as he has been told) locked into the above abuses.
Let us leave his basic assumptions that make him so biased on one side for the moment. Let us leave on one side the charge of salvation by works (never mind that it was the Catholic Church that both defined and condemned Pelaganism in the first place) Let us put on one side his charge that the sacraments are ‘vain rituals to please a demanding God’ and listen seriously to his charge of superstition among the faithful.
Is such a thing true? Undoubtedly. I am sure that among the devotees of the ‘Day of the Dead’ and among those who carry statues of Mary in processions with dollar bills pinned to her, and among those Catholics in Haiti who mix voodoo with Catholicism there is some superstition. Among others there are less extreme examples: we can think of those who mutter prayers to St Antony to find lost keys, those who bury statues of St Joseph to sell houses and those who wear a scapular in the vain hope that a piece of brown cloth on its own might save them from the fires of hell.
We have to admit to some superstition among Catholics. Yes, it is so.
But mustn’t the critic examine his own house first? It is so easy for the cool, Bible believing Evangelical missionary to distance himself from the superstition of Protestants. Allow me to remind him of his own widespread superstition: There are the exteme cases of snake handlers and faith healers. Let’s remember too the charismatics. Do they really really need to cast out the ‘demons of thumb sucking’ from five year olds? Do they really really speak in the tongues of angels, or is some of that perhaps a little bit of superstition? What about the ‘Toronto Blessing’? Was the getting down on all fours and barking like dogs, snarling like lions and mooing like cows really a rational and thoroughly Biblical display of religion, or was that perhaps a bit of superstition? We could go on. What about he televangelists who tell the faithful to put the affected bit of their body on the television set while they scream and sweat and call down ‘healing’. Shall we mention the prosperity gospel preachers who promise the faithful that if they tithe they will become rich?
Is it only the ignorant lower class Protestants who are superstitious? I think not. What shall we make of the sophisticated Episcopalians and Lutherans who indulge in New Age practices? Are their crystal healing workshops, their labyrinth sessions, their channelling and sweat lodge therapies any less superstitious? Are their yoga classes, visualization sessions and angel therapies not just a tiny bit superstitious?
If all of this is so, and there are indeed some superstitious Catholics, then most of them might just be excused for being so. They are simple people, most of them peasants, many of them illiterate. If their faith descends at times into superstition out of ignorance it is regrettable, but understandable.
The American Protestants, on the other hand, are comparatively well educated. These are people who should know better. They, after all, have had an Evangelical catechesis. They should know their Bible. They should know that superstition is wrong. They should not indulge in such silly abuses. To whom much is given, much shall be required. As for the educated Episcopalians and their ilk, well for them there is no excuse–to practice silly occult, New Age superstition is surely quite unforgiveable.
Now my good Evangelical friends will distance themselves from such stuff. “But we are not that sort of Protestant! It is not fair for you to accuse us of such things. We are not part of all that. We deplore such things. That is not real Protestantism.”
Quite. And the same applies for Catholics.