Are Catholics Less Devout than Protestants?

Are Catholics Less Devout than Protestants? January 10, 2015
Photo Credit: Karol Franks.
Photo Credit: Karol Franks.

I’m gonna say a swear.

I have to warn you.

That’s the cordial thing to do.

It isn’t going to be a big swear, in fact, if you’re Dutch it isn’t even a swear at all. Still, I want you to be able to brace yourself or, in the worst case scenario, avert your eyes entirely.

OK? Here goes.

The notion that Catholics are less devout that Protestants is bat-shit crazy.

There, I said it.

I’ve run up against this prejudice though all the time. I’m disappointed in myself to admit that I held it, earnestly, and quite recently, before I began exploring the Catholic Church—and I was convinced that it was true. In fact I held, in tandem, two related ideas about Catholics that I’ve found, through investigation, to be not only thoroughly wrong but incredibly ridiculous.

I’d like to debunk them here.

First of all, what’s truly ridiculous is that I held these ideas about Catholicism, as a Protestant, based on absolutely zero research. Looking back that seems like insanity, and wildly prejudicial. I knew next to nothing about the Catholic Church yet I knew, somehow, exactly what their devotion to Jesus Christ was like. I could measure it, meter it out, and had somehow determined that I was more devout than they were.

Madness.

But the other notion I held was equally ridiculous (and equally widespread). I knew, because I somehow knew everything, that the Catholic devotional life was just too darn cluttered up with stuff to really and truly be Jesus-centred. There are too many things in the way of Christ, everyone knew that.

But did I even know that those things were, or have any grasp of what the life of a devout Catholic looked like? I sure seemed to, and I passed enough judgement to go around.

It’s crazy-making to think about, and I’m ashamed to say, but it’s the truth.

Let’s start with the notion of devotion. Not so long ago I was firmly convinced that my non-denominational Protestant church had a congregation of much more devout Christians than the average Catholic Church. I was sure of it before I ever set foot in a Catholic parish. But what does devotion mean? What does it look like?

If you asked me, even half a year ago, I might’ve said that true devotion consists of reading your Bible and living like Christ—that’s what a devout Christian does. That’s a pretty standard evangelical answer, I think (correct me if I’m wrong). By that measure, I assumed, most Catholics weren’t very devout. But what did I know?

What I’ve realized, ultimately, is that devotion can look different from a non-denominational church to a Catholic one—and, for that matter, between a non-denominational Protestant church and a mainline Protestant church.

At the same time, if Catholics are just as Christian as Protestants (something I was sure couldn’t be true) than their fruits should look the same. That I was sure about. That I still am sure about because the Bible is clear. There are fruits that a Christian ought to be demonstrating. So were Catholics Christian by their fruits? Well, that’s hard to say. Am I, as a Protestant, Christian by my fruits?

What I’ve realized, again, is that there are good and bad Christians in the pews of any church on any given Sunday. No, I do not think all Christian churches are equal and there are basic tenants of Christianity which I think, unfortunately, lots of churches and their congregations are abandoning but between, say, my non-denominational Protestant church and your average Catholic church are there an equal number of people living a Christian life, demonstrating Christian fruit?

Well, I don’t know, but probably. Who am I to judge? Both churches reach out, earnestly, into their communities. As to each individual? Where do we begin to judge?

All of this, at any rate, is a sidebar discussion and really only tangentially related to my two points. Realizing that all Christians, Catholic or Protestant, struggle to live up to the Christian life (and sometimes don’t even try at all) was a revelation but realizing how ridiculous it was to even wonder about Catholic devotion is what really brings me to this article.

The first thing I learned about Catholic devotion is that the Mass is central to the life of the Church. This is true for many mainline Protestant churches as well. In Catholicism the Mass is prayer. Catholics are praying at Mass together with the whole universal Church and all the saints and angels. If you want to talk about devotion when I first learned that parishes offer daily Mass I was quite honestly floored.

That’s right: daily Mass.

In most Catholic parishes (some are too small to support it) daily Mass is offered. This, I thought, must be a joke because I used to think that Protestant congregations that encouraged Wednesday night Bible studies were overly devout. I thought families that dragged there kids to those things were nuts. As a Catholic, you could attend Mass and join your prayers and devotion with the rest of the Church through all time and space on a daily basis! Yes, that’s certainly worth an exclamation mark.

It makes me feel downright silly as a Protestant to have considered Catholics less devout. Easily, a devout, earnest Catholic could be joining their prayers with the Church and experiencing Jesus Christ on a daily basis. Already that’s more than I can say for any Protestant experience of faith I’ve ever had.

But on top of that is the Liturgy of the Hours.

The Liturgy of the Hours, or the Divine Office, is a set of prayer books (or a convenient iPad app) that follows the liturgical calendar of the Church. It draws from the Psalms, from hymns, and from gospel readings to lay out a prayer and devotional life for the Catholic faithful. Along with the Mass itself and the sacraments (like Eucharist and Baptism) the Liturgy of the Hours makes up the official prayer life of the Catholic Church. With opportunities for prayer throughout the whole day it can be just about as devout a practice as you can imagine (the Divine Office is prayed by all clergy and is a focal point in the devotion of monks and cloistered nuns).

In addition, of course, to specifically Catholic devotions is the wealth of Protestant devotion as well. Because devout Catholics can, and do, engage in daily Bible reading, daily devotional readings, times of prayer and meditation, and Bibles studies just like Protestant cousins. Crazy, indeed.

My other conviction, of course, was that all the stuff in the way of Jesus made for less devout, and more superstitious, Catholic believers.

I want to deal with the superstitious bit right away because it’s a big one in most Protestant circles. Suffice it to say that, sure, there are superstitious Catholics. There are Catholics that bury a statue of St. Joseph in the backyard because they’ve heard it will help them sell the house quicker during a slow market year. There are Catholics who superstitiously cross themselves when they go under a bridge on the highway. There are Catholics who mix up native superstitions and traditions with true religion. There are bad, poorly formed Catholics but like my earlier comments about who’s warming the pews there are bad, poorly formed Protestants, too.

The teachings of the actual Catholic Church (as opposed to the one I may have invented in my head) strongly condemn superstition, and are strongly rooted in Christ.

So what about that stuff? Here’s what I’ve found.

Trying to claim that all the stuff in the way of Jesus makes for less devout Catholics is like trying to say that the guy using the road map to cross the country is a bad navigator.

Like a road map, the so-called stuff that two-thousand years of Catholic tradition has put “in the way” of Jesus is actually useful to get to Him.

Statues, rosaries, the lectionary, the missal, the rites and rituals, the sacraments, sacramentals, the trappings and dressings and strange behaviours—these are not things in the way of Christ, these are the road maps.

And sure, for the sake of argument, a Catholic could get caught up in nothing but their rosary but a Protestant could get caught up in nothing but their Bible (losing the sense of worth and value in statues, rites, and sacramental living that existed for the first thousand years of Church history).

What I’ve realized, and it caught me by no small surprise, is that the question, as so often put by Protestants like me, is framed entirely wrong. A Catholic, or Protestant, can be as devout (or not) as they’d like to be. What genuinely surprised me, and here is the crux, was how many incredible and diverse ways there were for a devout Catholic to practice their devotion—and I didn’t even, and haven’t even, scratched the surface.

Are Catholics less devout than Protestants?

The question itself is bat-shit crazy.

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  • midwestlady

    Catholic, long-time convert here. Be careful. If you are already a Christian, you will see things in the devotions and practices of the Catholic Church that, yes, are really there. But most other Catholics will be operating on a much more superficial level than you. The order of the day is sacramentalization without evangelization. It will take you a long time to realize that probably, in all of its peculiar and gruesome reality. I understand your post exactly. I am still Catholic after many years simply because there is history and sacramentality and depth in the Church, whether most Catholics realize what it means, deeply, or not. The only way to be thoroughly and completely Christian is to be Catholic after all. But it will take every last bit of gumption you have to remain Catholic for a lifetime, even though you must or settle for less. Like me: Where else could you go, after all?

    • mjhaha

      I’m curious to know how you feel about contemplative orders. Like the Benedictines. Are the Benedictines interested or disinterested in evangelization?

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  • JoyInTheLord

    I’d like to posit that the Catholic Church is here for everyone: the simple, the erudite, the couldn’t care less, the spiritual maniac, the logician, the metaphysician, the fanatic — you name it, it wi’ll have a place in this universal, crazy catholic Church. It has to be, if It were to live up to Its name. After all, CHRiST established It, and since He loves everyone, He died for everyone, then everyone must be welcome! I am a cradle catholic but I am still learning my faith. It is embarrassing to admit that I learned more about my faith through converts like you! There are many things we, born and raised Catholics, take for granted. And we thank the converts like you for teaching us our own ABCs sometimes!

  • joanna

    “love your neighbor as yourself” you must first love yourself, like get your own “stuff” together first, like put on your own oxygen mask before helping someone else. Which means for some people more “sacramentalization”and less evangelization. Besides if you believe in the community of saints, most of the help we can give each other is spiritual…we dont always have to see the good that someone else is doing. So don’t despair midwestlady! It’s not all that bad.

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