Yes, most of us know the Reformation inside-out as far as the Luther and Calvin and Zwingli are concerned, though the familiarity of this time period is sadly drifting to less than what it should be. So I'm not going to be dwelling as much on that in today's post. If you'd like a refresh from last year, I wrote a review on Joel Beeke's Reformation Heroes, touched on the 5 Solas, and talked about Douglas Bond's The Betrayal. But today, I'd like to talk about the Roman Catholic church. Not specifically in contrast to the Reformation, but our understanding of the Roman Catholic church in books in general.
When I first heard that some people were made greatly uncomfortable by Roman Catholic characters in stories, I was a bit surprised. I had never thought of the issue seriously before, but I do certainly understand why. After the Reformation, which exposed some seriously erroneous doctrines on the part of the Catholics, it goes against our Protestant roots when a character becomes a monk or a nun, and dedicates themselves to God for a life of celibacy. Prayers to Mary, signing the cross, and vowing candles to various patron saints are common expressions of religion when Catholic characters find themselves in dire straits, and we know from Scripture that praying to Mary and vowing candles will never buy God's favor. But the question is, should Roman Catholic characters and actions bother us in the books we read?
I argue that books with Roman Catholic characters do not need to make us uncomfortable, and the rest of this article deals with why.
1. The Roman Catholic Church was, for a long time, the main Christian Church.
At the beginning of the Christian church, congregations were not Catholic. There were individual congregations, sometimes coming together to make rulings on important doctrines. Then it shifted to a more central Church government, and we had the Celtic church, the Catholic Church, and the Orthodox church. Unfortunately the Celtic church was badgered into submission, and we were left for the most part, as far as Western Christianity is concerned, with the Catholic church. The Popes chose kings and emperors, started wars, ruled the populace, and dispensed eternal grace with all the regality of political sovereigns; and for centuries up until the Reformation, we find that the Roman Catholics kept Scripture alive, however hidden within the cloister walls. Then the Reformation unleashed it, and the Catholic church with its errors was left behind by masses of dedicated Christians.
But that doesn't negate the fact that the Catholic church did exist. And for most countries and most Christians, it provided the only religious education for years. Which brings us to our next point.
2. The Roman Catholic Church was a legitimate time period in history.
The fact is, we should be reading about Catholic characters on occasion. Catholics were a legitimate part of history, especially before the Reformation, when they kept Christianity alive in many parts of the world. They evangelized (albeit imperfectly) and shepherded the people (though many times unbiblically) but all the same, they existed, and it isn't necessary to worry when a book we're reading acknowledges that fact. Cadfael is very Catholic; that makes sense, because it takes place during the time of Crusades. All of Robin Hood's men made vows and signed the Cross and prayed to Mary, but they were jolly and manly souls all the same. Just because the character don't turn protestant, should we not read the story?
Take Haggard's The Brethren. One of the characters takes a vow to become a monk, and though Christians should not be taking vows to monks, I don't fault him for it. In essence, he was dedicating himself to the service of the Church, the only Church he knew. And the point the author was trying to make was not that the Catholic church was right (because he is quite against the Catholic church in Lysbeth) but that the characters were devout in their religion. (note that I'm basing this assumption off the CLP edited version, and can't speak to the original.)
When an author writes a book, they should write with truthfulness and objectivity in the nation, culture, and time period which they are portraying. Lest my readers think I'm arguing for religious tolerance, let me state very clearly that I do not agree with the Roman Catholics in many, or even most of their doctrines. I do not believe that they are just another 'denomination' of the Christian church. But I say that when we're reading a book, when we're evaluating a book, we must be careful to judge the Catholic characters within the context of the time period and purpose for which they are used.
All right, you say. It may be fine for a character to be Catholic before the Reformation, but what about after? Surely then, it's wrong, once people could understand the truth.
For instance, if you're going to read an Irish story, then some of the characters probably should be Catholic. That is still their culture, and it would be a strange and rather biased story to ignore the fact.Proper apologetics does not deny that error exists. Nor does it simply ignore error and say nothing about it. The Catholic still exists, and people are still Catholics, and it's not wrong to acknowledge that, even though we don't excuse or endorse Catholicism. Proper story-writing acknowledges that men make different religious choices, though a Christian story makes it clear that not all men make the right ones. We should not be wishy-washy in presenting absolute truth, but nor should we deny occasions when man turns to error instead.
Our goal should be to read every book, even fiction stories, with an attitude of evaluating to take it captive to the standards of Jesus Christ. Let us not say that a book was not worth reading merely because one of the characters was Catholic. We must take the Catholicism a little deeper, and ask ourselves "Did the author put in Catholicism to promote false doctrine, or to faithfully portray a legitimate time period in history?" In other words, if a book is presenting Catholicism as the truth, and trying to convert the reader, then red flags definitely should go up in the reader's mind. But when an author is putting it in for the purpose of being honest with history, then we should respect that and take it in the context it is meant to be written in.
The purpose of the Christian bibliophile is not to ignore all books that disagree with them, nor to read books that suppress facts for the purpose of making Christianity look better. Our faith is able to stand up to any culture, and time, any religion, any attack. And therefore, when we find a modern story in which one of the characters is Catholic, that's not necessarily wrong, because--people still are Catholic in today's society. And Christians still need to know how to deal with them just as much as they did during the Reformation. The Reformation didn't give us permission to deny Catholics' existence; it merely freed us to pursue the truth, and try to show them the error of their ways.
I have many friends who used to be Roman Catholic. I don't recommend books with Catholic characters to them. That would be insensitive to their spiritual journey, and cause a stumbling block which I certainly wouldn't want to do. For some readers Catholic characters would be more of a spiritual detriment than a historical edification. Let me not, by my choice to read about Catholics, cause my brother to stumble. It may be a historical fact, but we must be sure that we do not cause baby Christians to fall into error over things they aren't ready to evaluate or handle yet.
As Protestants, we do not endorse the Catholic church, nor do we hold them as just another different kind of Christian. Many of them do not know the grace of Jesus Christ. But at the same time, we can still read books with Catholic characters without finding it disturbing that the author included that element, for it is our goal to gain a broad and educated perspective on the different worldviews that shaped the events of history, and the theological errors that are still infiltrating the culture today.