Holy Ground: Walking with Jesus as a Former Catholic
reviewed by Louis Markos
I must admit that when I first read the subtitle of Chris Castaldo’s book, I was nervous. “Oh no,” I thought, “just when the dialogue between Evangelicals and Catholics was getting both cordial and fruitful, here comes a book to sour the conversation.” Then I turned to the back cover and read a positive endorsement from Baylor professor Francis Beckwith, a cradle Catholic who became a believer in the Evangelical world and then returned to the Catholic Church. “Well,” I thought, “if Beckwith likes it, it can’t be the kind of divisive book that I feared it might be.” Then I read Holy Ground myself and was pleased to encounter an irenic tone, a teachable spirit, and an open mind and heart.
Being myself someone who grew up and came to know Christ in the Greek Orthodox Church and then “converted,” during my college years, to Evangelical Protestantism, I know the temptation to assume that God wants all the members of your former denomination to join you in the “move.” Castaldo never falls prey to that temptation. He has no axe to grind, no parents or priests or school chums to get even with.
But that is not to say that Castaldo is wishy-washy or tries to sweep under the rug the disagreements between Catholics and Protestants. He acknowledges that differences exist, but unlike less irenic critics of Catholicism, he identifies correctly what those differences are. The core difference, Castaldo explains, is not that Protestants believe in justification by faith and Catholics do not (both believe it), but that the two groups define authority in very different ways. Though both “emerge from a common Bible and creedal confessions,” each has a “different interpretation of how the revelation and authority of Jesus extends to his church, and by extension into his world.”
Whereas Protestants consider the Bible to be the sole and supreme authority in the church and in the life of the believer (what the Reformers called sola scriptura), Catholics look to apostolic succession and, therefore, understand “Sacred Tradition to be equally authoritative as Scripture.” The real crisis that divides Catholics from Protestants—both today and in the days of Regensburg and Trent—is a crisis of authority. Both answer the questions, Who is Jesus? and How was man made right with God? in the same basic way, but they respond quite differently to this question: “Who has the authority to pronounce on matters of doctrine?”
Reasons for Leaving
But the crisis in authority, though vital, is often not the main reason Catholics like Castaldo leave Rome for Evangelical Protestantism. The reasons people give for leaving the Catholic Church are often more intimate and personal than they are doctrinal or historical.
For example, some Catholics, according to Castaldo, express frustration at a perceived gap between clergy and laity—they feel like outsiders or onlookers in the Body of Christ. They long to feel a sense of calling in their secular vocations that is as highly valued as the calling of their priest. Also, Catholicism’s emphasis on the sacraments, particularly confession and the distinction between mortal and venial sins, causes many of these Catholics to be motivated less by grace than by guilt.
Other reasons have to do with the various intermediaries that the Catholic Church seems to place between Christ and the individual believer. Many former Catholics like Castaldo say they left the church because they sought a more direct relationship with God and a devotional life that focused more clearly and directly on Christ.
In listing these reasons, Castaldo is careful to explain that many believing Catholics are able to live a life of service, to gain assurance of grace, and to draw close to Christ. He also makes it clear that there are many things that Evangelicals can learn from Catholics—most notably, a higher ecclesiology and a greater, more numinous sense of God’s power and majesty.
An Effort at Outreach
Castaldo is by no means a “sheep stealer” whose goal is to inspire a mass exodus from the Catholic Church. His goal, rather, is to equip Evangelicals (and his book is directed primarily to Evangelicals, though believing Catholics who care about their church would do well to read it) to share their faith with Catholics.
Toward this end, he distinguishes between what he sees as three different types of Catholic: The Traditional Catholic finds his source of authority in tradition; he has a high respect for clergy and a low view of Protestantism, keeps his faith private, and rarely reads the Bible on his own. The Evangelical Catholic is more open about his faith, looks on believing Protestants as his brothers, and finds a source of authority in the Bible, which he reads often. The Cultural Catholic is, like the Traditional one, private about his faith, but that is because he finds his source of authority in the culture and considers religious truth to be relative. He tends to have a low view of Evangelical Protestants, not because he sees them as outside of Catholic tradition, but because he considers their faith to be narrow and exclusive. In Higher Ground, Castaldo offers advice for reaching out to each of these three types , noting terms and approaches that each group will find either inviting or offensive.
In this, his first book, Castaldo attempts, in the spirit of Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT), Mere Christianity, and Touchstone, to build a bridge between Catholics and Evangelicals that takes differences into account without either trivializing them or treating them as barriers to shared respect and fellowship. Ultimately, only Catholics and Evangelicals together can judge how well he succeeds.
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