This week a Catholic lady I have no reason to disbelieve told me her priest delivered the following joke in a homily:

A man died and went to heaven.  He was met at the Pearly Gates by St. Peter and given a tour.  They came upon a group of people enjoying themselves in a broad meadow and when asked who they were, Peter said, “Those are the Muslims and Hindus.”  The next group in the field, similarly rejoicing in their blessedness, were identified as Methodists and Lutherans.  Then they came to a high wall from behind which also came happy sounds.  “Who are these people behind the wall?” asked the man.  “Those are the Catholics,” replied St. Peter.  “They think they’re the only ones here.”

It’s an old joke of course, but the variations on it I have heard have always involved varieties of Christian, in which the Baptists or Presbyterians, for example, think they’re the only ones in heaven to the disadvantage of the Catholics or Congregationalists.  I’ve always thought of them as evidence of lay belief in something like mere Christianity in the face of clergy expected to promote and defend the denominational product.  The introduction of adherents of non-Christian religions–as adherents of non-Christian religions–however, made the joke something else entirely.

What could the people listening to this knucklehead be hearing but an assertion that there are many ways to God, of which Christian faith is only one?–and that those who might be inclined to disbelieve (the Catholics behind the wall) that one religion could get you into heaven just as well as the next were not only ignorant, but more than a bit nasty.   Believing that the light of Christ in the world will draw many to him through and in spite of their religions (the story of the Magi) is one thing, but this is another.

When I did nothing but grunt in response to the joke, the lady noted that she didn’t think her former priests would have appreciated it, but things had changed at St. Hepzibah’s.  The new priest was, well, new, and clearly a man of broader outlook than some of her pastors had been.

I rather regret not telling her that the difference between some of her old priests and her new one may well have been that the old guys were Christians, whereas the joke her new priest told was evidence he was not. 

Contemplation of the advantages of being Catholic (or Orthodox) has been my daily bread during my years at Touchstone, but there are some definite advantages in being Protestant of which this encounter reminded me, one of which is fairly clear labeling.  If one appreciates the joke delivered above, then may get himself to the local United Methodists, Episcopalians, Unitarians, ELCA Lutherans, United Church of Christ, or United Presbyterians, where belief in its assumptions (well, where the possibility of “heaven” is still around) is the rule. 

If he does not, then he might try the Southern Baptists, the Assemblies of God, PCA or OPC Presbyterians, Missouri or Wisconsin Synod Lutherans, the Praise de Lawd Cathedral, the Anglican Church of St. Charles the Martyr, or congregations with the word “Bible” in their names.  But who knows what one will find at the Catholic church?  Alas for the sleepy congregants of St. Hepzibah, for while they dwell in the stoutest of ecclesial edifices–stouter, perhaps, than any Protestant tabernacle–so often all they seem to know of the separation of the catholic faith from apostasy is a dim apprehension of old priest and new.