Catholics and Protestants are Buddies in New England!

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Just recently I had lunch with the local Catholic Priest in the town of Conway, New Hampshire, Don Gauthier.  We talked about everything from his hobby of restoring vintage cars, to our calling to ministry, to the unfortunate many years of Protestant/Catholic tension in New England, to his struggle to be faithful to the call to celibacy.  I didn’t sit down to perform an interview with him for these writings, because I felt the greatest gift I could get from this was to start a friendship with him.  We’ll be meeting again next month for lunch and had a great time initiating a friendship that I hope will last into the future.

When my Grandmother on my Dad’s side, the one who almost became a nun but then got married and joined a vehemently anti-Catholic denomination, was on her deathbed, some profound changes happened within her heart.  She finally told my mother, a born and raised Catholic, that she loved her.  This is something she had never said before.  She spent time with her sister, Anne, still a devout Catholic.  They prayed together at her bedside.  This is something that had never happened before.  It took an entire lifetime to let go of the grudge against a religion and see Christ clearly.

How are we as evangelicals to befriend and love Catholics?  We have many disagreements about theology and the church, and we live on a battleground that has the bloodstains of years of ethnic and territorial war.

I must beg the question then, “are we as evangelicals able to love the criminal?  The drunkard?  The prostitute?  The neo-pagan atheist?  The new age agnostic/Buddhist/Taoist?  The fundamental Muslim who desires to take our life?”  We are called to reach out in love and truth to everyone.  Jesus Christ modeled this.  So this counts for everyone that is made in the image of God.

One might argue that Catholics espouse false teaching.  Yet many Catholics believe that Jesus Christ was fully God and fully man, and was truly the only true Son of God.  I think it would be safe to say that though we have our disagreements, we agree on the basic tenets of Christianity.  We can both ascribe to the Nicene Creed.  We both generally love Jesus, and in a general sense we are brothers and sisters in Christ who both think we’re right.

How do we specifically connect with New England Catholics?  We have to know that in the current moment, New England Catholicism is in a state of flux.[1]  This may be because of the sex scandals of the early 2000s, but its safe to say that many from a Catholic persuasion would not even necessarily ascribe to the doctrines and beliefs of the Catholic Church.

New England Catholics tend to be well educated.  57 percent of individuals living in households where someone was a member of the Catholic Church were college graduates.[2]  Though its not all that important, it may be beneficial to dialogue intelligently with Catholics in New England.

We need to understand the ethnic diversity of Catholics in New England.  Catholics in southern New England tend to be of Irish, Italian, French, Polish, or Portuguese heritage, and in northern New England of Irish or French-Canadian heritage.[3]  Donald Gauthier, the priest who I met with for lunch, admitted with regret, that his parents, of French-Canadian Catholic heritage, wouldn’t even associate with those of Irish Catholic heritage!  So its folly to assume that ethnic tensions don’t exist within the Catholic church as well.  But we need to be informed about the identity and history of the people we are talking with.

Unlike evangelicals, like Catholics nationwide (44 percent), New England Catholics as a whole (48 percent) are more likely to affiliate with the Democratic rather than with the Republican party.[4]  We need to lay down our political leanings and be willing to lovingly dialogue with people.  For republican Christians in New England it would be best to lay aside political debates and discuss the gospel and Jesus while being hospitable and loving.  This should be an obvious course of action!

On the highly charged moral and political issue of gay rights, well over half of all New England Catholics take a liberal stance.[5]  We as evangelicals need to be sensitive and well informed of the needs, thoughts and insights that come from within the gay community.  Again, this doesn’t mean that we abandon our convictions about scripture, it just again means that we should be willing to lay aside debates and discuss the gospel and Jesus while being hospitable and loving.  Again, an obvious course of action!

As many priests and some laypeople within the Catholic Church would wish otherwise, only 16 percent of New England Catholics are likely to rely on the Bible in their decision making.[6]  We should not assume that Catholics are scripturally literate and use overtly Christian lingo in communication.  We instead should treat them as fellow human beings who have a spiritual interest and a common heritage.  Regardless of the reasons why people choose to be Catholic, and no matter what kind of Catholic they are- whether liberal or conservative, traditional or progressive, mystical or social activist- the most certain statement that can be offered about Catholics is that they are relatively independent and self-assured about their Catholicism.  This independence comes, in part, from within Catholicism, specifically from its doctrinal emphasis on reason as the complement of faith.[7]  Catholics are likely to be as diverse in their thinking as the rest of culture.  We’d likely find a somewhat similar reality in many evangelical churches.  We are called by Christ to engage with our culture, not hide from it, so we ought to engage with the secular non-religious as well as the secular religious.

I’m happy to read in a book that is written from an entirely non-biased, non-religious statistical view that another of the most distinctive features of New England conservative Protestantism is the willingness of many conservative Protestants to work closely with Catholics, and even to say nice things about Catholicism.[8]  And again, I hope I can add to this trend as much as I hope others will do the same.  If we can’t agree on theology we can certainly agree on justice for the poor and other civic issues.  We certainly ought to be working together on such things.


[1] Religion and Public Life in New England, 71

[2] Ibid., 73

[3] Ibid., 74

[4] Ibid., 76

[5] Ibid., 77

[6] Ibid., 79

[7] Ibid., 80

[8] Ibid., 120

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