When we first started exploring Catholicism, I knew that there were certain elements of my Protestant heritage that I needed to be careful not to lose. I've been given a wonderful foundation of Scriptural knowledge, powerfully undergirded by the idea that Biblical literacy is for everyone. This is something I want to carry with me into Catholicism.
I initially assumed that the emphasis on an intimate relationship with God was another such distinctively Protestant virtue, but as we've visited a half dozen different parishes over the past months, we've been very surprised at what we've observed. Everywhere we go, we're finding Catholics who are absolutely obsessed with encouraging everyone to have an intimate relationship with God. Moreover, they have some really great advice about it, too, and my prayer life is growing by leaps and bounds.
Catholic spirituality is very different from what I expected, and I found the discrepancy puzzling. What on earth was going on?
I think at least part of the answer lies in the multiple meanings of the word "personal."
I had always heard that one of the main differences between Protestants and Catholics is that Catholics don't value a personal relationship with God as much as Protestants.
If we mean "personal" as opposed to "impersonal," then this is a bizarrely counterfactual claim to make of a church that is so focused on intimate union with Christ. But if we mean "personal" as opposed to "corporate," then this really is a legitimate area of disagreement. Protestants place a higher value on personal conscience and private interpretation, while Catholics place a higher value on church authority and the communion of saints. This isn't to say that Protestants don't value the communal aspect of the faith, but simply that they believe that Catholics place a dangerously excessive emphasis on it. Likewise, Catholics believe that the Protestant focus on individual autonomy is unhealthy and out of balance.
Protestants are wary of too much emphasis on saints and church authority because they don't want to let anything get in the way of intimate union with Christ. Catholics, on the other hand, make a huge deal out of both the church militant and the church triumphant precisely because they believe that union with God's people is indispensable to union with Christ himself.
This is a legitimate disagreement, and there are solid arguments on both sides. But it's important to remember that for both Protestants and Catholics, union with Christ is the goal.
Obviously, Catholicism and Protestantism alike can all too easily devolve into a set of rote religious practices. That's a problem we must all guard against, and faithful Protestants and faithful Catholics do guard against it. In all branches of the faith, the Christian life is all about being drawn up into the richly relational life of the triune God, and our disagreements are merely about how best to promote that end.
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