Catholic Culture Podcasts
Catholic Culture Podcasts

Discovering Wales

by Mark P. Shea


Mark Shea takes a lighthearted look at the fact that many Evangelicals arrive at truths of Catholic theology, but under different names. He gives the example of degrees of sin, which Catholics describe as "mortal" and "venial", while Evangelicals call them "backsliding" and "stumbling." Because Catholic theology describes reality, Evangelicals have more in common with Catholics than they might realize. As Shea remarks hopefully, this fact may pave the way for their eventual communion with the Church.

Larger Work

The Catholic World Report


45 – 46

Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, San Francisco, CA, April 2007

G.K. Chesterton once spoke of a story idea about a man who set out to sail around the world and discover Australia but who, through a minor navigational error, wound up discovering Old South Wales instead of New South Wales. When Catholics and Evangelicals try to hash out their commonalities and differences, it is not unusual to see something similar happen as disagreements lead, not to conflict, but to a curious sort of comic agreement cloaked in semantic confusion.

Opportunities for such comedy abound. For their part, Catholics have a genius for coming up with common sense ideas and then veiling them in terminology that is almost guaranteed to throw the modern Evangelical into a tail spin. Take the concept of "merit." The common Evangelical reaction to this word is, "I believe grace enables us to bear fruit for God. But we don't have to earn the love of God!" Meanwhile, the Catholic is laboring to make clear that this is not what "merit" means and that, in fact, it basically means what Paul tells us in Galatians 6:7-9: if we sow to the Spirit, we shall reap of the Spirit.

In short, "merit" means exactly the same thing Evangelicals mean when they say that "Faith is like a muscle: you have to exercise it to make it stronger." The glass-half-empty take on this "disagreement" is that Catholics and Evangelicals are saying two different things. The glass-is-full reality is that Evangelicals and Catholics typically live the same thing — and Evangelicals prove it by their insistence on living fruitful lives for Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit just as the Catholic Church says we should.

In a similar manner, a Catholic friend of mine once had a conversation with a woman she knows who attends a small charismatic, non-denominational church. The woman, who would not describe herself as Catholic at all, was excitedly sharing with my friend the "new thing the Spirit was doing" at her church.

"The Spirit has been leading us lately to study the lives of Christians who lived after the time of the Bible, to see how He has led His Church down through the ages," she enthused. They were learning all about various early Christians from Ignatius of Antioch to Augustine of Hippo to Francis of Assisi. And this was okay, she was discovering, because Paul said it was a good thing to get to know the "riches of our glorious inheritance in the saints" (Ephesians 1:18). My friend and this woman had a wonderful conversation about this "new leading" from the Holy Spirit, and as long as my friend did not use phrases like "cult of the saints" the non-denominational woman was perfectly comfortable dipping her toes in these decidedly Catholic waters.

This phenomenon of Evangelicals discovering truths of Catholic theology by accident happens quite often. I have thought more than once that it might be handy to compile a Catholic / Evangelical phrasebook that would allow both parties to speak to each other. Evangelicals have a profoundly pragmatic approach to the faith which tends to overwhelm their own professed doctrines by sheer confrontation with reality. So try as they might, they tend to adopt Catholic ideas under other names, because Catholic theology describes reality.

For instance, Evangelical jargon has long employed notions like "once saved, always saved" and espoused a vague notion that if you have once asked Jesus into your heart as your personal Lord and Savior, then you "can't lose your salvation." A Catholic can argue the flaws of this theology, of course (and there are plenty of flaws to point out). But the interesting point to note is that Evangelicals are, themselves, bumping up against hard reality and recognizing the futility of calling Jesus "Lord" but not obeying Him. And so, as the impulse toward what Catholics call "formation" and Evangelicals call "discipleship" grows (under the inspiration of the Spirit) Evangelicals discover by experience a truth taught by the Catholic Church since the beginning: "justification" means we are to be changed into the image and likeness of Christ and not merely "declared righteous" while remaining the sinners we were.

This does not mean Evangelicals necessarily realize they are discovering a Catholic truth, any more than my friend's charismatic companion realized she was stumbling on the Cult of the Saints. But it is true, nonetheless. An Evangelical who sports a bumper sticker reading "Please be patient, God is not finished with me yet" has adopted, whether he realizes it or not, a soteriology that is much closer to the teaching of the Catholic Church than to any of the "faith alone" or "once saved, always saved" jargon of Protestantism.

In similar ways, Evangelicals can often adopt an essentially Catholic view of sin while not realizing it. For example, while residual anti-Roman rhetoric may linger on in the Evangelical mouth, so that Evangelicals can still be found denouncing the Romish doctrine of mortal and venial sin, what you will often find is that once the need for polemics goes away, Evangelicals on their own turf essentially embrace the idea of degrees of sin. How? Usually by adopting a different terminology whereby venial sin is referred to as "stumbling" and grave or mortal sin is called "backsliding."

I hasten to emphasize that it is a mistake for Catholics to regard this as dishonest or a conscious subterfuge. It is, rather, a product of a culture that really did believe Catholics established the distinction between mortal sins and venial sins in order to "get away" with something (an understandable misperception, given some of the more tiresome moral ingenuities we sometimes encounter from skilled Catholic sophists). But once polemics is gone and Evangelicals set about the hard work of living out the pastoral realities of everyday life, they are forced by the School of Hard Knocks to relearn what Catholic theology describes.

And so, when Billy goes off to school and loses his temper at a fellow student, Evangelicals assure Billy that he "stumbled" but that, though a righteous man falleth seven times, he riseth up (Proverbs 24:16). On the other hand, if Billy goes off to college, abandons his faith, starts sleeping around, dealing drugs, and winds up in jail for murder, he hasn't "stumbled"; he's "backslidden." There is a clear understanding that the gravity of these two manifestations of sin is not the same and that the grace necessary to cure them, while all from Christ, is not the same sort of grace. Once again, the Evangelical drive toward reality overwhelms the vestigial anti-Roman rhetoric and the Evangelical winds up embracing essentially Catholic ideas, albeit using different language.

A final example of this curious phenomenon can be found in the Catholic concept of "temporal punishment for forgiven sin" which plays such an important role in the Catholic understanding of salvation. Here again, Evangelicals tend to hear something the Church is not saying: namely, that after Jesus has borne our sin on the cross and paid 50% of the Atonement Fee, it is necessary for Catholics to pay the other 50% and help make up for Jesus' inadequate attempt at redemption.

But then they head out into the real world in the attempt to live biblically. And what they find is that suffering comes to forgiven disciples of Jesus, often as the result of sins of the past. Christian converts on death row, for example, get executed for crimes they committed before they became believers.

And so, as a pastoral reality, the Evangelical has only two choices: regard this suffering as meaningless junk that just happens for no reason or regard it, in the words of Hebrews 12:5, as the "discipline of the Lord" which now turns the pain of our sins into a vehicle of grace to transform us into the image of Christ. If he opts for the latter, the Evangelical has once again embraced the basics of Catholic teaching about "temporal punishment for sin." He just doesn't realize it.

C.S. Lewis remarks in Surprised by Joy on the odd dissonance he experienced after reading Chesterton's The Everlasting Man:

You will remember that I already thought Chesterton the most sensible man alive "apart from his Christianity." Now, I veritably believed, I thought — I didn't of course say; words would have revealed the nonsense — that Christianity itself was very sensible "apart from its Christianity."

Something similar often happens to Evangelicals who encounter the weird way in which Catholic doctrines turn out to be, not merely right, but something they themselves live under a different name. For Catholics interested in the unity of the Church, all this is vital for the reason Jesus gave in the Parable of the Two Sons. When the Father asks us to go work in the Vineyard, it is far better that we say, "No!" and yet go than that we say, "Yes" and do nothing.

Evangelicals very often say "no" to what they think is Catholic teaching, and then end up obeying actual Catholic teaching under a different name. That experience, repeated many times, can prepare Evangelicals for full communion with the Church. And it can teach us Catholics (who sometimes grow dull to the treasures of our Faith) that we are, indeed, dealing with a living reality here and not mere abstract theology. That is something to celebrate until we all attain to the unity of the Faith.

Mark P. Shea, the author of By What Authority: An Evangelical Discovers Tradition (Our Sunday Visitor, 1996) and other books, maintains the website

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