Catholicism | Robert Barron

Full disclaimer: I’m a Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada minister (to my US friends, think Assemblies of God) reviewing a book on Catholicism. Still, I read this book with an eager and generous heart. Using the boundary markers of your denomination to define your Christian faith (let alone status!) seems absurd to me. On the other hand, I take doctrine seriously and love to study. Here are my thoughts.

I was struck by the number of times, especially near the beginning of the book, that I wanted to jump out of my seat and high five Father Barron. His scholarship and passion regarding the centrality of Jesus in the life of the church was breathtaking. I also noted that he used a fair bit of the conceptual world of N. T. Wright (duly footnoted). In the end, I was delighted to share much more in common with Father Barron than I had anticipated.

Of course, there were areas that frustrated me. The role and status of Mary for one. The doctrine of Immaculate conception seems to be so far removed from scripture it’s absurd. On the other hand, I freely acknowledge that most Protestants underemphasize Mary because we like to keep the boundary markers between us and them nice and neat. (Side note: Martin Luther would have rolled over in his grave to read the title of that chapter: “Our Tainted Nature’s Solitary Boast”. Boast! Seriously?)

Father Barron takes a hard line on other denominations:

From the Roman Catholic point of view, all of the non-Catholic Christian churches have sacrificed one or more of these qualities and therefore fall short of completeness or catholicity. (164)

(It’s interesting how, instead of stating his personal view, he prefaced it with, “From the Roman Catholic point of view …”.) Father Barron goes on to suggest that apostolic succession—the idea that the current Pope is the descendant of Saint Peter—is a “guarantee” (168) that they are preserving the faith. It seems to me like Jesus’ treatment of the Pharisees rules out this sort of naïve comfort. If the Jewish religious leaders couldn’t be trusted to faithfully preserve the faith, what makes us think that we can pull of the same feat?

I could argue theology all day, but I’ll leave with one last particularly irritating argument. In discussing the afterlife, Father Barron states clearly that Protestants object that “purgatory is an unbiblical doctrine, a medieval innovation” (262). In response, he mentions misleadingly that “incarnation” and “Trinity” are also absent from scripture. I don’t know of a single person who argues that since the term “purgatory” cannot be looked up in a concordance, the doctrine is false. It’s the concept that matters. He then goes on to quote 2 Maccabees for a convoluted hint that purgatory may exist. In the first place, the reference to 2 Maccabees 12:44-46 isn’t a direct statement about purgatory. In the second place, Father Brown knows full well that the vast majority of Protestant churches view the books of Macabees as extra-canonical (or, at least, deuterocanonical).

Now that my cathartic moment has passed, I still have to say: an objective Protestant reading of Catholicism will discover far more common elements of the faith than discord. You may even, like this Protestant, be inspired.

Disclaimer: A review copy of this book was provided at no cost through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer’s program.

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