When I called my mom to tell her I was joining the Catholic church, she hung up on me.
I wasn't really surprised. After all, for generations my family had been part of an evangelical denomination. Why on earth would I want to go to a church where they "worship" Mary, say rote prayers, and (gasp!) drink wine?
Not long after that incident, I was on staff at a Christian writers' conference where I was seated next to an evangelical pastor for dinner. He raised his eyebrows to my admittedly timid response when he asked, "So what church do you go to?"
"I like how the Catholics fight abortion, but that whole praying to dead people thing is unbiblical and wrong," he said in a pompous, accusatory tone that drew the attention of the table of ten. He then went on to lecture me for 20 minutes about why Catholicism is heresy while I tried to tuck in to my Salisbury steak.
Needless to say, I skipped dessert.
When I returned home, I described this encounter to my parish priest. He nodded sympathetically.
"Yes, that's why I no longer attend the interfaith prayer breakfasts," he said about a monthly local gathering of pastors. "It's one thing for people to ask questions, but it felt like I was being nailed to the wall every time and not allowed to respond. And by my own brothers in ministry!"
His response mixed with my own recent experiences bounced around like marbles in my head. On the one hand, I still had an enormous amount of affection and respect for my evangelical friends. But after years of searching, I felt I had found a spiritual home in the Catholic church. Why weren't both groups able to see their many areas of common ground and agree to disagree on the differences?
What I discovered through conversations with both evangelicals and Catholics was a simple lack of information. Many evangelicals dismiss Catholicism based on flimsy or misinformed knowledge of Catholic beliefs. Meanwhile, many Catholics take a "my way or the highway" approach that creates a barrier interested evangelicals find difficult to penetrate. When the two come together with open hearts and minds, however, they can walk away with a new appreciation for each other.
Let's try that exercise together, for a moment. I'll outline a few areas where Catholics and evangelicals agree, and then I'll introduce some key areas of difference. Your job is to keep that open heart and mind as you read.
The Trinity. Would it surprise you to know that Catholics do believe in the Trinity—sans Mary? Indeed, the Catholic church teaches that God the Father is the head, Jesus is the second Person, and that the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, dwells within all believers in Christ—just as Protestants believe. That said, Catholics do look to Mary as a role model more often than many evangelicals do—after all, she was chosen of God as a key player in the Incarnation. And we do ask her to pray for us, most commonly through the Rosary, a series of scriptural prayers. However, Mary is not part of the Trinity, nor does Catholic theology place her as equal to or above God or Jesus. In fact, the pastor at my church (which is predominantly Hispanic) frequently reminds parishioners that Mary is not to be worshiped or prayed "to"—a fallacy that seems to have intense hold over some Hispanic communities.