Not long after we entered the Church, an evangelical friend put me in contact with a friend of his, a missionary in South America — in the mountains of Peru or maybe Colombia, if I remember right, working among the poor. He did hard work, in a difficult place, serving God as he felt God had called him to do.
But part of that calling was to free the peasants from their Catholicism and bring them the pure gospel of grace, etc. He wanted to free them from their Catholic superstitions, which he felt the same kind of thing as their pagan superstitions. Pray to Mary and the saints or pray to ancestors and spirits, it was all the same thing to him.
He was fairly rude about it. Only someone stupid or (in my case) willfully stupid could become a Catholic. He saw “the real Catholicism.” It was pagan superstition, not the elegant theology of a Cardinal Ratzinger or the charismatic leadership of Pope John Paul II. I suspect he had been anti-Catholic when he went to South America, and that he had only gotten worse as what he found confirmed his feelings.
His knock-down argument was, “You shall know them by their fruits,” and the superior fruits of becoming real Christians were so obvious he thought there was no argument to be made. He could show me in the changed lives of people he knew how vastly better evangelical Protestantism was than Catholicism.
And to be honest, he had a point. Catholic apologists of the time used the same argument. They argued, for example, that we could see how badly the original Protestant ideas worked out through history. They might have looked good at first, but history showed them to be fatally mistaken.
In the lands of the Reformation, like England and Germany, the Protestant churches had shrunk in numbers and liberalized in theology. The Catholic Church in those countries had grown and, in England at least, more people were to be found in Catholic churches on a Sunday than in the parishes of the Church of England, and the average age was much younger. I remember one of the senior Anglican bishops complaining that when the press wanted a Christian statement on a major issue, they’d started asking senior Catholic bishops.
It wasn’t a good argument, though, because it left out the reasons the different bodies were in different conditions. The forces that had affected the Protestant bodies might well affect the Catholic Church, as indeed they seem to have done. No Catholic apologist now will point to the German Church as an example of healthy Catholicism.
Divided Christians keep trying to settle disputes by quoting Jesus’ words, “You shall know them by their fruits.” I don’t want in any way to deny Jesus’ teaching, but I do want to note that the teaching is more difficult of application than the people who invoke it think. It was more difficult than my evangelical critic thought, even though he believed he had an airtight case. People assume it will produce an objective conclusion, one everyone would have to accept, but it rarely does.
It’s a popular argument evangelicals wield against the Church. You have probably had it slapped down in front of you in triumph. Or so the evangelicals who deployed it thought.
When I left the Episcopalians to enter the Catholic Church, several people sneered at Catholics for their mafia dons, their philandering husbands, their worldly partying — almost always giving Italians or Irish examples, I noticed. I would wave it away, because what’s the point? But I could have pointed to the Episcopal industrialists and financiers who ground the faces of the poor (see Isaiah 3). It was at worst for us a tie.
Which brings me back to the Church’s missionary critic. Let’s just look at his judgment from a practical point of view. There are all sorts of questions of fact to be answered before one can draw a conclusion. Questions a historian or sociologist would ask, about how exactly the people got where they are now. The missionary didn’t answer them. I’m sure he never thought about them.
For example, maybe the people who’d changed into “true Christians” were the people most likely to change, because they got something out of it, like a rise in social status or permission to use contraception. The good salesman can spot the likely buyers and pitch his product to them.
The Church had tried to include everyone, even those who kept themselves in the Church by a fingernail. A self-selected elite is always going to look better than a crowd of average people. You can win a lot of games by letting only the good players onto your team, when the other coach wants everyone to play
Where did these people come from? Quite possibly the people who responded to the missionary responded as they did because the Church had formed them. Maybe for long generations the Church had fought to keep the people in the village as Christian as they were. The Church tends to evangelize by trying to get people as far in as she can. The evangelicals want perfection. The evangelicals, had they been around when the Church was evangelizing these people, would have failed.
I could ask many more questions, the answers to which we need to have any possible chance of making a guess at the two traditions’ fruits. As a sociologist knows, an apparent fault may hide a virtue, or the other way round.
The great Ronald Knox gave an example. He admitted someone was more likely to steal your umbrella in a Catholic church than in a Methodist chapel. “A good many of the world’s rogues are Catholic,” he said. “It’s extraordinary how often you will come across Catholic names when you are reading in the newspaper the records of crime.”
He thought this a compliment to the Church, that the fault hid a virtue. “A Catholic does not cease to be a Catholic because he is a rogue. He knows what is right even when he is doing what is wrong. The Protestant as a rule will give up his faith first and his morals afterward; with Catholics it’s the other way round.”
He explained the reason: “The Protestant only feels his religion to be true as long as he goes on practicing it; the Catholic feels the truth of his religion as something independent of himself, which does not cease to be valid when he, personally, fails to live up to its precepts.” I think that’s generally true as a description of evangelicals and Catholics going bad. That means to all appearances, Catholics look worse in comparison, when we’re not in reality.
The argument from fruits isn’t a very useful one, when someone really disagrees with you. It’s very hard to judge what is really a fruit and whose fruits they are, but the people who use this argument rarely know that. But people will try it on you anyway. Just wave it away, or find a sociologist.
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