10 Steps of Dialogue to Help Non-Catholic Christians Discover the Beauty and Truth of the Catholic Faith
Featuring Marcus Grodi/
July 5, 2016
How can we help our non-Catholic Christian friends and family discover the beauty and truth of the Catholic Faith? This is precisely why the Coming Home Network International exists, and, by grace, we have been able to help many “come home.” But many who have contacted us have not continued the journey. We aren’t here to “push, pull, or prod” anyone into the Church, but rather to stand beside. In doing so, we have discovered that, even if we are able to clear up misunderstandings about Catholic teachings and practices, there are deep-seated barriers and presuppositions that prevent the majority of American non-Catholic Christians from even given a moment’s notice to the Church.
For this reason, we would like to propose the following Ten Steps of dialogue as a prudent strategy to help our non-Catholic Christian friends and family discover and, if God so leads, “come home” to the Catholic Church. Each of these steps should include more explanation, but for now just a few thoughts.
1 . Reaching out by establishing relationships of love
We believe that all true evangelization must begin here. Certainly, the Holy Spirit can use cold turkey, impersonal methods to open hearts and minds, but generally He works through disciples. Jesus charged His disciples to “Go and make disciples,” and this challenge was passed on from Jesus’ disciples to theirs and on throughout history to you and me.
If, for example, you know someone who is lonely and, out of compassion, you want to connect her with another person, it rarely works unless you have a good relationship with both people. Then they both will be open to your invitation to bring them together, because they trust your friendship. This is why evangelization is most effective when it is relational: when we know both our friend and Jesus. This is why all the Church’s ecumenical pronouncements focus on developing good and lasting relationships with our non-Catholic Christian brothers and sisters. Is this also why the statistics show that Catholics have not been very effective evangelists — we spend most of our time with other Catholics. If we desire to help non-Catholics discover the beauty and truth of the Catholic Church, we need to make every effort to know both: our Catholic Faith — and most importantly our Lord Jesus Christ — and our neighbor.
This first step must be accompanied with the second.
2. Disciplined prayer
Every convert I know recognizes that his or her conversion came about through the work of grace. It wasn’t that they claim to have been especially intelligent, diligent, or wise, but rather that God in His mercy had moved mountains to break down barriers, especially pride, to nudge them slowly toward Christ and His Church. This is why the single most important thing we can do to help anyone discover the beauty and truth of the Church is pray for him or her. We must lay them spiritually before the Father, and not once, but every day, and if necessary for the rest of our lives, asking Him to open their hearts and minds. Saint Monica is certainly our model, because her patience and long-suffering for her seemingly unreachable son Augustine reminds us that God’s timing is often different than ours. Entrust to Him your friend or family member, believing that He knows them better than they know themselves — and boldly ask Him to move mountains to bring them home.
If we have done steps one and two, then maybe we will be able to do step three.
3. Help them see in you that faithful Catholics are faithful Christians
It’s important that we recognize that in their eyes, few Catholics look or sound like Christians — and we can understand this when it comes to bad Catholics. But even good faithful Catholics look strange to our Evangelical brothers and sisters. At best they feel sympathy, and at worse, revulsion, when they see what they interpret as a superstitious, idol-worshipping woman wearing a doily (i.e., mantilla) on her head, kneeling before a statue of Mary, fingering a string of beads, and mumbling Latin phrases. Like so many other converts, I can attest that most of my former non-Catholic friends no longer communicate with me because they wonder whether I am any longer a Christian.
Underlying this is that fact that most non-Catholic Christians have a subliminal suspicion that the Catholic Church is hardly a Christian Church — many still suspect that she is the “whore of Babylon” and the Pope the Antichrist. This underlying anti-Catholic prejudice is as much a part of our American experience as the air we breath. The Black Myth of anti-Catholic fear was birthed and bred in Elizabethan England, and came like a disease with all those who planted the American colonies. For 150 years, from the Pilgrims through the American Revolution, there were no Catholic priests in all of New England, due to the enforcement of the English anti-Catholic penal laws. None the less, most of the anti-Catholic bias that still prevails in the hearts and minds of most modern non-Catholic Christians, comes from the preaching and catechisms of New England Puritan ministers — who in their entire lives never met a Catholic, witnessed a Mass, or experienced the “smells and bells” they lampooned! This suspicion has been passed along from generation to generation, feeding the fear that, regardless of how authentic and genuine a Catholic may appear on the outside, down deep the Catholic Church and Catholics are not Christians.
This suspicion can be found almost anywhere in Protestant books and media, internet sites and blogs, and shows its face in the relationships we share with non-Catholic friends and family. How many times have we heard the once silent anti-Catholic prejudices rising into hatred and rejection from non-Catholic family members toward those who have the audacity to marry a Catholic?
As a result, even when all other misunderstandings are clarified through apologetic arguments and winsome conversion stories, still, our non-Catholic friends often harbor suspicions.
Therefore, if we have established a friendship, and are faithful in prayer for that person, we may consider turning the tables, by asking how that person proves that he or she is a Christian? Generally, this includes their pointing to Scripture passages that express their convictions, or to their professions of faith, but also to their lifestyles, what they chose to do or not do, their morality and holiness, and particularly their love.
Hopefully, in our friendship, we have shown them the latter in our words and actions. But by asking them to prove that they are Christians, we earn the opportunity to do the same: to show them, through the Catechism and maybe the Vatican II documents, what the Church expects of her members: that Catholics are good because they are living by grace as good Christians. We can show them that nearly everything that an Evangelical Christian believes about Christ is identical to what Catholics believe (actually, they got what they believe from the Catholic Church, and not from Scripture alone). In fact, the Church has affirmed these similarities in her official documents.
They probably will want to deflect our conversation to the doctrines and practices that separate us, but ask them, for now, to set these aside — we’ll get to these later!
We can, also, point to those whom the Church has lifted up as confirming this: the saints. We may need to skirt around some hagiography, but we can help them see that the reason the Church declares people saints is because of their Christian lives.
We can admit that bad Catholics are often poorly formed Catholics and do not represent the Church — just as bad Protestants are not faithful Christians. We can emphasize that the Church has always been concerned with helping bad Catholics learn and live their faith — which is precisely why the Church is calling for a New Evangelization of her members.
If, by grace, we can get them to accept that good Catholics are Christians, we have truly come a long way (!), and can address the next sticky wicket.
4. Help them discover that the Catholic Church is a Christian Church
Recognizing that they may silently still question whether the Catholic Church is Christian, ask them- can they prove that their denomination is a Christian church? Frankly, many of our evangelical friends might hesitate to unequivocally defend their denominations as solidly Christian, because of their denomination’s modern, progressive stances and actions — and they may not feel the need to do so anyway, since they believe that the true Church is an invisible, universal fellowship of believers.
We can stand beside these fellow Christians and affirm their concerns about their wayward denominations, yet still, encouraging them to set these concerns aside for now, again ask: why do they believe that their non-Catholic denomination is Christian? Generally, they would point to their creeds and to the content of their liturgies, hymns, and prayers.
Giving them time to prove this, once again earns us the opportunity to show the same to them. With permission to delay any questions and qualms about supposed Catholic teachings and praxis, we can show them the Christianity of the Church through her Creeds, liturgies, hymns, and prayers. We can point out the Christ-centered content of the Catechism, of the long stream of official historical Church documents and councils. We can even point to those times in history when the Church has excommunicated and silenced priests, bishops, and theologians for teaching against traditional Christian truth. And we can challenge them to give quotes from the present leaders of their denomination that prove they have as much orthodox faith in Jesus Christ as our Catholic popes and bishops.
In G.K. Chesterton’s book, The Catholic Church and Conversion he gave three stages of conversion: (1) Patronizing the Church; (2) Discovering the Church; and (3) Running away from the Church. By “patronizing the Church” he basically meant at least accepting the Catholic Church as a Christian Church. He felt once a person accepted this, they were in trouble of becoming a Catholic, mainly because the rejection of the Church is so strong in the consciences of non-Catholic Christians. If we can help them accept that we are Christians, and that the Catholic Church at least appears to be a Christian Church, then we can move to the next step.
5. All true Catholic doctrines, devotions, and praxis are centered on Jesus Christ
First, we can affirm with them that, as a result of bad catechesis and leadership, there have been many Catholics throughout history who have promoted and practiced less than authentic Catholic Christian doctrines, and devotions. Often these unfortunate instances are what attract the attention of the media. Less than trustworthy and authoritative Catholics in the public sphere too often misrepresent the Church.
But, second, we can point out that this is equally true of non-Catholic Christians — though maybe not as noticed in the media as much as bad Catholics.
Third, we can discuss with them the wide array and history of non-Catholic Christian doctrines, devotions, and praxis, with the hope of helping them recognize the diversity and confusion.
Finally, if they can at least agree to these things, we can go on to apologetics: to clarify and defend true Catholic doctrine, devotions, and praxis, demonstrating that these are all Christ-centered, even the most Marian of doctrines and devotions. If, by grace, they can hear and accept these things, then they have accepted truths that have changed them, and they may never be the same in their views of Catholicism or Protestantism. Then they might also proceed to the next step.
6. Sacred Scripture was never intended to be interpreted alone
Up until this point, it will have been likely that our non-Catholic Christian friends have been insisting that we show everything we claim “in the Bible!” In the same way that nearly all non-Catholic Christians suspect, at least subliminally, that the Catholic Church is not truly Christian, they generally all assume that the Bible is the only true foundation for faith, the “pillar and bulwark” of the faith, even though the Bible itself claims that this is the Church (1 Tim 3:15).
Once again, we can address this by turning the tables. We can ask them to prove their belief in sola Scripura. Where is this in the Bible? Where did the Bible come from? Who determined the canon of books that make up the Bible? Most non-Catholic Christians can’t answer any of these questions. Through a little personal study of the Catechism and Catholic apologetics, we can help them discover that the Bible was truly a product of the Catholic Church, guided by the Holy Spirit.
7. Jesus intended the Church to be the community of salvation
Following the lead of the Reformers, particularly Luther and Calvin, few non-Catholic Christians believe that membership in any church, let alone the Catholic Church, is necessary for salvation. Many don’t even believe attending church worship with any sort of regularity is necessary — it is good and proper, but not necessary. Most believe that only faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior is necessary for salvation.
Step seven is a little more precarious because there are many verses that seem to imply that all that is necessary for salvation is faith in Christ. However, with a little homework, we can be prepared to use Scripture, history, and even philosophy to demonstrate that Jesus intended that union with Him means being adopted into the Family of God, the Church. We can explain that the New Testament Church is the continuity of the Old Testament People of God; and that salvation was never intended as an individualistic act of faith, but as a faithful membership in the community of faith. Then we can show how this was the clear teaching and underlying assumption of the New Testament writers, and that of the earliest Church writers. (I summarize this in my book, What Must I do to be Saved?)
It is particularly in this step when the significance of 1 Timothy 3:14-15 is pointed out, which builds on the discussion of the flaws of sola Scriptura.
If they can accept this, and what has preceded this, it will become more and more difficult for them to remain comfortable as a non-Catholic Christian, and they may be ready for the next step.
8. This Church subsists in the Catholic Church
If Christ intended a church as the means of salvation, then which church? Which denomination? Which mega-church? Their local congregation? We can help them recognize that an invisible universal church of believers, known only to God, can hardly fit the bill of a “pillar and bulwark of truth.” We can particularly show them how the Vatican II documents deal with this, and how the Church understands her mission to protect, preserve, and proclaim the teachings of Christ, as guided and protected by the promised Holy Spirit.
We can discuss the sensitivity and love expressed by the Church when she uses the word “subsists”: she recognizes the mercy and love of God, and how God honors and accepts the faith, hope, and love of every single person — redeemed by Christ — when they turn to Him. There are truths and aspects of the historic Catholic Faith in all Christian traditions, at different levels, but, by the mercy, grace, and protection of the Holy Spirit, the fullness of the Church established by Christ subsists or continues, remains, abides in the Catholic Church. The Church does not condemn anyone outside her visible boundaries; rather she reaches out in love and mercy, standing beside especially those who through Baptism share as brothers and sisters in the family of God.
If a person accepts the truth of this step, they may not be ready to join the Catholic Church, but they will never be the same; they may even feel they are no longer either Protestant or Catholic; they love Jesus and His written Word, the Scriptures, but beyond that, they may now question everything. We can then help them see the significance and importance of the next step.
9. The sacraments are the ordinary means of receiving grace
This is, in essence, the missing link, extracted by the Reformers, that affirms why membership in a church is necessary for salvation. It is not merely some kind of rule of membership established by God. Rather, it’s because, from the beginning, the sacraments were intended and given as the ordinary means of receiving the graces necessary to believe, obey, and follow Christ — and to love. Certainly apart from the sacraments God can convey grace; His love, mercy, and generosity are not limited. However, we can show how, through the teachings of Christ, the writings of the New Testament and the early Church Fathers, the sacraments from the beginning were understood as this ordinary means of receiving grace. We can also show how, through the writings of St. Augustine, Newman, and others, this understanding developed as Christians challenged this historical view; why apart from the gift of the sacraments, the trajectory was always chaos, indifferentism, and libertarianism.
If they can at least see the truth of this stage, we can point out the ultimate significance of the next.
10. The Eucharist is the ordinary means of abiding in Christ
Here we draw them to the most divisive and yet most important of stages. Most non-Catholic Christians believe that Christ abides in us and we in Him (cf., Jn 15) through faith alone. However, if they have at least been open to the previous stages, they will more openly follow the apologetics behind the Catholic belief in the Real Presence. Pointing out the clear interpretations of John 6 and 1 Corinthians 10-11 at least demonstrates that the Church has always taken these statements from Scripture seriously, and the historic consistency of the early Church Fathers on this doctrine is often something they have never seen. What is particularly eye opening is how before the Reformation, Christians universally believed that this mutually abiding relationship occurs through the sacraments, particularly through the reception of the Eucharist.
If the Holy Spirit helps them understand and accept this truth, He may also give them a hunger for the Eucharist. If so, they are at the door, ready to come home.
I certainly don’t mean to imply that this is a sure-win process of evangelization, like some kind of sales strategy. But from my personal experience, from our shared experience, from hearing years of Journey Home conversion stories and reading our CHNewsletter stories, I believe, like Chesterton, that if, through our relationships of love, girded by prayer, we can help them to at least patronize the Church (step four), they are almost home.