Masculine and Feminine, Evangelical and Catholic

In a mathematically perfect world, conversation between Catholics and Evangelicals would be conducted on the level of pure theology and many misunderstandings would instantly be clarified:

Evangelical: [Stirs sugar into teacup] Tell me, Friend Catholic, what your understanding is of the place of Mary in the economy of salvation? It would appear (though I could be wrong) that you worship her in some way. How do you reconcile this with the biblical witness that God alone is to be worshiped? [Offers teacup to Catholic. Begins pouring his own cup and nodding in profound listening attentiveness throughout following speech.]

Catholic: [Takes teacup. Sips thoughtfully.] Actually, Friend Evangelical, Catholics do not worship Mary. They instead accord her the highest honor due a mere creature (hyperdulia) while according God latria, the worship due to God alone. This is not strange, since we all know what it is to honor a creature (such as our mother on Mother's Day) without honoring that creature to the same degree as God. Honor is, after all, a species of love and we know from the lips of Jesus himself that, so far from insulting God, it is an act of love to God to love our neighbor. Therefore, honoring Mary with hyperdulia is, in fact, an act of love which redounds to God's glory.

Evangelical: [Sips tea thoughtfully, nodding.] Ah! I see. Lucidly spoken! I agree completely. Now, with respect to transubstantiation, I have the following inquiry...

Unfortunately, this is not usually the way conversation begins. I know this from experience, since I used to be an Evangelical. Here's what really happens:

You walk into a Catholic Church and over there is a statue of Mary with some sort of gaudy crown on it. Meanwhile, over here there's a bunch of people in the front row, and they're praying the Rosary (ten to one ratio of Mary to Our Father prayers, you notice). You've got pictures, statues, icons and lots of stuff that you look at. Same when you go into a Catholic home and there is art on the walls featuring Our Lady of the Streets or some other Marian image or statue. If the family is devout, they're praying the Rosary again, often without explaining what they are doing. If they are like many Catholics, the faith is a mixture of old catechesis and affectionate folk piety ("Padre Pio used to tell that story about how when Jesus closed the door to heaven, Mama Mary would let sinners in through the back window.") And that's your first impression. That's what you start with as an Evangelical. So an Evangelical, not unreasonably, says, "There just seems to be a lot of emphasis on Mary." But because the emphasis is not contextualized (i.e., nobody is there to tell the Evangelical what exactly is going on and rare is the parish where somebody clearly articulates it) the Evangelical is more or less in the position of an archaeologist trying to reconstruct a forgotten civilization from the statues left behind while not being able to read the language. Not surprisingly, he concludes the statues or the people they represent are being worshiped.

All this is very funny for educated Catholics, who speak the mysterious hieroglyphic language called "Tradition" the Evangelical is struggling to decode. And sometimes, humorous things result from the miscommunication. For instance, I was on an internet list group one time when an angry young Fundamentalist wrote in and said, "Why is it you guys worship statues!?" A very droll deacon wrote back to him and said, "Oh, we don't worship statues anymore, now we worship banners."

However, as tempting as it is to reply like this, it is also vital to note that, for the Evangelical, it's a live question precisely because what you are often dealing with is not a theological treatise but a set of first impressions tangled, not merely with theological but with cultural differences.

Let me give you an example of what I'm talking about. Imagine yourself opening up some Catholic magazine or turning on some Catholic program and seeing an ad with language like this (spoken with a distinct Southern accent):

"Support John Paul II Ministries! Marching out in the power in the Spirit to claim victory over the powers of Hell! Anointed! Dynamic! Making an impact on this generation for Jesus Christ!!"

Doesn't sound very Catholic does it? But stop. Is there, in fact, anything in the description of our mission as Catholics that's fundamentally at odds with that kind of language? No. Not a thing. We are, in fact, called to claim victory over hell by the power of the Spirit. We have been anointed in baptism and confirmation. We are called to dynamically bear witness to Christ and to "renew the face of the earth" through the Holy Spirit.

Yet you still associate such language with the 700 Club, don't you?

Now let's try another thought experiment. You flip on your TV to the 700 Club or TBN and you see an ad there as a woman with an English accent intones, "Read The Inner Way of Silence, and allow God to invite you to enter more deeply the path of contemplation. Experience sanctity as a fruit of dialogue with the Holy Spirit. Practice the presence of God and open yourself to the gentle prompting of the Spirit by saying, as Mary did, 'I am the handmaid of the Lord, be it done unto me according to thy will.' Allow the Spirit to breathe into your quiet reflection on the work of God in Scripture and Creation. Let God breathe forth in you, as in Mary's womb, the Christ who comes to us in prayer and mystery."

Again, is there anything in this that's not biblical? Not a thing. And yet you'd never hear such an ad on the 700 Club or some other Evangelical show. Why not?

Because the language is feminine and Evangelical culture tends to be overwhelmingly masculine. Conversely, Catholic culture tends to be overwhelmingly feminine. And the two cultures often mistake their cultural differences for theological ones. The Catholic approach to God tends to be feminine, body centered, Eucharistic, and contemplative. Prayer, in such a culture, is primarily for seeking union with God. Evangelical approaches to God tend to be masculine, centered on Scripture, centered on mission, and on the Spirit working in power. Prayer, in such a culture, is primarily for getting things done. Neither of these ways of approach are wrong. Both of these are legitimate Christian ways of approaching the Gospel. Indeed, both of them are, or should be, part of the Catholic way of approaching the Gospel.

But, largely because we don't recognize that they are cultural differences, these ways of approach often constitute a collision point between Evangelicals and Catholics. Take, for instance, the different approaches to prayer. The Feminine Spirituality of the Catholic tends to see the Evangelical approach to prayer as rather shallow and utilitarian. Prayer to get things done looks like prayer which uses God as a means to an end. Meanwhile, Catholic piety tends to be seen by Evangelicals as a cold inwardness cut off from "real life." Thus, Evangelicals frequently criticize the Catholic monastery for its "retreat from reality behind the walls of the cloister", praying piously while the world is going to hell in a handbasket. The Catholic who is tempted to pass judgement needs to be reminded that prayer for daily bread is encouraged by our Lord. The Evangelical who is tempted to pass judgment needs to be reminded that Jesus went into the desert to pray and seek union with the Father. Both are legitimate forms of prayer.

Such collision points represent an opportunity and a challenge. The Catholic response to this challenge is straightforward, we must be the first to do what Catholic faith does so well: embrace the Catholic Both/And so that Evangelical masculine piety is again embraced and honored in a healthy way. And I am convinced this is happening. That's why so many cradle Catholics are responding to the wave of Evangelical converts who have poured into the Church in the past 15 years. The Catholic faith is ripe for a renewal of, so to speak, masculine piety. But, by the same token (and I speak here as a "completed Evangelical" myself), Evangelicals both inside and outside the Catholic communion must also face facts: the feminine way has been too long denied and denigrated by us. We must find a way to integrate it back into our spiritual lives if we are to fully grasp the gift Christ has won for us. It was on many levels that Jesus spoke when, as his dying act, he gave us a Mother. We have feared the Blessed Virgin, Holy Mother Church, all that is feminine, for far too long.

In sum, Jesus made us, his "beloved disciples" the children of a Heavenly Father, but also of his Mother. We have lived with the division long enough. It is time once again for all Christians to honor our Father and our Mother.

Copyright 2002 - Mark P. Shea