How Catholicism Made Me Socially Aware (Part 2 of Becoming Catholic)

Jan 20th, 2012 | By | Category: Blog Posts

Yesterday, in Part I, I shared how I became Catholic in my heart during a Holy Mass with Pope Benedict XVI. Today’s story is less exotic. It happened about a year before I visited Rome and it happened in Fort Worth, Texas.

I was a newly minted Anglican clergyman and I sensed that I should be doing something active and visible for Christ in the local community. I began praying with other Anglicans in front of Planned Parenthood once a week. Having been previously Reformed, “social action” and anything that smacked of the “social Gospel” was mocked and condemned both by my friends and myself. In fact, my RUF leader in college told us that preaching against things like abortion from the pulpit was an abuse since the pulpit was solely for “Gospel preaching” not “political issues.” I thought that this sounded a bit off, but I did not question it.

Now that I was praying in front of an abortion clinic with a collar around my neck, I began to see that Christianity is much more than preaching, reading “solid” books, and debating doctrine. Teenage girls were crying. Men were dropping off girlfriends for their dirty deed. It was terrible, and yet somehow I knew that Christ was working through those present in a special way.

Here’s the kicker. On each day that we went to pray before Planned Parenthood, there were always many, many Catholics and usually at least one Catholic priest. They were kneeling in the gravel and praying. After a few months of observing this, one begins to ask himself: “Why are these Catholics here humiliating themselves and praying for people who mock them? Where are the Lutherans? Where are the Baptists? Where are the Reformed?” The denominations weren’t there. That’s not to say that they are not pro-life. However, it demonstrates that in this case, Catholicism is somehow more socially aware.

As I got to know these Catholics and their priests, I learned that they were not flimsy “social justice only” types. They went to Mass daily. They prayed. They defended the Creeds and Councils. They even studied Sacred Scripture. It was a balance that is rarely achieved in the realm of Protestantism.

I’m not saying that this one event “made me Catholic,” but it opened my eyes to authentic Christianity. The combination of theological rigor and corporal acts of mercy was something that I found very attractive and it certainly lead to my conversion.

My conclusion now is that Catholic liturgy naturally makes one socially aware. This would be a longer post for another time.


Taylor Marshall

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  1. I’m not sure if it is the Catholic liturgy itself, but hearing about saints who sacrifice, receiving the sacraments to strengthen us, and knowing the catechism which explain in black and white what many priests or preachers are often too timid to say (since they are human after all and want to be liked and not rock the boat) does play a big part.

    Methodists, for instance, lack all of these. To my knowledge, the saints are ignored, and although Methodists value the sacraments, they are not true sacraments. As for the catechism, it promotes the “pro-choice” position. As the founder of the holiness movement, John Wesley himself would be a strong part of the pro-life movement, but since doctrine cannot be written in stone (since all councils and meetings of believers are fallible), they are subject to change. We’re human. Sloth and timidity lead to a watering down of the faith. So any pro-life Methodist is fighting his denomination and fighting for life on his own.

    Pro-life Catholics OTOH know they are not alone, even if their own pastor and parish might be more “pro-choice” than the Methodists.

  2. I, too, was impressed by the Catholic presence at Operation Rescue events back in the late 80’s. I was not Catholic. But I remember chatting with a Catholic woman who told me she had 8 children. My face must have betrayed my surprise because her next comment was, “If ya can’t beat ’em, outbreed ’em!” I’ve never forgotten that.

  3. Taylor,

    Were you aware that there are debates within the Reformed world on social justice? Did you know that a number of Reformed churches seek to do social justice? Do you know that there are Reformed Christians that gather to pray for various things? Did you know that perhaps Baptists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, and others were praying in their homes, in their churches, or from their pulpits?

    Just because these men and women were not at your Planned Parenthood does not mean they are socially unaware. This type of caricature of non-Catholic positions does is neither true nor amicable to bringing union in Christ. Knock particular Protestants who are not socially engaged. You can even attempt to demonstrate that the theological foundation of Protestantism leads to social inaction (I think you’d be hard pressed to do this, but I’d listen).

    To be honest, I don’t see any connection to Catholicism and being social aware and believe your caricature’s of the Reformed position may be true for individuals within the tradition, but not representative of the whole. From what I gather from this post, I’m glad you left the type of Protestantism that you were in, but given your statements you were either unaware or self-consciously avoiding “socially aware” Protestants.

    Your case does not prove that, “Catholicism is somehow more socially aware.” It does mean that Catholicism is involved in social issues (and for that I am glad!). It is a non sequitur to caricature the rest of Protestantism as less “socially aware.” I’ve come to expect more than this from C2C contributors.

  4. RefProt,

    How do you know? I moved from reformed to Catholic as well. I would say I experienced something similar. Not that reformed protestants have zero social awareness. Just that Catholics seem to have quite a bit more. I would say the reformed social action mostly took the form of Christian education, Christian labor unions, Christian counseling centers, etc. They did that well. But going into a secular setting and simply praying was not a reformed thing to do. Maybe your experience of the reformed tradition is different but who is to judge?

  5. Hello RefProt,

    Taylor was careful to qualify his statement with “in this case”.

  6. RefProt –

    I read through this article twice looking for a Caricature of a “reformed position,” and can’t really see it. I thought Taylor was pretty clear that he was speaking of his own personal experience.

    I would agree with Taylor, however, that us Catholics are more socially aware than protestants and here is why… our Church has been observing social justices and injustices for 2000 years and because of that we have a well developed theological tradition of what we might call “Social Justice.” I know many protestants who are “Socially Aware,” but their awareness comes from outside of their own tradition, and is not uncommonly reliant on the Catholic tradition.

    As for someone who has also prayed in front of abortion clinics, however, I have to admit that my experience is similar to Taylor’s. I too have asked, “Where are the other Churches in our town?” and even invited a few to spend time with us. On only one occasion did they respond – it was the pastor of a College Campus ministry. The others weren’t interested.

    If you still aren’t persuaded, I would encourage you to watch EWTN’s coverage of the March for Life next week. It is overwhelmingly Catholic. Perhaps you will watch it and come to a different conclusion. Or, perhaps you will be able to help me make sense of this in a different way.

  7. Ref Prot,

    To be sure, I think Taylor, would say that there would be non-Catholic Christians involved but their involvement in such a movement would not necessarily be borne of their participation in their particular ecclesial communions. Whereas, for a Catholic and the Church as a whole, involvement in social justice flows organically from the very heart of the Church and her self-awareness of her role as Mother and Teacher of the faithful. If you are so inclined you might consider checking out the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, which you can find online, or many Encyclicals by various Popes, most especially Veritas Splendor, Evangelium Vitae, and Caritas in Veritate. The Church has a well-thought out approach to almost any social issue that one could think of. Like I tell my students, if you have thought about it, the Church has probably already written on it. Take human cloning and embryonic stem cell research, the Church was engaging this tragic technological madness long before it became part of the main-stream lexicon. Sadly, many in the world have not listened. You would do yourself a favor and listen to her words on such matters.

  8. When I was Reformed I didn’t hear much about social justice either. The only time it ever came up was to point out how only the liberals were involved in such activities (so we thought), and oh yeah, the Tim Keller types as well.

  9. I think we need to distinguish modern, American Reformed social concern from the wider history of the Reformed tradition. Historically, the Reformed Church has often taken an interest in social issues (albeit, not always on the right side – i.e., slavery). Calvin’s first published work was a commentary on De Clementia. Throughout his career, he was interested in the question of “equity.” His resurrection of the diaconate as a social ministry has received a good deal of study. This carried over into Puritanism, which was heavily involved in poor relief, and questions of social compact (i.e. covenant). Dutch theologians like Kuyper, of course, attempted to give a Reformed theological framework for government and social concern. And the Reformed impulse in the 2nd Great Awakening in the U.S. usually expressed itself in social issues – abolition, founding colleges, temperance, etc.

    The Dynamics changed in the late 19th century, however, because of many factors. One is the theological confusion caused by the slavery debate. How to justify your position on the basis of a Reformed, literal Scriptural hermeneutic? Obviously, the liberals departed from that hermeneutic, and “Social Gospel” and Liberal theology were in part a response to that dynamic. The modernist controversy exacerbated the perception among conservative protestants that “social concern” was now a liberal thing.

    20th Century evangelicals, like Carl Henry, tried hard to change that perception. He published books on social and personal ethics, founded the NAE, etc. However, I think that the culture and spirituality of evangelicalism had changed sufficiently (a reductionistic emphasis on being “born again”), that the likes of Henry were rare. Francis Schaeffer and C. Everett Koop made some progress in pushing evangelicals off the couch, but only on one issue (abortion).

    So, to be fair, I think we need to look at this issue more broadly.

    As a Catholic now (former Presbyterian), I see some issues that I didn’t perceive before. One is the importance of Doctrinal Development as a theological concept, and the related importance of an interpretive authority. Part of the confusion in American Reformed Circles came from its naive approach to social and moral issues as immediately discernible from Scripture. Catholics, especially since the 19th century, have no difficulty in recognizing that there can be moral absolutes – grounded in supernatural revelation, but that our collective understanding of their implications can develop over time. Protestantism, by contrast, has tended to bifurcate this into either or – Either an unreformable deposit of faith, or doctrinal development.

    The other issue, obviously, is the Role of Natural law. Some Reformed thinkers embraced the concept (Grotius), but this is not, by and large, the primary point of reference for Reformed thought on social issues. There has always been a simplistic tendency in the Reformed tradition – from Calvin to Carl Henry – to equate Orthodoxy with Social justice – or, at least to assume that Orthodoxy would lead to social justice.

    Some thoughts,


  10. But, following up the last remark, I should note that there was nothing naive about Reinhold Niebuhr, whom I consider the Reformed tradition’s most profound social thinker. Unfortunately, his quasi-naturalistic-not-so-orthodox approach to traditional Reformed dogmatics means he has not been adequately appropriated in conservative circles.


  11. Randy,

    I think I am a fair person to judge considering that I’ve had extensive experience in the Reformed tradition. As I noted, I’m grateful that Taylor moved from a notion that social justice was unimportant. One only need to look to forms of Kuyperianism (which come from the Reformed tradition) to know that God cares about social justice. Surely you have all heard of Tim Keller? Granted, not everyone agrees with Tim, but he represents the position of a large portion of the Reformed world (as even David VanDrunen, a 2K proponent, admits). Based on all of these things, it is a rational to view Taylor’s estimation as ignorant of the Reformed tradition.

    Fr. Bryan,

    Here is where I perceive caricature,

    “I began to see that Christianity is much more than preaching, reading “solid” books, and debating doctrine”

    Does any Protestant denomination say this? Did Taylor really believe this as an Anglican? Isn’t it interesting that Taylor was doing it as an Anglican?

    “In fact, my RUF leader in college told us that preaching against things like abortion from the pulpit was an abuse since the pulpit was solely for “Gospel preaching” not “political issues.” I thought that this sounded a bit off, but I did not question it.”

    I do not wish to discount Taylor’s experience. I believe that was said to him. But the thesis of Taylor’s article is that the Catholic Church is more concerned about social justice than other churches, after he cites this example. While this may be true in Taylor’s experience, it is not indicative of most of the Reformed tradition. Even R2k ministers would preach against abortion.

    And while I think praying for abortion clinics is important, as I noted in my first post, perhaps some people are methodologically opposed to standing in front of Planned Parenthood but pray for them all the same. This is simply not adequate evidence that Catholics are “more socially aware.” And this is exactly why it is a caricature, imo.


    I appreciate your response but I don’t see how it actually defends Taylor. You say,

    “for a Catholic and the Church as a whole, involvement in social justice flows organically from the very heart of the Church and her self-awareness of her role as Mother and Teacher of the faithful.”

    I don’t find very much objectionable with this statement and neither would most in the Reformed community. Read people like Keller. Social justice interest flows out of the very heart of the Church. Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists and others can affirm this.

    David Anders,

    Sorry I got to your reply last because you summarize much of what I say above. I’m not sure that I necessarily agree with your statement regarding development, but appreciate you setting forth a meaningful argument. But I would ask for clarification for what you mean when you say,

    Protestantism, by contrast, has tended to bifurcate this into either or – Either an unreformable deposit of faith, or doctrinal development.

    I just want to be clear what you are saying about this and its relationship to social justice. Are you saying this bifurcation creates problems when attempt to render judgment on social issues? This is a much different claim however, than the one that Taylor is making.

  12. “Protestantism, by contrast, has tended to bifurcate this into either or – Either an unreformable deposit of faith, or doctrinal development.”

    What I mean – even in Catholic circles,I’m sure you know, the concept of doctrinal development was slow to take hold. As I read the tradition, it was never a part of traditional Reformed self-understanding. The Reformation was not seen by its contemporaries as a development or a reformulation of tradition, but of uncovering a doctrinal deposit that had been obscured by tradition and useless ritual. Rather than “develop,” Protestantism in America tended to see itself as peeling away more and more layers of “tradition.” Consider Alexander Cambell’s determination to “read the Bible as if no one had ever read it before.” (Or, words to that effect.) This is primitivism, not development.

    By contrast, it was the Liberal tradition in Protestantism that evolved the notion that theology could “develop” out of some incipient core, like “Kingdom of God.”


  13. Ref Prot,

    To get a sense of how social doctrine is at the heart of the Church’s very life, flowing out from her depth’s, you might check out this video from this evening’s Liturgy at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, with over 20,000 of the faithful in attendance.

  14. RefProt (re:#11),

    I have some experience with social justice thinking (and sometimes, the lack thereof) in Calvinistic circles, so I thought that I would weigh in here. As a Catholic “revert” who was a vociferously anti-Catholic “five-point Calvinist” for about five years, I do know that, as you wrote, there are very different streams of thinking on social justice within the Reformed world. I myself was a so-called “Reformed Baptist.” As such, I’m aware that many people would not consider me to have been “truly Reformed.” However, my former pastor is a quite influential man among Reformed thinkers in America (he helped to found the “Together for the Gospel” conferences), and when I sat under his expository preaching each Sunday, I heard some astounding statements (and not in a helpful way) regarding the place of churches in social justice issues. We were told that churches are, as public entities, basically only to be about “preaching and teaching the Gospel.” Social justice was not part of “the Gospel.”

    Now, to be clear, we were encouraged to help people, in various ways, as individual Christian citizens, but the local church was not “about” such things.. to the point that I was actually discouraged by an elder from starting a soup kitchen at the church, because that was “not the church’s place.” This, right in the heart of a major, American urban city (the nation’s capitol) with a huge homeless population.

    Now, you may reply that this type of thinking is countered by other, better, “more Biblical” ways of thinking of thinking in (some) Presbyterian circles, and in (some) other streams of Reformed thought– and you would obviously be correct about that, thanks be to God! However, in His high priestly prayer, Christ prayed that His people would be one, as He and the Father are one, so that the world would *see*, and therefore, *know* that Christ was sent by the Father to the world. This prayer very strongly implies a publicly identifiable, verifiable Christian *unity and witness*– a unity and witness that *should* be available to the world, should anyone wish, by God’s grace, to look for it.

    Where is this unity in the Reformed world? Where is– even, simply– the one Reformed Catechism, on which all Reformed Christians can agree, to which the world can go, to see what Reformed Christians believe about, say, abortion?

    The Catholic Church has such a Catechism, and it is available, world-wide, for anyone to see what the Church believes and teaches about abortion and about any number of other matters. It is true that many professing Catholics pay no attention at all to this Catechism. It is true that many of them actively disobey the teachings of the Catholic Church. However, this sad fact does not mean that there is not publicly identifiable, verifiable, *authoritative* Catholic teaching *on* abortion. Where can one go, in the Reformed world, to find the “authoritative Reformed teaching” on abortion?

    If one is a “Reformed Baptist,” one might retort, simply, “Go to the Bible, and read what it clearly teaches on life”.. or, if one is more “consistently Reformed,” one might say, “Look at the Confessional Reformed tradition on abortion.” However, if one actually does the latter, one will find that the Confessional Reformed tradition, historically, from the 1500s until 1930, also strongly condemned, along *with* abortion, all artificial contraception, as abomination(s )against God.

    In light of this historical fact, why does contemporary Reformed Protestant Christianity raise virtually no “protest” against artificial contraception? Again, where are the publicly visible, verifiable unity and witness for which Christ seemingly prayed in His high priestly prayer?

    Kuyper and Keller notwithstanding, Reformed Christianity, today, has little actual *teaching unity*, for the world to visibly see, on social justice issues. Where there actually *is* at least a good bit of teaching unity, in today’s Reformed world, is, shockingly, on the affirmation of artificial contraception.. which all of Reformed Christianity condemned for four centuries. My last question (for this post), as I am curious– do you see this contemporary (and historically novel) Reformed affirmation of artificial contraception as a problem at all?

    Living just outside of Washington, D.C., I was not able to attend the D.C. March for Life today. However, the Church to which I belong, the Catholic Church, has publicly taught against both abortion *and* artificial contraception from the first century A.D. She still teaches thus today. This is only one of the reasons, among many, that I returned to her in 2010. By God’s grace, I pray and I intend, I will never leave again.

  15. According to Catholic Social Teaching what responsibilities does an employee have towards his employer? Can an employer expect certain things from an employee? Does the employer have any rights or is it just the employee who has rights in the employer/employee relationship?

    Any chance CTC can begin discussing CST more than it currently does?

  16. Dear Rick,

    Employees have a responsibility in justice to do the work they have contracted to do for their employer. Otherwise, they are stealing. So yes, employers have rights. But in the history of modern Catholic social teaching as it developed in the conflict between liberal and socialist economic policies in Western Europe, it has been the laborer who has typically been in the weaker position as far as job security, wages, benefits, working conditions, and so on. CST emphasizes the rights of the worker for that reason and for others.

    CST, while recognizing the validity of a strike as a last-ditch effort to protect workers’ rights, has also cautioned that strikes can be deployed by labor unions or workers in disproportionate ways, wounding the economy and business in the process (e.g., Leo XIII, Rerum novarum 36; Paul VI, Octogesima adveniens 14; John Paul II, Laborem exercens 20). Note that even here the popes are speaking about a right of the social body not to have the common good (including its economic aspect) damaged by such strikes, not necessarily a right of employers to avoid a strike by their employees. At the same time, by emphasizing the strike as a last-ditch effort, the popes have always exhorted capital and labor, where they are divided into separate bodies, to work together in the spirit of sacrificial charity. (In a “mixed union” or employee-owned cooperative, the danger of such opposition is much less because labor is in the same body as capital.)


  17. As for your question about whether we will talk about CST more than we do, I think that would depend on the interest in this topic among our Reformed readership (e.g., the link between Leo XIII’s thought and Abraham Kuyper’s thought; Catholic and Protestant cooperation in the Social Democrat parties in the reconstruction of Germany after WWII) and the potential of discussions of the topic for advancing ecumenical dialogue between Catholics and Reformed Christians.

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