Jack Mulder Jr. Answers “What Does it Mean to be Catholic?”

Jan 31st, 2016 | By | Category: Blog Posts

A review of Dr. Jack Mulder Jr.’s 2015 book What Does It Mean To Be Catholic?

When I went through the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) in 2010-2011, my classmates would periodically ask our instructors — often priests — about how Protestants would explain or define some particular theological point. This is always a difficult question to answer, given the variety of opinions within Protestantism. Unfortunately, the instructors’ interpretations of Protestant doctrine were frequently simplistic, unsympathetic, or just plain wrong, leading me, a former Reformed seminary student, to attempt to correct them. This reality — explained, if not excused by the fact that many priests or other Catholic thinkers did not grow up in Protestantism — is a frequent complaint from both sides of ecumenical dialogue or debate: that one side has failed to do justice to the other in accurately presenting that side’s beliefs. Hope College professor of philosophy and Catholic convert Jack Mulder Jr. is very aware of this tendency, and very eager to avoid it in his very personal account of the faith, What Does It Mean To Be Catholic?. Mulder’s charitable ecumenical approach is largely successful at providing an accurate presentation Protestantism — particularly Reformed Protestantism — and where it diverges from the Catholic tradition. Mulder offers a helpful, if at times imbalanced introduction to Catholic teaching.

Mulder is himself a child of the Reformed tradition, and remains a teacher at a predominantly Protestant Christian educational institution, Hope College. Called To Communion has a direct link to this institution, contributor Beth Turner being a direct descendant of one of its founders, Albertus van Raalte 1 Mulder’s book is intended for three specific audiences: new Catholics desiring to understand the Catholic faith, non-Catholics who are seeking to understand Catholicism, and lifelong Catholics “who would like to be reacquainted with what they believe.”2 He explains that it is not his intention to “convert the reader,” but rather for non-Catholics “to consider what a coherent Catholic faith could look like.”3 Mulder readily admits that this is by no means an exhaustive account of the Church’s doctrinal teaching, but rather a particularly personal description of Catholicism through the lens of his own experience discovering and ultimately embracing the Catholic faith4

Mulder deserves praise for consistently eschewing a polemical tone that would likely alienate many readers, and for his careful and charitable appeals to his non-Catholic brethren. Indeed, he explains, “my movement to the Catholic Church came about because I came to love the Catholic Church, not because I came to detest some other Christian community.” This book is more akin to “an open letter, addressed primarily to other Christians, explaining why the Catholic story captivated, and still captivates, me.”5 Mulder goes as far as acknowledging that he has “no trouble believing that many of my non-Catholic brothers and sisters know him better than I do.”6

One of the strengths of this charitably-focused presentation is his diverse referral to ideas and teachings from other Christian faith traditions, particularly Protestant and Orthodox, to demonstrate common ground with Catholicism, or as a means of differentiating Catholic teaching from other Christian belief systems. In the course of his apology, Mulder cites sources as distinct as Martin Luther7, Baptist theologian Timothy George8, Orthodox theologian John Meyendorff9, Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth10, John Calvin11, Church of Christ theologian John D. Castelein12, C.S. Lewis13, emergent church leader Rob Bell,14 and open theologian Clark Pinnock.15 Outside the Christian tradition, Mulder cites such thinkers as atheist physicist Stephen Hawking16 and utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill.17

Moreover, Mulder often highlights recent cultural phenomena that will likely appeal to a diverse set of readers. References include the moviesAvatar, Ransom, Lord of the Rings, Constantine, and The Meaning of Life18, the rock bands Live and Guster19, and the Saturday Night Live character Father Guido Sarducci.20

Mulder is often willing to recognize errors or mistakes in the history of the Catholic Church, an honest humility that is a welcome contrast to some Catholic apologists’ attempts to defend or too easily explain away the Church’s checkered past. He for example notes “it is true that some of the Church’s philosophers and theologians [in the Middle Ages] were engaged in work that was pretty abstract and somewhat distant from the Christian needs of the faithful.”21 Elsewhere he cites Catholic theologian Ronald Witherup’s admission that “the Catholic Church had been largely inattentive to the Bible for centuries.”22

Mulder makes many casual observations that are especially perceptive and helpful and deserve more emphasis in ecumenical dialogue. For example, in discussing Catholic doctrinal statements, he notes, “it is not for the casual observer to tell just what a doctrinal statement entails, since the language is always carefully chosen, and reflects debates that are not immediately obvious.” Indeed, I have found that many Protestant interlocutors are quick to instruct Catholics regarding the real meaning of various ecumenical councils or Church documents, without recognizing that such texts can only be properly understood in relationship to the tradition in which they were written. For example, a casual reading of the the Council of Trent’s documents will almost certainly be insufficient to understand what the Church means by the concepts of justification or anathema.23

I particularly recommend Mulder’s chapter “The Church and Her Magisterium,” a clear, even-handed explanation of the Catholic Church’s doctrine on her own magisterial authority, including the role of the papacy and its origins and councils and bishops. His positive citation of other Catholic scholars who note, “even while true in the technical sense, a dogmatic statement may be ambiguous, untimely, overbearing, offensive, or otherwise deficient,”24 was an important, if surprising admission. Also of great utility is the first half of the chapter entitled “God and Humanity,” which deftly navigates the Church’s complicated but necessary doctrine on reason and natural law theory. In the course of a few short pages, Mulder does justice to such complicated concepts as Aristotelian and Thomist definitions of causality, the nature of the ultimate reality that is God, the differences between potentiality and actuality, double effect, and the problem of evil.

Despite these strengths, Mulder’s project suffers from a few weaknesses, including overreach. Indeed, any work as expansive as Mulder’s — which tries to summarize the doctrine and belief of a 2,000-year-old institution and attempts to do so in a succinct fashion — runs the risk of overlooking some topics or focusing too intensively at others. For example, the explication of the Christological controversies in his chapter “The Person and the Work of Christ,” is so cursory it may be insufficient for either the uninitiated or the well-schooled Protestant trying to understand the nuance of Catholic Christology or soteriology. In contrast, Mulder devotes the equivalent of two whole pages to considering whether Jesus would be lord and savior over extraterrestrials — if such beings were to exist — and if they would be subject to sin in the same way as the human race and all of creation.25 This fairly esoteric reflection may be of interest to some readers, but it also may give the inaccurate impression that this is a popular topic of study and debate within the Catholic Church.

Elsewhere Mulder’s very intentional appeals to Protestants raise ambiguities regarding the specific nature of Catholic teaching. In his examination of Catholic teaching on Scripture and Tradition, Mulder affirms, “everything that is definitely settled in and by the Bible is worth believing and should be believed. However not everything worth believing is definitely settled in and by the Bible.”26 Given the author’s interaction with various Protestant scholarship and teaching regarding the nature of Scripture in the pages that precede this statement, the reader may wonder whether Mulder is affirming some version of the doctrine of perspicuity. Although he is likely not, and means that those things “definitely settled in and by the Bible” are those “settled” by Catholic magisterial authority, that language is more commonly found in Protestant thinking, and creates an ambiguity that could have been easily resolved.

Even so, these weaknesses are the exception to an otherwise well-argued, well-evidenced presentation of basic Catholic doctrines, and particularly doctrines that are of interest to Protestant and Catholic readers. Mulder acknowledges in his conclusion that “Catholic apologetical works often succumb to anti-Protestant prejudices, and many Catholic theologians either leave controversial stones unturned, or hurry to clarify what they regard as optional for Catholics.”27 Mulder navigates these topics mindful of these prejudices, while still “articulating what has brought about our separation in the past,” in order to avoid a “cowardly and superficial unity,” a poor substitute for the type of unity for which Jesus prayed in John 17:21.28 This requires “careful dialogue that moves closer and closer to the real unity for which Jesus prayed.” To accomplish this, “Christians must first understand why we are not one.”29 This book is then a helpful and important contribution to the same project as that of this website: to call all Christians to communion, both with each other, with Christ, and with his divinely-commissioned visible body.

  1. Mulder, 2, 9. []
  2. Ibid, 1. []
  3. Ibid, 1. []
  4. Ibid, 1. []
  5. Ibid, 2-3. []
  6. Ibid, 9. []
  7. Ibid, 16. []
  8. Ibid, 30. []
  9. Ibid, 31. []
  10. Ibid, 55. []
  11. Ibid, 123, 178. []
  12. Ibid, 137. []
  13. Ibid, 166. []
  14. Ibid, 187. []
  15. Ibid, 191. []
  16. Ibid, 58. []
  17. Ibid, 196. []
  18. Ibid, 86, 103, 177, 18, 201. []
  19. Ibid, 97, 101. []
  20. Ibid, 129. []
  21. Ibid, 16. []
  22. Ibid, 18. []
  23. Ibid, 29. []
  24. Ibid, 39. []
  25. Ibid, 107-109. []
  26. Ibid, 22-23. []
  27. Ibid, 218. []
  28. Ibid, 218. []
  29. Ibid, 219. []

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  1. Okay so I have a friend of mine that belongs to the Anglican Church in North America. I was out to eat with her once because I would regularly buy her dinner or lunch or whatever meal. We were talking about the differences between Catholics and Protestants. She told me that she believes things like the real presence of the Eucharist and I know that she prays the rosary. I told her that because Anglicans lack Apostolic succession that I did not believe she had a valid Eucharist. That being said I also told her that this does not mean that she is not getting some sort of a grace out of communion in her church. I think it is useful to tell them what is positive about their own traditions. For instance, her church does Gregorian chants which is the official liturgical music for the Latin Church. And that is something really cool because it is given a place of prominence in the Latin Church for Catholics and that would be a good place for her not to feel out of place. I think instead of just pointing out what is wrong with Protestant beliefs and that is important, that they don’t have to lose what they like about their tradition. For instance, I know a lot of Protestants love reading the Bible Well I love reading the Bible too. Many Protestants emphasize the gifts of the Holy Spirit will we have the charismatic movement in the Catholic Church. If I recall correctly I think it was Deacon Alex Jones that said that he is more Pentecostal now that he is Catholic.

  2. Jack Mulder tells his story on The Journey Home:

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