1. The need of the group
Surveys show that there are approximately 5 million Roman Catholics (RCs) in the UK, making up 8% of the population in England and Wales, 16% in Scotland and 40% in Northern Ireland. RCs comprise a great range ethnically and socially, including a large group of recent immigrants from Eastern Europe – particularly Poland – who are committed church attenders.
The spiritual needs of this group vary considerably. Some may well have a real faith in Christ and will show signs of regeneration, but exposure to orthodox Catholicism will undermine that faith. Others will have rejected the whole system and have little interest in Christianity. Many will have little commitment to Church structures but will continue to identify themselves as Catholic. These nominals may have a false sense of spiritual security derived from their Catholic heritage. Many regular churchgoers will have been taught that their regular participation in the sacramental life in the church and commitment to good works will, after a spell in purgatory, lead to salvation.
Compounding their need is the weakness seen in many mainline Protestant denominations and churches. RCs can look out from their own Church and see ethical compromise, doctrinal conflict and confusion, weak leadership, liberal agendas and schisms. Some will be conscious of forming part of an historically persecuted minority and feel sceptical as to whether there could be anything out there that is more credible and substantial.
2. Understanding the group
It is important to recognise that what the church officially teaches is not necessarily what any individual RC believes. It is wrong to think of Roman Catholicism and RCs as a monochrome entity. Amongst those who are committed to Roman Catholicism there is a wide spectrum of convictions.
There are those who hold to traditional Catholic teaching. Some of these would be more extreme and would want a return to the Latin mass. Some belong to highly organised lay movements such as Opus Dei. There are those who have been heavily influenced by the charismatic movement. Indeed, there remains a sizeable group of RCs who have had some sort of charismatic experience; this may well go hand in hand with genuine faith in Christ and a love for God’s word.
Overall, there is a much more modern and liberal feel to Catholicism these days. The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) changed the shape of Catholicism quite dramatically. Prior to the Council, the Roman Catholic Church took the high ground over all denominations. The Second Vatican Council saw a softening of this, and other churches were viewed as “separated brethren” rather than damnable heretics. There were other modernisations and changes as the Church sought to engage with the modern world; for example, the mass could be said in the vernacular rather than Latin. Much of the polemical language of the Counter-Reformation was toned down even where the doctrine remained the same.
In addition, from an evangelical perspective, it is also worth noting that the Second Vatican Council seemed to introduce (and acknowledge) a theologically liberal influence, including at the level of biblical scholarship. Not only were Orthodox and Protestants seen more positively, but also those outside any church could be “anonymous Christians”. As a result, many of today’s RCs are not dogmatic in outlook. Few would condemn those of other faiths. They would hold to the teachings of the Church but without embracing the certainties of heaven and hell and the judgement to come. There would be a toning down of the concept of sin, giving rise to less perceived guilt; in practice, this means a significant decline in attendance at confession. And many would adopt a lax approach to the Church’s ethical teaching – especially on contraception.
More recently, whilst many have welcomed the appointment of the new pope, confidence has been rocked by the sex scandals which have come to light.
3. Key differences relative to evangelicalism
In interacting with RCs, it is important to grasp three key differences between Roman Catholicism and evangelicalism.
The first is how God speaks. Catholicism teaches that God speaks through the Bible and through tradition, and that the Church has the authority to discern from these two sources what the truth is. In other words, the Church (its so-called “teaching magisterium”) is the ultimate source and arbiter of divine truth. On the other hand, evangelicals believe that God speaks for himself in his word: he gives us a clear and present word in Scripture.
The second issue is how God saves. Catholic theology can often sound nuanced and complex at this point and will use familiar words like “justification” with meanings different from what would commonly be understood with evangelicalism. However, in the final analysis, most RCs believe that, in order to be saved, they must be good: the bottom line of Roman Catholic teaching is works righteousness.
The third issue is how God’s grace is mediated. The Roman Catholic receives grace via the sacraments. Since the sacraments are available only through the priests, this means, in effect, that the Church is the mediator of grace. Forgiveness needs to be dispensed by a priest. The benefits of the blood of Christ are made available through the sacrifice of the mass. In prayer, it is the mediation of Mary that gains access to Christ. RCs are unable to receive forgiveness directly from Christ or have access to the Father.
4. The challenges of the group
The challenge you will face is that the average Roman Catholic will either (1) have rejected the teaching of the Church and have little interest in true Christianity or (2) be suspicions of something that is not part of the one “true Church”. It is worth bearing in mind that with those from a Polish background may well associate a heavy emphasis on bible reading with the cults, especially JWs.
5. Engaging and sharing Christ with the group
Because they do not form a special racial or ethnic group, RCs do not need a particular missionary approach. If they are indigenous British, they need your friendship and hospitality – and to be asked to church. They need a chance to get to know you, and for you to get to know them. Interact gently, and listen carefully to what they really think. Give them space to discuss, disagree and engage. If they are from a migrant group, then hospitality is even more important. As with all non-believers, the integrity of our lives, and the love that flows between evangelical Christians, will have a deep impact. They need to be treated with respect and courtesy (Titus 3:2, 1 Peter 3:10).
The key to evangelism is the Bible. In whatever setting – be it small group, one-to- one, or main church gathering – RCs need to be exposed to the word of God and, of course, to genuine Christians. What happens when RCs hear the Bible being clearly taught? Of course some will be hardened but others chosen by grace will begin to grasp what they previously had not understood. They are often struck by the clarity of good Bible teaching: so often the priests are not good teachers and do not explain the text in any case. They had assumed that they needed the church to interpret the word but as the Spirit works through faithful bible teaching they begin to see that the Bible can be understood by them, and they begin to meet the real Jesus. They hear God speak with compelling authority and begin to experience his grace. They may well then start to look to see whether what they have been previously taught is actually in the Bible, and then the discussions will truly begin.
One of the key mistakes that we can make when talking to RCs is that we expect them to leave Roman Catholicism in order to be converted. What tends to happen is they want to leave once they have been converted, as the implications of their new-found faith, becomes clear to them: is this not true of anyone converted from heterodoxy? RCs are converted when we give them space to hear the gospel, to see genuine loving Christians and then the space to talk through their questions.
In short, the most useful step you can take is to invite RCs to a church where the Bible is clearly taught or to a Bible study. In either case, open up your home and your life, give them space, be courteous and answer questions as they arise.
There are some very helpful books available:-
- Mark Gilbert, ed., Stepping out in Faith: Former Catholics Tell their Stories. It is Australian and published by Matthias Media. It is a great book to read as you seek to win Catholics for Christ, providing insight in how to be a good soul winner with this particular group. It is also a good book to give away to RCs: it gently speaks of how RCs from a wide range of backgrounds came to faith in Christ and some of the struggles they went through on the journey.
- Ray Galea, Nothing in my Hand I Bring. This is also published by Matthias Media and also a “must read” for those engaging with Roman Catholicism. It is extremely helpful for those seeking to understand the differences between Roman Catholic and Protestant beliefs. A Catholic is who is seeking to engage with the issues will find this accessible.
- It is also worth having a copy of the 1994 Catholic Catechism which sets out the formal teaching of the Roman Catholic Church.