TENSIONS BETWEEN LATIN AMERICAN PROTESTANTS AND CATHOLICS
By Roberta Jezequel
I was a child during the post World War II decade when air raid drills were practiced during any given elementary school day. I'd huddle close to my classmates seated shoulder to shoulder along one wall of a basement corridor in Paterson, NJ. Soon the sirens would stop and we'd file back to class. I was too young to breathe a sigh of relief-the war was not part of my immediate memory. But what I did catch was that the new enemy was Communism.
There were other "enemies" that my parents tried to protect me from. My dad decidedly turned down the volume of the radio when a beer commercial came on. He didn't want us learning about that "fire water."
My religious identity was already intact at age three, I was reprimanded by my aunt for being "obstinate." I looked her square in the eye and said, "I'm not obstinate, I'm Protesmint."
Although I attended an almost all-Jewish school, along with my Protestant peers, there were a few Roman Catholics who infiltrated the ranks. It's no wonder my parents felt certain things against the people of the so-called "apostate church." Carl McIntyre, the fundamentalist Presbyterian minister who married them, is quoted by Mark A. Noll as saying, "As we enter the post-war world, without any doubt the greatest enemy of freedom and liberty that the world has to face today is the Roman Catholic system. Yes, we have Communism in Russia and all that is involved there," stated McIntyre, "but if one had to choose between the two...one would be much better off in a communistic society than in a Roman Catholic Fascist set-up."
Confronting Personal Biases
Little did I realize that this whole issue would come to the forefront during my adult life as I made a commitment to serve the Lord in Latin America. I found that I could not work as a missionary in the Latin world without coming to grips with my biases towards Roman Catholics. I would not attempt to reach out to my Latin neighbors in Costa Rica-or Mexico or Venezuela or Peru or Ecuador for that matter-without understanding how Roman Catholicism had been woven into the fabric of their lives. Latin America is Roman Catholic. In order to understand Latin Americans, I needed to understand Roman Catholicism.
I began to understand that to the Latin American, Catholicism is more than just going to mass each week. It's a whole belief system passed down from one generation to the next. It affects a woman's role in the family. Motherhood is exalted, the Blessed Virgin Mary is the eternal model of womanhood. Men see a "patronized Christ"-one who is dead and offers no role model. Tradition provides a sense of security for the people, but in crisis situations, they are thrown into the arms of fate. Catholicism is a religion of fear, based upon a salvation by works. Therefore, guilt is the prime motivator in doing indulgences.
Tensions Throughout History
In order to comprehend this and why the Roman Catholic Church has been viewed as "the enemy" by those of the Protestant faith over the years, I needed to read church history. History, as well as current events, showed me that the strong feelings between Catholics and Protestants have been mutual.
Dr. David Howard, former President of the Latin America Mission, tells about "La Violencia" in Colombia which lasted from 1948 to about 1963. During this time, at least 200,000 people died in internal civil strife.
"The Roman Catholics used that time for vicious persecution of Evangelicals," shares Howard. "More than once I had to try to get a pastor out of jail or get a church or school reopened, or get some justice after an Evangelical church was destroyed."
In Latin America, things have changed somewhat over the years. Pope John XXIII at the Second Vatican Council announced that Catholics should read the Bible and that Protestants were merely "separated brethren" and not "heretics." "This brought sudden and drastic changes to the whole atmosphere in Colombia," shares Howard. "A radical, anti-Protestant priest in Cartagena, who had once helped to destroy an Evangelical church, invited me to come to his church to give a Bible study to his priests, nuns and lay people."
The Reformation further illuminates this Protestant-Catholic tension. "When the Reformers declared Rome apostate and no longer a true church, they did so not because Rome denied the Trinity, the deity of Christ, his atonement and his resurrection," states R.C. Sproul in Getting the Gospel Right, "but because Rome condemned the doctrine of justification by faith alone or sola fide." Martin Luther and later John Calvin "reasoned that sola fide is essential to the biblical Gospel. When an essential truth of the Gospel is condemned, the Gospel itself is condemned with it, and without the Gospel an institution is not a Christian church."
Over the years, "while Rome affirmed the inspiration and authority of the Bible, she also maintained a second source of special revelation: the tradition of the church," states Sproul, established by different church councils and carried out by the Pope's authoritative teachings. Likewise, just as with the Protestant church's many denominational differences, depending on the leadership of its synod, session or local pastor, so the Roman Catholic Church differs from country to country and city to city due to cultural influences and local leadership.
A Mixed Bag
"Latin American Catholicism is a mixed bag," says former LAM missionary Ken Mulholland of Columbia International University. There are "the traditionalists, the charismatics, the progressives (open to change, but inclined to pluralism and unbiblical relativism) and the liberals (inclined to varied forms of liberation theology in their quest for social justice). Yet today, because of widespread Bible distribution, "Roman Catholics are more open to Biblical teaching and receptive to the Gospel."
As a result, within the Roman Catholic Church there are "multitudes of people....who belong to Christ," acknowledges R.C. Sproul. Maria Elena Martinez (not her real name), a native of Honduras, accepted Jesus as her Savior while reading the Bible. Hungry to learn more, she began to study the Bible with some missionaries in Honduras. Twenty years later, now living in Miami, she faithfully goes to Bible Study Fellowship, sends her children to the Christian school where our children attend, yet remains in the Catholic Church "as a witness," she explains. In many respects she is caught in between Protestantism and Catholicism. She is ridiculed by her priest because she actively presents Jesus as the Only Savior. But she's not understood by many in the Evangelical community because they see her as outside the Protestant tradition.
As a missionary, I too feel "caught in between" at times. I am challenged to develop friendships with my Catholic neighbors and friends. But I am cautious not to jump to boxed-in, neat conclusions, and not to trade off sound Biblical doctrine in order to bow to the spirit of our age-tolerance for all. "For whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God." (John 3:21)