It was such a sweet moment. Almost 30 years ago I was at my friend Pete’s house. His pretty young wife Lori was with us. (Not their real names.) I had been sober for only five months and Pete was not only helping me navigate the journey of sobriety, he also was helping me deal with the fact that I had recently lost my faith in atheism.
The three of us had just finished praying together. During the prayer, I told Jesus that I loved Him, and I asked Him to forgive me of my sins and come into my heart. When we finished praying, Lori couldn’t contain her joy. She blurted out, “Oh Bill, isn’t it so wonderful? You’re going to Heaven!” But then her face twisted into a sad frown, and she said, “But Bill, isn’t it so sad? Your wife is going to Hell…because she’s a Catholic!”
Hmm, that struck me as an odd thing to say at that moment. It struck Pete as odd, too, and he gave Lori a nasty glare. It turned out his was not so much a “that’s not true” glare; it was more of a “of course it’s true, but this is not the right time to bring it up” glare.
I was quite ignorant about Christian theology at that point in time. After all, less than a year earlier I was certain that atheism was true. And even though I sat through many years of catechism classes when I was a kid, I worked extra hard during those classes to avoid paying attention. Basically, what Lori was asking me to believe was that I, a self-centered jerk who had spent the previous decade abusing alcohol and drugs and other people, was now guaranteed a trip to Heaven for all eternity because I had uttered a sincere 30-second prayer. While my wife, who had never lost her faith in God and who had always been one of the nicest, sweetest, most self-giving persons you could ever meet, was guaranteed a trip to Hell for all eternity because she was Catholic. Even in my theological ignorance, that didn’t make much sense.
That incident was my first introduction to anti-Catholic Fundamentalism. The sad thing is, when it comes to basic metaphysical questions, Catholics and Fundies (I use the term affectionately) are on the same page most of the time. We both believe God exists; we believe Jesus is the second person of the Trinity, who took on human flesh at the Incarnation; we believe His death on the Cross paid the price for mankind’s sins; we believe He physically rose from the dead three days later; and we believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God. When you compare those things to what our modern secular culture believes (hint: none of it), the “Papists” and “Bible Thumpers” ought to be the best of friends and allies in the raging culture war.
To be honest, I knew so little about Catholicism way back then, I thought maybe what Lori said about my wife might be correct. I certainly had no idea how to refute it. I was well on my way to becoming yet another former Catholic who joins an Evangelical or Fundamentalist church, and spends all his spare time trying to convince relatives and friends to flee from the “Great Whore of Babylon” located at the Vatican. (Maybe you’re related to someone like this?)
But then a funny thing happened. Instead of just accepting what Pete and Lori and their pastor told me about the sinister Catholic Church and its man-made, non-biblical traditions, I did a little research. I discovered the words of Archbishop Fulton Sheen are quite true: “There are not 100 people who hate the Catholic Church. But there are millions who hate what they THINK is the Catholic Church.”
I haven’t seen Pete and Lori in decades, and I suspect if we met today they would shake their heads sadly and lament that not only my wife, but myself also, are destined for Hell because of where we worship on Sundays. But I can’t be angry with them, because I realize they are sincerely concerned about the fate of our eternal souls. (Of course, it’s possible to be sincerely wrong.)
Someday I suspect we’ll all laugh about it in Heaven. But if Pete and Lori first have to join me in Purgatory, boy, won’t they be surprised!