I was debating the leader of a ministry that tried to lure Catholics into “real” Christianity. In the question period a young woman raised her hand. She looked angry and, turning to me, said, “My grandmother lives in Mexico. She is a pious Catholic. She goes to Mass every week and prays the rosary every day. Under her bed she keeps a glass jar with a hairball in it, and she worships the hairball. Why does your church promote such idolatry?”
I replied that worshiping hairballs is no part of Catholic practice, that Church authorities would disapprove of the practice if they knew about it, and that she should consider asking her grandmother’s priest to intervene and set the pious but confused woman straight. The questioner seemed to accept my plea of innocence. She seemed to recognize that we shouldn’t be blamed for something we would condemn if we only knew about it.
Then questions turned to real, not imagined, Catholic practices, ones that many Fundamentalists find repellent. These are the “smells and bells” of Catholicism: actions that mark Catholics as Catholics, things we do that make us stand out.
We have sacraments
Fundamentalists dislike peculiarly Catholic customs because they think they’re non-scriptural, even anti-scriptural. This attitude can be overcome, but it takes patience. First, we must explain what we mean by a particular practice (many Fundamentalists don’t know, say, what the sign of the cross is—they don’t know the motions, and they don’t know the words).
Then we must explain why we do these things (because they bring to mind our Lord’s redemptive work, for instance). Third, we must question Fundamentalists closely to see if they harbor some unusual misunderstanding of our practices. Many of them do.
We need to impress upon them that Catholicism is a sacramental religion. Sacraments are visible signs of God’s grace; they are actions that not only signify the transmittal of grace to us but also really do transmit grace. They are a natural consequence of the Incarnation. God took on flesh (matter) to save us, and he left behind actions that use matter (such as water, oil, and wine) to continue to give us his saving grace.
Unlike Catholicism, Fundamentalism is not a sacramental religion. It’s one thing, Fundamentalists say, for God to take flesh and to use material things during his sojourn on Earth. It’s something else for him to set up a Church that encourages the continued use of material things. God is too great, too “wholly other,” to use matter as a vehicle of grace.
For the Fundamentalist, it gets worse.
Sacramentals more troubling
Aside from the seven sacraments, Catholics have sacramentals, and in some ways sacramentals are more off-putting for “Bible Christians” than are the seven sacraments themselves. After all, even Fundamentalists have the “ordinances” of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, although they don’t think these “ordinances” do what our sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist do, such as remit sins and convey grace. But Fundamentalists have nothing like sacramentals—or so they think.
The Code of Canon Law explains, “[S]acramentals are sacred signs by which spiritual effects are signified and are obtained by the intercession of the Church” (can. 1166). They aren’t the ordinary means of grace established by Christ—that is, they aren’t sacraments as such—but they are related to sacraments.
With sacramentals we consecrate our daily lives and keep thoughts of God ever in our minds. There are seven sacraments but countless sacramentals. Any action or thing put to a sacred purpose may be considered a sacramental.
Fundamentalists use sacramentals, but they don’t realize it. Consider the Protestant wedding ceremony. The bride wears white and, perhaps, a veil. She carries a bouquet. She and the groom exchange vows and rings. Each of these actions and things has a religious significance: purity in the white garments, the beauty of married life in the bouquet, fidelity in the vows, permanence in the circularity of the rings. Each is a sign of the holiness of matrimony. Each is a sacramental, if the word is used in a wide sense.
Borrowing from paganism
If spoken to gently, most Fundamentalists can come to accept the fact that they too use sacramentals, even if they reject the word. They are especially uncomfortable, though, when told that many of these sacramentals originated in pagan religions. After all, a standard Fundamentalist charge against Catholicism is that its distinctive customs and beliefs are of pagan origin.
Fundamentalists don’t want to admit that they too have borrowed from paganism, but that is exactly what they have done. After all, their churches are offshoots of offshoots from the Catholic Church, even if they won’t admit the fact. (Fundamentalists believe their brand of Christianity goes straight back to New Testament times. It actually goes back only to the nineteenth century.)
Let’s look at a few Catholic practices that most irk Fundamentalists.
When they pass the Blessed Sacrament, Catholics go down on one knee to honor the Real Presence. This posture of subservience makes perfect sense, since Christ is really present in the tabernacle. Fundamentalists don’t believe he’s there, of course (they believe instead in a Real Absence), but they can be made to acknowledge the sensibleness of genuflecting through analogy.
Ask them to imagine themselves at Buckingham Palace, at an audience with the Queen of England. She enters the room and walks up to a woman. Under court protocol, what is the woman supposed to do? She is supposed to curtsy as a sign of respect for the Queen.
Another analogy. A soldier meets an officer on the street. What does the soldier do? He salutes. Again, a sign of respect and an acknowledgement of a superior.
Who is more superior to us than God? Which Fundamentalist, transported back to first-century Palestine, would not throw himself prostrate at the sight of Jesus? If that would be proper, then why not genuflect where Jesus is sacramentally present? Once you accept the actual presence of Christ in the tabernacle, genuflection makes perfect sense. Leaving out the genuflection would be a bit of an effrontery, like refusing to curtsy to the Queen.
At Mass we stand when the Gospel is read, out of respect for the very words of Jesus, and we sit to listen attentively to the other scriptural readings. At the consecration we kneel, kneeling being the posture of adoration. What we are doing is praying with our bodies, not just with our minds, and praying that way makes perfect sense for a creature composed of both body and soul. The postures we use during Mass show us—and those around us—what we believe and what we take seriously.
Sign of the cross
Every Fundamentalist knows Catholics cross themselves when praying in church, when hiding in foxholes, and when stepping into the batter’s box. They don’t, as a rule, know that Eastern Orthodox Christians also cross themselves (although they do it “backward”), so Fundamentalists think the sign of the cross is something that distinguishes Catholics from “real” Christians.
They don’t know that “real” Christians began making the sign of the cross at an early date. The theologian Tertullian, writing in 211, said, “We furrow our forehead with the sign [of the cross].” Making the sign was already an old custom when he wrote. It may have been common even when the apostles were alive.
True, the practice is not mentioned in the New Testament, but neither are peculiarly Fundamentalist practices such as the altar call, in which people march to the front of a church to announce publicly that, because of the preaching, they have just decided to “make a commitment to Christ.” This Fundamentalist practice—we can call it a Fundamentalist sacramental—is nowhere alluded to in Scripture, but it is not contrary to any scriptural teaching.
Catholics’ sign of the cross signifies two things at once: our redemption through the death of Jesus on the cross and the Trinity as the central truth of Christianity. When we make the sign we trace the cross on ourselves, and we recite the holy invocation: “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” We affirm what Christ came down to do for us (to redeem us by his voluntary death), and we affirm his chief revelation to us: that God is simultaneously one and three.
Not used as often in our liturgies as it once was, incense symbolizes the pleasant odor of Christian virtue and our prayers rising to God. It is the first part of the “smells and bells,” and most Fundamentalists think only Catholics use incense. But incense is not peculiar to Catholics. The ancients, both Jews and Gentiles, used it. Incense accompanied prayers at the Temple (Luke 1:10), and one of the gifts given to the Christ Child by the Magi was frankincense (Matt. 2:11).
But all that was before Christianity began, say Fundamentalists. Okay, but the book of Revelation deals with what happens afterward, and there we find that “the smoke of the incense along with the prayers of the holy ones went up before God from the hands of an angel” (Rev. 8:4). If there’s incense in heaven, why not in churches here below?
Our church towers commonly have bells, often consisting of large sets, known as carillons, that can be rung from a keyboard. Small handbells are rung during Mass. Bells have been used for centuries to call people to Mass and to sanctify certain times of the day—for instance, it once was the custom, in Catholic countries, to ring church bells at noon so workers in the fields could pause and recite the Angelus. During Mass bells are rung at the consecration, partly to focus our attention, partly to echo the hosannahs of the heavenly choirs.
Fundamentalists disapprove of bells being used in Christian worship. Why they disapprove isn’t often clear. Some say bells are of pagan origin and thus should be forbidden; but pagans also sang hymns, and no Fundamentalist thinks Christian hymns should be forbidden.
Other Fundamentalists are more straightforward: they don’t like bells simply because, in their minds, bells are identified with the Catholic Church. Of course, Protestant churches often have bell towers, even if those towers contain no bells, but that’s overlooked by these Fundamentalists. For them, opposition to bells hardly rises above mere prejudice.
The usual complaint about the rosary is that it violates Matthew 6:7, which reads this way in the King James Version: “But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do.”
“See,” say Fundamentalists, “you Catholics repeat prayers, and Jesus told us not to do that!” Did he really? Then how does one account for what happened in the garden of Gethsemane? There Jesus prayed the same prayer three times—that is, he repeated the prayer.
Did he violate his own injunction? Was he a hypocrite? No, that’s impossible—which means Fundamentalists are wrong when they claim Jesus condemned repeated prayers. They should read Matthew 6:7 again. The operative word isn’t repetitions. It’s vain. Jesus condemned vain prayers, such as those to pagan gods.
Those gods sported multiple titles. Worshipers thought the gods would decline to hear their petitions unless they were addressed by the titles they wished to be addressed by at a particular moment. Having no way to know the titles of the day, worshipers started their prayers with a litany of titles, to make sure they hit upon the correct ones. Such a habit was vain not because it was repetitious but because it was futile: those gods didn’t even exist.
The rosary is an intensely biblical prayer. It contains not just the Our Father, which Jesus himself taught us, but also the Hail Mary, which is built of verses lifted from the Bible: “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee” (Luke 1:28) and “blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb” (Luke 1:42).
The meditations associated with each decade (Catholics call them “mysteries”) are also straight out of the Bible, but most Fundamentalists don’t realize this. They think Catholics just rattle off Hail Marys without giving a thought to what they’re doing. In fact, when we pray the rosary we meditate on incidents in salvation history, such as the Annunciation, the Nativity, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection—each a prominent scriptural event.
What are uniforms for? To single out people for a particular function. The soldier’s uniform tells us his vocation, the police officer’s uniform helps him be identified by someone looking for help, and the Roman collar marks the priest. Vestments—a sacred “uniform”—are used at Mass.
In this the Church follows the example of the Old Testament liturgy, in which the priests were dressed in special clothes (Ex. 40:13-14, Lev. 8:7-9), and of the New Testament, which tells us that John the Baptist “wore clothing made of camel’s hair and had a leather belt around his waist” (Matt. 3:4).
Water covers most of the Earth, and it is absolutely necessary for life. No wonder this marvelous liquid is used in sacraments and sacramentals. Sacred uses of water are found throughout the Old Testament: the saving of the Israelites by the parting of the Red Sea (Ex. 14:15-22), the miraculous flow from the rock touched by Moses’ staff (Ex. 17:6-7), the crossing of the Jordan into the Promised Land (Jos. 3:14-17), Ezekiel’s vision of life-giving water flowing from the Temple (Ezek. 47:1-12).
In the New Testament we find the baptism of Jesus (Matt. 3:13-17), the healing water of the pool of Bethesda (John 5:1-9), and the water brought forth from Jesus’ side by the spear thrust (John 19:34). We’re told by our Lord that to enter the kingdom of God we must be born of water and the Holy Spirit (John 3:5).
With all these holy uses of water, is it any wonder we find it at baptisms, in exorcisms, and in the stoups at the door of Catholic churches? With it we bless ourselves (there’s the sign of the cross again!), not because the water itself has any special powers—it’s ordinary tap water with a pinch of salt added—but because its pious use brings to mind the truths of our faith.
If we take the time, we can help Fundamentalists see that “smells and bells” flow naturally from the Incarnation, but it takes work. Fundamentalists tend to be hereditary anti-Catholics; their anti-Catholic feelings were learned in the home or at the foot of the pulpit. If something is Catholic, they reflexively don’t like it. They operate from prejudice, not from dispassionate thinking. Yet even the most prejudiced can come to appreciate the sensibleness of sacramentals if they have sacramentals explained to them by a patient Catholic.