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Somos Catholicos: A Costa Rican Lesson

I was recently taught a truth about Catholic/Evangelical dialogue by an Evangelical who was teaching Spanish at a language school I attended in Costa Rica. The truth is that, in countering Catholicism, the Evangelical position is always brief and simply stated, as in the three Evangelical tenets most often used in argument: Scripture only, faith only, and grace only. With these six words, and the scriptural citations upon which they are based, an Evangelical feels entirely equipped for the task of dismantling that ancient, historical, sacramental system of Christianity known as the Catholic Church.

That this had not been so apparent to me before was due in part to the broader range of argument I had learned to expect from my best friend in Washington, D.C., an Evangelical Christian with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and an interest in Christian history. The discussions with my Costa Rican Spanish teacher, though, were very different and opened my eyes to this fundamental contrast between the Evangelical and Catholic positions.

I had come to Costa Rica to study Spanish and explore the beautiful Costa Rican beaches, mountains, and rain forests. It is country smaller than the state of West Virginia, with a population of less than three million people, mostly of Spanish descent. Indians comprise less than one percent of the population, with blacks accounting for less than two percent.

The culture is decidedly European, with the majority of its leaders tracing their families from only four of the original conquistadors. The economy, which is heavily dependent on tourism and the export of coffee and bananas, has seen better times, but medical services here rival those in the United States, and the literacy rate is higher than the U.S. rate.

For these reasons, and perhaps because of the beautiful mountains, the country has been called the Switzerland of the Americas by travel agents and investment brokers. It is hardly that, since its Central American soul can not be sufficiently subdued, but its culture is rich, and there is much to please the visitor or expatriate, including, in San Jose, a full symphony season and a national theater that runs first-rate shows. And, to top it off, the population is 98 percent Roman Catholic.

There was enough in Costa Rica to keep me occupied without expecting to be drawn into Catholic apologetics, but, as God would have it, my first Spanish teacher turned out to be an enthusiastic, 28-year-old, black Costa Rican woman who had been raised Catholic, had been a Mormon for a time, but now was an Evangelical. I can guess that she had been tugged away from her Catholic family in her teens by one of those gentle Mormon youths who comb the countryside in pairs.

Later she would be an easy target for any Evangelical who knows something of the history of the Mormon Church with regard to blacks. She did a capital job of teaching Spanish, but it did not take her long to drift into the subject of religion because the text books we used were shot full of comments about the Catholic customs of Hispanic cultures. She began one day, halfway through a lesson, to describe her own religious background and to express disapproval of Catholic customs because, as she said, “they are not scriptural,” seemingly unaware that the Bible itself is a product of the Catholic Church and is known to be trustworthy only because the Church, acting under the the Holy Spirit, recognized it as such. She claimed no ill will to the Catholic Church–there are plenty of good people in it–but the Church teaches error. She said it leads people, especially in Costa Rica, to think that they can find salvation through Mary.

The most prominent annual event in Costa Rica is a twelve-mile pilgrimage each August from San Jose to the Basilica of Our Lady of the Angels in Cartago, where a miraculous statue of the Virgin is kept. Pilgrims from all over Central America make the trip on foot and take gifts in thanks for miraculous cures. Events like these, my teacher suggested, prove that Catholics place Mary above Jesus.

There was nothing here that I had not heard before in the States. What was new was the fact that the resulting argument would be carried out in a restricted vocabulary consisting of those words we held in common in either Spanish or English. This restriction bound us equally since I knew as much Spanish as she English, but, with regard to the message we each had to deliver, Evangelical brevity was a distinct advantage in what turned out to be my first bilingual debate.

Her message was simply that only Jesus is necessary for our salvation. This is explicit in Scripture in John 14:6, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through me.” Jesus did not say that there is another way or that Mary is also a way, so all this attention and all these petitions showered on Mary are a waste of time and a distraction from what is necessary for salvation, which is a personal relationship with Jesus. So, she wanted to know, what does a Catholic have to say about all this?

Well, the Church teaches us that Mary was chosen by the Father before the beginning of time to be the Mother of his only begotten Son. These precise words are not found in Scripture, but the basis for this understanding has been drawn out of Scripture over the centuries from numerous citations, starting with “I will put enmity between you and the woman” (Gen. 3:15) and closing with the “woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet” (Rev. 12:1).

From Scripture the Church came to understand that Mary was prophesied and depicted as the new Eve. The Church also teaches that Mary was preserved free from original sin and thus was proclaimed full of grace by the angel Gabriel. It was this innocent and holy woman, a tabernacle without blemish, who was worthy to be the dwelling place of God, to give birth to the child Jesus, to nurture him, to raise the boy that would become the man, to be at the crucifixion, to be pierced through the heart for him (a piercing I did not fully appreciate until I had a son of my own), and finally to be assumed, body and soul, into heaven, to be honored by her Son as the Queen of heaven and earth.

Such a woman is worthy of our devotion, and such a woman has served continuously as a special conduit to Christ for people like the wedding party at Cana, Mary Magdalene, Luke, numerous other saints down through the ages, and for entire nations such as Portugal, Mexico, and Costa Rica.

I, in good humor and good spirit, gave this accounting to the best of my ability, raising the images of the annunciation, the visitation, the intercession at Cana, the intercession for Mary Magdalene, Mary at the foot of the cross, and the words of Christ on the cross to John: “Behold your mother.”

I made no effort to argue for Mary from the position of the dogmas of the Catholic Church. Not only was my language ability insufficient, but the very concept of a Catholic dogma is alien to the Evangelical approach to Christian truth. Catholicism is historical Christianity. It looks at its own history as well as Scripture and Tradition to see what Christian truth is. Evangelicalism is Bible Christianity. It attempts to reach back over a repugnant Christian history to g.asp the Bible directly, independent of the institution that produced it. It then claims that the individual Christian can read and understand the Bible without giving any consideration to the historical events surrounding and following the completion of the canon.

Evangelicalism, therefore, could never accept dogmas that require the great weight of the Catholic system to be brought to the level of defined truth and that require a receptivity on the part of the hearer which may best be described as a trust in the institutional Church. These dogmas are, therefore, a phenomenon that remains internal to Catholicism. They are defined for the instruction of the faithful or as a gift to men of good will, but not for arguing with separated brethren.

So I did not avail myself of them, nor was I surprised that nothing had been proved to the satisfaction of my opponent at the close of our debate. It only served to make me recall another truth that it is disposition rather than debate that makes people receptive to hearing the word. Debate serves mainly to help shape disposition, and its effect is not immediately known.

John Henry Newman, one of the most renowned Catholic converts of all time, understood well that disposition is the key to conversion. He understood that a hardness of belief, a “prove it to me” attitude, is a fault that must be overcome before anyone can take even one small step on the path to conversion. He even translated the words “men of good will” to mean “men of good disposition,” that is, men ready to receive the truth and recognize it as something that God would communicate to his creatures. He also understood that dispositions are shaped by a hundred different unrelated influences of which argument is only one–and probably the crudest.

Newman once commented that to bring his fellow Anglicans into the Church of Rome by way of argument alone was more akin to conversion by torture than conversion by faith. He knew from personal experience that it is painful to have one’s beliefs stripped away by rational analysis and that it does little to incline one to convert. A change of heart is required more than a change of mind.

Thus, until someone is ready to receive the truth, it is probably more important to be charitable during a debate than to force assent on any particular point. Do an honest job, paint an honest picture, and leave the rest up to the grace of God. Other factors will complete the work. Seeing someone faithfully attend Mass, glimpsing a votive candle on a dimly lighted altar, or hearing a passing comment on religion by a respected friend–any one of these will do more than argumentation to soften one’s resistance to truth, and all of these will, by the grace of God, happen sometime, somewhere. It is to these influences that I leave my Spanish teacher and anyone else I happen to debate with.

As for the Costa Ricans in general, reports are that they are holding up well under sectarian evangelization. My Spanish teacher is the exception, not the rule. The family that I stayed with, like most Costa Rican families, is firmly Catholic and well aware of the intentions of the North American sects that have landed on Costa Rican soil. They included me in the neighborhood rosary that goes on continuously, each night in a different house. They also showed me their beautiful churches where Mass can be attended almost anytime daily. The statues of Christ in these churches are most often the suffering Christ on the Via Dolorosa or in his Passion on the cross, not the Christ rising from the cross in gleaming robes that has become popular in North America and that would make any Protestant feel comfortable in a Catholic church. There was 24-hour adoration, and I saw reverent practices that I had only read about, such as approaching the Eucharist from the back of the church on the knees.

As of late, signs are appearing on the front doors of the homes with a picture of Mary with the Christ Child in her arms, both wearing crowns. In a sense, the picture is perfect in that it displays the very thing that the sectarian Christians dislike about Catholicism, that it emphasizes that our Lord and Savior came to us through Mary, that she was chosen as the means by which our very salvation entered the world, that he, the Creator of the universe, chose to be subject to her as a son to a mother on earth and chose to honor her as a son would honor a mother in heaven. She is the bridge that Christ crossed over to come to us, and we follow his example when we use that same bridge to cross over to him. This is the message behind the picture. Beneath the picture are the words “Somos Catolicos,” “We are Catholics.” As with so many Catholic statements, more is implied than stated. Yes, we are Catholics, and so shall we remain. 

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