What Are You Saying?

Amalfi Coast, Italy

If I had a nickel for every difficult discussion about Christian faith among Italian family and friends, I would probably have enough money for a cappuccino at Starbucks. A primary reason for this challenge comes down to terminology: we often use the same words without realizing their divergent meaning. We make the mistake of thinking that because we employ the same terminology, we share a common understanding of what such words mean. Following is a list of the slippery sayings that regularly undermine our communication with Catholic friends and family:

  • Anointing: Catholics often associate “anointing” with the Sacrament of Confirmation. It is also a liturgical element of Baptism and Holy Orders (ordination). Many Evangelicals, particularly from the charismatic tradition, use the term “anointing” to describe spiritual empowerment that is possessed and expressed by one who serves the gospel.
  • Baptism: For Catholics this is the first of the seven sacraments. It is believed to remove guilt and impart spiritual life. Water is poured on the head while a minister pronounces the Trinitarian invocation: “the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” Most Evangelicals regard baptism to be a sacrament (or ordinance) which signifies identification with Christ without actually causing spiritual transformation.
  • Body of Christ: When Catholics speak of “Christ’s Body” they likely refer to the sacramental presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist under the appearances of bread and wine. Evangelicals, on the other hand, typically think of God’s people, the Church.
  • Church: Catholics recognize three inseparable uses of the word “Church:” The worldwide union of God’s people, a regional assembly (diocese), and a local parish (which gathers to celebrate the Eucharist). Very often Catholics will use the word church to describe the building or facility in which God’s people meet for worship. While agreeing with the three designations of God’s people (universal, regional, and local), Evangelicals are in principle reticent to use the word church in relation to the building.
  • Communion: Among Catholics, communion is the union of God’s people to Christ and to one another with its “source and summit in the celebration of the Eucharist.”[1] The Evangelical view of Eucharist is different in that we don’t assign to it the same sacramental function vis-a-vis transubstantiation.
  • Confession: Catholics see confession as a critical element of the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation. It is associated with telling one’s sins to a priest, although it seems that few Catholics today maintain this routine. Evangelicals will tell their sins directly to God in prayer, or perhaps with a fellow believer in the context of an accountability relationship.
  • Word of God: Catholics understand God’s Word to be the revelation of Jesus Christ contained in Scripture and sacred Tradition. Evangelicals tend to think of the Bible when talking about the “word of God.”
  • Gospel: The gospel is the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ. Often Catholics will think of the Apostolic Deposit of Faith or the four books of the New Testament called the “Gospels.” Evangelicals are more likely to use the word to describe the message that is preached or shared in the context of personal evangelism.
  • Prayer: Notwithstanding Evangelical Catholics, most Catholic prayers are usually written down in advance or read from a card or book. Furthermore, Catholic prayers could be directed at any number of saints. Evangelicals usually don’t read prayers. They tend to be spontaneous and directed to God alone in Jesus’ name.
  • Religion: For Catholics this is a positive word. It describes the tangible forms of faith in which God and humanity relate. Among Evangelicals it has the connotation of mechanic rituals by which one attempts to merit salvation. In fact, it’s common to hear Evangelicals promote “relationship” with God over and against “religion.”[2]
  • Repentance: Catholics use this word as they do “contrition” and “reconciliation,” as a necessary ingredient for the reception of the Sacrament of Penance. Instead of associating it with a sacrament, Evangelicals often see repentance as a component of conversion (as in “repentance and faith”).
  • Salvation: The Catholic Church defines “salvation” as “the forgiveness of sins and restoration of friendship with God, which can be done by God alone.”[3] The particular way God does this is through the sacramental system, which is what most Catholics think of when they hear the word “salvation” (the Evangelical Catholic will differ here). Thus, salvation is understood to span the entirety of life, from the infant’s baptismal font to the grave. Evangelicals, on the other hand, commonly use “salvation” as a synonym for “justification,” that is, the moment when one enters into favor with God. This difference is partly why Catholics are incredulous when we talk about “being saved.” Since they regard salvation to happen over a lifetime they wonder, “How can anyone possibly know the answer before they die and undergo judgment?”
  • Sin: The Catholic Church teaches that sin is, “An offense against God as well as a fault against reason, truth, and right conscience. Sin is a deliberate thought, word, deed, or omission contrary to the eternal law of God. In judging the gravity of sin, it is customary to distinguish between mortal and venial sins.”[4] As this definition emphasizes, when Catholics speak of sin they have in mind the wrong actions that one commits. Evangelicals tend to stress the fallen nature which gives rise to these moral failures (i.e., “falling short of the glory of God;” Rom 3:23).
  • Sunday School: When Catholics hear this term they usually think of a class for children, not for adults. If you tell them about your experience in “Sunday school” (as an adult), don’t be surprised if you see puzzled expressions.

Some Evangelical words are foreign to Catholic ears. Usually, Catholics don’t talk about being “saved” or “born again” (notwithstanding the Charismatic Catholic). If a traditional or cultural Catholic speaks this way, he will likely have infant baptism in mind. Likewise, it’s unlikely you’ll hear the words, “witness,” “devotions” (or “devotionals”), “fellowship,” “believer,” “small group,” “evangelism,” or “quiet time.” In short, it’s wise to avoid tribal language that’s unique to one’s Evangelical circle but incomprehensible to outsiders.

Other things we say can be unintentionally offensive. For example, it is axiomatic for Evangelicals to describe themselves as “Christian” as opposed to those who are “Catholic.” We don’t realize that to many this dichotomy sounds like we’re putting Catholics into a non-Christian category. I once heard a student of Wheaton College talk this way to Archbishop Cardinal Francis George. The Cardinal was less than impressed. What makes this situation tricky is that some Catholics also use this distinction. My suggestion is to err on the side of caution by not juxtaposing Christian and Catholic.

[1] CCC, 871

[2] Evangelicals would do well to remember however that Scripture uses the term “religion.” As it says in James 1:27, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”

[3] CCC, 898.

[4] CCC, 899.

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