Many Protestants, for one reason or another, take up the task of reading the Early Church Fathers. They often discover that their Protestant community lacks historical pedigree in the writings of the Fathers, while Catholicism is thoroughly evident there. As a result, they seek to convert to Catholicism. They eventually visit a local Catholic parish bright-eyed and eager, but soon discover that instead of finding the authentic Catholicism of the Fathers, more times than not the local Catholic parish offers a fast-food version of the Faith instead.
I am one of such converts. I came to the Church through a thorough study of Church history, the Early Church Fathers, and Sacred Scripture. I soon realized that the Catholicism of the Fathers — and even the Catholicism of the Catechism of the Catholic Church — is quite different from that of the local parish, at least in the majority of cases. This article examines some of these differences.
Outside the Church There Is No Salvation
During my many hours reading the Church Fathers before my conversion, I often came across the dogma that outside the Church (the Catholic Church) there is no salvation (see here for examples).
I remember the first Catholic parish I visited. After Mass, I asked the priest a number of questions. I was a Presbyterian at the time but intended to convert to Catholicism. I told him of my intention to convert, and he almost seemed to discourage me from converting. He told me, “You [as a Presbyterian] are in truth; I [as a Catholic] am in truth. We are all in the truth.” I was very discouraged by this conversation since he clearly either didn't know what the Church teaches or didn't believe it (see the Catechism 846). This was my first experience with the dichotomy of Catholicism in theory and in practice. Sadly, this is all too often the view an average person encounters when he goes to a local parish. In some cases, it drives them away from the Faith.
As I studied the Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist, I learned that every particle of the Eucharist is the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus (see the Council of Trent, Session 13, Canon 1). This was a very attractive doctrine to me, since it meant that as a Catholic, I would actually be able to receive the Lord who died for me. I was horrified when I attended local parishes that sloshed the Precious Blood or allowed people to walk away with the consecrated Host. To make matters worse, I saw priests and laity drop the Eucharist! This too made me realize there is often a great dichotomy between Catholicism in theory and Catholicism in practice.
During my study of the Faith, I learned that the Catholic Church teaches that artificial contraception is never permitted, as it is “intrinsically evil” (Catechism, 2370), and that this teaching goes back to the Early Church. Imagine my horror when I learned a local priest told a family member of mine that he could use artificial contraceptives, provided his conscience allowed him to do so. The priest forgot to mention that the conscience isn't autonomous but subject to the teaching of the Magisterium, of course. This is all too common on the local parish level, and it demonstrates the gap between Catholicism in theory and in practice.
I spent numerous hours studying the purpose of the liturgy through the writings of the Fathers and through magisterial documents. I learned, at least in theory, that the Mass on earth is to be a reflection of the Mass in Heaven. That's why it uses incense, candles, vestments, altars, relics, etc. In practice, though, many local parishes have liturgies that resemble a Protestant worship service, or even a rock concert, more than the liturgy in Heaven as it is described in the Book of Revelation.
These are just a few examples of the difference between Catholicism in theory and Catholicism in practice. Such a dichotomy has the potential to turn people away from the Church or make existing Catholics feel as if they have been sold a bill of goods. May God, by His grace, grant us local parishes that are authentically Catholic in nature and resemble in practice what Catholicism is in theory.