Thanks to my recent trip to DC to attend the March for Life, I've gotten a crash course in Catholicism -- and I can't say it's all been very positive. Now I'll admit, I haven't had a ton of experience with Catholic services before. I know they're extremely liturgical, and place a lot of significance in symbols and tokens. A friend of mine knowingly informed me that during the march, I would encounter a lot of medieval Catholicism. He pegged it.
I was somewhat surprised to see at least two different portable shrines being carried in a style like the Ark of the Covenant.
As one of their denizens followed along with a megaphone, I picked up a few words to some of the endless (and dare I say somewhat mindless?) liturgies that he repeated ad nauseam during the march. He ended his "hail Mary" the exact same way each time..."blessed are you and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus." Except, he prolonged the last part of the word each time, pronouncing it "Jeezuuuus". Then from out of the crowd, dozens of marchers mumbled what was apparently the response. (Do you think it could be some sort of code...?) It seems that most of the March is, in fact, comprised of Catholics.
I found this interesting, considering that according to a study by the Barna Research group, half of Catholics are registered Democrat, and voted for Barack Obama in numbers greater than for McCain.
After the March, I had a free day to tour on Friday. (I recommend the Smithsonian Museum of American History, they've revamped their displays.) Saturday, I attended the Students for Life conference at the Catholic University in DC. Here's where it really gets Catholic...they have their own Notre Dame there. Several among my group broke away during the day to go see it and later on I supposed that, already exposed as the non-Catholic maverick that I was (and dang proud of it) I may as well go see it as well.
"Do we have time?" a bus mate asked, wanting to go see it as well. "We'll make time," I retorted. (Why are people always asking questions that no one can actually answer but them?)
So, a short walk from the Pryzbyla Center, we find the Basilica. (Cue Alan Menken's reverent but foreboding theme to "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" here.) Its proper title is the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception (de Gambolputty de von Ausfern- schplenden- schlitter- crasscrenbon- fried- digger- dingle- dangle- dongle- dungle- burstein- von- knacker- thrasher- apple- banger- horowitz- ticolensic- grander- knotty- spelltinkle- grandlich- grumblemeyer- spelterwasser- kurstlich- himbleeisen- bahnwagen- gutenabend- bitte- ein- nürnburger- bratwustle- gerspurten- mitz- weimache- luber- hundsfut- gumberaber- shönedanker- kalbsfleisch- mittler- aucher von Hautkopft of Ulm).
And yes, it is impressive. It is certainly an august monument, but I can't help wonder, to what? Christian churches may not be altogether different. They invest truckloads of cash (usually borrowed, or as they like to call it, "building in faith") in state-of-the-art sound systems, carpets, pews and stained glass windows. I don't know where the balance is, but it would seem apparent that the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception (de Gambolputty de von Ausfern- schplenden- schlitter- crasscrenbon- fried- digger- dingle- dangle- dongle- dungle- burstein- von- knacker- thrasher- apple- banger- horowitz- ticolensic- grander- knotty- spelltinkle- grandlich- grumblemeyer- spelterwasser- kurstlich- himbleeisen- bahnwagen- gutenabend- bitte- ein- nürnburger- bratwustle- gerspurten- mitz- weimache- luber- hundsfut- gumberaber- shönedanker- kalbsfleisch- mittler- aucher von Hautkopft of Ulm) crosses the line.
There were splendid and massive frescoes, paintings, displays, statutes and bas-relief carvings. There was a massive pipe organ towards the back. There were numerous vestibules off of the main chamber to give homage to the various and sundry saints and "Our Ladies" of the Catholic history. I nearly broke out into peals of laughter (I managed to channel it into muted chortling) because of the number of different saints and titles that were displayed, reminding me of the silly role-playing games with dozens of characters and +1 abilities.
There were automated cash machines accompanying stands of lit candles.
$4 bucks a pop, bucko. (And none of those automated lighters! You're on your honor!) I'm still not sure how it worked, and I wasn't about to stuff $4 into the machine to find out.
This poor fellow seemed to have been poorly-placed, as there were far fewer candles burning:
(Perhaps if the attending priests took a lesson in merchandising?)
It once again served to remind me that a lot of Catholicism is sadly mechanistic. (I heard one fellow explain that he went to Mass earlier that day, so he wouldn't "have" to go on Sunday...as if the time to worship God was just an obligation to be fulfilled.)
When we first entered, my compatriots (whom I'd instructed to alert me in case I started violating any unwritten rules of etiquette) dipped into the bowls of water near the doors and made the sign of the cross. ("Nyeehh...what's up, doc?") Later when on the bus, one of them flashed a small travel shampoo type bottle: "Holy water, anyone?" Now what do you say to that? "Uh, no thanks, I'm good!" What the heck is holy water, anyway? Water blessed by a priest? Why not just bless the whole globe and be done with it? Or are there spatial limits on a priest's +2 blessing-casting abilities? Can he bless a whole pallet of bottled water? That would make shipping a bit easier...
I couldn't help but be amused by this massive painting of Jesus on one of the ceilings. Apparently the Savior has taken to wearing orange Buddhist robes, signaling "touchdown" and learned to shoot flames out of his halo! (A nifty talent if I do say so myself.)
You may accuse me of being irreverent. Far from it. I am deeply devoted to the Lord Jesus Christ, my savior. But when one sees silly drawings of him, I find no evidence that laughing at them displeases him, especially when I know the true savior. ("And you, sir, are no savior...")
I also couldn't help but think that this massive edifice was a waste. How many starving families could have been fed with the money used to build that place? I mentioned a balance earlier, and it's true that there is one. Sure, you can't refuse to build a house of worship simply because people elsewhere are less fortunate. Christ told us we would always have the poor with us. But again, it occurs to me that wherever the balance is, it doesn't take a fine line to see that this building crossed it.
Having taken my till of photos, and still biting back some laughter, I plunged out the double doors, inadvertently causing a loud bang which was not without some contempt. How fitting.
Catholicism has a lot in common with Christianity, and I don't mean to imply that if one shares the Catholic faith, then one does not have the gospel. Nevertheless, from the Catholics I have talked to, there are serious and sometimes irreconcilable differences.
I looked for, and found, A Biblical Refutation of Roman Catholicism, which touches on many more of the finer criticisms of the denomination than my time or skill allow, but a few thoughts did occur to me here.
First, it bothered me that some of the Catholic prayers and pleas I heard requested for the intercession of sainted figures in the church, such as the "blessed Mother Mary" or Our Lady of Guadalupe or others. This is in direct ignorance, if not violation, of 1 Timothy 2:5, "For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus." Furthermore, the practice of calling a Catholic priest "father" is in violation of Matthew 23:9, "And do not call anyone on earth 'father,' for you have one Father, and he is in heaven."
I also notice, both through anecdotal and statistical evidence, that Catholics seem far looser with their morals. While there, I observed actions such as swearing and drinking, things not befitting the kingdom of God. According to Barna Research:
Among the 16 moral behaviors examined, Catholics were notably more likely to not say mean things about people behind their back, and were more likely to engage in recycling. However, they were also twice as likely to view pornographic content on the Internet and were more likely to use profanity, to gamble, and to buy lottery tickets.
But after all, why not? If you can just go to confessional the next day, what harm is there in sinning? (Even if Paul makes it clear in Romans that we must never continue to sin in order that God's grace may increase on us.)
There are also conflicting views on authority, tradition, Papal infallibility (Pope Benedict once allowed that persons not believing in Christ may be destined for heaven, which one Catholic explained away as saying he was speaking outside of the church itself, and his word wasn't infallible then) and other matters which, as I said, pose irreconcilable differences. It was a nice group of people to travel with, and the experience in DC was great fun, but I do worry about those who think they are saved but aren't.