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How My Baptist Upbringing Influenced My Conversion (Part II)

This post is the second of a series of posts with my father, Dr. Terry Ellis, reflecting on the influence of my upbringing as a Baptist minister’s daughter on my conversion to Catholicism as an adult. In the first post, we looked at my dad’s response to my conversion, anti-Catholic/anti-Protestant sentiments, and the debt all Christians owe the Catholic Church. If you missed Part I, you can find it here. This week, we consider some of the differences in sacramental theology between Catholics and Baptists.


Lauren: When I first started discerning whether to become Catholic, I spent a great deal of time studying, praying, and talking to others. I bombarded you, Dad, with texts and phone calls throughout the day for months asking for clarification of various points of doctrine from a Baptist perspective. To get the Catholic viewpoint, I gave the Catholic Answers website a solid workout and had more than a few phone calls and emails with Anne Trufant, the mother of one of my best friends and an incredibly faith-filled, joyful Catholic woman who helped found Mission on the Mountain.


One thing that struck me again and again was rather than feeling like I was rejecting the faith of my childhood, I felt instead as if a great veil had been lifted. Long-familiar scripture passages burst open with new meaning, deep theological questions suddenly made more sense to me, and through the communion of the saints, and especially the spiritual motherhood of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Real Presence in the Eucharist, I began to experience a level of Divine Intimacy that I had never dreamed possible. It all seemed so new and exhilarating, but at the same time incredibly familiar.


That said, Catholics and Baptists have a vastly different understanding of the effect of certain liturgical actions. For Catholics, the seven sacraments (Baptism, Confirmation, the Eucharist, Reconciliation, Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders, and Matrimony), “not only recall[] the events that saved us but actualize[] them, mak[ing] them present” (CCC 1104, emphasis added). Rather than functioning merely as symbols, in the Catholic Church the sacraments truly confer grace upon the recipient (the amount of grace received being subjectively determined by the recipient’s disposition).


Even so, accepting this Catholic understanding of the sacraments felt more akin to a fulfillment of what I had always sensed rather than a denunciation of my Baptist upbringing. With that in mind, could you reflect on the Baptist understanding of certain liturgical actions, specifically Baptism and the Lord’s Supper?


Terry: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are referred to in the Baptist church as ordinances, or actions we engage in in obedience to the commands (ordinances) of Christ. They are symbols of important and vital theological realities but are not regarded as necessary for salvation. They are not sacraments as in Catholic theology.


However, you often heard me refer to these two ordinances as well as coming to weekly worship and other spiritual practices as having “a sacramental quality.” I meant that God uses certain rituals, rites, and rhythms to help us be aware of His grace. These practices are windows through which we see the remarkable ways God is acting in our lives to bring us to maturity in Christ and impart His blessings to us.


The Catholic Church has a much sturdier understanding of God’s dispensation of grace through the sacraments. I’m reminded of Flannery O’Connor’s take on the Eucharist, “If it’s just a symbol, then the hell with it.” She was a good Catholic, and this certainly underscores one of the clear differences between being Catholic and being Baptist, and it’s an interesting and fascinating difference.


I can’t recall precisely but I probably had occasion to tell you about the Eucharist in the Catholic Church. When a Catholic enters the sanctuary, they may dab a bit of holy water, cross themselves as they move down the aisle, genuflect before they enter the pews, and then kneel in prayer. Why? Because to Catholics, that’s Jesus up there in the tabernacle in a real, physical way. Baptist of course believe in the presence of Christ spiritually and in a special way in worship, but in my observation the difference here creates a different “tone” in the worshiper. As a Baptist minister I confess to a bit of envy in this regard. Baptists enter the sanctuary to talk about the latest football game until we shush them to start the service. It’s a distinct liturgical advantage to believe that you are in the presence of the real, transubstantiated presence of Christ.


However, you did grow up with a sacramental theology that I’m sure made your transition to the Catholic understanding of the sacraments easier.


Lauren: As an aside, Catholics believe that baptism in the Trinitarian form outside the Catholic Church still constitutes a sacrament and puts all those who receive Christian baptism into partial communion with the Catholic Church. This is why previously baptized Baptists, Methodists, Episcopalians, etc. who desire to come into full communion with the Catholic Church are not required to be baptized again. The Catechism refers to baptism as the “sacramental bond of unity” among Christians, so I think that is something important for Christians of all faith backgrounds to remember as we strive for a spirit of ecumenism.


Turning back to the greater discussion of sacramental theology, the way you describe the Baptist understanding of the ordinances of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper remind me a bit of the Catholic definition of a sacramental. Sacramentals are not sacraments, but instead are things that signify or represent the effects of a spiritual nature. They include things like blessed objects, holy water, medals or scapulars, etc. Per the Catechism, “[s]acramentals do not confer the grace of the Holy Spirit in the way that the sacraments do, but by the Church's prayer, they prepare us to receive grace and dispose us to cooperate with it.” Perhaps growing up with a sacramental understanding of things like baptism, communion, etc. is why it was an easier jump for me when converting to Catholicism to think of them instead as sacraments.


Switching gears, you spoke above about a sense of envy, perhaps a frustration, at the way the Baptist ordinances, as symbols, do not necessarily command the same level of respect when a Baptist enters the sanctuary as, say, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist does for a Catholic entering the presence of the tabernacle.


Do you think there’s an opportunity for Baptists to reflect more deeply on how their ordinances function similarly to sacramentals by preparing them to receive actual and sanctifying grace from God? If so, do you think this might engender a greater sense of reverence when entering a Baptist sanctuary where those same sacramental actions are performed, and would such a change of mindset in the way Baptists enter the sanctuary be helpful in better preparing one for worship?


Terry: You’ve taught me about sacramentals, and I confess I’d never heard of that before. I think it’s wonderful and coincides precisely with what I taught and preached about Baptist liturgical life. I think this is a very important shared understanding between Catholics and Baptists.


To your question of whether this could help Baptists have a more reverent attitude upon entering the sanctuary I think the answer is clearly yes. This may be ranging a bit far afield, but trying to awaken that sense of reverence is one reason I much prefer the term “sanctuary” to the contemporary trend of referring to it as a “worship center.” Sanctuary means a holy place, and when we enter a holy place we should do so reverently for in a special way we are in the presence of God.


One final, final point here. You often heard me say that when we think of God we consider that He is both transcendent and personal. Transcendence means that He is completely “other” than us. Personal, however, means that He is deeply “knowable” and that we can relate to Him in love and friendship. Fairly or not, Catholicism is often perceived as being stronger on the former than the latter. Baptists, I maintain, are stronger on the latter. Our risk is an over-familiarity where we risk to lounging on the altar.

This post is part of a series of posts entitled "How my Baptist Upbringing Influenced my Conversion." To make sure you don’t miss Part III, hit the subscribe button, below!

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