One of the things that struck me most about the Catholic Church (vice Protestant denominations) is the attitude toward the Church. Which kinda makes sense; most of the differences between the Catholic Church and Protestantism on things like authority, the sacraments, even morality and salvation, are based on how one defines what the Church is.
For Protestants, Christ’s Church is just a way of referring to individual Christians in the collective sense: the Church is all Christians, throughout history, whether they knew each other or agreed with each other or not; the primary relationship was between each individual and God, and if you are properly linked to God, then you are part of the Church. Hypothetically, a lone man on a desert island could find a Bible, read it, and have a fully sufficient means to be a Christian.
Thomas Howard gives a wonderful image of the difference between Catholicism and Protestantism in his book On Being Catholic:
In the first years of the apostolic and patristic Church, if I had been a pagan shopkeeper in Smyrna, say, and had been watching you, my Christian neighbor, for some time and had concluded that you Christians had something that I wanted, I might have approached you with, “Um — I’d like to be a Christian.”
If you had been an Evangelical of the school that has arisen in the modern world under the preaching of John Wesley, George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, D.L. Moody, and Billy Graham, you might well have said, “Praise the Lord! Here — here’s John 3:16. See that? Do you believe that? Wonderful. Let’s just bow our heads here, and you can repeat after me: “Lord Jesus, I believe that you are the Savior — my Savior — and I want to accept you into my life right here and to confess you as Lord. Forgive my sins, I pray, and make me your own.”
But of course you weren’t a modern Evangelical. You were a Christian in Smyrna. So you would have said in response to my overture, “What? You want to be a Christian? Ah. Well, now — it’s an immense business, really. You’ll have to turn around and head 180 degrees in the opposite direction. But if you’re serious — and you can mull it over for a while if you wish — I’ll take you to Polycarp, our bishop here, and he will no doubt talk to you and then turn you over to some of the elders in our Christian assembly, and they will take you in hand and instruct you and bring you to our weekly liturgy (you’ll have to leave half-way through, though: they won’t let you stay for the Lord’s Supper); and if, over a period of months, everyone, and most especially Polycarp, is satisfied that you are wholehearted in your desire to be a Christian, and that you understand all that it will entail, then Polycarp will baptize you at the liturgy, and you will then be a Christian.”
This is the fundamental difference, and it is a big difference: Catholicism believes that salvation occurs in the context of the Church, an active, visible Body of Christ on earth. Protestantism sees salvation as an interior, private occurrence, regardless of the rest of the Body of Christ. Catholics understand that to become a Christian is to become a part of Christ’s body — not just grafted, individually, onto His severed Head.
Protestants laud the Gospel as something simple: something that someone with no prior knowledge or information can sufficiently grasp and assent to after hearing a mere few verses, plucked from context. (Any Protestant who has been pressured to witness to others has had the drill pounded into him innumerable times.) And that’s not to say that in extreme circumstances, salvation can’t occur like that; sometimes people in grave peril can do nothing but “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved.” (Acts 16:31)
But, in general, is that how it is supposed to be? The same Protestants who have heard how important it is to expose everyone they meet to the Roman Road all know what the fruits of those encounters often are: people who hear a fire-and-brimstone sermon, get scared, run down the aisle, pray the sinner’s prayer, then never advance in the Christian life because they were told that they just had to “believe” one thing one time and they would be set for eternity. If this was the case, then why did Jesus spend three years teaching? Why did He tell the disciples to teach? Why did the New Testament writers spend any time at all teaching about the Christian life, and how we were supposed to live as Christians? If there is nothing to being a Christian than “believing,” then there is no need for a Church, no need for believers to identify as such on earth, no real reason to do anything ever.
Catholics believe that to become a Christian is a very significant thing, entailing many responsibilities and a lot of stuff to know. Before someone enters the Church, there must be an assurance that they understand what they are doing, and won’t quickly find some objection and fall away. It’s no use getting someone “saved” if they don’t continue in the Christian life.
Jimmy Akin makes several good points on this episode of Catholic Answers; he contrasts the relative ease with which people can join Protestant denominations versus the Catholic Church (which can take up to a couple of years to join, depending on the parish and the individual person). He says the Catholic Church doesn’t like to rush people into membership, because “they don’t understand fully what they’re committing to, and they’re less likely to stick with it.”
It makes sense to me that something as important as being a Christian ought to take a while to accomplish. (Even when one joins the military, one goes through at least 8 weeks of 24/7, immersive training just to get started.) If people aren’t properly informed, they tend to 1) leave once the initial thrill wears off, 2) become easily swayed by incorrect doctrine and teaching, or 3) suffer needlessly through misunderstandings and ignorance of what they are and what they are expected to do. According to Protestants, everything one needs to know can be easily found by reading the Bible, but the Catholic Church understands that people in authority are needed to translate and explain and teach the truths about the faith, and that takes time. Sufficient training is essential for someone who wants to become a Christian, and that is where the Church comes in.
If Jesus intended every Christian to figure everything out for himself and go it alone, then there would be no need for a Church; it would just be each individual and Jesus going along. But that doesn’t seem to be the way that He wanted it.