House Shopping

Football season is upon us! And football season for my family means … perusing the catalog from Notre Dame’s Hammes Bookstore! No actual books, of course, but lots and lots of merchandise—t-shirts, sweatshirts, jackets, hats, umbrellas. How about a pair of Notre Dame sandals?

Despite the internet and Amazon, actual physical catalogs keep showing up in our mailboxes—and it’s a good thing too. Even if we’re not going to purchase anything, it’s fun to flip through the pages, dog-earing the ones with desired items, and circling our favorites in case somebody is looking for Christmas gift ideas. There must be a payoff for the businesses because they keep printing the catalogs and we keep finding them in our mailboxes.

There’s another catalog of sorts that I keep on my shelf that I enjoy leafing through, but definitely not for shopping. It’s the Handbook of Denominations in the United States from Abingdon Press. I have the eighth edition published in 1985, but there have been five editions since then. Frank S. Mead put together the original Handbook back in 1951, and it has been revised and reissued every five years or so. Mead passed away in 1982 after the seventh edition came out; the revisions since then have been handled by Samuel S. Hill and, more recently, Craig D. Atwood.

When I was a restless Evangelical, I would consult my Handbook (probably that seventh edition by Mead himself) as I visited various churches and struggled to comprehend their beliefs and practices. An Episcopal liturgy one week (flip, flip, flip, find the page), then a Friends’ Meeting the next (flip, flip, flip). I had been raised Presbyterian and educated by Methodists, so Mead was especially important for me as I bounced back and forth between my Calvinist roots and the allure of Wesleyan-Arminianism.

In time I became a Catholic, but I still like to rummage around in Mead. I teach at an Evangelical college, and most of my colleagues and students are Protestant, so I rely on Mead to fill me in on their traditions. Plus, the Handbook is helpful at home—for my kids, for example, to know something about the Protestant Christianity practiced by various relatives and friends. And when a Mormon missionary or Jehovah’s Witness comes to the door? Mead is always at the ready for some quick prep.

It’s not perfect, of course, and certainly not exhaustive—Catholicism itself is summarized in a mere seven pages in my edition. But even accounting for its shortcomings, I like to keep my Handbook close by for reasons other than its value as a reference work. Namely this: It’s a reminder of the urgency that attended my search for an ecclesial home.

Like many Christians, I had a crisis of faith after I left home and went off to college. Fortunately, C.S. Lewis’ writings accompanied me there, and I took to heart his words from the introduction to Mere Christianity:

But it is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals. The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in.

I knew Christianity was true, and I loved Jesus as best I could, but I was lonely for something more—for companionship; for the fires, chairs, and meals Lewis referred to. So, I started hunting, and my quarry was the true church, the one Jesus talked about as needing to remain one. Mead’s Handbook was like a map, helping me sort out essential ecclesial landmarks and enabling me to scrutinize truth claims.

And that’s what it’s about, ultimately—truth. Lewis is helpful again here: “In plain language, the question should never be: ‘Do I like that kind of service?’ but ‘Are these doctrines true?'” Visiting the various churches was essential, but even more important was evaluating their doctrines, and Mead made that possible at a rudimentary level.

Ultimately, of course, it wasn’t my visiting and evaluating that led to my becoming a Catholic, but rather God’s extraordinary generosity and grace—for which I am profoundly grateful. It’s good to be home, and I can barely remember what it was like to be homeless. But I’m also keenly aware that others are still on the road or have found other homes, and we are all obliged to get along. After all, we’re kin—something affirmed by Vatican Council II, and reiterated by Pope John Paul II in his encyclical Ut Unum Sint:

Indeed, the elements of sanctification and truth [are] present in the other Christian Communities, in a degree which varies from one to the other. To the extent that these elements are found in [them], the one Church of Christ is effectively present in them.

With the Council and the Pope, I unquestionably believe that the one Church of Christ “subsists in the Catholic Church”—I wouldn’t be a Catholic otherwise. A logical corollary to this is the idea that all ecumenical efforts and dialogue have to be oriented to reunification and the restoration of full communion. Anything less wouldn’t be honest, nor would it be directed to the best interests of our separated brethren.

Still, real structural reunification of all the disparate Christian branches, not to mention sharing in full communion, is a long ways off. In the meantime, there’s much to be accomplished, and it starts with mutual understanding. As Lewis writes,

When you have reached your own room, be kind to those who have chosen different doors and to those who are still in the hall. If they are wrong they need your prayers all the more; and if they are your enemies, then you are under orders to pray for them. That is one of the rules common to the whole house.

Think of Mead’s Handbook as a guest list: All those different Christian groups have some kind of relationship with Jesus, and He wants them in on the Feast! So, let’s get to know them and their faith traditions. Ecumenical relations shouldn’t be left to the experts; we all have a role to play as we interact with neighbors, co-workers, and friends.

And in an age when Christians of all sorts are under attack throughout the world—both literally and figuratively—we would do well to include some flipping around in Mead’s catalog as a part of our spiritual reading, and then keeping it handy as we pray.

Editor’s note: The image above entitled “Interior of St. Peter’s” was painted by Giovanni  Paolo Panini in 1731.

Richard Becker


Richard Becker is a husband, father of seven, nursing instructor, and religious educator. He blogs regularly at God-Haunted Lunatic.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    “In plain language, the question should never be: ‘Do I like that kind of service?’ but ‘Are these doctrines true?’”

    That sounds plausible, but it leads to a vicious circle: “The true church is that which teaches the true faith” and “The true faith is what the true church teaches.”

    Now, it is perfectly possible to avoid the question-begging assumption of defining Christians by examining their tenets, or the Church by its teaching. As Mgr Ronald Knox pointed out, “if you ask a Catholic “What is the Catholic Faith? ” and are told it is that held by the Catholic Church; if you persevere, and ask what is the Catholic Church, you are no longer met with the irritatingly circular definition “the Church which holds the Catholic Faith “; you are told it is the Church which is in communion with the Bishop of Rome.”

    It really is a test, not a tautology, and one that is remarkably easy of application; just what one would expect of the criterion of a divine message, intended for all, regardless of learning, capacity or circumstances.

    • Rick Becker

      Thanks for your comment. What Msgr. Knox said is certainly true enough, but it only makes sense to somebody who is already Catholic.

      For those outside the Catholic fold, we have to back up a couple steps—say, to where the Nicene Creed starts: “I believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.” These four marks are the original test for finding the true Church, and they don’t explicitly mention Peter. Of course, we Catholics know that it’s the Petrine office which preserves and promotes unity (“one”-ness), but we need to help our separated brethren to make that connection.

      • Michael Paterson-Seymour

        Why start with the Creed of Nicea? Why suppose the truth lay with those who accepted the council, rather than those, perhaps, at one time a majority of the bishops, who opposed it? Is it simply that, eventually, the majority came round to that way of thinking?

        As Knox asks, “Why did those who anathematized Nestorius come to be regarded as “Catholics” rather than those who still accept his doctrines?” Some Protestant historians, who happily speak of “the Arian party” and “the Catholic party,” “the Nestorian party” and “the Catholic party,” as if the meaning of “Catholic” in this context was self-evident, are even naïf enough to comment on “the extraordinary precision with which, time after time, the Bishops of Rome managed to foresee which side the Church would eventually take in a controversy, and “plumped ” for it beforehand.”

        Is it not a fact of history that, time and again, it is the party that had the bishop of Rome in its camp that came to be regarded as the orthodox party, for that reason and no other?

  • Adam__Baum

    I fail to see why any faithful Catholic should care a wit about the fortunes of Notre Dame’s football program much less, support it with merchandise purchases. It seems to violate the injunction against material cooperation with evil.

  • GaudeteMan

    The real means to convert others (i.e. ‘bring them home’) is sanctity, which can be found in the Catholic Church alone. And so, to say that others have found ‘other homes’ is untrue. There is only one true home, the Catholic Church. The other places that people end up is not ‘home’ – especially if their Mother is not present! The danger of focusing on isolated texts such as the one mentioned above from Ut Unum Sint is that it can errantly lead to the false belief that the non-Catholic churches (for lack of a better word) are sufficient in and of themselves. “Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood..” is a maxim that can be realized in the Catholic Church alone, for example. Finally, I’m not sure Mead qualifies as spiritual reading. Catholics would be better served reading the likes of Francis de Sales or Theresa of Avila, et al, if they are looking for life-changing spiritual reading.

    • Augustus

      Becker did not say that we should be content with the fact that there are so many Protestant denominations. He said the exact opposite. We are obliged to help our Protestant brothers and sisters find the true church of Christ, which, obviously, is the Catholic Church. Becker recommends Mead as a reference guide to help readers understand the various truth claims of different churches. It’s difficult to engage them in Socratic dialogue if there is no common ground or understanding. The most successful apologists know Protestantism backwards and forwards. He did not say that Mead is spiritual reading. That’s ridiculous and unfair.

      • GaudeteMan

        Yes, but the most successful at bringing others to the Truth are holy, backwards and forwards. Conversion is an act of the will, not the intellect. Delving into the tangled errors of other religions should be done to a point but arming yourself with the eloquence of the Church Fathers is time better spent.

    • Michael Paterson-Seymour

      The Orthodox and Lesser Eastern Churches have both the priesthood and the Eucharist

    • Rick Becker

      You’re unquestionably right about the sanctity part, and I certainly wouldn’t advise someone reading Mead exclusively—Teresa and de Sales are much to be preferred for regular spiritual reading. Thanks for clarifying that.

      I think, though, having recourse to Mead can be very helpful in terms of the New Evangelization we keep talking about. As Augustus points out below, we need to really understand our separated brethren and even sympathize with them to a certain extent. In any case, we must respect those elements of truth that they already possess and even practice—often with an enviable zeal and exuberance. Lumen Gentium takes note of this: “Likewise we can say that in some real way they are joined with us in the Holy Spirit, for to them too He gives His gifts and graces whereby He is operative among them with His sanctifying power. Some indeed He has strengthened to the extent of the shedding of their blood” (#15).

      Being joined with us “in some real way” is clearly not the same as full communion, but it’s a good place to start.

      • GaudeteMan

        “False ideas may be refuted indeed by argument,” said Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman, “but by true ideas alone are they expelled.” Thanks for your kind reply.

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