Yesterday, I was able to speak with my Baptist father-in-law about the Catholic Church. During the conversation, he used an analogy to explain how we might conceive of the difference between the Catholic Church and the Baptist denomination and why we shouldn't try to argue that one is better than the other. The analogy was that trying to evangelize is something akin to trying to sell cars. One car salesman tries to convince you that Cadillacs are better while on the other side of the street, another salesman tries to convince you that Chevy's are better. They can argue positively, saying what good features their own cars have, or they can argue negatively, pointing out the flaws in the features of the other brand's vehicle. Also (and this is the quality my father-in-law seemed more focused on), they can argue subjectively by appealing not to the objective features of the car itself but by showing how this car is perfect for your personality type and suits your subjective preferences better than the alternative. (In this conversation, my father-in-law was using the analogy to express dislike of the negative type of apologetics, but did so based on the subjective mode of personal preference. While I agree that positive apologetics are greatly superior to negative ones, I disagree that choosing a church should be based on personal preference. This decision needs to be placed entirely under the authority of Christ, such that we would be willing to attend a church even if it does not suit our personal preferences. Further, our personal preferences are so often conditioned by our experiences, so in most cases, changing churches for the right reason will not suit our personal preferences. I would also state that framing any discussion with a non-Catholic in terms of "our church is better" is never productive.)
This analogy, while used to make a rather straight-forward point, actually reveals a deeply rooted vision or mental structure that deserves some discussion. What I would like to do here is respond to my father-in-law's analogy and then offer a revised version of this analogy that gets a bit closer to the reality of the situation involving Catholics and Baptists.
First, to compare Cadillacs and Chevy's is to make an assumption that there exists at least two churches. Cadillacs and Chevy's, according to the way the analogy is being used, are different in kind. They share similarities, but the strength and purpose of the analogy is based on assuming their difference. Cadillacs are one type of car. Chevy's are another. Cadillacs are "better" for someone who prefers driving a Cadillac. Chevy's are "better" for someone who prefers driving Chevy's. This analogy basically assumes that the evaluation of differences between different religious bodies rests entirely on subjective preference. Thus, to try to "sell" a car as being "better" means persuading a person to change their tastes in cars, not so much to convince them that there exists something objectively better about the car itself. Also, since the decision is based on personal preference, the "my Chevy is better" mode of argumentation seems to imply that the person who chose the "better" car is somehow a "better" person. Thus, thinking in terms of something being "better" tends not only to put both parties on the defensive, but the entire argument can backfire. After all, there are some non-Catholics who are actually "better" than some Catholics at living for Jesus and following his Word.
Still, the car analogy is a good one, and I think it can be revised to more accurately communicate the reality of the Catholic Church and its relationship to non-Catholic denominations.
First, we must begin by reminding ourselves that there exists only ONE CHURCH. Thus, there are not really two (or more) different types of cars in existence. There is only one type of car: a Cadillac. The Cadillac that Jesus designed and built is designed to help its passengers drive safely and directly home to heaven. This Cadillac comes installed with maps, a GPS, a map expert to interpret the maps (the expert actually works for the same company that wrote the maps!), a cooler stocked with plenty of food and drinks to last the entire journey, a fuel tank full of the most high-powered gasoline that money can buy, window shades and armored protection to protect the riders from harmful attacks and roadblocks along the way, and an on-board mechanic/doctor who can fix any and all injuries to the car and/or riders along the way. The car is stocked with and abundance of treasures and accessories that Jesus knew the riders would need to face every possible obstacle on their way to heaven. Leaving nothing to chance, Jesus lined the roadway to heaven with people who had successfully made the journey before. These people constantly hold up their arms, pointing you in the right direction: toward the finish line, the goal, who is Jesus Christ himself. This car that Jesus designed is a powerful indicator of his Love for us. He wants us to come home to Him so badly that he put every possible feature into it that he could. Further, he knows us (and the route) better than we know ourselves, so he put some features in that we don't even know that we need. The car that Jesus built is perfect in every respect.
The problem with the car, of course, is that the inhabitants are not perfect. At times, they abuse the features. Some of the passengers frankly do not want to drive in the direction the car is traveling. Though the car itself never swerves off track, some members of the car occasionally doubt that the car is heading in the right direction. Other riders get so fed up with riding with the more unruly passengers that they decide to build their own Cadillac to get to heaven.
These passengers decide that they do not need the food and drink, the mechanic, the GPS, the people along the roadway who have gone before, or the high-powered fuel. They rely completely on the maps, though they decide that they could do without the interpreters, especially given how one or two of these interpreters had been know to spend more time enjoying the plush leather upholstery than interpreting the maps. As they rely on the maps, they ask for Jesus to give them a sense of how to interpret the maps, though the people in the car immediately begin disagreeing on what sense Jesus is giving them. So, very quickly, the second Cadillac pulls over, some of the members get out, and they make yet another Cadillac, not the same as the original one built by Jesus, but still sharing some of its features. This same process repeats until you have 30,000 man-made Cadillacs going every which way, since the drivers think they have the right interpretation of the maps. Every driver of every Cadillac thinks they have the right directions to get to heaven, though they don't realize that they are heading in the wrong direction and don't have the supplies they need to make the journey. Along the way, some drivers even re-write the maps, tossing out particular sections, just so the route they are taking can be shown to be the right one.
Granted, some Cadillacs will make it to heaven, but only those who retained enough of the features of the original Cadillac built by Jesus. Only those Cadillacs that stick close to Jesus's Cadillac make it home to Jesus. Those that veer far away from Jesus's Cadillac have less of a chance of ever finding their way home.
The fact of the matter is, those Cadillacs that retain some of the items in Jesus's Cadillac have much good in them to offer. Every single feature in Jesus's Cadillac makes it extraordinarily easier to make it home to heaven. The maps, in and of themselves, are the same no matter which car is using them. The difference between Jesus's Cadillac and the others is not one that we might necessarily call "better," since the good features in the other Cadillacs are shared with, and even taken from, Jesus's Cadillac. However, Jesus's Cadillac has the FULLNESS of everything Jesus intended to give the passengers to get to heaven. The comparison is not one of better vs. worse, but rather fullness/complete vs. incomplete. Further, all the good and helpful features found in the other cars are good precisely because they were taken from the Cadillac that Jesus himself built; these features, in their intrinsic goodness, point as it were, to the source of that goodness: the original Cadillac.
We are at a time in history where the drivers of the original Cadillac have found a successful way to let the other drivers know about the fullness their car possesses. As a result, passengers, and even many drivers, from the man-made Cadillacs have decided to return to the original Cadillac, which remains heading in a straight line for Jesus. When they return, they exclaim with great joy how wonderful it is to have all the food for the journey, all the people standing along the road pointing the way, and an interpreter sent by Jesus himself to understand the maps.
Of course, as time went by, many people occupying the man-made Cadillacs forgot the original reason for the split, although some of the prejudice toward the original Cadillac remained. ("I don't really know much about this Cadillac that claims to be fully stocked, and I've heard some downright confusing and scary things about the car, so it is probably better just to stay in my Cadillac, which I've grown used to over the years.") In fact, some of the people in these cars desire to get Jesus and heaven even more than some of the riders in Jesus's Cadillac. With a fraction of the supplies and amenities Jesus put in his Cadillac, these other riders make it to heaven while the riders of the original Cadillac do not. On the other hand, there are also riders in the man-made Cadillacs that really do not want to go to heaven and would rather make up a heaven of their own and drive toward that. Sadly, because there exists only one real heaven, these cars never make it to the right destination. Of course, it is equally disconcerting when riders of Jesus's Cadillac never realize what all the goods were for and, treating them with neglect and disdain, eventually just fall out of the car to wander off.
Still, if a person entered the scene and saw the man-made Cadillacs going in 100 different directions and Jesus's fully-stocked Cadillac heading straight for heaven, which one would you suggest they choose?