“Actually,” I responded helpfully, “the Catholic Church doesn’t teach that.”
“Oh, yes it does,” he insisted. “The Church teaches that when you die you become an angel.”
“No, really,” I replied, “Trust me on this. I know that the Church doesn’t teach that when you die you become an angel.”
“Look,” he said become mildly annoyed at the uninformed Protestant minister at his side, “I’ve been a Catholic all my life and I know the Church teaches that when you die you become an angel.”
Soooo… how ’bout them Red Sox?
Bugs Bunny cartoons and New Yorker cartoons teach that when you die you become an angel. Country songwriter Hoyt Axton teaches that you need to be good lest, when you die, you become an angel with, “a rusty old halo, skinny white cloud, second-hand wings full of patches.” And the 1967 movie “Casino Royal” with Peter Sellers and David Niven teaches that when you die you become an angel—unless you’re very, very bad.
But no matter how long you’ve been a Catholic, the Catholic Church has not, does not, and never will teach that when you die you become an angel.
I often wonder what other exotic doctrines were growing in this gentleman’s garden of misinformation. But I’m certain that finding someone like him is an ideal way of exploring the Catholic Church—or something vaguely like the Catholic Church—in complete safety. Since poorly catechized Catholics are a dime a dozen, you won’t have far to look. Some are still in the Church, some are as far from the Church as they can get, and some are next to you in the pew, having found in evangelicalism what they don’t realize has been in Catholicism since the beginning.
If you have a choice, go with the now-evangelical ex-Catholic particularly the variety who will tell you, “I used to be a Catholic, but now I’m a Christian.” Their misunderstandings of Catholic doctrine will probably be mixed with a severe distaste and the desire to prove the Church wrong and their current theological ideas correct.
Odd as it may seem, another good source for second-hand misinformation is older priests. Pick one who still appears to have hung on to his hippy tendencies and who you estimate went to seminary in the 1970s. If you prefer, you can substitute habit-free nuns of the same vintage. That’s the era Catholic scholar George Weigel refers to as the “post-Vatican II silly season.” Priests and nuns who imbibed the silly sauce never quite recovered.
Father Starchild or Sister Sunbeam will feel very comfortable making light of the Church’s authority to define any doctrine whatsoever. They happily disagree with many, that is, assuming they remember the correct doctrine at all. If you’re a conservative evangelical, these two will be your worst nightmare holding, as they do, to all the trendy ideas that liberal Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and Methodists love beginning with sexual “freedom” and do-it-yourself dogma.
When choosing a priest or nun, be careful not to get involved with a young “John Paul II” priest or a young nun in full habit. Too many of them are scary smart, extremely well educated, meticulously orthodox, and better preachers than you’ve heard in years. They’ll cause you trouble so stick with Father Starchild or Sister Sunbeam. Their ideas are outdated, their ilk is literally dying out, but they’re safe.
As Father Starchild or Sister Sunbeam will tell you, you’ll also want to avoid the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Commissioned by Pope John Paul II and written under the watchful eye of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (a.k.a. Pope Benedict XVI), the Catechism is the first-hand primary source of information on what Catholics believe. Avoid it.
First of all, it’s very long, detailed, and replete with Bible references and quotations from the Church Fathers (see Rule #3). Second, if evangelicals Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom in their book Is the Reformation Over are correct, you will find yourself agreeing with at least two-thirds right off the bat. Then whatever you don’t agree with, you will find yourself understanding and pondering. “Hmm,” you’ll say to yourself, “Perhaps I should study and think a bit more about the place of the Virgin Mary in the economy of salvation.” And what will come of that?