“Dear Sister, I have been to different churches, such as Methodist, non-denominational, etc. I really liked their services, but I was brought up Catholic. Can I go to these services instead of Mass and still call myself Catholic? Is it possible to be both?”

You may have seen a poster or a web page with the title “Who Started Your Church?” or “How Old is Your Church?” It is often formatted as a timeline which presents both the founders and founding dates of the various Christian denominations. The point of course is that the Catholic Church makes a completely unique claim for itself. The Catholic Church claims to have been directly and deliberately founded by Jesus Christ Himself, having been given His own spiritual authority on earth, and retaining and using that authority right up to the present day.

That authority operates at many levels and in various forms, but it is most clearly and richly exercised by the Bishop of Rome and the Bishops in union with him. Among all Christian bodies that is a totally unique claim, and even from a strictly historical point of view, the evidence is quite overwhelming. This is why the famous convert, Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman famously said, “To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant.”

It is not only the Church as an institution that is divinely instituted, but also her sacraments – the prime example being the Mass – the celebration of the Eucharist. Now of course, I don’t know exactly what you mean by saying you were “brought up Catholic”. It is sad to say, but, I do realize you may never have heard anything like this before! As new or even shocking as these ideas may be to you, I think you can see that if the sacraments of the Catholic Church really are of divine origin, there can never be any question of ‘going to services you really like instead of Mass’. Equally, it would be totally contradictory to ‘be Catholic’ by accepting the claims of the Catholic Church and ‘be Protestant’ (or any kind of non-Catholic) by rejecting (‘protesting’) those same claims. “Is it possible to be both?” Clearly not.

But now, let me give you another surprise! This courtesy of the website, Catholics United for the Faith:

Question: May a Catholic attend a service at a Protestant church? How may a Catholic participate?

Response: A Catholic may attend and participate in common prayer at services in Protestant churches. Catholics are encouraged to pray and sing, and they may read or preach, but a Catholic may not receive “communion” if this is part of the service.

Participation in common prayer without taking part in a communion rite is an act of true ecumenism—promoting unity without denying the truths of the one true faith — and should not likely be a cause of scandal. The Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, in its 1993 Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism, encourages such participation…

In liturgical celebrations taking place in other churches and ecclesial communities, Catholics are encouraged to take part in the psalms, responses, hymns and common actions of the church in which they are guests. If invited by their hosts, they may read a lesson or preach (no. 118).

However, the Catholic must not think of the worship service as an addition or substitution for Mass. It is important that the Catholic does not give the impression that there is no real separation between Catholics and Protestants. Protestant services must not be attended in order for the Catholic to experience “feelings” of fellowship or closeness to God.

There is more information on this highly commendable website, and the document cited is available on the Vatican website. This document was meant to guide ecumenical efforts by Catholics – but that presupposes that the Catholics being addressed are spiritually and intellectually well formed in the Faith. Unfortunately, huge numbers of adult Catholics at the present time have received little or no catechesis (no matter how many hours of classes they may have attended). Because of this sheer ignorance they are intellectually and spiritually ill-prepared to participate in non-Catholic worship or study. So often these unprepared Catholics completely lose their theological balance and endanger their already fragile ties with the one true Church.

There is also the issue of giving scandal to others. If your degree or form of participation in these services could reasonably give others the impression that you had abandoned Catholicism – or that you considered the Catholic Church something less than divinely instituted and authorized, then you would be committing the sin of causing scandal. The issue is not a petty case of “Us vs. Them”. The Church’s permission to participate in non-Catholic services is given with the good of souls in mind – and her cautions against certain types of participation – or any participation for the less than well prepared – is also given with the good of souls in mind.

What I really, really hope you will do is study a lot and pray a lot. Your question is shared by so very many Catholics at the present time. That is because so many at present honestly do not know enough about Catholic teaching to have informed convictions about what it means to call oneself Catholic.