When Catholics used to abstain from eating meat every Friday, often eating fish instead, they earned a nickname: "mackerel snappers."
That practice has gone away – except during Lent, the season before Easter – and so has the nickname.
But that nickname is now the title of a new book that seeks to explain often misunderstood teachings of Catholicism.
The man behind the book is Spencer Allen, an apologist, husband, father of four and the principal of St. Joseph Cathedral School in Jefferson City.
Allen hasn't always been Catholic. By the end of high school, he'd decided he was no longer a Christian, and for part of his life, he identified as atheist or agnostic. But he eventually returned to Christianity and has since been part of several debates about Catholicism. Along with formal debates, he's answered questions of friends and colleagues, and as the principal of a Catholic school, he's written articles for parents.
In 2012, he had an idea: "I have so much of this compiled that I should really put some work into putting it in chapter formats."
And thus, a book was born – he wanted something he could pass on as a resource, mostly for his own family, and for a local audience. He hopes it's something parents can use; they are vital in the faith formation of children.
Catholic schools are a great place to learn the faith, he said, but that can't be the only place. And while some parents do make it a point to bring faith into the home, he said others, through recent generations, have left it up to the schools, so they can focus on other things.
"Parents have forgotten their role as the first and best educators of these children – the first heralds of Christ in their lives," he said.
This book, he hopes, can be a tool for them. It can also help answer questions for adults who were themselves never taught more than the basics. And it's not just for Catholics, he said.
"The best way to get that unity for which Christ prayed in John 17 is to understand one another better," he said. "We see that at the core, we all have the desire to be disciples of Christ, and to be in eternity with him forever because of his gift on the cross. We all have that at the heart of our faith, and that's the message we need to take from this book and others like it."
As a lay person writing this book, he took great care in making sure he accurately presented the teachings.
"I'm constantly consulting scripture," he said. "I'm constantly consulting other references, such as the catechism, to make sure I'm in line."
Beyond that, during the writing process, he asked others for feedback to make sure the language was precise. The final step was getting an imprimatur (Latin for "let it be printed), an approval issued by the bishop that says the book is free from doctrinal error.
The book tackles three main subjects: The existence of God, the question of authority and then Catholic doctrine.
Allen said the three biggest questions or misunderstandings about Catholicism have to do with authority, justification and family – the family of saints, that is.
- Authority: Ask a Protestant Christian about "authority," and they'll likely say the Word of God alone: "the Bible alone, guided by the Holy Spirit," Allen said. Catholics agree that Scripture is the guide, but they also consider the Word of God in a broader sense. "We understand it to be of course the Scriptures, but also those oral teachings of Christ and the apostles, that were then passed on under the guidance of the holy spirit for 2,000 years," Allen said.
- Justification: "This is sometimes a bigger issue, depending on the denomination, Allen said, and it also leads to peripheral questions: "whether infants can be baptized, whether baptism is in fact necessary, or just symbolic."
- Family (saints): "Mary, and those other Christians who have passed before us, are still part of our family, and there's a way we incorporate them in our worship life," Allen said. "We don't ask them to be responsible for our salvation, but we would still ask them to pray with us, just like I might ask my sister to pray with me or pray for me."
- Getting personal
Along with all the doctrinal explanations, Allen's book gets personal – he wanted to make sure there was a deeply personal element.
For example, he writes about how he and his wife used artificial contraception for the first few years of their marriage, then later stopped, after working through the church teaching. (A Baptist friend of his, he said, had also stopped using artificial birth control after thinking more about it.) Most people, Allen said, don't talk about things like that, but he thought it was important.
"Our faith journey is not just about the books that we might read, the lectures we might listen to," he said. "It is an experience with a real person, Jesus Christ who was God, who related to us as real people."
To find the book
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