I confess to being more than a bit confused by the mix of Catholic teaching I find online. Like Carrie, I am constantly being told that the Catholic Church is exactly the same Church that was given to the apostles, that its doctrines have not changed, nor will they in the future. There is this real push to show an outward and inward unity and even unanimity of doctrine and practice which is designed to give evidence that the Catholic Church is the "one true Church." It's a real "selling point" that Catholics don't have thousands of confused denominations. "Put forty Protestants in a room and you'll get forty interpretations. They can't agree on anything." This is the mantra I hear every day, and it's mighty tiresome for any Protestant who longs to have a fruitful and productive discussion with Catholics.
However, I often find what appear to be contradictory doctrinal statements from online Catholics. For example, I have never received a good explanation for the contradictions I see in Trent's condemnation of the Reformers and the more recent "separated brethren" language. Perhaps Catholics think that Protestants should be happy about being called "separated brethren" now as opposed to "cursed," but the truth is, we just scratch our heads and wonder what in the world is going on. The same is true for teachings I've read on purgatory. It's confusing, at least to me, and I don't know where to turn to get "the real skinny." Everybody has an angle, it seems.
I am encouraged by reading the comments of Pontificator and Mateo. I thank God that, from what I can tell, at least these two appear to have the integrity to not repeat bogus mantras such as the "30,000 Protestant denominations" argument. It makes me think, "now here are a couple of folks who are interested in having a reasonable discussion without all the rancour." And I truly appreciate the significant and thoughtful comments I have found here from these Catholic friends.
Some Catholics are not afraid to say that they may view things somewhat differently at certain points than official teachings would dictate. Nor do they see this, I suppose, as disqualifying themselves from their faith, nor compromising the "one Church, semper eadem" mandate. However, my impression is that Catholics think we Protestants should somehow know intuitively just who the best Catholic writers are and who we should stay away from both online and in books. Now I am not an academic (obviously). But I am a reader. How am I, as a Protestant, to know who is "good" to read and who is not? Frankly, it shouldn't be up to me to decide. I cannot know intuitively who is "good" and who is not, nor do I have the time to research it fully and decide for myself. So I rely on others to make their cases for the best source materials. Obviously, I get differing opinions from different groups. The traditionalists want me to read Gerry Matatics because he represents "true Catholicism." The e-pologists want me to read Steve Ray and Scott Hahn because Matatics is a heretic. I am not in a position to know whose advice to take, who is right. Each group claims the other is "not part of the true Catholic faith."
I submit that there is enough confusion out there amongst the Catholic rank and file that Catholics should cut Protestants a little slack regarding the official teachings of the Catholic Church, and not just assume that Protestants only want to mischaracterise Catholic teaching. I think I can speak confidently for myself and for most of the other Protestants here that the last thing we want is to misrepresent Catholic doctrine in our dialogue. If I can get just one Catholic to understand that many Protestants have a legitimate complaint regarding our confusion about Catholic doctrine, then I think we have grounds to move forward in truly productive discussion.
Having said all this, as I prepared this comment on Wordpad before coming here to post it, I see that Pontificator has made some specific reading recommendations. Thank you, Pontificator, for those recommendations. Now how do I know you're steering me in the right direction?! ;)
I would like to add my own thoughts to what Pilgrimsarbour has said but don't have time right now. I will try to post something later today/tonight.
UPDATE (made "later tonight"): I will post my thoughts in the near future.