Friday, March 15, 2013

Four Myths About Catholicism

It's official: the Catholics have a new pope! And a pope who lives in a tiny apartment, cooks his own meals, and commutes via public transportation--sounds just like me, if I were a seventy-something cardinal. I, for one, am quite happy and excited for my Catholic brethren and hope that God will powerfully use Francis I for redemptive work in the Catholic church (particularly in dealing with the sex abuse scandals that have been looming) and in the world.

But not all Protestants share my enthusiasm. I've seen some dismissive or even derogatory responses to the new pope and jabs at Catholicism from Protestants, especially those of the more reformed variety. One of Christ's prayers for the church is that "they may be one as we are one" (John 17:20-23), which I take as a call to action every bit as much as the Great Commission. So despite our differences, I take this kind of combative rhetoric against Catholicism seriously.

Obviously I am not a Catholic; I do have real theological disagreements with the Catholic Church that make it overwhelmingly likely that I never will be one (particularly about accepting doctrine by church authority instead of exploring it for yourself) and so my following words are going to be less well-informed than they should be. I'm not necessarily arguing for the Catholic position on these issues, only for understanding of it and how it doesn't line up with some of the calumnies (Calvin word) thrown at it by Protestants. My goal is to address some the myths about Catholicism that seem to be prevalent in Protestantism, the best a Protestant thinker with little experience in Catholicism can.

I should mention that much of the following information is from the website CatholicBridge, which is run by an formerly evangelical couple who became Catholic and wanted to help inform other evangelicals about Catholicism. It's very well-written, humble, and does a good job of relating our beliefs to theirs.

Catholics believe the pope/priests have the power to forgive sins.

Jesus' ability to forgive sins was an implicit sign of His Godhood (Mark 2:1-12), the Protestant thinking goes. How dare those Catholics try to usurp His authority by claiming that their priests, bishops, and popes can also forgive sins!? They are turning the true gospel into a manmade religion of rituals and works! Christ instituted the priesthood of all believers, so of course no special person can have spiritual authority over anyone else to forgive sins!

CatholicBridge most directly addresses this objection here in the section on priests forgiving sins. In a nutshell, it seems that they don't believe Catholic priests have special spiritual "powers", but are priests by virtue of their role in serving the lay people (common priests). The difference between Catholic priests and Protestant pastors seems to be smaller than we tend to make it. I don't think they would say that the hierarchical structure of the Catholic church is any different, in principle, than the leadership of Protestant churches and denominations.

Consider this: someone in a Protestant church (I'll imagine my church) has a serious drinking problem. He hates this addiction, wants to be freed from it, and has been convicted and "repented" of it to God in the past, but has relapsed into it. What would you counsel him to do? Confess this sin to his pastor and seek counseling! My church stations people in front during the service to whom you can come to confess sins and ask for prayer. Are these prayer helpers responsible for forgiving your sin? Of course not. But--and this is what I think Catholics would say--God is able to effectively carry out this forgiveness through people in His church. The Catholic catechism says this:
Only God forgives sins (Mk 2:7) Since he is the Son of God Jesus himself says "The Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins" and exercises this divine power "Your sins are forgiven" (Mk 2:5, Lk 7:48) Further he gives this power to men to exercise in his name (Jn 20:21-23)
In fact, the Bible talks repeatedly about confessing our sins to each other (James 5:16, 1 John 1:9). Protestants have a tendency to overspiritualize repentance to be just between God and the sinner, but as in the above example just confessing your sin to God can often be no confession at all--not because of any deficiency in His ability to forgive but in our sincerity. I think there really is something to confessing your sins to another person, as a part of confessing them to God, and Catholicism seems to have a better grasp of this fact than many Protestant churches. The Church is the body of Christ, and if He forgave peoples' sins while in His earthly body, why can He not do the same through this one? So Catholics don't believe priests have any innate power to forgive sins, but that God can and does work His forgiveness of sins powerfully through them.

Somewhat related to this objection is the issue of indulgences. (And yes, Catholics do universally condemn the sale of indulgences or any other spiritual thing, which is called simony) This was actually pretty interesting to read. Lots of things of Catholicism that Protestants have problems with seem to really be things that we do have some conception of, just more clearly and under a different name. So with indulgences: That article has a seven-point table giving the steps of repenting of a sin and being healed of it, and how analogous they are in Protestantism and Catholicism. They are sin, awakening (conviction), repentance, confession, amends, penance, and blessing/indulgences. The catechism says about penance:
Absolution [forgiveness] takes away sin, but it does not remedy all the disorders sin has caused. Raised up from sin, the sinner must still recover his full spiritual health by doing something more to make amends for the sin: he must "make satisfaction for" or "expiate" his sins. This satisfaction is also called "penance."
...prayer, an offering, works of mercy, service of neighbour, voluntary self-denial, sacrifices, and patient acceptance of whatever crosses we must bear in life. These penances help configure us to Christ, who alone can expiate our sins once for all. They allow us to become co-heirs with the risen Christ, "provided we suffer with him" (Rom 8:17, Rom 3:25, 1 Jn 2:1-2)
Here Protestants might object that the last three or four steps are unnecessary works added on to the gospel, and you only need the steps through repentance or confession. But again, I see some overspiritualizing or "Christian pietism" going on--that is, the belief that all that matters is being made right with God in a legal-spiritual sense, getting that crucial "innocent" verdict, and then you're good to go. The Catholic view seems more holistic. It recognizes that even after your sin is forgiven, it can still have aftereffects. There is still damage done that needs to be undone. It recognizes that participation on our part is needed to undo this damage--sanctification is not merely passive, Philippians 2:12. Penance is this participation on our part in God's work of healing the disorders left behind by forgiven sin, and indulgences, then, are seen as God's richly rewarding this participation by blessing and healing us.

Catholics worship Mary and the saints.

I held a weaker version of this belief for a while. Why do Catholics pray to Mary or the saints, I wondered? Did they believe that God was really too distant for their prayers to reach, or didn't care for them as much as He did for His saints? Surely the practice of praying to mere people--dead people, even--was a reflection of idolatry.

CatholicBridge has articles about Mary and the saints. The gist of it is that they believe that all believers are "saints" in a sense, but some saints have been formally, indisputably recognized as such. It's like how we believe the Bible was canonized; the Church did not make certain books part of the canon and exclude others, but saw itself as recognizing which ones really were God's words. In the same way I think Catholics would say that the church doesn't make people into "saints" but only recognizes them as having been saints.

Anyway, Catholics, like many Protestants, believe that those who have died in Christ are not really dead but have eternal life! For God is not a God of the dead, but of the living. (Matthew 22:32) And then (here is where the scriptural support gets admittedly thin), if these radical, passionate Christ-followers are in heaven worshipping Him face-to-face, why not ask them to pray to Him for us? It's not so different from praying for one another, or asking our pastor to pray for us. Saints and Mary are "serious prayer warriors". Even if you don't agree with this practice, it definitely isn't anything like worshipping Mary and the saints, or elevating them to the same level as Christ.

Catholicism rejects the exclusive authority of the Bible (sola scriptura)

This one seems pretty self-explanatory. Catholics believe in the Bible as authoritative, but only equally so with church tradition and the proclamations of an infallible pope. Isn't that placing human authority on equal footing with God's authority as shown through His word?

This article has an excellent reply to this objection:
The Catholic Church loves the Bible. The Church protected the Bible across the ages until the Gutenberg press was invented. Century after century, monks in monasteries faithfully copied Scripture. It would take each monk a lifetime to copy one Bible and thousands of faithful Catholics dedicated their lives to this work. Catholics protected the Bible over the centuries of wars, famines, plaques, the fall of Rome, fires, and threats from all sides. This was long before any other denomination existed. And the Catholic Church chose which books to include in the Bible in the Synod of Hippo (393 AD) and confirmed it at Carthage (397 AD). We love the Bible. Honest!
The Bible is the Truth and no Catholic Dogma or tradition will contradict it, but Catholics do not believe that it is the authority. Otherwise there would have been no authority for the first 400 years of the Church.
Dang. That's a pretty good point. Before the Bible as we know it today was put together, God spoke to and shepherded His church primarily through people--the apostles, and then other church leaders in ensuing centuries. (Whom Catholics would consider to be part of the Catholic church) So clearly the Bible isn't everything or those early Christians would have been lost. How could early churches possibly have survived without Paul's comprehensive treatise about justification by faith in Romans!? And such a strong dichotomy between God's authority and human authority becomes hard to hold when you consider that every book of the Bible was written by--get ready for it--a human.

Of course Protestants--those who don't minimize the human element of scripture and focus on it being "God's very words"--understand that the Bible having a human side in no way negates its ability to be God's authoritative word. The difference seems to be that while Protestants believe that the "apostolic" authority in scripture died with its human authors, Catholics believe that the church--the Catholic church--still possesses it, with God continuing to shepherd it through His people the same way He did by inspiring the Bible and starting the church. While I don't agree with this proposition, it definitely isn't the same as proclaiming a man-made religion any more than first-century Christianity was man-made by being grown and guided by the work of the apostles.

Catholicism is a works-based religion, rejecting justification by faith alone (sola fide). More extremely, Catholics are not really Christians/"saved" and believe in a false gospel.

Now we get to probably the biggest objection Protestants, especially more reformed ones, have with Catholicism. Such as this article describing a Southern Baptist leader denouncing the Catholic church and the new pope. Mohler gets into the confusion about priests being given "spiritual authority" to forgive sins, but before that, writes:
“First and foremost, evangelicals must affirm that the doctrine of justification by faith alone is an essential, because that is the very definition of the gospel itself, and there is nothing more core, central and essential than the gospel,” Mohler said.
“The reformers were absolutely right in saying that any [other] understanding of justification – even the understanding that justification is by faith and something else -- is another gospel, is anathema to the gospel of Jesus Christ,” Mohler said. “The only way of understanding salvation by grace alone through faith alone is defining justification as the Scripture defines it, and that is justification by faith alone.”
Mohler noted that Pope Benedict XVI famously affirmed the doctrine of justification by faith when writing about the apostle Paul, “but he would not add that crucial word ‘alone.’”
“Lacking the word ‘alone,’ that means justification by faith that works in synergistic mechanism with our own righteousness or attempts at righteousness and efforts to gain merit,” Mohler said.
Mohler lays out the case pretty clearly: Catholics reject the core of the gospel, justification by faith alone, and instead subscribe to a man-made religion of legalistic works, which is really a false gospel.

I have covered what may be the source of this confusion in my previous post on sola fide. Paul writes that man is justified by faith alone, while James says man is justified by faith and works. What is going on? Paul is contrasting "faith alone" with faith-free legalism that attempts to make oneself righteous by exact, laser-precise obedience to the Mosaic law. By way of example, in a book on New Testament studies by Bruce Metzger I read some interesting stories of some ways the second-temple Jews, trying to renew their obedience after coming back from the exile, analyzed into the laws to figure out exactly how to apply them. They concluded, among other things, that it was lawful to walk through a field of grain on the Sabbath if it is ankle-high but not knee-high, because their robes might brush against the grain and accidentally "thresh" it, doing work. It's easy to see how this way of approaching the law might have led from faithful obedience to legalism.

I think many Protestants' almost obsessive devotion to Paul and his theology over the rest of the NT writers has led them to forget that while the gospel is our salvation from trying to earn righteousness, it is much more than this; the "law vs. grace" dichotomy falls far short of encompassing all of the theology in the New Testament, even theology of salvation. Focusing on Paul's theology of salvation, particularly in Romans, Ephesians, and Galations, can lead to a kind of absolutism where the slightest hint of anything on our part, besides faith, having anything to do with salvation is viewed and denounced as salvation by works. See Mohler's quote above: “The reformers were absolutely right in saying that any [other] understanding of justification – even the understanding that justification is by faith and something else -- is another gospel, is anathema to the gospel of Jesus Christ.” In practice, this means a theology of salvation that focuses on faith alone, pasting the issue of works on only in specific questions of ethics.

James, on the other hand. is contrasting "faith and works" with works-free faith that consists solely of propositional beliefs (sound familiar?). You need both of these elements to get a full understanding of the nature of saving faith. The balance of Paul and James' theologies of salvation is well expressed in the adage, "Faith alone justifies, but the faith that justifies is never alone." While Protestants tend to favor and focus on Paul's theology of salvation more, Catholics seem to either take a more balanced view or fall more toward James' view. Both are true and both are necessary. And you must read both in context; Paul's condemnation of pharisaical legalism in Romans can't be assumed to translate exactly to Catholic practices today any more than it was condemning James' focus on works in the first century.

Even this cursory study--and defense--of Catholic theology has been enlightening. It's striking how strongly incarnational it is; whereas the Protestant theology I'm surrounded by focuses on how we are able to commune with God despite our own failures and powerlessness, Catholicism seems to behold closely how God is able to work His power, His authority, and His love through us anyway, making manifest in billions of lives the spiritual blessings promised to us in His word.


  1. If you ignore the butt-covering rationalization - yes, Catholics worship Mary and the Saints. Their devotion to them is indistinguishable from polytheism. Sorry, dude, but there's no getting around the obvious.

    Most Christians are also bitheists (the Holy Ghost gets shrifted).

    No amount of double-talk wankery will change the fact that the behavior of Catholics and Christians toward the adulation of Jesus, objectively and subjectively, is identical to polytheistic worship.

    A difference without distinction is no distinction at all. I know you types are used to thinking in theological terms, but theology is art, and not philosophy. Logically and empirically speaking, all the Christians except the hardcore Unitarians are polytheistic.

  2. Whether Catholics functionally worship Mary and the Saints, despite Catholic doctrine stating otherwise, is another question entirely. (But it's also possible to Protestants to "worship" X famous pastor, contemporary/historical theologian, or apostle, no matter how strongly they protest the charges) If you believe the Trinity is polytheistic, you have quite a bit of explaining and reinterpreting to do to support it.

  3. God gave His Plan through 40 authors, over the course of 1600 years, with 1000s of details from historical to scientific to prove the authorship. For 2000y skeptics have tried to demonstrate that our all knowing God made a mistake and that men somehow created it, yet somehow, the bible stands as irrefutably consistent with even information about the time-space continuum. This points to God's authorship in every sense.

    The Catholic Church claims to be imbued with this authority but since God Himself said in Malachi 5 "I am the Lord I change not" and Jesus said “heaven and earth will pass before even a tittle will change from His Word”…then in contradicting the Word of God the RCC exposes men as fools for even the very tenets of salvation are at odds.

    The Savior Himself said: “I am the Truth, the Way, the Life, NO MAN COMES to the Father EXCEPT through me” & “He who does not believe in the name of the only begotten Son of God is condemned”
    Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium 16 (126) disagrees, says Muslims are saved too.
    Muslim Koran states that God has no son.

    so who is lying?
    1John 5 he who is not believing God, has called Him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has testified concerning His Son”

    Queen of Heaven
    Jer 7 &44: bowing to the queen of heaven “provokes God to anger”
    Ex 20: 2nd commandment: NO BOWING to any BUT God
    Luke 11:27 Jesus corrects a woman who starts the whole blessed is the womb BS... Jesus says NO- blessed is the one who hears the Word of God and KEEPS IT.
    Acts 10:22: Peter says don't bow to me
    Mary’s character: "kept all these things in her heart"
    John 2: Mary did not ask Jesus for wine- He knew. Mary did not represent the guys at the wedding before Jesus... Jesus gave because He knows what we need and is happy to give us things in accordance with His will.

    Who insists one must bow before anyone BUT God? the devil

    So do you not give a rat’s tush what God says?

    Read the entire passage of John 17 that you so deceptively put as your call to ecumenicism, talk about a distortion! What is the matter with you? Do you not see that Jesus is defining His as those who are true to the Word of God? To be TRUE to the Word of God you can't disobey or change it. There is no compromise with TRUTH. This just applies- no denomination represents God's Word to us- God's Word is the denomination- we are to worship God in Spirit and TRUTH- no ritual, no ceremony, no preacher, no sacrifice... just with each other and glorifying God in the name of His Son.

    Now they have known that all things whatsoever thou hast given me are of thee.
    For I have given unto them the words which thou gavest me; and they have received them, and have known surely that I came out from thee, and they have believed that thou didst send me.
    I pray for them: I pray not for the world, but for them which thou hast given me; for they are thine.
    And all mine are thine, and thine are mine; and I am glorified in them.
    And now I am no more in the world, but these are in the world, and I come to thee. Holy Father, keep through thine own name those whom thou hast given me, that they may be one, as we are.
    While I was with them in the world, I kept them in thy name: those that thou gavest me I have kept, and none of them is lost, but the son of perdition; that the scripture might be fulfilled.
    And now come I to thee; and these things I speak in the world, that they might have my joy fulfilled in themselves.
    I have given them thy word; and the world hath hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.
    I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil.
    They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.
    Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth.