Why did I become a Catholic?
Part 3 ( go to part 1)
Other Issues which cannot be ignored
I have given my two reasons (plus a little icing) for joining the Catholic Church. Now I must address a few issues which cannot be ignored.
This page is very long, but organized by topics, so feel free to skim and skip until you find an issue that concerns you.
The Church and the Bible
All the apostles went about spreading the gospel and establishing churches, appointing local church leaders and passing on all the necessary instructions to get the churches started right, and yet most of the apostles did not write anything that has been preserved in the Bible. What we have in the New Testament came from a few of the apostles (and their fellow workers) and even those writings are but a small portion of what they taught. Writing took time away from preaching, and letters could be easily intercepted during times of persecution. The apostles preferred speaking to writing, as John said at the end of his second and third letters:
I have much to write to you,
I have much to write you,
The apostle Paul also made it clear that the writings were only part of the teaching, and that the spoken messages were also very important and not to be forgotten:
So then, brothers,
(By the way, I can't let this verse go by without pointing out the fact that the Greek word for "teachings" is "paradosis" which is translated as "tradition" in English in other places in the NIV, but the translators made the decision in this one instance to bend the rules and use "teaching" apparently because they did not want to promote the idea that tradition can be a good thing.)
Paul also instructed his disciple Timothy to pass on his oral teachings to other men who would also pass them on to others.
You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.
We have no writings of Timothy in the Bible. So what became of the teachings of Paul which Timothy heard and was told to pass on? Are they lost forever?
For that matter, considering how many hours of teaching and preaching must have been done by all the apostles during their lives compared to the relatively small number of books we have in the New Testament, it would appear that the vast majority of apostolic teaching has been lost, both written and oral!
The apostle Paul wrote at least four letters to the Church in Corinth, but we only have two of them in our Bible (see I Corinthians 5:9 and 2 Corinthians 2:3), and he also wrote a letter from Laodicea which is not in our Bible (see Colossians 4:16).
We know that the majority of the deeds of Jesus are not even recorded in Bible, as the apostle John has affirmed.
It would seem that John was still a youth during the time he was with Jesus, which would explain why could stay near the cross without fear of being arrested when the others had to stay away. And as far as we know, John outlived the other apostles. As the last surviving member of the Twelve, he understood that Christ would not return in his own lifetime, contrary to rumors that he would not die until Christ came. In the final years of his life, John apparently saw the need to write a final eye-witness account of Jesus' life with details which were not recorded in the other three written accounts. But his time was limited, and he made it very clear to the reader that much would have to go unwritten.
Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples,
This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down.
As far as we know, Jesus did not write anything down (except for some unrecorded writing with his finger on the ground) and the majority of what Jesus did during His time on earth -- plus what he must have said in connection with those deeds -- went unrecorded.
Jesus spent some three years with the twelve apostles, living with them and talking with them day and night. Then there was that period of 40 days after Jesus' resurrection before he ascended to heaven. Jesus must have used that crucial period with his disciples as a time of intense instruction to fully reveal their mission on earth and prepare them for their roles as preachers and leaders in the Church.
All that information no doubt exceeded what we have in the few writings of the apostles in the Bible. They were probably more interested in using their time to proclaim the gospel and plant new churches than to sit down and write detailed instructions!
So what happened to all of that unrecorded teaching that the apostles received from Jesus? Was it completely lost? Not necessarily; much can be gleaned from the writings of the early Church Fathers who recognized the need to preserve in writing what they had received from the original apostles. Some of these documents such as the Didache were written while the apostles were still alive, before some parts of the New Testament were written.
There is actually a huge body of written work by the early Church Fathers from the early years of the Church, including writings of men who were directly taught by twelve apostles. These men are known as the Apostolic Fathers.
There are the letters by Clement of Rome who was ordained a bishop of Rome by the apostle Peter. We also have the letters of Ignatius of Antioch who was a disciple of John and possibly made a bishop of Antioch by Peter. We also have the letters of Polycarp, another disciple of John.
Although not inspired like the Bible, the writings of the Apostolic Fathers and the Early Church Fathers are reliable as historical documents and include descriptions of how the early church worshipped and conducted itself, and how the early hierarchy was structured. In these writings you will find a clear description of the Catholic Church.
We even have a book on early Church history which was written by Eusebius of Caesarea in the early 300s A.D. This man had access to documents which have long since perished, plus he had access to accounts and histories which were handed down orally and still fresh. Although definitely not inspired scripture, it is generally reliable as any history book, and has some amazing accounts of what the Christians regarded as historical fact back then.
What's the best way to interpret the Bible? Come up with your own interpretation 2000 years after the fact, or find out how the first Christians interpreted it while the apostles or their disciples were still around to correct them?
Catholics accept the ancient teachings and practices handed down in the Church, which are called Sacred Tradition. These teachings fill in a lot of the gaps. Protestants claim to accept only the teachings of the Bible (although the very concept of relying only on the Bible comes from outside the Bible since it is not taught anywhere in the Bible).
With Catholics the God-inspired Scriptures have priority over Tradition, but both are considered important.
Even as a Protestant I knew that we also filled in gaps with our own "traditions" which were not nearly as old as the Catholic ones. I remember thinking that a person could not even get "saved" by reading just the Bible without some kind of supplement such as the "Four Spiritual Laws" to show him the way.
The "Sinner's Prayer" is not even found anywhere in the Bible, so I had to write it on a blank page in the back of my Bible so I could lead others to pray it when I evangelized as a Protestant. It's still a great prayer which can serve as the first step for someone who needs to stop and turn around and start following Jesus, but it's still an evangelical Protestant tradition (and a relatively new one at that) rather than part of sacred Scripture.
It is no wonder we have so much difficulty communicating and debating certain issues; Protestants and Catholics don't go by the same ground rules. We are not on the same page. Protestants look to the Bible only while Catholics look to the Church that gave us the Bible.
For the first few centuries, the Church spread all over Europe, Africa and Asia and suffered great persecution so that Christians had to meet in secret for fear of their lives. Hand-copied manuscripts of gospel accounts and letters of the apostles were circulated among the churches along with lots of other similar writings such as the Shepherd of Hermas and the Epistle of Barnabas. These were read during the worship services of the early Christians.
There had been no general agreement among the Christians concerning which writings should be considered the inspired written Word of God.
Then, after Christianity was declared legal during the fourth century and Christians came out of hiding, the pope and bishops gathered and determined which of these writings were to be included in the New Testament canon.
We believe the Holy Spirit guided them as they exercised their special authority. The Church gave us the New Testament.
The apostle Paul used the term "pillar and foundation of the truth" in his letter to Timothy. What do you suppose he was referring to? The Bible? No, he was referring to the Church:
Although I hope to come to you soon,
And back then there was only one church he could be referring to, the church that Jesus built, the Catholic Church. "Catholic" simply means "universal," and the term "Catholic Church" (ekklesia katolika in Greek) was used way back around 110 A.D. in the writings of Ignatius of Antioch (mentioned above). Ignatius did not have to explain what he meant by it; the Church was apparently already called the Catholic Church by that time.
When I discuss my faith with others, I refer to myself as a Christian, as I have always done. For the first thousand years, all Christians were members of one church and it was the Catholic Church. The original Christians were Catholics. All Christians who recite the Nicene Creed or the Apostles' Creed profess their belief in the Holy Catholic Church. Today some people may explain this term away, but when it was written there was no ambiguity as to what church it referred to.
But can I trust them?
When I first took a serious look at the Catholic Church I had the major obstacles that all Protestants have, such as the pope, Mary and the saints, and I began my investigation like any Protestant would, by looking for evidence in the Bible.
Then I turned to the early Church Fathers, church history, and also a big fat book called The Catechism of the Catholic Church to see what the Catholic Church actually taught about these issues.
Even as I came up with enough evidence to overcome some difficulties, other issues popped up that I needed to confront. I suspected that even more issues might surface later on, and the quest could go on forever if my goal was to pursue every difficult teaching to a satisfactory conclusion.
My problem was I was going about it the wrong way because I had missed the main issue which was whether or not the teaching authority of the Catholic Church is trustworthy. I wouldn't have to prove every doctrine that I came across if I could just trust the Church and accept that it has been guided all along by the Holy Spirit as Jesus promised to the first church leaders, the apostles:
I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear.
It seems reasonable that the Holy Spirit would guide the church into all the truth especially since Paul declared the church to be the pillar and foundation of the truth.
When Jesus made this promise, he was talking to the men who would be the leaders of the church which was to be founded at that time and which would continue to the present day. He was not addressing leaders of Protestant churches which would not come into existence for another 1,500 years.
Protestants already accept that the Holy Spirit has guided the Catholic Church into all the truth, because we all accept many teachings which are not spelled out in the Bible but were taught in the early church, and we all use Catholic words not found in the Bible such as Trinity and incarnation. These biblical concepts are not as self evident as we would like to think.
The Catholic Church, guided by the Spirit of truth had to clarify and define doctrine when people started to teach contrary opinions.
As mentioned above, we accept the list of 27 books of the New Testament that the Catholic Church gave us.
Many Protestants also accept as reliable the early historical accounts of the deaths of the apostles such as reports of Paul being beheaded and Peter crucified upside down in Rome. We accept as historical fact the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. which is described in ancient documents although it is not mentioned in the Bible.
If we accept some of what the Catholic Church has taught us, on what grounds do we reject the rest? Where can we draw the line? The same people who gave us the 27 books of the New Testament also tell us that we must not ignore the other teachings of the apostles as handed down in the Church.
So the big issue is what I have mentioned so many times already: authority. Can I recognize the authority of the one universal Church that Jesus built and which the Holy Spirit has guided and preserved? Can I submit to that authority?
OK, a few answers
If you are like most people today, you probably don't have the time or energy to hunt down all the relevant Bible passages or writings of the Church Fathers or all the official declarations of the Church from its over two thousand year history.
Fortunately those teachings can be found in one place, which is that big book called The Catechism of the Catholic Church which I have mentioned a few times already. You can read it online for free, or you can get the actual book. If you find such a big book to be a bit daunting, there is a concise edition in question-and-answer form called the Compendium of Catechism of the Catholic Church, and if that is still too much, there is also an easier-to-read edition for young readers called YOUCAT (Youth Catechism of the Catholic Church).
If you would prefer to not look at any books at this time, then you may be helped by the following brief statements from my research that helped overcome my main objections (keep in mind, these are my answers and I do not officially represent the Catholic Church).
Already pretty much answered above. As Catholics understand it, it does not mean the pope never sins or makes mistakes; the pope will readily admit he has done both. The current pope says he confesses his sins to another priest at least every two weeks, as did the previous popes.
Papal infallibility simply means that when the pope is making a declaration "ex-cathedra" (in his official capacity as the man occupying the chair of Peter), he is protected from error only when he is addressing matters of faith and morals, such as in interpreting the scriptures.
The human authors who actually penned the words of the Bible (there were around forty of them) were similarly protected when they wrote those scriptures.
One would expect nothing less if the Holy Spirit were guiding the Church throughout history. It's a very tight description with lots of restrictions, and some Catholics have asserted that papal infallibility has only been exercised a few times in history.
It seems that something this narrowly defined ought to be acceptable to even Protestants. The early church accepted this teaching; who are we to reject it?
Immaculate Conception of Mary
The early church accepted this teaching.Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli believed this, so it is not just a "Catholic thing."
It is certainly implied in the wording of the Greek text of Luke 1:28 where Mary is described as kecharitomene which is not easily translated into English, but "one who has been graced" comes the closest, and "full of grace" is pretty close. It implies that Mary was not plagued with original sin. It's not an unbiblical concept; Adam and Eve were both born without original sin and were sinless for a time.
The early Church defended the divinity of Christ, and asserted that he was God even from the moment of his conception. In defending this teaching, it referred to Mary as the "theotokos" which is translated as "God-bearer" or "mother of God" so it could refute the arguments of those who said Jesus only became God after he was born.
If the Ark of the Covenant which contained the word of God written in stone was so special that God would strike people dead for just touching it, how much more special would have to be the new Ark of the Covenant which contained the Living Word of God? Could it be just any girl who happened to be living in Israel at the time?
The teaching of the immaculate conception of Mary has more to do with who Jesus was, and how holy the human vessel had to be who carried God-in-the-flesh for nine months and gave birth to him.
We are saved from sin by Jesus; Jesus could have saved His mother Mary from sin before she had a chance to fall into sin.
Perpetual Virginity of Mary
Did Mary remain a virgin after Jesus was born or did she have other children? The Catholic Church has always taught that Mary was a consecrated virgin from her youth, remained a consecrated virgin even after she was married to Joseph, which is why she was puzzled as to how she would have a child when the angel announced that she would give birth to a son.
This teaching appears in writings, hymns and oral tradition from the earliest years of the Church, and was held by all Christians including early Protestants.
The strongest argument against this teaching is the word until in Matthew 1:25:
But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son.
That word until is an English translation and acts in a certain way in today's culture. Did original the word act in the same way in the Greek language 2,000 years ago? It is believed that the Gospel of Matthew was originally written in Aramaic and soon translated into Greek, and that must not be ignored either.
Look at Psalm 110:1 which is so important it is quoted in three different places in the New Testament (Luke 20:43, Acts 2:35, and Hebrews 1:13).
The LORD says to my lord:
So, does this mean that Jesus was to stand up and go sit somewhere else after God the Father made his enemies a footstool for his feet? The word until cannot be used as an argument that Joseph eventually consummated the marriage. Mary could have remained a virgin even as Jesus continues to sit at the right hand of God the Father.
The other argument is the mention of Jesus' brothers. They are even listed by name!
Isn't this the carpenter's son?
Wow, that's pretty clear, isn't it? Wouldn't it be nice to know a little more about these brothers? They are mentioned again in the same Gospel:
Many women were there, watching from a distance.
Oops, here they are described as the sons of a different Mary. If you compare the various lists of these women in the four Gospels you will discover that she appears to be "the other Mary" in the Gospel of Matthew and Mary the wife of Clopas in the Gospel of John. Clopas was a brother of Joseph (the carpenter), so that makes James, and Joseph the cousins of Jesus.
Then why does the Bible say they are Jesus brothers and not cousins? In Hebrew and Aramaic, the word for cousin did not exist at that time, so the word brother was used to describe all male family members, even distant relatives.
Genesis 14:14 uses the Hebrew word brother for Abraham's nephew Lot as we can see in the King James Version:
Now when Abram heard that his brother was taken captive,
Yet some modern Protestant Bibles such as the NIV translate it as "relative."
When Abram heard that his relative had been taken captive,
Now, in Greek the words for cousin and brother do exist, but when the Greek New Testament quotes Jews speaking in their native Aramaic to each other about male kinsmen, the word brother is used in reliable English translations. (Peter's name is treated similarly; when he is mentioned in the context of Jews talking to each other, his name suddenly becomes the Aramaic Cephas rather than the Greek Peter.)
This all does not prove that Mary was a perpetual virgin but it eliminates the strongest arguments that she was not.
Martin Luther, John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli believed in the perpetual virginity of Mary, and it was universally believed since the early years of the Church, so it is not just a "Catholic thing."
Assumption of Mary, body and soul into heaven at the end of her life
The early church accepted this teaching, having received it from the apostles who apparently witnessed the event.
If it took place after the New Testament was written, then of course the Bible would not mention it. The Bible also does not contain accounts of the subsequent lives of most of the twelve apostles, but we have some written accounts from outside the Bible. The details are not clear, and she might have died first, and then her body was taken to heaven, or she might have been taken up into heaven before she died.
It's not an unbiblical concept; God took both Enoch and Elijah out of this world, body and soul.
This teaching is inseparable from the teaching above about the immaculate conception of Mary. If you seriously contemplate the mystery of the incarnation and how God the "Word made Flesh" was formed, nourished and protected in a human womb for nine months, then you must concede how special this woman would have to be, and how she would remain special to God forever.
Praying to Mary and the Saints
As a Protestant I was taught that praying was "talking to God," but that is too narrow a definition. Praying has always meant simply talking and making a verbal request, whether to God or humans; just read some literature from the 19th century for abundant examples.
According to Revelation 6:9-11, the saints in heaven are very aware of what is going on here on earth, and those who were killed for their faith are asking how long God is going to refrain from dealing with those who killed them on earth.
If we are surrounded right now by a "cloud of witnesses" as described in Hebrews 12, then Christians who have gone to heaven are not as far away as we might think, and we can still ask them to pray for us, just as we did when they were with us. We can ask anyone who is in heaven to pray for us.
Why ask saints to pray for us when we can go directly to God? Well, why do you ask your Christian friends on earth to pray for you when you can go directly to God? Have you ever taken an important prayer request to a pastor or some person who seemed holy because you thought the prayer would have a better chance of being heard if they prayed it? Nothing wrong with that, right? James 5:16 tells us to pray for each other because the "prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective."
Asking Mary or a saint to pray for you is like picking up the phone to ask your pastor or Christian friends to pray for you, the big difference being the prayers of saints are even more "powerful and effective" since they are with God and see God face to face, and their prayers are unhindered by sin because they are perfectly righteous. Prayer to Mary and the saints is basically just asking for their intercession, and it can bring amazing results! Why not ask your friends on earth AND in heaven to pray for that big request next time?
The early church accepted and practiced this from the earliest days.
Catholics are not allowed to worship statues, because that would be a sin. It only looks like they are worshipping statues. They know as well as you do that statues are man-made objects that have no life in themselves. The commandment to not make "graven images" is only part of that commandment in Exodus 20 (the Ten Commandments). The other part says to not worship them.
Now, with 1.2 billion Catholics in the world, I can't assume that every single one of them understands this distinction, and you may possibly run into a Catholic who thinks it's OK to worship a statue or engage in some other practice which is clearly against the official teaching of the Church. Please ignore such Catholics (I write more on this in the section "A speed bump: bad Catholics" below).
Simply making images (and not worshipping them) is not prohibited in the Bible. God even instructed it to be done when he gave instructions for making gold cherubim, and bronze oxen as well as Moses' bronze snake on a pole. That snake had to be destroyed only after the Israelites started to worship it.
Many Protestants enjoy religious statues or prints, especially at Christmas time when we bring the nativity scenes out with Joseph, Mary, baby Jesus, a few shepherds and wise men and a bunch of animals.
Washington D.C. is full of statues which remind us of great people in history. A lot of people, even Christians, feel a sense of reverence as well as sadness when they stand in front of that huge statue of Abraham Lincoln, but I doubt that anybody actually worships the statue or believes it is a substitute for the real thing. We look at the statue but we are also looking past the statue at the man whom the statue represents, although nobody living today has ever seen the real Abraham Lincoln in the flesh.
Statues are like photos of our loved ones. When we are separated from our loved ones we may keep those photos in an honored place, talk to them and even kiss them, but we know they are just photos and have no life in themselves. It may look like we are adoring photos or have some kind of relationship with them, but that's not the case.
Statues serve a similar function which some Catholics utilize in their devotional life, and they can be very useful. You might look at a statue of Mary while talking to Mary, but it is merely a focal point that allows you to think of the real Mary whom you have never met.
A simple crucifix can remind us of what Jesus did for all humans and can cause us to reflect on that sacrifice and our response to it. It is a real comfort at those times when we feel that nobody understands our pain and loneliness. A crucifix is not a denial of the resurrection as some Protestants have wrongly concluded. As Paul declared in 1 Corinthians 1:23, "We preach Christ crucified."
Salvation by works and not faith
"Salvation by works" is how some non-Catholics portray the Catholic understanding of salvation, but it is a misrepresentation.
We believe what the Apostle Paul wrote in the second chapter of his letter to the Ephesians:
For it is by grace you have been saved,
And what he wrote in his letter to the Romans:
For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.
By the way Martin Luther expanded this to say "faith alone" in his German translation of the Bible although the original Greek text did not warrant it, and when asked about this he replied, "Because Dr. Martin Luther will have it so!"
Ironically, the only time the words "faith alone" appear together in the Bible is in the letter by the Apostle James:
You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.
I've been using the New International Version for Bible quotes because it is so popular among evangelical Protestants, but the more literal New American Standard Bible makes this passage even clearer:
You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.
We cannot ignore what the Apostle James wrote on the subject and he had lots to say, such as:
In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
Again, the wording of the NASB really hits the mark.
Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.
By the way, Martin Luther attempted to remove the entire letter of James from his German translation of the Bible! This is what he wrote in his Preface To The New Testament in 1522: "St. James' epistle is really an epistle of straw."
Is this emphasis on obedience (works) limited to the Catholic Church? Even as a Protestant I remember singing the hymn:
Trust and obey,
The Catholic Church takes the entire Bible seriously, and not just select parts. God hated sin in the Old Testament and He still hates sin now. God demanded obedience in the Old Testament and He still demands obedience today.
The Apostle John makes it very clear in his first letter what God expects of us Christians:
My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin.
What about eternal security? If I am completely forgiven and saved by the blood of Jesus and nobody can "snatch" me out of the Father's hand as Jesus promised (John 10:29) then what difference does it make whether I sin or not?
Yes, Jesus said that nobody can snatch us out of the Father's hand, but he didn't say we are no longer free to walk away or even fall away as a result of the choices we make. Saying the "sinner's prayer" is not a license to continue living as we had done before; it is not "fire insurance" for those who play with matches, and the possibility of losing our salvation should be our wake up call and motivate us to make an effort to stay away from sin.
It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened,
And, yes, Martin Luther also attempted to remove Hebrews from his German Bible.
Deliberately disobeying God will have a hardening effect and make it easier to sin again. Your self-image changes for the worse and eventually you lose all hope of reconciliation as your sins increase. I think this is what is described in the letter to the Hebrews above. The Church sees this as a mortal sin, or "sin unto death" which is the topic of the next section.
I know of a few fallen away Christians who were at one time respected Christian leaders. One particular individual was a well known preacher in the Jesus Movement in my home town, and I was inspired by his sermons and his zeal for Christ. I'm sure there are many Christians today who will tell you that he was the one who led them to Christ. He now ridicules Christians. Yes, it is possible to fall away; you have that freedom -- and responsibility to make sure you don't.
When I studied the teachings of the Catholic Church, I discovered that the standard was much higher than I had been previously taught as a Protestant. When we deliberately choose to disobey, God does not look the other way and pretend that nothing happened. So I had some adjustments to make in my life; I had to clean up my act.
However, when we do sin and are sorry (and not hardened by sin as described in Hebrews above) there is still a way to come back to God as the Apostle John wrote above, and which is covered in the next topic.
Confession of sins to a priest
As a Protestant I used to think this meant that Catholics had to confess every sin they committed every week to a priest before they could attend Mass. This is not the case, and overworked priests might be thankful. The Catholic Church as well as the Protestants recognizes the Biblical teaching of confessing sins directly to God for forgiveness.
If we confess our sins,
But the Catholic Church also recognizes that some sins are more serious than others.
Jesus taught this (for example, blasphemy against the Spirit is a sin which will not be forgiven), and the Apostle John emphasized it when he talked about certain serious sins which were "unto death" (also known as "mortal sin").
If you see any brother or sister commit a sin that does not lead to death,
I know lots of Christians are very unsettled about this "unforgivable sin" issue. Basically if we deliberately and with full knowledge of the gravity of our actions choose to disobey God and set some thing or activity as more important to us than God, then it goes beyond the category of light sins.
If you are a parent, then you can relate to this distinction: Scenario one: You tell your young child to not step in a mud puddle, and he soon forgets and steps in it anyway. Scenario two: You tell your young child to not step in a mud puddle, and he looks at you defiantly, and deliberately stomps on that mud puddle as you watch in disbelief. The second scenario is much more serious than the first; it is in a whole different category. If you can see the distinction, don't you think your heavenly father also sees it?
And as mentioned in the previous section, deliberate disobedience also has a spiraling effect as we become hardened and fall away, and it can lead to spiritual death which cannot be reversed.
Remember, God has not changed; He still hates sin and disobedience. Any mortal sins (sins unto death) must be confessed to a priest who will then exercise the authority which Jesus gave to the Apostles:
Again Jesus said, 'Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you'.
Since the apostles all died, either that authority was passed on to their successors, or else it died with them, and the Church has lost access to this important means of receiving forgiveness of sins. The Church has taught from the beginning that the authority of the apostles has been passed down to bishops and their priests.
In order for a priest to forgive sins, he should be told what the specific sins are, since most priests cannot read your mind. Thus confession is necessary. Confession is actually a wonderful gift for which we ought to be thankful, especially in light of this passage in Hebrews:
If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth,
Confession to a priest who can with the authority of Christ absolve us of serious sins is an amazing provision -- a lifeline -- which allows us to come back to God when we have walked away. It wipes the slate clean as the day we were baptized when all our sins were washed away. Confession is also known as the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
I used to think that Catholics had the mentality that allowed them to sin freely all week, confess their sins, and then have the freedom to sin freely again the next week. I changed my thinking the very first time I went to confession myself. Just try confessing your sins to another human being; it's very humbling, even embarrassing. I guarantee you will try harder to NOT sin in the future. Confession to a priest works on a practical level.
It also works on an unseen spiritual level because the Church teaches that we receive special grace when we confess our sins in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, which helps us to fight the temptation to sin. This is why confessing even smaller sins (a.k.a. venial sins) is encouraged even though not required.
By the way, there's no need to get hung up on the word priest which comes from presbyteros in the original Greek and means elder. It was used to designate an ordained office in the Church along with bishops and deacons.
The Greek word for temple priests is a different word, hierus (and the Hebrew word is kohen).
Then what about the priesthood of all believers? Don't we all perform priestly duties such as offering a sacrifice of praise and interceding for the world through prayer?
The Catholic Church does indeed teach the priesthood of all believers. The teaching originally appeared in the Old Testament in the book of Exodus and was quoted in several places in the New Testament, and yet it did not cancel out the special office of temple priest.
Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant,
Addressing priests as Father
This was not a major issue for me, but I did roll my eyes and wonder, "of all the titles available to Catholics, why did they have to use that one and throw up an unnecessary roadblock?" I mean, wasn't Jesus very clear on this point?
And do not call anyone on earth 'father,'
Most people probably don't give this curious Bible passage much thought and just assume that whatever else it might mean, it proves that Catholics are wrong.
If you take the very narrow view that Jesus was actually prohibiting us from using a specific word in reference to other people, then you would need to know what that word is. It's obviously not the modern English father with all its nuances and limitations in modern culture. It would have to be the Aramaic word that Jesus used, which would be abba or possibly the Greek equivalent which is pater. I have never called anyone on earth abba or pater. Have you?
The Bible is full of examples of God's people using the word in reference to others. In the New Testament, Stephen calls Abraham our father in Acts 7:2 and the Apostle Paul calls himself father in 1 Corinthians 4:15.
Even if you had ten thousand guardians in Christ,
For the sake of argument let's say the prohibition applies to any word in any language that has the same general meaning, such as the English word father. It would also have to include dad and daddy. I dare say that many of us have called somebody father, dad or daddy many times in our lives and have wished them a happy "Fathers' Day" more than once. Did we disobey Jesus?
How can we honor our father and our mother if we can only address our mother? What do we call the guy she married?
And if you use this verse to bash Catholics, then you'd better use the next verse on yourself if you have called anyone teacher or professor or even instructor or allowed others to refer to you that way.
Nor are you to be called teachers,
Some editions of the NIV use the word instructor which is also commonly used today.
In order to understand the point Jesus was making, we need to see it in its wider context and imagine how the original audience would have taken it. Jesus was speaking to Jews in the first century who spoke Aramaic and had a culture very different from our own, and were dealing with issues particular to their times. Just go back to the beginning of this chapter and read the passage in context to fill in the gaps:
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples:
At the time there were famous religious teachers, rabbis who had their own particular teachings and dedicated circle of followers who called them abba (father) and submitted to their teaching as supreme authority. They even conformed their understanding of Scripture to the particular interpretations of these teachers. The word abba had a much more exalted meaning when used in this context, and the audience knew Jesus was referring to these exalted masters. Most likely some of them and their disciples were in the audience and feeling a bit uncomfortable at that point.
The original audience would not even consider this a literal prohibition of the use of the word abba anymore than they would have plucked out their own eyes if their eyes caused them to stumble.
It was obvious that Jesus was using a rhetorical device which was common in that time and culture called hyperbole. Hyperbole is exaggerated statements or claims which are used to evoke strong feelings or to create a strong impressions but are not meant to be taken literally (have you ever removed a log or a plank from your eye?) The crowds were accustomed to this style of teaching and were not confused by it -- as we might be today.
Those proud and arrogant teachers who insisted on being called abba are all gone now and have not been a problem for many centuries, but the lesson we can learn from this today in our own culture is simply to not exalt any teacher or his teachings so highly that we submit to them rather than to God or Scripture.
We are still free to follow the Apostle Paul's example and the example of the early Church and refer to our spiritual fathers and shepherds -- and our mothers' husbands -- as father.
Okay, this was the biggest difficulty I had with the Catholic Church until I discovered that it is sort of a "scrubbing up" for some Christians before they get into heaven, or a purging of impurities, since nothing impure will enter heaven (Revelation 21:27).
If you suddenly died at this moment, even if you have confidence that you will go to heaven, are you in such a state that you could walk right in just as you are, and go on acting and talking and thinking exactly as you have done on earth, or would something have to be done to take care of your self-centeredness, your sinful habits, your tendency to say unkind words and think impure thoughts?
The Bible says that our citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20) and if we take seriously all those exhortations in the Bible to live a holy life and love others, we would purge ourselves of all those tendencies and find ourselves being transformed into true citizens of heaven right now in this life.
But what if we don't purge those impurities before we die? What do you suppose will happen? Will heaven be filled with self-centered people who are constantly clashing with each other?
Think of the most foul mouthed, evil person you know. If that person became a Christian at the last minute in some type of deathbed conversion, can you imagine what he would be like in heaven? That person would have to be radically different from the person you know on earth; maybe you wouldn't even be able to recognize him. Hmmm, perhaps you already believe in the necessity of something like purgatory even if you don't call it that.
Maybe it's instantaneous or maybe it takes a long time; who knows? After we leave our physical bodies in death, we will no longer be bound by time as we know it in this life, so it's difficult to discuss how long the process takes or even how it will feel. Very little is known about it actually.
The apostle Paul did write of a sort of purging involving fire (1 Corinthians 3:15) which certainly sounds like what we are talking about:
If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw,
Now of course, the word "purgatory" itself does not appear in the Bible, but as I mentioned above, the words "Trinity" and "Incarnation" also do not appear in the Bible, and yet we accept them as true because they are alluded to in the Bible, and the Church has taught them to be true.
Again, as I mentioned above, more issues may crop up from time to time which might be unsettling until answers are found. Even after you find the answers, you may be uncomfortable with them simply because they are foreign to your Protestant cultural background. The bigger issue is whether or not the Holy Spirit has been guiding the Church and protecting it from doctrinal error as it developed. If this is true, then I can accept the teachings of the Church even if I can't readily defend them based on my limited research.
I should point out here that when I talk about doctrine, I do not speak with the authority of the Church.
When I was a Protestant, it was commonly accepted that "authority" rested with people who did their homework such as theologians who put so much time into Bible study. Church Pastors and members look to the theologians and trust their commentaries and "study Bibles" for the answers. Of course, this causes problems when theologians disagree. In Jesus' time, this would be like submitting to the authority of the scribes and teachers of the law rather than the priests.
In the traditional Catholic way of seeing things, theologians do not have the final say. As a matter of fact, their assertions can be taken with a grain of salt, especially those theologians who write strange things. The real authority rests with those to whom it has been entrusted, namely the pope and bishops in union with the pope. I am not a pope or a bishop. I'm not a spokesman for the Church or even a theologian. I'm just a convert from fifty years of Protestantism and in many ways I still walk and talk like a Protestant.
Church growth and development
The Church (specifically its leaders, the bishops with the pope) as the pillar and foundation of the truth has the authority to defend and define teachings as official Church doctrine. But it has been reluctant to do so until it reaches a point of crisis when a teaching is challenged and there is danger of people abandoning it. Some such doctrines such as the incarnation and the Trinity had to be defended early, while others such as long-held teachings about Mary had to be defended much later.
Jesus used the image of a mustard seed to describe the kingdom:
He told them another parable:
The Church has been growing and developing for 2000 years under the guidance and protection of the Holy Spirit who has continued to shed light on the truth and treasures of the Kingdom of God. A mustard seed does not simply increase in size and become a giant mustard seed unchanged in every other way; it develops and grows in complexity with branches, leaves, and flowers over time. It doesn't look like the mustard seed any more than we look like our baby pictures.
A lot of Christians would like to see the Church return to its simple and pure existence as it was in the early years, but that would be like wishing that adults would once again become tiny and cute and wear diapers and have that nice baby smell (depending on the state of the diapers -- and the early church had its smelly moments, too, by the way). But if we all became babies again, the human race would perish within a generation.
I can now recognize that the Catholic Church today with all its beauty and developed doctrine and practices is what Jesus had envisioned from the beginning, and that the Holy Spirit guided its formation and growth.
The Church has grown from its simple beginnings and has developed like a huge and complex tree. And like the birds of the air who came to perch in its branches, people from all countries, languages and cultures have come to live in it and call it home. Over 1.2 billion people in the world are in the Catholic Church. It is by far the biggest single Church in the world; nobody else even comes close.
As I have already pointed out, for the first thousand years, there was no other church but the Catholic Church. Jesus said he would build His church, and that the Holy Spirit would guide it. Anyone who claims that the Catholic Church has gone astray is in danger of calling Jesus a liar and declaring that the Holy Spirit was not able to guide the Church these two thousand years.
I used to think that the Catholic Church was just another Christian denomination, and I was proud of my own generosity since a lot of people will not even admit that much. Now I realize that calling the Catholic Church another Christian denomination is like saying that you are ready to admit that your mother is one of the family. It might sound OK to your ears, but it is very rude to mom. The Catholic Church is the mother Church and she calls her estranged children to come home and rejoin the family.
As mentioned above, the word "catholic" simply means "universal," and I usually don't refer to the Church as the Roman Catholic Church which is a strange combination of adjectives. The "Roman" part was added by Anglicans many years ago who wanted to continue calling themselves "catholic" even after they split from the Catholic Church. The term did not have a positive image at first, but the years have taken the sting out of it, and today many Catholics call themselves Roman Catholics.
Actually, what we have come to know as the Roman Catholic Church is only a part of the Catholic Church; right now there are 23 autonomous churches in the Catholic Church, most of them are Eastern Rite churches such as the Coptic, Marionite, Armenian, and Byzantine Rites, to name a few. They are self governing, and a visitor could easily mistake many of these for Eastern Orthodox Churches, but they but all are in communion with the pope, whose authority they accept as the successor of Peter.
If Jesus built only one universal church on the rock called Peter, then one could make the argument that all Christians in the world are already part of the Catholic Church whether they like it or not, like estranged children. They just need to find their way home like the prodigal son.
If you wanted to be simplistic, based on the numbers of Christians in the world (I have read it is approximately 2.1 billion), you could say that most Christians in the world are already members of the Catholic Church with its 1.2 billion members.
To keep things in perspective, the Eastern Orthodox churches are recognized by the Catholic Church as being part of the one true church.
Although they split from each other during the 11th century mainly over political and cultural differences -- and leaders on both sides were at fault -- the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox churches together are considered the "two lungs" of the Church, and both sides earnestly desire to reunite officially, but it will require working out differences from the last thousand years (still, representatives from both sides are meeting regularly and working on it).
During my few years of research I also considered the Orthodox churches, and visited a Russian Orthodox church several times in Tokyo (there are no other Orthodox churches around here). It was beautiful, but the cultural barriers were huge. Perhaps not enough to prevent me from pursuing it if I thought this was the best path for me, but in the end I chose the part of the Church which submits to the authority of the successor of Peter -- the first of my two reasons mentioned on page 2. For more information on my experience with the Orthodox Church, see my separate and long-winded article, Why did I choose the Catholic Church and not the Orthodox Churches?
The Catholic Church currently has 1,200,000,000 members (1.2 billion) while the Eastern Orthodox churches have 210,000,000 members (one big "lung" and one that is much smaller). Together they can claim over 1.4 billion members world wide. That's two thirds of all the Christians in the world.
A movement in both directions
One area where Protestants outshine Catholics is Bible study. Although the Catholic Mass has much more public Bible reading than a typical Protestant worship service, many cradle-Catholics who were raised in the Church rarely read the Bible on their own, while Protestants are typically well versed in the Bible and study it on their own, even memorizing large portions.
Many Catholics leave their church without understanding what they left, join Protestant churches and then talk about how bad the Catholic Church was. There are several books which describe the errors and evils of the Catholic Church written by people who left the Church or were never part of the Church to begin with who really couldn't discern the myths from the facts. For many years my own opinion of the Catholic Church was based on some of these inaccurate writings.
On the other hand, some Protestants, once they expand their study to include church history and the writings of the early Church Fathers, are drawn to the Catholic Church and bring all their evangelistic zeal and Bible knowledge with them. And they still have an appreciation for the Protestant tradition they left behind. You would be amazed at how many Protestant clergy have become Catholics in recent years.
A lot of former Catholics after being properly trained in the Bible at a Protestant Church, finally recognize the great treasure they left behind and return to the Catholic Church.
A speed bump: bad Catholics
I have referred to the issue of authority many times already in my explanation. Again, what I am referring to is the specific teaching authority which has been entrusted to the pope and all the bishops who are in union with him. This group is also called the Magisterium of the Church.
It is an unfortunate reality that the Catholic Church often looks better on paper than it does in person.
The Church has been entrusted to human beings, who can be self-centered and sinful, and even deaf to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit may not allow them to influence the official doctrines of the Church, but these people can still cause lots of damage in other ways.
Many of us have known Catholics who did not live up to the name, and a lot of people will tell you that the most notorious sinners among their friends were Catholics. Sure, there are a lot of bad Protestants out there as well, but they tend to not identify as Christians anymore and stop going to church, while even bad Catholics tend to hold on to their Catholic identity, perhaps due to family or cultural reasons.
Some Catholic theologians write heretical stuff and some priests unfortunately teach crazy stuff which contradicts the teachings of the Church. And as you know, a lot of really bad priests have made the headlines for their inexcusable sinful acts.
There are bad priests out there even now. Thank God, I eventually found a great parish with great priests who submit to the teachings of the Church, but first I had to deal with an unfortunate encounter with a priest at a different parish. The things he told me were so shocking, it temporarily derailed my train (which might have been his goal since he apparently distrusted Bible-literate Christians). As I read from my journal entry of that day, I see that he told me such things as my reading of the Catechism was "really stupid" and that some of the things I considered reasons to leave the Anglican Church such as the consecration of practicing homosexual bishops would eventually be permitted in the Catholic Church under a different pope. But later I learned that he was wrong on just about everything he said, and I resumed my inquiries with a different priest.
The lesson to be learned from this is that you might encounter a bad priest as you investigate the Catholic Church. Don't be shocked or discouraged but just keep looking until you find a good one. And pray for the bad priest.
Any institution that has grown as big and as old as this is bound to have its share of personnel problems. That's a hard thing to swallow for someone like me who was raised with the idea that you don't put up with any nonsense but simply leave and find another church -- or start a new one. Staying put and trying to fix the problem from the inside was not part of my mindset. Unfortunately for the world, neither was it part of Martin Luther's. Many -- if not all -- of the complaints Luther raised about the Church were corrected after he left -- by those who chose to remain and reform it from the inside.
There have always been bad Catholics in history among the laity and at all levels of the hierarchy. There have been dark times in the history of the Church where many leaders were corrupt, even a few popes. One of the original twelve apostles, Judas Iscariot, was a real bad apple. But what thinking person would leave Peter and the other apostles because of Judas? We shouldn't be surprised at the rotten apples in the Church since Jesus already said this very thing would happen:
Jesus told them another parable:
The Catholic Church has always had its share of "weeds" sowed by the enemy who wants to destroy it, but it is still Jesus' church and he will deal with the weeds in His own time.
If the Holy Spirit were not personally active in the history of the Church, guiding it back on course when it started to stray, and protecting it from even some of its own leaders, it would have destroyed itself and vanished a long time ago!
The fact that the Catholic Church still exists is proof that it is the "real deal."
While I'm on the subject of speed bumps, another obvious hurdle which many Protestant evangelicals encounter when examining the Catholic Church is the culture. You might experience severe culture shock when you visit a Catholic mass, and it might turn you off the first few times you visit.
Of course, there is quite a bit of diversity within the Catholic Church.
James Joyce described the Catholic Church with the phrase, "Here comes everybody!"
Some parishes will have a rather casual atmosphere complete with guitars and song lyrics projected on a screen, while other parishes fully embrace the culture of "smells and bells" and Latin prayers which are as familiar to the average Protestant as life on another planet. Some parishes have large ethnic congregations with even more unfamiliar cultural elements.
Sometimes you will find several types in the same Church if they schedule mass at different times for different crowds.
Remember that the Church is an amazingly wonderful gift from Jesus, and don't fret too much over the wrapping. You might even learn to like it.
The Catholic Church is far from perfect, but if it is the original church that Jesus built, then my options are limited; I had to choose the Catholic Church, warts and all -- where else could I go?
What I found on the inside
Hopefully this explanation will satisfy your curiosity as to why I did what I did. You may not agree with me; I would not have agreed with this article during the first 54 years of my life, and nobody could have convinced me that my position as a Protestant was wrong. All the convincing arguments came from within as I examined the issues for myself and expanded my studies to include Catholic resources and early church history.
As I wrote at the beginning of this long article, I joined the Catholic Church after being an evangelical Protestant all my life. Now I'm an evangelical Catholic.
Of course, I believe I could have gone to heaven as a Protestant. Who can deny that the Holy Spirit is active in Protestant Churches? They have the gifts of the Spirit, an amazing zeal and love for Christ and the Kingdom of God. Many Protestant martyrs have shed their blood for their faith.
The Catholic Church recognizes all baptized Christians as brothers even if they are in communities which have separated from the Catholic Church. Here is how the Catechism puts it:
818 "However, one cannot charge with the sin of the separation those who at present are born into these communities [that resulted from such separation] and in them are brought up in the faith of Christ, and the Catholic Church accepts them with respect and affection as brothers . . . . All who have been justified by faith in Baptism are incorporated into Christ; they therefore have a right to be called Christians, and with good reason are accepted as brothers in the Lord by the children of the Catholic Church."
So I need to clarify that I am not attacking the Protestant Churches or my Protestant friends. I thank God for all the people I led to Christ during my Protestant days, and I don't doubt the validity of their salvation. When I hear of people getting "saved" at the Chapel in Akron, or any of the other Protestan churches I have attended in the past, I rejoice! But I also hope and pray that they don't stop there, but go on to discover the Catholic Church where they will find even more blessings.
As a Protestant coming into the Catholic Church, you will discover that there is so much to gain and absolutely nothing to give up. You can bring all the treasures of your Bible study and evangelistic zeal with you and enrich the local Church as it enriches you.
When I take communion in the Catholic Church, the sense of Jesus' presence is so overwhelming that I am often moved to tears. But it's more than just an emotional high at church; I can recognize the effects of grace. I find my thoughts turning to God more often than before. I am able to resist sin more successfully than before.
I'm finally able to succeed in the "practice of the presence of God" which I had been attempting for 30 years since I read the words of Brother Lawrence. By the way, in case you forgot, Brother Lawrence was a Catholic who received all the grace that comes from Jesus' presence in the Eucharist. In addition, he was a lay brother in a Carmelite monastery and wore the brown scapular day and night, a powerful sacramental which undoubtedly was a secret weapon in his success in practicing the presence of God.
My joy as a Christian is deeper than before, my love for the Bible and prayer is greater than before, and man, do I look forward to going to church to participate in the Eucharist on Sundays -- and any week day when my schedule permits it!
For the sake of the world
Of all the reasons for joining the Catholic Church, I saved this one for last, which should speak to the heart of everyone who calls himself an evangelical or an evangelist.
In the high priestly prayer of Jesus in the seventeenth chapter of the Gospel of John, He said:
I have given them the glory that you gave me,
There is a relatively new concept (new in the history of the Church) which was born out of necessity after the Protestants left the Catholic Church that teaches that there is an invisible universal Church which contains all believers of all denominations, which agrees in the major issues and agrees to disagree in the minor issues.
Of course the reality is, many Protestant groups disagree on the major issues as well, and there is no agreement as to who actually belongs to this invisible Church. And the concept of an invisible Church is not found anywhere in the Bible, which is clear about the importance of one unified Church that the world can actually see and recognize.
Every time a new Christian group or denomination has splintered from the Catholic Church (or from another splintered group outside of the Catholic Church), the confusion and scandal in the eyes of the world has increased, and evangelism efforts have been further damaged.
The world must wonder how the message of Jesus Christ can be true when there are tens of thousands of Christian groups who disagree with each other. It seems that some Christians have turned their guns on each other and have forgotten who their real enemy is.
Just think how successful world evangelism could be if there was but one universal Church planting new churches and proclaiming one message with one voice -- in all the languages of the world!
If you follow the example of Jesus and pray for the unity of all Christians in the world, you ought to make sure that you yourself are united with the one Church that Jesus built.
Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church...
The world needs all the zealous Bible-literate Protestant evangelists to join the Catholic Church, bring new life to the ranks, and shoulder-to-shoulder as one unified army, storm the gates of Hell.
...and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it. Matthew 16:18 (KJV)
I've said enough
There's so much more that I could write about, and believe it or not, I had set out to make this a brief explanation on a single page and nothing more.
If this article makes you want to investigate further, go ahead and follow the links I've provided in part 4.
If you have found these pages disturbing or unsettling or even disgusting, just file the information away in your brain and go on with your life. I hope and pray that it will come back to you at the proper time.
Scripture taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION. Copyright 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.
The New International Version (NIV) is the most popular version of the Bible among Evangelical Protestants. My personal favorites have always been the New American Standard Bible (NASB) and the King James Version (KVJ) which I also quoted in this article.
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