I’ve decided, sadly, that I’m going to have to back off posting so much. I have a lot of other things I need to be working on for school, and this is taking a lot of time and attention. It’s my passion right now; but I have way too many competing passions. This post is burning a hole in my heart, though, so I wanted to share it first.
“Compassion” (1897), by William-Adolphe Bouguereau.
As I’ve been venturing out into the blogosphere, I’ve been encountering an alarming and disheartening degree and presence of anti-Catholic sentiment among Protestant (“Bible”) Christians. Now, it’s one thing to disagree with Catholic doctrine and practice; it’s another entirely to reject Catholics as “unbelievers,” “heretics,” “apostates,” “pagans,” “demonic,” or otherwise as un-Christian or even anti-Christian. I’ve been called all of these in just the past week.
Let me declare to anyone who will listen: Catholics believe the same Gospel as Protestants. We worship the same God, the same Christ, the same Holy Spirit; we believe in the same grace and the same faith and the same salvation; we read and affirm the same Scriptures. If you have been told otherwise, you have been told lies. This post is aimed at those Protestants to whom this may come as a surprise. Briefly, I will present a case for the Christianity of the Catholic faith: not necessarily to convince you of its truth, but to convince you that despite doctrinal disagreements, Catholics are indeed your brothers and sisters in Christ.
Ending the Forever War
I am blessed to have been raised in a loving home and a loving church that never taught hate or rejection for any other members of the Body of Christ. As I grew older and first encountered opposition to Catholicism, I was always quick to stand by my Catholic brothers’ and sisters’ side in defense. If anything, anti-Catholic persecution drove me toward the Catholic Church rather than away from it: for I’m inclined to run away from anyone who attacks the Body of Christ.
I am frankly quite flabbergasted as to why this is happening. How can anyone who examines what the Catholic Church teaches proclaim it as “un-Christian”? The answer is, of course, that these people never examine what the Catholic Church teaches. They are taught prejudice, hostility, and hate from their childhood; they remain in the closed communions and enclaves of their own churches; they never encounter Catholics or Catholic churches enough to challenge or question what they have been taught; and they teach the same prejudices to their children. This vicious cycle has no doubt been going on for generations, for 500 years, since the Protestant Reformation itself. The degree of rancor and resentment I have felt among these groups — and it seems to be most pronounced in sects of the Calvinist and Reformed traditions — is heartbreaking.
Yes, I know that Catholics persecuted Protestants in Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; Protestants persecuted Catholics, too. Many Protestants and many Catholics died for their faith. It was unjust and it was wrong, on both sides. But it has been 500 years. It has been seventy years since the end of World War II; 150 years since the end of the American Civil War; yet all of the combatants in those conflicts have moved on. It is time that we all took a good look at our differences, buried this decrepit 500-year-old hatchet, ended this forever war, and worked together to heal the wounds we’ve inflicted, and continue to inflict, on the Body of Christ.
A Common History
Protestants seem to forget, I think — or ignore, or gloss over, or not think about — that for the first 1,500 years of Christianity, Catholics and Protestants shared a common history. I admit I have a difficult time, as an historian, understanding this reasoning: even as a Protestant, I understood and appreciated this. But I think there are several prevalent Protestant myths:
That at some point in those 1,500 years of history, through a “Great Apostasy,” the Roman Catholic Church fell away from “True Christianity,” commingled its doctrines with pagan religions and philosophies, or became bound up with cold legalism and dead tradition and lost sight of the Gospel of Christ. If you believe this or anything similar, I challenge you to study the history of the Church, and declare a point at which the Catholic Church “fell away” from the Truth and beyond which it became “apostate.”
That at some point in history, the Roman Catholic Church began to interpret Scripture mistakenly, or even stopped reading Scripture; or that it allowed its emphasis on Tradition to supersede or override the truth of Scripture. If you believe this, I challenge you again to declare a point at which this happened, and declare specific traditions that you believe to be unscriptural (this doesn’t mean “not in Scripture”; this means “against Scripture” or “contrary to Scripture”; see the section on Catholic Tradition below).
That Protestant thought and beliefs have always existed, during those 1,500 years of history, among sects persecuted and suppressed by the Roman Catholic Church; that your brand of Christianity was never part of the Roman Catholic Church and that your Christian ancestors never believed what Catholics believed. This is mythology. Believing this requires identifying your beliefs with some truly heinous heretical sects. If you believe this, I challenge you to examine the history of Christianity, and examine the historical origins of your own denomination, and explain to me where you think you came from.
St. Francis of Assisi (1642) by Jusepe de Ribera.
Believing any of these myths also requires believing that the Holy Spirit, which Jesus promised would guide the Church in all truth (John 16:13), has failed to do so; and that the Gates of Hell did in fact overcome the Church (Matthew 16:16-19). For “Bible Christians” to believe this is to undermine their own belief. No matter what you may believe about the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, the fact is indisputable that for 1,500 years, those churches preserved, protected, and nourished the Christian faith and the Christian Bible, in order to deliver it into the hands of the Protestant Reformers in the sixteenth century. This also requires rejecting most of the great Christian saints of history as apostates or heretics.
By the very nature of that common history, Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox Christians share in common, at the very least, the three historic ecumenical creeds of the Christian faith: the Nicene Creed, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Athanasian Creed. Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox all still affirm these things together (I am paraphrasing a bit):
- We believe in One God, the Father Almighty, who created the Heaven and the Earth.
- We believe in Jesus Christ, the Only Begotten Son of God, existing from the beginning of time as God’s Son, of the same substance as the Father, fully God and fully Man.
- Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, was crucified and died for the sins of humanity, and was resurrected on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures. He ascended into Heaven, sits at the right hand of God the Father, and will judge the living and the dead at the end of the age.
- We believe in the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Holy Trinity with the Father and the Son, who spoke through the Prophets, inspired the Holy Scriptures, and guides Christ’s Church today.
- We believe in One, holy, catholic (universal) and apostolic Church; the forgiveness of sins; the communion of saints; the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.
Historically, these creeds and these tenets of faith define Christian orthodoxy: those who adhere to these beliefs were and are called Christians.
There are a number of flagrant misconceptions that Protestants have about the Catholic Church. These are lies. I will here aim to address every one that I can think of; but I will no doubt be adding to this list later.
“Works’ righteousness”: That Catholics believe they can “save themselves,” through their “good works” or living a “good life” apart from the grace of God. Catholics believe nothing of the sort. See the section below, “Salvation by Grace, through Faith,” for a more detailed explanation.
Virgin and Child with Rosary (1655), by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo.
“Mary worship”: Catholics do not “worship” Mary. Catholics honor and venerate Mary as a profound example of faith, grace, and obedience. Catholics do believe a number of traditions about Mary that are not found in Scripture, but these (1) do not conflict with Scripture, (2) are supported by Scripture, and (3) are well attested in tradition by the writings of the Church Fathers in the first Christian centuries. See my introductory post on this subject, “The Veneration of Mary: An Introduction for Protestants,” and the section below on Catholic Tradition.
Saints: Likewise, Catholics do not “worship” saints. As with Mary, we honor and venerate saints as heroes and examples of faith, charity, and virtue. Saints are Christians who have died in Christ, whom the Church believes are now in Heaven, and whom the Church believes are still a part of our communion in the Body of Christ. Praying to saints and to Mary is nothing more than asking our family and loved ones to pray for or intercede for us to God.
Catholic Tradition: Many Catholic doctrines are based on tradition, beliefs that were handed down orally and through writing from the Apostles and the Early Church. Catholics do not adhere to sola scriptura (which, we hold, is unhistorical and unscriptural); we believe Scripture and Tradition are two distinct sources by which we’ve received God’s Truth. Catholics nonetheless believe Scripture is inspired and inerrant. No part of Catholic Tradition contradicts Scripture.
The Pope: Catholics believe the bishop of Rome (the pope) is the successor of St. Peter, and therefore the foremost among bishops and the head of the Catholic Church. But he does not replace Christ as the Head of the Church. The pope is a man elected to an office by men (the college of cardinals), under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. He is not divine or godlike in any way. He is called the “Vicar of Christ,” which means only that he is Christ’s representative on earth to His Church: a pastor with a really big flock.
Purgatory: Catholics believe in Purgatory, a state of purification after death for Christians who have not been fully conformed to Christ during their lifetimes. Purgatory is not a place of punishment for the guilt of sins. It in no way diminishes Christ’s sacrifice or declares that it is “not enough” to save or forgive sins. All Christians who live and walk in the life of God’s grace will have their sins forgiven and are guaranteed salvation; but Purgatory is a place of purification or preparation for the dead in Christ to stand before God in Heaven. It is easier thought of as a state or a journey than a place as Dante imagined; it is the path a soul takes on the way to Heaven. Every soul in Purgatory will reach Heaven in the course of time. The belief in Purgatory, a purging fire, is based in Scripture (2 Maccabees 12:46, 1 Corinthians 3:15, 1 Peter 1:7) and Tradition, and was a belief of the entire Christian Church until the time of Luther.
Salvation by Grace, through Faith
But the most pernicious of lies against the Catholic faith is that the Catholic Church teaches a “false Gospel,” that of “works’ righteousness” or “salvation by works”: that Catholics believe they can “save themselves” by their “good works” or by living a “good life” without the help of God’s grace. Catholics believe no such thing. The Catholic Church teaches, the same as Protestants, that we are saved by God’s grace alone, through faith, as we are taught by Scripture. Where Catholics and Protestants differ is that Protestants believe in salvation by faith alone (sola fide), while Catholics do not (you will not find anywhere in the Bible that says “by faith alone”). This is not as big a difference as it seems.
This is not the place to argue for or against the merits of sola fide. But I want to draw your attention to these points:
- Both Protestants and Catholics teach that salvation is a free gift, an undeserved gift of God’s grace given to sinners by no merit of their own. (Ephesians 2:8-9)
- Both Protestants and Catholics teach that initial justification is entirely the work of God, through faith; that without the work of God’s grace, sinful humans can do nothing to approach God on their own. (Ephesians 2:8-9)
- Both Protestants and Catholics teach that good works, following that initial justification, are necessary. (Ephesians 2:10, James 2:17, Philippians 2:12)
- Both Protestants and Catholics teach that good works are the fruit of faith in God, and are only possible by His grace; that it is God’s grace who works through us. (Philippians 2:12-13)
So what is the difference? Only this: Protestants teach that if a Christian does not produce the fruit of good works, then they never had true faith to begin with, and will not be saved. Catholics teach that only if a Christian bears the fruit of good works, then they will be saved. The end result is the same in both teachings: no works, no salvation (James 2:17). We have to do something with our faith to be saved; both Protestants and Catholics affirm this. Both Protestants and Catholics affirm that faith, by grace, comes first. Protestants teach that with faith, a true believer will bear the fruits of good works. Catholics teach that with faith and by grace, a true believer both wills and works (Philippians 2:12-13). Catholics do not teach that “our works save us”; we teach that it is by our allowing God to produce the fruits of righteousness in our lives, by His grace and by our cooperation with it, that we are saved.
This does not amount to “works’ righteousness” in any way. It is not by any effort of our own, or by any works of our own, that we are saved. As Ephesians 2:10 teaches, we are “created for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” It is by walking in these good works, by God’s grace, that we “work out our own salvation” (Philippians 2:12-13) and are saved.
(There is more on this subject, with quotes from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, at “Salvation by Grace Alone.”)
The Same Gospel
Both Protestants and Catholics teach the Gospel of grace, of God’s divine, overflowing, and unmerited favor and forgiveness upon humanity, apart from anything we have ever done or could ever do. The major differences between Protestant and Catholic teachings are in how that grace is received and how one walks in it. These differences are not fundamental; for the foundation of both teachings is the grace poured out by Christ crucified. Both teachings end in the salvation by grace alone of undeserving sinners. The Gospel is love, and faith, and grace, and forgiveness — and both Catholics and Protestants affirm this and walk in this.
The Apostle Paul urges that there be no divisions among us (1 Corinthians 1:10-17). We have pretty well screwed that one up. I truly believe that both faithful Protestants and faithful Catholics are part of the same body of Christ — for Christ is undivided (1 Corinthians 1:13). I have high hope that if we push past our hostility and our prejudices, if we listen to each other and talk to each other, if we work by the grace of the Holy Spirit, then someday we will see a reunion of all Christians. I believe this is necessary, as we approach the end of the age: we must stand together as Christians against the challenges of secularism, atheism, and modernism. Christ wants to return for a one, whole, spotless Bride; and we owe it to our Lord and to His Church to strive for that.
But for the time being, why don’t we at least stop attacking our fellow members of the Body of Christ? Why don’t we embrace each other as the brothers and sisters we are? Jesus gave us a new commandment: that we love one another, just as He loved us. “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another,” He said (John 13:34-35). And yet I’ve seen more hostility, hatred, and mistrust between Protestants and Catholics, fellow Christians, than I’ve ever seen love. What kind of witness does this show to the world, that the people who call on the name of Jesus cannot even love each other? This goes both ways: Catholics should love and embrace their Protestant brethren, too. It is only through love, forgiveness, and grace that we will ever be reconciled and healed.