Once more unto the breach; and an apology

Reni, St. Peter Penitent

St. Peter Penitent (c. 1600), by Guido Reni. (WikiPaintings.org)

Hi, everybody. I am about to desperately enter the thesis cave once more, for one last stand. Only one of us (the thesis or me) will emerge alive. But because I have a bit of argumentation backed up from various conversations with folks recently, I thought I would try to make a few brief posts here and there, so as not to entirely let the blog languish. As you well know, brevity is not a strength of mine, so please bear with me.

Also, I want to offer a general apology for my attitude in some recent discussions. It’s so easy for me to let myself become heated in a debate, to lose sight of Christ in the moment, to let my argument become more about me and being right than about Him and sharing His Word and His Truth in charity. The truth and the richness of His Church is marvelous, and I want to share it with everyone I meet; but sometimes, I’m afraid, I go out into the blogosphere seeking critics and opponents of the Church, looking for a fight and finding it. While I do want very much to encourage and engage in dialogue with Protestants, and to defend my Church against unjust charges, misunderstandings, and misinformation, so often I fear I approach people aggressively and obnoxiously, with a spirit of pride and disputatiousness rather than one of brotherhood and love. So, to anyone whom I have offended, please forgive me. Dimitte me, Domine.

May the peace of Christ be with you all.

One in Christ, but not a Visible Unity: A Thought on Christian Love and Reunification

Hans Memling, Christ Giving His Blessing (1481)

Christ Giving His Blessing (1481), by Hans Memling. (WikiPaintings.org)

In talking to a dear friend the other night, who is a new Christian, I realized that sometimes my complaints about Protestants and Protestant theology can be taken in the wrong spirit. (Sometimes I fear they’re made in the wrong spirit.)

My friend was confused and worried that in my lashing out against “Protestants,” I was speaking to her. Let me first say this: I believe that all people who call on the name of Jesus, who believe He is the Son of God, who believe He died for our sins are was raised from the dead that we might be, too — all people who affirm the core and fundamental truths of the Christian faith, as stated in the three ecumenical creeds of the Church (the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed) — can rightfully call themselves Christians and can be saved. All we Christians of particular doctrines have many disagreements about finer points of theology, even about who is saved and how one is saved, but we agree on this: Christ is our Savior, and we are saved solely by God’s grace. We have all been baptized into the one Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12‒13) — in a real sense, we are all One in Him.

El Greco, St. Paul and St. Peter

St. Paul and St. Peter (c. 1595), by El Greco. (WikiPaintings.org)

That said, I have come to the conviction that the Roman Catholic Church is the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church that Christ founded (Matthew 16:18) — a visible Church, that the world can see and identify. I do believe that those many Christians — in particular meaning Protestants — who are outside that visible Church are at a disadvantage, lacking some essential doctrines and especially the integrity guaranteed by apostolic succession and the means of grace in the Sacraments — but I affirm, with the Church, that Protestant churches carry elements of Christ’s Truth and His sanctification and can bear souls to Him for salvation (Second Vatican Council, 1964, Unitatis redintegratio 3.2).

I believe it’s gravely wrong that we have created such division in Christ’s Church, His Spotless Bride. I pray every day that God will reunite the Church; that He will help us find reconciliation with each other and heal our ancient wounds and gashes. I pray that through my blog I might lead others toward that reconciliation, or toward the convictions I myself have reached about the Catholic Church.

But even more important than that — infinitely more important than that — I pray and long that people may find Christ and know Him, by whatever avenue they find Him. If you find truth in my blog, I hope and pray above all that it’s the truth and the love of Christ. Finding His love and His grace is more precious than any fine point of doctrine: for as the Pharisees, I can be knowledgeable and orthodox and right about doctrine and practice, and yet entirely miss the point: it’s love. I could memorize the Catechism backward and forward; attend Mass every day of the year; fast and do penance to the point of utter mortification — and yet if I didn’t have love, I would have nothing and be nothing (1 Corinthians 13).

The Vatican over the Tiber

So if you find a place where you can meet Jesus, where His love lives and is lived, where you are loved and nurtured and find faith and grace and healing — stay there: especially if you are a baby Christian. If you find I am speaking the truth about history and doctrine and practice — if you come to believe with me that the Catholic Church is the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic one — don’t feel, unless the Holy Spirit compels you, that you’re expected to immediately jump the ship you’re on and swim the Tiber. I’d much rather you stay in the loving and nurturing and edifying place God has brought you than make this arduous quest before you’re ready. I would much rather plant confederates all throughout the Body of Christ, who are convinced of the truth of the Church and the necessity of reconciliation and reunification, who might influence others from the inside to lay aside old prejudices, who might urge the Church, from where they are, toward reunion, than have anybody break ties with their Christian brothers and sisters and strike out alone.

I pray that we might all one day break bread together again. But until then, love God, love your neighbor, and strive to be transformed by that love.

Embarking on the Year of Faith: An Ecumenical Step

My dear friend Jessica has highlighted in warmth and charity a remarkable but largely overlooked moment here at the beginning of our Year of Faith: Jessica’s own archbishop, the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, addressed the Catholic Synod of Bishops in Rome yesterday, offering meaningful words on the contemplation of Christ and its essential connection with sharing Christ with others. As the bishops and Catholics worldwide discuss the New Evangelization and our call to share the Gospel in today’s world, his words were especially timely.

Archbishop Rowan Williams

Archbishop Rowan Williams.

But even more than what Archbishop Williams said, I am gladdened by the ecumenical step this represents — both that Pope Benedict invited Archbishop Williams to speak, that Williams agreed, and that the Catholic bishops received him graciously. To my knowledge, this is the first time the leader of a major Protestant sect has ever addressed an assembled synod of Catholic bishops. This may seem to some a small step, but considering the five hundred years of history that have passed between us, the bloodshed and fear and anger and many martyrs for both causes — this, to me, marks a huge step forward.

The Anglican Communion, especially some branches of it like Jessica’s, may be closer in thought and feeling to Rome than any other division of our separated brethren — in fact, some branches are already breaking off to return to us. Archbishop Williams’ address to our bishops is but one step — but the road to reunion must be walked a step at a time. It is my deepest and sincerest hope that we can continue to take steps such as this.

Baptism: A Sacrament for All Christians

Rembrandt , The Baptism of the Eunuch (1626)

The Baptism of the Eunuch (1626), by Rembrandt. (WikiPaintings.org)

I’ve given a (very basic) scriptural explication of the Sacrament of Baptism; I’ve asked the question of why many Protestant Christians reject the sacramentality and efficacy of Baptism, if not the importance and necessity of Baptism altogether; and all the while I’ve been promising that there’s a message of love and hope buried somewhere in what seems so far to be mostly grousing. This is it. I have a lot I want to cover here — I hope I actually get to the hope this time, while maintaining a reasonable length — but I will certainly do my best.

One Baptism: An Enduring Mark of Christian Unity

St. Paul asserted firmly that we are are “one body” in Christ, baptized together into His Body by “one baptism.” He was writing in the context of division and infighting within the Church of his time, especially the Church at Corinth; he wrote to remind the believers there that they were all One in Christ through their Baptism into Him, each a part of His Body with his or her own vocation to fulfill. Although Paul could not have foreseen the sad state of our schism today, the Spirit certainly did: Paul’s words are perhaps more piercingly relevant today than they were then (1 Corinthians 12:12-13):

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body — Jews or Greeks, slaves or free — and all were made to drink of one Spirit.

He might as well have been addressing directly, I think, today’s Catholics and Protestants and Orthodox. Paul again wrote (Ephesians 4:5):

I therefore . . . urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, . . . eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit — just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call — one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

El Greco, Baptism of Christ (c. 1608)

The Baptism of Christ (c. 1608), by El Greco. (WikiPaintings.org)

The Roman Catholic Church teaches, in accordance with this scriptural teaching and with the Nicene Creed, that there is “one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.” She accepts baptisms given by even Protestant communities as valid sacraments — even if the Protestants reject Baptism’s sacramentality. I, having been baptized as a Protestant, didn’t have to be baptized again when I entered the Church.

The thrust of that is this: In the Church’s eyes, I had already been baptized into the Body of Christ. The Church believes that all Christians who are baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19) are truly baptized into the One Body of Christ — that even through our schism, the unity of His Body persists. Baptism is the “sacramental bond of unity existing among all who through it are reborn.” It is the “foundation of communion among all Christians” (CCC 1271; Second Vatican Council, 1964, Unitatis redintegratio §§2, 3).

The Unbaptized?

So what about people who aren’t baptized? Are they condemned?

Not necessarily. As the Catechism puts succinctly, “God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but He himself is not bound by His sacraments” (CCC 1257).

The Church recognizes a few exceptions in particular: First, what it calls the Baptism of blood: The Church believes that those believers who suffer death for the sake of the faith are baptized by blood and by their death for and with Christ (CCC 1258).

The desire or intention for Baptism can also bring the fruits of Baptism without actually receiving the Sacrament, if one meets death before one can. Catechumens especially who die before their Baptism, repentant for their sins and fully intending to receive the Sacrament, can be assured of their salvation, the Church believes (CCC 1259).

Guido Reni, The Baptism of Christ (1623)

The Baptism of Christ (1623), by Guido Reni. (WikiPaintings.org)

The Church also holds out hope for those who die never knowing the Gospel or the necessity of Baptism, but who strove for God’s truth to the best of their knowledge, ability, and opportunity, and who lived their lives in pursuit of charity and righteousness — that they can be saved, too (CCC 1260).

And most of all, in the hope of which I’ve been speaking, I firmly believe that those Christians of our separated brethren whose communities have wandered from apostolic teaching, who neglect the Sacrament of Baptism and never emphasize its necessity as Christ taught, still have the opportunity to be saved, in God’s infinite mercy. For those who love the Lord, who strive to embrace and live the Gospel, who bear the Spirit’s fruit, but through no fault of their own, are not led to Baptism — I believe and hope in their salvation. If they had but known their need for Baptism, they certainly would have sought it, and God embraces that, the Church believes.

In the end, the core truth of Catholic teaching about the Sacrament of Baptism is that it is not a legalistic requirement, a “work” that one has to do to win favor with God, but the means for our salvation provided by the Lord, a gift given by a merciful God who loves us infinitely. The Church is the “vessel of salvation,” but to be saved, one has to first get on the boat. Just so, Baptism is the door to our death and rebirth in Christ; the sharing in His Death and Resurrection, by which He washes away our sins; the way we receive His grace and salvation. And it is offered and extended to all who seek Him. But first one has to get in the water.

Sacrament and Schism: The Media of Grace and Our Separated Brethren

van der Weyden, Seven Sacraments Altarpiece (1450), left panel

Seven Sacraments Altarpiece (1450), by Rogier van der Weyden. This is the left panel of the triptych, representing (left to right) Baptism, Confirmation, and Confession. (WikiPaintings.org)

Here’s the beginning of something I’ve been pondering for a while now (or really the last post may have been the beginning). I’m going to try to be a little more brief than I usually am, both for your sake and mine.

The ministry of the Roman Catholic Church to her people is focused in the Seven Sacraments: Baptism, the Eucharist, Confirmation, Confession, Marriage, the Anointing of the Sick, and Holy Orders. The word sacrament comes from the Latin sacramentum, which classically referred to a solemn oath, but came in Ecclesiastical Latin to mean something set apart, consecrated, made sacred. It became one of the common translations for the Greek μυστήριον (mystērion, mystery, as in the sacred mysteries) — e.g. Ephesians 5:32, “This [marriage] is a great sacrament; but I speak in Christ and in the church” (Douay-Rheims Bible).

So what is a Sacrament? The clearest definition, which apparently comes from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer (though it seems to have a basis in St. Augustine and Hugh of Saint Victor), is that it is “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” Or, as it was explained to me in RCIA, a sacrament actually accomplishes spiritually what it represents physically. Baptism, through a washing with water, actually accomplishes a spiritual washing away of sin, a death to the old self and a new birth in Christ. The Eucharist, through the breaking of bread and the eating and drinking of the elements, actually communicates to us the Body and Blood of Christ, by God’s grace. We believe that the Sacraments are the “media of grace” — the means by which God transmits His grace to His people.

van der Weyden, Seven Sacraments Altarpiece (1450), right panel

Seven Sacraments Altarpiece (1450), by Rogier van der Weyden. The right panel, depicting (left to right) Holy Orders, Marriage, and Anointing of the Sick. (WikiPaintings.org)

So why do Catholics call these seven things sacraments? Why do we raise these things to the level of the sacred? Why do we place the emphasis on them that we do? The simplest answer: Because Christ commanded us to do them. We find in Scripture Christ teaching these things to His Apostles; we find the Apostles taking them and making them part of the worship and practice of the Early Church. In the Tradition of the Church, passed down from the Apostles themselves, these things have always been done; always held to be sacred. A lot of the finer points of sacramental theology were worked out by the Church’s theologians over many generations; even the firm definition of Seven Sacraments was a development over time. But we know that Christ commanded these things; we know that they accomplish what He said they would.

And that brings me to the question I’ve been pondering: We Catholics believe that the Sacraments are the means by which God saves us. If I accept as an assumption that Protestants can be saved — many of whom deny the efficacy of the Sacraments — how does God’s grace move for them? As I mused last time, I reckon God’s Divine Mercy is so overwhelming that His grace bleeds even through the cracks of our schism. The Church holds that even though the Catholic Church is the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, “many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of its visible structure” (Second Vatican Council, Lumen gentium §8). And I’m enthralled by this wondrous grace that reaches even beyond our gravest human failings, across the chasms of our human divisions, to catch up those who love Him and serve Him and won’t let them slip away.

I plan in the near future to focus on each of the Sacraments, and the graces that we believe as Catholics they bestow, and muse on why our separated Protestant brethren have rejected them, how each’s particular aspect of salvation is accomplished in Protestant systems of belief, and how even though Protestants reject them, the Sacraments bear grace to them anyway. First, I will think about Baptism.

van der Weyden, Seven Sacraments Altarpiece (1450), center panel

Seven Sacraments Altarpiece (1450), by Rogier van der Weyden. The center panel, showing Christ’s sacrifice in the Eucharist, the source and summit of our faith. (WikiPaintings.org)

The Outpouring of Divine Mercy: A thought on the Work of God among all Christians

The Works of Mercy, by David Teniers the Younger

The Works of Mercy (c.1645), by David Teniers the Younger. (Wikipaintings.org)

Hello, dear friends. I’m still around. I’m continuing to struggle with some things — not least of all a real terror of a paper — but I think the sun is beginning to shine through the clouds, and I hope, I pray, that I’ll soon be able to return to you on a more regular basis.

I have been thinking about a lot of things lately — the direction this blog has been taking, the direction my heart has been taking, and the way my heart needs to lead this blog. For one thing, I need and deeply long to return to this blog’s original mission, to extol all the beauties and graces of the Catholic Church, and to ponder the lamentable divide between Catholics and Protestants, and to work in my own way to bring us closer together. I have been lashing out defensively, even aggressively, against Protestants who reject communion with the Catholic Church, against their arguments and even against their beliefs. But the truth is that this all breaks my heart grievously, in being hurt and even more in that my words might hurt others.

I have been spending a lot of time with my Protestant brethren lately, most of all my dear Baptist friends. And I find that the passion, the mercy, and the love of their worship and ministry is true and genuine and full of God’s grace and healing. And that begs the question, as my wandering road as a Protestant always begged — how can more than one thing be true? If the Catholic Church is Christ’s True Church, founded by Him and His Apostles, bearer of Apostolic Tradition, the fullness of God’s plan of salvation for us — and this I firmly and thoroughly believe — what are our separated brethren? And if I see God’s grace and love alive and active in them, as witnessed by the transformation of lives — what does that mean for the Truth? It means, I suppose, that God is so much bigger than us and our petty disputes, than any division we can create; that His mercy is infinitely greater and overflowing to all who love Him.

We of the Catholic faith practice the Christian life as it has been handed down to us. Catholic tradition is just that — that which has been handed down — and it has been handed down from the ages because it is what works, what time has proven to bear fruit, and what Christ and the Apostles commanded us to do. So what about all the other Christians who do differently, who believe differently? The Catholic Church is not in the business of pronouncing judgment on them, on deeming whether they or anyone is “saved.” What the Church teaches is what she knows; what she has received; what has proven to be true. How God moves and saves with other Christians is His business, the outpouring of His Divine Mercy. It is our job to seek His Truth, and to be faithful and obey.

A burden for Christian unity

Giotto di Bondone. The Lamentations Over Our Lord Christ. Cappella Scrovegni a Padova.1305

I am really deeply troubled.

I can’t entirely put my finger on why, but this is the same burden that has been dogging me all weekend.

It seems very wrong, very contrary to the will of God, that even in the decadence of modern secular society — a decadence that threatens even the Church — the Church of Christ remains deeply divided against itself. We are fighting among ourselves when we should be fighting for Christ.

This was the sentiment behind the Evangelicals and Catholics Together document drafted by Chuck Colson and Fr. Richard Neuhaus in 1994. A number of prominent leaders in both evangelical churches and the Catholic Church agreed to it and signed it. More troubling, though, is the not insignificant number of leaders on both sides who attacked the document and refused to have anything to do with it.

500 years after the Reformation, there are still a large number of evangelicals who will offer no quarter to a Catholic, who will not even sit down at the table with one lest there be any appearance of compromise. They would separate themselves from all fellowship with Catholics, even deny them a place in the kingdom of God. These are not just fringe elements; these include major leaders and theologians such as R. C. Sproul. People like James White write whole books attacking Catholicism and denying that Catholics are Christian. I have run into quite a few of these people in just my short time in the blogosphere. Even my own best friends would rather fight me when it comes to discussing doctrine than seek common ground. And every time it happens I feel a burden of rejection and frustration and despair.

And I don’t understand it. There is a wide diversity of doctrine in Protestantism — yet not the same kind of unfathomable chasm. Calvinists and Arminians disagree sharply, but are willing to have conversations with each other. Baptists and Methodists can agree to disagree about infant baptism versus believer’s baptism. These are issues that go just as deeply into soteriology, the theology of salvation, as the divide between Catholics and Protestants, and yet many Protestants wouldn’t even consider a similar truce with a Catholic.

James White argues that Catholics and Protestants disagree fundamentally about what the Gospel even is. Having been both a Protestant and a Catholic, that argument is incomprehensible to me. Of course it’s the same Gospel. How can anyone deny that? I follow the same Christ I’ve followed all my life. I hope in the same salvation, the same forgiveness of sins, the same resurrection. My Protestant Baptism was acceptable to the Catholic Church; why can’t my Catholic justification be valid in the eyes of a Protestant?

Catholics and Protestants have deep disagreements about doctrine. I don’t deny that, and I don’t pretend it doesn’t matter. If we believe what we teach, then it necessarily means believing that the other side of the argument is wrong. But look at it this way: Regardless of which side is right, the other is not excluded from salvation. If it is true, as Catholics believe, that we are justified by the outpouring of God’s grace through faith, and sanctified over the course of our lives as we walk in that grace, then certainly many Protestants, who faithfully believe in Christ and from that faith follow Him and walk with Him, will be saved. Or if it is true, as Protestants believe, that we are justified by faith alone in Christ through His grace, then certainly many Catholics who have a genuine faith in Christ will be saved. The only way to exclude Catholics from salvation, as some Protestants are wont to do, is to believe that salvation is by faith in the five solas alone — that by confessing the Reformation we are saved.

I have no interest in attacking the Protestant faith. I will defend the Catholic faith, but it is deeply unpleasant to me to be forced to return polemic for polemic, as I’ve had to do in White’s case. I am glad to help any pilgrim who wishes to cross the Tiber, but even more deeply than that, I want to build a bridge, on which both sides might meet and resolve some of these rancorous disputes. I long for Christendom to be at peace.

The Same Gospel: A Plea to Bible Christians

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 by Bouguereau

“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

    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.

We Believe…

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.

Protestant Misconceptions

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 (Murillo)

    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.

Charles Colson’s “Ecumenism of the Trenches”

Charles Colson

Charles Colson (1931-2012)

This morning in the National Catholic Register, I was saddened to learn of the death of Charles Colson a few days ago. (The NCRegister piece is moving and worth reading.)

Even in the far orbit of the evangelical sphere I’ve been in for so many years, I knew and admired Chuck Colson. He was one of the most vivid examples in our society of the radical, life-changing, revolutionizing power of the Gospel of Christ. Once Richard Nixon’s “hatchet man,” known for his political ruthlessness, and implicated in the Watergate scandal, Colson gave his life to Christ after reading C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity. After a term in prison, he devoted the rest of his life to Christian service and advocacy.

A few months ago, in one of my many thrifting runs and book hunts, I picked up a copy of Evangelicals and Catholics Together: Toward a Common Mission, a collection of essays edited by Colson and his friend Fr. Richard J. Neuhaus (who, I see, was also a convert, a former Lutheran pastor). The message of the ecumenical document they together helped draft: that in the face of the challenges of the modern world, Catholics and evangelicals should stand together as witnesses.

I applaud these efforts. Now more than ever, we Christians should strive for cooperation and understanding if not unity. It is my hope that through my conversion and witness, I can reach out especially to my evangelical brothers and sisters to dispel mistaken ideas about Catholics and foster a spirit of acceptance and accord.

Requiescat in pace, Charles Colson. May God guide you to your reward.

The Onus of Reunification

One of the biggest questions in my Catholic journey has been this: How does God view the Catholic and Orthodox and Protestant churches, and their schism with one another? God desires unity in His Church. St. Paul writes to us, “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment” (1 Corinthians 1:10 ESV). The very fact of our disunity attests to our sinfulness: We have all fallen short. We have all failed to preserve the unity of His Church. We all share part in the blame — even those of us alive today, we who perpetuate the division and fail to ardently seek reunification.

I’ve come to believe, in my journey, that the Catholic Church holds the treasury of apostolic faith, the fullness of truth having been passed down; that it is the One (unus, single, undivided) Holy and Apostolic Church founded by Christ and the Apostles. Studying the history of the Church, I have come to see that the traditions of the Church are not accretions or inventions as I once thought, but have persisted through the great men of faith of the Middle Ages, through the great Church Fathers, all the way since the beginning, the faith of the Apostles. I believe that the Catholic Church represents an unbroken continuity of belief and tradition, from the Apostles to the present day.

Unbroken, that is, except for those who have broken away.* Being raised a Protestant, I always admired and celebrated the great Protestant Reformers. I still do — they were courageous men passionate about God and willing to stand up for what they believed. I cannot, even as a Catholic, paint the Reformers or the Reformation black. The Catholic Church certainly needed to be reformed in many ways — and in fighting back against that reform, she must share a part of the blame for the schism that ensued. I now consider that schism one of the most heart-wrenching and tragic events in all of history — the rending of Christ’s Holy Church, his Spotless Bride.

(* I am not abandoning Eastern Orthodoxy, either. I am only leaving it out of this discussion for simplicity’s sake, because the majority of us Christians in the West are Catholic or Protestant, and because I know comparatively little about the Orthodox churches.)

Protestant churches have borne much good fruit. Christ continues to be active in them, in teaching, love, service, and salvation. There have been many great Protestant thinkers and theologians — and I do consider their thought and theology great; they are worthy and useful ways for thinking about God and our life in Him. There have been many good and holy Protestant servants of Christ, who have fed the hungry, clothed the poor, bound up the wounds of the hurting, and won many souls for His kingdom. God, without a doubt, uses, ministers, and saves through Protestant churches.

So God is merciful and forgives us of our sins — even the great sin of breaking His Church into fragments. But is that enough? Is it enough to accept His forgiveness, accept the fact of our division as final and irrevocable — that what’s been done is done, and we can’t go back? That this is the way things are now? That our churches can’t break bread together, and that’s okay? To most Protestants (to me as well, not that long ago), the thought of rejoining with the Catholic Church is unthinkable. To many, it is outright offensive. To them, the Catholic Church had sinned and been corrupted; it needed to be re-created. But even supposing that were true — the fact remains that the Christian Church — the Body of Christ — is fragmented. Are we going to allow this to persist?

There have many efforts over the years at ecumenism. Mostly in recent times, this has consisted of getting some members of the various churches together to share and discuss what they have in common and worship together. I applaud this, and think there needs to be more of it: the more we all talk to each other, the more we’ll realize that we all share the same Christ, and that He doesn’t want us to be divided. Others, however, continue to attack our differences, and decry any ecumenical efforts. How can this be what Christ wants? Can any of these people really sit down with faithful Catholics and continue to believe that Catholics are not Christians? How can anyone believe that our God is so small as to exclude large bodies of believers from His Kingdom because of minor doctrinal differences?

I feel that the onus is on us to seek not just dialogue, but reunification of Christ’s Church. As we ever approach the end of the age, we will need each other — we will need to be One and whole as a faith — more than ever. Recognizing this need for reunion is one of the many reasons for my decision to join the Catholic Church. History has failed to prove to me that the Catholic Church has ever been “wrong” or “corrupt” to the point of justifying a break (everyone sins; but she has never departed from the Truth); and so, if she was not “wrong,” then she must still be “right.” And the onus is on me to do what I can to make reparation for my ancestors' mistakes (this probably applies to my ancestors other mistakes as well). I am just one lonely pilgrim, but in returning to Rome, I am doing what I can. And I am a part of an ever-growing wave. And I believe as this wave gains momentum, it will sweep up more than only individuals. I truly have hope to see whole churches, even whole denominations, return to communion with Rome. I truly have hope to see, in my lifetime, a reunification of all Christians.

Just as the blame for our division is shared among all Christians, I believe that in reunification, some ground must be given by all. I’m not an expert on this — more learned people than I have written whole books on the problem of reunification — but the baseline for communion with Rome would have to be, I think, accepting the authority of the Pope and Magisterium, and belief in the Sacraments. I think the idea of accepting an institutional church authority at all will be most difficult for many Protestants — but I’ve come to see that it’s necessary. From Rome’s position, I think there is plenty of ground to yield regarding practice: just as Rome is embracing many Anglicans and allowing them to preserve their Anglican identity and heritage, and just as the Eastern Catholic Churches are embraced in all their differences, even a “Baptist rite” or a “Presbyterian rite” could be accommodated. I can quite easily imagine the liturgy of a Baptist church that embraced Rome and the Sacraments, while still remaining essentially Baptist.

We are all Christians, after all. We all worship the same Triune God. We all believe the same things about Christ. We all adhere to the same creeds†, whether we proclaim them or not. Regarding the Sacraments, our differences of opinion are more minor than most people recognize. Unity is within reach — if only we are willing to reach out. The onus is on every one of us.

† Obviously, I am excluding those who don’t — Sorry. Y’all come on back now, too.