Making My Peace with the Catholic System of Things–The Third Installment

[NOTE: This is the third of a four-part series. Here is the first installment. Here is the second installment. And here is the final installment.]

Here at last is the third installment in my ongoing series on the Catholic system of things and how it relates to my life. As I consider this, there are three principal thoughts which stick out in my mind. The first is that being Protestant ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. I explored this in the first installment, in which I discussed the problems that I see in mainline and evangelical Protestantism. The second is that there is much in the Catholic Church that is worthy of respect and admiration. I discussed this in the second installment.

So, if you are still tracking with me, by this point you are probably thinking something to the effect of “Oh no!!! Joe’s about to march right off the cliff and into the abyss of Romanism!!! Somebody better throw him a lifesaver–QUICK!!!!!”

Well, folks, don’t worry. I’m not going anywhere. For though I have now come to the place where I can be a fan and admirer of the Catholic Church, I am not about to sign up. Nothing that I see in evangelicalism, no matter how bizarre or problematic, will be enough, now or at any time in the future, to push me over the abyss of Catholicism.


This brings me to my third principal thought.

Though the Catholic Church has much to recommend it, I am content to admire from a distance. I have no desire to actually join, because…

(3) To become Catholic would require me to hold my stomach and accept many things which I cannot accept.

Vatican II and the years since have seen sweeping changes in Catholic worship and practice. Among the most compelling of these changes is a new culture of openness, marked by a willingness to dialogue with different faiths, and a willingness to refer to Protestants officially as “separated brethren” rather than heretics. Yet despite all of this, in many crucial doctrinal areas the Catholic Church has not budged from the position that it took at the Council of Trent (1545-1563), which is best known for its “anathemas” which were intended to repudiate the Protestant Reformation.

Salvation by works: The Catholic Church teaches that salvation is by faith in Jesus Christ plus good works; that is, that it consists of God and the individual cooperating over the course of a lifetime to attain the state of justification. The process of justification, according to the Catholic view, begins when a person receives the sacrament of Baptism. Through the sacrament of Baptism, God pours a certain amount of grace into a person’s life. As that person does good works and lives a life of good works, God continues to pour grace into his or her life. This grace can be lost if that person commits a serious enough sin, but it can be restored through the sacrament of Reconciliation. If that person dies in a state of grace, then he or she is saved.

But this flies in the face of the Biblical view of salvation. Justification is not a lifetime process in which the individual cooperates with God to attain right standing before Him. Instead it is a one-time act of God in which He instantaneously declares a sinner to be forgiven and imputes His own righteousness to him or her (see Romans 3:21-4:8). In Christ every believer is complete, with everything that he or she needs to live a righteous life before God (Colossians 2:10, 2 Peter 1:3-4). Good works are not necessary to further the process of justification; instead they are the result of justification (Ephesians 2:8-10). Justification is not lost through sin. (Romans 5:9-11. Some respectable scholars and teachers disagree with this, on the basis of certain portions of Hebrews 6 and 10. But the majority view in evangelicalism is that salvation cannot be lost, and anyone professing Christ but living a life of intentional and habitual sin was probably never saved in the first place.)

The Sacraments: In the Catholic Church there are seven sacraments: Baptism, Reconciliation, Holy Communion, Confirmation, Matrimony, Holy Orders, and Anointing of the Sick. Each of these sacraments serves a unique purpose in the Catholic system of things.

According to Catholic teaching, the sacraments are the primary means by which God bestows grace upon His people. The sacraments are not merely symbolic expressions of the grace that God gives to believers; instead they are actual conduits of God’s grace. God confers grace to the person receiving the sacrament through the ritual for that sacrament, by the mere fact of that ritual being performed and performed properly.

Now, in order to actually receive grace from a sacrament, the soul of the person receiving it must be properly disposed. First of all, the person must be in a state of grace; that is, the sanctifying grace which came into the person’s life through the sacrament of Baptism must still be intact. If it was lost through serious sin, it must have been restored through the sacrament of Reconciliation. (The only exceptions to this are the sacraments of Baptism and Reconciliation.) The next step in preparing to receive a sacrament includes such things as a believing heart, reflection, prayer, and acts of penance. Once a person’s soul is properly disposed, then he or she is able to receive the grace that God provides through the sacrament.

The Catholic Church teaches that the sacraments are necessary because they provide grace which is needed to avoid sin and do good. The amount of grace which a person is able to receive through the sacraments depends upon both the generosity of God to provide grace through the channels that He has established, and the diligence of the person receiving the sacraments to see to it that his or her own soul is properly disposed.

But Catholic belief concerning the sacraments proceeds from an incorrect understanding of the concept of grace. Grace is not something which God gives to those who show themselves deserving; instead it is unmerited faver bestowed by God for no other reason than His own generosity. (See Romans 11:6, Romans 5:1-11, Ephesians 2:4-7)

The clincher for me is in Luke 23. Here Jesus is on the cross, between two thieves. One of them begins to taunt Jesus, challenging him to come down off the cross and save them all if he is really the Son of God. The other thief rebukes him, saying that they are getting what they deserve while Jesus has done nothing wrong. Let’s pick up the action in verse 42. “Then he [the thief who spoke out in defense of Jesus] said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ Jesus answered him, ‘I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.'” (Luke 23:42-43)

If the Catholic system of good works and sacraments is the true path to eternal life and righteousness before God; if the sacraments were instituted by Jesus Christ as the path which He intends for all to follow to Him and to His kingdom, then what on earth was He talking about just then? Where does He get off promising eternal life to a thief dying on a cross, who had lived a life of wickedness and was now receiving the just punishment for it, and who was in no position to participate in a sacramental system or do any other good work which might remove his sin and bring sanctifying grace into his life?

In short, I find it impossible to believe that both the Biblical view of salvation and grace, and the Catholic view, are true. I cannot accept that the Catholic system of righteousness through good works and grace infused by the sacraments is the true Gospel.

Scripture and Tradition: The Catholic Church teaches that both Scripture and tradition are equally authoritative sources of divine revelation. This view has just one problem: What happens when Scripture and tradition are in conflict? In that case you must choose one or the other. The record of the Catholic Church down through the centuries is that more often than not it has chosen tradition over Scripture.

Now, Catholic tradition has much to recommend it. The tradition of the Church during the first two to three centuries of its history has defined the canon of Scripture as well as other key doctrines crucial to our faith (such as the Trinity). The tradition of the Church is a necessary corrective to the spirit of the age which is so prevalent in evangelicalism, which says that we who live in the here and now are the end-all, be-all of what God is doing in the world.

But does this give the Church the right to go beyond Scripture and teach what it does not teach? I don’t think so.

In the first century, devout Jews lived by a strict set of traditions which had evolved over thousands of years. These traditions were made up by men and had nothing to do with what was actually in the Scriptures up to that point, but they were accepted by the people and rigorously enforced by their teachers, the Pharisees, as part of God’s law. One day Jesus got into a confrontation with some of these Pharisees over a point of tradition. This is what he said:

Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites, as it is written:

“These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
They worship me in vain;
their teachings are but rules taught by men.”

You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men….You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! For Moses said, “Honor your father and your mother,” and, “Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.” But you say that if a man says to his father or mother: “Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is Corban” (that is, a gift devoted to God), then you no longer let him do anything for his father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that. (Mark 7:6-13)

In the end, Scripture is the only rule of faith for the Church or the individual believer, and it is perfectly adequate as such. (See 2 Timothy 3:16-17)

Mary: Here is a perfect example of an instance in which the Catholic Church has gone above and beyond Scripture to teach what it does not teach.

To be sure, there is much in the life of Mary that is worth celebrating and honoring. She submitted herself fully to God’s plan and purpose for her life, a unique destiny as the earthly mother of the Son of God. She expressed this submission in a song of praise called the “Magnificat” (Luke 1:46-55), which is a masterpiece of prophecy and theology woven together. This destiny caused her much grief and trouble, from the time that she was pregnant and forced to live with the misunderstandings of friends and family who suspected that she was having a child out of wedlock, to the tumultous events surrounding Jesus’ birth, to the end when she watched him die on the cross. At times during Jesus’ ministry she questioned his teachings, his actions, and even his sanity (Matthew 12:46-50, for instance). But at the end of the day, she still believed that Jesus was the Son of God, and she remained faithful to the purpose for which God chose her. As far as this goes, I have no problem with joining our Catholic friends in celebrating and honoring Mary.

But the Catholic Church has gone far beyond this in elevating Mary to a role of special preeminence in the kingdom of God. According to Catholic teaching, Mary was conceived free from the stain of original sin through a miraculous event known as the Immaculate Conception. This was defined as official Catholic doctrine in 1854. (This is not to be confused with the miraculous conception of Jesus within Mary’s womb, which is known as the Virgin Birth.) She is the ever-virgin Mother of God, who abstained from all sexual relations with her husband Joseph even after Jesus was born. At the end of her life she was “assumed” bodily into Heaven in order that her sinless body might be spared the curse of decay and corruption. This miraculous event is known as the Assumption, and it was defined as official Catholic doctrine in 1950.

Further, the Catholic Church teaches that Mary offered her Son as a sacrifice to God for the sin of the human race. She remained at the cross to suffer with Him, suffering even to the point of death herself as she watched Him die. After His death and resurrection it was due to her leadership and help that the Gospel spread rapidly through Jerusalem and the surrounding area even in the face of intense persecution. Because of all this, she bears the title of Co-Redemptrix of the human race.

Finally, as if all of this is not enough, the Catholic Church teaches that Mary is the Queen of Heaven and Earth and the Mediatrix of all grace. According to papal encyclicals on the subject, “…nothing comes to us except through Mary’s mediation, for such is God’s will.” (Pope Leo XIII, Octobri Mense) “Let all the children of the Catholic Church, who are so very dear to us,…venerate, invoke, and pray to the most Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God….Since she has been appointed by God to be the Queen of Heaven and Earth,…she presents our petitions in a most efficacious manner. What she asks, she obtains. Her pleas can never be unheard.” (Pope Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus)

Hmmm…sounds like God needs a woman to look after Him.

With pronouncements like this, I have to give the Catholic Church credit for a level of inventiveness and creativity which rivals even the Mormons. The Catholic Church has taken human precepts arising strictly from popular devotion, and elevated them to the level of dogma. Not only that, but this also represents a direct attack against the sufficiency of Jesus Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice on the cross. If it was necessary for Mary to participate in the redemption of the human race by offering her Son and by bearing some portion of Christ’s suffering in her own soul, then clearly His sacrifice on the cross was not enough to redeem us from the curse of sin. Also, if it is necessary for Mary to intercede before God on our behalf, then Jesus’ character as our great High Priest and His ability to intercede for us as such stands impeached. This I cannot accept.

Catholic saints: The Catholic pantheon of saints serves us well as a well-balanced collection of people from all walks of life who are worthy examples of the Christian life to be honored and learned from. But in the Catholic scheme of things, their function goes far beyond this. Because of their holy lives on earth, saints have a special, privileged relationship with God which enables them to intercede before Him on our behalf. With their intercession, God might be disposed to hear prayers from us that He would otherwise ignore. According to the Roman Catechism which came out of the Council of Trent, “there are many things which God does not grant without a mediator and intercessor.”

When Catholics pray to saints, they choose which saint to pray to based on the nature of their need, their occupation, or their country. For instance, St. Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland, St. Thomas Aquinas is the patron saint of students, St. Anthony is the patron saint of lost items, and St. Jude is the patron saint of hopeless causes. There are many other patron saints covering almost every conceivable nationality, occupation, or category of human need.

It is true, as the Roman Catechism says, that God does not grant certain things without a mediator or intercessor. In fact God grants us nothing, not even our own salvation, without a mediator or intercessor. But Jesus Christ, by virtue of His once-for-all sacrifice on the cross, is our mediator and intercessor (Hebrews 4:14-16). He is perfectly qualified to serve in this capacity; moreover, He is the only one qualified to serve in this capacity (Hebrews 7:25-27). To say, as the Catholic Church does, that we are to seek out saints to serve as our mediators and intercessors before God is to insult the character of Christ as our mediator and intercessor and call into question the sufficiency of His sacrifice by which He is entitled to serve in this capacity.

The Mass: The Mass is a poignant memorial pointing directly to Christ and His sacrifice on the cross. Would that this was all it was! But Catholic teaching is very clear that the Mass is also much more than this. According to the Second Vatican Council, the Mass is not merely a symbolic rite, but the actual “sacrifice of the Eucharist”, that is, an actual sacrifice of Christ under the appearance of the bread and wine of the Eucharist. When the bread and wine are consecrated by the priest, they are believed to become the actual body and blood of Christ. Thus the priest “…offers the immaculate Victim to God the Father, in the Holy Spirit.”

The Catholic Church teaches that Jesus established this institution at the Last Supper. There He consecrated bread and wine, saying “This is my body” (Matthew 26:26) and “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matthew 26:28) In so doing, He turned the bread and wine into His actual body and blood. He offered these to his Father as an actual sacrifice for many for the forgiveness of sins, then gave them to His apostles to eat and drink. He then commissioned His apostles as priests, instructing them to continue this sacrifice for all of time and throughout all the world, by saying, “Do this in remembrance of me.” (Luke 22:19) It is through the Mass that this sacrifice is perpetuated throughout the world until the end of time, in accordance with Jesus’ instructions. It is through the ongoing sacrifice of the Mass that the benefits of Christ’s sacrifice are applied to the lives of believers who participate in it: the wrath of God towards sin is appeased, and the believers who participate are freed from the punishment of sin.

But this flies in the face of much of the book of Hebrews. “For Christ did not enter a man-made sanctuary that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence. Nor did he enter heaven to offer himself again and again, the way the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood that is not his own. Then Christ would have had to suffer many times since the creation of the world. But now he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself. Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people.” (Hebrews 9:24-28) “Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when this priest [Jesus Christ] had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God. Since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool, because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.” (Hebrews 10:11-14)

How can passages such as these be true, and Jesus Christ be truly and physically present under cover of bread and wine upon the altars of the Catholic Church?

Also, this directly attacks the sufficiency of Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice for sin upon the cross. For if it is necessary that the “sacrifice of the Eucharist” be continued for all of time and throughout all the world, then clearly Jesus’ sacrifice upon the cross was not a sufficient payment for sin.

But if the “sacrifice of the Eucharist” must be continued for all time in order to be efficacious, then surely it cannot be sufficient to take away sin. “The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming–not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices offered endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. If it could, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins.” (Hebrews 10:1-2) No sacrifice for sin is sufficient to take away sin if it must continue to be offered. If it was sufficient to take away sin, it would only need to be offered once.

The Catholic Church has rejected the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ on the cross for our sin, by saying that it is insufficient unless it is extended for all of time through the “sacrifice of the Eucharist” in the Mass. In doing so it has left us with a sacrifice which is insufficient by virtue of the very fact that it must be offered continually. If Jesus’ once-for-all sacrifice of Himself for our sin is insufficient, then what other sacrifice is left? (Hebrews 10:26-27)

Transubstantiation: The climactic moment of the Mass comes when the priest consecrates the bread and wine of the Eucharist in the words used by Jesus during the Last Supper. At that point the bread and wine are no longer bread and wine; they become the actual body and blood of Christ, though outwardly they retain the physical appearance of bread and wine. “Transubstantiation” is the word for what happens in that moment.

The concept of transubstantiation has its philosophical basis in the writings of Aristotle. He taught that all matter consists of two components: its accident–that is, its outward, physical appearance; and its substance–that is, its inner essence, the core of its reality. Thus, according to the concept of transubstantiation, the substances of the bread and wine change to the body and blood of Christ, while their accidents remain unchanged.

Don’t think that the Catholic Church can be fazed by any arguments against transubstantiation which might be drawn from observation or common sense. According to the Roman Catechism which came out of the Council of Trent, the miracle by which the bread and wine are changed into the body and blood of Christ is part of the “mystery of the Eucharist.” It “defies the powers of conception….[The fact that] such a change takes place must be recognized by faith; how it takes place we must not curiously inquire.” And we must accept this no matter how “repugnant it may appear to the senses.”

However, faith must have its basis in divine revelation. There is no example anywhere in the Bible of God doing a miracle and expecting people to believe that a miracle has occurred when there is no physical evidence that anything supernatural has occurred.

Catholic scholars argue that Jesus’ words during the Last Supper are to be interpreted literally. Now, if the apostles had understood Jesus to be speaking literally when He said that the bread and wine were His body and blood, they would have freaked out. Eating human flesh would have been repulsive enough to them; drinking human blood would have pushed them over the edge because drinking any kind of blood was strictly forbidden under Mosaic law. But there is no hint of any sort of protest from the apostles when Jesus told them to eat His body and drink His blood. As a matter of fact, only a few moments later Jesus said, in reference to the same wine that He had just supposedly changed into His blood, “I tell you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine [that is, wine] from now on until that day when I drink it anew with you in my Father’s kingdom.” (Matthew 26:29)

Catholic scholars support their case for the literal interpretation of Jesus’ words during the Last Supper by citing John 6. Here Jesus promises to give the Church a special heavenly food; namely the Eucharist, His actual body and blood. “I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him.” (John 6:53-56) Many who were following Jesus up to that point left in disgust, just as we would expect if they thought He was speaking literally. Jesus saw this, and did not take the trouble to reassure His audience that He was speaking figuratively. Therefore, say the Catholic scholars, Jesus’ audience got it right. He was speaking literally here, and when He spoke of eating His body and drinking His blood during the Last Supper, He was speaking literally then too.

But the fact that Jesus did not bother to correct His audience does not prove that He was not speaking figuratively. People frequently misunderstood Jesus, thinking Him to be speaking literally when He was really speaking figuratively. (See John 2:19-21, John 4:10-11, or John 4:31-33, for example.) Many times Jesus never bothered to correct His audience when they misinterpreted Him. And many times He spoke figuratively for the deliberate purpose of obscuring truth from hard-hearted and unbelieving listeners. (See Matthew 13:10-16)

Also, the claim that Jesus did not bother to correct His audience in this instance is inaccurate. In John 6:63 Jesus says, “The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life.” In other words, Jesus’ kingdom is not about eating His actual, physical flesh and drinking His actual, physical blood. It is about hearing and believing the words of Jesus, which nourish the spirit in the same way that physical food and drink nourish the body.

The authority of the Pope: The Catholic Church is a hierarchical organization with an authority structure consisting of priests, bishops, and then the Pope. The bishops are believed to be direct successors to the apostles, and the Pope is believed to be the successor to Peter, the chief among the apostles who would eventually go on to become the bishop of Rome. As such he is believed to be the Vicar of Christ, that is, Christ’s earthly representative. The primary justification for the primacy of Peter and his successors is found in Matthew 16:17-19. Here Peter has correctly identified Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God, and Jesus responds: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Here Jesus is believed to have commissioned Peter as His vicar, the chief among apostles and supreme head of the Church, and to have given him all the authority attendant in this position.

The truth is that in all probability Peter was never the bishop of Rome, as the Catholic Church claims. Peter’s ministry was primarily to Jewish believers living in Jerusalem and the surrounding area. Thus it would not have made sense for him to relocate his ministry to Rome, especially in light of the fact that the Jews were exiled from Rome by the emperor Claudius in 50 AD. Paul wrote several letters over the span of his ministry which were either addressed to, or which otherwise referenced the church in Rome. These letters listed several people in the Roman church by name, but Peter was never one of them. However Peter closes one of his letters with the line “She who is in Babylon…sends you her greetings” (1 Peter 5:13). Babylon was frequently used as a code word for Rome at that time, so that allows some room for the possibility that Peter may have relocated to Rome at some point during his ministry.

But does the institution of the papacy go all the way back to the time of Peter and the apostles, as the Catholic Church claims? In An Illustrated History of the Popes, church historian Michael Walsh observes that “papal authority as it is now exercised, with its accompanying doctrine of papal infallibility, cannot be found in theories about the papal role expressed by early Popes and other Christians during the first 500 years of Christianity.” In other words, the institution of the papacy was a historical development which took several centuries to fully evolve. The Catholic Church then felt it necessary to superimpose this development on top of Scripture, for the purpose of dividing Christians over the issue of allegiance to the Bishop of Rome as the Vicar of Christ.

Papal infallibility: Whenever the Pope speaks ex cathedra, that is, from the chair or seat of his authority, on matters of faith or morals, he is believed to be infallible, that is, incapable of doctrinal error. Thus the dogmatic teaching of the Pope can never be called into question.

The primary argument used by the Catholic Church to support its claim of papal infallibility is based upon inheritance and succession. Christ gave Peter and the apostles teaching authority over the entire Church, along with the gift of infallibility. This authority and infallibility is then passed down to each successive Pope. Now certainly the apostles taught with authority. But did they consider themselves infallible? I don’t think so. Paul encouraged believers to carefully evaluate every teaching before accepting it (1 Thessalonians 5:21). John warned believers to be suspicious of anyone claiming to speak infallibly for God, because many false teachers have gone out into the world (1 John 4:1). And the church of Berea was highly commended because they received the teaching of the apostles and then examined the Scriptures to see if it was true (Acts 17:11).

Sorry, folks. I have to go with Luther on this one. Popes have erred, and councils have erred. Scripture must be the final authority.

Other issues: I have objections to other points of Catholic doctrine and practice. These include (but are not limited to) Purgatory, infant baptism, prayers for the dead, the Apocrypha, and the celibacy requirement for priests. But these are less serious issues, and are hardly worth mentioning in light of similar evangelical errors.

Take infant baptism, for instance. I strongly object to the idea that the sacrament of Baptism possesses any power in and of itself to bring any person into right standing with God and saving faith in Christ, infant or adult. But there is something to be said for a church which treats children as part of the family of faith, and partners with parents in raising their children in the knowledge of Christ until they are able to recognize and receive Christ on their own.

Now it is true that just because a person’s parents went to church and raised him or her to do the same, is not sufficient basis for his or her inclusion in the kingdom of God. In other words, “God ain’t never had a grandchild, only a child will do.” But surely it is not right to treat the children of believers as unregenerate heathen on their way to hell, and subject them to whatever high-pressure evangelistic scare tactics are necessary to get them down to the altar to make a decision for Christ. In light of the fact that many evangelical children nowadays abandon their faith as soon as they go off to college or move out on their own, I would question the effectiveness of such high-pressure evangelism in producing lasting fruit for the kingdom of God.

However, the major issues I have listed above are the most serious stumbling blocks for me. By continuing to proclaim and defend these doctrines despite their variance with the clear teaching of Scripture, the Catholic Church has shown that it is committed more to its own interests than to the cause of Christ.

So where do we go from here? What do we do with all of this information? How should this affect us in our relationships with people we may know who are Catholic?

Stay tuned for the next installment. There I will look at the answers to these questions, as well as where I intend to go from here.