Ask a Catholic…(Response)

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

I must say I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the popularity of our summer interview series! We had over 200 questions roll in after I introduced Devin Rose as this week’s guest and invited you to ask him your most pressing questions about Catholicism.  I hope you will be as impressed with Devin’s response to these “top 10” as I was.  He did a remarkably thorough and thoughtful job of explaining his positions, and I’m so grateful for the time he spent engaging in this dialog with us.

Devin blogs at St. Joseph’s Vanguard and recently released a book entitled If Protestantism Is True.

Thanks again for participating in this dialog, Devin. Several people asked about common misconceptions about Catholicism among Protestants. What would you say is most misunderstood about the Roman Catholic Church? And what are some of the strangest questions you have received from Protestants about your faith?

As a Protestant, the Catholic Church seemed almost farcical to me. I half expected it to collapse under its own ponderous weight. Similarly, most Protestants can only see the human side of the institution, the pomp and circumstance, the rituals and externals, and of course the sins of the Church’s members. They find it hard to believe that the Catholic Church is a supernatural society and not merely a human institution, another “denomination” like so many others.

Add in misconceptions about the Crusades and Inquisition, plus the Church’s seemingly insane stance against artificial contraception, and it is no wonder why it is so difficult for Protestants to consider the Catholic Church’s claims.

Finally, there are the theological issues, some of which we will address in these questions. Protestants grow up in a very different ecclesial environment than do Catholics, and doctrines like sola Scriptura and sola fide are ingrained from an early age, so much so that when they learn Catholics do not also hold to them, they just know that Catholicism must be false. The gospel gets boiled down to the belief that man is justified through the imputed alien righteousness of Christ, and if you don’t think that is accurate, you must not be a Christian. 

So I would encourage you to go deeper. Cut through the FUD [fear, uncertainty, doubt]. Examine the issues you find problematic and see what the Catholic Church really teaches about them and why. The answers may surprise you. I know they did me. With the advent of the internet, accurate information is now accessible to anyone who wants to find it.

As for strange questions, I haven’t encountered many I would consider strange. Perhaps some fellow Catholics can help me out in the comments with ones they’ve received.

Laetare 1photo © 2011 Clare | more info (via: Wylio)

From Jessica H.: Many of my Protestant friends do not have a very high opinion of Catholics. In fact, they doubt whether they can be true Christians. What do Catholics generally think about Protestants? Do Catholics consider Protestants to be Christians?

Well, sometimes I myself doubt whether I am a true Christian, so perhaps their opinion is well-founded. :-)

Seriously though, I remember a conversation I had with a fellow Baptist when I told her about my Catholic friends’ faith. She replied in an off-handed way, “Well Catholics aren’t saved of course.” Now I had one good friend who was Catholic and really solid in his faith. I knew he believed in Jesus (and he actually lived a more faithful life than I did). So I just said, “I’m not so sure. I think maybe they can be saved, too.”

The Catholic Church teaches that Protestants are our brothers and sisters in Christ, although separated because of the divisions between us. Nonetheless, through your baptism, Catholics believe that you are regenerated and justified, receiving the Holy Spirit and His gifts. So the Catholic Church recognizes that the Spirit of God is working in Protestant communities.

Now Catholics in general are usually intimidated by Protestants. They’re afraid you’re going to pull out your Bible and make arguments against the Church that they can’t answer. Most Catholics don’t know their faith that well and know even less about Protestantism. This is true even of many devout Catholics: they have a strong faith in Christ but just don’t know the theology behind the Church’s teachings. They also are usually fairly ignorant of the Bible, in terms of citing verses to support some theological argument. So Protestants are looked at as being Bible-wizards who will quote circles around them disproving Catholicism. This isn’t true of all Catholics of course—you’ve got those who know their faith well and who can defend it, as well as those who are nominal and don’t really care either way—but if you talk to a regular Catholic-in-the-pew on Sunday, this is his probable understanding.

From Josh: In Catholicism, is salvation through faith alone in Jesus Christ or can we earn our salvation through good deeds and/or participating in the sacraments?

I’m going to get a little technical on this one but will hope to make it accessible. The Catholic Church teaches that salvation is by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Now then, salvation is often thought of—in both Catholic and Protestant theology—as including justification and sanctification, so it is important to talk about those individually.

Catholics believe that we are justified—going from unrighteous to righteous in God’s sight—by grace through faith, and no works whatsoever are involved in this. Protestants believe substantially the same thing. But Catholics refuse to say that it is faith alone because the Church teaches that the kind of faith that justifies is faith-made-alive-by-love, by agape (see Galatians 5:6). As long as Protestants don’t intend to divorce love from faith, then Catholics can agree about initial justification being by grace, through faith-joined-with-love, with no works involved at all. This fact surprises many Protestants.

After one is justified, then one’s sanctification (sometimes called ongoing or progressive justification) does involve works. But these are works done by God’s grace and in His love (see Ephesians 2:10). So even these works are ones that God “prepared in advance for us to do,” and ones we can only do because He gives us the grace to do them. These are the justifying works that the Bible speaks of in James 2. If it seems wrong to you that even these kinds of works are involved, realize that Reformed Protestantism also teaches that works contribute to our sanctification and that sanctification is a component of salvation. 

To go more in depth on this subject, see the Called to Communion article on faith and love.

From Jessica K.: Do you feel free to disagree with the Pope or the official positions of the church?  There is such diversity of belief--theologically, socially, politically--among Protestants (and even among Methodists, Baptists, etc.) it seems like less diversity of belief is tolerated in the RCC. Do you find that to be true, or is that a limited outsider perspective?

I love this question. I am certainly “free” to disagree with the Pope and the Church’s teachings, but if I did so I would decide to leave the Catholic Church. I would not remain Catholic and disagree. Why? Because I believe that Christ established a visible Church, and it subsists in the Catholic Church. So when the Church speaks, it is Christ speaking. So to understand how I read your question, replace “the Pope or the official positions of the Church” with “Jesus Christ.” And of course I don’t feel free to disagree with Jesus because I know that He loves me and would never lead me into evil. I believe God has protected the teachings of the Church from error and preserved the deposit of faith uncorrupted, even to this day.

To your second question, you would be surprised at how much “diversity” of belief is tolerated in the Catholic Church. Let me explain. There’s good diversity and bad diversity. Good diversity is the fact that different gifts and talents and personalities exist in the people in the Catholic Church, yet those people make use of their unique qualities within the unity  of the truth that the Church safeguards. So you have men like Thomas Aquinas putting their gigantic intellects to work on understanding God’s revelation as well as the relationship between faith and reason. These efforts actually serve to deepen the Church’s understanding of divine truth, which all benefit from.

Bad diversity is when Catholics reject the Church’s teachings in favor of their own opinions or ideas, rather than “thinking with the Church,” and seeking to understand in the light of faith what the Church teaches. There can be no good diversity in disunity, for Christ’s has called us to unity in the truth.

At the practical level, many openly dissenting Catholic theologians traipse around the country and the world giving talks to (aging) groups of dissenters, and do so with impunity. The Church’s bishops and the Pope are extremely slow to come down and sanction dissenters. You have to really work hard at it to get disciplined, but it does happen.  

Mary Windowphoto © 2008 Susan WD | more info (via: Wylio)

From Mary (and several others): My question is about Maryology. I love the Catholic church and I could actually see myself becoming one if it were not for this one doctrine. What do you say to the comment that Mary is treated as a female Jesus...a mediator, a ruler in heaven, someone who intervenes in people's lives, etc. Do you have any biblical texts you can share supporting the Catholic doctrine of Mary?

I love it that this question comes from a woman named Mary. 

Well, I am not sure what one doctrine about Mary you are thinking of, since there are many. But allow me to just do a general answer. First realize that there is sometimes a disparity between what the Church teaches about Mary and how well Catholics actually understand those teachings. For instance, even though the Church teaches that only Christ should be worshiped, that Christ is God and Mary is a creature, and that Christ is the only Savior, you can still find some old Catholic women who grew up thinking that Mary is alongside Jesus, perhaps in some kind of equal partnership. So Mary should not be treated like a female Jesus under any circumstances.

But, Catholics do believe that we can ask Mary to pray for us, and we do believe that Christ has assumed her into Heaven and given her honors above that of any other creature (more on this when we get to the question concerning women in the Church),  and we do believe that she has a (subordinate) mediator-like role (but before your alarm bells go off, please read this article by Taylor Marshall for a proper understanding of this. 

And there are no proof-texts for these things, which largely come from sacred Tradition or are derivatives from other theological truths (like the communion of saints). One way to understand the Church’s reverence for Mary is to look through history and see how she has been given these lofty titles and honors. What you will find is that the Church had to defend Mary and her proper place in order to defend the truth of who Jesus Christ is. For instance, in the year 431, a Church leader named Nestorius proposed that Mary was not the mother of Jesus but only the mother of Jesus’ human nature. The Church convened an ecumenical council at Ephesus and debated this issue, ultimately deciding that if they went along with Nestorius, Christology would be fundamentally damaged. No longer could we say that God died on the Cross for our salvation, but only Jesus’ human nature. Instead, it was affirmed that Jesus is God, and that Mary is His mother, and so Mary is the mother of God—not in His eternal generation—but due to the simple fact that a mother is a mother of a person and not of a nature, and since two natures, one divine and one human, exist in the one Divine Person of Jesus Christ, Mary is the mother of God.

I hope you take away from this the fact that the Church teaches that Mary is a creature and in no way an equal with Christ. Instead, she is the humblest of servants, the humblest of all human beings, chosen and graced by God to be the mother of His Son. Never fear that you will love and honor Mary too much, because no matter how much you grow to love her, you can never love and honor her more than her Son does.

From Ebok: My question is this:  In light of the new interest in the concepts of heaven, hell, and the hereafter, could you elaborate a little on what the doctrine of purgatory really contains, and what your personal views are on that topic?

Purgatory is an interesting thing, one of the first causes of division between the first Protestant Reformers and the Catholic Church. For this reason, it usually gets a worse rap than it deserves. Because purgatory is something that actually demonstrates God’s great mercy. It is a place for those who have been justified but not yet made perfect to complete their purification before fully entering God’s presence.

To understand this, we must briefly explain a difference in Protestant and Catholic doctrines on justification. Protestantism holds that when a man is justified, Christ’s righteousness is imputed to him such that God only sees Christ when He looks at the justified man. But that man is still a sinner and is only righteous because God has juridically declared him to be so. Catholics, on the other hand, believe that when a man is justified, Christ’s righteousness is infused into him, truly making him righteous. He then can grow or increase in righteousness (this is the process of sanctification spoken of above and in James 2; see also 2 Cor. 5:21, which N.T. Wright even says supports the Catholic understanding of infused righteousness). 

So under Protestant theology, purgatory is unnecessary, because it makes no sense to “grow” in righteousness when God has already imputed Christ’s perfect righteousness to you! Why do you need to be purified or sanctified any more than that? Under Catholicism, however, one who has been justified can still choose to sometimes reject God’s graces and therefore not grow to the heroic level of virtue in this life that Christ desires for them. Since only the pure in heart can see God, this person needs to complete the sanctification process before they can enter the Beatific Vision. Purgatory is the place for that. C.S. Lewis once said that, presuming someone was not yet sanctified, he would throw himself into purgatory if God didn’t send him there, once he saw God in His majesty and beauty.

So purgatory is the place where all selfishness and inordinate attachment to creatures and sin is purified, so that a soul may enter into Heaven. Flannery O’Connor said that even God’s mercy burns…

From Ellie: What do think of the Catholic church’s policy on birth control? For those Catholics that faithfully follow this mandate, do you think that the large families that often result are too great a financial, physical, and/or emotional strain on many of the women and their families? How about the larger world population?

preventionphoto © 2010 anna | more info (via: Wylio)

As a Baptist, when I first heard the Catholic Church was against contraception, I laughed out loud. It seemed so ridiculous. Now, I embrace the teaching whole-heartedly and can’t imagine using contraception to avoid conceiving a child. To understand this change of mind, let’s look more closely at the Church’s understanding of women as well as the feminist movement (and in particular, “the Pill”).

The contraceptive promise that the feminist movement made to women goes something like this, “you will be free from fertility, so you can enjoy sexual relations without fear of having a child; you will be slim and beautiful and also can enter the workplace, just like men do, finding fulfillment through your accomplishments.”

But there have been side-effects and unexpected consequences: Physically, the Pill can cause headaches, bloating, and blood clots, as well as increased risk of cancer, infertility, and miscarriage. Since the Pill divorces the marital embrace from procreation, in marriage it can lead to the husband viewing his wife as an object for his own pleasure (lust). (God intended the marital embrace to have both unitive and procreative aspects.) Also, husband and wife often will not communicate about fertility and child-bearing—the woman just takes the Pill and that’s that—which reinforces a lack of respect for his wife and the gift of her fertility.

Socially, the Pill has led to infidelity in marriage, promiscuity before marriage, abortion (what happens when the Pill fails?), and many other evils. God was wise to connect the marital embrace to procreation, for in doing so He provided an important means for helping men especially control their sexual desires. With that connection broken, men have less need to learn self-mastery (chastity). And so you get these modern relationships where a man and a woman are cohabitating for many years, the woman longing for marriage, but the man happy to have the sexual pleasure without the deep commitment that marriage entails.

The Catholic Church believes that women deserve to have their fertility honored and cooperated with in a loving marital relationship, where their whole selves are welcomed, including their fertility. If women need to space their children apart and delay conceiving a child, they should have recourse to do that in a way that respects their body’s God-given design. On the flip side of the coin, if women are having difficulty conceiving, they should have recourse to good medicine to diagnose problems and correct them in a gentle manner. (The science of fertility awareness focuses on just these issues.)

When a couple uses fertility awareness, as my wife and I have done, they are drawn closer together due to the frequent communication both about the woman’s physical signs of fertility as well as whether they are open to receiving the gift of another child from God. The husband grows in respect for his wife and how wonderfully she has been made, and when periods of abstinence are called for in their discernment, he learns self-mastery and the virtue of chastity is strengthened within him.

The Church recognizes that every couple is different and has varying challenges, resources, and gifts. The Church does not teach that every woman should have ten children. Rather, each couple should prayerfully discern whether and when God is calling them to be open to the miracle of a new eternal human life. Some women physically and emotionally are able to bear and mother twenty children. Some can only have one, or even none. That does not diminish them, though children are certainly seen as a gift from God. The Church respects this discernment but also sets out guidelines for respecting God’s design.

In our modern, fragmented societies, where families are often isolated from the help of extended family members or other close communities, it can indeed be a burden for some families who have many children. The husband is often away, working hard to support his large family, but the wife—say a stay-at-home-mom—can be overwhelmed with the duties of caring for her children, as well as the lack of social interactions and recognition for her hard work. 

Nonetheless, at least in Catholic circles, more and more mom’s groups are forming, homeschooling communities, and other activities that support and encourage the woman in her vocation. Connecting with other wives provides much needed social time (with adults!), sharing of tips and struggles, and results in mutual admiration among the women.

Finally, the Catholic Church boldly proclaims that God’s greatest creation is a woman, Jesus’ own mother, the Virgin Mary. No pope, bishop, or priest even comes close to Mary’s exalted dignity and sanctity. No one has ever or will ever so completely open themselves to the gift of God’s grace and love, as did she. In Mary, the Church sees the beauty and potential of all women. To get an idea of how highly women are viewed in the Church, read Mulieris Dignitatem On the Dignity and Vocation of Women:

From Suzannah:, Why is it so important to believe that the communion elements are the literal body and blood of Jesus?  At every protestant church I've ever worshiped at, it is made clear that it's not  Presbyterian/Protestant/Episcopal table but the Lord's table and any believer who has be baptized is welcome to partake--but at mass, it's made clear that only Catholics are welcome. I always find this to be frustratingly exclusive.

I can understand how this seems frustrating and exclusive to you. But it is necessary, because the Catholic Church believes that her doctrine on the Eucharist is true. 

Under Protestant theology, the Eucharist is somewhere between purely and intensely symbolic. No Protestant believes that Christ is really, substantially present in the Eucharist, such that it would be right for them to bow down and worship Him in the consecrated Host. Given this Protestant belief, why not welcome any and all to the table? Ultimately it is just bread and wine, symbolizing Jesus and what He did for us, so any Christian should be welcome.

First Holy Communionphoto © 2007 Jennifer Schwalm | more info (via: Wylio)

But under Catholic theology, Christ is really present in the Eucharist. We bow down and adore Him, and to receive Him in an unworthy or unbelieving manner would be to “eat and drink judgment upon ourselves.” The Eucharist is the source and summit of our faith, and so we can only come together and receive Communion if we truly are in communion with one another, and that means being in full communion with the Catholic Church, led by the bishop of Rome.

So, you have to put yourself into the theological framework of Catholicism to understand it properly, just as Catholics can understand (most) Protestant churches’ open communion by stepping into the Protestant framework.

From APB:  Where would you suggest someone begin who grew up in a protestant home but would like to learn more about the Catholic church?

Ideally from a practicing Catholic! But since this creature is something of a rare breed, I would also suggest a few books. You can’t go wrong with the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which was updated recently and provides a great summary of the Church’s beliefs and teachings. For an excellent Catholic Bible, get the Ignatius Study Bible (New Testament), and read the study notes at the bottom to see how the Catholic Church has interpreted different passages over the centuries (including many quotations from the Church Fathers).

I’d also recommend Fr. Barron’s Catholicism video production, which is in the works but will be out soon. If any Catholics want to chime in with other resources, that’d be great!

From Derek: What do you find is the largest obstacle separating Catholic and Protestant unity?

Mutual misunderstandings, sin, and the Devil (not necessarily in that order).

At the intellectual level, Protestants in general know very little about what Catholicism really is, and what they do know is often skewed from generations of mistrust between Catholics and Protestants. This problem is being overcome, thanks in large part due to the internet. We must first be able to accurately understand each others’ beliefs and the reasons for them, before we can really consider them.

At the moral level, sin is the cause of all schisms, especially the sin of pride. So the pride of the Reformers when they broke from the Catholic Church is still felt today, as is the consequences of the sins on the part of the Catholic Church’s leaders at that time (same is true for the Orthodox schism). And down through the past five centuries since the Reformation, often on both sides is found that pride that leads to a closing off of one’s mind and heart to another, even to a fellow Christian. So the way forward there is through humility, including a recognition of wrongs done on both sides and the desire to heal the divisions, by God’s grace.

Finally, the Devil is ultimately behind the wounds inflicted to the unity of Christ’s Church. He was us to be fragmented, divided, and occupied in internecine bickering. That way we won’t be out evangelizing the world, which is in such desperate need for Christ. Thankfully, God is greater than the Devil, and so the victory has already been won, but God gives us the privilege and responsibility for working to realize that victory as much as is possible here on earth.

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