Monthly Archives: September 2012

Panorama of Aachen downtown by Arne Hückelheim

At college I majored in Modern Languages, and after graduation I moved to what was then West Germany to teach English as a Second Language. I lived in Aachen, a beautiful, historically significant city on the Dutch/Belgian border. I had grown up in Scottsdale, in a state that was at that time not even 100 years old, and this meant that I had grown up for all intents and purposes “antiquity-free.” Living in Aachen was a delight for me. Evidence of the medieval history of the place was everywhere, from the wall that had formerly encircled the town, to the Cathedral, the “Aachener Dom,” begun by Emperor Charlemagne in the 8th century. The Cathedral was the site of the coronation of 42 kings and queens, and is the resting place of both Charlemagne and Holy Roman Emperor Otto III. I was awestruck.

Every seven years four relics are exhibited at the Aachen Cathedral. This exhibit is the object of a Catholic pilgrimage to Aachen that has been taking place since medieval times, and is still going strong – over 90,000 pilgrims took part in the year 2007. My friend Dörte (an Evangelical Protestant who later went to Brazil as a missionary) and I attended one of those exhibitions of relics at the Cathedral. I’m sure we weren’t the only Protestants there.

The exhibit was imposing, to say the least. In its collection the Cathedral purported to have a garment belonging to the Virgin Mary, swaddling clothes belonging to the Baby Jesus, St. John the Baptist’s beheading cloth, and Christ’s loincloth.

We filed past the relics in silence. Finally, egged on by my American “you-can’t-fool-me” orientation, I whispered to Dörte, “What makes them think these things are authentic?” Given to deeper thought than I, Dörte whispered back, “What makes them think it matters?”

Dörte’s question is, of course, the standard Protestant objection to relics. So you’ve got a piece of the skull of St. Ladislaus – so what? Even if the man led a holy life, that doesn’t mean that his possessions or remains take on some kind of magical properties! Even if that really is one of Mary’s garments that they exhibit every 7 years in Aachen, that’s no reason to believe that miracles might be associated with an article of clothing! Catholics are so superstitious about these things!

Like most Protestant objections to Catholic beliefs, these are correct in one way, and incorrect in another. Relics certainly do not possess magical properties. It would be superstitious to believe that they did. The Catholic Church has, however, never taught that they possess magical properties. Catholics don’t believe in magic – what Catholics believe is the text of Acts 19:11-12:

God was performing extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, so that handkerchiefs or aprons were even carried from his body to the sick, and the diseases left them and the evil spirits went out.

I was familiar with Acts 19:11-12 when I was a Protestant, and to be honest it was one of my least favorite Bible passages. My thought process ran along the lines of “Lord, if You wanted to be properly understood, why didn’t You express Yourself more clearly in Scripture!” That verse just sounded so Catholic! As a card-carrying Evangelical, I was really, really uncomfortable with the notion that handkerchiefs laid upon Paul’s body and then taken to sick people could cure them. I didn’t even try to think this through. The passage contradicted my theology, and I had never heard anyone preach on it, so I did my best to put it out of my mind. I had no problem with the idea that God could use St. Paul to bring a man back to life (Acts 20) – Evangelicals believe that God can and does heal people. Had you told me, though, that the bones of the dead St. Paul could have been used by God to bring someone back to life, I would have told you that that was impossible – God just doesn’t work that way! You see, there was an Old Testament passage of Scripture with which I was unfamiliar:

As they were burying a man, behold, they saw a marauding band; and they cast the man into the grave of Elisha. And when the man touched the bones of Elisha he revived and stood up on his feet.

Acts 19:11-12 deals with what Catholics would call third-class relics, handkerchiefs and aprons touched to the body of a saint. The above text from 2 Kings 13:21 concerns first-class relics: the bones of the Old Testament prophet Elisha. Coming into contact with those bones restored life to the body of a dead man, exactly the kind of thing Catholics claim when they discuss relics. Yet another passage in Acts, chapter 5 verses 15-16, deals with second-class relics:

… they even carried the sick out into the streets and laid them on cots and pallets, so that when Peter came by at least his shadow might fall on any one of them Also the people from the cities in the vicinity of Jerusalem were coming together, bringing people who were sick or afflicted with unclean spirits, and they were all being healed.

So, there are three passages, one from the Old Testament and two from the New, providing us with the Biblical basis for the Catholic veneration of relics. That’s at least two more verses than I had for some of my Protestant beliefs, and yet I KNEW that the doctrine of relics was unbiblical.

Catholic teaching concerning relics is not only Biblical – it is also demonstrable in post-apostolic Christian writings. Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, was martyred for the Faith in the mid 2nd century. After burning failed to kill him, he was stabbed to death. His fellow Christians then asked for his body, but according to the Martyrdom of Polycarp, Satan opposed this:

So he (Satan) put forward Nicetes, the father of Herod and brother of Alce, to plead with the magistrate not to give up his body, ‘lest,’ so it was said, ‘they should abandon the Crucified One and begin to worship this man’–this being done at the instigation and urgent entreaty of the Jews, who also watched when we were about to take it from the fire, not knowing that it will be impossible for us either to forsake at any time the Christ who suffered for the salvation of the whole world of those that are saved–suffered though faultless for sinners–nor to worship any other. For Him, being the Son of God, we adore, but the martyrs as disciples and imitators of the Lord we cherish as they deserve for their matchless affection towards their own King and Teacher. May it be our lot also to be found partakers and fellow-disciples with them.

Thus the body of Polycarp was burned.

And so we afterwards took up his bones which are more valuable than precious stones and finer than refined gold, and laid them in a suitable place; where the Lord will permit us to gather ourselves together, as we are able, in gladness and joy, and to celebrate the birth-day of his martyrdom for the commemoration of those that have already fought in the contest, and for the training and preparation of those that shall do so hereafter.

Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, participating in pretty standard-issue Protestant sanitizing of the writings of the Apostolic Fathers (lest Protestant sensibilities be disturbed by what the early Christians actually wrote!), takes pains to explain that these Christians simply wanted to give poor old Polycarp a Christian burial:

They nevertheless collected his bones and as much of his remains as possible, and caused them to be decently interred.

Whereas the Martyrdom of Polycarp specifically states:

But the jealous and envious Evil One, the adversary of the family of the righteous, having seen the greatness of his martyrdom and his blameless life from the beginning, and how he was crowned with the crown of immortality and had won a reward which none could gainsay, managed that not even his poor body should be taken away by us, although many desired to do this and to touch his holy flesh.

In other words, these Christians recognized Polycarp as a saint. They “took up his bones which are more valuable than precious stones and finer than refined gold, and laid them in a suitable place” where they could gather together “to celebrate the birth-day of his martyrdom…” These Christians did not merely want to ensure that St. Polycarp was properly buried; they desired to possess his relics.

St. Augustine, a fifth-century Catholic bishop whose word does carry some weight with Protestants, is another witness to the early Christian interest in relics. In his City of God he gives an eloquent description of miracles associated with the relics of saints, including one such miracle which he himself witnessed:

For even now miracles are wrought in the name of Christ, whether by His sacraments or by the prayers or relics of His saints….

The miracle which was wrought at Milan when I was there, and by which a blind man was restored to sight, could come to the knowledge of many; for not only is the city a large one, but also the emperor was there at the time, and the occurrence was witnessed by an immense concourse of people that had gathered to the bodies of the martyrs Protasius and Gervasius, which had long lain concealed and unknown, but were now made known to the bishop Ambrose in a dream, and discovered by him. By virtue of these remains the darkness of that blind man was scattered, and he saw the light of day….

When the bishop Projectus was bringing the relics of the most glorious martyr Stephen to the waters of Tibilis, a great concourse of people came to meet him at the shrine. There a blind woman entreated that she might be led to the bishop who was carrying the relics. He gave her the flowers he was carrying. She took them to her eyes, and forthwith saw. Those who were present were astounded, while she, with every expression of joy, preceded them, pursuing her way without further need of a guide.

Lucillus bishop of Sinita, in the neighborhood of the colonial town of Hippo, was carrying in procession some relics of the same martyr, which had been deposited in the castle of Sinita. A fistula under which he had long labored, and which his private physician was watching an opportunity to cut, was suddenly cured by the mere carrying of that sacred fardel- at least, afterwards there was no trace of it in his body.

Eucharius, a Spanish priest, residing at Calama, was for a long time a sufferer from stone. By the relics of the same martyr, which the bishop Possidius brought him, he was cured.

St. Augustine then delivers a defense of the Catholic doctrine of the communion of saints, and of relics in particular, explaining that miracles connected with relics of the saints are a sign to us that the Resurrection is for real:

To what do these miracles witness, but to this faith which preaches Christ risen in the flesh, and ascended with the same into heaven? For the martyrs themselves were martyrs, that is to say, witnesses of this faith, drawing upon themselves by their testimony the hatred of the world, and conquering the world not by resisting it, but by dying. For this faith they died, and can now ask their benefits from the Lord in whose name they were slain. For this faith their marvelous constancy was exercised, so that in these miracles great power was manifested as the result. For if the resurrection of the flesh to eternal life had not taken place in Christ, and were not to be accomplished in His people, as predicted by Christ, or by the prophets who foretold that Christ was to come, why do the martyrs possess such power? For whether God Himself wrought these miracles by that wonderful manner of working by which, though Himself eternal, He produces effects in time; or whether He wrought them by servants, and if so, whether He made use of the spirits of martyrs as He uses men who are still in the body, or effects all these marvel by means of angels, over whom He exerts an invisible, immutable, incorporeal sway, so that what is said to be done by the martyrs is done not by their operation, but only by their prayer and request; or whether, finally, some things are done in one way, others in another, and so that man cannot comprehend them- nevertheless these miracles attest this faith which preaches the resurrection of the flesh to eternal life. (City of God , XXII, 8)

In other words, we have no tangible proof of the doctrine of the Resurrection. However, if the doctrine of the Resurrection is all that we say it is (i.e., our blessed hope!), and if the doctrine of the communion of saints is all that we say it is (i.e., the saints are not dead, but ALIVE!), then why would we be surprised that miracles occur in connection with their relics?

So there we have Biblical backing, as well as attestation to belief in the doctrine by the early Christians. But as a Protestant, I thought relics were a bunch of hooey. Smart, savvy, 21st-century Protestant that I was, I reserved the right to exclude from my theology whatever I lacked the faith to believe….

On the memorial of St. Jerome

Deo omnis gloria!

I once read the online comments of a gentleman who was convinced that the Catechism of the Catholic Church was PROOF that the Catholic Church cannot be the church that Jesus established. His reasoning went like this:

–    The paperback version of the English-language Catechism is nearly 850 pages long.

–    The Gospel of Jesus Christ is 25 words long.

–    Obviously, the Catholic Church has ADDED to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

This reasoning was predicated on the assumption that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the text of John 3:16:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

Many Evangelicals are convinced that John 3:16 is indeed all you need to know to be saved. My favorite example of this is the email sent by a coworker last Christmas with a story about a little orphan boy who found safe haven in a place where the words “John 3:16” opened every door for him. My coworker ended her email by assuring us that if you understand John 3:16, you know everything you need to know.

Kinda makes you wonder why God bothered to write the whole rest of the Bible….

I used to live and work in Taiwan, where they have great night markets. One evening I was walking through a night market with a Chinese Christian friend when we came across a stall selling pictures of various Chinese gods. Tucked among those paintings was an illustration of Jesus. My friend attempted to witness to the owner of the stall, telling him about Christ. The man replied that he did indeed worship Jesus, along with all the other gods. Hauling out John 3:16 in a case like that, with the claim that it is all that that man needs to know, would be of very little help.

John 3:16 is indeed a beautiful synthesis of the doctrines of the love of God and the necessity for believing on the Lord Jesus Christ. But as a comprehensive doctrinal statement of belief, it leaves a GREAT deal to be desired. It leaves far more questions unanswered than it actually addresses:

For God (What is God? Who is God? Are we just assuming that there is a God? How many gods are there? Is this one God among many? How do we know that Christians are right about worshipping this so-called “God”?)

so loved the world (the world – mankind? animals? the planets and stars? only the visible world?)

that He gave His only begotten Son (Is this to be taken literally or figuratively? Is God a “He,” a male? Does He have a physical body with male attributes? Does His Son have a physical body? Is His Son God as well? Are there two Gods?)

that whosoever believeth on Him (Is believing in this only begotten Son all that one ever has to do for salvation? Who is this “Son”? Is He Jesus, son of Mary, as Christians claim? Is He Shoko Asahara? Marshall Applewhite? Alan John Miller? How can we know?)

should not perish (Do those who believe in the Son never experience physical death?)

but have everlasting life (What happens to those who do not believe – do they die and then cease to exist? Is there such a thing as a soul? Does hell exist?).

The questions can go on and on….

The first Christians faced opposition from all sides. The Jews ridiculed the idea that the Messiah could be God Incarnate. The Docetists held that Jesus’ physical body was a mere illusion, and therefore He never actually died on the cross. The Arians denied Jesus’ divinity. The Sabellians claimed that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit were merely different aspects of the same Divine Person. There is no historical evidence that anyone ever resorted to John 3:16 to set these people straight. How can “the simple Gospel” of John 3:16 settle these questions and tell us which “Jesus” is the real one?

The Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) demonstrates for us how the early Church answered such questions. Through the authority (Mt 18:18) vested in them by the Lord Jesus Christ (Lk 10:16), the apostles made authoritative decisions (Acts 15:28) that were binding on all Christians. Catholic bishops, the successors to the Apostles, have continued to sort out complex theological issues in ecumenical councils, from the First Council of Nicaea (325 A.D.) to the Second Vatican Council convened in 1962. Over the centuries the Catholic Church has issued a large number of definitive answers to many questions, and the answers have been available in various Catechisms, such as the Lay Folks Catechism of 1357, the Catechism of the Council of Trent, the Short Catechism of St. Robert Bellarmine, the Baltimore Catechism, the Catechism of St. Pius X, and our present-day Catechism of the Catholic Church. The Catechism isn’t some nefarious attempt to “add” to the truths of Scripture – the Catechism is the Church’s effort to elucidate the truths of Scripture in a clear, unambiguous fashion. Inquiring minds don’t merely want to know – they have a tendency to stray off the orthodox path when they are left to their own devices. Fortunately, the Catechism has the answers.

People who want John 3:16 to be the sum total of all one needs to know to be saved are overlooking the parable of the mustard seed. Their “seed” was planted one evening when a Pharisee came to secretly consult with Jesus, and Jesus in His love for this man confided in him that God so loved the world…. To the “John 3:16 proponents,” that seed remains a seed, with no change, no development, no growth over the ensuing two millennia, just waiting to be planted in the next person, so he can plant it in the next person. The Catechism, on the other hand, is tangible evidence of the truth of the parable of the mustard seed. The Church has not added to the teachings of Christ. The Church has taken to heart, cherished, pondered, preserved, studied, wrestled with, expounded upon, argued over, defended, proclaimed and been changed by those teachings, and in the process has herself developed and grown. A seed is never planted in the hopes that it will remain a seed. Growth and development are the goal and proper end of all sowing. We should rightfully expect that a Church that has treasured the teachings of her Lord for 2000 years should not look like the seed that was planted, but rather like the seed that grows and becomes “greater than all the herbs, and shoots out great branches.” The Catechism is a visible manifestation of the healthy growth and development of the seed planted by Christ.

On the memorial of St. Lorenzo Ruiz and companions

Deo omnis gloria!

And when they came to a place called Golgotha (which means “The place of a skull”), they offered Him wine to drink, mingled with gall, but when He tasted it, He would not drink it. And when they had crucified Him, they divided His garments among them by casting lots; then they sat down and kept watch over Him there. Mt. 27:33-36

“It was SO embarrassing,” my Presbyterian acquaintance complained to me. “I had to take my daughter over to my neighbors’ house to apologize for what she did. It was a terrible witness; they’re not Christians – he’s Buddhist and she’s Catholic.”

Oh, that’s right, she doesn’t know; she assumes that because my kids go to the local Baptist university that we are Protestant. I stand there awkwardly as she natters on. What is the right response in a case like this? A gentle clearing of the throat, followed by a soft reproach along the lines of “WE’RE Catholic”? A loud harrumph and a Reaganesque “There you Protestants go again!“? Or the pathetically ambitious approach – “I’m glad you brought that up – let me explain to you in 7,000 words or less why Catholics actually, truly, and really are Christians!” – which actually means “let’s stand here and argue all day” because she didn’t come to this conversation to get her theology straightened out by a non-Christian like me.

I adopt the cowardly approach, and let it pass.

Many Catholics are surprised when they hear that a substantial number of Protestants do not consider them to be Christians. They are surprised because of course the Catholic Church teaches us that our separated Protestant brethren ARE Christians, by virtue of their Trinitarian baptism. But in our Bible-Belt corner of the country, we routinely encounter folks who will tell you that, while there may be some Catholics who will be saved, it will be because they are “bad Catholics” – i.e., Protestants in Catholic clothing, choosing to adhere to sola fide and sola Scriptura no matter what the old geezer in Rome tries to tell them.

Pity the poor convert to Catholicism. My last denominational affiliation, before being reconciled to the Church, was Baptist. I could have become Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Nazarene, C&MA, Amish or Greek Orthodox and still have been a Christian in good standing in the eyes of my co-denominationalists. Instead, I became Catholic – because I found in the Holy Catholic Church the fullness of the Truth – and I became a “non-Christian” to many of those alongside of whom I had previously worshipped.

The threat of losing one’s social standing can be a deterrent to conversion. For my part, social standing was all I lost when I swam the Tiber. A few people decided to ignore me when I crossed their path at Wal-Mart – not exactly the Via Dolorosa. You would have to ask those who have fallen from the good graces of their parents, estranged themselves from their spouse, and/or given up their livelihood as a Protestant pastor whether loss of social standing is really all that bitter a pill to swallow. When you have been whipped and spat upon, does being stripped of your garments really pain you all that much?

I can count all my bones; people stare and gloat over me. They divide my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing. Ps 22:17-18

If clothes, as they say, make the man, then being unclothed is meant to unmake him. It wasn’t enough for sinful humanity to cause the Savior physical suffering – His dignity had to be stripped from Him as well. Not enough to torture His body – His humiliation was mandated for complete satisfaction. Not enough for depraved mankind to shout out, “You are NOT our God” – to that insult must be added the injury: “You are less than human!

Not enough to cry out, “You are WRONG!” – to that opinion must be added the presumed fact: “You are NOT my brother.”

Did He huddle in shame? Did He cry out with his forebear, Adam, “I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself”? Did He shrink before the derisive shouts of the appropriately clothed mob? Was He tempted to believe their insinuation that He was a worm, and no man? He stood naked as well, remember, before those who loved Him, before St. John His beloved disciple, before St. Mary Magdalene whom He had healed, before the women who followed Him – wailing – to Golgotha, before His blessed Mother whose hands had first lovingly swaddled His nakedness all those years before. Did He try unsuccessfully to hide His degradation from those who loved Him enough to share His shame?

We see Him standing naked at the foot of the Cross. At this moment of His humiliation, Jesus transcends time. In the light of His indignity, we see not a 1st-century Jewish convict on the way to crucifixion, but rather the Son of Man in a peculiar kind of glory – the glory of His intimate association with suffering humanity, with you, with me. No humiliation, from this moment forward, will ever again be borne in an agonized solitude; there will always be that Man standing at Golgotha, willingly embracing His shame along with ours, that we might not suffer alone. And thus when I am stripped of my garments, of the dignity owed me by a brother Christian, I too find myself in a peculiar kind of glory – the glory of identification, in an infinitesimally tiny way, with the suffering Son of God who loved me enough to permit the stripping of His garments.

Jesus, You Who were stripped of Your garments, in Your mercy be with us when we are stripped of ours.

On the memorial of Blessed Hermann of Reichenau

Deo omnis gloria!

Postscript: There is a very encouraging Facebook group for those who may find themselves in this situation: Catholics Are Christians.

A cradle Catholic once asked me to tell him what an “Evangelical” is. I had never really thought about it, but I explained that Evangelicals are conservative, Bible-believing Christians. As a “Bible-believing Christian” I grew up hearing sermons cautioning against liberal Christians who did not believe the Bible, who did not take the Bible literally, who watered down the statements of Scripture to make the Bible all warm and fuzzy for a perverse generation…. I stayed far away from liberal theology, only attending “Bible-believing” churches. Even Billy Graham revivals would typically conclude by urging new believers to begin attending “the Bible-believing church of your choice.”

We knew that whatever was wrong with you, it could be fixed if you would just read the Bible. We knew that if quasi-Christian groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses would just read the Bible, they would see how false their theology was and become Baptists like us. It came as no surprise to me when I became Catholic that my Moody Bible Institute friend told me that I should just read the Bible and I would discover the errors of the Catholic belief system that I had foolishly embraced.

Actually, though, it was in becoming familiar with the Bible that I began to have problems with the “just read the Bible” mentality. As a young mother in central Virginia, I stayed at home with my two kids, so I was able to listen to Protestant Christian radio. There were many different pastors on the radio, all Bible-believing Christians, all preaching the same Biblical truths, or so I thought. As a sincere believer, I listened intently in an effort to imbibe “Biblical teaching.” I really wanted to live a life that pleased God, and to do that I had to know what the Bible taught. But it seemed like the longer I listened, the less sure I became. Each pastor was preaching something different.

Now, “different” isn’t necessarily bad. Different verses at different times in your life can speak to you in different ways, and you are able to appreciate different aspects of God’s truth over the years as you contemplate those verses. But I started to realize that what those radio preachers were preaching wasn’t just “different.” It was “conflicting.” That was a problem for me.

Of course, all those preachers agreed that we must “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ” in order to be saved. And that sounded good if you didn’t think too deeply, but after listening for a while I found that although preachers like Presbyterian D. James Kennedy encouraged infant baptism, other pastors like Baptist Adrian Rogers preached against it. Baptist pastors would tell me that it was a sin to drink alcohol, while nondenominational preachers proclaimed that it was not a sin to drink (presumably stopping off for a beer with their producer after the broadcast). Some radio preachers warned against the possibility of “falling away” from the faith – others warned against preachers who said you could fall away from the faith. You would hear messages decrying “charismatic chaos” and other messages insisting that charismatic gifts were the key to growing in Christ. NOBODY could agree on the “End Times,” but nobody could stop talking about them, either.

After a while, the differences began to loom larger in my mind than the agreements. Where did these Bible-believing pastors get all these different ideas from???

From the Bible.

You see, each one of these preachers adhered to the idea that God the Holy Spirit will lead each one of us individually into all truth as we read God’s Word. All we have to do is just read the Bible. You will “know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

Contrast that noble-sounding principle with the reality of the (HOW MANY?) Protestant denominations all preaching something different! And yet I realized that every single “Bible-believing” denomination I was familiar with based their beliefs on the Bible alone. Every church I ever attended called itself a “Bible-believing church,” and those churches were all over the denominational map – Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Baptist, nondenominational – all insisting on different criteria for “getting saved” which they all found in the same Holy Bible.

And when I familiarized myself with Jehovah’s Witness theology, I became even more unsettled. Jehovah’s Witnesses pride themselves on the fact that all of their theology comes straight from Scripture – and they gleefully deny the divinity of Christ, the physical resurrection of Christ, and the doctrine of hell. So much for “just read the Bible.”

This reliance on the Bible alone is not working, obviously. Where did we go wrong??? We depend solely on Scripture – our beliefs are based on the Bible alone!

Change that – our beliefs are based on
our interpretation of what the Bible says. That’s why different denominations have different takes on how to get saved. That’s why there are different denominations to begin with. The quicksand in the Protestant belief system is the idea is that we can base our beliefs solely on what the Bible says. Sounds great in theory, but in practice it results in (HOW MANY?) squabbling denominations because the Bible must be interpreted. I was right in my belief that if I really want to live a life that pleases God, I have to know what the Bible teaches. The problem is, I know what I think the Bible teaches. But how can I possibly know if my understanding is right? If I can find a bunch of Bible verses that I think support my position? (but then of course I run into that darn “interpretation” problem again….) If I can find other people who agree with me? (but then I am, of course, relying on their interpretation….) If I can find a church that preaches what I think is right? If I can find theologians of whatever stripe who hold my position? If I can find more theologians who agree with me than theologians who agree with you? How can I know that my understanding is correct?

How can I understand unless someone guides me?” (Acts 8:31)

The answer is given in Acts 8. Not just anybody can make sense of this confusion. Not just anybody can claim to rightly divide the word of God. Only an authoritative interpreter can help us out of this quandary….

And if that is true, then God must have provided an authoritative interpreter for us.

That’s what the Catholic Church has been saying all along.

On the memorial of St. Pio of Pietrelcina

Deo omnis gloria!

In my last post we took a tour through the Middle Ages and saw that the Catholic Church has been teaching from the beginning that we are saved by grace through faith. I’ve decided to go back and examine the commonly held belief that the Church kept the faithful from reading the Bible so that they wouldn’t realize how “unbiblical” Catholic doctrine is. After all, in the words of “prophecy expert” Tim LaHaye, the Catholic Church made sure the Scriptures were “locked up in monasteries and museums” during the Middle Ages. It is simply “common knowledge” among Protestants that the Church has opposed access to the Scriptures down through the ages, something I used to believe – until I went to the trouble of doing a little research….

When I was a Protestant I KNEW that Martin Luther was the first German to translate the Holy Scriptures into the vernacular so that everyone could understand them. After all, he himself said, “”Thirty years ago, no-one read the Bible, and it was unknown to all. The prophets were not spoken of and were considered impossible to understand. And when I was twenty years old, I had never seen a Bible. I thought that the Gospels or Epistles could be found only in the postills [lectionaries] for the Sunday readings.” That’s Herr Luther’s story, and most Protestants buy into it. Let’s take another stroll down through the centuries to see how the situation looked on the ground. In 312 A.D. Constantine saw his “In Hoc Signo Vinces” vision. We’ll start there, looking for signs of devotion to God’s word…. (Don’t be shy about clicking on the links – there’s some good info there.)

St. Ambrose (330-397) “The reading of Holy Scripture is the life of the soul; Christ Himself declares it when He says: ‘The words that I have spoken to you, are spirit and life’.”

St. Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335-c.395) “We are not allowed to affirm what we please. We make Holy Scripture the rule and the measure of every tenet.”

St. John Chrysostom (347- 407) “…each of you take in hand that part of the Gospels which is to be read in your presence on the first day of the week or even on the Sabbath; and before that day comes, sit down at home and read it through; consider often and carefully its content, and examine all its parts well, noting what is clear, what is confusing…. And, in a word, when you have sounded every point, then go to hear it read. From such zeal as this there will be no small benefit both to you and to me.”

St. Jerome (347-420) “I interpret as I should, following the command of Christ: Search the Scriptures, and Seek and you shall find. Christ will not say to me what he said to the Jews: You erred, not knowing the Scriptures and not knowing the power of God. For if, as Paul says, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God, and if the man who does not know Scripture does not know the power and wisdom of God, then ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.”

St. Egeria (4th century) “And as he [the bishop] explained the meaning of all the Scriptures, so does he explain the meaning of the Creed; each article first literally and then spiritually. By this means all the faithful in these parts follow the Scriptures when they are read in church.”

Sounds like Christian leaders in the 4th century not only loved the word of God themselves, but also were committed to teaching it to the faithful. But the Dark Ages began in the 5th century. Perhaps that is when the Scriptures were taken from the people….

St. Mesrop Mashtots (5th century) “To know wisdom and instruction; to perceive the words of understanding” – the first words written by St. Mesrop as he translated the Scriptures into Armenian.

Unknown translators (5th century) translated the Scriptures into the Syriac, Coptic, Old Nubian, Ethiopic and Georgian languages.

St. Gregory the Great (540-604) “Those who are zealous in the work of preaching must never cease the study of the written Word of God.”

St. John Damascene (c. 645-749) “Like a tree planted by streams of water, the soul is irrigated by the Bible and acquires vigor, produces tasty fruit, namely, true faith, and is beautified with a thousand green leaves, namely, actions that please God.”

St. Bede the Venerable (c. 672- 735) “I wholly applied myself to the study of Scripture, and amidst the observance of regular discipline, and the daily care of singing in the church, I always took delight in learning, teaching and writing.” St. Bede translated the Gospel of John into English.

Unknown translator (8th century) translated the Gospel of Matthew into German.

Unknown translator (8th century) translated the Psalms into English (Vespasian Psalter).

Sts. Cyril and Methodius (9th century) translated the Scriptures into Old Church Slavonic.

Unknown translator (9th century) translated the Scriptures into Arabic (Mt. Sinai Arabic Codex 151).

Unknown translator (10th century) translated the four Gospels into Old English (Wessex or West-Saxon Gospels).

Ælfric of Eynsham (11th century) translated the first seven books of the Old Testament into English.

Benedictine missionaries (11th century) translated portions of the Scriptures into Hungarian.

Throughout the “Dark Ages,” the Bible was being read in Latin (the official language of the Church in the West. If you could read, you could read Latin!) I know people who believe that Bible reading in the Middle Ages was strictly forbidden. Certainly if that were the case, no translations would be made of the Scriptures into the vernacular languages of the faithful. What would be the point? Yet we have seen numerous examples of vernacular translations of Scripture before the turn of the first millennium!

St. Anthony of Padua (1195-1231) “He who does not know Scripture, knows absolutely nothing.”

St. Bonaventure (1221-1274) “We must study Holy Scripture carefully, and teach it and listen to it in the same way.”

Jaume de Montjuich (13th century) translated the Scriptures into Catalan.

Guyart des Moulins (13th century) translated the Scriptures into French.

Unknown translator (13th century) translated the Scriptures into Spanish (Biblia Alfonsina).

Unknown translator (13th century) translated the Psalms into Polish.

John Wycliffe (1320-1384) praises Anne of Bohemia (1366–1394) because she possesses copies of the Gospels in three languages, Bohemian, German, and Latin.

King Denis of Portugal (14th century) translated the first 20 chapters of Genesis into Portuguese.

John of Montecorvino, Franciscan missionary to China (14th century) translated the New Testament into Uyghur, the language of the Mongols.

Unknown translator (14th century) translated the books of Genesis through II Kings into Norwegian (Stjorn).

Unknown translator (14th century) translated the Scriptures into the Czech language.

Unknown translator (14th century) translated the book of Revelation into English.

Matthias von Beheim (14th century) commissioned the translation of the Gospels into German.

Unknown translators (14th century) translated the Psalms into Polish and German (St. Florian Psalter).

Unknown translator (14th century) translated the Old Testament into German (Wenzel Bibel).

King John I of Portugal (15th century) translated the Psalms and parts of the New Testament into Portuguese.

Andrzej z Jaszowic (15th century) translated parts of Scripture into Polish (Biblia królowej Zofii).

Unknown translator (15th century) – translated parts of Scripture into Croatian.

Unknown translator (15th century) – translated the New Testament into English.

Johannes Mentelin (1460-Strasburg) printed the first German language Bible.

Heinrich Eggestein (1466 -Strasburg) printed the Bible in German.

Jodocus Planzmann (c. 1470-Augsburg) printed the Bible in German.

Wendelin von Speyer (1471-Venice) printed the Bible in Italian.

Guenter Zainer printed two Bible editions in German, in c. 1475 and 1477 (Augsburger Bibel).

Johann Senseschmidt and Andreas Frisner (c. 1470-Nuremburg) printed the Bible in German.

Anton Sorg (1477-Augsburg) printed the Bible in German.

Barthélemy Buyer (1477-Lyons) printed the Bible in French.

Jacob Zoen and Mauritius Temants Zoem (1477-Delft) printed the Bible in Dutch (De Delfste Bijbel).

Niccolò Malermi (1477) printed the Bible in Italian.

Bonifacio Ferrera (1478-Valencia) printed the Bible in Spanish.

Heinrich Quentel (1480-Cologne) printed the Bible in German.

Anton Koburger (1483-Nuremburg) printed the Bible in German (Koburger Bibel).

Martin Luther is born (1483).

Johann Gruninger (1485-Strasburg) printed the Bible in German.

Hans Schoensperger printed two Bible editions in German, in 1487 and in 1490, in Strasburg.

Joan Ross Vercellese (1487) printed the Bible in Italian.

The Bible is printed in Bohemian (1488-Prague).

Stephan Arndes (1494-Luebeck) printed the Bible in German.

Hans Otmar (1507-Augsburg) printed the Bible in German.

Silvan Otmar (1518-Augsburg) printed the Bible in German.

When Martin Luther broke away from the Catholic Church, he began the task of translating the Scriptures into German. This was quite obviously not the ground-breaking, cutting-edge undertaking that many Protestants would like to believe. I had always thought of it as something hitherto unheard of – but look at all those German editions of Holy Scripture that came before Luther’s!

Catholics after Luther’s time continued doing what they had been doing….

St. John of the Cross (1542-1591) ” Taking Scripture as our guide we do not err, since the Holy Spirit speaks to us through it.”

St. Lawrence of Brindisi (1559-1619) “God’s word is so rich that it is a treasury of every good. From it flow faith, hope, love, and all the virtues, the many gifts of the Spirit.”

St. John Baptiste de la Salle (1651-1719) “Let your chief study be the Bible, that it may be the guiding rule of your life.”

Ignazio Arcamone (17th century) translated parts of Scripture into Konkani, a language spoken in India.

Jesuit missionaries (17th century) translated parts of the New Testament into Japanese.

Pope Leo XIII (1810-1903) “…it is well to recall how, from the beginning of Christianity, all who have been renowned for holiness of life and sacred learning have given their deep and constant attention to Holy Scripture.

Pope Benedict XV (1854- 1922) “Our one desire for all the Church’s children is that, being saturated with the Bible, they may arrive at the all-surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ.”

Blessed Titus Brandsma (1881-1942) Particularly the reading of Holy Scripture, which is the law of God, should fill us with great joy from the fact that God lives in us by his grace, and we are able to progress like giants, carried away beyond our strict obligations by the pure love and joy which is the cause of our election.

Blessed John Paul II (1920-2005) “Theology must take its point of departure from a continual and updated return to the Scriptures read in the Church.”


The above list of translations of Holy Scripture into various vernacular languages down through the centuries is not complete; I simply couldn’t include them all. Bear in mind that these vernacular translations are the ones that we know about. Not all translations, especially those from the first millennium, are extant.

The writings of the saints are full to bursting of quotes from Scripture. Sit down one afternoon and read St. Bernard (12th century), St. John of the Cross (15th century), or St. Alphonsus Liguori (18th century). According to the Carmelites, St. Teresa of Avila quoted from Scripture over 600 times in her writings. So many of the saints wrote commentaries on the Scriptures. You can’t seriously investigate the writings of the saints down through the ages, and then try to claim that the Church didn’t want anyone to know what the Bible said!

I’d like to re-emphasize that in the Middle Ages to be educated meant to know Latin. In other words, the Latin Scriptures were not the mystery to the educated layperson of the Middle Ages that they would be to 21st-century North Americans. IF YOU COULD READ, YOU COULD READ LATIN! On that point alone, the entire “vernacular argument” falls apart….

On the memorial of Sts. Andrew Kim Taegon and Paul Chong Hasang and companions

Deo omnis gloria!

Over the years I have read claims that Catholic teaching has changed, that it has “learned from Protestant doctrine” over the nearly 500 years since the Reformation, becoming more “Biblical.” “Pope Benedict admits that Luther was right!” people crow, (pretending that the Holy Father said “Luther was right – period!” rather than “Luther was right, IF….). This reasoning originates with people who have bought into standard-issue anti-Catholic propaganda, along the lines of: “Romanists believe that you have to work your way to heaven, worship the Pope, the saints, and Mary, and pretend that a flat, tasteless wafer is God.” They then hear the Holy Father say something that sounds suspiciously “Christian” and, stymied, can only attribute the Pope’s “change of heart” to Protestant influence. Catholic doctrine is changing, they assume. Assumption is so much less trouble than research. I know that from first-hand experience….

Take the subject of justification. If you had asked me back when I was a Protestant why Catholics don’t agree with the Protestant doctrine of “faith alone,” I would have explained to you that the pernicious doctrine of justification by works had wormed its way into Church doctrine as man-made “wisdom” superseded the preaching of the Gospel. The clergy and religious brothers and sisters of the Middle Ages were steeped in ignorance of the Scriptures and in the traditions of men. That’s why God raised up Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk who came to realize that the Catholic Church was teaching error concerning justification. God called this simple monk to lead people back to the Bible, to teach them to have faith, and trust in the blood of Jesus Christ for their salvation!

Not that I actually did any research on this – I was just buying into the prevailing Protestant wisdom that permeated the teaching of the churches I attended. I now wish that I had actually tested these assumptions against the historical record. Here are some quotes taken from the High Middle Ages, the 11th to the 13th century. Is prevailing Protestant wisdom correct? Did Catholics know anything about salvation by grace through faith before the time of Luther?

St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090- 1153) What I need to enter Heaven, I appropriate from the merits of Jesus Christ who suffered and died in order to procure for me that glory of which I was unworthy.

St. Anthony of Padua (1195-1231) Christians must lean on the Cross of Christ just as travelers lean on a staff when they begin a long journey.

St. Bernadine of Siena (1380-1444) The Church is indeed built on the Name of Jesus which is its very foundation, and hence it is the greatest honor to cleave through faith to the Name of Jesus and to become a son of God.

These men all lived and died before Luther’s time. These are the guys your Protestant mother warned you about: medieval priests and monks. But those quotes sound suspiciously “Christian.” Is that a fluke?

Martin Luther lived from 1483 to 1546. Here is a sampling of quotes from the Catholic writings of that era:

St. Thomas of Villanova (1488-1555) Fear not to approach Him with confidence, for He is called by the name of Jesus. He is the Savior and will not reject those whom He ought to save. If a man is condemned to hell, it is not because he has sinned but rather because he has rejected this so abundant and certain source of salvation.

St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) Not for ourselves, Lord, for we do not deserve to be heard, but for the blood of Your Son and for His merits.

St. Charles Borromeo (1538-1584) In His infinite love for us, though we were sinners, He sent His only Son to free us from the tyranny of Satan, to summon us to heaven, to welcome us into its innermost recesses, to show us Truth itself, to train us in right conduct, to plant within us the seeds of virtue, to enrich us with the treasures of His grace, and to make us children of God and heirs of eternal life.

St. Thomas of Villanova’s timeline runs almost exactly parallel to that of Luther. St. Thomas was an Augustinian monk, as was Luther. Luther suffered from scrupulosity, and was plagued by doubts that his sins could be forgiven. Surely these words of St. Thomas, “If a man is condemned to hell, it is not because he has sinned but rather because he has rejected this so abundant and certain source of salvation,” address Luther’s fundamental concern. Yet Luther claimed that the Catholic Church knew nothing of salvation by grace through faith. It’s certainly hard to believe that St. Thomas was the only man of his time who preached these things….

St. Charles Borromeo, too, was a contemporary of Luther’s, and one of his fiercest critics. Borromeo seems to be awfully interested in Jesus and “the treasures of His grace” for someone who is trying to teach “works-righteousness” instead of salvation by grace through faith. Kind of counter-productive reasoning….

The Council of Trent, perhaps the heyday of anti-Protestantism, took place between 1545 and 1563, with its decisions being codified in the Roman Catechism (1566), the revised Roman Missal (1570), and a revised edition of the Vulgate Scriptures (1592). What were Catholics declaring about justification during that time period?

Council of Trent – But when the Apostle says that man is justified by faith and freely, [Rom 3:24, 5:1] these words are to be understood in that sense in which the uninterrupted unanimity of the Catholic Church has held and expressed them, namely, that we are therefore said to be justified by faith, because faith is the beginning of human salvation, the foundation and root of all justification, without which it is impossible to please God [Heb 11:6] and to come to the fellowship of His sons; and we are therefore said to be justified gratuitously, because none of those things that precede justification, whether faith or works, merit the grace of justification. For, if by grace, it is not now by works, otherwise, as the Apostle says, grace is no more grace. [Rom 11:6]

That bears repeating: None of those things that precede justification, whether faith or works, merit the grace of justification!

Some well-known Catholic saints lived at this time. What were they saying?

St. John of the Cross (1542-1591) It is by the merits of the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ that I hope to be saved.

St. Francis de Sales (1567–1622) He leaves us for our part all the merit and profit of our services and good works, and we again leave Him all the honor and praise thereof, acknowledging that the commencement, the progress and the end of all the good we do depends on His mercy by which He has come unto us and prevented us, has come into us and assisted us, has come with us and conducted us, finishing what He has begun.

He repairs all, modifies and vivifies; loves in the heart, hears in the mind, sees in the eyes, speaks in the tongue; does all in all, and then it is not we who live, but Jesus Christ who lives in us.

That could be a Protestant preacher talking! But St. John of the Cross was a Catholic mystic, and St. Francis de Sales was a Catholic bishop who, by God’s grace, brought some 70,000 converts to Protestantism back into the Catholic fold! Could it be that those reverts realized how wrong they had been about actual Catholic teaching on justification?

If the Catholic Church taught “salvation through works,” the saints of the 17th, the 18th and the 19th centuries seem not to have realized it:

St. Rose of Lima (1586-1617) Apart from the cross there is no other ladder by which we may get to heaven.

St. Claude de la Colombiere (1641-1682) It is yours to do all, divine Heart of Jesus Christ. You alone will have all the glory of my sanctification if I become holy. That seems to me clearer than the day.

St. Louis de Montfort (1673-1716 ) Pray with great confidence, with confidence based upon the goodness and infinite generosity of God and upon the promises of Jesus Christ.

St. Paul of the Cross (1694-1775) I hope that God will save me through the merits of the Passion of Jesus. The more difficulties in life, the more I hope in God. By God’s grace I will not lose my soul, but I hope in His mercy.

St. Alphonsus Liguori (1696- 1787) And when the enemy represents to us our weakness, let us say with the Apostle: I can do all things in Him who strengthens me. Of myself I can do nothing, but I trust in God, that, by His grace I shall be able to do all things.

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton (1774-1821) I will go peaceably and firmly to the Catholic Church: for if faith is so important to our salvation, I will seek it where true Faith first began, seek it among those who received it from God Himself.

St. Therese of Lisieux (1873-1897) In the evening of this life, I shall appear before You with empty hands, for I do not ask You, Lord, to count my works. All our justice is stained in Your eyes. I wish, then, to be clothed in Your own Justice and to receive from Your Love the eternal possession of Yourself. I want no other Throne, no other Crown but You, my Beloved!

This all seems a far cry from the perception of Catholics trying to earn Heaven through worthless good works, with no reliance on faith or trust in Christ’s blood. It seems to be a continuous stream of reliance on grace and faith in Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. The 20th-century saints speak:

St. Edith Stein (1891-1942) His blood is the curtain through which we enter into the Holiest of Holies, the Divine Life. In baptism and in the sacrament of reconciliation, His blood cleanses us of our sins, opens our eyes to eternal light, our ears to hearing God’s word.

St. Maria Faustina Kowalska (1905-1938) I fly to Your mercy, Compassionate God, who alone are good. Although my misery is great, and my offences are many, I trust in Your mercy, because You are the God of mercy; and from time immemorial, it has never been heard of, nor do heaven or earth remember, that a soul trusting in Your mercy has been disappointed.

Blessed Teresa of Calcutta (1910-1997) Keep the light of faith ever burning, for Jesus alone is the Way that leads to the Father. He alone is the Life dwelling in our hearts. He alone is the Light that enlightens the darkness.

“Catholics sure have changed their tune!” is what a lot of folks claim when they read comments like the following from Pope Benedict:

Benedict XVI (1927- ) “Luther’s expression ‘by faith alone’ is true if faith is not opposed to charity, to love. Faith is to look at Christ, to entrust oneself to Christ, to be united to Christ, to be conformed to Christ, to his life. And the form, the life of Christ, is love; hence, to believe is to be conformed to Christ and to enter into his love.”

“Paul knows that in the double love of God and neighbor the whole law is fulfilled. Thus the whole law is observed in communion with Christ, in faith that creates charity. We are just when we enter into communion with Christ, who is love.”

You see, this is no capitulation to Protestant doctrine – it’s just the Catholic Church teaching what’s she’s taught all along. If by “faith” you mean “faith that creates charity,” then you understand the subject of justification the way the Council of Trent proclaimed it – faith without works is dead.

Realize, please, that the above-quoted individuals (Benedict XVI excepted – for now) aren’t just anybody; they are saints and blesseds. This means that the Catholic Church has set them up on a pedestal with a flashing neon sign proclaiming, “Pay attention to this person! Imitate her life! Listen to what he said!” Kind of counter-productive if the Church has secretly been cherishing the works-righteousness heresy all these centuries….

But as a Protestant, I didn’t know any of this, basically because I didn’t bother to do research on the subject. Prevailing Protestant wisdom was good enough for me. Little did I realize that Catholic doctrine cannot change!

Next time we’ll examine the prevailing Protestant wisdom on the subject of the Catholic Church and the Bible.

On the memorial of St. Robert Bellarmine

Deo omnis gloria!

As an Evangelical, I would have told you that there was a chasm between Biblical teaching (meaning “the interpretation of Scripture to which I happen to adhere at this point in my life”) and Catholic teaching. To my surprise, after actually bothering to study the issue (Memo to self: Find out what you’re talking about BEFORE you start talking…), many of the differences between Catholic theology and Protestant theology actually boil down to something not all that huge. Many times it is just a question of “How ….?”

When I was a Protestant, the Catholic idea of “going to confession” was something that I was SURE was invented by the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages in order to keep the people enslaved. It was a “man-made teaching.” After all, where in Scripture does it tell us that we have to confess our sins to a priest? The Bible tells us that “if we will confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness!” Where’s the priest in that verse? I knew that any Catholic who would just read the Bible (we all know there’s no such thing as a Catholic Bible study!) would come to the same conclusion that I had: confession was something the Church hierarchy had made up because it served their purpose.

When I studied the sacraments, though, and the sacrament of Reconciliation was presented as a “healing” sacrament, suddenly it all began to fall into place….

I attended several charismatic assemblies as a teenager; my mom once took me to a meeting led by Frances Hunter, where several people were healed of that dread malady of one-leg-longer-than-the-otherism. I have never, however, belonged to a church which preached total dependence upon faith healing. As responsible Christians, the folks at the churches I attended always marched themselves and their children over to the doctor’s office if they got sick. If we had appendicitis, we didn’t stay home praying for God to heal us – we prayed as we skedaddled over to the emergency room to have that thing removed before it burst! We did not see this as any kind of “lack of faith.” And yet I knew that that was exactly what some Pentecostals would call it. “By His stripes we are healed!” they proclaimed. “Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well. The Lord will raise him up.” Where’s the doctor in that verse? they would ask. And we would reply calmly that of course we believed that “the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well.” But we also believed that God was doing that healing through the intervention of trained medical personnel. We told the faith healers the story of the man trapped in the flood, sitting on his roof praying that God would rescue him. A neighbor rowed past in his boat and called out to the man to jump off the roof and climb into the boat. “No!” answered the man, “I’m trusting God to save me!” Another neighbor rowed past in his boat and they had the same conversation; the man would not leave his roof – he was waiting for God to save him. Finally the Coast Guard flew overhead in a helicopter and threw down a rope. “Climb up into the helicopter!” they shouted. “No!” the man shouted back. “I’m trusting God to save me!” The Coast Guard flew off to rescue others, and the man drowned in the flood. The moral of the story? Sometimes God does assist us directly, but very often He uses other human beings to provide what we need. It is not a lack of faith in God if we believe that His divine assistance can be provided through men.

As much as many Evangelicals try to pretend that our Christian experience boils down to “just me and Jesus,” in practice that idea falls apart. Protestants recognize this principle of relying on others as mediators of God’s gifts when they evangelize. Why do people need to tell their neighbors about Jesus? Why do missionaries go to the other side of the world to bring the natives to Christ? Because God has honored us with the responsibility of helping each other to Heaven – He does not send angels to proclaim the Good News; He leaves that job to us. We are all indebted to someone, some person, who brought us the Good News. God uses people to do His work. This is part of the Catholic teaching on justification by faith. Christians must “walk in the works which God has prepared for us to walk in”(Eph 2:10). If we aren’t doing our part, others will suffer from our negligence. Pope Pius XII put it like this:

“As He hung upon the Cross, Christ Jesus not only appeased the justice of the Eternal Father which had been violated, but He also won for us, His brethren, an ineffable flow of graces. It was possible for Him of Himself to impart these graces to mankind directly; but He willed to do so only through a visible Church made up of men, so that through her all might cooperate with Him in dispensing the graces of Redemption. As the Word of God willed to make use of our nature, when in excruciating agony He would redeem mankind, so in the same way throughout the centuries He makes use of the Church that the work begun might endure.”

God’s plan is for us to do His work. We as Catholics believe that the same wonderful plan – God’s grace poured out in our lives through the work of human instruments – is evident in the sacrament of reconciliation. In the Evangelical forgiveness formula, though, the Church is left out entirely. My sins are between me and Jesus! says the Evangelical.

Let’s face it – the Church isn’t the only thing that is left out of the Evangelical forgiveness formula. John 20:22-23 is a passage that is seldom-to-never brought up in Protestant preaching, I think for obvious reasons:

“And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.'”

It’s pretty obvious that Jesus gave His apostles the right and duty to forgive and to refuse to forgive sins. That’s what this verse says. And the Church has always understood it to mean that the men whom the apostles laid hands upon also have that right and duty, cf. St. Basil’s fourth-century insistence that “It is necessary to confess our sins to those to whom the dispensation of God’s mysteries has been entrusted.” We see in the historical record that the early Christian church believed in public confession – about as far from the Evangelical “just me and Jesus” approach as you can get! Nowadays of course we confess privately, but the concept remains the same.

Confession is a healing sacrament – that means that God uses the priest to forgive sins similar to the way He uses a doctor to bring healing. The doctor treats us, but God heals us. The priest absolves us in the person of Jesus, just as St. Paul declared that “To whom you forgive anything, I forgive also: for if I forgave anything, to whom I forgave it, for your sakes I forgave it in the person of Christ, lest Satan should get an advantage of us, for we are not ignorant of his devices.” (II Cor 2:10-11) In other words, the priest declares to us that we are forgiven based on his authority as God’s representative and on God’s promise to forgive. The priest declares God’s forgiveness – it is God who forgives us.

So the seeming chasm between the Protestant theology of “how one receives forgiveness” and the Catholic theology of “how one receives forgiveness” is not really much of a chasm at all. We agree that we receive forgiveness from God. We agree that Jesus wants His disciples to walk in His footsteps, i.e., to be the hands and feet of Christ in this world. Where we disagree is on the issue of “how” forgiveness comes to us. Just as Catholics do not believe that God desires all of us to be healed directly by Him with no intervention on the part of medical personnel, neither do we believe that God has left His Church out of the forgiveness equation. God forgives us using His instrument, the Church. And this process of confession, by the way, beautifully provides for the accountability that Evangelicals are always talking about (and bemoaning the lack of).

All of this, as we see, ties in closely to the doctrine of the “Communion of Saints,” which is also the basis for the Catholic veneration of Mary. This seemingly huge divide between Protestant teaching on “the saints,” and the Catholic understanding of the issue, is also more of a question of “how?” How is the body of Christ composed? Are we all a “hand?” (1 Cor 12:20-25) Are not some parts weaker and some parts stronger? Are not some parts more deserving of honor? Are there not some whom the King especially wishes to honor? (Esther 6:6) Again, not that far from Protestant belief when you look into it. The same can be said on the subject of Purgatory: we all believe that those who die in a state of grace will enter Heaven – it is a question of “how?” Will we enter Heaven with muddy feet, or will Jesus meet us at the door with a basin of hot water and a towel?  

On the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows

Deo omnis gloria!