A Question of “How?”

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!

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