Catholic Ping-Pong

Ping pong project by Michael Knowles

As far back as I can remember, I have been interested in what other people believe about God. For the first 45 years of my life, I self-identified as an Evangelical Protestant, so as I listened to other people expound on what they believed, I compared/contrasted this with my Evangelical Protestant Christian beliefs. I sat down with Mormon missionaries in West Germany, and read the Book of Mormon that they gave me. I read the Koran given to me by my Muslim friends, although then no one was interested in discussing it with me – they apparently had not read it themselves. I met with Jehovah’s Witnesses in my living room for a year, listening to them explain their belief system. I always wanted to hear actual proponents of the belief system explain their beliefs – that’s only fair. But then, I always checked with Protestant apologetics materials to see how these beliefs lined up with “Biblical teaching” (i.e., the beliefs of that particular Protestant apologist). I had great faith in those apologetics materials. If I read in a work of anti-Mormon apologetics that the Mormons believe that human beings can become gods, it was not my experience that Mormon missionaries would tell me that what I had read was all wrong. They might want to explain the doctrinal nuances to me, but they wouldn’t ask me where in the world I’d come up with such a cockamamie notion. If I read in a work of anti-Jehovah’s Witness apologetics that the JWs deny the divinity of Christ, it was not my experience that the Jehovah’s Witness ladies who came a’visiting once a week would cry out “God forbid!” or anything along those lines. They denied the divinity of Christ, just as my apologetics materials informed me.

Then I began looking into Catholicism. I unfortunately didn’t really know any Catholics who could inform me personally, so I bought a book by a Catholic lawyer named Karl Keating, Catholicism and Fundamentalism: The Attack on “Romanism” by “Bible Christians”. It was an eye-opener, to put it mildly. All my life I had believed that Catholicism was one big collection of superstitious garbage; Karl Keating made Catholicism sound not only plausible, but grippingly true. But still, certain Mormon doctrines and Jehovah’s Witness doctrines may sound plausible when explained by a persuasive representative of the belief system. I launched into Part Two of my by-then comfortable routine: I started reading anti-Catholic apologetics.

Probably never in the history of print has the term “unbiblical” been bandied about more frequently and confidently than in those anti-Catholic books I read and websites I visited. This indeed seemed to be the central objection to Catholicism – that Catholics have added to the Bible the doctrines of men, stuff made up by the Church beginning way back in the early centuries of Christianity and still being made up today!

A prime example of this is the article I read by a Protestant apologist who insisted that Catholics have it all wrong when it comes to the topic of sin. The Catholic Church, of course, teaches that there is a distinction between mortal sins (serious sins which are committed deliberately, with full knowledge and consent) and venial sins (sins which do not fall into the mortal category). This apologist would have none of it! “The Bible makes no distinction between mortal sins and venial sins!” he thundered. He went on to explain the “Biblical” understanding of sin (meaning his denomination’s understanding of sin, since different Protestants have different answers to the questions of “What is sin?” and “How are sins forgiven?”). He explained that all sin is equally offensive in the eyes of God and that all sin is deserving of death, backing up his contentions with verse after verse of Scripture. It was a short article, but by the time he was done, he had convincingly demonstrated how unbiblical the Catholic distinction between mortal and venial sin really is.

And if I had left it at that, I would probably still be Protestant.

Thanks be to God, I was accustomed to taking what I had learned from the Protestant apologist back to the non-Protestant apologist and holding it up for scrutiny. Just as I would ask the Mormon missionaries, “Is it accurate to say that Mormonism teaches that man can become a god?”, I went back to my Catholic books and websites and asked, “Is this guy right? Is there indeed no Biblical basis for the Catholic distinction between mortal and venial sin?”

Wang Liqin, photo by Christophe Georgeval. Courtesy: International Table Tennis Federation

That is when I discovered the Swiss Cheese Syndrome, as in: Protestant anti-Catholic apologetics are as full of holes as Swiss cheese, BUT THEY ARE EFFECTIVE because the average reader can’t be bothered to do his homework. Most of us would read the “unbiblical mortal sin” claims and say to ourselves, “Wowee, looks like an open-and-shut case! Look at all those Bible verses he’s lined up to prove his argument! Catholics sure are goofy!” The only reason I didn’t do this was because it was my custom to play theological ping-pong, bouncing from the Protestant source to the defenders of the belief system in question, then back to the Protestants, then back to the defenders, until I felt that I had really gotten to the bottom of the discussion. It’s simply the difference between wanting to find out why WE’RE RIGHT, and wanting to find out WHO’S RIGHT. I was a committed Protestant, but since I wanted the Truth, the whole Truth, and nothing but the Truth, I didn’t have a vested interest in which side won – I just wanted Jesus.

Of course, when I looked into the “unbiblical” doctrine of mortal sin, what I found was that the author of the article had neglected to mention one little thing: 1 John 5:16-17. The most popular English-language Protestant translation of Scripture, the NIV, translates the passage like this:

If anyone sees his brother commit a sin that does not lead to death, he should pray and God will give him life. I refer to those whose sin does not lead to death. There is a sin that leads to death. I am not saying that he should pray about that. All wrongdoing is sin, and there is sin that does not lead to death.

Another Protestant translation, the Aramaic Bible in Plain English, actually uses the word “mortal”:

If a man sees his brother who sins a sin that is not worthy of death, let him ask, and Life will be given to him for those who are not sinning unto death; for there is mortal sin; I do not say that a man should pray for this. For every evil is sin, and there is sin that is not mortal.

Et voilà! We have the Biblical basis for the “unbiblical” distinction between mortal and venial sin, a distinction that that apologist was never going to tell me about, verses in 1 John that that apologist was never going to steer me towards, information crucial to my discernment process that that apologist just swept under the rug. He could certainly legitimately claim that he disagreed heartily with the Catholic understanding of 1 John 5:16-17. But to claim, as he did, that there is “no Biblical basis for the distinction between mortal and venial sin” was misleading in the extreme.

An apologist MUST be able to accurately summarize his opponents’ beliefs in order to be considered credible. He must be able to say, “You folks believe XYZ,” and his opponents must answer “That is correct.” THEN the apologist can begin to make clear why he doesn’t believe XYZ, and why you shouldn’t, either. So if an anti-Catholic apologist claims that Catholics worship Mary, and Catholics answer, “God forbid! That breaks the First Commandment!”, yet the apologist still insists, “They do worship Mary! They do! They do! They do!” then you are witnessing a credibility gap. And if an apologist claims that Catholics have no Scriptural backing for their beliefs, then Catholics shouldn’t be able to produce passages like 1 John 5:16-17, a passage which is clearly on-topic and apropos the subject under discussion.

Until I started delving into Catholic doctrine, this was exactly my experience. I had found Protestant apologists to be quite reliable sources of information. When I “played ping-pong” with my Mormon and Jehovah’s Witness contacts, they did not cry foul; they sometimes understandably wanted to give me a more careful definition of their beliefs, but they did not claim that my sources were flat-out fabricating things.

Anti-Catholic apologetics are different. Anti-Catholic apologists will tell you how unbiblical all the distinctively Catholic doctrines are: the Real Presence (John 6:22-69, Mt 26:26-28, 1 Cor 10:15-18, 1 Cor 11:23-30), the Sunday Mass obligation (Heb 13:17, Heb 10:24), Holy Tradition (1 Thess 2:13, 1 Corinthians 11:2, 2 Thess 2:15), the sacrament of baptism (Jn 3:5, Mt 28:18-20, Acts 2:38, 1 Pet 3:18), the necessity of final perseverance (Mt 10:22, Mt 24:13, Mk 13:13), etc., etc., etc. Of course, anti-Catholic apologists can legitimately claim that they don’t understand those verses the same way Catholics do – but that’s very different from claiming that a Biblical case for those doctrines cannot be made. I began to ask myself why our anti-Catholic apologetics seemed to rely more on obfuscation and sleight-of-hand than on presentation of the actual facts. After all, when Karl Keating presented Protestant beliefs in his Catholicism and Fundamentalism, I had no quibbles. His presentation was accurate and fair. I expected no less from my Protestant sources. I was disappointed.

Anti-Catholic apologists really know their stuff; their arguments appear solid and can be very persuasive. If you aren’t interested in hanging around for a game of “table tennis,” you’ll walk away from anti-Catholic arguments satisfied that Catholic doctrine is one big heap o’ hooey. Few Protestants care to investigate matters of Catholic doctrine, and fewer still care enough to stay for the tournament, where Protestant and Catholic apologists bounce the doctrinal ball back and forth, back and forth, back and forth… till someone misses and the other team scores.

U.S. Navy photo by Journalist 2nd Class Zack Baddorf

But when I started playing ping-pong with the Catholics, my team lost… and I won.

On the memorial of St. Mary Faustina Kowalska

Deo omnis gloria!

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