Monthly Archives: December 2012

Have you ever sat down and thought about where our Bible came from? I mean, we all know that God inspired men to write Holy Scripture, but how were those writings recognized as Scripture? Obviously, anybody can say, “God inspired me to write this – this is Holy Scripture!” That doesn’t make it so!

But what does make it so?

Where did our Bible come from?

For a Protestant looking into Catholicism, this is a serious issue. After all, anyone who picks up a Catholic Bible will notice that it’s a little thicker than the NIV or KJV Protestants use. There are 7 extra books (and extra material added onto books that already exist in the Protestant Bible). How can Catholics account for the difference?

Protestants have an answer ready – a reader sent me a link to a prime example on the CARM website. Their answer reads:

In Judaism, the canon consists of the books of the Old Testament only.

In Protestant Christianity, the canon is the body of scripture comprised in the Bible consisting of the 39 books in the Old Testament and 27 in the New Testament.

In Roman Catholicism, additional books were added in 1546. These books are known as the apocryphal books: Tobit, Judith, 1 and 2 Maccabees, The Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus (Sirach), and Baruch. I need to add here that Roman Catholicism maintains that the apocrypha was always inspired along with the Eastern Orthodox, Coptic and Armenian churches. The Protestant movement has not accepted the apocrypha.

Poorly written, but you get their drift – BOOKS WERE ADDED TO THE CANON OF SCRIPTURE IN 1546 BY THE CATHOLIC CHURCH. Inconceivable, right? And if you check out other Protestant websites, or read books by popular Protestant authors, you’ll find even more unsavory tidbits concerning the Catholic Bible, pseudo-facts along the lines of “The seven apocryphal books were added to the Catholic Bible to give the appearance of ‘Biblical’ support for certain very unbiblical Catholic doctrines!”

How awful! How deceitful! How manipulative!

How untrue!

Catholics didn’t add books to the Old Testament – the Reformers took those books out of their canons. But that still doesn’t answer the question of how we got our Bibles. “Answers” are out there in books or on websites for Protestants. They explain that the first Christians used certain “criteria” to determine which books were Holy Scripture and which were not. By following these “criteria,” they say, the early Christians could tell that the Gospel of John was the real deal, and the Gospel of Thomas was a fake.

It all sounds so plausible, and the trusting reader comes away from this with his curiosity sated. He now “knows” where the Bible came from, and “knows” why the 66-book canon of Scripture contains the correct number of books.

Except for one little thing – it’s all a great big load of unhistorical clap-trap! The “criteria” which the first Christians supposedly used in their discernment process were invented by modern-day Protestants to retroactively justify their 66-book canon. No evidence exists that the early Christians applied any such “criteria” to the question of which books belonged in the canon! Using the “criteria” supplied by these popular Protestant authors, you can easily rule many Biblical books right out of the canon!

And what makes all of this even more suspect is that the “criteria” proposition is but one version of the story among many! Some Protestant websites will tell you to forget any supposed “criteria” – the first Christians just KNEW which books were Holy Scripture – it was OBVIOUS to them! There was never ANY QUESTION as to which books belonged in the New Testament!

Again, unhistorical clap-trap! We have mountains of historical evidence that the Christians of the second, third and fourth centuries disagreed when it came to the canonicity of books like 2 Peter and Revelation. Yet, the Protestant arguments are like the heads of a Hydra – if you kill one, there are still dozens to go….

So, how was the canon decided? Who decided it, and when? And why should you care??

Dr. Francis Beckwith, a revert to Catholicism, explained the problem quite concisely:

…the belief that the Bible consists only of sixty-six books is not a claim of Scripture, since one cannot find the list in it, but a claim about Scripture as a whole. That is, the whole has a property – i.e., “consisting of sixty-six books,” – that is not found in any of the parts. In other words, if the sixty-six books are the supreme authority on matters of belief, and the number of books is a belief, and one cannot find that belief in any of the books, then the belief that Scripture consists of sixty-six particular books is an extra-biblical belief, an item of theological knowledge that is prima facie non-biblical.

Sola Scriptura is a bedrock principle of Protestantism – all beliefs must be referred back to Scripture, and if a particular belief finds no support in Scripture, then it cannot be binding on a Protestant Christian. Nowhere in the Bible is it stated that Holy Scripture consists of 66 inspired books. Yet Protestants not only believe it – they INSIST on it. According to their own principles, they have no right to do that. According to their own principles, they must admit that they can only GUESS at which books belong in their canon, for Holy Scripture is utterly silent on that subject….

To the Protestant who comes to understand this, the concept is earth-shattering. Where to go for answers???

To the Holy Catholic Church, whose bishops discerned the canon in the 4th century!

But first, those seekers must climb over the Protestant Mountains of Disinformation….

Tomorrow I will begin posting a series on the canon of Scripture – 66 books or 73? I hope you’ll read along!

On the memorial of Pope St. Sylvester I

Deo omnis gloria!

So, how’ve you been enjoying the Christmas season? It’s hard, huh? Just as soon as Catholics declare to the world that Christmas has BEGUN, the world starts with the AFTER-Christmas sales. Carols are mothballed, decorations torn down… Leave it to the world to get things backwards.

NOW, the world will tell you, ’tis the season for resolutions! Wait a few weeks, and ’twill be the season for FAILED resolutions. You know the drill.

The explanation most often cited for the failure of resolutions is “unreasonable expectations.” In our zeal for reform, we take on too much. We bite off more than we can chew, and end up having to spit it out. Very little reform actually ends up taking place.

This past year I instituted an early morning practice that has come to mean a lot to me. I actually got the idea from a bishop, but I don’t know which one, because I read about it on a blog which I now can’t locate. Anyway, the bishop had asked that Catholics perform an act of penance each day in reparation for the sins committed in their diocese. He asked that the penance be kept deliberately small and unimpressive, so that the one performing the penance might not boast.

Good thing he’s not my bishop! He obviously doesn’t know who he’s talking to! I am a lifelong, card-carrying member of the Church of One Fine Day. I sincerely plan, One Fine Day, to give to God a gift so large, so impressive, that it will bring tears to His eyes just thinking about the love and sacrifice that went into that gift. I really do! And I’ve been planning this for some 50 years now, so you can see I must be serious about it. One Fine Day, I’m going to present to the Almighty a gift worthy of the name. And until then, well….

Until then I’m not fooling around with the little stuff, stuff like driving the speed limit and holding my tongue when I get peeved, changing the subject when someone begins to gossip, and making a daily Act of Contrition. Small potatoes! What good will things like that do? – anybody can do that stuff! Me, I think BIG! As we all know, it’s the BIG stuff that counts!

Leave it to the world to get things backwards.

I trace this longing for living LARGE back to my spiritual ancestress, Jerusha of Capernaum, a woman who prepared and sold food for a living. She was actually present at the Feeding of the Five Thousand when the little boy offered up his loaves and fishes. Jerusha sniffed. “Hmph! Five barley loaves and two fish! I would be ASHAMED to offer that up for the feeding of this crowd!” Tradition has it that Jerusha, who unbeknownst to the assembled actually had several loaves of bread in her knapsack, walked off engrossed in her dream of opening a successful kebab stand back in Capernaum, a business which would grow and grow into a franchise with locations all over the Holy Land, and that One Fine Day Jesus would stop by her stand and say, “Jerusha, I was wondering…” and she would cry out “YES, LORD!” and turn the whole business over to Him!!! – and that while engrossed in this daydream, she fell into a hole and had to be carried home on a stretcher. No word on how that kebab franchise worked out. St. Jerusha, pray for us!

It wasn’t till I became Catholic that I first heard of the concept of “offering it up.” Protestants don’t exactly offer their sufferings up – they do “count it all joy,” but since the idea of reparation for sin is missing from Protestant theology, the act of “offering it up” doesn’t really resonate with them. Once I understood it, though, I liked it. But One Fine Dayism dies hard – so, of course I was going to offer things up – GRAND things. A paper cut? What a trifling waste of a prayer! As my right forefinger throbs, I look forward to some glorious day in my future when my entire right arm will be wrenched from my torso! THEN there will be some epic “offering it up”! A paper cut?? Not even worth my time….

So you can see, it was definitely a good thing, and “of the Lord,” when I heard what the bishop was proposing – every morning, make some small sacrifice and offer it in reparation for the sins committed that day in your diocese. It seemed eminently doable to me, so I instituted it, starting off each morning with a cup of diluted black coffee with a shot of skim to cool it off. It tastes like dishwater. To a morning wimp who can barely crawl into the kitchen and boil the water, it’s a penance – but I’m never tempted to boast about my “suffering”, that’s for sure. It just means that instead of beginning my day with a small pleasure, I deny myself ever so minimally, starting off my morning by asking what I can do for God. I offer up the cup “in reparation for the sins committed today in the diocese of Richmond against the most Sacred Heart of Jesus.” It sets the tone, and I am then somewhat more inclined to drive slowly, speak kindly and pray harder.

Just a suggestion of something that you might try as a resolution. Start small, but start!

Because that One Fine Day is today.

On the memorial of St. Thomas à Becket

Deo omnis gloria!

“She asked me, ‘Where is confession to a priest in the Bible?’ I told her, ‘It isn’t.’ It isn’t! That woman became a Baptist, and I had the honor of officiating at her wedding.”

My daughter, who attends the local “World’s Largest Christian University,” recently repeated to me this tale told by her professor, a tale of how he “saved” a Catholic woman to whom he explained the Scriptures. She was contemplating marrying a Baptist, and had gone to this Protestant pastor for guidance. He chuckled as he regaled the class with this story.


So, the priestly ministry of reconciliation isn’t in the Bible, huh? And what is St. Paul talking about in 2 Corinthians 5:18-20?? And while we’re on the subject of chopped liver, what is going on in John 20:22-23? What were the early Christians thinking when they had public confession of sins and public penance that lasted until the bishop forgave their sins in persona Christi?? And poor St. Basil the Great, babbling incoherently when he wrote:

It is necessary to confess our sins to those to whom the dispensation of God’s mysteries is entrusted. Those doing penance of old are found to have done it before the saints. It is written in the Gospel that they confessed their sins to John the Baptist [Matt. 3:6], but in Acts [19:18] they confessed to the apostles.

Oh, I’m MAD.

Another poorly catechized Catholic leaves the fold, cluelessly relying on instruction from someone who has rejected the teaching of the Church, a man who still chuckles every time he tells her story. Did her family not teach her the basics of Catholic self-defense, or did they not know the basics themselves? Were these basics not taught at her parish? When John 20: 22-23 was read from the ambo, were those verses not explained to her? Was she just not listening?

And what should I do about it?

Back in the early 1960’s a drama unfolded in New Orleans. The archbishop of the diocese, a childhood immigrant from Germany in the 19th century, had already overseen the desegregation of the parish churches in the early 1950s, declaring “let there be no further discrimination or segregation in the pews, at the Communion rail, at the confessional and in parish meetings, just as there will be no segregation in the kingdom of heaven.” In 1962 the archbishop decided that the time for desegregation of the parish schools had come. Public protests were staged, and a letter-writing campaign was undertaken by those appalled at the thought. Time magazine covered this story:

“God demands segregation,” says New Orleans’ Mrs. B. J. Gaillot Jr., president of segregationist Save Our Nation Inc. She is a Roman Catholic, and when Archbishop Joseph Francis Rummel, 85, ordered full desegregation of New Orleans parochial schools for next fall, Mrs. Gaillot responded with picketing and loud protest….

Last week the archbishop answered some of his loudest parishioners with firm letters of “paternal admonition.” The letter to Mrs. Gaillot, mother of two children in Catholic schools, was a “fatherly warning” of automatic excommunication if she continued promoting “flagrant disobedience to the decision to open our schools to ALL.” Said she nervously: “If they can show me from the Bible where I am wrong, I will get down on my knees before Archbishop Rummel and beg his forgiveness.”

If you are familiar with Holy Scripture, I think you see the problem here. If they can show me from the Bible where I am wrong – slaveholders famously used Holy Scripture to justify their position for hundreds of years. Many Bible verses warn against mixed marriage, and this combination of passages concerning slavery and mixing the races was used to prop up the system of segregation. What does the Bible say about desegregation? Well, it says that “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them,” and that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Up against the many verses decrying intermarriage, and instructing us that God “determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place,” the Biblical argument against segregation sounds kind of weak, as Una Gaillot pointed out. If they can show me from the Bible where I am wrong – if the Catholic Church made its decisions based on this reasoning, our parish schools might be segregated to this day. Fortunately, it doesn’t, and they’re not.

The Catholic Church has authority – the authority invested in her by her Divine Spouse when He said, “Whoever hears you, hears Me.” When a judgment call needs to be made, it is her judgment, and not our own, her reading of Holy Scripture and her understanding of Holy Tradition upon which we can confidently rely, because she is literally “the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15).

The start of the 1962-1963 school year saw the desegregation of the parish schools of New Orleans. Una Gaillot and two others preferred excommunication to accepting the decision of the Church. “If they can show me from the Bible where I am wrong” led to a tragic end.

But we were talking about John 20 and 2 Corinthians 5 – the Bible passages which support the practice of confession to a priest – what’s the connection? After all, Scripture, history and the witness of the early Church Fathers make this a slam-dunk; confession to a priest is about as “Biblical” as you can get. When confronted with the “If they can show me from the Bible where I am wrong” argument on this one, Catholics have got it made! Yet some Catholics feel that because the Church does not embrace the “sola Scriptura” error of Protestantism, we should not “play their game” by highlighting the scriptural evidence for various Catholic doctrines. After all, reliance on “the Bible alone” has not worked out well for those Luther begat. Protestants are all over the map when it comes to issues such as abortion. The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association opines that “Even sincere Christians may differ on whether or not abortion is ever justified, especially in difficult situations such as rape or incest, or when tests reveal that the unborn child has severe abnormalities.” Why do these folks believe that “sincere Christians” can differ on an issue that the Catholic Church deems non-negotiable? Because the Bible simply does not speak directly to the subject of abortion, and if you are of the “If they can show me from the Bible where I am wrong” persuasion, you’re getting scant help from that direction. So don’t encourage Protestants in their sola-Scriptura fallacy! the Catholic argument goes. Teach them why sola Scriptura is wrong, and why the Church as the pillar and foundation of Truth has the God-given right to declare that “God alone is the Lord of life from its beginning until its end: no one can under any circumstance claim for himself the right directly to destroy an innocent human being.”

So, which approach is the right one – should we play up the Biblical evidence for our doctrines, or should we refuse to play “Bible-alone” pinochle?

Both, I say. We Catholics, in my part of the country at least, are fish in a barrel. This “don’t teach ’em Biblical arguments” argument leads to poor catechesis and potential capitulation to Protestant or Jehovah’s Witness reasoning when we’re caught in the crosshairs of the “everything we believe comes straight from Scripture” shotgun. Yes, with Evangelicals at every turn, and “sola Scriptura” like fluoride in our theological water, Catholics do have to be instructed on where and how “Scripture alone” falls flat on its doctrinal face. We must not forget to challenge Protestants regularly on their contention that every doctrine must have explicit scriptural support – show me from the Bible that every doctrine must have explicit scriptural support! But to neglect the obvious, to fail to teach Catholics that confession to a priest has solid Biblical underpinnings (as do the doctrines of mortal vs venial sin, apostolic succession, Church authority, the necessity of final perseverance, the Real Presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist, and on and on) is to leave Catholics in the lurch. They’re never going to hear this from a Protestant, believe me. Many parishes have Catholic Bible studies, but each Catholic should, as a child, receive instruction in doctrinal self-defense, Biblical ju-jitsu, learning where to find basic Scriptural evidence of Catholic doctrines and how to refute wacko objections like:

“Where’s the word ‘pope’ in the Bible? Huh? Huh? It’s NOT! So the papacy is an invention!”


“How dare you call yourselves the ‘Holy Catholic Church’? The Bible says that only God is holy!!”


“The Bible says that Peter was married, so the requirement of priestly celibacy is unbiblical!!!”

Too many Catholics wander off, and some for the flimsiest of reasons. God be praised, many do return, but effective catechesis would prevent so many from being lost to the Church, and possibly lost, period. This is spiritual warfare, and in defense of our souls we need to learn techniques to fend off sneak attacks as well as frontal assaults. The first pope insisted that Catholics be always ready to make a defense to everyone; I’m sure he took it for granted that we would teach our children to do the same. Can you make a defense for the hope that is in you? Can your kids? Can the guy next to you at Mass?

I can still hear that pastor chuckling.

On the memorial of St. Stephen

Deo omnis gloria!

Rockin around the Christmas Tree

Have a happy holiday!

Everyone’s dancing merrily

In the new old-fashioned way

Startlingly prescient lyrics for a 1950’s pop hit! When 13-year-old Brenda Lee recorded this Christmas ditty, it’s doubtful that anyone realized just how quickly “Rockin Around the Christmas Tree” would become “old-fashioned.” No one has “rocked around the clock” since the 50s – if this jingle weren’t trotted out once a year, the concept would by now be largely forgotten. This is the fate of anything intrinsically tied to pop culture – anything that is hip, up-to-date and “mod” today is doomed to be as riveting as old news tomorrow. Attempts to capitalize on the fickly short attention span of our contemporary culture ultimately backfire, for contemporary culture is itself shallow, ephemeral and empty.

The 20th-century American push to make the Nativity of God over in our own consumer image has snowballed in recent years with the assistance of folks who would just as soon have a Winter Holiday with lights and trees, but would just as soon not worry about a concomitant Incarnation, Virgin birth, and Savior. The concept of Advent no longer exists in American culture – it’s the Holiday Season, “the season for YOU!” Even Evangelical Christians are strangers to Advent, and the desire to “celebrate Christmas” takes on odd emphases such as all-night vigils for the acquisition of Teddy Ruxpins, Tickle Me Elmos and Furbys – Christmas is about the children! On Christmas Day, kids, we celebrate the biggest present we ever got! Pretty much gone, even among Christians who insist on keeping Christ in Christmas, is the sense that the Incarnation can be nearest approached by the phrase “O Magnum Mysterium.” Oh, great mystery!

Words cannot express the emotion I experienced when a Baptist pastor introduced us to the Christmas jingle “Come On, Ring Those Bells!”

Everybody likes to take a holiday

Everybody likes to take a rest

Spending time together with the family

Sharing lots of love and happiness.

Come on, ring those bells,

Light the Christmas tree,

Jesus is the king

Born for you and me.

Come on, ring those bells,

Everybody say,

Jesus, we remember

This your birthday.

Dearie me – no wonder there are folks out there who profess to hate Christmas. Accommodation tactics like “Everybody likes to take a holiday, everybody likes to take a rest,” with a nod to the birth of King Jesus tacked on the end of this song, only serve to heighten the sense that contemporary Christians are a dying breed who strain to remain relevant around X-mas time – they’re desperate! “Fairytale of New York” is far more likely to engage the mind and move the heart of a modern-day skeptic than such Christian vacuity. Too often, in an honest attempt to evangelize, Christians come off sounding less like the Bride of Christ, and more like the chick in B-movies who’s willing to “be whatever you want me to be!” And the world finds us pathetic.

The number of unintended tributes to the power of God peaks online around Christmastime, as unbelievers go to YouTube for a taste of “the holidays.” Folks who describe themselves as “total atheists,” “agnostics” and “humanists” testify to the effects of musical evangelization done right – as in “O Sanctissima,” “Ave Maria,” and “O Magnum Mysterium.” These people seek Beauty – not realizing that the truly beautiful is the truly True. Some of these people, although they may not realize it, are also “desperate in December,” desperate for they-know-not-what. Can they perhaps find it in Christmas?

At Christmas, Catholics need to keep on being Catholic – for the Truth and Beauty of Catholicism are only obscured by attempts at accommodation to the world. Midnight Mass at your parish is a wonderful opportunity to be Catholic in front of a group of people who won’t be back till Easter (and God forbid that the experience should become a reminder to them of why they left in the first place – you may want to scrap the amateur talent show, even if it is Ethel’s big chance to sing “Mary, Did You Know?” in front of a crowd….) Christ-centered worship is the only real drawing card the Catholic Church possesses, for the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ in the Holy Eucharist is the source and summit of our Christian life – and something we can receive nowhere else. This should be front-and-center on Monday evening and Tuesday morning. There is a Reason for celebrating Christ’s Mass. He is Emmanuel, God with us physically in the Body and the Blood, pure, unadulterated Jesus Christ. He is Strong Stuff, and He’s not to everyone’s taste. Many of the unbelieving desperate will not want to accept that it is Jesus they are looking for. Many of the believing desperate will urge us to sweeten Him up or to water Him down to encourage more widespread consumption. That is the very thing we cannot do, for He is all that the Church has to offer. He is the only thing that keeps the Church from becoming the “new old-fashioned way,” an irrelevance in modern times. Christ is timeless, and it is only Christ Who imparts to His Church her timeless quality.

As Advent comes to a close, be boldly Catholic, be unashamedly Christian. Give ’em Christ. At Christmas, when they bring to the Church their hungry hearts, let them find in us His true Food and Drink – true Christ’s Mass indeed.

On the memorial of St. Jan Kanty

Deo omnis gloria!


Photo credit:  Santa Rampage in Austin, Texas 2004, by photographer Steve Hopson

A recent exchange of emails with a very kind reader in Canada has encouraged me to try to remember my state of mind back when I was a Protestant. I was born Evangelical, raised Evangelical, remained Evangelical through college, and worked overseas at a Christian college hopeful that I might explain my Evangelical beliefs to students who might otherwise never be exposed to them. I married an Evangelical, and returned to the States an Evangelical. I attended Evangelical churches, read Evangelical versions of the Bible and Evangelical self-help books, and dedicated my children to the Lord at an Evangelical church. For 45 years of my life, I never once questioned the Evangelical status quo. Why did it never occur to me to look into the assumptions that we held as Evangelicals, foremost among those the assumption that the first Christians believed exactly what we believed? That assumption is crucial – for if the first Christians did not believe what Evangelicals believe, then the Evangelical gospel is the gospel that St. Paul warned against – a different gospel. The Evangelical assumption won’t stand up to historical scrutiny for 5 minutes, yet it never occurred to me to question it. Everyone I knew believed it – it had to be true.

I wasn’t really a comic book fan when I was a child, but one Batman comic I read in the 1960s really made an impression on me. Someone was impersonating the Caped Crusader. The impostor was so convincing that he even fooled Commissioner Gordon. This fake Batman offered to take the blindfolded Commish to the “Batcave”; of course, Gordon jumped at the chance. The phony Batcave was a travesty of the real thing, consisting of a workbench on which were placed a telephone, a microscope and a finger-printing kit. Reading the comic, my 10-year-old mind was screaming at Gordon: “Can’t you see that this can’t possibly be the real thing???” Gordon’s reaction to the cave has stuck with me to this day: “Somehow, I always thought there would be more…” “Oh, no,” mumbled the impostor in reply, “This is all I need….”

Why did it never dawn on me that there would be more? To take the metaphor to a more sophisticated level, forget the Batcave – how about Plato’s cave? When I saw all those shadows on the wall of my Christian experience – the altar upon which we placed no sacrifice, for example – why did it never occur to me to search for the source of those shadows? Of course, Evangelical Christianity is good, just as a telephone, a microscope and a finger-printing kit were a good start if you wanted to fight crime back in the 60’s. But the Batcave, the REAL Batcave, can very reasonably be expected to be so much more – and the Church that Jesus established can be expected to inspire AWE! No dithering around with 51,000 flavors of doctrine – the Church speaks with authority. No flip-flopping on issues like abortion – the Church declares to the world of today exactly what she declared to the world of all our yesterdays, that wrong is wrong is wrong. No invisible group of believers who said nothing, did nothing and went nowhere for 1500 years – the Church discerned the canon of Scripture, and preserved Scripture through the Dark Ages, while Christianizing the known world! No assembly that weeds out all but the fine and upstanding – the Church is made up of great saints and terrible sinners, the wheat and the tares, just as Jesus said! No myriad of leaders assuming various positions on Biblical issues – the Church is led by a Pope who can speak infallibly! The miracles! The Incorruptibles! The apparitions! The saints!  What was I thinking?? OF COURSE, this is what the Church Jesus established looks like! His Church HAS TO be like this.

What was I thinking when I was an Evangelical??

I wasn’t.

On the memorial of St. Flannán mac Toirrdelbaig

Deo omnis gloria!

Our old priest, now retired, grew up during World War II and saw his dad march off to war. Father apparently handled this separation from his parent relatively well; Father’s brother, William, apparently did not. William began having nightmares so severe that he would wake up screaming in the night. At those times their mother would rise and come to sit beside William’s bed to comfort him, holding his hand and whispering to him, “I’m here. I’m here.” That was all she did; it was all she could do. Gradually, the boy’s nightmares subsided, and eventually his dad returned safe and sound.

That story had a profound impact on my understanding of what it means to live in this dark world, for that is of course what we Catholics contend – He is here! – every time we have Mass. This was brought home to me in a startling way one Sunday when our old priest fell ill. It was the first and only time that I as a Catholic have experienced Communion in the absence of a priest. A deacon from our neighboring parish officiated, and when it came time for the Invitation to Communion, he did something I had never seen done before. He literally cried out:


It’s Him!

The Lamb of God, Who takes away the sins of the world!

Yes, He is here.

The irony of this Sunday being Gaudete Sunday was lost on no Catholic, I imagine. Rejoice, O Christian! You live in a world where small children are slaughtered at school! Again I say, rejoice!

Gaudete! the Church urges me today. How can I? is the only response that comes to mind.

Believe me, I don’t want to rejoice. We have all been through a nightmare, a waking nightmare. I don’t want to live in a world where I have to explain to little ones what happened in Connecticut on December 14th.

The world is broken, our deacon reminded us this morning, and shall remain so until the Son of God returns in glory. The irony of being urged to joy on Gaudete Sunday, 2012 weighs like lead. Rejoice in a broken world where children suffer, families grieve, and tears stain the cheeks of bystanders? How can I?

He is here.

This is the Catholic answer to the world. This is the point of the Advent season. This is the meaning of Gaudete Sunday. He did not leave us orphans in this broken world. He shall come again in glory, and all will be then set right, but until that Day, He is here, really here, physically present at every Mass. He comes to us, He abides with us, God with us in the Holy Eucharist. He does not only come to sit with us through the terrors of our long, dark night – He becomes our Food, our Drink, entering into our bodies so that we might hear His “I am here” within us. We are not alone, and the “joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ” are not ours to bear alone. He literally bears them with us, through us, and in us.

He is here, and through tears this Sunday our hearts rejoice.

On the memorial of St. Adelaide

Deo omnis gloria!


Postscript:  Please join in the Novena for the Sandy Hook Families.

One of the reasons participating in anti-Catholic apologetics can be so satisfying is because there actually is such a thing as Catholic doctrine. Although opponents can and do make up bogus “doctrines” to refute (works-righteousness, Mary worship, Purgatory as a second chance at Heaven after death), Catholic doctrine is a very clearly defined target: open up the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and you can say, “The Catholic Church teaches….” There is, however, no such thing as “Protestant” doctrine. Protestant beliefs run the gamut from you-can’t-lose-your-salvation to oh-yes-you-can-lose-your-salvation to baptism-is-necessary-for-salvation to baptism-is-a-symbol-of-your-already-accomplished-salvation to baptism-MUST-be-by-immersion to don’t-be-silly-you-don’t-actually-have-to-be-immersed to speaking-in-tongues-is-a-sign-that-you-are-saved to speaking-in-tongues-is-a-sign-that-you-are-a-grade-A-kook… which can turn Catholic attempts at refuting Protestant beliefs into a religious Whac-A-Mole tournament. As soon as the Catholic apologist says, “Protestants believe…” someone in the room will retort, “Well, that’s not what I believe!

The problem is that Protestants multiply by dividing. Each time believers run up against a doctrinal emphasis that rubs them the wrong way, they pack up their Bibles and move across the street to start a new church, and sometimes a new denomination. Take the Baptists as an example of this. To say, “I am a Baptist” is supposed to mean that you adhere to Baptist theological premises. That, of course, is not as straightforward as it sounds – technically there is no such thing as “Baptist doctrine.” There are many, many different kinds of Baptists. There are:

General Baptists

Landmark Baptists

Primitive Baptists

Southern Baptists

Independent Baptists

Free Will Baptists

Reformed Baptists

Evangelical Free Baptists

Full Gospel Baptists

Six Principle Baptists

American Baptists

Missionary Baptists

Separate Baptists in Christ

Seventh-Day Baptists

Sovereign Grace Baptists

Predestinarian Baptists

United Baptists

Fundamental Baptists

And more besides. And no, these are not just different names for the same thing – each is a separate Baptist denomination. Seventh-Day Baptists worship on Saturday rather than on Sunday. Full Gospel Baptists are “Bapticostal,” while Southern Baptists hold a cessationist view of the charismatic gifts (although that has relaxed in recent years). The American Baptist Churches Pacific Southwest are quite similar to the American Baptists USA except for their views on homosexuality. Missionary Baptists are pro-missions, obviously, while Primitive Baptists are not. Primitive Baptists also reject musical instruments in church (the use of musical instruments in church is not in the Bible), Sunday School (also not in the Bible), and seminary training (not in the Bible, either). Free Will Baptists are Arminian; Two-Seed-in-the-Spirit Predestinarian Baptists are Calvinist. The Separate Baptists (as in “Come out from among them, and be separate”) later united with the Regular Baptists and became United Baptists, except for the Separate Baptists in Christ who took the Arminian view and remained separate. As Arminians they agreed with General Six-Principle Baptists (who held to the six principles of Hebrews 6:1-2), but rather than emphasizing the laying-on of hands as did General Six-Principle Baptists, Separate Baptists in Christ emphasize foot-washing – not to worry, as the General Six-Principle Baptists appear to have petered out in the mid-20th century. Now, these were the General Six-Principle Baptists (meaning that they preached the general view of Christ’s atonement, i.e., Jesus made salvation possible for all men) – not to be confused with Particular Six-Principle Baptists – (holding the particular or limited view that Jesus’ death atoned for the elect only). Particular Baptists are the ancestors of the Reformed Baptists, who are Calvinists, as are Sovereign Grace Baptists and Strict Baptists, who practice closed communion. Landmark Baptists are also Calvinists, but believe that Baptists and only Baptists will be saved – most likely only Landmark Baptists.

You can’t make this stuff up!

And there lies the difficulty in refuting Baptist doctrine – one simply cannot say, “Baptists believe…” in any coherent sense. And when you factor in the Independent Baptist churches, which are literally independent and allow each church to decide its own doctrine, any kind of Catholic effort at apologetics would have to be on a case-by-case basis.

For obvious reasons, a growing number of Protestants simply decline to self-identify as members of a particular denomination. When I was a Protestant, non-denominational churches were all the rage. Since then, more and more Protestants are dropping the “n” – they are not “NON-denominational” but rather “NO denominational.” They want to be known as “just-Christians.”

This opens up a very unattractive can of worms, as an increasing number of Protestants cut themselves loose from all denominational ties and become their own theologians. Their Christian independence appears to go well until they are asked to clarify exactly what they believe, and they realize that they have no clue. “I just believe the Bible!” they will tell you, but then are at a loss to explain what they believe the “Biblical” position is on most issues, such as justification. There are among Protestant denominations conflicting views concerning exactly what justification is and how it works. Anglican bishop N.T. Wright and Baptist pastor John Piper have different takes on justification, leading Christianity Today to attempt to summarize for Protestant layfolk their respective views:

Piper: By faith we are united with Christ Jesus so that in union with him, his perfect righteousness and punishment are counted as ours (imputed to us). In this way, perfection is provided, sin is forgiven, wrath is removed, and God is totally for us. Thus, Christ alone is the basis of our justification, and the faith that unites us to him is the means or instrument of our justification. Trusting in Christ as Savior, Lord, and Supreme Treasure of our lives produces the fruit of love, or it is dead.

Wright: God himself, in the person of Jesus Christ (the faithful Israelite), has come, allowing the continuation of his plan to rescue human beings, and, through them, the world. The Messiah represents his people, standing in for them, taking upon himself the death that they deserved. God justifies (declares righteous) all those who are “in Christ,” so that the vindication of Jesus upon his resurrection becomes the vindication of all those who trust in him. Justification refers to God’s declaration of who is in the covenant (this worldwide family of Abraham through whom God’s purposes can now be extended into the wider world) and is made on the basis of faith in Jesus Christ alone, not the “works of the Law” (i.e., badges of ethnic identity that once kept Jews and Gentiles apart).

So which view of justification is the “Biblical” one, Piper’s or Wright’s? you might ask your “just-Christian” friend. Good luck getting an answer. A “just-Christian” simply can’t tell you what he believes – “just-Christianity” is more of a religious land of the lotus eaters than a coherent belief system.

And this all boils down to one big daily headache for the average “just-Christian” Protestant. My mother, a charismatic layperson with no theological training, spent many years moving from one charismatic assembly to another, encountering all kinds of doctrinal oddities, constantly forced to decide for herself what she believed “correct doctrine” to be. This came to a head when a former-Catholic-turned-charismatic-Protestant friend of hers started teaching classes on “How to Prophesy.” Forced to confess her inability to discern the “Biblical” position on every single matter, my mother admitted that she believed what her friend was doing to be incorrect, but couldn’t say why. “It just isn’t Biblical!” my mother stated definitively, only to finish her thought with a plaintive – “Is it?”

In practice, all Protestants end up perpetually sifting through doctrinal possibilities as they confront theological questions. This state is for Protestants the norm, and they don’t think to question it. To someone who has left the system, however, it takes on the appearance of a mythological punishment inflicted by the gods. Psyche comes to mind, consort of Eros, who was forced to accomplish the seemingly impossible task of sorting a tremendous pile of barley, corn and poppy seeds by morning. Pity the poor just-Christian layperson who decides her own beliefs on a case-by-case basis: she, like Psyche, is condemned to a task of mythological proportions: to sort and sift perpetually. Are musical instruments allowed in church? Can women wear pants? Is liturgy legitimate? Is it necessary? Was my infant baptism valid, or should I be re-baptized? Should I attend a church with closed communion, or one that offers communion at all? Should I be going to church on Sunday or on Saturday? Is it okay to celebrate Christmas? May I divorce, and under what conditions? Can women be ordained? Do I have to go to seminary in order to call myself a pastor? Is same-sex marriage unbiblical? Did Jesus die for everyone, or just for the elect? What is justification, anyway???

Yet, even those Protestants spared this dilemma by membership in a particular denomination must undergo this sifting ordeal – for how can they know that they have chosen the correct denomination? Are they sure that the “Two-Seed-in-the-Spirit Predestinarian Baptists” are proclaiming the Truth? Are they absolutely certain? How can they be sure that their denomination will never defect from the Truth? If their church announces an openness towards same-sex marriage, is it time for them to follow their leaders or to seek new ones? No one in their denomination has ever claimed indefectibility or infallibility, and they do not claim it for themselves.  And if that is the case, if there is no Protestant denomination that can infallibly guard the good deposit with the help of the Holy Spirit (1 Tim 1:14), no Protestant denomination that has been guaranteed that it will be preserved from defection (Mt. 16:18, 1 Tim 3:15), then what choice do believers have? Sorting is their life sentence; sifting is the fate to which they have been condemned because they are the ultimate religious authority in their world – they are their own pope. Their spiritual ancestors belligerently declared themselves free as they handcuffed themselves to their system of private interpretation, a system that doomed them to the ever-increasing forced labor of sifting and sorting without end.

An indefectible, infallible teaching Church is the only gateway to freedom, the very path laid out by the God Who promised that the Truth would set us free. Only an indefectible, infallible Church can possess the Truth, the whole Truth, and nothing but the Truth, the Truth that frees frustrated former “popes” to become what God meant them to be in Christ.

On the memorial of St. Maria Crucifixa di Rosa

Deo omnis gloria!