“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!