The Easter Vigil marked an occasion of tremendous joy for me – it was 10 years ago at the Vigil that I was reconciled to the Holy Catholic Church and received my first Holy Communion, and both my children were baptized, confirmed and received their first Holy Communion. I’m not sure exactly how I got through the Vigil this year; I was propped up on one side by God the Holy Spirit, and on the other side by the arm of my Blessed Mother, so awash in emotion was I. My heart sang every word of the Exsultet with our priest: Exult, let them exult, the hosts of heaven, exult! Let Angel ministers of God exult! Let the trumpet of salvation sound aloud our mighty King’s triumph! Be glad! Let earth be glad, as glory floods her, ablaze with light from her eternal King! Let all corners of the earth be glad, knowing an end to gloom and darkness!
Ten years as a Catholic! Ten Easter Vigils, each one more meaningful than the last!
I can most truthfully say that after 10 years as a Catholic I am more in love with God and with His Church than I ever was before. I think some folks who knew me when I became Catholic thought that after the newness wore off I might become disenchanted. To our surprise (theirs and mine), the newness hasn’t worn off yet – the riches of the Church are so abundant that I haven’t even begun to explore them all!
One thing that mercifully has worn off is the horrible sense of apprehension that I experienced as a Protestant back when I began to seriously consider entering the Church. I was trying, back in those days, to discern where the Truth lay, and it wasn’t easy. I cannot explain to you how obsessively I checked out every claim against the Church, because I was bringing two small children in with me, and I was responsible for their souls. What if the Catholic Church actually was what many of the anti-Catholic authors claimed she was, and I was making not just a mistake that would keep me from growing in grace, but an error with eternal consequences, consequences for me and for my children? I tell you, I made it my business to investigate every claim against the Church – if she was a fake, I needed to know!
So I researched the differences between Catholic and Protestant theology. I familiarized myself with every anti-Catholic argument I could find. I read Loraine Boettner and Ron Rhodes. I read articles online explaining to me exactly when, where and how the Roman church went off the rails. And then I read the Catholic responses. I was amazed to discover how reasonable those responses were, and how (gasp!) Scriptural they were. The Catholic apologists then had some questions of their own for the Protestants. To my surprise, the Protestant apologists didn’t really seem interested in discussing those issues. It was as if they hadn’t expected to have to prove their core assumptions, like “sola Scriptura.” Don’t we have answers to those questions? I asked.
I found myself wondering why the Protestant faithful were presented with a diluted, or exaggerated, or perverted form of the opposition’s case. If the Catholic argument is as flawed as the apologists claim, why can’t we be exposed to it? Again and again I winced as I watched Protestant apologists bait and switch, setting fire to straw men, to the applause of their Protestant audience who apparently hadn’t noticed that the argument just didn’t hold up….
After much experience sifting through anti-Catholic apologetics, I began to find that the claims fell into categories, like the ones below:
We’re all familiar with the common-knowledge cop-out, the “Everyone KNOWS” argument, a deliberately vague approach that relies on prevailing wisdom rather than on any actual investigation. “Everyone KNOWS that Catholics depend on ritual and rote prayers to get them into Heaven,” I read. “They have no personal relationship with Christ!” Indeed, that was pretty much what I’d always heard! The inquirer actually has to do some research in cases like this, something a lot of people are loath to do. But a little research on my part turned up a quote from a German cardinal who back in the 1990s made an off-hand remark in a television interview about how “a person can only be a Christian if he or she is really in a living, personal relationship with Christ” (“…daß man Christ nur sein kann, wenn man doch wirklich in einer lebendigen, persönlichen Beziehung zu Christus lebt”). When that cardinal went on to become Pope Benedict XVI, he repeated himself:
…we can be witnesses only if we know Christ first hand, and not only through others — from our own life, from our personal encounter with Christ.
Again, how do I know this stuff? I researched it. Some who style themselves “Protestant apologists” just rely on common knowledge.
IF CATHOLICS WOULD JUST READ THE BIBLE!
One tactic that really got on my nerves was the constant assertion that various and sundry Catholic doctrines were “unbiblical”. According to my anti-Catholic sources, the Church teaches the “unbiblical” doctrines of the Real Presence, the necessity of baptism and of final perseverance, to mention but a few. Just the tiniest bit of fact-checking on my part turned up Biblical support for doctrines of the Real Presence (John 6:25-71,
Mt 26:26-28; Mk 14:22,24; Lk 22:19-20; 1 Cor 11:24-25), the necessity of baptism (Jn 3:3-5, 22, 1 Cor 12:13, Gal 3:26-27, Acts 2:37-38, Acts 22:12-16, Col 2:9-14, 1 Pet 3:20-21) and of final perseverance (Mt. 10:22, Jn 15:5-6, Lk 12:42-46, Col 1:21-23, Gal 5:2-4, 1 Cor 15:1-2, Romans 11:19-22, Heb 3:12, 6:4-6, 10:23-29, 2 Pet 2:20-22), more Biblical support, by the way, for those doctrines than for, say, my Baptist belief that young children who die without confessing Christ as their Savior will go to Heaven. The anti-Catholic apologists were apparently hoping that no one would bother to check with Catholic sources to see if Biblical support existed….
Then the Catholic apologists asked their own very pertinent question: where in the Bible does it say that there must be a chapter-and-verse for each one of our doctrinal beliefs? Hmm? Where?
DUMB, DUMBER AND DUMBEST
Some of the arguments were just stupid, like the ones objecting to the doctrine of Mary as the Mother of God. “She can’t be the Mother of God!” they screeched! “That would make her a Goddess!”
Of course it wouldn’t. No one is claiming that Mary is divine – even when I was still a Protestant, that was quite clear to me. The Catholic argument is simply that Mary is Jesus’ mother, Jesus is God, and therefore Mary is the mother of God (not of the Holy Trinity, but of the second Person of the Holy Trinity). That’s really not hard to grasp. It’s the same kind of conversation you might have if you were standing in the aisle of a grocery store comparing various brands of pickled prune pits. The gentleman next to you, also a pickled prune pit lover, puts three 1-ounce cans of pits into his cart. You solicitously mention to him that the 5.5-ounce can is a far better deal – each 1-ounce can costs $1.50, while the 5.5-ounce can costs only $4.50, an obvious savings. The man eyes you as if you had sprouted a second head, and tells you that $1.50 is clearly less than $4.50. Nothing you say can convince him that the larger can is the better deal. It’s no use even discussing it. So, don’t.
Other arguments were of the fear-mongering sort. All sorts of hair-raising quotes from St. Louis de Montfort were flung around about Mary being “our salvation!” You see!! they insisted – Catholics worship her! They think she’s God! They don’t go to Christ for their salvation; they go to Mary!
These apologists would never mention that St. Louis also wrote that
We never give more honor to Jesus than when we honor His mother, and we honor her simply and solely to honor Him all the more perfectly. We go to her only as a way leading to the goal we seek – Jesus, her Son.
Those lines are, of course, the interpretive key to everything St. Louis wrote about Mary. Catholics go to her only as a way leading to Jesus, and it is in that capacity only that she can function as “our salvation,” because she guides us to the One Who is our Salvation – the One Who saved her (Lk 1:46-47)! I found a lot of this lop-sided fear-mongering, A LOT. And I began to wonder, if Catholicism is so obviously wrong, why we Protestants couldn’t just make a fair presentation of what Catholics actually believe, along the lines of, “Catholics pay way too much attention to Mary, mistakenly believing that by devoting themselves to her, they can come closer to Jesus. But Catholics do not worship Mary – in fact, the Catholic Church forbids the worship of anyone but God.” That kind of thing would have made a better impression on me as a faithful Protestant with questions about Catholic doctrine. Why did we have to exaggerate and distort, I wondered, if Catholic doctrine is so obviously wrong?
STRAIGHT FROM THE HORSE’S MOUTH
Someone else must have felt the same way, because I ran into this approach used as a very underhanded anti-Catholic tactic. It is a variation on the “Shocking Revelations” theme, but much more low-key and therefore more believable. It fools a lot of Protestants. Some apologists make a great show of going right to the source, something they of course should be doing, but they then provide the unsuspecting reader with a truncated, highly selective version of what “the source” actually says. It’s kind of like political ads warning you that a certain candidate is a “big-city lawyer,” leading you to believe that she is an outsider who has no business trying to represent the folks in your rural area. What the ads don’t tell you is that the candidate was born and grew up in your rural area, but went off to college and then to law school. The fact that she is now a big-city lawyer is absolutely true, but additional background information helps put that into perspective. In the religious version of this “dirty tricks” campaign, highly selective quotations from authoritative sources such as the Catechism of the Catholic Church are used to “prove” that the Church teaches all kinds of garbage. Since the quotes themselves are genuine, it isn’t supposed to dawn on the reader that, without studying the source material thoroughly, the quotes can very easily be misused, making the Church appear to say all sorts of things that she neither teaches nor believes. The moral of this story? Any apologetics technique that borrows from political campaigns can’t be a good thing.
How many Protestant denominations are there? I found articles decrying the “33,000 denomination myth” foisted upon an unsuspecting world by evil Catholic stooges. These apologists laughed to scorn the Catholic contention that there are some 33,000 Protestant denominations, and demanded an apology!
Okay, so how many denominations are there? More than one, right? Lutheranism began in 1525. The Swiss Brethren were formed in 1525, and the Mennonites in 1536. Henry VIII founded the Anglican denomination in 1537. The Presbyterians got their act together in 1541, with the Puritans gathering steam in the 1560s and the Dutch Reformed in the 1570s…. That’s 7 right there – are there fewer denominations now? I in my Protestant lifetime attended Methodist, non-denominational, Lutheran, Presbyterian and Baptist churches, and I’m here to tell you, each one of those denominations has a very different take on essential Christian doctrines! Look, even if you could get that 33,000 figure all the way down to TWO, it’d be one denomination too many! Denominations are CONDEMNED in Scripture in no uncertain terms. THAT’S the point. That’s the elephant in the room that no Protestant apologist can deal with without shooting his theological foot off.
This “Same Difference” tactic consists of nit-picking an impressive Catholic argument till a minor inconsistency is found, and then parading that inconsistency around as if it were the Holy Grail. Another good example was the mention made by Mark Shea in his astonishingly fine book, By What Authority? An Evangelical Discovers Catholic Tradition, of Martin Luther’s admission that he could not forbid polygamy. Shea used this to demonstrate that through a reliance on sola Scriptura without regard for Holy Tradition, Luther wandered way out into left field, unable to forbid something that had been forbidden by the Church for 1500 years. Protestant apologists subsequently pointed out that the quotation used by Shea was not entirely accurate. They admitted that Luther had indeed said “I confess that I cannot forbid a person to marry several wives, for it does not contradict the Scripture” and “If a man wishes to marry more than one wife, he should be asked whether he is satisfied in his conscience that he may do so in accordance with the word of God,” but pointed out that he had also said that in his opinion, “… there are many things permissible that ought not becomingly to be done: of these is bigamy,” as well as “My faithful warning and advice is that no man, Christians in particular, should have more than one wife.” Fair enough – but Shea’s minor problem with a quote was paraded about as if it negated his whole argument. It did not – the fact remained that through a reliance on sola Scriptura without regard for Holy Tradition, Luther wandered way out into left field, unable to forbid something that had been forbidden for 1500 years. All he could do was advise against polygamy. I found a great deal of this strategy in which apologists would pick nits and then expect the reader to believe they had demolished the Catholic argument.
To give a more worldly example of the tactic: Let’s say a senator is accused of keeping company with a woman of ill repute. An intrepid reporter ferrets out all the sordid details, right down to the woman’s address and phone number. The senator’s cronies spring into action, fact-checking till they come up with a discrepancy. “The woman’s phone number is NOT 111-2221!” they trumpet. “It’s 111-2222!!!”
Same difference. Sheesh!
Do you think we’re stupid?
To make a long story short… I waded through every anti-Catholic argument I could find. I let them hit me with their best shot. In the end I was forced to admit with great sadness that I was a member of a group which had split off from the Church Jesus established, a group which had taught me the unbiblical, ahistorical, Gnostic-tinged caricature of the doctrine of the “church” they used in order to justify their continuing rebellion. Painful, but true. At the Easter Vigil of 2003, by God’s grace I remedied that. My “Catholic” questions had been answered.
My “Protestant” questions remain: Where is sola Scriptura taught in the Bible? How can Protestants reconcile St. Paul’s assertion that it is THE CHURCH which is the pillar and foundation of the truth (1 Tim 3:15) with their insistence that it is the Bible which is the pillar and foundation of the truth? How can Protestants KNOW that their canon of Scripture is correct? If the universal belief of Christians for the first 10 centuries of Christianity was that Jesus is really present, Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity, in Holy Communion, how can Protestants maintain that what the apostles really meant to convey was that Communion is just a symbol? Jesus said that the Truth would set us free – did He mean for us to know the Truth or not?? If He did, is there one Protestant denomination which is teaching the Truth, the whole Truth, and nothing but the Truth? How can it be that multiple Protestant denominations give different answers to the most essential question of them all – what must I do to be saved – but that’s okay??
It’s been 10 years, and I’m still waiting for an answer….
On Monday within the Octave of Easter
Deo omnis gloria!
Photo credits: Deacon singing Exsultet during the Easter Vigil, Ołtarzew, Poland 2007 by Błażej Benisz