Common Ground

Protestants are all about a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. They instruct potential converts on the necessity of asking Jesus into their hearts in order to be saved, and they enthusiastically sing about this relationship that they have with the Living God: “You ask me how I know He lives – He lives within my heart!” Many Protestants feel that this is what is missing from the Catholic understanding of salvation: Catholics need to ask Jesus into their hearts.

Can a Catholic invite Jesus into his or her heart?

This has been something of a misunderstanding on both the Catholic and the Protestant side. Protestants believe that the process of salvation culminates in asking Jesus into one’s heart, since this creates a personal relationship with the Lord. When confronted with the Catholic insistence on baptism for the forgiveness of sins as well as the reception of other sacraments, Protestants assume that Catholics know nothing of a personal relationship with Christ. The misunderstanding stems from the fact that these options, (1) asking Jesus into one’s heart and (2) the reception of the Sacraments, are presented as an either/or dilemma: EITHER ask Jesus into your heart like a good Protestant, OR believe, repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins and receive the sacraments of Confirmation and Holy Eucharist like a good Catholic. Sometimes Evangelicals present this contrast as the “simple Gospel” versus the rituals and dead liturgy of a false belief system.

It’s nothing like that at all. True to the teaching of Scripture, the Catholic Church proclaims that “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” and “baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you” (1 Pet 3:21). The Church insists that those who want to be saved avail themselves of the Sacraments. At the same time, a glance at the lives of the saints shows how personal their relationship with Jesus was. The saints have long been advocates of asking Jesus into one’s heart. Ironically, it is the Catholic doctrine of the Real Presence which has prevented many people, Catholics as well as Protestants, from recognizing that fact….

You see, Catholics have always believed that Jesus is truly present, Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity, in the Holy Eucharist. It is the teaching of Jesus as well as of His apostles. Catholics take Jesus at His word when He says:

I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread also which I will give for the life of the world is My flesh. …Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. John 6:51, 53-56

While they were eating, Jesus took some bread, and after a blessing, He broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is My body. And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins. Mt 26:26-28

Catholics take St. Paul at his word when he comments on the celebration of the Eucharist:

Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break a sharing in the body of Christ? 1 Cor 10:16

For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is fore you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. 1 Cor 11:23-30

Every Church Father who wrote concerning the Eucharist affirmed that it is indeed the actual Body and Blood of Jesus. Understanding this, we Catholics read the words “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him,” and understand that in Holy Communion, Jesus Whom we consume actually comes into our bodies, and we take our place in His Sacred Heart. This is what real, literal “Communion” is meant to be. There is nothing more intimate to be experienced on this earth; no relationship could be more personal.

This understanding of the meaning of Holy Communion has led some Catholics to surmise that there is no place in the Catholic belief system for “asking Jesus into your heart.” After all, when you already receive Him, Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity, into your body at every Mass, isn’t this “asking Him into your heart” just some sort of paltry Protestant substitute for the Real Thing?

Not at all. We all know that there are times when a Catholic cannot receive Jesus in Holy Communion. Most of us attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days, so oftentimes a week elapses between communions. Occasionally we are ill on Sunday and cannot receive Him even then, and should we fall into mortal sin, we must abstain from reception until we have confessed our sin and received Absolution. But whenever we cannot receive Jesus in the Holy Eucharist, we can make a “spiritual communion,” asking Jesus to come into our hearts spiritually when He cannot enter our bodies physically. Many saints have recommended the practice of spiritual communion to us:

For he who believes in Jesus Christ, and conceives the ardent desire to receive Him therein [i.e., in the Holy Eucharist], spiritually eats Him, so far as He is veiled under the forms of this sacrament. St. Thomas Aquinas

I believe that You, O Jesus, are in the Most Holy Sacrament! I love You and desire You! Come into my heart. I embrace You. O, never leave me! I beseech You, O Lord Jesus, may the burning and most sweet power of Your love absorb my mind, that I may die through love of Your love, Who were graciously pleased to die through love of my love. St. Francis of Assisi

When you do not receive communion and you do not attend Mass, you can make a spiritual communion, which is a most beneficial practice; by it the love of God will be greatly impressed on you. St. Teresa of Avila

“Come, Jesus, my Beloved, come within this my poor heart; come and satiate my desires; come and sanctify my soul; come, most sweet Jesus, come!” This said, be still; contemplate your good God within you, and, as if you really had communicated, adore Him, thank Him, and perform all those interior acts to which you are accustomed after sacramental Communion. St. Leonard of Port-Maurice

My Jesus, I believe that you are present in the most Blessed Sacrament. I love You above all things and I desire to receive You into my soul. Since I cannot now receive You sacramentally, come at least spiritually into my heart. I embrace You as if You have already come, and unite myself wholly to You. Never permit me to be separated from You. St. Alphonsus Maria de’ Liguori

After the reception of the Sacraments, when we feel the love God growing cold, let us instantly make a Spiritual Communion. When we cannot go to the church, let us turn towards the tabernacle; no wall can shut us out from the good God. St. Jean Vianney

O my Lord, what a delightful way this is to communicate, without giving my father-confessor any trouble, or depending on any one save Yourself, Who draw near to the solitude of my soul and speak to my heart. St. Angela of the Cross

In the course of the day, when it is not permitted to you to do otherwise, call Jesus, even in the midst of all your occupations, with a resigned sigh of the soul and He will come and will remain always united with your soul by means of His grace and His holy love. Make a spiritual flight before the Tabernacle, when you cannot go there with your body, and there pour out the ardent desires of your spirit and embrace the Beloved of souls. St. Pio of Pietrelcina

The Catholic Church, far from neglecting the practice of spiritual communion, warmly urges the faithful to ask Jesus into their hearts, frequently and fervently! To this end we have been provided with the Chaplet of the Blessed Sacrament, in which we recite:

“As I cannot now receive Thee, my Jesus, in Holy Communion, come spiritually into my heart, and make it Thine own forever.”

So, an emphatic “yes” to the question of whether Protestants and Catholics agree on the practice of asking Jesus into their hearts! A spiritual communion, as the saints assure us, is a valuable, valid experience, “a most beneficial practice,” even though it is not a sacramental Holy Communion. Catholics are urged to make a spiritual communion often (St. Francis de Sales performed an act of spiritual communion every 15 minutes!) to secure our ongoing intimacy with our Lord. A personal relationship with Jesus Christ is what it’s all about, folks!

Thank goodness, that’s one issue on which Catholics and Protestants agree.


On the memorial of St. Polycarp

Deo omnis gloria!

This is without a doubt the easiest “Common Ground?” yet. Do Protestants and Catholics agree on their understanding of the words of the First Commandment, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them”?

Yes! Jawohl! ¡Si! Oui! 是! !نعم
Evet! 예! Ndiyo! Да! Oo! はい! Igen!

Yes in every language!

Blogging doesn’t get any easier than this!

The Catechism of the Catholic Church waxes eloquent over the First Commandment:

The first commandment embraces faith, hope, and charity. When we say ‘God’ we confess a constant, unchangeable being, always the same, faithful and just, without any evil. It follows that we must necessarily accept his words and have complete faith in him and acknowledge his authority. He is almighty, merciful, and infinitely beneficent. Who could not place all hope in him? Who could not love him when contemplating the treasures of goodness and love he has poured out on us? Hence the formula God employs in the Scripture at the beginning and end of his commandments: ‘I am the LORD.'” CCC 2086

Both Catholics and Protestants agree completely that “other gods” means idol worship, both literal and figurative. As the Catechism instructs us:

The first commandment condemns polytheism. It requires man neither to believe in, nor to venerate, other divinities than the one true God. Scripture constantly recalls this rejection of “idols, [of] silver and gold, the work of men’s hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see.” These empty idols make their worshippers empty: “Those who make them are like them; so are all who trust in them.” God, however, is the “living God” who gives life and intervenes in history. Idolatry not only refers to false pagan worship. It remains a constant temptation to faith. Idolatry consists in divinizing what is not God. Man commits idolatry whenever he honors and reveres a creature in place of God, whether this be gods or demons (for example, satanism), power, pleasure, race, ancestors, the state, money, etc. Jesus says, “You cannot serve God and mammon.” Many martyrs died for not adoring “the Beast” refusing even to simulate such worship. Idolatry rejects the unique Lordship of God; it is therefore incompatible with communion with God. Human life finds its unity in the adoration of the one God. The commandment to worship the Lord alone integrates man and saves him from an endless disintegration. Idolatry is a perversion of man’s innate religious sense. An idolater is someone who “transfers his indestructible notion of God to anything other than God.” CCC 2112-2114

So people can, if they’re not careful, make a “god” out of money, reputation, people – many different things. Nothing, absolutely nothing is allowed to come before one’s relationship with God; on that point Catholics and Protestants are in complete agreement. God alone is to be worshipped! This is the short answer to the accusation that some Protestants make against the Catholic veneration of Mary – it looks a lot like worship to them. The Catholic answer is simply: God forbid! We could never worship Mary or any other saint! God alone is to be worshipped! The First Commandment says so!

There is the technical quibble over how the Commandments are rightly divided, ever since Calvin set up his own system different from the one used by the Catholic Church (which followed St. Augustine’s division) and from the Talmud. The Catholic version of the First Commandment combines Exodus 20:2-6, while Calvin’s version ends the First Commandment at verse 3, making verses 4, 5, and 6 into his Second Commandment.

And that Second Commandment of Calvin’s, sadly, is the incubator that hatched an ugly conspiracy theory.

There are Protestants who will tell you that Catholics and Protestants most certainly DO NOT agree on the First Commandment, because the Catholic Church has tried to bury the REAL Second Commandment under the First (for nefarious reasons, no doubt!) There are anti-Catholic books and websites that claim that the Catholic Church has “done away with” the Second Commandment. Why would anyone think that? Calvin’s Second Commandment reads:

You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.

The conspiracy theory goes like this: The Catholic Church teaches its minions to worship statues (I kid you not). Were the Catholic Church to list the Commandments “properly,” making the admonition against idol worship a stand-alone Commandment, those duped by Rome might sit up and take notice! Hey, Catholics would say to their benighted selves, we’ve been taught to worship statues, but the REAL Second Commandment says that that’s a sin!! We’ve been hoodwinked!!


The Looting of the Churches of Lyon

Let’s think this through, folks. The Catholic First Commandment, combining as it does the prohibition against having other gods with the prohibition against graven images, really makes a great deal of sense. The two notions are extremely closely related! Israelites who chose to worship gods besides Jehovah would have made for themselves graven images, like the golden calf of Exodus 32. It’s just logical to list verses 2-6 together as “the First Commandment;” St. Augustine’s version as well as the Talmud version consider that passage to be one commandment. Yet Calvin, with his almost Mahometan horror of images, saw fit to split the two ideas, raising his new Second Commandment to a separate level of importance. In doing so, he somehow managed to overlook God’s instructions to Moses:

“And you shall make two cherubim of gold; of hammered work shall you make them, on the two ends of the mercy seat. Make one cherub on the one end, and one cherub on the other end; of one piece of the mercy seat shall you make the cherubim on its two ends. The cherubim shall spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat with their wings, their faces one to another; toward the mercy seat shall the faces of the cherubim be….”

Calvin also forgot about the Temple which the angel showed to Ezekiel in a vision, which looked like this:

It was carved with cherubim and palm trees; and a palm tree was between cherub and cherub, and every cherub had two faces, a man’s face toward the palm tree on one side and a young lion’s face toward the palm tree on the other side; they were carved on all the house all around.

God Himself, as we can see, commanded images to be made to adorn His Tabernacle as well as His Temple. Calvin meant his Second Commandment to be understood as a condemnation of images; God meant the Commandment to be a condemnation of the worship of images. And on that second point Protestants and Catholics couldn’t agree more – God alone is to be worshipped!

Martin Luther’s Large Catechism lists the First Commandment as simply “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me” (he, too, followed Augustine’s division). Luther reacted to charges that all religious images be destroyed with these words:

Would to God that I could persuade those who can afford it to paint the whole Bible on their houses, inside and outside, so that all might see; this would indeed be a Christian work. For I am convinced that it is God’s will that we should hear and learn what He has done, especially what Christ suffered. But when I hear these things and meditate upon them, I find it impossible not to picture them in my heart. Whether I want to or not, when I hear, of Christ, a human form hanging upon a cross rises up in my heart: just as I see my natural face reflected when I look into water. Now if it is not sinful for me to have Christ’s picture in my heart, why should it be sinful to have it before my eyes?

This is exactly how Catholics understand the issue – nothing wrong with images, just don’t worship them! God alone is to be worshipped! You see, like it or not, believe it or not – Protestants and Catholics agree 100% on what God meant by His commandment that He be loved above all things. The Catholic Church has always forbidden the worship of anybody or anything other than the Most Holy Trinity. Despite John Calvin’s attempt to make a separate issue out of graven images, as long as Catholics, or Lutherans, or any Christian takes care never to set anything or anyone above God, he has fulfilled the Commandment. We agree, plain and simple, in our understanding of the First Commandment.

So let’s stop arguing about it!


On the memorial of St. Evermode

Deo omnis gloria!

On Monday we asked whether Catholics and Protestants can agree on the all-important question of “What must I do to be saved?” Today’s question is related: Is there common ground between Protestants and Catholics on the subject of the Sacraments? Breaking this question down, what are the Sacraments, and are they necessary for salvation?

Once again, it depends on who you ask. Let’s begin with the Catholic position, since it is quite well-defined (we’ve had 2,000 years to think about it).

The whole liturgical life of the Church revolves around the Eucharistic sacrifice and the sacraments. There are seven sacraments in the Church: Baptism, Confirmation or Chrismation, Eucharist, Penance, Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders, and Matrimony. “Adhering to the teaching of the Holy Scriptures, to the apostolic traditions, and to the consensus . . . of the Fathers,” we profess that “the sacraments of the new law were . . . all instituted by Jesus Christ our Lord.” Jesus’ words and actions during his hidden life and public ministry were already salvific, for they anticipated the power of his Paschal mystery. They announced and prepared what he was going to give the Church when all was accomplished. The mysteries of Christ’s life are the foundations of what he would henceforth dispense in the sacraments, through the ministers of his Church, for “what was visible in our Savior has passed over into his mysteries.” Sacraments are “powers that comes forth” from the Body of Christ, which is ever-living and life-giving. They are actions of the Holy Spirit at work in his Body, the Church. They are “the masterworks of God” in the new and everlasting covenant. CCC 1113-1116

So, those are the Sacraments in a pretty impressive little nutshell. There are quite a few different nutshells on the Protestant side of the divide, of all shapes and sizes. Some denominations will tell you there aren’t any sacraments, most will claim that there are two, and a few denominations will propose more than that. One thing most Christians can agree on is that the Sacraments are something that God does. And therein lies the rub….

A Lutheran confessional

For Lutherans, there are two, maybe three sacraments – Baptism and Eucharist (communion), with a dubious addition of Penance (confession) – Luther originally taught that there were three sacraments, then backed off on Penance, and thus there are few Lutherans who practice “Holy Absolution.” Affirmation of Baptism (Confirmation), Holy Matrimony and Anointing of the Sick are practiced, but are considered to be non-sacramental rites. Anglicans and Episcopalians recognize Baptism and the Eucharist as “dominical” (“of the Lord”) sacraments, and may or may not offer the “sacramental rite” of Reconciliation. In Presbyterian denominations, Baptism and the Eucharist are considered sacraments; Presbyterians marry and ordain (some confirm, others do not), but do not consider these to be sacraments. Methodists recognize Baptism and the Eucharist as sacraments; while they perform the rites of Confirmation, Ordination, Holy Matrimony, and Anointing of the Sick, for Methodists those are not sacraments. In other words, all of these denominations would agree that God works (in one way or another) through baptism and holy communion; this is why baptism and holy communion are considered sacraments. On the other side of the sacramental divide, Evangelical denominations (Baptists, nondenominational churches) believe that baptism and holy communion are not something that God does – they are, rather, something that Christians do in obedience to God. They therefore prefer to refer to baptism and communion as ordinances. Thus, if you ask Evangelicals how many sacraments they recognize, they will say “none,” even though they do baptize and participate in the Lord’s Supper. Some Baptists recognize foot washing (as performed in Catholic parishes on Holy Thursday) as an ordinance, and engage in it on a regular basis. Members of the Church of the Brethren do the same, and would add anointing to their list of ordinances. Quakers and members of the Salvation Army recognize no sacraments by any name; they do not baptize, nor do they receive communion.

And so we observe a gradual paring-down of the Sacraments, from the Catholic understanding of 7 Sacraments, to the mainline Protestant belief in 2 sacraments, to the Evangelical acceptance of 2, or 3, or 4 ordinances only, to no sacraments or ordinances whatsoever. All of this hinges, as I said, on the understanding of what a Sacrament is and what it accomplishes. To the minimalists, baptism and the Lord’s Supper are ordinances, not sacraments, meaning that they are commands that believers obey. No grace is conferred; the fulfillment of the ordinance merely symbolizes something important. Let’s examine the Catholic position again. To Catholics, while the Sacraments are symbols, they are at the same time much, much more than symbols:

Celebrated worthily in faith, the sacraments confer the grace that they signify. They are efficacious because in them Christ himself is at work: it is he who baptizes, he who acts in his sacraments in order to communicate the grace that each sacrament signifies. The Father always hears the prayer of his Son’s Church which, in the epiclesis of each sacrament, expresses her faith in the power of the Spirit. As fire transforms into itself everything it touches, so the Holy Spirit transforms into the divine life whatever is subjected to his power.

This is the meaning of the Church’s affirmation that the sacraments act ex opere operato (literally: “by the very fact of the action’s being performed”), i.e., by virtue of the saving work of Christ, accomplished once for all. It follows that “the sacrament is not wrought by the righteousness of either the celebrant or the recipient, but by the power of God.” From the moment that a sacrament is celebrated in accordance with the intention of the Church, the power of Christ and his Spirit acts in and through it, independently of the personal holiness of the minister. Nevertheless, the fruits of the sacraments also depend on the disposition of the one who receives them. CCC 1127-1128

This is where the Protestant and the Catholic understanding of sacraments diverge. Calvin, who taught that Baptism and Holy Communion are sacraments, stated unequivocally: “The sacraments do not confer grace.” Adherents of Reformed theology found the theological concept of ex opere operato (“by the very fact of the action’s being performed”) to be superstitious, making out of the Sacraments “magical rites,” as R.C. Sproul calls them, “that people rely on for salvation instead of faith in Christ alone.” While pooh-poohing the belief that sacraments confer grace, Sproul writes that Calvinists “confess that baptism is a real means of grace wherein the Spirit strengthens our faith and reminds us of the work of Christ” (wrenching the whole discussion back to “faith alone,” the be-all and end-all of the Protestant experience). Believing that the Sacraments are outward or sensible signs instituted by Christ to give grace requires, apparently, too much faith. This Reformed devaluation of the Sacraments further devolved into the prevailing Evangelical belief that the Sacraments are not even somehow “a real means of grace,” but mere symbols that Jesus insisted that we reenact to remind ourselves and the world of His life, death and resurrection. The Lord’s Supper, as it is called, is seldom celebrated in Evangelical churches, simply because nobody quite knows what to make of this “symbol.” When I partook of the crackers and the grape juice as an Evangelical, I would become disgruntled, thinking guiltily that I could have come up with a better “symbol” than eating Saltines and drinking Welch’s. As Catholic Flannery O’Connor famously quipped, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.

The Church takes the Sacraments extremely serious, for obvious reasons. Jesus Himself stated that Baptism and Holy Communion are necessary for salvation:

Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. Jn 3:5

So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. Jn 6:53-54

Of course, you can mock the literal understanding of these verses as superstition, or you can admit that you lack the faith to take Jesus at His word. To the Church:

Sacraments are “powers that comes forth” from the Body of Christ, which is ever-living and life-giving. They are actions of the Holy Spirit at work in his Body, the Church. They are “the masterworks of God” in the new and everlasting covenant.

Okay, you’ve got to admit that the whole Catholic explanation sounds grand, yet Evangelicals have one very compelling objection to the Catholic understanding of the Sacraments. There are Evangelicals who live at a level of spirituality that puts many sacrament-partaking Catholics to shame. How can this be, skeptical Protestants demand, if the Sacraments confer such incredible graces, and our ordinances are mere symbols?
If the Church is right about the Sacraments,
shouldn’t things be the other way around?

From the moment that a sacrament is celebrated in accordance with the intention of the Church, the power of Christ and his Spirit acts in and through it, independently of the personal holiness of the minister. Nevertheless, the fruits of the sacraments also depend on the disposition of the one who receives them. CCC 1128

The subject under discussion has now shifted from the Sacraments and the graces they confer to the fruits of the Sacraments. The complaint that many Catholics bear no fruit is certainly a valid one. People can receive a sacrament and yet bear no fruit because they are not properly disposed. Let’s say I tootle into Reconciliation, confess all my sins and receive absolution, without repenting of those sins; in fact, I plan to go out and commit them all again next weekend. One thing the Catholic Church and our separated brethren can agree on is that the Sacraments aren’t magic – I can fool the priest with crocodile tears, but don’t expect to see me growing more Christ-like as a result of the sacrament! Another consideration would be that, while grace is always abundantly available in any given sacrament, sacrament-partaking Catholics are not forced thereby to automatically bear fruit. I can receive all the grace I need from my reception of the Holy Eucharist to aid me in showing forbearance towards irksome family members, but at the same time I can still choose to explode when they refuse to play Parcheesi with me. That explains unfruitful Catholics. How to explain non-sacrament-partaking, Christ-like Protestants? While the divine life of grace is primarily imparted to us through the Sacraments, it is not exclusively imparted through the Sacraments, explaining why an untold number of properly-disposed Protestants live faith-filled, God-honoring lives by availing themselves of the graces God grants them through spiritual communion, prayer and Bible-reading. Uninstructed Catholics may surmise that sacraments like Confirmation and the Holy Eucharist somehow work automatically, or that being Catholic is some kind of guarantee of being spiritually fruitful, neither fallacy being taught by the Church – or they may just not care. There are Protestants who, while rejecting the incredible outpouring of grace in the Sacraments, are at least sharp enough not to spurn the grace offered to them by other means. Those Protestants put fruitless Catholics to shame.

On the Catholic side of the aisle, the saints are the best example of the grace that flows freely through the Sacraments, wild, tumultuous, inexhaustible grace that sanctifies and produces holy fruit. With that wealth of grace available to us, Catholics have no excuse for living mediocre lives, just as the child of a billionaire has no excuse for wearing rags and eating out of garbage cans. The grace is there in the Sacraments, like a fortune in the bank, but remember – God’s never going to force you to make a withdrawal and spend it. What you do with your fortune is still up to you.


On the memorial of Sts. Cyril and Methodius

Deo omnis gloria!

What must I do to be saved?? The question of all questions, and truly the only question that ultimately matters. How do Catholics and Protestants answer this question when it is put to them? Are our answers one and the same?

Once again, there is such division on the Protestant side of this issue that it becomes very difficult to answer the question. On the minimalist side, there are those who look to John 3:16 for the answer to the all-important question “What must I do to be saved?”

For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.

Believe, they say – that’s the sum total of the demand made upon you by God. Believe in Jesus Christ and you will be saved. And it sounds good; after all, there are many, many verses instructing us that we are saved by believing (154, by one count), which Protestants interpret to mean that we are saved by faith alone. Isn’t that what John 3:16 means, just believe?

Well, let’s just say that it’s not likely that this is the entire answer to the question, for the simple reason that Scripture itself points out a flaw in the argument. As St. James mentions, the demons believe in the One God. They know that Jesus is He, as evidenced by their reaction to Him in Matthew 8:29, Mark 1: 24 and 5:7, and Luke 4:34. Are they saved?

Quite clearly, belief is only the beginning. Former Baptist Steve Ray has this to say on the subject:

What is the whole teaching of the Bible on how we receive salvation, justification, new birth and eternal life?

By repentance (Acts 2: 38, II Peter 3:9)

By being baptized (Acts 2: 38, John 3:5 Steve, I Peter 3:21, Titus 3:5)

By the work of the Spirit (John 3:5, II Cor. 3:6)

By declaring with our mouth (Luke 12:8, Romans 10:9)

By works (Romans 2:6-7, James 2:24)

By grace (Acts 15:11, Ephesians 2:8)

By His blood (Romans 5:9, II Peter 1:1)

By His righteousness (Romans 5:17, II Peter 1:1)

By His cross (Ephesians 2:16, Colossians 2:14)

In other words, flipping through the pages of the New Testament, you will find many answers to the question “What must I do to be saved?”: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household,” “…if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation,” “He who believes and is baptized will be saved,” “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins,” “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling,” “And having been made perfect, He became to all those who obey Him the source of eternal salvation,” “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone,” “But the one who endures to the end, he will be saved.” These answers are not mutually exclusive, and no one can pick out one and claim that it is the Answer above all answers! Clearly, all of what the Bible says on this subject must be taken into consideration. Faith is a part of the equation, and so are works. Baptism fits into the formula, as does perseverance. Obedience to God’s commandments is necessary, and so is a recognition that it is by grace that we are saved through faith! Many Protestant denominations are loath to admit all this, preferring a tidy package that better fits the doctrinal straightjacket they have prepared for believers, but the Bible indicates that more than just belief goes into the process of “getting saved.”

Note the teaching of the Catholic Church on the subject:

Our justification comes from the grace of God. Grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life. Grace is a participation in the life of God. It introduces us into the intimacy of Trinitarian life: by Baptism the Christian participates in the grace of Christ, the Head of his Body. As an “adopted son” he can henceforth call God “Father,” in union with the only Son. He receives the life of the Spirit who breathes charity into him and who forms the Church. This vocation to eternal life is supernatural. It depends entirely on God’s gratuitous initiative, for he alone can reveal and give himself. It surpasses the power of human intellect and will, as that of every other creature. The grace of Christ is the gratuitous gift that God makes to us of his own life, infused by the Holy Spirit into our soul to heal it of sin and to sanctify it. It is the sanctifying or deifying grace received in Baptism. It is in us the source of the work of sanctification: Therefore if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself. CCC 1996-1999

Believing in Jesus Christ and in the One who sent him for our salvation is necessary for obtaining that salvation. “Since ‘without faith it is impossible to please [God]’ and to attain to the fellowship of his sons, therefore without faith no one has ever attained justification, nor will anyone obtain eternal life ‘but he who endures to the end.'” Faith is an entirely free gift that God makes to man. We can lose this priceless gift, as St. Paul indicated to St. Timothy: “Wage the good warfare, holding faith and a good conscience. By rejecting conscience, certain persons have made shipwreck of their faith.” To live, grow and persevere in the faith until the end we must nourish it with the word of God; we must beg the Lord to increase our faith; it must be “working through charity,” abounding in hope, and rooted in the faith of the Church. Faith makes us taste in advance the light of the beatific vision, the goal of our journey here below. Then we shall see God “face to face”, “as he is”. So faith is already the beginning of eternal life: When we contemplate the blessings of faith even now, as if gazing at a reflection in a mirror, it is as if we already possessed the wonderful things which our faith assures us we shall one day enjoy. CCC 161-163

The Lord himself affirms that Baptism is necessary for salvation. He also commands his disciples to proclaim the Gospel to all nations and to baptize them. Baptism is necessary for salvation for those to whom the Gospel has been proclaimed and who have had the possibility of asking for this sacrament. The Church does not know of any means other than Baptism that assures entry into eternal beatitude; this is why she takes care not to neglect the mission she has received from the Lord to see that all who can be baptized are “reborn of water and the Spirit.” God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments. CCC 1257

The human heart is heavy and hardened. God must give man a new heart. Conversion is first of all a work of the grace of God who makes our hearts return to him: “Restore us to thyself, O LORD, that we may be restored!” God gives us the strength to begin anew. It is in discovering the greatness of God’s love that our heart is shaken by the horror and weight of sin and begins to fear offending God by sin and being separated from him. The human heart is converted by looking upon him whom our sins have pierced: Let us fix our eyes on Christ’s blood and understand how precious it is to his Father, for, poured out for our salvation it has brought to the whole world the grace of repentance. CCC 1432

The Council of Trent teaches that the Ten Commandments are obligatory for Christians and that the justified man is still bound to keep them; the Second Vatican Council confirms: “The bishops, successors of the apostles, receive from the Lord . . . the mission of teaching all peoples, and of preaching the Gospel to every creature, so that all men may attain salvation through faith, Baptism and the observance of the Commandments.” CCC 2068

As you can see, the Catholic Church covers the Biblical bases of grace, faith, repentance, baptism, obedience, works done through love, and perseverance in the Faith. As for the “confessing with the mouth,” we do that constantly, every time we recite the Creed or renew our baptismal vows. Protestant denominations, on the other hand, are a veritable cafeteria of possibilities when it comes to answering the question of “What must I do to be saved?” Different denominations teach very different things about how to get to Heaven, including:

  • Believe! (Free Grace, Plymouth Brethren)
  • Believe, repent, and accept Jesus as your Lord (meaning that you must obey Him) and Savior! (the most common understanding among Evangelicals)
  • Believe, repent, and be baptized! (Lutherans)
  • Believe, repent, and be baptized in the Holy Spirit! (meaning that if you do not “speak in tongues,” you are not “saved” – some charismatics take this position)
  • Believe, repent, be baptized, obey and persevere to the end! (Anglicans, Methodists, Church of Christ)

This issue beautifully demonstrates the fallacious Protestant claim that, while various Protestant denominations disagree on many doctrines, all Protestants agree on “The Essentials.” Well, brother – there is no doctrine more essential than this one! What must I do to be saved??  With no common ground among Protestant denominations on this issue, the myth of “unity on the essentials” explodes.

 Common ground on the issue of salvation? Not even among Protestants.


On the memorial of St. Scholastica

Deo omnis gloria!

Common ground on the subject of the Second Coming of Christ? Hmm… let’s see, do Evangelical Christians believe that Jesus is coming again? YES! Do Catholics believe that Jesus is coming again? YES! Is “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and His kingdom will have no end” a line from the Creed that all of us can recite in hearty, full-throated unison? YES!!

I don’t usually get to line up that many yeses….

However (you knew that was coming, didn’t you?), the Second Coming is a subject that has given rise to more confusion between Evangelicals and Catholics than almost any other, with neither side really clear on what the other side believes. Why in the world would that be?

Blame the secret rapture doctrine.

Christians for 1800 years were agreed upon the subject of the Second Coming. It was one of the truths of the Faith that Protestants appropriated when they severed their ties with the Catholic Church. Christians agreed that of course the Lord Jesus would return at the end of the world to judge the living and the dead. Martin Luther knew nothing about a “rapture;” his understanding of the Second Coming was the traditional interpretation of 1 Thessalonians 4:15-18:

For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words.

From that passage Luther understood that at the Second Coming, Jesus will descend from Heaven to judge the living and the dead, who will rise to meet Him. Like Luther, John Calvin taught his fellow believers to await the Second Coming, when the Lord will descend from Heaven with a shout, and the dead in Christ will rise first. He anticipated no separate “rapture” event of believers seven years before the Second Coming. Neither did Zwingli, or Knox, or Wesley. When Handel composed “The Messiah,” the stirring lyrics to “The Trumpet Shall Sound!” conjured up no visions of anybody getting “left behind,” for the simple reason that the doctrine of the secret rapture hadn’t been invented yet!

It wasn’t until the 19th century that the concept of a separate “rapture,” a secret one in which Christians are caught up out of the chaos unleashed in Revelation 6, began to be promoted by a Protestant group known as the Plymouth Brethren. While mainline Protestant denominations distance themselves from the secret rapture, the idea did catch on among the Baptists, charismatics and nondenoms. Many American Evangelical denominations have made it an integral part of their theology (Corrie ten Boom went so far as to decry it as “the American doctrine.”) Evangelicals are serious about it. At the Baptist academy my children attended, teachers were required to sign a statement declaring themselves to be in agreement with this belief. Literally millions of Evangelicals believe that one day they will disappear, leaving the rest of humanity – those “left behind” – to face the horrors of the Anti-Christ’s rule. The fact that the secret, pre-tribulational rapture is a novel theological proposition does not faze Evangelicals one whit, for to them it is “the clear teaching of Scripture” – not as clear as they might like, though, for Evangelical pastors are badly divided over the specifics of the doctrine which is supposedly so clear. Prophecy conferences are held to indoctrinate believers into all the various nuances of the theory, books are written to popularize the notion, and movies are made, to the embarrassment of more traditionally-minded Christians.

The people who developed this theory of the secret rapture found it plausible because they found implausible the concept of the Lord allowing His people to undergo the suffering of the Last Days. They then read Scripture through this “God would never allow His people to suffer through the Tribulation” lens, and concluded that the verses in 1 Thessalonians 4 must refer to an event prior to the Second Coming. Reading the rapture into all passages dealing with the End Times, they found what they thought was the “comfort” that St. Paul was referring to: “comfort one another with these words.” This is why Corrie ten Boom, Holocaust survivor and Christian evangelist, so hated the doctrine; she felt that believers were being misled into thinking that they were among some privileged group who would not be allowed to suffer. When suffering eventually reared its ugly head, especially in the form of persecution in countries where Evangelical missionaries taught the secret rapture doctrine, shocked adherents apostatized, thinking that they had been deceived by what they thought was the Christian message.

Ask a believer to show you where the Bible teaches the rapture doctrine, and you will be showered with verses; Matthew 24:30-36 and 40-41, John 14:1-3, Acts 1:9-11, 1 Corinthians 15:51-52, Philippians 3:20-21 and 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12 will most likely be presented. Look those verses up, and you’ll note that all of them seem to be referring to the Second Coming. That’s because they are. Adherents are taught to read the secret rapture doctrine into these verses; once they do, those verses are supposed to “prove” that the secret rapture will occur 7 years (or 3-1/2 years – depends on who’s doing the preaching) before Christ comes again in glory.

The important thing to remember when discussing the Second Coming with an Evangelical is that when you express doubts concerning the secret rapture of believers, he will most likely hear you saying that you do not believe that Jesus will come again in glory to judge the living and dead. It is far more productive, in this case as in most cases, to explain to your friend what Catholics DO believe, rather than what we don’t, since he has probably heard a lot of hogwash concerning Catholic teaching. Catholics believe, and have always believed, that Jesus will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead! The Second Coming is a doctrine that Catholics and Protestants can agree on, even if the secret rapture theory – mere theological speculation, heavy on eisegesis and devoid of historicity – is not. Jesus is coming again – this is glorious, sobering news!
Catholics and Protestants need to take this seriously, join forces, and proclaim it to the world – leaving the secret rapture doctrine behind.


On the memorial of St. Blaise of Sebaste

Deo omnis gloria!

How much common ground is there between Protestants and Catholics on the subject of the forgiveness of sins? Sad to say, not a whole heck of a lot. It’s an awkward, unwieldy topic, basically because all the many and various Protestant denominations have failed to get their act together and find common ground amongst themselves on this subject! It is impossible to discuss “the Protestant view” on the forgiveness of sins, since there really isn’t one – there are many. Your beliefs as a Protestant on the subject of the forgiveness of sins basically hinge on what you personally have chosen to believe.

So, let’s begin by talking about what Protestants rejected in order to get themselves into this state of disarray. First of all, they rejected the pretty obvious sense of John 20:19-23

So when it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and when the doors were shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you.” And when He had said this, He showed them both His hands and His side. The disciples then rejoiced when they saw the Lord. So Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you; as the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” 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, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.”

Hmm…. Jesus was making His first appearance to His assembled apostles after His Resurrection. Speaking to them, the first thing He says is, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” What is Jesus doing here? According to Catholics, He is instituting a sacrament. He is giving His Spirit-filled apostles the authority to hear confessions and declare those sins either forgiven or not forgiven. “If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.” In rejecting this pretty obvious understanding of the text, most Protestant denominations have been forced to claim that Jesus is breathing the Holy Spirit upon His disciples and telling them to preach the Good News of forgiveness of sins through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ – a great thing to preach, clearly, but just as clearly NOT what Jesus is saying here: “”If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.” This dovetails with Jesus’ earlier promise to the apostles: “”Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Mt 18:18). While we have no New Testament examples of Christians making their confession to a priest, we do have St. Paul’s declaration that “”All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:18). Quite clearly, from the beginning, Christians understood the importance of the confession of sins. The 1st-century “church manual” known as the Didache instructed believers:

Confess your sins in church, and do not go up to your prayer with an evil conscience. This is the way of life.

If first-century Christians believed that confession to a priest was not necessary, why the instruction to “confess your sins in church?” Christians were following the command of St. James to “confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed.” We see in the book of Acts that believers made public confessions: “Also many of those who were now believers came, confessing and divulging their practices.” Sins were confessed publicly in the early Church, with absolution given by a priest only after a period of penance. This caused repentant sinners a great deal of discomfort, as one would imagine. The Catholic bishop of Lyons, St. Irenaeus, wrote in 180 A.D. about a practice long established, one which a heretically-influenced group of women neglected to their peril:

Some of these women make a public confession, but others are ashamed to do this, and in silence, as if withdrawing themselves from the hope of the life of God, they either apostatize entirely or hesitate between the two courses.

Tertullian describes a 2nd-century process of confession so unpleasantly public that many avoided it, yet he deemed it necessary in order to obtain absolution:

This act, which is more usually expressed and commonly spoken of under a Greek name, is ἐξομολόγησις, whereby we confess our sins to the Lord, not indeed as if He were ignorant of them, but inasmuch as by confession satisfaction is settled, of confession repentance is born; by repentance God is appeased. And thus exomologesis (confession) is a discipline for man’s prostration and humiliation, enjoining a demeanor calculated to move mercy. With regard also to the very dress and food, it commands (the penitent) to lie in sackcloth and ashes, to cover his body in mourning, to lay his spirit low in sorrows, to exchange for severe treatment the sins which he has committed; moreover, to know no food and drink but such as is plain—not for the stomach’s sake, to wit, but the soul’s; for the most part, however, to feed prayers on fastings, to groan, to weep and make outcries unto the Lord your God; to bow before the feet of the presbyters, and kneel to God’s dear ones; to enjoin on all the brethren to be ambassadors to bear his deprecatory supplication (before God). All this exomologesis (does), that it may enhance repentance; may honor God by its fear of the (incurred) danger; may, by itself pronouncing against the sinner, stand in the stead of God’s indignation, and by temporal mortification (I will not say frustrate, but) expunge eternal punishments. Therefore, while it abases the man, it raises him; while it covers him with squalor, it renders him more clean; while it accuses, it excuses; while it condemns, it absolves. The less quarter you give yourself, the more (believe me) will God give you.

Yet most men either shun this work, as being a public exposure of themselves, or else defer it from day to day. I presume (as being) more mindful of modesty than of salvation; just like men who, having contracted some malady in the more private parts of the body, avoid the privity of physicians, and so perish with their own bashfulness. It is intolerable, forsooth, to modesty to make satisfaction to the offended Lord! To be restored to its forfeited salvation! Truly you are honorable in your modesty; bearing an open forehead for sinning, but an abashed one for deprecating! I give no place to bashfulness when I am a gainer by its loss; when itself in some son exhorts the man, saying, Respect not me; it is better that I perish through you, i.e. than you through me. At all events, the time when (if ever) its danger is serious, is when it is a butt for jeering speech in the presence of insulters, where one man raises himself on his neighbor’s ruin, where there is upward clambering over the prostrate. But among brethren and fellow-servants, where there is common hope, fear, joy, grief, suffering, because there is a common Spirit from a common Lord and Father, why do you think these brothers to be anything other than yourself? Why flee from the partners of your own mischances, as from such as will derisively cheer them? The body cannot feel gladness at the trouble of any one member, (1 Cor 12:26) it must necessarily join with one consent in the grief, and in laboring for the remedy. In a company of two is the church; but the church is Christ. When, then, you cast yourself at the brethren’s knees, you are handling Christ, you are entreating Christ. In like manner, when they shed tears over you, it is Christ who suffers, Christ who prays the Father for mercy. What a son asks is ever easily obtained. Grand indeed is the reward of modesty, which the concealment of our fault promises us! To wit, if we do hide somewhat from the knowledge of man, shall we equally conceal it from God? Are the judgment of men and the knowledge of God so put upon a par? Is it better to be damned in secret than absolved in public? But you say, It is a miserable thing thus to come to exomologesis: yes, for evil does bring to misery; but where repentance is to be made, the misery ceases, because it is turned into something salutary. Miserable it is to be cut, and cauterized, and racked with the pungency of some (medicinal) powder: still, the things which heal by unpleasant means do, by the benefit of the cure, excuse their own offensiveness, and make present injury bearable for the sake of the advantage to supervene.

Early bishops write along the same lines – there is no doubt in their minds that sins must be confessed to the Church and that priests have the authority to forgive or refuse to forgive sins:

God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. . . pour forth now that power which comes from you, from your Royal Spirit, which you gave to your beloved Son, Jesus Christ, and which he bestowed upon his holy apostles. . . and grant this your servant, whom you have chosen for the episcopate, [the power] to feed your holy flock and to serve without blame as your high priest, ministering night and day to propitiate unceasingly before your face and to offer to you the gifts of your holy Church, and by the Spirit of the high priesthood to have the authority to forgive sins, in accord with your command. St. Hippolytus of Rome, 215 A.D.

The Apostle [Paul] likewise bears witness and says: “Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord “[I Cor. 11:27]. But [the impenitent] spurn and despise all these warnings; before their sins are expiated, before they have made a confession of their crime, before their conscience has been purged in the ceremony and at the hand of the priest . . . they do violence to his body and blood, and with their hands and mouth they sin against the Lord more than when they denied him. … Of how much greater faith and salutary fear are they who . . . confess their sins to the priests of God in a straightforward manner and in sorrow, making an open declaration of conscience. . . I beseech you, brethren; let everyone who has sinned confess his sin while he is still in this world, while his confession is still admissible, while the satisfaction and remission made through the priests are still pleasing before the Lord. St. Cyprian of Carthage, 251 A.D.

Just as a man is enlightened by the Holy Spirit when he is baptized by a priest, so he who confesses his sins with a repentant heart obtains their remission from the priest. St. Athanasius, c. 350 A.D.

It is necessary to confess our sins to those to whom the dispensation of God’s mysteries [i.e. the Sacraments] 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 [Mt 3:6]; but in Acts they confessed to the Apostles, by whom also all were baptized [Acts 19:18]. St. Basil the Great, c. 370 A.D.

But what was impossible was made possible by God, who gave us so great a grace. It seemed likewise impossible for sins to be forgiven through penance; yet Christ granted even this to His Apostles, and by His Apostles it has been transmitted to the offices of priest. St. Ambrose, c. 380 A.D.

Priests have received a power which God has given neither to angels nor to archangels. It was said to them: “Whatsoever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever you shall loose, shall be loosed.” Temporal rulers have indeed the power of binding: but they can only bind the body. Priests, in contrast, can bind with a bond which pertains to the soul itself and transcends the very heavens. Did [God] not give them all the powers of heaven? “Whose sins you shall forgive,” he says, “they are forgiven them; whose sins you shall retain, they are retained.” The Father has given all judgment to the Son. And now I see the Son placing all this power in the hands of men [Mt 10:40; Jn 20:21-23]. They are raised to this dignity as if they were already gathered up to heaven. St. John Chrysostom, 387 A.D.

Let this be in the heart of the penitent: when you hear a man confessing his sins, he has already come to life again; when you hear a man lay bare his conscience in confessing, he has already come forth from the sepulchre; but he is not yet unbound. When is he unbound? By whom is he unbound? “Whatever you loose on earth,” He says, “shall be loosed also in heaven” [Mt 16:19; 18:18; Jn 20:23]. Rightly is the loosing of sins able to be given by the Church… St. Augustine of Hippo, c. 420 A.D.

As any Protestant who’s tried it will tell you, the problems associated with public confession of sins in a church setting are legion. Yet it is impossible to make the case that the early Christians believed that when they confessed their sins, it was between them and God – the Church was meant to be involved. Gradually, private confession to one member of the Body, the priest, became the norm – understandable, since he was the one who could give absolution. That certainly made confession a whole lot less scary. Yet, the children of the Reformation still objected to the arrangement. They were a very independent lot, and had no intention of confessing their sins to any human being. They insisted that the Church butt out. Having rejected the pretty obvious sense of John 20:19-23, Protestants went on to come up with their own definitions of sin – which only compounded the problem. The prevailing Protestant understanding of sin is expressed in the Westminster Confession:

As there is no sin so small but it deserves damnation; so there is no sin so great that it can bring damnation upon those who truly repent.

For most Protestants, all sins are equal, and equally deserving of damnation – put in Catholic terms, they view all sins as mortal. There are, however, Christians who have decided that all sins committed after placing one’s faith in Christ are pretty much venial and of no real consequence in the grand scheme of things. In other words, the concept of mortal versus venial sin has been lost in the Protestant world. Both the view that all sins “deserve damnation,” and the view that no sins do, are a departure from the teaching of Scripture and from the understanding of the early Christians. The Catholic Church derives its theology of mortal vs. venial sin from 1 John 5:16-17:

If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask and He shall give life to him, to those committing sin not leading to death.
There is a sin leading to death. I am not saying he should ask for that kind. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is a sin that does not lead to death.

The Catholic understanding of these verses helps to make sense of several remarks St. John makes in that same letter, remarks which, taken out of context, have spawned some pretty weird theologies of sin. In 1 John 3:9 and in 5:18, the saint makes the bold claim that “no one who is born of God sins.” However, in 1 John 1:8 and 1:10, he appears to contradict himself by suggesting that “if we say we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and making God a liar”! Why the confusion? St. John is referring on the one hand to mortal sins and to the fact that those in a state of grace avoid them, and on the other hand to venial sins which no person alive can claim that he or she does not commit. In 1 John 5:16-17, St. John discusses the case of a Christian who has committed a venial sin; his fellow Christians can effectively pray that God will forgive this sin. John makes a point, however, of calling attention to the other kind of sin – mortal sin. Don’t expect that God will forgive your brother’s mortal sins simply because you have prayed for him, John writes. The forgiveness of mortal sins comes through the sacrament of penance. St. Augustine elaborated on this teaching:

I do not tell you that you will live here without sin; but they are venial, without which this life is not. For the sake of all sins was Baptism provided; for the sake of light sins, without which we cannot be, was prayer provided. What has the Prayer? “Forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors.” Once for all we have washing in Baptism, every day we have washing in prayer. Only, do not commit those things for which you must needs be separated from Christ’s body: which be far from you! For those whom you have seen doing penance, have committed heinous things, either adulteries or some enormous crimes: for these they do penance. Because if theirs had been light sins, to blot out these daily prayer would suffice. In three ways then are sins remitted in the Church; by Baptism, by prayer, by the greater humility of penance; yet God does not remit sins but to the baptized. The very sins which He remits first, He remits not but to the baptized. When? When they are baptized. The sins which are after remitted upon prayer, upon penance, to whom He remits, it is to the baptized that He remits. St. Augustine of Hippo

Having rejected the doctrine of mortal vs. venial sins, Protestants have wandered into a morass of their own making. The belief that all sin is equally grave makes many of the Protestant aberrations in doctrine not only possible, but theologically necessary – imputed righteousness and the forgiveness of all sins, past, present and future upon a one-time declaration of faith come to mind. Evangelicals such as I once was tend to take sin quite lightly. Many other Protestants, however, groan under the weight of their sins – not because they believe that God cannot forgive sin, but because they fear that these besetting sins are proof that they are not among the “elect,” that they never were “saved” to begin with. To use a familiar example, the Protestant approach to sin is a lot like the American approach to health insurance – just pick the plan that you can afford, the one that seems to suit your situation, and hope for the best.

God wants something better for His children.

At Jesus’ first appearance to His assembled disciples after His Resurrection, He was manifesting Himself to some pretty frightened men. They were frightened for a very good reason; all except John had abandoned Jesus in His hour of need. Had He risen from the dead to have His revenge? Quite the opposite – He came to forgive them. “Peace be with you!” was His greeting. Jesus conferred upon those forgiven men the priestly ministry of reconciliation, and they of all people could say that they understood the importance of certainty regarding the forgiveness of sins. Through the Church’s certain understanding of the reality and the gravity of sin, her clear teaching, and her God-given ability to offer of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, she passes on that certainty to her children. Because of Jesus’ promise in John 20:23, she teaches our hearts to rejoice at the words of the Prayer of Absolution: “God the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of Your Son, You have reconciled the world to Yourself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins. Through the ministry of the Church, may God grant you pardon and peace, and I absolve you of your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”

Rightly is the loosing of sins able to be given by the Church.


On the memorial of St. John Bosco

Deo omnis gloria!

Do Catholics and Protestants share common ground on the subject of prayer? Certainly!  After all, both groups pray often and fervently, both pray to God in Jesus’ Name, and both expect that God will hear and answer their prayers. Some Protestants have the misconception that Catholics somehow can’t pray directly to God but are taught to go through a priest, or through Mary or the other saints. Considering how often Catholics pray the Our Father, that’s kind of hard to claim with a straight face. Read Church history! Read the lives of the saints! Visit a Catholic Mass! Any one of those would disabuse a skeptic of such a silly notion. Every Catholic who goes to confession is required to pray directly to God:

My God, I am sorry for my sins with all my heart. In choosing to do wrong

and failing to do good, I have sinned against You whom I should love above

all things. I firmly intend, with Your help, to do penance, to sin no more,

and to avoid whatever leads me to sin. Our Savior Jesus Christ suffered and

died for us. In His name, my God, have mercy.

Yet, this example illustrates a difference between Evangelical and Catholic approaches to prayer. Those who consider themselves Evangelical Protestants wouldn’t be caught dead reciting a formula prayer like the above-cited Act of Contrition. Why not? Because Jesus forbade it!

But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. Mt 6:7 (KJV)

Evangelicals have concluded, based on this verse in the Gospel of Matthew, that memorizing a prayer and reciting it, or reading a prayer aloud out of a book, is the “vain repetition” that Jesus warned against. Yet the words of more modern Protestant Bible translations make clear that this wasn’t what Jesus was warning against at all:

And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans…. (NIV)

And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do…. (ESV)

And when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition as the Gentiles do…. (NASB)

In other words, Jesus forbade “babbling,” “empty phrases,” and “meaningless repetition” – hardly what a Catholic is doing when he prays for forgiveness using the deeply meaningful words of the Act of Contrition. After all, Evangelicals understand the concept of “praying the Psalms,” clearly a highly meaningful practice. Someone could thoughtlessly recite Psalm 23, but that does not make the practice of praying the Psalms equivalent to “babbling” – it just means that someone could turn it into babbling if they weren’t careful. Evangelicals want to find some kind of blanket condemnation of the Catholic practice of reciting pre-written prayers (explaining that reciting psalms as a form of prayer is fine because it’s SCRIPTURE, while reciting anything else is dead Catholic ritual), but the fact is that anyone, Catholic or Protestant, can pray without sincerity or fervor, thereby making their prayers – pre-written or spontaneous – empty babbling. I know that, as an Evangelical, whenever I was called upon to pray in front of a group, it was my practice to “heap up empty phrases” with a vengeance! I was so self-conscious when praying aloud that all I could think to do was string together a plethora of pious platitudes and finish things off “in Jesus’ Name, Amen.” No one condemned my pious platitudes, because I wasn’t reading any of them off a piece of paper. I was, however, reciting from memory Protestant catch phrases like “Dear God, we just want to praise You, Lord, and give You thanks,” and “I really just want to pray, Lord, that you would really just touch someone here in a special way right now, Jesus” which in the churches I attended passed for spontaneity. My prayers under those circumstances meant pretty close to nothing. Contrast that performance with Catholic me, leading the Litany of the Most Sacred Heart now on First Fridays. I pray with deep love as I read the words – the litany is pre-written, I don’t have to come up with beautiful-sounding phrases, the focus isn’t on me, and I can forget myself and pray with all my heart:

Heart of Jesus, in Whom are all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, have mercy on us!

Heart of Jesus, in whom dwelleth all the fullness of the Divinity, have mercy on us.

Heart of Jesus, in whom the Father is well pleased, have mercy on us.

Heart of Jesus, of whose fullness we have all received, have mercy on us.

Litany – there’s another Catholic vocab word that gives Evangelicals the willies. Surely there are few things more unbiblical than a litany!

1 Oh, give thanks to the Lord, for He is good!

For His mercy endures forever.

2 Oh, give thanks to the God of gods!

For His mercy endures forever.

3 Oh, give thanks to the Lord of lords!

For His mercy endures forever:

4 To Him who alone does great wonders,

For His mercy endures forever;

5 To Him who by wisdom made the heavens,

For His mercy endures forever;

6 To Him who laid out the earth above the waters,

For His mercy endures forever….

That’s a litany found smack-dab in the middle of the Bible: Psalm 136, all 26 glorious responsorial verses. There’s nothing unbiblical about a litany, and there’s nothing unbiblical about pre-written prayers! You see, Evangelicals – who pray the Lord’s Prayer seldom to never (I was appalled to find out that my young children, who attended a Baptist academy and were memorizing all kinds of Bible verses, couldn’t recite the Lord’s Prayer with me) – tend to gloss over Jesus’ response when His disciples asked Him to teach them to pray:

And He said to them, When you pray, say:

Our Father, Who art in Heaven

Hallowed be Thy Name!

Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.

And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Luke 11:1-4

Our differing perspectives on prayer can be addressed by answering this one question: Why did the disciples even ask Jesus to teach them to pray? And why did Jesus humor them by giving them the Lord’s Prayer?

From a Protestant perspective this really makes little sense. If you prize spontaneity in prayer above all else, you would think that Jesus would have answered along these lines:

“Verily I say unto you, there is no right nor wrong when you pray. Speak simply and from the heart. Lay before the Father your needs, and your Father who is in Heaven will answer you, but be always careful to remember to give Him thanks and praise.”

That’s what a properly “Evangelical” Jesus would say. Yet strangely, when the disciples asked Jesus to “teach them to pray, as John the Baptist taught his disciples,” Jesus complied by giving them a prayer to recite. Could this mean that rote prayers have an essential place in our Christian training?

No question about it! There are several reasons why pre-written prayers are necessary and desirable:

First of all, pre-written prayers squelch the temptation to put on a performance. In a Protestant setting, whoever prays publicly is put in the position of “performing” – beautifully worded “spontaneous” prayers make a performance successful. In a Catholic setting, the words are already in place, and whoever prays them is not thereby drawing attention to himself – the focus is on the words of the prayer. Well-written, clearly expressed sentiments in a pre-written prayer can be a real aid to those praying along, since they need not attempt to decipher what the pray-er may have been getting at in a poorly thought-out, rambling prayer. Gossip, a constant hazard in an Evangelical prayer environment, is avoided altogether. (“And Lord, we just want to pray for those who didn’t show up tonight….”)

A second reason pre-written prayers are a great idea is because they provide a framework for growth. When we pray the Our Father with sincerity, those of us who are intent upon reminding our Father that we need our daily bread are also compelled to ask Him to forgive us, which brings to mind our sins – something we may have neglected to bother about in our concern over our earthly needs. We must then also ask ourselves if there is anyone whom we have not forgiven – something we might rather forget. In other words, pre-written prayers challenge us to step off our own little hamster wheel of “I need! I want! Oh, please! Oh, please! Oh, please!” They compel us to turn our thoughts towards God’s interests. We need that.

The third reason is evident in the giving of the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus is teaching his disciples. Pre-written prayers are meant to teach us. When you recite the Our Father, you are being taught theological principles; each recitation of the Lord’s Prayer is a learning opportunity: God’s will is our ultimate good, and our goal must be to see to it that His will is done here in our lives just as it is done in Heaven. That may mean that our requests will not be answered as we would hope, yet God is the Giver of all good things; He is the One we must go to for our needs. We must forgive those who have hurt us – no ifs, ands or buts. Otherwise, God will not forgive us. We must realize that we may be tempted to be unfaithful; we need to ask God to deliver us, and not rely on our willpower alone. Each of these issues is something that we may question (indeed, there are whole Protestant denominations that question whether one must actually forgive in order to be forgiven, or whether a true believer can fall into serious sin). In reciting the Our Father, and every other pre-written prayer of the Church, we are taught certain truths of the Faith.

The Litany of Humility is an excellent example of prayer as a framework for growth and a learning opportunity. Imagine a person who realizes that she lacks humility. She will spontaneously pray, “Jesus, I am so proud! Help me to be humble!!” This is a very good prayer! But in reciting the Litany, she will come to an entirely new perspective on what she’s up against and whence her help comes:

O Jesus! meek and humble of heart, Hear me.

From the desire of being esteemed, deliver me, Jesus!

From the desire of being loved, deliver me, Jesus!

From the desire of being extolled, deliver me, Jesus!

From the desire of being honored, deliver me, Jesus!

From the desire of being praised, deliver me, Jesus!

From the desire of being preferred to others, deliver me, Jesus!

From the desire of being consulted, deliver me, Jesus!

From the desire of being approved, deliver me, Jesus!

From the fear of being humiliated, deliver me, Jesus!

From the fear of being despised, deliver me, Jesus!

From the fear of suffering rebukes, deliver me, Jesus!

From the fear of being calumniated, deliver me, Jesus!

From the fear of being forgotten, deliver me, Jesus!

From the fear of being ridiculed, deliver me, Jesus!

From the fear of being wronged, deliver me, Jesus!

From the fear of being suspected, deliver me, Jesus!

That others may be loved more than I, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it!

That others may be esteemed more than I, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it!

That, in the opinion of the world, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it!

others may increase and I may decrease, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it!

That others may be chosen and I set aside, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it!

That others may be praised and I unnoticed, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it!

That others may be preferred to me in everything, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it!

That others may become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it!

This prayer is not merely a petition for assistance – praying it actually begins the process of making us humble, and the last line is a powerful guard against pride concerning our own spiritual accomplishments. How often we fail to grow in humility because as soon as we make a tiny bit of progress, we are overcome by a sense of pride at how humble we have become! Just make me as holy as You want me to be, Jesus – then make everyone else even holier….

I never would have thought to pray like that!

That’s what written prayers can accomplish, provided that they are used properly and not as magical incantations or “empty phrases.” Written prayers will take your spiritual life to a whole new level if you let them. And that’s the take-away here for Evangelicals – you have to let them!


On the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul

Deo omnis gloria!