After looking at a fairly wide variety of religious groups with varying levels of seriousness, our cause—finding a faith community that met our requirements without any major deal-breakers—had begun to look hopeless. Churches that largely met our spiritual and moral requirements failed on practical concerns; churches that met our practical concerns failed on the spiritual and moral ones. Nothing had really ‘resonated’ and I hadn’t yet felt a clear call. It was time to go back to the drawing board.
I’ve long believed that you need to know where you’ve come from to figure out with any clarity where you should be going. That’s why I found research into Judaism so attractive and fascinating. Judaism is the earliest record we have of human interaction with the God of Abraham, and it is upon that solid foundation that Christianity was later built. Having determined that Judaism was not the right path for us, I set my sights upon the early history of the Christian church.
Upon the traditions of Judaism and the teachings of Jesus Christ, the Christian Church—which quickly organized as what we now call the Catholic Church—spread throughout the world essentially as one unified body for a millennium before the Great Schism, and then as two bodies (Catholic and Orthodox) for another half-millennium. It wasn’t until the 1500s that the Protestant Reformation began to split Christianity bit-by-bit into the many component denominations we know of today.
It is undeniable that the Catholic Church has, for its two millennia existence, been the single most influential body in Christianity. Thus, its practices—like those of Judaism—warrant fair and careful study by all Christians in both the historic and the modern context.
While studying Catholicism, we discovered—much to our surprise and suspicion—that its modern incarnation meets essentially all the requirements we had set forth for a church. It has a strong scriptural basis, but also strong extra-Biblical traditions. It has clear, Biblical moral teachings on sexuality, marriage, abortion, personal holiness, and so on. It is among the most active missionary churches. Worship (Mass) is solemn and beautiful. Membership requires a six-month process of education and discernment. Church polity is centralized and non-Democratic. Church teaching and practice is consistent worldwide. It has churches within easy driving distance of nearly every city of any size in the western world. There is a nationwide network of private Catholic schools for every level from preschool to post-graduate.
I had questions—some quite serious—about Catholic belief and practice, but my interest was piqued and I felt that gentle tugging at my heart that God so often uses to send us hurtling blindly in a new direction. Having learned through my Protestant upbringing about all the corruption and doctrinal wackiness in the Catholic past, I had a lot of fact checking and research to do. Many elements of Catholic belief and practice appealed to me (and always had), but others rubbed me the wrong way. One by one though, my objections fell away. I overcame the protestant half-truths and misconceptions I had about the Catholic faith and Church history and slowly began to feel, against all odds, that the Spirit had led us to our destination.
Melissa and I began participating in Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) classes at St. Veronica Catholic Church in Chantilly, Virginia, last September. Tomorrow evening, at the Easter Vigil, we will be confirmed into membership in the Roman Catholic Church and receive our first Holy Eucharist.
What follows is a quick review of Catholic belief and practice on a number of issues that are important to us, including several issues that were very difficult for me to swallow initially.
Moral and Social Issues
- Primacy of Scripture; Validity of Tradition, Reason, and Experience:If you read the Catechism of the Catholic Church—an official, detailed synopsis of Catholic belief—you’ll find that essentially all moral stances of the church are justified by Biblical references or, in the absence of clear Biblical guidance, a rational argument based on tradition, reason, and experience. It’s not called the ‘Wesleyan Quadrilateral,’ but the church uses essentially the same process John Wesley taught to come to moral conclusions.
- Justification by Faith and Works:Unlike many Christian denominations, the Catholic church recognizes that receiving God’s grace—which is made available to all—requires you to do your part. Justification comes not just through a ‘head faith’, but through striving toward moral living, performance of good works, and receiving the Sacraments (outward signs of grace). You do, indeed, play a key part in your salvation.
- Confession and Repentance of Sin:On paper, nearly all Christian churches require that their members confess and repent of their sins before God. No church, however, seems to take this as seriously as the Catholic church. In the Catholic tradition, confession of your sins is considered a Sacrament—on par with other Sacraments like baptism, communion (Eucharist), and marriage—and it must be done regularly in a formalized setting to bring you closer to God.
- Sanctity of Marriage:Again, though most Christian churches purport to believe in the sanctity of marriage, few treat it as seriously as the Catholic church. In Catholicism, divorce is firmly unacceptable—just like Jesus said. A marriage can only be legitimately dissolved (through annulment) if it was, at its foundation, invalid—and you have to prove its original invalidity before an annulment will be granted by the church. You cannot validly remarry after divorce in the Catholic church unless your previous marriage(s) have been properly annulled, or your previous spouse has died. There’s also no question in Catholic doctrine regarding what marriage is:
- “The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life, is by its nature ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1601).
- Sanctity of Life:As I have said before, it is appalling to me that any Christian church can possibly endorse abortion except in very extreme, rare circumstances. Life is a gift given to us by God, and bearing children is our chance to share in the miracle of creation. There are few sins more egregious than the murder of an unborn human being.
- “Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception. From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person—among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2270).
- Almost uniquely among Christian churches, the Catholic church prohibits abortion and frowns upon capital punishment: “ . . . the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity are very rare, if not practically nonexistent” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2267).
- Homosexuality:As mentioned previously in this series, a church’s stance toward homosexuality is a bellwether of its respect for Biblical teaching over its respect for the transient values of outside society. Again, the Catholic church clearly and decisively rules in favor of Biblical morality.
- “Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that ‘homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.’ They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved. . . . Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2357-2359).
Practice of the Faith
- Solemn, Beautiful, Consistent, and Unified Worship:Catholic church services—Mass—get a bad rap from many Protestants because . . . well mainly just because you are supposed to kneel at a couple points and elements of the Mass are repeated each week. Protestants apparently hate to kneel and repeat themselves.
Frankly, I think Mass is pretty impressive. It’s Biblical—the Liturgy of the Word includes at least four scripture readings in Sunday Mass, two from the Old Testament and two from the New, followed by a sermon/message known as the homily. It’s serious, and you are expected to keep focused on God throughout. It’s consistent from church-to-church worldwide through a documented liturgy that has survived with little change throughout nearly the entirety of Christian history.
It’s full of beautiful tradition and meaning, especially during the Liturgy of the Eucharist and the communion (which is quite different theologically [though not in logistical procedure] than a protestant communion, and thus is only open to Catholics in good standing).
Best of all, the very idea of separating Catholic churches by race (as even the most ‘liberal’ denominations tend to do) is an anathema in much of the U.S. The ethnic makeup of Catholic churches tends to closely reflect the makeup of the surrounding communities, since Catholics generally worship together.
- Tradition:Upon splitting from Catholicism, most Protestant denominations quickly eliminated ‘Catholic’ tradition from their liturgies and practices. At the time, with the Catholic church exhibiting widespread corruption, I can understand the desire to avoid anything associated with Catholicism that wasn’t clearly Biblical. However, there is something to be said for tradition (so long as it doesn’t contradict scripture).
When you’re participating in a Catholic Mass, for example, you feel like you’re a part of something big, solid, and ancient. That’s a good feeling. Two thousand years of Christian tradition shouldn’t be ignored, whether or not the individual elements of those traditions are spelled out expressly in the Bible.
- Education:There are more Catholic schools in the United States than any other type of private school. Most large Catholic parishes offer a primary school, most dioceses provide a variety of primary and secondary schools, and there are countless institutes of higher education operated by the church as well. This focus on education is important, especially in a church that so values family and children in a country that has produced a practically useless public education system. Catholic schools provide a general secular education, but also reinforce the moral and religious teachings that the public schools tend to contradict rather than reinforce.
- Top-Down, Not Bottom-Up Management Structure:The Catholic church is arranged in a simple, hierarchical management structure with the Pope at the top. Decisions regarding church policy and practice are made from the top levels and promulgated down all the way to individual Priests and parishioners. As long as the folks at the top are making moral, Biblical decisions the Church maintains its moral footing—unlike ‘bottom-up’ denominations like the United Methodist church that are unduly influenced by the worldly desires and opinions of its clergy and laity.
Tough Issues for Protestants
- The Office of the Pope:One of the hardest things to accept as a Protestant looking at Catholicism was the existence of the office of the Pope. We good Protestants were all taught to think this was an affront to God and, in fact, some otherwise well-meaning Christians denounce the Pope as the anti-Christ. Catholic teaching states that the papacy was established in scripture, particularly when Jesus declared that Peter (the original Pope) would be the rock upon which he would build his church, that Peter would receive the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven, and that whatever he binds on Earth would be bound in Heaven (Matthew 16:18-19).
Regardless of the theology, the establishment of a single head of the church is a perfectly valid choice for an organizational structure. Even if you accept the Protestant argument that ‘it isn’t Biblical,’ it is still a perfectly acceptable tradition of the church and it does not contradict anything in scripture. It is certainly no less ‘Biblical’ than any other denominational structure—whether a system of co-equal Bishops (as in the Anglican church), democratically elected conferences of clergy and laity (as in the Methodist church), or a complete lack of organizational structure whatsoever (as in the Baptist church).
As a practical matter, the papacy provides a stronger leadership structure than that in almost any other denomination, which lends credence to the Catholic argument that it’s the leadership structure God intended for his church. There have been corrupt Popes in Catholicism’s long history, but the modern process for selecting a pontiff (democratic election by the Bishops) and the modern interconnectedness of society (where we are very informed, if we wish to be, about world events) makes serious corruption very unlikely to occur now or in the future.
No Catholic would claim that the church is beyond reproach and has never erred—it is, after all, an institution made up of sinful human beings. But you can’t ignore the fact that the church has sustained and has maintained its moral footing (in a ‘big picture’ sense) even through horrible leadership and corrupt pontiffs. This is a testament to the spiritual strength of this structure and of the Papacy, not its weakness.
- Confession Through a Priest:A Catholic practice that I had previously opposed with my Protestant brethren was the confession of sins through a Priest. Protestant churches generally require (on paper) that their adherents confess their sins, but that confession is made directly to God in prayer. In Catholic teaching, the Priest—acting, essentially, as a conduit for God—can hear your confession and absolve you of your sins. You are required to confess in this form any mortal sins you have committed (lesser ‘venial’ sins can and should be confessed as well, but it is not a requirement).
Previously, I believed that nobody had the right to ‘sit in’ for God like this. Having read the scripture though, Jesus sent his disciples into the world to act on his behalf—granting them the authority to heal illness (Matthew 10:1, Acts 5:15-16) and, yes, even forgive sins (John 20:21-23). Why would the church and its Priests and Bishops, logical successors to the Apostles, not have this same God-given authority in the world today? As physical beings, God provides us physical means (Sacraments) through which we can receive his grace. How can we be truly sure of having received God’s grace without some present, human intercessor (with some kind of authority) proclaiming it?
As a practical matter, the Priest can provide counsel, lead you toward living a better, less sinful life, and help hold you accountable for your failures. In Protestant churches there’s often no ‘policeman’ pushing you to honest confession and nobody helping to hold you accountable for your sinful behavior. In this respect, confession to a Priest serves a useful, practical spiritual purpose—a human being is helping to keep you honest with God, and with yourself.
- Celibate, Male-Only Priesthood:I had opposed the celibate priesthood, like many Protestants, with the argument (cue the broken record) that it’s not Biblical. It is, however, a part of Catholic tradition and the Bible certainly never says that Priests can’t be required to remain celibate as an administrative policy of the church.
A positive element of the celibate priesthood is that Priests have no immediate family to distract them from their complete dedication to the work of the church. Recent newsworthy abuses by Priests have been touted as a reason to eliminate the celibacy requirement . . . but married people commit sex abuse too, and there is no evidence of a cause-and-effect relationship between a celibate priesthood and abuse. The abuses committed by a very small percentage of priests are no reason to oppose the celibate priesthood altogether, though the church must continue to crack down and eliminate these abuses wherever they occur.
Enlightened, modern Protestants also scoff at the apparent gender discrimination evident in the Catholic Church’s refusal to ordain female priests. The church’s stance is that Jesus Christ came as a man, and Priests who must act in his place must therefore be men as well. Women, however, are equally called to other vocations inside and outside of the church. That men and women are equally valuable and important does not mean they are the same or are completely interchangeable, whether in the church or in society.
Despite the firm recognition that God did not intend for women to serve as Priests, the Catholic Church has recognized holy women as Saints throughout its entire history. Long before women could vote or go to college or work outside of the home, Catholics revered holy women on an equal footing with holy men and the church continues to do so.
- Stance Against Birth Control:Few issues get people as riled-up against the Catholic church as its stance that the use of contraception—whether condoms, IUDs, ‘the pill’, or anything else—is immoral. With regard to ‘the pill’ and similar chemical methods, it turns out that one of its back-up methods of inhibiting pregnancy—preventing the implantation of a fertilized egg—is essentially a form of chemical abortion. Those who oppose abortion must at least oppose chemical birth control except in extraordinarily rare circumstances.
Sex is a God-given means of uniting a married couple together physically and emotionally and gives that couple a blessed opportunity to open themselves to the creation of new life, if God so wills it. To separate these intertwined unitive and procreative purposes is rightfully identified by the Church as sinful.
There is a morally acceptable method of birth control called Natural Family Planning with reliability approaching that of chemical birth control, and the church accepts its use for ‘serious’ non-selfish reasons in consultation with a priest. NFP, however, works with God-given fertility indicators rather than inhibiting them with chemicals and barriers. Ultimately, whether sex leads to the miracle of the creation of new life is a matter best left to God. We should refrain from unduly interfering.
- Dogmas of Mary and the Saints:According to Catholic belief and tradition, Mary (mother of Jesus and, thus, mother of God) was immaculately conceived without the stain of original sin, remained a virgin her entire life, and upon her death was ‘assumed’ by God (not by her own power) into heaven. Mary is revered (not worshiped) as the mother of God and as a shining example for us to follow. Mary was a human being who submitted completely to the will of God, choosing to obey where Eve—her spiritual predecessor—had chosen to to disobey.
Much of this dogma is extra-Biblical, but (as discussed before) that doesn’t necessarily mean it is wrong or invalid. According to Catholics, Mary and the Saints (holy people) are worthy of veneration and can be asked to intercede with God on behalf of people on earth. Protestants look upon much of this dogma with suspicion, worrying that Catholics who venerate Mary and the Saints are worshiping something they shouldn’t.
There is no harm, however, in venerating or praying to God through Mary or the Saints much like you confess to God through a Priest. If a Christian believes in the afterlife, why shouldn’t he believe that those in heaven are capable of praying on our behalf? Why wouldn’t he believe that he can speak to those in heaven?
Protestants disdainfully say, “we can go direct to God,” when criticizing Catholics who pray to Mary and the Saints, but those same protestants never hesitate to ask their friends to pray [intercede!] on their behalf. This strikes me now as a fascinating logical disconnect.
It is important, however, to never slip into praying to Mary or the Saints or confessing to a Priest as-if they have power of their own. Any power they have comes through God alone. Mary and the Saints, however, still exist as spiritual beings in Heaven, and can still have an impact in our lives through their prayers.
- ‘Only Catholics Go To Heaven’:A common meme among non-Catholics is that Catholics believe they’re going to heaven and others—including Protestant Christians—aren’t. It simply isn’t true.
While Baptism is necessary for salvation, most Christian Baptisms are recognized as valid. Baptized persons who honestly strive to live according to God’s wishes—even if they do so incorrectly—are not locked out from receiving God’s forgiveness. Further, the church teaches that those who have not been Baptized but ‘would have been had they understood its necessity’ can also receive salvation.
Quite simply, the Catholic view on salvation is far more open than its critics would lead you to believe. Pretty much anybody who honestly tries to serve God has salvation available to them.
- Papal Infallibility:
Even if one accepts the papacy as a valid leadership structure, the oft-misunderstood doctrine of papal infallibility is a major problem many Protestants have with Catholicism. This doctrine, however, is not nearly as diabolical as it sounds. A number of conditions must be met for a statement by a Pope to be considered infallible, and infallibility is rarely invoked except on issues that are pretty clear under scripture or church tradition.
The church [and thus the Pope] is protected, according to Catholic doctrine, from ever teaching moral error. For example, even fornicating Popes of the dark past never taught or decreed that fornication was acceptable. Yes, active sinners have lead the church . . . but the church has never accepted sin as a matter of doctrine.
The proof is in the pudding, as they say. After two thousand years, with flawed and sinful leadership to varying degrees at various times, the Catholic Church continues to teach clear, immutable moral truth with a fidelity most other denominations can’t even approach.
- The Protestant Reformation:The Protestant Reformation was the movement that led directly to the splintered state of Christianity today, and its core tenets are still considered by many to be the biggest differences between Catholicism and Protestantism. The problem is, as is so often the case, perception does not match reality.
When Martin Luther kicked-off the reformation, he wasn’t trying to splinter the church; he was trying to fix it. His central complaints—the selling of indulgences, the purchase of church positions (‘Simony’), and corruption in the hierarchy of the church—were perfectly valid complaints, but the church ultimately resolved them. The Reformation started in 1517. The purchase of indulgences was seriously limited in 1563 and then ended entirely in 1567. Simony was also strictly curtailed before the end of the 1500s. Luther got what he wanted, albeit not until he had been dead for many years: The Catholic Church repaired itself.
The fracture in the Christian church today, hailed by many as some sort of wondrous diversity that makes it easier for people to come to their own understanding of Christ, has in-fact had the opposite effect. The confusing in-fighting, doctrinal disunity, and ‘a-la-carte’ nature of the greater church in the world today is what made it possible for atheism, moral relativism, and disbelief to wedge in and become the norm in western society. This ongoing fracture provides ammunition for those who seek to dismiss Christianity as outmoded superstition. Non-believers have a difficult (if not impossible) time coming to the truth because there are now so many variants of ‘truth’ to choose from. Believers have an easy time abandoning their faith for the same reason.
This disunity is not something Christians should embrace; it is something we must work hard to undo. Christians must put their pride and power-trips aside and work toward reunification, and the Catholic Church—as the oldest and largest Christian denomination—is the logical central point around which all Christians can and should rally. This is more important today than ever before. Radical secularism and radical Islam are each gaining strength and spreading evil throughout the world, taking advantage of a fractured and broken Christian movement. Regardless of the validity of the Protestant Reformation at its beginnings, there are greater issues at stake today.
If you had asked me a year ago what I thought of the Catholic Church, my response would have been neutral or even borderline negative. My impression, honed from a lifetime of Protestantism, was that the Catholic Church had missed the point. A closer, unbiased examination eventually led—with the patient guidance of the Holy Spirit—to the conclusion that I was wrong. Many Protestant denominations have the core tenets of Christianity wrong, while Catholicism is generally on the right track.
Is the Catholic Church perfect? Of course not. It has at times been corrupt and evil. It has made mistakes—sometimes grave ones. But, collectively, it has learned, improved, and come closer and closer to being what I believe God would have it be: the ‘one true church.’ Today, it is among the most righteous Christian denominations left, and one of the few that continues to hold fast to its well-justified beliefs in the face of ridicule, pressure, and hatred heaved upon it from the secular world. Even when its own members seek to bring moral relativism into the church, the church has held firm—something I doubt any other denomination could do in a consistent, sustainable way.
I am confident that the Catholic Church is the right place for Melissa and me to worship and grow in our relationship with Jesus Christ, and, if we are blessed with children, the right faith community for us to raise a family. More than that, I believe that the Catholic Church can be the focal point of a much-needed Christian resurgence in the face of very real threats posed by radical secularism and radical Islam against our faith and, indeed, against civilized society.
God bless you.
“O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell, lead all souls to Heaven, especially those in most need of Thy mercy. Amen.” — The Fatima Prayer.