TOP TEN QUESTIONS…

…Catholics are asked, according to Dave Armstrong in a pamphlet published by Our Sunday Visitor, are an interesting if predictable lot:

  1. Are Catholic beliefs found in the Bible?
  2. Why do you obey the Pope?
  3. Why do you call your priest “Father”?
  4. Why do you pray for the dead?
  5. Why do you pray to idols/statues?
  6. Why do you confess your sins to a priest?
  7. Why do you worship Mary?
  8. Why do you worship wafers?
  9. If you died tonight, would you go to heaven?
  10. Are you saved?

No doubt you could have guessed most of these questions.  You might even be able to add to the list!  But could you have given good replies to these questions for your Protestant friends (always presuming they are sincere, not simply argumentative)?  What are the Church’s answers, and how well do you understand them?

I would not recommend this little pamphlet as a source of answers for you without reservation.  It is well done in places, poorly done in others.  For example, in the reply to the question of calling priests “Father,” it refers to the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Lk. 16:19-31), the author states, “…Jesus actually has Lazarus using the address ‘Father Abraham’ twice (Lk. 16:24, 30).”  Unfortunately, it’s the Rich Man, buried in hell, who uses this salutation:  quite a bit of ammunition for one who wants to condemn that title!  Far better would be to refer to I Cor. 4:14-16.

No matter what, as minority Catholics in a majority world of Baptists who are often fundamentalist in approach and absolutely “Bible only” in their faith, good Scripture passages are essential, and good reasoning (from the head and from the heart) is equally important.  

Earlier, I listed 10 questions “most asked of Catholics.”  I was sure you would recognize many of them, but people’s comments to me made me equally sure that you might not feel 100% confident in answering them.  Since I didn’t have completely confidence in the answers the pamphlet offered, I thought it my responsibility to offer my own.  So in turn, one at a time, let me try to approach the 10 questions with my 10 answers.

1.  Are Catholic beliefs found in the Bible?

By and large, they certainly are.

The first point to recall is that “Catholic beliefs” are identical to “Protestant beliefs” in about 85-90% of all “Christian beliefs.”  This includes belief in the Virgin Birth, the miracles of Jesus during His public ministry, the institution of the sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist, His atoning crucifixion and His resurrection.  We share, in addition, the conviction that He established the Church to preach the Gospel of salvation, that the Holy Spirit is given to the Church to preserve it in truth, and that our Lord will come again at the end of the world to judge and welcome into full salvation those whom He redeemed.

Secondly, however, we declare that as Catholics we are not limited to the Bible even though we are bound to it.  How can this be?  It’s actually very simple.  If “the Bible” means what we now know as “Old Testament” and “New Testament,” then it is clear that the “Bible” as such didn’t exist until some time in the 4th century or so, when decisions were made by the Church as to which books would be recognized as “Scriptural.”  But surely the Church existed all during this time!  The New Testament bears witness to this, when we read (II Thess. 2:15) “Therefore, brothers and sisters, stand firm.  Hold fast to the traditions you received from us, either by our word or by letter.” Thus, we believe that the Bible is the book of the Church, and not that the Church is the creation of the Bible.  We are not a “Bible only” (sola Scriptura) Church.  But the Bible is a “Church only” (sola Ecclesia) book!

So it is fair to say that most Catholic beliefs are found explicitly in the Bible, and that all Catholic beliefs are consistent with the Bible, since the Bible is (we believe) the written testimony of the apostolic tradition which existed even before the Bible as we know it was written.  This is what Catholics mean when they refer to “Tradition” (with a capital “T”). We therefore believe that while our teachings might not be found in the Bible, they must not be contradicted by the Bible, but they may grow from the teachings of the Bible.  This is what Catholics mean by “development of doctrine.”

We can see now that while it is an important and interesting question to ask if one’s beliefs (Catholic or Protestant) are found in the Bible, the far more important question is to ask if our (or their) beliefs are consistent with the Apostolic Tradition handed down by preaching and the written word.  This is what we pray for at Mass, when we pray “for all who hold and teach the catholic faith that comes to us from the apostles” (Eucharistic Prayer #1).

2. Why do you obey the Pope?

Jesus promised us that the Holy Spirit would guide us into all truth (Jn. 16:12-13).  This promise is important to us, as is the promise that Jesus Himself would be with us always (Matt. 28:20).  But how do we recognize the presence of Jesus, or the promptings of the Holy Spirit, in the Church today?

Catholics believe that Simon Peter, the chief of the apostles, was given a special role by Jesus, to be a leader of unity and of faith and of service.  Jesus gives this role to Peter at the Last Supper, in Luke’s Gospel:  “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed for you [singular], that your [singular] faith may not fail; and once you have turned back, you must strengthen your brothers” (Lk. 22:31-32).  A similar role is given to Peter by Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel.  There, Jesus promises him the keys of the kingdom, with authority to bind and to loose (Matt. 16:17-19).  And at the end of John’s Gospel, Peter is commissioned to feed the lambs and sheep of the Lord’s flock (Jn. 21:15-19).

Catholics also believe that the authority given to Peter was passed down to his successor-bishops in Rome, whose office ultimately has come to be known as the Papacy.  And so it is to the successor of Peter, keeper of the keys of the Kingdom, chief shepherd under Jesus the Good Shepherd, who strengthens his brothers and sisters in the faith, that Catholics look for leadership and clear teaching on questions of faith and morals.  We believe that when he teaches solemnly, the Holy Spirit keeps the promise of being with us.  Sometimes the Popes’ teachings are hard to accept or obey:  but then again so were Jesus’ (Jn. 6:60ff.).  Would you be content with a spiritual leader whose words never challenged you?

Catholic obedience is never intended to be “blind obedience.”  Catholics are expected to study the teachings of the Church (from Popes or Councils) and to strive to understand them.  Even when I do not agree completely or understand completely, I am asked to give the benefit of the doubt to the teaching, on the theory that if the Pope and Church on the one hand disagree with me on the other, I just might be the one who is wrong.  This is “obedience in humility.”

3. Why do you call your priest “Father”?

It must be admitted that we might be better off if we had the Franciscan habit (no pun intended) of being called “Brother”!  Yet the colloquial title for Catholic clergy is “Father,” and at issue from a Protestant point of view is disobedience to the word of Jesus (Matt. 23:9)—“Call no man on earth your father…”

The command of Jesus is couched in the context of condemnation of people who demand to be regarded as superior to others.  To insist on such regard from others is indeed a violation of the letter and the spirit of Jesus’ teaching—it is an example of that kind of ‘clericalism’ which is an evil in the Church.

St. Paul did not think any such word of Jesus was intended to be taken with 100% literal meaning.  He referred to himself as “Father” to the Corinthians (I Cor. 4:14-16).

It seems to me that there is a difference between conveying an honorific title on someone, and a person’s demanding such an honor.  The use of “Father” actually came into the Church during the times of the hermits in the desert of Syria, Palestine and Egypt; the oldest ones, long known for their self-discipline, holiness and spiritual insight, were referred to as “Venerable Fathers.”  It was clearly a way the other monk-hermits had of showing respect, not something demanded.

The very fine Protestant New Testament scholar F.F. Bruce has made the same point.  He wrote that what Jesus was really referring to was an attitude, not a word, and that it could be illustrated by an Anglican bishop who insisted on being addressed as “My Lord.”  And in the long run, substituting “Reverend” or “Pastor” for “Father,” if these titles are also insisted upon, really is a way of making an end-run around Jesus’ meaning.

I hope and pray that Catholic clergy can keep to the spirit of Jesus (a spirit of servant-hood) even when called “Father.”

4. Why do you pray for the dead?

A part of what is in this question is the belief in “Purgatory.”  So let’s be clear about this.  First of all, we are not referring to a ‘place’ where people/souls spend ‘time’ doing ‘punishment.’  Catholic belief in Purgatory involves a process of final purification, beyond any kind of measure of time, by which the person is drawn to God.  There is no better discussion of this than the one offered by perhaps the most famous of all Protestant spiritual writers, C. S. Lewis, in his last book, Letters to Malcolm:  Chiefly on Prayer.  For this chapter and much else, the book is highly recommended reading.

The bottom line is that we believe, as Catholics, that this process is one that is both necessary and one in which we can assist others with our prayers and spiritual sacrifices (Rom. 12:1).  St. Paul thought so, too.  Whatever else the strange practice meant, “being baptized on behalf of the dead” (I Cor. 15:29) expresses the belief that the dead can be helped.  So, just as we pray for one another here in this part of our pilgrimage, we pray for others who are in the final part of their pilgrimage.

Is this really necessary?  After all, God is love (I Jn. 4:8)!  True, but our God is also a consuming fire (Heb. 12:29), and it is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Heb. 10:31).  What would be my state of mind/heart/soul in seeing my Lord in all glory, perceiving for the first time the depth of God’s love for me, and also for the first time the true extent of my sinful rejection of that love?  Would this realization itself not be painfully ‘purgatorial’?  How does God mix mercy and justice for me personally?  Might I not indeed be glad to stand before the Majesty “surrounded by a cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1)?

Since this is the case, and since Jesus tells us to “do unto others” (Matt. 7:12), I will indeed pray for the dead.

5. Why do you pray to idols (statues)?

Short answer:  We don’t.

Longer answer:  Statues and images are used in the Catholic Church, as they are in the Orthodox (and Catholic) Eastern Churches, and in other Protestant denominations (often, the so-called ‘liturgical churches’).  The existence of an image does not automatically mean that they are worshipped.

“Worship” is a word that refers to the adoration and praise due to God alone.

Yet we honor the saints, and we often ask them to pray to God with and for us (as we ask our brothers and sisters in the Church to pray for us).  A clear distinction is thus made between Creator and creatures, however special.

Behind this question is a long history: on the one hand regard for, and on the other hand suspicion of, images of any kind.  It is part of the controversy that wanted to regard Jesus as “first-born of creation” but not “God” in any way (this was the Arian controversy of the 4th-5th centuries).  It is part also of the great 7th century effort to rid Eastern Christianity of all images (the iconoclast controversy).  It can be seen in the spiritual approach of the 12th century reform of the Cistercians, who wished to purify Benedictine monasticism of what they regarded as excess of art, image, and wealth.  It is, finally, part of the Calvinist and Puritan rejection of decoration of any kind in churches of the Reformed tradition.  Here, however, the issue was less idolatry and more “anti-popery,” as it was called.  Roman churches had statues; therefore (it was reasoned), statues were wrong.

Catholics (and others) regard statues as physical “reminders” of Christ, of Mary, of the apostles and other saints, in much the same way as photos in our wallets or on our desks are physical reminders of loved ones in our families.  Thus, if anyone seems to be praying while standing (or kneeling) in front of an image, it is not the image itself to which the prayer is being addressed.  Insofar as it is a saint, the prayer is actually a request for prayer; insofar as it is an image of Christ or a depiction of the Trinity, the prayer is full-fledged prayer.  Even the “Hail, Mary” ends very modestly:  “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners…”

Catholics, like faithful Jews, can enthusiastically pray the words of the Shema, Yisrael as found in Deut. 6:4-5.  We also enthusiastically use images to help focus our prayer, for we know that in Jesus, the ultimate image of God (icon; Col. 1:15; Phil. 2:6; Heb. 1:3), we have the divine permission to acknowledge images.

6. Why do you confess your sins to a priest?

The rest of this question typically is “Why not confess in your heart directly to God?”  And of course one can be forgiven in such a way:  the Catholic Church teaches that in cases of emergency such confession, along with an act of contrition, is enough to receive God’s merciful and loving forgiveness in Jesus Christ.  But…

The Sacraments are given to the Church by Christ so that the whole person, not just the soul, can be engaged and healed.  So, for example, we don’t simply confess our faith in Jesus, we are baptized in water; we don’t simply call Him into our hearts, we “eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink his blood” (Jn. 6:53).  And we do not just ask for forgiveness in our hearts, we actually speak the words of our sins and hear the words of absolution and forgiveness authoritatively spoken to us.

AA knows well that if I cannot “name the Beast” within me, I don’t really and fully surrender; it’s still got its grip on me.  I must say, out loud, that “I am an alcoholic.”  The same thing is true of our sinfulness.  That’s why it’s so hard for people to do; it’s also why it’s such a release when they do.  This is how spiritual healing begins.  It won’t begin with you, yourself, alone.

The priest is bound by all kinds of Church laws never to reveal what was said in Reconciliation in any way that would allow the person and his/her sins to be known.  So the confessing is done in complete confidence and security of its privacy.  Not so in the “old days” of the early Church, when confession was made publicly, in front of the whole community!

The additional advantage of confessing to a priest is that his training can help you by being objective:  you may be being too hard on yourself, or you may be too easily letting yourself off the hook for moral responsibility.  The priest holds up a mirror to you so you can recognize what, by yourself, you could not have seen or known.  After all, humans are tremendously good at rationalizing!

So come to Reconciliation, name the Beast, and receive out loud the promise of grace and pardon, and the beginning of healing.  It’s a great gift!

7. Why do you worship Mary?

This question is related to #5, about praying to (worshipping) statues/idols.  The short answer is:  WE DON’T WORSHIP MARY.

The Second Vatican Council (Lumen Gentium, The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, #62, #67), teaches this—

“…Mary cares for the brethren of her Son who still journey on earth surrounded by dangers and difficulties, … Therefore the Blessed Virgin is invoked by the Church under the titles of Advocate… These, however, are to be so understood that they neither take away from nor add anything to the dignity and efficacy of Christ the one Mediator.

“…this Synod earnestly exhorts theologians and preachers of the divine word that in treating of the unique dignity of the Mother of God, they carefully and equally avoid the falsity of exaggeration on the one hand, and the excess of narrow-mindedness on the other. …[Mary’s privileges] are always related to Christ, the Source of all truth, sanctity, and piety.

“Let them painstakingly guard against any word or deed which could lead separated brethren or anyone else into error regarding the true doctrine of the Church.”

Mary is highly honored as “Mother of God,” a title given to her at the Council of Ephesus in 431 A.D.  And she is especially beloved.  She is also a creature, redeemed through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Our so-called “worship” of Mary actually consists, not even of prayer to her, but a request that she join us in praying to God through her Son Jesus Christ.  The Hail, Mary concludes exactly this way:  “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners…”

Some anti-Catholic people want to insist that we worship Mary.  Some fanatical Catholics actually would want us to worship her!  But the teaching of Catholic Church (surely disappointing both sides!) is completely clear.  We don’t.

Back to the short answer:  we honor and venerate the saints; we worship God alone, Father, Son and Holy Spirit—end of qualifications, end of issue.

8.  Why do you worship wafers?

I might ask this questioner the question, “Would you worship a human being?”  The spontaneous answer would surely be, “Of course not!”  But then, if I were to reply, “And if that human being were God?”  Yes, we worship Jesus Christ as fully human and fully divine, just as the Creeds teach.  For we worship God, made present to us in Jesus Christ.

And what if the wafer were also God?  As the Gospels teach, we worship Jesus Christ, made present to us in the form of the wafer of bread.

Jesus said, “This is My Body; this is My Blood” (cf. I Cor. 11:23-26; Mk. 14:22-26; Lk. 22:14-20; Matt. 26:26-30; Jn. 6:51-58).  There is no tradition more totally rooted in the early Christian proclamation than this (Synoptic Gospels, John, Paul).  If He could rise from the dead, why can He not also be present to us in this special sacramental way?

From the times of the writing of Scripture, through the early Fathers of the Church (St. Ignatius of Antioch; St. Justin Martyr; St. Hippolytus; St. Ambrose; St. Augustine; St. Cyril of Jerusalem) the Church has consistently taught the Real Presence of Christ under the forms of bread and wine at the Eucharist.  It was never seriously doubted until the so-called “Free Church Reformation” led by Huldrich Zwingli in the 16th century.  Luther, Calvin and Cranmer all believed in the Real Presence.

So if someone asks, “Why do you worship wafers?” a valid response would be, “Why did your denomination ever stop?”  For in truth we worship Jesus Christ, Incarnate Son of God, when we participate in Eucharistic worship, either in Eucharistic adoration or at the celebration of Eucharist.  There is no greater act of adoration than our “Amen!” at Mass when the minister holds the Sacrament before us and proclaims, “The Body of Christ!” or “The Blood of Christ!”  We remember, we celebrate, we believe; we worship.

9. If you died tonight, would you go to heaven?

10. Are you saved?

These two questions really need to be treated together.  And the best way to answer them, I think, is by turning to St. Paul.

The issue is one of “backsliding,” or giving up the Faith.  If “once confessed, always saved” were absolutely the case, why would the Letter to the Galatians have been written?  Surely St. Paul was afraid that those who started in faith were falling away.

St. Paul says the same about himself:  “It is not that I have already taken hold of [resurrection] or attained perfect maturity, but I continue my pursuit in hope that I may possess it… forgetting what lies behind but straining forward to what lies ahead, I continue my pursuit toward the goal, the prize of God’s upward call, in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:12-14).

He tells the Corinthians a similar thing:  “…I drive my body and train it, for fear that, after having preached to others, I myself should be disqualified” (I Cor. 9:27).  So we are to strive toward heaven, toward salvation.  We hope we are saved, based on God’s mercy in Jesus Christ.

But “hope” is not “having,” as St. Paul again tells us:  “For in hope were saved. Now hope that sees for itself is not hope.  For who hopes for what he sees?  But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait with patient endurance” (Rom. 8:24-25).

The issue, it seems to me, is a parallel with husbands and wives.  A billboard in the “God speaks” series says “Great wedding.  Now, invite Me into the marriage.”  This is the philosophy of the Worldwide Marriage Encounter movement:  “A wedding is a day; a marriage is a lifetime.”  In the same way, although the sacrifice of Jesus Christ is “once for all,” our personal “Yes” (or “I do”) is not:  it must be renewed daily, and falling away is possible because we are not God.

Will Christ ever say “No” to us?  Never (read II Cor. 1:18ff. & Rom. 8:1)!  Can we say “No” to God?  Unfortunately, we can.  So we pray for one another, we hope in God’s mercy, we train spiritually on an ongoing basis, and we daily re-commit ourselves to our Lord.   And where can you make this ongoing re-commitment to our Lord?  Every time you participate in the Eucharist and proclaim your “Amen!”  Every time, too, you enter a church and bless yourself with holy water (from the baptismal font), you re-claim your baptism.  How “adult” can you get?!  Do it with conscious and deliberate faith, hope and love.  Be His!!

Just a footnote:  remember that “purgatory” is in fact the vestibule of heaven, so don’t feel drawn into a discussion of that issue!  If you think you’d be heading toward purgatory, it means you’d be heading into heaven!  So be bold and say YES!