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No, We Don’t Worship Mary: What The Differences Really Are

The first rule of debate is to be sure you correctly understand the position of your interlocutor.

Any Catholic who has engaged in dialogue with Protestants knows that discussions can quickly devolve to the Protestant insisting that Catholics believe something that Catholics do not in fact believe (e.g. that we worship Mary, or other such nonsense). Such discussions can be frustrating and waste a lot of time, particularly since there are many significant areas, including ones that cut straight to the heart of the Gospel, where Catholics and most Protestant actually do disagree. Of course, Catholics can be guilty of straw manning Protestant beliefs, too, but in my personal experience it has been more likely for the Protestant to come to the conversation with confused ideas about Catholic beliefs.

In addition, probably due to the strong Protestant presence in the US combined with poor catechesis, it’s not uncommon for me to see Catholics telling Protestants that the Catholic Church agrees with Protestants on things that in fact the Catholic Church does not agree with Protestants.

Listed below are just a few examples of major areas Catholics and most Protestants don’t disagree (but that people often think they do) and then some examples of areas where Catholics and most Protestants do in fact disagree. For each, I’ve given a short description meant simply to further explain what I am referring to, but not meant to exhaustively explain the issue.

Some areas where Catholics and most Protestants do not disagree (but people often think they do):

  • Worshiping God alone. Contrary to rhetoric that is unfortunately all too common among certain groups of Protestants (but that seems to have subsided significantly in other Protestant circles), Catholics do not worship Mary, the Pope, the saints, statues, icons, rosaries, relics, or anything else other than God. We never have and certainly won’t be any time soon. Protestants who assert otherwise may simply be misinformed (it’s what they’ve been told by other Protestants they trust) or, if they continue to assert that Catholics worship anybody other than God after being repeatedly corrected, they might simply have a strong anti-Catholic bias.
  • Jesus is the one, absolutely unique, and necessary mediator between God and men. This misunderstanding is related to the first one. Any role in the life of the Church held by Mary, the saints, the clergy, etc, is not the same as, and does not replace, the unique and necessary role of Christ. Catholics and Protestants both agree with Scripture when it says “there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus”. (1 Tim 2.5)
  • Grace is necessary for salvation. When they hear that Catholics reject sola fide, many Protestants assume this means that Catholics believe we don’t need Jesus but instead save ourselves. This is entirely false: it is a matter of Catholic dogma that God’s absolutely gratuitous grace that comes through the work of Christ is necessary before, during, and after every part of a person’s salvation.
  • Faith is necessary for salvation. While Catholics reject the belief that faith is, by itself, sufficient for salvation (sola fide), Catholics do agree that faith is necessary for salvation.
  • The Bible is the inspired Word of God and the final word in all it teaches. When people hear that Catholics follow Tradition, they often think this means Tradition can somehow trump Scripture. In actual fact, Catholics hold that Scripture is the inspired Word of God and therefore infallible and final in all it says. But what if Scripture and Tradition contradict? They don’t and can’t, since they both pass on the Word of God, and the Word of God can’t contradict itself.
  • Public revelation ended with the deaths of the Apostles. Lots of Protestants misunderstand what the Catholic Church means by “Tradition”, and part of the reason is because the term “Tradition” can mean different things in different contexts for Catholics. Many Protestants mistakenly think an appeal to “Tradition” is a way for Catholics to make up new things hundreds of years after Jesus and, after those things have been around a while, declare them to be a part of the Tradition, and then hold those things alongside Scripture. In fact, Catholics agree with Protestants that the deposit of faith was sealed with the death of the last Apostle. The question is how that revelation is passed on to us today. While most Protestants believe that the revelation of Christ is passed down only in Scripture, Catholics believe that revelation is passed down both in writing (Scripture) and orally (Tradition). In other words, something is only a part of “Tradition” in this sense if it originated in some way from Christ and His Apostles themselves. If a particular doctrine or practice was truly created at some later date, it is not a part of the Tradition in this sense and therefore not a part of public revelation.

Here are a few of the many significant areas where Catholics and most Protestants do disagree:

  • Sola Scriptura vs Scripture and Tradition interpreted by the Magisterium. How is the Word of God as revealed in Christ passed down to us? Many Protestants say the only way is via writing in what we call the Bible. Catholics say the Word of God has been passed down in writing (Bible) and orally (Tradition). And did Christ leave his Church with an authoritative body for interpreting the Word of God? Most Protestants say no, while Catholics say yes: Catholics believe that doctrinal disputes among Christians can be definitively settled by the bishops with the Pope or by the Pope alone.
  • Apostolic succession. Catholics believe Jesus gave the Apostles authority over the Church, and that the Apostles passed this authority onto bishops, who in turn passed on the same authority in succession down to the present episcopate, and that the bishops are an essential element of the Church. Most Protestants deny this.
  • Sola Fide vs Faith, Hope, and Love. Most Protestants believe faith alone is sufficient for a person to attain heaven. Catholics, on the other hand, believe faith must be completed by hope and love as expressed in obedience to God’s commands and a growth in holiness by God’s grace, as received primarily through the Sacraments.
  • The number, nature, and role of the sacraments. Are there seven Sacraments, as the Catholic Church holds (Baptism, Confirmation, Communion, Reconciliation, Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders, and Marriage), or some other number, as held by most Protestants (most often two, baptism and communion)? Are the Sacraments effective (as Catholics and some Protestants hold) or only symbolic (as other Protestants hold)? And are any of the Sacraments necessary for salvation (as the Catholic Church holds) or not (as many Protestants hold)?
  • The content of the Bible. We both agree Scripture is the inspired Word of God – but what writings make up Scripture? Both Catholics and Protestants agree on the 27 books of the New Testament, but disagree on the number and versions of the books of the Old Testament.
  • Mary’s role in salvation history. The Immaculate Conception, her perpetual virginity, the Assumption, even her title Theotokos is controversial for some Protestants.

There’s plenty to debate about here. So let’s stick to the real differences.

 

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Ignorance Demands Charity and Patience

Shortly after Benedict XVI, Emeritus Pope, declared his resignation from the Papacy, I happened to hear a talk radio program in which a commentator was ranting away about the ridiculousness of an infallible pope. How can anyone really believe that a man can suddenly be made infallible just by becoming the Pope, was this radio host’s question. He went on to scoff at the people (i.e., Catholics) who could believe such a ridiculous idea. The Pope is human, not God, he said. And on and on and on.

I was getting ready for Mass that morning as I listened to this rambling. Normally, I only half listen to this radio program that wakes us up each morning, but this rambling mess stopped me in my tracks. My first reaction was to scoff back at this man’s ignorance.

But his ramblings stayed with me and I had to contemplate them further. As I thought about it more I realized that much of what he was saying was true. The Pope is just a man, he’s not God. And we, as Catholics, do not believe that he is an infallible human being. We all know that no human is perfect (well, except the Virgin Mary, of course). In some ways, as I contemplated the ramblings of this random radio talk show host, I started feeling sorry for him.

I realize that there is a lot of misunderstanding out there on exactly what the doctrine of “Papal Infallibility” actually means. My initial thoughts were to write a blog post explaining it. But there are already many resources and well written blog posts on the topic. So better that I just link those up for you then add one more to the mix (see links at end of post).

Instead, as I contemplated the misguided rantings of this radio talk show host, I realized that I was actually feeling sorry for him. But it wasn’t just him I was feeling sorry for, he was just the one that caught my attention at the time. What he represented for me were all the people I know who have left the Church in anger, those who don’t understand the Church and bash her teachings without taking the time to ask what they actually mean, and any others who feel the need to spew venom at the Church.

We have all seen it in comboxes, on Facebook, and even run into it in our own families or among our friends. I don’t know about you but most of the time I get defensive and want to stand up for the Church and the ensuing conversation often gets heated, leaving me angry as well.

But what use is our anger? Especially when discussing (to put it nicely) misunderstood teachings of the Church with people who are angry at the Church and unwilling to be fair to her. The problem is that they just don’t know, whether it is out of misunderstanding, lack of catechesis, or complete ignorance, we have no way of knowing. And until a person is willing to listen and learn what the Church really teaches, arguing with them is fruitless.

Does this mean we shouldn’t engage them at all? No, I don’t believe that. I think we need to engage people in a different way. But not through arguing with them and trying to defend the Church. That does nothing but create a circle of everyone defending their views and trying to prove themselves correct. That gets you nowhere, as you probably know if you’ve engaged in any sort of online debate. And if they are friends or members of your family, it can create a tension that will negatively affect your relationships. Instead we need to be charitable, realize that the person ranting about the unfairness of the Church or the out-dated teachings or whatever the issue does not understand the Church’s Truths.

That’s the key for me: the person just does not understand the Truth of the Church.

I remember a time when I did not understand the Church’s Truth. I remember arguing with people, too, always being closed to what they were saying to me. However, I also remember the people who were patient and allowed me to get through what I needed to get through. I remember the patience people showed to me that made me respect them more. That respect allowed me to actually listen and start to hear what I wasn’t hearing before.

So when it came to the random radio guy ranting away about Catholics believing in an infallible human as the head of the Church (as if, if the Pope said it was going to rain in New Mexico on Tuesday we’d all believe him), I found myself having a bit more of a charitable attitude toward him and all those he represented for me. He doesn’t understand and has probably closed himself off from understanding. Maybe one day someone will enter his life who can be that charitable person and gently plant the seeds for him to start being more fair to the Church.

Personally, I find this very hard to do. It’s not my first inclination. So I write this as a reminder for myself, as well as anyone reading, that a charitable attitude, patient understanding of where a person is coming from, and the ability to just help them to see that the Church is not the enemy can go a long way in starting a true dialogue instead of having a circular argument.

What do you think?

And for some resources on the teaching of Papal Infallibility:

Infallibility at New Advent, Catholic Encyclopedia

Papal Infallibility, tract from Catholic Answers

Papal Infallibility by Jeffrey Mirus, PhD at EWTN

Papal Infallibility: It’s Probably Not What You Think by Elise Hilton at Acton Institute Power Blog

The Pope is Not as Powerful As You Think by Leila Miller at Catholic Stand