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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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Advent Apologetics Ecumenism Faith Formation Ink Slingers Mary Sacred Scripture Tiffany P

Mary: More Than a Minor Role in the Christmas Story

 

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In many non-Catholic Christian traditions, the time of year has arrived in which it is deemed acceptable to remember Mary, the woman who gave birth to Christ in a barn and laid him to sleep in a manger. Despite year-round condemnation of the use of statues to remember people and events in Church history, nativity scenes are being put on display in front yards and fireplace mantles, featuring small figurines of angels, the three wise men, Infant Jesus, and even St. Mary and St. Joseph.

As a way of disassociating themselves with what they perceive as an idolatrous focus on Mary, many of our Protestant brethren have retreated to the other end of the extreme, limiting Mary’s mention only to Christmastime. Even during, her role is portrayed as minor. Many evangelical Protestant Christmas plays will focus their attention on the angels, shepherds, and the three wise men as the lead roles, while Mary is portrayed by an actress wearing robes, sitting silently in the barn holding an infant—or sitting at a distance away from the infant who lays in the manger. There is little mention of the events leading up to this birth, such as her visit with Elizabeth, who upon noticing the presence of Jesus with Mary says, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear” (Lk. 1:42); as such, there is little depiction of Mary’s proclamation in response, “My soul glorifies the Lord and my Spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of His servant. From now on, all generations will call me blessed (Lk. 1: 46-48).

However, the small role Mary plays around Christmas time is very generous in comparison to the amount of attention given to the Blessed Mother throughout the rest of the year, despite the focus on other Biblical women who serve as godly examples, such as Esther, Leah, or Sarah. This raises the question for these Sola Scriptura Protestants, where in the Bible is their backing for this purposeful discarding of Jesus’ Mother? Though I was taught to back everything up with Scripture alone in my own evangelical Protestant days, it never occurred to me to find in Scripture where it says anything on the lines of “pay no mind to Mary, for she can do nothing for you”. Mary was simply associated with “unbiblical” Catholic traditions, and we wanted no part of that.

As the Church Teaches and Scripture confirms, Mary’s role in our Christian life begins before and continues beyond her labor and delivery in the barn. Mary, having physically carried Jesus into the world, is the Ark of the New Covenant.  Just as the Ark of the Old Covenant was made of pure gold, not to be touched with man’s bare hands lest it become blemished (Ex. 25:10-21), the Ark of the New Covenant was also prepared by God to be the personified version of gold and unblemished: born without the stain of original sin. Not through her own power, but through God’s preparation for her to carry the New Covenant into the world. This belief does not elevate Mary to a level of worship, but magnifies our deep love for Jesus: would we want any less than perfect for our God?

Mary is not the first to be conceived without sin; as we read in the book of Genesis, Eve was also created without the stain of original sin. However, upon her failure to uphold this pure life, she brought sin—and therefore death—into the world. Mary, having also been born without the stain of original sin, becomes humanity’s second chance. In upholding her sinless state through God’s power, she brings Jesus—and therefore life—into the world.

The early Church fathers wrote extensively about Mary as the “New Eve”:

“the knot of Eve’s disobedience was loosed by the obedience of Mary. For what the virgin Eve had bound fast through unbelief, this did the virgin Mary set free through faith.” –St. Irenaeus, 180 AD

“For Eve, who was a virgin and undefiled, having conceived the word of the serpent, brought forth disobedience and death. But the Virgin Mary received faith and joy, when the angel Gabriel announced the good tidings to her that the Spirit of the Lord would come upon her, and the power of the Highest would overshadow her: wherefore also the Holy Thing begotten of her is the Son of God; and she replied, ‘Be it unto me according to thy word.’ And by her has He been born, to whom we have proved so many Scriptures refer, and by whom God destroys both the serpent and those angels and men who are like him; but works deliverance from death to those who repent of their wickedness and believe upon Him.”  –St. Justin Martyr, 160 AD

It may be easier to convince our Protestant brothers and sisters that Mary is the unblemished Ark of the New Covenant and the New Eve than it is to convince them that Mary cares deeply about each one of us and is an active part of our lives. The many visits from Mary and the miracles she performed in Lourdes, Guadalupe, and the others are not readily believed, and many even venture to state that her appearances are demonic spirits under the guise of the Virgin Mary.
The account of St. John in his Gospel, however, makes it plain that Mary is our Mother, given to us by Jesus Himself at His crucifixion:

“When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, “Woman, here is your son,” and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.” –John 19: 26, 27

In giving His mother to His apostle, He was giving His mother to His Church. Just as John answered Jesus’ call and allowed Mary into her home as His Mother, so should we not discard Mary, but allow her into our home. If we as Christians are going to claim Jesus as our brother (Rom. 8:29), then we should start showing respect to our Mother.

I want to end with this note to any Protestants who may be reading this message; I imagine you may be feeling very defensive and perhaps angry or saddened, as you perceive we are encouraging an emphasis on Mary instead of Jesus. Please do not have this impression; Mary never points to herself, but only to her son. A relationship with Mary cannot subtract from your relationship with God; it can only enhance it.

Never be afraid of loving the Blessed Virgin too much. You can never love her more than Jesus did.” –Saint Maximilian Kolbe

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Apologetics Conversion Doctrine Ecumenism Evangelization Faith Formation Sacred Scripture Tiffany P

Teachings of the Early Church Fathers: How Catholics Embrace “Faith Alone”

Though Christ never intended for His Body of believers to be divided, in the 495 years since the initiation of Protestantism, the battle lines have been drawn on a myriad of theological fronts, both Catholic vs. Protestant and Protestant vs. Protestant. One of the biggest, most controversial of these is found in Martin Luther’s five solas of the reformation: “sola fide”—justification by faith alone.

As an evangelical Protestant who served on both foreign and domestic mission trips, I was very devoted to this teaching. I would preach to both children and adults, “Once you receive Jesus into your heart and make a sincere promise to live for him, you will become a Christian. From that moment on, what you do or do not do will not affect your salvation; once saved, always saved.” This theology was so instilled in me that as God began to reveal to me the Truth that the Catholic Church is the one Church ordained and established by Him, divinely guided in all her Teachings on faith and morals, I found myself wrestling with my upbringing of faith alone versus the Catholic Teaching of justification through faith and works. I was even told by one of my spiritual advisers in my non-denominational faith community, to whom I confided my findings and revelations, “You do not want to be Catholic; Catholics believe that works get you to Heaven, and you know that’s not true.”

Indeed I knew it was not true that one can simply work their way into Heaven through their own merit; everything I had ever read in Scripture made this plain. However, I also knew from everything I had studied about the Catholic Church that she does not claim this either. Events in history such as the Protestant Reformation and the evolution of evangelical Protestantism have claimed the phrase “faith alone” and given it a new assumed meaning, causing the Catholic Church to use alternate terms such as “justification by faith and works” to differentiate. The fact remains, however, that Catholics believe in faith alone, but not the way modern evangelical Protestantism defines it. We subscribe to faith alone the way the early Church understood it, and the way the Church fathers taught it.

Though many of our evangelical Protestant brethren will deny the writings from the earliest Christians on the grounds that their writings are not Sacred Scripture, exceptions are often made to point out to Catholics that the Church fathers believed in faith alone. They have a point; the emphasis that the early Church fathers put on salvation by faith is abundant:

And we, too, being called by His will in Christ Jesus, are not justified by ourselves, nor by our own wisdom, or understanding, or godliness, or works which we have wrought in holiness of heart; but by that faith through which, from the beginning, Almighty God has justified all men; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen. (Clement of Rome AD 30–100)

I know that through grace you are saved, not of works, but by the will of God, through Jesus Christ. (Polycarp AD. 69–155)

No longer by the blood of goats and of sheep, or by the ashes of a heifer . . . are sins purged, but by faith, through the blood of Christ and his death, who died on this very account. (Justin Martyr AD 165)

And let us not forget St. Paul’s many inspired writings on faith as the key to our salvation:

God justifies by faith alone. Romans 10:3

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.Ephesians 2:8-9

“and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ
, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith.” Philippians 3:9

Take note that in all of these early writings and Scriptures, the only time faith is compared against works is when the author is referring to works performed separate from a faith in Jesus Christ: works pertaining to the law of the Old Covenant or works performed with faith in man’s own effort and personal righteousness rather than works performed with a focus on Christ’s glory and man’s relationship with Him. Such actions are included in “faith”, the word used so frequently in early Christian writings. Faith, in order for it to be true saving faith, is not merely a state of the mind or heart but a verb—a word that entails action.

St. James reaffirms this early definition of faith in His own inspired writings.

What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him?  If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.James 2:14-17

Martin Luther claimed St. James’ writings should not be included in Sacred Scripture because he felt they negated St. Paul’s emphasis on salvation by faith. However, with the understanding in place that the faith St. Paul, St. James, and the other Church fathers taught about encompasses works by its very definition, then one can see how the two letters harmonize with one another. St. Paul emphasized that works not motivated by the glory of Christ are meaningless in terms of salvation, and likewise St. James emphasized that an alleged faith in Christ marked by a professed belief will not produce saving graces if it is not accompanied by works for Christ.

The early Church fathers were the original teachers of “sola fide”, faith alone, long before the emergence of evangelical Protestantism attached an alternate connotation to the phrase. As Catholics, we follow the example of the Church’s earliest leaders and proudly embrace salvation by faith alone as Christ defined it. Faith is active participation in His mission: charity done in His name, worshiping Him in thanksgiving, and obedience to His spoken commands.

 

“If you love me, you will obey what I command.” –Jesus Christ (John 14:15)

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Reformation Day: What the Original Protestant actually Taught

Today marks one day shy of 495 years since Martin Luther first initiated what would become known as the Protestant Reformation, by nailing his ninety-five theses—protests against the Catholic Church—to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenburg, Germany. Many Protestants around the world celebrate or publicly acknowledge today, October 30th, as Reformation Day. I have witnessed many evangelical Protestants elevate today as a joyous day in Church history, claiming that Martin Luther was led by God in his disputes.

But what did Martin Luther stand for, exactly? Indeed, most Catholics and Protestants alike associate him with his “five solas” of the reformation, particularly sola fide (faith alone) and sola scriptura (Scripture alone). These two tenants continue to be the dividing line between Catholics and Protestants, as Catholics continue to hold to the same Teachings the Church did for the 1500 years before Luther: justification by both faith and working out our salvation with fear and trembling (Phil 2:12) and the acknowledgement of the Teachings of God preserved both by letter (Scripture) and by word of mouth (2 Thess 2:15).

Most evangelical Protestants focus on these issues when they praise Luther for his initiation of the reformation, but they seem to ignore the many beliefs Luther also publicly affirmed that the same faith communities vehemently reject. Following is a list of beliefs and accompanying quotes from Luther that leads to the undeniable truth that if he were to return to Earth today, he would not stand in favor of the vast majority of modern Protestantism.

The original Christian Church built on Peter

Modern evangelical Protestants, when faced with Matthew 16:18-19 in which Jesus establishes the Church on Peter, have various different interpretations to explain this event taking place. The most common is that Jesus is establishing his Church—an invisible unit comprised of all saved Christians—on the faith of Peter, not on Peter’s himself or on his authority. They also have a myriad of interpretations of what the “keys” might be referring to. However, in one of Luther’s written works, The Keys, in Conrad Bergendoff, written five years after he left the Church, he acknowledges himself what many of his modern admirers deny:

“So we stand here and with open mouth stare heavenward and invent still other keys. Yet Christ says very clearly in Matt 16:19 that he will give the keys to Peter. He does not say he has two kinds of keys, but he gives to Peter the keys he himself has and no others. It is as if he [Christ] were saying:’ why are you staring heavenward in search of the keys? Do you not understand I gave them to Peter? They are indeed the keys of heaven, but they are not found in heaven. I left them on earth. Don’t look for them in heaven or anywhere else except in Peter’s mouth where I have placed them. Peter’s mouth is my mouth, and his tongue is my key case. His office is my office, his binding and loosing are my binding and loosing’ ”

The Protestants’ disbelief that the Scriptures point to Jesus establishing a physical Church on Peter’s authority lead to a disbelief that the Catholic Church is the original Christian Church who first passed on Christian Teachings and canonized the New Testament Scriptures. While there are a number of different theories within evangelical Protestantism as to when the Catholic Church began and who the first pope was, Luther maintained that indeed, she is the historical Church of the apostles from which all other forms of Christianity derive:

“We concede — as we must — that so much of what they [the Catholic Church] say is true: that the papacy has God’s word and the office of the apostles, and that we have received Holy Scriptures, Baptism, the Sacrament, and the pulpit from them. What would we know of these if it were not for them?” (Sermon on the gospel of St. John, chaps. 14 – 16 (1537), in vol. 24 of Luther’s Works).

Mary

In an attempt to disassociate themselves with the Catholic veneration of Mary, modern evangelical Protestantism have gone to the other extreme, in which there is little public recognition of her aside from Christmas time, where she seems to have been relegated to merely a minor role in the nativity story. Luther, if he were here today, would want nothing to do with such discarding of the woman whom he affectionately referred to as “the holy Mother of God …the woman who crushed the Serpent’s head” (sermon at Whittenburg, January 1546). What else did Luther, as a new Protestant teacher, have to say about the blessed Mother?

The Mother of all Christians:
“It is the consolation and the superabundant goodness of God, that man is able to exult in such a treasure. Mary is his true Mother … “(Sermon, Christmas, 1522)

“Mary is the Mother of Jesus and the Mother of all of us even though it was Christ alone who reposed on her knees . . . If he is ours, we ought to be in his situation; there where he is, we ought also to be and all that he has ought to be ours, and his mother is also our mother.” (Sermon, Christmas, 1529).

Conceived without Sin:
“It is a sweet and pious belief that the infusion of Mary’s soul was effected without original sin; so that in the very infusion of her soul she was also purified from original sin and adorned with God’s gifts, receiving a pure soul infused by God; thus from the first moment she began to live she was free from all sin” (Sermon: “On the Day of the Conception of the Mother of God,” 1527).

“She is full of grace, proclaimed to be entirely without sin- something exceedingly great. For God’s grace fills her with everything good and makes her devoid of all evil.” (Personal {“Little”} Prayer Book, 1522).

Perpetual Virgin:
“Christ, our Savior, was the real and natural fruit of Mary’s virginal womb . . . This was without the cooperation of a man, and she remained a virgin after that.” (Sermons on John, chaps. 1-4, 1539).
“A new lie about me is being circulated. I am supposed to have preached and written that Mary, the mother of God, was not a virgin either before or after the birth of Christ . . .” (That Jesus Christ was Born a Jew, 1523).

Worthy of Respect:
“The veneration of Mary is inscribed in the very depths of the human heart.” (Sermon, September 1, 1522).

One should honor Mary as she herself wished and as she expressed it in the Magnificat. She praised God for his deeds. How then can we praise her? The true honor of Mary is the honor of God, the praise of God’s grace . . . Mary is nothing for the sake of herself, but for the sake of Christ . . . Mary does not wish that we come to her, but through her to God. (Explanation of the Magnificat, 1521).

The Eucharist

Historical writings from the early Church fathers make it plain that the first Christian Church believed in the literal presence of Christ in the Eucharist, when offered by a bishop or minister of the bishop. Despite such early writings, evangelical Protestants remain firm in the belief that Jesus was speaking metaphorically, encouraging his followers to take place in a symbolic memorial service with bread and wine. While Martin Luther had ninety-five problems with the Catholic Church, True Presence was not one of them.

Huldreich Zwingli was a reformer around Luther’s time who gained a band of followers from his proposition that the bread and wine only represents Christ. Luther forcefully disagreed, saying instead, “I would rather drink blood with the papists, than mere wine with the Zwinglians”. Further, he makes the bold assertion that only the devil would cause one to choose not to take to the clear words of Jesus in Scripture as literal, citing the early Church fathers as evidence:

“Who, but the devil, has granted such license of wresting the words of the holy Scripture? Who ever read in the Scriptures, that my body is the same as the sign of my body? or, that it is the same as it signifies? What language in the world ever spoke so? It is only then the devil, that imposes upon us by these fanatical men. Not one of the Fathers of the Church, though so numerous, ever spoke as the Sacramentarians: not one of them ever said, It is only bread and wine; or, the body and blood of Christ is not there present.” (–Luther’s Collected Works, Wittenburg Edition, no. 7 p, 391).

A common response from evangelical Protestants to all of the aforementioned words from Luther is along the lines of, “Why is it relevant that Luther thought those things? I don’t believe that his words are the Word of God, so I don’t have to believe everything he taught.”

The reason these quotes are relevant is because the same Protestants will also claim Martin Luther to have been driven by God in his personal interpretation of Scripture that concludes justification by faith alone and authority in Scripture alone. That then presses the question, how do they know Martin Luther was led by God in those areas, when they also believe him to be so wrong in others? Does it really stand to reason that the man who believed in so many tenants of faith that they strongly reject would be correct only in the areas of the ninety-five theses, even when the preceding 1500 years of Christianity never taught them? Further, if evidence shows that Martin Luther would not condone of the fundamentalist views of communion, Mary, and church history, then such Protestants must question the credibility of their faith community which is historically the result of several break-offs after the original Protestant reformer.

Luther lived to see the fruits of his work in spreading the belief that an established, authoritative priesthood is not necessary for Christianity. He observed, “There are almost as many sects and beliefs as there are heads; this one will not admit Baptism; that one rejects the Sacrament of the altar; another places another world between the present one and the day of judgment; some teach that Jesus Christ is not God. There is not an individual, however clownish he may be, who does not claim to be inspired by the Holy Ghost, and who does not put forth as prophecies his ravings and dreams.

Luther’s philosophy that authority rests with the community of believers who interpret Scripture on their own, rather than the bishops of the original Christian Church, crumbles under his own admission. When each individual personal interprets Scriptures based on their own reader influence and convictions, the result is a plethora of denominations, sub-sects, and free-standing faith communities who are in disagreement with one another.

Today, there are worldwide tens of thousands Christian groups, all who claim to be Bible-believing and inspired by the Holy Spirit, yet contradict each other left and right. This disunity amongst Christ’s family is the largest affect brought about by today in history, Reformation Day, and arguably the most tragic to the Body of Christ.

I never approved of a schism, nor will I approve of it for all eternity. . . . for it is not by separating from the Church that we can make her better.–Martin Luther to Pope Leo X, January 6, 1519


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The False Dichotomy of Religion versus Relationship with God

In 2007, the year I graduated high school and the year Facebook began to popularize, the “religious views” section of my profile stated: “Relationship with Christ—religion has nothing to do with it”. This statement wasn’t something unique that I came up with, but rather the mantra of evangelical Protestantism, the faith tradition of my upbringing. The Baptist and non-denominational faith communities instill in their congregants the belief that true Christianity is not a “religion” comprised of rules and rituals, but simply a personal relationship with Christ without rules or rituals. They continue to state that religious traditions and regulations are merely a trap set to deprive people of that deeper friendship with Christ, and adherence to such traditions can keep people from experiencing eternal life if people cling to religion “instead of” developing that relationship.

The intent that surrounds these ideologies is honorable. Faithful evangelical Protestants have an intense love for Jesus and heart for worship, and it frustrates them to see people who bare the Christian title going through the motions of worship and tradition, while showing no evidence of Christ otherwise in their daily life. As faithful Catholics, we sympathize with such frustrations. It pains us to see our fellow Catholics recite the words at Mass without meditating on their meaning and receive the Sacraments without openly embracing the graces that flow from them. Evangelical Protestants address this issue by creating unofficial categories for all those who identify as Christians, as seen through statements such as, “You should have a relationship with God instead of being religious”.  This, however, is a false dichotomy.

In the words of Father Claude Burns, who wrote and recited a poem addressing the issue of relationship vs. religion, “blaming religion for contradiction is like staring at death and blaming the hearse…those who choose to sit in the pews and refuse the good news is not the fault of religion”. Anywhere you go, you will find those who are blindly going through the motions without a true heart for Christ. While this is a severe problem in the Church that needs to be addressed, the answer is not to abandon the traditions Christ handed down to us; quite the opposite, we should cling tighter to them and strive to teach their meanings more diligently. Christ never condemns traditions in themselves, as many Protestants claim, but only the empty practice of them. True religion will enhance and deepen our ongoing relationship with God if practiced as He intended: with a full and focused heart. Similarly, the fruits produced from our relationship with God should stir in us a desire to be faithful to His commands and to the Church He built. “Religion” and “Relationship”, therefore, are not contradictory to each other, but rather they are beautifully intertwined and feed off one another.

As a former evangelical Protestant, this is something I had to slowly come to learn. Though confident as I was in my decision to become Catholic, realizing that it is the historical Church established by Jesus and commissioned by the apostles, I remained hesitant to become too devout in her Traditions and too dependent on the Sacraments. The Christian teachings of my upbringing imparted in me the belief that my relationship with God should be the foundation of my faith and becoming too religious would hinder that friendship. The Sacraments themselves showed me the faults in the latter part of that statement.

Indeed, my relationship with Christ is the center of my faith. The Sacraments have brought that relationship to a more intimate level by allowing me to experience God with all of my human senses. In the Holy Eucharist, I taste Christ. In Reconciliation, I hear Christ’s physical voice, spoken through one of his servants, say “I absolve you of your sins”. When the incense is used during mass, I smell the prayers of the faithful being lifted up to the Heavens. I feel and see Christ’s love daily through my Sacrament of Holy Matrimony. None of this is to say that my relationship with Christ was not deep or sincere as a Protestant; it certainly was alive and real and I was growing daily as a Christian. However, the religious rituals of Christ’s one Church have brought me to a new level of intimacy with Him, and this is because He physically dwells in the Sacraments.

Father Claude ends his poem with this final remark: “So as for religion, I love it. I have one because Jesus rose from the dead and won. I believe when Jesus said it is finished, His religion had just begun”. As someone who formerly claimed to hate religion, I now echo these thoughts. I am convicted that the Christ who came “not to abolish, but to fulfill” gets the greatest glory when His religion is practiced the way He intended: with hearts open and alert, striving to know Him more.

Fr. Pontifex Responds to Jefferson Bethkes Hate Religion, But Love Jesus