As Catholics, we encounter a lot of misunderstanding about our beliefs from people outside the faith. Many think we worship statues, see Mary as a deity, and try to buy our way in Heaven (etc.). But additionally, there are some myths about Catholicism that even many Catholics believe. Let’s face it – catechesis over the last 60 years or so has been sorely lacking. This has created a situation wherein faithful, well-meaning Catholics believe things that are contrary to Church teaching without knowing it. I know first-hand that it can be jarring to realize that something you believe to be authentic Catholic teaching is not quite true. But learning what is true helps us to grow in our faith, and evangelize more effectively.
The following are some of the frequent myths I’ve heard Catholics espousing, and the corresponding truths of the faith. (I can’t do justice to any of these teachings in this amount of space. So, I encourage you to read more on each topic yourself, including following the included links).
Myth: We can get to heaven by being “good people”/doing good works.
Truth: The Catholic Church teaches that we are saved by grace, through both faith and good works.
This means we do participate in our own salvation! Good works are very important! Yet, we cannot earn heaven by being or doing good on our own. Without the help of grace – which is God’s very life within us — nothing we do could ever be good enough to get us into heaven. (The idea that we can get to heaven on our own merit apart from grace is a heresy called Semi-Pelagianism). This is what makes the sacraments of Baptism and Confession so very important. Baptism initiates us into a life of grace. Confession restores us to a life of a grace when we have cut ourselves off from it via mortal sin.
I once had a disagreement with another Catholic over Matt Maher’s song, “Your Grace is Enough.” She believed it was heretical. But, Scripture says God’s grace is sufficient (enough) for us. It is His grace that transforms our souls, and his grace that enables us to participate in the Christian life. Our faith and good works both result directly from that grace, and dispose us to receive more grace. And the grace itself is what enables us to go to Heaven. Without grace, faith is impossible, and good works are meaningless.
This means that our beliefs about salvation don’t differ quite as drastically from Protestant beliefs as we often think. We all believe God’s grace is what saves us, and that we can’t work our way into heaven.
Myth: The Sacrament of Confirmation is for a child to choose for him/herself to be Catholic, and become an adult in the Church.
Truth: The Church teaches that Confirmation is for completing baptismal grace and being sealed with the Holy Spirit.
Confirmation is a Sacrament of Initiation along with Baptism and the Eucharist, thus belonging close to the beginning of our faith journey. When we receive Confirmation, the Holy Spirit marks us as ones belonging totally to Christ. The Spirit pours Himself out over us in a special way, and bonds us to the Church more perfectly. It does not exist because a child needs a chance to officially agree to what his parents chose for him at Baptism.
At Baptism, we are changed metaphysically. This change cannot be undone. We don’t need to receive another Sacrament to accept the change or make it permanent. A person can choose to stop practicing the Catholic faith, but they cannot choose to stop being a Catholic. The Catechism says, “Although Confirmation is sometimes called the ‘sacrament of Christian maturity,’ we must not confuse adult faith with the adult age of natural growth, nor forget that the baptismal grace is a grace of free, unmerited election and does not need ‘ratification’ to become effective.” (1308)
Many Catholics are confused about this topic because even Church leaders have been perpetuating the above myth for years. One way they do this is by withholding the sacrament until the teen years. Canon law says that the normal age for Confirmation is the age of reason (around 7), and even babies can be confirmed if there is a danger of death. (Eastern Rite Catholics receive Confirmation as babies).
Myth: The Immaculate Conception refers to Jesus’s conception by a virgin through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Truth: The Immaculate Conception refers to Mary’s conception without sin.
“Immaculate” means very clean. Mary was conceived with a soul that was spotless, unlike our souls that are stained with original sin. This is what we celebrate on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Of course Jesus was also conceived without sin. However, his conception by a virgin is “miraculous,” not “immaculate.”
A few years ago, I realized that the Gospel reading for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception is the account of the Annunciation. No wonder people are confused about the meaning of this feast! But, I think we read the Annunciation story because it talks about Mary being “full of grace,” or “highly favored.” This points to her status as one who was preserved from any type of sin.
While we’re on the topic, it’s important to realize that Christ was still Mary’s savior (as she herself proclaims). As God is outside of time, he could apply the salvific work of the crucifixion to Mary before it happened in history.
Myth: The pope speaks authoritatively every time he speaks publicly, and we must give unquestioned assent and support to all of his statements.
Truth: The Church teaches that the pope is infallible in very limited circumstances.
The pope can make mistakes in his conduct and his theology. Of course, as the highest Church authority and Christ’s chief representative on Earth, the pope deserves our allegiance and respect. We should be very humble and cautious when we evaluate and discuss his words. However, we don’t have to agree with or defend everything he says.
Sometimes, popes are expressing mere opinions, which might differ from our own. Sometimes, they sincerely believe they are expressing Church teaching, but are actually in error. There have even been popes who were wicked men not living according to the teaching of the Church. The Holy Spirit prevents the pope from authoritatively teaching a falsehood as truth. However, he does not prevent the pope from all errors in thought, word, judgment, or conduct. We always should evaluate and understand all of the pope’s words in light of the constant and historic teaching of the Church.
On a related note, some believe that the Holy Spirit actively chooses every pope. But as Pope Benedict XVI said, this isn’t quite correct. The Holy Spirit guides the process of papal election, but it’s up to the College of Cardinals to listen to him. They could ignore that guidance in favor of their own human judgment. Luckily, if that happened, the gates of hell still would not prevail against the Church.
Catholic Sistas foundress, Martina, often says that learning about Catholicism “is like eating an elephant.” There is so much to consume and digest that it can only happen fully over a long period of time. What’s more important than knowing the ins and outs of every teaching of the Church is having a heart and a mind that are open to the truth when it is presented to us.