Ecclesiasticus 4:28

"Fight to the death for truth, and the Lord God will war on your side."

Ora pro nobis,

Most Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Francis de Sales, St. Thomas Aquinas, and St. Dominic. Amen.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Catholicism: Letters to Daniel (Part 1)

Recently I was involved in a discussion forum at a Catholic group on Facebook with a Protestant fellow who was asking questions about Catholicism from his non-denominational, charismatic, Kenneth-Hagin-esque background. Our conversation was quite fruitful and enjoyable, and I hope it continues. Unfortunately, it won't continue at that venue, because of the poor treatment that my friend feels he received from the other Catholics at that forum. I mention this only to say that as apologists, we must always be diligent to present the truth we believe in a loving and considerate manner.

When Daniel left the discussion, either he or someone else deleted his contributions to the thread, so what I am reproducing here will be somewhat different than the usual exchanges I have put on this blog. That is to say, it will be almost exclusively my side of the conversation, except where I quote him. As such, I think it will end up reading, and I hope it does, more similarly to what C.S. Lewis achieved in his correspondence with his fictional friend, in
Prayer: Letters to Malcolm. Hence the title of these series of posts, "Catholicism: Letters to Daniel". In keeping with that purposeful stylistic device, I've edited the correspondences slightly to conform them more to letters than posts on a discussion board. But enough has been said about these posts. It is now time to allow you to read them. God bless.

Dear Daniel,
I recently read the several questions which you recently asked about Catholicism, and thought I would write to you my answers to those questions. I'll try to tackle them all at once, but of course, that might make it dreadfully long. I do hope you will take the time to read my communiqu├ęs all through.

The answer to your first question, "Why Catholicism?" can, of course, only be a personal answer, and not one that can or should be applied all across the board. For 20-odd years of my life, I grew up in the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada (PAOC) which, since you are, seemingly, from the States, is the sister denomination to the Assemblies of God. I was intensely devoted to Jesus (I still am) and was a tongues-speaking, hand-waving, well, the best word I can think of for it is 'zealot'. At 15, I felt called to go into the ministry, and pursued that vocation to Bible College. As I dug deeper, though, I realised that I didn't agree with some of the core teachings of the PAOC, especially that one which taught that in order to really have been "baptised with the Holy Spirit" one must have spoken in tongues (remember, I do speak in tongues, so I wasn't disillusioned about this because it hadn't happened to me, yet). I felt that the biblical arguments for this doctrine were rather less than compelling, and were even contradicted by other passages of Scripture.

As someone aspiring to minister for Jesus in the PAOC, I felt that it would be dishonest of me to become a Pentecostal pastor all the while not believing in one of its core, distinctive doctrines. So I opted to go to a Protestant Bible College with a good cross-section of denominational representation. I chose Emmanuel Bible College in Kitchener, Ontario, which was officially an Evangelical Missionary school, but which, out of roughly 350 students, had over 40 denominations represented, including EMC, Pentecostal, Baptist, Mennonite, Missionary Alliance, Lutheran, Anglican (Episcopalian), United, Presbyterian, Christian Reform, and several that I'd never even heard of. They ranged from fundamentalist to liberal, Calvinist to Arminian, Pre-Millenarianist to Amillenarianist, charismatic to cessationalist, and any other range of doctrinal perspective that you can think of.

Trying to suss out for myself which denomination I should align myself with, as well as wanting to pursue apologetic ministry, I examined these various perspectives with a rather keen interest (one which actually distracted me from my studies!), asking, as if I had all the answers, "which denomination agrees with me?" I thought that that question meant "which denomination accurately represents 'orthodox Christianity'?" since I was, obviously, an orthodox Christian. But, knowing that I had a lot to learn (and a passion for learning it) I thought I'd read up on what the people said who really 'figured out' what Christianity actually believed, in opposition to historical heresies. So I went to that dustiest of corners of our school's library, passing by Jack Hayford, Tim LaHaye, Charles Swindoll, and all the pop-Christian writers. I even went by Leon Morris and John L. Maier and other scholars and historians. I went to the Early Church Fathers, such as St. Augustine and St. Hilary and St. Irenaeus. And the surprising thing that I found, about these people who defined for all time what "Christianity" really taught, was that they were (gasp) Catholic!

During this time at Bible College, I also took several courses which helped me along this strange discovery: History of Christianity (taught by the most anti-Catholic professor you could ever hope to meet, who ridiculed Catholic teachings as preposterous--and even though I knew next to nothing about them other than his description, I could see clear biblical rationale for each of them); a 'Spiritual formation and discipleship' course that taught us about the various spiritual practices of a number of Christian traditions, such as speaking in tongues and stuff that I already was familiar with, as well as things like the Rosary, Lectio Divina, the Jesus Prayer, and the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola--and the surprising thing, in learning about the people who practised these, was that their lives were punctuated by a greater relationship with God than I had ever experienced in any ecstasy of charismatic prayer! And they were, again (gasp) Catholic!--; and finally, a course on Worship and Music, in which we learned about modern styles of worship, with drums and guitars and choruses, which I was well familiar with as a Pentecostal, but also about this thing called 'the Liturgy'. Our professor broke down the different parts of it, explaining the meanings behind the prayers and the symbols, so that, when I actually went to a Mass for the first time, I knew exactly what was going on. After all the hype and excitement of Pentecostal 'God-time', people expected that the Mass would bore me considerably, being the same thing week-after-week, with 'no room for the Spirit to move', but it was quite the opposite! Even though as a Protestant visitor, I couldn't partake of the Eucharist at that time (indeed, it wouldn't be for another three years), the tangible sense of Jesus' Presence pervaded eveything in a huge way that rivalled, if not surpassed, the 'movement of the Spirit' in any of the 'Free Church' services that I'd experienced before.

Of course, I still had questions, and issues, such as Mary, Purgatory, and the Eucharist itself, which kept niggling for the next three years, and keeping me from converting, but finally it was that very Eucharist, and Jesus beckoning me from It, that won me over.

As I look back on the journey, I remember the question I asked when I began it: "Which denomination agrees with me?" I realised, in the end, that I was asking that question precisely backwards. In joining the Catholic Church, I was joining the one branch of Christianity that, really, didn't give a damn about what I believed, but demanded that I submit to Her. I didn't have it all figured out, and still don't. But if this is the Church, the pillar and foundation of the truth, whom the Holy Spirit protects from error, the answer to the question is not about me at all!

G.K. Chesterton once summed up the difference between Catholicism and Protestantism in an article he wrote contrasting the two great poets, Shakespeare and Milton. He said,

But here, at least, is one way of putting the difference between the religions of Shakspere and Milton. Milton is possessed with what is, I suppose, the first and finest idea of Protestantism--the idea of the individual soul actually testing and tasting all the truth there is, and calling that truth which it has not tasted or tested truth of a less valuable and vivid kind. But Shakspere is possessed through and through with the feeling which is the first and finest idea of Catholicism--that truth exists whether we like it or not, and that it is for us to accommodate ourselves to it... But I really do not know how this indescribable matter can be better described than simply saying this; that Milton's religion was Milton's religion, and that Shakspere's religion was not Shakspere's.
That's why I converted to Catholicism in 2004.

Your second question was whether Catholics believe in praying in other tongues? Well, if you took the trouble to read through what I wrote above, I'd hope that the answer is plain. I could not have converted to Catholicism, as a tongues-speaking Christian, if speaking in tongues was somehow condemned. But no, in fact Catholicism is one of the only Christian traditions (I assume along with Orthodoxy) that has always believed in and practised glossolalia (though perhaps not en masse, as is often the case today). Great saints, such as St. Francis of Assisi and St. Jean Vianney were known to speak in tongues long before the advent of Azuza Street, or the later Catholic Charismatic Movement.

Since 'praying in tongues' seems to have branched out into a further question of 'letting the Spirit move' or of the miraculous, you should know that, again, Catholics have been the ones who have consistently upheld the miraculous, as when St. Francis de Sales (a Catholic priest who, during the Reformation, won many converts back from Protestantism) demonstrated that Catholicism was indeed the true Church because of Her many miracles (Calvinists, as you may know, during the Reformation and henceforth, denied the validity of miracles, saying they 'ceased' with the Canonisation of Scripture, primarily to derail Catholics who pointed to the miraculous events of the Church in Her defence). Miracles continue even today, and if you go to places such as the Grotto in Lourdes, France, where the Virgin Mary appeared to St. Bernadette, or to St. Joseph's Oratory in Montreal, Quebec (what is it about those French?), you can see the walls and ceilings lined with crutches, thousands upon thousands, testifying to the miracles which their owners received.

Your third question inquires about the Catholic Church's devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. This issue, I admit, was one that troubled me greatly as a Protestant, and haunted me still when I was in the process of converting. I hope you can read my answer then, as one who sympathises with your own apprehension.

The Bible tells us that "the prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective" (James 5:17). No one is more righteous than the saints in heaven, who have been purified of all sins and are now completely holy (since there can be no sin in the presence of God). If it is right to enumerate 'degrees' of holiness, then the Virgin Mary (whom, on the grounds of the Greek meaning of 'full of grace' in Luke 1:28) we believe was conceived in a way that God, through His grace, preserved her from the effects of Original Sin, so that she was born able to live, in grace, a sinless life, she is therefore the holiest of the holy men and women of God. On top of that, since it is a commandment that we honour our parents, and since Mary is Jesus' Mother, and Jesus fully obeyed the Commandments (and does so still), Jesus holds Mary in a special place of honour. And since she is our Mother, too (Revelation 12:17), and we are called to imitate Jesus, we hold her in special honour, as well.

Thus, honouring her such, and knowing that her prayers are effective because of her holy obedience to the will of God, and because of the honour which Jesus gives her, we pray to her, trusting that she will pray for us to Jesus, even when we don't know how we should pray--just as you might pray for me, or me for you. There is no difference, except that Mary's simply a better intercessor than you or I (especially since she doesn't forget when someone asks her to pray for them, as I frequently do, to my chagrin).

It seems that the office of the priesthood troubles you as well, as it does for many Protestaonts. You say that you don't see priest mentioned in the five ministry gifts of Ephesians 4:11 (Apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor, and teacher), but we see "priest" everywhere that an English Bible refers to an "elder" since "Priest" is nothing more than an older English contraction of the Greek word "Presbyter." The priest's role in the Church is that of "Pastor" in the 5-fold ministry. Notably, the Bishop fills the role of "Apostle". I wonder, in the denomination you belong to, where your "Apostles" are?

You follow up your troubles with the priesthood with a final question about the sacrament of Confession--suggesting that, being part of the New Covenant and not the Old Covenant, Confession is somehow unneeded, and yet I'm not entirely sure where I see "Confession" as such in the Old Testament. Rather, I see injunctions in the New Testament to "confess" our sins, and injunctions and descriptions of the Apostles and the presbyters as forgiving those sins. It seems a simple deduction.

There are many truths about Confession, which, when explained as they have been so far to you, describing simply the emotional or psychological benefits of Confession, may make it seem like an "optional good idea". That there are obvious benefits to Confession (such as the chance to truly humble yourself--it's rather difficult to tell your deepest, darkest secret to a man you admire and look up to--, the audible, definite assurance of forgiveness, etc.), we must remember that it really is not optional.

When we are baptised, we are born again into a New Covenant of Grace. We are made alive in Christ in a brand new way. However, that life of grace must be lived out through our obedience to Christ (Phil 2:12-13, John 15:14, 1 John 1:6-8, etc.). When we fall into a mortal sin (a deliberate act of the will in committing a gravely immoral act against the Law of God), we effectively kill the life of Grace within us, and cut ourselves off from the Covenant. Since there is only "one baptism", we cannot be re-baptised to re-enter the Covenant: something else must repair the damage. Hence, Christ gave us Confession, in which He, through the priest, abolishes our sin and reinstates us in the New Covenant. The reason why, in the case of Mortal Sin, we cannot simply go "Straight to Jesus" is because through that sin we have re-declared our enmity with Him. We no longer have access to "the throne of grace with confidence". We must make reparation, first.

In Catholicism, there is also the doctrine of "venial" sin in contrast with "mortal" sin. A venial sin is a sin that is not a very grave matter, or one which, if it is grave, was not fully understood to be so or completely chosen by ourselves. While still a sin, and still serious enough, it does not completely kill the life of Grace within us, but only wounds it (of course, enough undealt with wounds can still be fatal). In the case of venial sins, we can still "go straight to Jesus" for forgiveness in the sense in which a Protestant typically means that phrase.

(For biblical evidence that there is mortal and venial sins, see 1 John 5:16-17.)

Anyway, I again apologise for the length. I hope you were able to endure it all. I shall write again soon.
God bless,

(Category: The Church: Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus--The Church and other Christian denominations)


Joni said...

This is really an awesome post! Thank you for using this format to communicate with both him and us.

Your background is almost eerily similar to that of my husband and myself. We were both raised in the Assemblies of God, and went to Bible college here in the U.S. However, that was almost 20 years ago. Only within the last year has God brought us into the Catholic church. (Coincidentally, it all began several years ago when my husband began reading the Fathers, too.)

Again, thank you for sharing your journey and your answers to this Protestant friend.

I look forward to reading your future posts!

Gregory said...

Thank you, Joni! I appreciate your comments, and am glad you like the format. I'll have more up soon.

I was told, by the co-author of this blog--or the silent partner, if you will ;)--that the pentecostal churches are actually the fastest depleting form of Christianity, and most of the members who leave go either to the Catholic or the Orthodox churches. And yet, when I, and I'm sure you, tell people about our journeys, they think it's rather unusual. Go figure!

Anyway, thanks for reading!
God bless

Zoey said...

Well said.