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Fundamentalist Christians Pentecostals

Protestant - Catholic controversy

Rama Coomaraswamy, MD


Catholics are frequently invited by fundamentalist Christians to make a declaration for Christ, and one sees them walking up to some preacher's pulpit with tears and strong conviction. Again, they may be asked if they have been baptized by the spirit, for baptism with water is in their opinion - especially among Pentecostals - insufficient for their salvation. Not infrequently sermons given by fundamentalist preachers are remarkably good which is in strong contrast to those heard in the average Catholic parish, and this alone is likely to lead former Catholics to accept their distortions and errors along with the many truths they do proclaim. While these things are done with good intent, the response of Catholics who remember prior admonitions against listening to non Catholic preachers renders them confused and requires clarification. This is all the more so in that fundamentalist preachers are frequently invited to speak from Catholic ambos (pulpits).

There is much talk of "faith," for faith can in a certain sense be said to cover a multitude of sins. The first issue is to recognize differences in the meaning of the word "faith." It is a principle of protestant theology that faith is what saves, and good works are not of value. Now Protestants perform many good works, and indeed it is true that good works alone cannot save anyone. But "good works" means much more than helping our neighbor - important as that is. Good works includes that work of transforming oneself so that one can say with St. Paul, "I live not I, but Christ lives in me." This is the spiritual battle, this fight against self-love, that every serious Catholic must be engaged in. It is here that Catholic theology departs from Protestant ideation.

Protestant definitions of faith are rather vague. and usually void of any intellectual content. Essentially, they hold that if one has faith in the fact that Christ died for us, one will be saved without any specific effort on our part, though tied to this faith is the study of Scripture and implicit is the need to follow the moral order as outlined in the Bible. There is no requirement to hold to any given set of doctrines or truths apart from the word of God as given in the Scriptures and interpreted in a variety of different ways.

It is no wonder then that Faith for most people - both Catholic and non Catholic - has become a matter of feeling - "welling up from the subconscious," as the modernists hold. Given the Decartian duality which denies anything higher in man than his own thinking ability and reason, such is almost inevitable. 1 However, for a Catholic faith has, or should have, a very specific meaning and a double definition. First of all faith is considered "objective," and is defined as those truths which the Catholic Church teaches, because God, who can neither deceive nor be deceived has revealed them. It is the function of the Church to keep this revelation intact. Now this aspect of faith is considered a "gift," because faith - these teachings - are given to us by God without our merit. Hence it is that St. Paul writes: "For by grace you are saved through faith, and this not of yourselves, for it is a gift of God" (Ephes.,. II:8). The secondary aspect of faith is our subjective acceptance of these teachings - and here it should be clear that a Catholic must accept ALL the truths taught by the Church as divinely revealed. Should he obstinately deny or doubt any of them, he would be considered a heretic. The word "heretic" may sound harsh and offensive to our modern ears, but it simply means that the individual is not Catholic, and as such places his soul in danger.

Protestants claim to base their beliefs on Scripture - though of course they reject certain sections of Scripture which proclaim that faith without works is dead, or that speak to the need to pray for souls in Purgatory. They also reject what Catholics call Tradition which in their mind includes the idea of a special priesthood and the rituals and rites of the Catholic Church. Now there are certain facts which the Catholic must keep in mind. First of all, the very fact that Scripture exists results from the fact that around the year 370 the Catholic Church examined all the writings of the Apostles and declared some to be spurious and others genuine. It was then that the corpus of the Scriptures was determined, and it is based on this corpus that fundamentalist Scriptures are derived. Second, translations can in many ways distort the meaning of the original, and hence it is a Catholic principle that translations must be genuine - that is to say, approved by Catholic ecclesiastical authority. If we want the FDA to approve our drugs, why should we not want Holy Mother Church to approve our Scripture translations. Thirdly, as Augustine said, I would not accept the Scriptures unless the Catholic Church gave them her approval. Scriptures are part of the Catholic Tradition and not really separate from it. Putting it in other words, the Church did not derive from the Scriptures, but rather, the Scriptures derived from the Church. The Church is a visible Church, but Protestants are forced to proclaim the true Church is invisible because it only appeared and became visible in the fifteenth century. Hence it follows that the "sola Scriptura" position lacks a certain reasonableness. This is in no way to deny but that many Protestants, basing themselves on Scripture, live good and honest lives, but as such Scripture is as it were, only half of the Christian faith.

Protestants who deny the need of a special priesthood are forced to give a distorted interpretation of passages of Scripture. For example, it is clear that Christ taught that it was necessary for us to partake of His Body and Blood - such statements as "I am the bread of life...I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If any man eat of this bread he shall live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh, for the life of the world... he that eateth My flesh and drinketh My blood has everlasting life: and I will raise him up in the last days, for My flesh is meat indeed; and My blood is drink indeed. He that eateth My flesh and drinketh My blood abideth in Me and I in him." These are strong words, and Christ in sadness recognized that there were many who could not accept them and walked away. Similarly, it is clear that Christ gave to Peter, and through him to every priest in union with him, the power to forgive sins - both "binding and losing." Now any serious study of Scripture would make it more than clear that the ability to make Christ's Body and Blood actually present, or to exercise the power of "confession" requires a specialized priesthood which an individual not properly ordained - that is, not receiving through the Apostolic Succession that gift of the Holy Spirit which was given to the Church at Pentecost - cannot function in this capacity.

The Protestant argument is in simple terms that, after almost 1500 years they came to a better understanding of the meaning of Scripture than all the saints and Church Fathers. The more conservative branches explained away the Eucharistic statements by claiming this mean that the change in the bread and wine only occurred for the believing worshiper, and not in and of itself - thus it was the subjective believe of the recipient that made this occur. The more liberal branches considered the whole thing to be nothing other than "hocus pocus." This brings us to yet another aspect of the problem. Scripture has many passages which are difficult to understand. These have however been explained by the Church Fathers and Saints for our benefit. By rejecting such, Protestants are forced to utilize their own interpretations of difficult passages. This is called by them the "free examination" of Scripture. which simply means that they can put their own private interpretation on any given passage that they wish. For example, with regard to Christ's clear statements about His Body and Blood, many declare that such is simply "symbolic." This principle of "private judgment" introduced by Luther and Calvin, as the highest and only authority in religion and morality actually deprives Scripture of its objective authority. And clearly such private interpretations are subject to the prejudices and passions of any interpreter. Those who doubt this have but to consider the many different interpretations provided by different Protestant sects - often leading them to come to blows with each other.

Protestants frequently complain about the honor Catholics pay to the Blessed Virgin. This is based on their complete misunderstanding of what the Blessed Virgin represents in the divine economy. This is best explained by a statement by Eckhart: "If you would bear Jesus, you must first become the Blessed Virgin". She exemplifies all the qualities of the perfected soul, and in honoring her we also make her the model of our spiritual life. This is of course another aspect of that "good work," of that interior battle, to which Christians are called. Faith without this inner "good work" is dead. Many claim to have "faith." It should be remembered that Satan also has faith - he believes in Jesus Christ, though as his enemy. It is not enough to have faith unless it leads one to that inner battle which demands that in all things we liken ourselves to the Blessed Virgin.

The Reformation was far more fueled by economic than by spiritual forces. This may be denied, but a review of the history of the times makes it clear that various secular powers supported the Reformers because of the economic gains accruing to said leaders. Actually, the Church with its prohibition of usury and its many rules about labor and craftsmanship impeded modern economic development. The Church had to be removed as an obstacle to the development of banking and finance and labor had to become malleable to the new economic outlook which relabeled greed as "economy." Parallel forces were also present within Catholicism, for clearly Catholics also wanted a piece of the new economic pie. If in murder we are advised to "chercher la femme," so also in many of the religious movements of the times one can use the moto "chercher la economie."2 In addition of course there is the active role of Satan who has an enduring hatred of the Church, and especially of the Mass which makes Christ present "here and now" on our altars.

The attacks on the doctrine of Purgatory and the practice of praying for the dead also had a strong economic motive. The various craft unions had accumulated large amounts of money for Masses to be said for their deceased members. They often supported a priest whose function was to offer Mass for the departed members on a daily basis. By attacking this practice such funds became available to the rulers for private use. In point of fact, there is no genuine religion, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, to say nothing of Christianity and Judaism, all pray for the "faithful departed."

A word in passing about the tendency of certain Protestant groups to show preference for the word Jehovah for God. This term is drawn from the Jewish characterization of God as YHWH which the Jews used out of respect and to avoid saying the Name of God, a privilege limited to the High Priest and special individuals. This current proclivity to use the term Jehovah either reflects a certain ignorance or is a subtle rejection of the Name of Jesus. Now, once Christ was born and God manifested Himself on Earth, it was appropriate for the faithful to use the Name of God, previously forbidden prior to God's manifestation. It is also pertinent that if "s" is inserted into the Tetragamon - "s" in symbolic language representing the descent of mercy - the name clearly is Jesus. And hence it is that to avoid the Name of Jesus and replace it with Jehovah is somewhat offensive

Christ repeatedly said "if you love me, keep my commandments." For example, after expelling the mute demon, when a woman cried out that "blessed were the paps that fed thee," He responded, "Blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it." This brings us to the issue of the whole purpose of life - simply answered in the Catholic catechisms: To know God, to love God and to serve God. Now knowing and loving are almost interchangeable concepts for we cannot love what we do not know, and when we truly know our Lord who not only is the source of our being and of all the good which we possess and who even laid down His human life for us, how could we not love Him. Without both these it is impossible to serve God, for how can we serve anything which we do not know. Of course no one can fully know or love God, for as St. Paul says, "we see through a glass darkly." But knowing and loving God means becoming like Him - a person who is solidly virtuous and who really loves Jesus Christ perfectly, is a man without self-love, and who of us can claim to have reached such a state. But this is the goal which is why so many saints have said "God became man so that man might become God." This is of course the goal of any serious Christian and involves a process of what the mystics call "self-abnegation." We, our little egos, must decrease so that He might increase in us. Now God not only told us that this path of spiritual growth is to be followed, but He gave us specific helps to enable us to do so. These special helps are the seven Sacraments, some of which He clearly specified, and others were specified by the Apostles - for in fact revelation only ended with the death of the last Apostle. Both baptism and the Eucharist were given us in specie - that is in the exact form used. The other sacraments were given to us in principle and the Apostles determined their form and matter.

In this regard, it should be clear. As St. Francis de Sales said: "We must absolutely choose one of two things, either to become interior men, or to lead cowardly and useless lives, lives filled with a thousand vain occupations, none of which will ever lead us to perfection to which God calls us." This does not mean that we should not fulfill our obligations in this world - making a living and supporting our families - for such obligations are given us by God and hence in fulfilling them we are accepting His will.

It is of course possible to know and love God without the aid of the Sacraments, just as it is possible for someone who is ill to get better without the help of a physician. However, there is considerable risk in assuming that one doesn't need such help to "grow in Christ.". Examples of individuals who have done this are rare, and are usually in situations where they were for all practical purposes cut off from the Church. St. Thomas postulates the situation where one is stranded on a desert island, and states that if such an individual is receptive, the Holy Spirit would not deny him the necessary graces. We who are not so stranded are clearly guilty of presumption if we hold that we don't need the Sacraments to aid us on our way.

All this is not to deny that the Church, or rather, individuals in the Church, have at times abused their privileged status. Protestants are prone to criticize the Church for the failings of such individuals - they forget that the Church is a collection of sinners, for "no man is without sin." But these human failings in no way impair the Truths that the Church encompasses and preserves intact down through the ages. Many of these Truths are passed down to us through what the Church calls Tradition, of which Scripture is just a part. Those who embrace the sola scriptura idea are simply stating that they will not accept the truths established by the Apostles outside of what is written down in the sacred books. And these books themselves point to the fact that there were many things that Christ said and taught that time and space made it impossible for everything to be written down.

One can do no better than to conclude this brief commentary with a passage from St. John of the Cross: "[objective] Faith in the intellect, Hope in the memory and charity in the will. In the journey to God, the intellect must be perfected in the darkness of faith, the memory in the emptiness of hope, and the will in the nakedness and absence of every affection. The soul is not united with God in this life through understanding, nor through enjoyment, nor through imagination, nor through any other sense; but only through faith, hope and charity (according to the intellect, memory and will) can unite the soul with God in this life. Faith is the substance of things hoped for and that these things are not manifest to the intellect, even though its consent to them is firm and certain. If they were manifest, there would be no faith. For though faith brings certitude to the intellect, it does not produce clarity, but only darkness.

1 Cf. my paper on placing spirituality in the psyche.

2 Eric Gill in one of his essays has the following footnote: "The Protestant Reformation, for example, is far more a political than a religious event, and cannot be understood apart from the struggle of the rising bourgeoisie against the confinements of Feudalism. The Catholic Church of the Sixteenth Century was not only incomparably the greatest of Landowners, but was the ideological backbone of the feudal system, nationally and internationally. In England especially, the plunder of the Church played a big part in that primitive accumulation of capital without which the modern industrial world could never have come into existence."

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