How Not to Become a Catholic, Part Four

Editor’s Note: This is the final installment in Mr. Tonkowich’s “How Not to Become a Catholic” series. The previous installments are available here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

When stating their objections to the Catholic Church, most Protestant Christians have two impressions. First, the Catholic Church is thought to be somewhere on a scale from hating the Bible to ignoring the Bible. Second, the Church is said to be devoid of grace and preaching works righteousness. Neither of these impressions is true, but to avoid becoming a Catholic, it’s important to turn them into solid rules for thought and life.

Rule #8—Believe that the Catholic Church and the Bible Don’t Mix.

Ask almost anyone over the age of sixty who was raised Catholic and you will hear how priests discouraged reading the Bible. “It’s too complicated. You will only get things wrong,” seems to have been the common priestly warning. It seems that many if not most Catholic families didn’t even have a copy of the Scriptures in the home.

To be safely not-Catholic, conclude from this that the Church has never wanted, does not want, and will never want people to read the Bible lest they think independently and become Baptists.

Or you could realize that this is nothing short of a scandal—a scandal not from a Bible-reading Protestant point of view, but a scandal from a thoroughly Catholic point of view.

1920 was way back in the “bad old days” when legend has it that priests everywhere were telling the Catholic faithful not to read the Bible. It was also the 1,500th anniversary of the death of St. Jerome one of the greatest Bible scholars who ever lived. Jerome, you may recall, famously said, “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.”

To celebrate St. Jerome’s life and work, Pope Benedict XV wrote the encyclical Spiritus Paraclitus. In it, he took Jerome’s famous words very seriously. In fact, Benedict wrote that a central purpose of the encyclical was: “to promote among the children of the Church, and especially among the clergy, assiduous and reverent study of the Bible.” Bible study—“assiduous and reverent study” at that—was for everyone.

He went on to praise the Society of St. Jerome whose objective was “to put into the hands of as many people as possible the Gospels and Acts, so that every Christian family may have them and become accustomed to reading them.” Benedict had, in fact, helped found this Catholic version of the Gideons.

“Don’t read the Bible,” was apparently said by many a priest and nun. But they spoke contrary to the Church’s clear teaching that “assiduous and reverent” Bible study is for everyone.

Jumping forward to 1965, Dei Verbum, Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, minces no words. The Church “earnestly and especially urges all the Christian faithful… to learn by frequent reading of the divine Scriptures the ‘excellent knowledge of Jesus Christ’ (Phil. 3:8).”

That folks were hurt and damaged by erring ministers is hardly a problem limited to the Catholic Church. And it is sad when the Bible is kept from any person, Christian or not.

On the other hand, to keep safe from becoming a Catholic, it is, as always, best to listen to disgruntled Catholics who grew up without Bibles and are still fuming rather than popes who actually know what the Church teaches.

It’s also helpful when avoiding Catholicism to keep in mind that, “Catholics added books to the Bible,” presumably in spite of the warning at the end of the Revelation that applies to all of Scripture:

I warn everyone who hears the prophetic words in this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book…. (Revelation 22:18)

But, of course, the Catholics (and the Eastern Orthodox) did not add Maccabees, Tobit, Wisdom, Judith, Sirach, and Baruch to the Bible.They were already there, part of the Christian Old Testament and later scuttled by the Protestant reformers. Why? One Protestant theologian told a now-Catholic friend of mine (who also has a Ph.D. in theology) it was because these books teach things that were “un-biblical.” That is, the “un-biblical” parts of the Bible had to be excised so that the entire Bible could be “biblical.”

James Tonkowich

James Tonkowich

Hmmm. Can you say, “Circular reasoning”?

His point was that the books teach Catholic doctrines that Protestants wanted to reject—things like Purgatory (2Maccabees 12:46). And arguments about the first-century Jewish canon aside, remember that Martin Luther also wanted Hebrews, James, Jude, and the Revelation voted off the island as well since they too were unbiblical, or at least unbiblical à la Martin Luther.

If you make the mistake of getting deep into history (see Rule #3) you will find that the Church’s canon of Scripture was intact from the fourth century until the Protestants tampered with it in the sixteenth. And, after all, the thought in Revelation 22:18 continues in verse 19: “…and if anyone takes away from the words in this prophetic book, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city described in this book.”

But let’s move on (Quickly! Quickly!).

Rule #9—Keep Insisting that Catholicism is a Grace-Free, Works Religion

A Presbyterian friend is appalled that I’ve become a Catholic. “My wife was raised Catholic,” he says, “and Catholicism has no grace in it at all. It’s all about works.”

I am genuinely sorry for his dear wife’s bad experience growing up Catholic. I am also genuinely sorry for the experience other friends of mine have had in the Presbyterian congregation where he serves as an elder. They left. Why? Because, they said, “That church has no grace in it at all. It’s all about works.”

Could it be that the grace in any given church is in the eyes of the beholder? Or could it be that grace and graciousness are functions not of settled doctrine, but of the spiritual lives of the people and ministers in any particular church—Protestant, Orthodox, or Catholic?

My friend’s Presbyterian doctrine is in The Westminster Confession of Faith, which clearly states, “The grace of faith, whereby the elect are enabled to believe to the saving of their souls, is the work of the Spirit of Christ in their hearts…” (XIV.1).

The Catechism of the Catholic Church sounds eerily similar. In a section titled “Faith is a grace” we find: “Faith is a gift of God, a supernatural virtue infused by him” (153. Italics in the original). A few paragraphs later it says, “Faith is an entirely free gift that God makes to man” (162).

“Our justification,” the Catechism says later (1996), “comes from the grace of God. Grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life” (Italics in the original).

I don’t know about you, but this seems to me a pretty clear statement about the centrality of grace in Catholic doctrine and spirituality. Or at least it’s as clear as the one in the Westminster Confession. Living in light of that grace without becoming impressed with our goodness is, on the other hand, one of the great struggles of the spiritual life on both banks of the Tiber.

“Then what is all this Catholic stuff about ‘merit’? Isn’t that works righteousness?”

Good question, but I’ll warn you, it’s another concept you will want continue to misconstrue if you want to avoid becoming Catholic. But, since you asked…

When my son was about four, we gave him three empty 35mm film canisters (Do you remember 35mm film canisters?). They were labeled: “Spend,” “Save,” and “Jesus.” Every week, we explained, he would receive three dimes as an allowance and he was to put one dime in each canister. He could bring the “Spend” dimes to the store to buy gum and candy that same day. His “Save” dimes, by contrast, would accumulate over time for bigger purchases. As to the “Jesus” dimes, he’d bring them to church as his offering to God.

When he placed his “Jesus” dimes in the offering basket, we praised him up and down for his generous giving. They were our dimes and we dictated the terms under which he would receive them every week, but in faithfulness and obedience, he did the right thing and was honored. If you will permit me to use the word, he “merited” our praise for his use of money.

God treats his sons and daughters the same way.

Catholic teaching on merit is clear:

With regard to God, there is no strict right to any merit on the part of man….  The merits of our good works are gifts of the divine goodness. ‘Grace has gone before us; now we are given what is due…. Our merits are God’s gifts’ (Catechism, 2007, 2008).

God by grace gives us the dimes, tells us how to use them, and honors us for our good works. Wasn’t it Jesus who told a story like that and gave us the hope to someday hear, “Well done good and faithful servant,” (Matthew 25:14-30)? But then Jesus’ parable couldn’t possibly have been about merit, could it?

I can come up with additional rules and can expand on the nine I’ve written (book publishers please take note). But you get the idea. As long as I followed the rules, the Catholic Church remained strange, problematic, and suspicious. Once I broke the rules, stopped listening to hearsay, and began studying, the Catholic Church became irresistible.

Are there difficulties? Of course, but as Blessed John Henry Newman, a convert to the Church in the 1840s, wrote, “Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt, as I understand the subject; difficulties and doubts are incommensurate.” Difficulties are part of seeing through a glass darkly and, as such, are scattered throughout the Bible, inherent in every theological system, and buried in every church’s history and every human soul.

Are there doubts? I began with piles, but over ten years of reading, thinking, and discussing, they have all been sorted out. I moved steadily from, “The Catholic Church is not the solution, but…” to “The Catholic Church is probably not the solution, but…” to “The Catholic Church may be the solution, but…” to “The Catholic Church is probably the solution, but…” to “The Catholic Church is the solution, but…” to surrender. The Catholic Church is and always has been the solution.

As Richard John Neuhaus, another convert, noted, “Rest comes with surrender, with being shaken out of the state of incurvatus est [being turned in upon oneself], with submission to an other, and finally to the Other. The Other is embodied, as in the body of Christ, the Church.”

And it’s good to be at rest. So let me invite you to break all these rules and find rest as well.



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