This week a reader commented on my bio page, and I thought it best to redirect the conversation over here, where I can respond in greater detail to what is a great question. Here is his comment:
You mentioned that you consider yourself a Protestant rather then a Catholic. How important is that distinction to you and why? I’ve looked at your blog and find it interesting. I am a practicing Catholic, by my own choice, however I do not disregard others ways to believe in Jesus and God our Creator. I have a feeling that there is much more to our faith that currently escapes our attention and comprehension. That may be the reason why we are still looking for more explicit understanding of our faiths.
I do consider the distinctions between Catholicism and Protestantism to be vast and important, though I wouldn’t go so far as many from both camps do as to say that those in the other camp are not “Christian.” Catholics and Protestants both affirm the Nicene Creed but disagree on questions of authority, human merit, and the New Testament meaning of “priesthood,” which rightfully caused that notorious sixteenth-century split.
I describe myself as Protestant because I hold to the three major tenets of Reformed theology: (1) the Bible as self-interpreting and the only source of doctrinal knowledge (I do not hold Church tradition, as interpreted by the Pope, as authoritative), (2) salvation by grace through faith alone (not through a combination of faith and works), and (3) one priesthood—of all believers (Catholics believe in the universal priesthood too but also believe in a second kind of priesthood: an exclusive group of people who are spiritually distinct from laypeople in that they are given the power to act as Christ, by virtue of their apostolic lineage). In addition to professing the above distinctives, I also reject the Roman Catholic teachings of the Immaculate Conception (the belief that the Virgin Mary was sinless), prayer to and the veneration of saints, papal infallibility, Purgatory, and, of course, the teaching that salvation is available only to Catholics (extra Ecclesiam nulla salus). [Update, 3/29/21: A blog reader has told me that my paraphrase of this latter Latin doctrine is false, and she points to this article by canon lawyer Philip C. L. Gray for a more nuanced explication, as well as to Gaudium et spes I.30-32 (“All this holds true not only for Christians . . .”).]
One major hang-up for me is that the Catholic Church claims so much exclusive power for itself: the power to interpret truth, to receive confessions, to absolve sin, to remit the temporal punishments of sin (to grant indulgences), to dispense merit, to administer grace—in short, “to act in the power and place of the person of Christ himself” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1548). To me it seems like the Catholic Church obstructs the direct access to God in Christ that all believers are promised. Instead of confessing their sins directly to God, Catholics are taught that such confession is insufficient, that they must also confess their sins to an ordained priest. Instead of always lifting up prayer requests straight to God, Catholics are taught to seek the intercession of deceased saints. Instead of trusting the Holy Spirit to guide them into all truth when it comes to matters of faith and practice, Catholics are taught to believe only what the Church tells them to believe, because only those who hold the office of Catholic priest or bishop are qualified to interpret Scripture and define doctrine. (“The task of interpreting the Word of God authentically has been entrusted solely to the Magisterium of the Church, that is, to the Pope and to the bishops in communion with him” [CCC 85].) I don’t understand the need for all this extra mediation.
There are other distinctives, of course, but these are the main ones.
Thank you, Richard, for opening up this dialogue. I agree with you that there is room for growth and understanding on both sides of the Protestant-Catholic divide.
If you’re reading this and you are Catholic, please correct me if I’ve misrepresented any aspect of your faith tradition, or if you have light to shed on anything I’ve just discussed. I’m still learning myself.
Ms. Jones: I’ve been looking over your blog and have enjoyed it. So thank you. I should say that I’m Catholic and, hence, I wanted to drop you a short note regarding this particular post. I don’t want to get into all of the minutia. Instead, I would rather touch on your three numbered points, listed in your second paragraph. My hope is that I can shed a little light on what Catholics believe in regards to these three items, for the sake of clarity if nothing else. Here goes: (1) Catholics absolutely believe that the Bible is authoritative; it is the inspired word of God. However, Catholics do not agree, and I think history has borne this out, that the bible is self-interpreting. To this day Protestantism continues to bifurcate as people disagree about the meaning of the content of the bible (e.g., early on Luther and Calvin differed on the Real Presence). Catholics believe that you need a living referee/authority because the Bible does not always speak directly (in an undebatable way) to all of the challenges we face today; Catholics believe that Peter and his successors are that authority (Mt 16:17-19). As for sacred tradition, see 2 Thess 2:15, in which Paul clearly tells people to “hold fast” to (i.e., obey) traditions/oral teachings. (2) Catholics also believe that you can only be saved through an infusion of grace. No human actions (except those of Christ) can “earn” heaven. That is firm doctrine (Council of Trent). However, Catholics do believe that you must live your faith through works: James 2:17. If the infusion of God’s grace isn’t moving you to action … then you probably don’t have authentic faith. Grace comes first and the works necessarily (and naturally) flow out as a result. So, in fact, I don’t think we really don’t disagree on this one. (3) In a sense, we are all priests. But you are right about a separate priesthood. But this is nothing new in the Bible. God creates priesthoods, starting back in the time of Melchizedek (Genesis 14:18). Later, he created the Levitical priesthood (a separate group – distinct from the other Jews). And with his life, Christ became our new high priest. This line was carried on by the Apostles (John 20:21-23) and those successors chosen by the Apostles (Acts 1:17-22). So I think a separate priesthood is not Biblically unnatural; in fact, it’s quite the opposite. Ugh. This was really a lot longer than I had hoped. And perhaps you’ve already heard all of this, in which case I apologize. My hope is that this will provide a different perspective (a Catholic perspective) on these three concerns you have regarding Catholicism. Thanks again for the blog. I will continue to read.
Thanks, Kevin, for taking the time to respond to these points–I’m always grateful to have an insider’s perspective, as it does help me think through the issues more clearly. Glad you’re such a frequent visitor!
I find my self agreeing with what you say, even though I now call myself a Catholic. I was raised a Protestant, but became Cathplic when I mpved in with y daughter and son in law, who are Catholic. and I feel I can argue for both sides in some things.. As my blessed Mother always told me, “We are all trying to get to the same place.”
Victoria, I think you did a great job explaining. Basically God is not a religion! He wants to have a personal relationship with us individually, and we are determining what we shall be throughout eternity by our decisions while here. No situation or person can determine that but us individually. There is a distinct difference between getting to go to heaven to be with Him throughout eternity (we have to be born again by receiving Christ in our hearts, and becoming the righteousness of God in Him), and building up rewards and inheritance for ourselves for eternity. They are not one and the same, nor do we have to keep ourselves saved, or keep having to earn our ticket to heaven, it is ours because of our identity (who we are and whose we are). We have God’s ear for every prayer, we have His favor and love every second, we have access to all heaven and all provisions of power and grace at our fingertips as we walk by faith. The purpose of the past is not for traditions and leashes to hold us and tie us back from our destinies, but to build upon and exceed their exploits and wisdom on accessing more of God, and being all we were meant to be in God. God holds nothing back from us, we are the one’s holding back from Him. Nothing recorded in the Bible is off limits for us not only to duplicate, and replicate, but for us to exceed! The Church should not house religion, but house living water that makes us all unstoppable, and unleashes a powerful army that will take over the world with the Kingdom of God inside of us….coming out and invading. ….. just a few thoughts about the subject. I think you are awesome. Thank you for your faithfulness! I love your old website TheJesusQuestion too! 🙂
Hi, Victoria! I really appreciate your blog (especially the 9-part series on the Jesus Sutras!), and I thank you for sharing your knowledge and thoughts! And I love engaging with other Christians, so I hope you take everything I say with the spirit I send it, in love. Adding to the things Kevin responded to, one significant assertion I balked at was the misreading of Extra ecclesium nulla salus, and that to a degree, it’s understandable since it’s sadly a popular and debated misinterpretation of Catholic doctrine. But if you have time to read the article (linked below) you’ll see that what this doctrine means is quite different, and differently precise. An important Vatican II document (Gaudium Et Spes-https://cutt.ly/Dx9M8mf a beautiful albeit long read if you have the time, even just reading part 1 expounds a lot on this topic) states of salvation: “All this holds true not only for Christians, but for all men of good will in whose hearts grace works in an unseen way. For, since Christ died for all men, and since the ultimate vocation of man is in fact one, and divine, we ought to believe that the Holy Spirit in a manner known only to God offers to every man the possibility of being associated with this paschal mystery. (22)” In the same way that God offered salvation through His Chosen People, in the line of David and the Judaic covenants fulfilled in Christ, Christ in His Church (as He gave the “keys to kingdom” in Mt 16:19) is the one means by which all peoples may accept the salvation which God offers each person, regardless if they call themselves Catholic or not. That is to say, the Catholic Church asserts that it is by God’s chosen means of the Church–the Body of Christ, Baptism and other sacraments established by Christ, the Scriptures which the Church compiled and upholds as the Word of God–through which His grace is immeasurably and openly poured out for all people. It’s not a border-wall, but truly rather a wellspring, from which all peoples draw Christ’s Water. As you can see, that’s a far cry from an assertion that ‘only Catholics are saved’–that would be a heresy. Being such, I’d ask with a most sincere request, that you would consider changing that description asap, for the sake of truthfulness! I could not be more hopeful, haha 🙂 I hope what I typed made sense, but if not, here’s a more exact and thorough explication: https://www.catholiceducation.org/en/religion-and-philosophy/apologetics/without-the-church-there-is-no-salvation.html Oh! And re: infallibility, that’s a whole ‘nother discussion, but I’ll just say that infallibility is very rarely invoked (objectively, the “infallibility” of the pope has only been used twice in Church history–and only when the pope is “ex cathedra”–i.e. when it’s absolutely necessary for the Church to make major clarifications of doctrine.) Perhaps the best way of understanding how the Catholic church sees this authority is as the authority of a referee–given by Christ Himself to Peter, as we know there is no legitimate authority of grace but from God. As my good friend, a Catechist always says, “salvation is a group sport”. That may come across as a very Catholic saying, but turning to the early Church, in Peter and Paul and their communities, I wonder, don’t all Christians agree with the spirit of that? Indeed, we are as dependent on God in each other as we are on the air He breathes in us. So with that, thanks again, and looking forward to reading more of your stuff!
Hi Kateryn. Thanks so much for your input and for these helpful clarifications and resources. I wrote this post almost ten years ago and have since grown in my respect for church tradition and authority and gained a more nuanced understanding of intercession of the saints. I still identify as Protestant but, as I think will be clear from my more recent writings at https://artandtheology.org/, am more ecumenically minded than I was before. I don’t generally revisit this website with edits or updates, but I will provide a note next to the claim you say is problematic, linking to the article you cite.
Beautiful. I love posts like yours (the original and this follow up). With a heart pursuing the truth like yours and a mind steeped in history (as your work with Art surely forces you to be), my experience is that it is just a matter of time till the evidence and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit bring you home.
God bless you on your journey. I look forward to the day when you share with us that in the reception of our Lord in the Sacrament of the Eucharist you have become more fully united with the Mystical Body of Christ. What a beautiful day for the Church (Catholic with both a big and little “c”) that will be.