Three Questions about Catholics

A reader wrote an asked me three questions, given below in italics, and gave me permission to share the questions and my answer to anyone who may be curious.

My own experience, when I was looking into which denomination to join, was that everything I heard about the Catholic teaching that seemed bad, or even fishy, turned out, upon closer examination, not to be something the Catholics actually taught.

My biggest personal barrier to becoming a Catholic was giving up on contraceptives, which is one thing I had already, back when I was an atheist, had deduced for entirely secular reasons to be a grave moral error.

This, frankly, made the matter much easier for me than for most new converts, since I could not, in good conscience, contemplate joining any denomination that did not stay faithful to the ancient Christian teaching on this point, because I myself had quite independently discovered that the ancient Christian teaching was correct. The idea that God would change His mind on this point was one I did not bother to entertain.

  1. I’m uncomfortable with praying to humans, like Mary or the saints. I have to admit I don’t have a real argument, but it just makes me uncomfortable. Is this biblical or at least not forbidden biblically? 

To answer this, we must first ask why pray at all?

God certainly knows your prayer before you ask it. He knows what you need from ages before you were born.

The answer is not controversial. Not just Catholics but most mainstream denominations teach that we participate in the divine nature and the divine will when we pray.

The model of prayer given by the Lord was to praise God, bless His name, call for His kingdom, and to ask that all men obey Him as faithfully as angels obey. We petition for daily bread (which includes the bread of heaven, Christ), to have sins forgiven, and not to suffer trial, but to be saved from the Evil One. In other words, we ask for the goods of body, soul and spirit, and we ask for salvation.

Obviously God is the right person to ask for these things because only He can grant them.

Contrast that with, for example, the wording of the Hail Mary. The first line is the selfsame greeting given to Mary from the archangel Gabriel; the second is the greeting of her cousin Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist. The next line addresses her as “Mother of God” which does not call her a goddess, or even a holy person, but honors the divinity of her son. The only petition (prayer) is in the line: “pray for us now and at the hour of our death.”

Please note the difference. We are not asking Our Lady for bread, or for forgiveness, or for mercy, or for salvation. We quoting the scripture, and then we are asking her to join us on our knees in prayer. Will Christ turn down his own mother?

Here is a second example from the Novena to Saint Joseph: Loving Saint Joseph, faithful follower of Jesus Christ, I raise my heart to you to implore your powerful intercession in obtaining from the Divine Heart of Jesus all the graces necessary for my spiritual and temporal welfare.

Even if I ask the saint directly for his aid, and phrase it as if the favor is coming from him (“Dear St. Anthony please come around, something is lost and it cannot be found!”) it does not change the reality of what is happening. The only power the saint has to do miracles, heal the sick (and find lost things) comes from God. It is no more an act of idolatry than when Naaman asks Elisha to cure him from leprosy. He is not asking Elisha to do something in Elisha’s name, using Elisha’s power, but asking for God.

In prayer, we bring our will in line with His great will. Christ Himself, in Gethsemane, when He prayed for the bitter cup of the passion He was to suffer to pass Him by, did not fail to add the words: “Thy will be done.”

When we ask for the sick to be healed, it is not a magic spell, and we do not, by our own power, create the healing. God does all things. But, in his great mercy, He allows us to have a part in the process. Our prayer is how we participate in the divine miracle of answered prayers.

Remember the Book of Esther. Esther is told that if she does not help carry out God’s plan to save His people, God will find some other way to do it, but that she herself will suffer. In other words, Esther, a weak and mortal woman, is being given the divine privilege of participating in the will of the Omnipotent. She has no power. He does all. But she is allowed to take part, and it is better for her if she does so.

This is a mercy granted by God.

If we were not allowed to participate in prayer, we would all be helpless spectators at our own salvation, never asked to contribute anything.

As best I can tell, my Protestant brethren think that the mercy of God is limited, and so the number of people who can participate in prayer is limited. As best I understand the idea, one can ask living men to help one pray, but not saints who stand in the very throneroom of God.

Even though I was raised Lutheran, it is frankly a doctrine I do not understand and cannot even state clearly. Luther claims that asking a friend to help you pray is just the same as adoring that friend as a god. I cannot even begin to imagine how Luther, or anyone, can equate those two things. To me it looks like an outrageous lie and libel.

Prayer is not worship. The legal motion by which a defendant petitions the court to grant a jury trial is called a “prayer for jury trial.” This is because the word “prayer” is merely an old fashioned word for petition.

So praying is another word for asking for something.

Forsooth, if I pray to you to tell me something, is this not a prayer, praytell? Do I not, at least in times of yore, use the phrase ‘prey tell’, praytell? Prithee?

If you can ask a fellow Christian to pray for you and with you, and if the saints are alive and if they pray, then you can ask them to pray for you, and it is not an act of worship any more than having your family say grace before meals as a family is idolatry.

So we need only consult the scripture on three points: Are the saints alive? Can the saints pray to God? Can you ask a fellow Christian to pray for you, and with you?

Let us look at Biblical support for these propositions.

The saints are not dead: the Bible says so quite clearly (John 11:25; 14:6) and they have live because the bread of life bestows life (John 6:35, 48, 51, 53-56). The saints are alive in heaven because of the divine life they have received through their faith in Christ.

The book of Revelation shows the saints in heaven worshiping God, singing hymns, playing instruments, making requests to Christ to avenge their martyrdom, and offering prayers for the saints on earth (Rev. 4:10, 5:8, 6:9-11).

So if they are alive, nothing prevents the saints from hearing our petitions. We can ask one of them to join us in prayer, or to pray on our behalf, just as you or I might ask a preacher or a spouse to join us in prayer, or how a congregation prays together.

Technically, we should be worried about adoring any human or any other created being, and rightly so. The Catholic Church always has taught that a Christian can worship only God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. No creature, no matter how good or beautiful–no angel, no saint, not even the Virgin Mary–deserves adoration.

But neither does anything in the Bible say we cannot salute a flag, show signs of respect toward elders and teachers, and praise the saints who have led praiseworthy lives.

God expects us to pray for one another. We see this in both the Old and New Testaments.

In a dream, God commanded King Abimelech to ask Abraham to pray for him (Gen. 20:7). In the Book of Job, Job’s friends are specifically ordered by God to ask Job to pray for them (Job 42:8).

Paul wrote to the Romans: “I exhort you, brothers… to strive with me in prayers to God on my behalf, that I may be delivered … etc.” (Rom. 15:30-32).  James says: “Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” (James 5:16-17).

Thus, according to Scripture, God wants us to pray for one another, including petitionary prayers for miraculous healing.

This must mean that prayer for one another cannot detract from the role of Jesus Christ as our one mediator with God.

If prayer with your brothers, or asking a priest to pray for you does not diminish the glory of God, how much less does it diminish His glory to pray to one whom He has exulted and crowned?

  1. The reverence of Mary. While I was raised to believe she is important, the Catholic view of her almost bordered on deification. Furthermore, I’ve heard that Catholics believe she performs some intercession or provides gifts to believers, is this true? How can this jive with the bible? Why not treat her like just a person?

Actually, the Catholics hold that anyone who gives Mary adoration as a goddess is a heretic and is excommunicated. The heresy is called Collyridianism. Feel free to look it up.

If we Catholics were sneakily trying to get people to worship Mary, kicking out of the Church anyone who does so is the worst possible strategy for accomplishing the goal.

Epiphanius (315- 403), the bishop of Salamis wrote against the Collyridians in his famed apologetic work, the Panarion. He also argues against the opposite heresy, the Antidicomarianitism, an Arabian movement that debased Mary’s status and virtues, and claimed she was not a virgin.

We do grant Mary special honors given to no other saint. This is because she is the mother of Christ, who is God. There is only one God and He has only one Son; and He has only one mother.

Nothing in Catholic practice requires that you honor her (or any other saint), but what are you planning on doing when you get to heaven, and Christ invites you to sit down next to Him at His feast table, and you find yourself seated right next to her? Snub her? Tell her she is not worth talking to?

Besides, scripture says that all generations will call Mary blessed. If you are going to call down a blessing on someone, you might as well talk to him.

To understand the Catholic veneration of Mary, please understand that the early Christians were all Jews. In the Jewish tradition, the mother of the king was seated near him, and persons in the court asking the king for mercy were supposed to ask through her. This is the way the mother of Solomon was treated in his court, for example. Therefore it seemed quite normal and natural for the Jewish followers of Christ, after seeing Mary drawn up into heaven still alive, to send their prayers to Christ via her.

We Catholics also believe Christ is fully man as well as fully God. That means his mother was fully his mother in a very human sense, and that he loved and honored her as the Bible says one should honor both parents.

I have never heard about gifts. The only gifts I have ever heard Catholics talk about are the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord.

There are certain blessings that come when a faithful Catholic performs certain acts of devotion, wears a scapular, recites a certain number of prayers, and so on. This practice might look sinister from the outside, because, from the outside, you cannot tell the difference between a disciplined form of prayer and a magic ritual. The magician thinks the powers are in the objects and how they are manipulated. The disciplined disciple says rote prayers at rote times because waiting until you are in the right mood for God is a fool’s game.

The word “intercession” means when someone asks for something on someone else’s behalf. We do not think Mary has the same role as Christ, who is the sole Intercessor between God and Man, if that is what you are asking. Christ is God, who suffered and died for your sins. Mary is His mom.

Luke, as far as I remember, does not report Mary ever preaching a single word, healing the sick, raising the dead, or dying.

She is remembered as being the one who tells Christ that the wedding guests are out of wine, and, even though it is not His time yet, for her he performs His first public miracle.

Hence, we interpret her role as being special: the one who asks Christ for miracles. If you look through the Gospels, someone asking Christ beforehand for a specific miracle is rather rare.

We only look at Mary because she points toward Christ. When we join ourselves to Him, and eat his body and blood, we become the adopted Sons of God. By the same logic, Our Lady becomes our Mother as well, and Mary is considered the Mother of the Church.

We also hold her to be the only human being, aside from Adam and Eve before the Fall, to be without original sin. Considering how clearly everyone else from Noah to Abraham to Moses to David to Solomon, no matter how holy he is, is depicted as a drunk, a liar, a murderer, an adulterer, and an idolater, I am pretty sure that if Mary had ever sinned, it would recorded in the Bible just as the sins of all the Patriarchs were. This makes her the first human in order of grace: our Mother spiritually.

The Catholic teaching about Mary, and about everything else, can be found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It makes for very interesting reading, since you will soon find that everything bad you have heard about Catholic teaching is a half-truth, an exaggeration, or a lie.

Your last question makes no sense to me. We do treat her like a person: a sinless person who gave birth to Christ.

To understand how odd this question sounds, put yourself in my shoes for a second. Imagine if someone asked you to disobey the Fifth Commandment, and said that you should not honor your father and mother on the grounds that Christ said to call no man Father.

And he furthermore made the argument that if your honor an earthly father, you detract from the honor due to your Heavenly Father.

And suppose he asked the same question you did: “Why can’t you just treat your father like a person?”

Well, you do treat him like a person. A person who is your father, and therefore deserves more respect than some random stranger.

Mary is also our Mother in faith. When asked by the angel whether she would bear the savior, she answered yes rather than no.

Eve, who is our mother in the flesh, when asked to obey answered no rather than yes.

So very much hangs on that simple affirmative, it would be very odd, and, indeed ungrateful to the point of inhuman, not to honor her.

Mary also won for us the Battle of Lepanto. Instead of listening to the snake like Eve, she crushes the serpents head. How? Merely by saying “yes” to God. Be it done to me according to thy word.

Many of my Protestant brothers think we honor Mary too much. None of them ever gave birth to the Messiah, so I do not see on what grounds they can measure to a nicety what is too much as opposed to too little.

For the record, I have never seen nor heard of a Catholic cathedral nor basilica which had a statue to venerate Mary, but no images of Christ, no crucifixes, no place for the bread and wine. It is an absurd accusation to think that praising His mother for raising Him dispraises Him.

  1. How do we account for the current pope? He seems to have said and done things which are dangerous and/or heretical. How can I trust my family to the church when the leader of that church is so disagreeable for me?

I am glad you said “seems”.

Here I can only speak to my own personal experience. Your mileage may vary.

I am a newspaperman from years back, so I am as sensitive as a hound dog when it comes to things like misquotes and remarks taken out of context. The first time I heard some outrageous statement from the current Pope, by bullshit detector rang like thunder.

So I found the original sources, looked up the quote in context, and found out he had not said it. It took some time and patience, including getting a friend of mine to translate Italian, but I went to the effort.

Then I did that again the second time I heard a fishy quote. Then the third. Then the fourth.

Once the headline and the quote was screaming something about the Pope believing in global warming, but upon looking up the original statement, all he said was that Earth was given into Man’s dominion, and that we must be good stewards of the Earth: a perfectly orthodox Christian teaching from time immemorial.

If he himself believes the Chicken Little hoax, I cannot fault him for that, but that is the personal opinion of Jorge Bergoglio which he can talk about when he is off duty until he is blue in the face. It is not an official announcement of Pope Francis, not a teaching of the Church, and not something even said in a sermon.

The Holy Spirit of God Almighty never promised to keep each and every private opinion of every officer in the Church hierarchy clear of all errors and inaccuracies of every kind. The Holy Spirit did promise to preserve Church teachings on morals and doctrine free from error throughout all time. And, as far as I can see, has done so.

Then it happened a fifth time, and a sixth time, and a seventh.

Another time, the headline was screaming that the Pope said Trump was not a Christian, and should not build a wall to stop the flood of illegal aliens trespassing into the United States. Upon looking at the original source, all he said was that all men must act with love and charity, and that someone who does nothing but build walls around himself is no true Christian. Again, this is a perfectly orthodox Christian teaching from time immemorial.

Then it happened an eighth time, and a ninth.

Another time, the Fake News said the Pope did not believe in hell, or that he did believe in gay marriage, or married priests, and on and on and on. The original quotes were basically nothing like this. The Pope was preaching kindness to homosexuals and to allow them into Christian communion if they repented, and to allow Anglicans leaving their heretical church to join ours without giving up their wives.

Then the press reported that the Pope was caving to the Red Chinese about the Church in China, a dispute over who had the authority to appoint bishops. A cursory glance at the material seemed to indicate the opposite: the Reds were caving to the Pope, and recognizing 30 underground bishops, in return for the Pope “regularizing” 7 state-appointed bishops. The matter is complex, and I have not looked deeply, so perhaps there is room for complaint here, but it looks to me, once again, like fake news.

By the time I had racked up twenty false quotes from the fake news about anything Pope Francis said, I went into an uncharacteristic rage and called it quits. I swore never to waste my time on the topic ever again.

I just assumed from then on that it was a lie. Nothing so far in any real thing the Holy Father has really done has caused me to question that assumption.

Now, I find it nearly impossible to shake the dumb, sheeplike faith most men have in the news. It wounds a man’s pride to discover he’s been made a fool of.

Even my own wife, yes,  my own dear wife, did not believe that men will lie and persist in a lie over months and years and lifelong, if it appears in a newspaper. She changed her mind when it happened to her: there was a kerfuffle over the Hugo Awards where I was nominated for six awards, the highest honor SF fans bestow. But because I am a Christian and a conservative, I was libeled to an infinite degree by international newspapers, including the Guardian in Britain, claiming I was a neo-Nazi, a sexist, a homophobe, that I had bought votes and was stuffing ballots and on and on. Now that was one time when she knew personally the matter being reported in the press, so she knew it was not an innocent mistake, and not merely partisan slant. It was libel. It was an outrageous and malicious and bald-faced lie after lie after lie. The only reason why I did not sue their pants off, is that I thought it better to forgive.

Most people have never had that happen to them. If they read in the newspaper an account of something of which they have personal knowledge, and they know the story is slanted and false, for some reason, most men still give credit to the other stories.

But, let us suppose for the sake of argument that I am utterly wrong about the Pope, and the Fake News is as honest as the Gospel. Let us suppose he says scandalous or foolish things. So what? The Church does not worship the Pope. We worship Christ. He has no legal authority to change any Church teaching.

If the Pope fell out of bed tomorrow, and decided that, for example, he wanted to throw an inconvenient book of the Bible out of the Bible like Luther did, he would find that there is no one to whom he can give that order, and no one who would obey it.

Likewise, everyone who discusses the idea that some day the Pope will allow for priestesses, like the Anglicans do, do not seem to realize the limits of the Catholic constitution. Protestants can make up new teachings for their churches, or discard old ones. That is what Protestants do. That is why they are a thing. Catholics cannot and do not.

The Holy Father cannot change the teachings of the Church. He can change things that are matters of discipline (such as whether priests can marry) but he cannot change matters of doctrine (priests must be male.) The Vatican can offer new translations for use in English speaking nations, or permit certain changes to the order of the rites in the mass, or move the feast days on the sacred calendar.

I happen to rather like this Pope and the two Popes before him. Tastes differ. I do not think he is damaging the Church, but even if I did, I would not have even bothered to take that into account before I joined.

It means nothing.

None of the wicked Borgia Popes were able to damage the Church, nor could they change Church teachings, nor did they try, nor can they keep a soul out of heaven or put a soul into hell. The Pope is the chief servant of servants of the Church. He is a shepherd.

Some popes have been better than others. So what? It is not a beauty contest. I go to mass to serve, not to be entertained. I join the mystical body of Christ because He calls me, not because I picked Him. The priests He places over me are His matter to tend to, not mine.

Now, as a practical matter, I have seen my wife in her denomination (Christian Scientist) watch helplessly as the official organs of her denomination made public statements or changed church policy, and she does not even know the names of who is on the board of directors.

I myself have no idea who the head of any denomination is aside from the Anglicans (the current Queen of England is the head of her church).

So, if you have to pick between a denomination that is allowing gay priestesses to get married to each other and perform abortions, where no one has any idea who is making these bad decisions, and a Church where the whole world knows who is the Vicar of Christ, a denomination where no teaching has changed in centuries nor millennium, nor is likely to change, who do you think is more likely to be able to withstand the battering storm of modernism?

In any case, you should not and cannot decide to join the Church because you like or dislike her leadership or her policies or the way the Pope wears his pointed hat.

These are dishonorable reasons and irrelevant, and you should not even give them a moment’s thought, one way or the other.

You can and must decide to join the Church if and only if she is what she claims to be: the one, true, universal and apostolic Church, the mystical body founded by Christ and led by St Peter and his successors that has the living Christ as her head; the fountainhead of the only true and unadulterated Christian teaching.

If the Church is what she says she is, then she is true, and everyone outside her is a heretic following some form, great or small, of false doctrine.

If the Church is what she says she is, we have the wine of life in the most Holy Grail; they have wine mixed with human inventions and base stuffs.

If the Church is not what she says she is, then she is the Whore of Babylon and the greatest deceiver in history, and you cannot and must not join yourself to her under any conditions whatever, no, not even if you really liked the people in her.

It does not depend on your preferences. It does not depend on what you like or do not like. This is not about you. It depends on who is right.

If Luther is right, join the Lutherans. If Calvin is right, join the Puritans. If Henry the VIII is right about the law of divorce and Christ is wrong, then join the Episcopalians. If Joseph Smith is right, join the Church of Latter Day Saints.

These religions were founded in the Sixteenth, Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century. If these splinter groups are right, Christ Himself was somehow unable to found a Church to carry His message without error and corruption until over a millennium and a half of false and blasphemous teachings had poisoned the earth. (And does still to this day: Catholic are the largest denomination by far in the world.)

If these splinter groups are right, then when Christ promised the Holy Spirit would preserve the Church from error, Christ was wrong.

To join any of these rather recent, rather obviously human, rather easily splintered and easily corrupted denominations is basically to say Christ was wrong.

But if Christ is right, join Him. There is, to my knowledge, only one Church that claims to be Christ, that claims to be His physical body on Earth.

Our religion was founded in the year 33 by Jesus Christ the Son of God, and it is still the same Church.

We still teach that divorce, contraception, sodomy and abortion are wrong, just as we did in the First Century. (Yes, the Romans had these things, and yes, the Church opposed them, even from the earliest days. Please see a document called the Didache.)

Your only honest decision is based on whether or not the Church is who she says she is.

If she is, you must join her, whether you want to or not, no matter how badly you dislike the bad leadership or the unpleasant history.

If she is not, you cannot join her, no matter how much you love her great leadership and triumphant history.

Nothing matters but the truth.