Category Archives: Lutheranism

Lies, Damned Lies, & anti-Catholic history…


Dr. Rodney Stark, PhD

Dr. Rodney Stark has written nearly 40 books on a wide range of topics, including a number of recent books on the history of Christianity, monotheism, Christianity in China, and the roots of modernity. This included the above book, Bearing False Witness, (Templeton Press, 2016), a bestseller on Amazon.com, addresses ten prevalent myths about the history of the Catholic Church history. After beginning as a newspaper reporter and spending time in the Army, Stark received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, where he held appointments as a research sociologist at the Survey Research Center and at the Center for the Study of Law and Society. He later was Professor of Sociology and of Comparative Religion at the University of Washington; he has been at Baylor University since 2004. Stark is past president of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion and of the Association for the Sociology of Religion, and he has won a number of national and international awards for distinguished scholarship. Raised as a Lutheran, he has identified himself as an agnostic but has, more recently, called himself an “independent Christian”.


-by Casey Chalk

“Ten years ago I was an AP European History teacher at a school in rural central Virginia. At the time I was a very sincere Reformed Protestant, and although I wanted to maintain academic objectivity in the classroom, I was still quite eager to teach the unit on the Protestant Reformation. We began with the status of the Catholic Church at the turn of the 16th century and its luxuriant and this-worldly Renaissance popes. One of the readings I distributed to my students was that of Johann Burchard’s account of the “Banquet of Chestnuts,” a particularly lurid account of papal sexual excesses supposedly involving former Cardinal Cesare Borgia, son of Pope Alexander VI. As I expected, the students were stunned to hear of churchmen involved in such devilish activities. Of course, they agreed, a religious reformation would be necessary to clean up this muck.

Except this account is found in only one source, was rejected as fallacious by many contemporary writers, and, as one Vatican researcher has noted, does not fit with what we know of the character of Alexander VI.1 And yet the reading — and other similar implicitly anti-Catholic information — appeared in a school textbook that has been assigned to thousands of American students. Indeed, misinformation regarding the history of the Catholic Church abounds across both popular and scholarly literature and media. This long-standing bias in opposition to Catholicism is what Baylor historian Rodney Stark seeks to illuminate in his work, Bearing False Witness: Debunking Centuries of Anti-Catholic History. This post will first evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of Stark’s project, and then discuss a few of the anti-Catholic historical myths discussed by Stark.

Stark’s Aims

Readers will likely find the author’s background of particular interest: Dr. Stark is codirector of the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University and honorary professor of Peking University in Beijing. A practicing Lutheran, he is also the author of the best-selling The Rise of Christianity. That a respected Lutheran historian would invest the energy to write what amounts to an apologetic against fraudulent anti-Catholic historical accounts — in the defense of history, he asserts — provides added justification to take this study seriously2 Stark explains:

“…In the course of writing several other books on medieval history as well as on early Christianity, I kept encountering serious distortions rooted in obvious anti-Catholicism — the authors often explicitly addressed their hatred of the Church.3”

Moreover, Stark frequently observed that these distortions, and often the “most malignant contributions to anti-Catholic history,” were attributable to “alienated Catholics,” including “seminary dropouts, former priests, or ex-nuns.”4 Those defecting from a particular group are usually treated with some degree of suspicion; yet in the case of anti-Catholic invective made by lapsed Catholics, it is “widely regarded as thereby of special reliability!”5 Moreover, this misinformation persists in spite of extensive historical research invalidating it. This paradigm exists, Stark argues, because these falsehoods are “mutually reinforcing” and so deeply intrinsic to the West’s common culture.

Indeed, our culture is so littered with references to erroneous slurs against the Catholic Church, having so powerfully entered our common lexicon, it would be difficult to evict them. Take the Spanish Inquisition, a topic Stark spends an entire chapter evaluating. That phrase, whatever its actual connection to a historical event, is commonly cited as a case of Catholic bigotry and particularly demonstrative of anti-Semitism. 6  The Crusades are likewise popularly viewed as an example of religious intolerance and European colonialism.7  Or consider the “Protestant Work Ethic,” that phrase coined by Max Weber to explain the rise of wealthy, capitalist societies in Northern Europe and the United States — and often contrasted with those “lazy” Southern European Catholic countries.8 All of these, and many more, Stark takes to task in this heavily-researched, well-documented examination of anti-Catholic bigotry underlying much of modern Western conceptions of history. Indeed, the book relies on hundreds of primary and secondary sources, with Stark’s most valued sources included in a text box found in every chapter highlighting those historians he views as most authoritative in studying the historical record, so that interested readers can examine the evidence for themselves.

Yet even with these strengths, Stark’s enterprise fails to answer a question fundamental to his own objectives: what, ultimately, determines our knowledge of the past? Are primary sources or the subsequent evaluations of historians and scholars more important? For example, early in the book, Stark notes:

“Sometimes I have done basic research needed to overturn one of these spurious anti-Catholic claims, and in those cases I document my findings so fully that anyone can check them. But, in most instances, I am simply reporting the prevailing view among qualified experts.”

This approach is evident in his very first chapter on supposed Catholic anti-Semitism. Here Stark notes that such esteemed scholars as Rosemary Ruether, Jules Isaac, and Robert T. Osborn have all charged the Church with responsibility for originating anti-Semitism. However, he then goes on to cite scholars such as Peter Schäfer (whom he notes has “impeccable credentials”), Israeli scholar Nachum T. Gidal, and Leon Poliakov (“one of the most respected contemporary historians of anti-Semitism”), whose combined research Stark cites to demonstrate the inaccuracy of the former historians’ anti-Semitic accusations. To his credit, Stark provides extensive examples of the latter academics’ research that make a strong case for the refutation of claims of an alleged intrinsic anti-Semitism in Catholic belief and practice. Furthermore, Stark does routinely note that some scholars are to be trusted and others distrusted because one set of academics rely on better evidence, or their evaluations make better sense of that data. Yet if we wind up evaluating the evidence rather than the scholars’ opinions, it seems largely irrelevant if the scholars are respected or not.

Presumably, Stark is citing historians and their credentials to prove to readers that his arguments have the backing of serious professional historians with less of an explicit bias than say, amateur, patently pro-Catholic writers. Nevertheless, respected scholars can be wrong, and amateur scholars can be right, or vice versa. Either way, evidence, not academic pedigree, needs to be the ultimate criteria upon which historical analysis rests. Indeed, the “prevailing view among qualified experts” may be false, as Stark himself demonstrates wherever he notes that earlier consensus among historians was biased and inaccurate. Moreover, if we rely on the majority opinion of scholars as the determinant for historical truth, Stark’s foundational argument that anti-Catholic historical narratives are untrue may be “disproved” by a future generation of scholars that picks them up once again.

All the same, as noted above, Stark rarely leaves the reader with only a “trust the experts” exhortation, instead consistently allowing the raw historical data to speak for itself, which in many cases does indeed validate the current historical consensus. Indeed, it is fair to presume that Stark believes primary sources to be the bedrock of the historical method, and that his citing of the expertise of secondary sources is only to support, and not ground his arguments.

False Suppositions of the Inquisition

The Spanish Inquisition is one of the perennial favorites of anti-Catholic rhetoric. As Stark notes, the usual narrative goes something like this: for several centuries beginning in the late 1400s, the Spanish monarchy, in collusion with Church authorities, engaged in a dramatic witch-hunt of investigations, tortures, and executions to rid the country of all manner of dissidents — Jews and Muslims pretending to be Christians, but also “Protestants, witches, homosexuals, and other doctrinal and moral offenders.”9 Those leading the Inquisition supposedly engaged in “weekly mass burnings all across Spain.”10 A number of contemporary and later historical accounts — including those by Edgar Allen Poe and Fyodor Dostoyevsky — have enumerated the seemingly inexhaustible horrors dispensed on the Church’s many enemies, putting the number killed at the hands of the Inquisition at anywhere from 31,000 to 3 million! Stark evaluates these narratives and death counts:

“The standard account of the Spanish Inquisition is mostly a pack of lies, invented and spread by English and Dutch propagandists in the sixteenth century during their wars with Spain and repeated ever after by the malicious or misled historians eager to sustain “an image of Spain as a nation of fanatical bigots”…. [However], the new historians of the Inquisition have revealed that, in contrast with the secular courts all across Europe, the Spanish Inquisition was a consistent force for justice, restraint, due process, and enlightenment.”11

These more recent historians have discovered these revelations by examining the complete archives of Aragon and Castille’s Inquisitions, which together amount to the totality of the Spanish Inquisition. I will discuss several of the most common accusations levelled against the Catholic Inquisition, including its supposedly egregiously violent character, its alleged brutal use of torture, and its persecution of witches and Jews. When stacked against the historical evidence, and when evaluated in its historical context, what emerges is not a Catholic Church operating as the sine qua non of late Medieval and early Modern repression and violence, but a “consistent force for justice, restraint, due process, and enlightenment.”12

Let’s first examine the amount of violence conducted with the blessing of the Inquisition. During the 220-year period that marks the entire length of the Inquisition, Stark claims that about 2,200 people were executed,which amounts to about ten deaths per year.13 This number, drawn from the historical records of Aragon and Castile, is significantly lower than the numbers given by many contemporary authorities, including Microsoft’s Encarta, the Encyclopedia of Religious Freedom, or historians Simon Whitechapel and Sam Hunt, all of whom put the number at tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, or even millions! These popular accounts of the Inquisition give the impression that the Inquisition was the preeminent exemplar of religious persecution in this historical period. However, to take but one historically contemporaneous example, English king Henry VIII had many more thousands of religious dissidents executed during his reign. This comparison is not in any way to excuse the Inquisition for its complicity in these executions, but to refute any assertions that the Inquisition was either historically unique in its activities, or even the worst offender.14 This is because in the broader historical context of the Medieval and early Modern period, pertinacious heresy was viewed as a threat not just to religious unity, but to public order more broadly, which is why Catholic and Protestant rulers alike were eager to stamp out religious dissidents.

In common parlance, the term “Inquisition” is often associated with torture. One 19th century Protestant account of the Inquisition claimed that not even Satan could contrive a “more horrible” means of “torture and “blood” than those employed by Spanish inquisitors15  It is indeed a historical fact that the Inquisition applied torture to suspected dissidents. Yet according to Stark, in an era when torture was a ubiquitous form of punishment across the known world, the Church was a uniquely moderating force on its application. According to the dictates of Church law, torture was limited to a single session lasting no more than fifteen minutes, no danger to life or limb could be conducted, and no blood exacted.

Moreover, torture was rarely used, as inquisitors were skeptical of its efficacy and validity. Such restrictions did not exist in historically contemporary secular courts. Furthermore, the Inquisition performed torture at a comparatively infrequent rate when compared to those same secular courts: Thomas Madden, a prominent Medieval historian at St. Louis University, estimates that torture occurred in only about 2 percent of cases brought before the Inquisition. Moreover, Inquisition prisons were far more humane than their secular counterparts, as is evidenced by reports that criminals in Spain were known to purposefully blaspheme that they might be transferred to Inquisition-run prisons.16  Again, any comparison to secular practices of torture or imprisonment is not to excuse the Church for encouraging (or allowing) torture, but to demonstrate that the common perception of Church officials eagerly bent on exacting pain from suspected religious dissidents does not square with the historical data.

Moving on to witchcraft: was the Spanish Inquisition also a misogynist program implemented to target so-called witches, demonstrating the ignorance and malevolence of Catholic religious leaders? Hardly. The Inquisition endorsed barely any of the sixty-thousand witches executions estimated to have been performed across Europe during this time period. The Spanish Catholics were, once again, a moderating force against these pogroms, who based their judgments not on the ridiculous caricatures displayed in the familiar Monty Python skit, but on hard evidence. The Catholic authorities oftentimes intervened to prevent mobs and local authorities from lynching suspected witches. Even when the Inquisition did investigate alleged witches, the primary goal of the Inquisition was to achieve repentance on the part of religious dissenters, not brutalize or “make an example” of them, which explains why the few who were executed on such charges had typically already been convicted several times.17

Finally, what of the allegations that Catholic Spain forcibly converted the Iberian Peninsula’s Jewish population? For starters, Stark notes that for more than a millennia, there were more Jews in Spain than the rest of medieval Europe combined. This would hardly have been possible if the Jews were under constant persecution by the Catholic majority. Indeed, historians have found that whenever Jewish communities have harmonious relations with the majority religious community, they often convert in large numbers. This is exactly what we see in Catholic Spain. Beginning in the fourteenth century, tens of thousands of Jews were voluntarily baptized — conversions so sincere that within a few generations many of the prominent Catholics in Spain, to include senior hierarchy, were from converso families. However, the significant number of Jewish converts led to strife between “old” and “new” Christians, with many Spanish Jews accusing conversos of being “crypto-Jews.” The Spanish Inquisition sought — once again — to arrest such passions, but failed to prevent the kingdom’s ultimate expulsion of all Jews in 1492.18

As we examine the history of the Inquisition (vice its caricatures), what materializes is a Catholic Church that is largely unrecognizable from its common depictions in popular, contemporary media (or even most textbooks!). Indeed, in many cases Church authorities in the Iberian Peninsula were those most vocal in their attempts to restrain mob impulses and violence against religious dissidents.

Catholic Church v. Science, Redux Part…I’ve Lost Track

Another common complaint against the Church is its supposed long history of antagonism towards scientific learning and exploration. Be it papal injunctions against vaccinations, the Church’s hostility toward scientific theories deemed contrary to Catholic teaching, or recent Catholic disquiet about transhumanism, many critics view the Church as fundamentally opposed to scientific inquiry and progress. Yet such an accusation bears little resemblance to the historical record. Indeed, as Stark observes, most prominent leaders in the so-called “Scientific Revolution” were men of peculiar religious devotion, and a significant number were Catholic laymen or clergy.

For starters, it is worth addressing the “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” perception of Medieval intellectualism, which even one current US presidential candidate has publicly cited. Those who reference this particular scholastic question frequently do so to demonstrate a supposed Medieval Catholic obsession with irrelevant minutiae, rather than philosophic or scientific questions that would benefit humanity. This paradigm, so the story goes, is what Luther, the Protestant Reformation, and the subsequent Scientific Revolution sought to overthrow. Yet the scholastics were the ones who founded many of Europe’s most famous universities, and conceptualized and instructed the very experimental method that led to what we know today as Western empirical science. Certainly much of the scholastic’s interest lay in theology, yet even here many scholars, including the respected R.W. Southern, have proposed that it was scholastics’ very religious belief in a rational, human nature and an intelligible universe that created the foundation for the scientific discipline. This is in contrast to the Islamic world, where natural philosophy was viewed with deep suspicion and never gained ground with leading Muslim religious thinkers of the time. The universities established by the scholastic movement were thoroughly Medieval institutions (some already in place by the early twelfth century), yet, contra the typical narrative, they “esteemed innovation,” appropriated empirical methods, and employed some of the earliest examples of human dissection.19

The Scientific Revolution then is not so much a rejection of the Medieval enterprise, but in many ways its fulfillment. Stark’s survey of a number of early influences on the scientific method demonstrates the deep unity between piety and scientific innovation: Robert Grosseteste, Albert Magnus, Roger Bacon, William of Ockham, Nicole d’Oresme, Nicholas of Cusa, and Nicolaus Copernicus were all men of varying degrees of religious faith. Copernicus is often presented as a prime example of a true “free thinker” suffering under the burden of Church antipathy towards science, who represents the beginning of that supposedly necessary break with the dark, religiously-dominant Medieval way of thinking. Yet, as Stark notes, “everything in Copernicus’s famous book, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, is wrong, other than the placement of the sun in the center.” Rather, Copernicus contributed an important, yet small step towards modern scientific knowledge that built upon the work of many Catholic scientists who preceded him.20

The story of Galileo has likewise been dramatized and propagandized far out of proportion.21  Stark argues: “what got Galileo in trouble with the Church were not his scientific convictions nearly as much as his arrogant duplicity.”  An abbreviated version of this sordid tale can be summed up as follows: Galileo’s troubles resulted not so much from his free-thinking scientific rigor, but from purposefully antagonizing Pope Urban VIII, a man with whom he had previously developed a strong relationship. The pope, under increased pressure from Protestant Reformers and their charge that the Catholic Church was not faithful to Scripture, asked Galileo to include a prefatory statement in his book Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems noting the limitations of science as an intellectual discipline. Galileo’s treatise instead openly mocked the pope. The grand irony is that much of Galileo’s research was incorrect, a reality commensurate with his reputation for claiming “false credit for inventions made by others… and to have conducted empirical research he probably did not really perform.” Even in the ruckus that followed this controversy, the pope sought to protect Galileo from extensive punishment.22 So much for Copernicus and Galileo.

Finally, and perhaps most innovatively, Stark performs a mathematical evaluation of the most well-known figures in the Scientific Revolution (52 people in all) and their diverse levels of piety. The numbers speak for themselves: 25% of these individuals were members of the clergy, including nine Catholics. Sixty percent were explicitly devout in their Protestant or Catholic beliefs; another 38% conventionally devout (meaning no evidence of skepticism, but no obvious signs of piety). Half of the individuals were Catholic, the other half Protestant. Only one of the 52 surveyed can be legitimately identified as a skeptic: the Englishman Edmund Halley, who was denied a professorship of Oxford because of his “atheism.”23  Stark, who is not alone in recognizing the ubiquitous faith of these foundational scientific thinkers, ultimately argues that science developed uniquely in medieval Europe precisely because such an enterprise was deemed “possible and desirable.” He cites English philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead, who assessed that “faith in the possibility of science…[is] derivative from medieval theology.”24

Conclusion

I have examined only two of the ten topics Stark addresses in this review of the historical data regarding a number of contentious issues pertaining to Catholic history. Readers will likely find all the chapters worthy of attention, including those on anti-Semitism (think “Hitler’s Pope”), the Dark Ages (did the Church seek to limit intellectual development?), slavery (how complicit was the Church in New World chattel slavery?), and Protestant Modernity (Weber’s “Protestant work ethic” thesis mentioned above). Stark has done the Catholic Church a great service in presenting a thorough dismantling of many anti-Catholic narratives, as well as offering analysis as to how and why this happened (the answer, in Stark’s review of the history of historians, is overt anti-Catholic bigotry). Even those outside the parameters of the Catholic Church should welcome this study, as it enables us to move beyond the usual sniping characteristic of so many church history debates, and pursue a more thorough, historically faithful ecumenical dialogue.”

1. https://www.historytoday.com/alexander-lee/were-borgias-really-so-bad
2. Stark, Rodney. Bearing False Witness: Debunking Centuries of Anti-Catholic History (West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Press, 2016), 7.
3. Stark, 5.
4. Stark, 3.
5. Stark, 4.
6. See the 23 August Washington Post opinion “So you’re a Jew and you’re starting college? Prepare for anti-Zionism.” https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2016/08/23/so-youre-a-jew-and-youre-starting-college-prepare-for-anti-zionism/
7. See the 1 August New York Times opinion “How Religion Can Lead to Violence.” http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/01/opinion/how-religion-can-lead-to-violence.html?_r=0
8. See the 29 August 2013 opinion in Slate, “Is the Protestant Work Ethic Real?” http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_world_/2013/08/29/is_the_protestant_work_ethic_real_a_new_study_claims_it_can_be_measured.html
9. Stark, 117.
10. Stark, 121.
11. Stark, 119.
12. Stark, 119.
13. Other recent historical estimates have offered similar numbers, including Garcia Carcel, who puts the number at approximately 3,000.
14. Stark, 121-122.
15. Stark, 122.
16. Stark, 122-123.
17. Stark, 123-126.
18. Stark, 128-133. The expulsion of the Jews in order to further the program of a united Spain may have been more a factor of the emergence of the modern notion of sovereignty than about Catholicism. Moreover, the Spanish Inquisition was different from other inquisitions (contemporary and previous) in that the Spanish Crown managed to bring it under unprecedented direct control of the crown. The infamous Tomas de Torquemada, for example, was placed as head over the combined Castille-Aragon inquisition directly by Ferdinand in 1483. Pope Sixtus IV had protested the previous year at the inquisition’s lack of due process in Aragon. This direct, temporal control indicates that the Spanish inquisition was just as much an instrument of the nation-state as it was of the Church. See C. C. Pecknold, Christianity & Politics: A Brief Guide to the History (Cascade, 2010), 75; and Edward Peters, Inquisition (University of California, 1988), 85-86.
19. Stark, 141-144.
20. Stark, 151. David Hart makes a similar, more detailed judgment on Copernicus in his book Atheist Delusions.
21. See, for examples, these articles from the Washington Post and The New York Times: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/national/horizon/sept98/galileo.htm; http://www.nytimes.com/1992/10/31/world/after-350-years-vatican-says-galileo-was-right-it-moves.html.
22. Stark, 163-165.
23. Stark, 153-157.
24. Stark, 159.

Love & unity, Jn 17:21
Matthew

“Loss & Gain”, Reformed & something missing…


-please click on the image for greater detail

John Thayer Jensen was born in California in 1942 and raised in a non-religious home. At a time of emotional collapse in his life, John was influenced by several Evangelical Christians, subsequently leading to his committing his life to Christ in 1969. He eventually made his way into the Calvinist tradition, and joined a Reformed denomination in New Zealand. He converted to the Catholic faith during the Christmas season of 1995. He has a B.A. in linguistics from the University of California, Berkeley, and an M.A. in linguistics from the University of Hawaii. He lives in New Zealand, where he works at the University of Auckland and plays the horn in a local orchestra. He is also the author of a Yapese Reference Grammar and a Yapese-English Dictionary.


-John Thayer Jensen (right) & his wife, Susan (left)

Introduction

8AM Mass this morning – Father gives us a homily that takes its departure from St Paul’s “thorn in the side” to reflect on our own sufferings and trials. His homily is personal and, at points, touching. He surmises that St Paul’s “thorn” may have been some physical defect, such as poor eyesight, or perhaps a tendency to a personal fault – anger, for instance. We ourselves have our “thorns.” We should remember that God’s grace is sufficient for us; that when we are weak, then we are strong. At the end, he reminds us that Christ had, also, His “thorns” – and Father gestures at his forehead to remind us of them. Not such a bad homily, after all, but aimed at sentiment rather than thought.

The music at this, as with most of our Masses, is negligible. The content of the hymns focuses on God’s unconditional love for us; calls us to be “instruments of peace.” We usually recite the Apostle’s rather than the Nicene Creed – perhaps the latter is too long. Our response to the prayers of the faithful is to chant a Maori version of “Lord, hear our prayer” – though of Maori speakers in the congregation of perhaps 200, there may be one at most.

At our Reformed church, of which we were one of the three founding families, the sermon – 40 minutes or so, by contrast with Father’s 15-minute homily – would have been systematic and Biblical; would have explicated the text of a passage chosen by the pastor; would have related it to Reformed theological themes. The singing was always of metrical psalms – for we wished to be Biblical.

In, therefore, the manner of worship in the two churches, there is a real contrast – though not one that allows me to say this or that is better. The ordinary parish Mass can be pretty lacking in many ways; the Reformed service, on the other hand, was often dry and tedious. Still, I am not a Catholic because of ‘bells and smells.’

At the Reformed Church, once every few months those of us who were communicant members would have attended an addition to the service to celebrate the Lord’s Supper.

At Mass today, as every day, the liturgical rite to this point, the homily, the singing, are all, in a way, preface. Now the gifts of bread and wine are brought to the altar. Father prays over them, using the Church’s liturgy. “This is My Body;” “This is the chalice of My Blood.” We adore what is no longer bread and wine. We receive into our own bodies the Body and Blood of Christ.

Is it this, then, that is the reason why, 20 years after my reception into the Catholic Church, I am still a Catholic? Is this tremendous fact what compensates for the lack, in many parishes, of the “bells and smells” which some of my Protestant friends think drew me into the Church? Not exactly. Not precisely just this – the reception of Our Lord. Let me explain. Certainly it is the Eucharist that keeps me a Catholic – but it is not the Eucharist itself. I could, after all, be Orthodox. The Church – the Roman Catholic Church – assures me that the Orthodox Churches have a valid Eucharist. If I were to attend one of the dozen or so Orthodox Churches in Auckland, I would receive Him – His Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity – and I would experience a much more satisfying, beautiful, and, not to put too fine a point on it, reverent liturgy. My Orthodox friend tells me of the Divine Liturgy at the Serbian Orthodox Church. It causes my heart to long for the beauty that the Catholic Church could achieve – and does, in some Auckland parishes – approach.

It is not the Eucharist by itself that keeps me a Catholic.

I have written elsewhere of how I became a Catholic. I have been asked by (sadly few) Protestant friends which doctrine or doctrines of the Catholic Church made me a Catholic. Which Reformed teachings did I think wrong; which correct in the Catholic Church? What issue made me a Catholic?

This, I think, is to ask the wrong question. It is to put the cart before the horse; to assume that I became (and remain) a Catholic for what, at bottom, must be ideological reasons.

I became a Catholic to join the Church.

Becoming Reformed

I became a Christian on the night of Saturday 27th December, 1969 – probably, actually, early on the Sunday morning. I was 27 years old. I had had no religious experience at all before the night when, under the influence of LSD, I experienced what may be called an intellectual vision. Though I was aware of only as much of Christ as any completely secular young American may absorb from the surrounding culture, that night I knew that Jesus and the Devil were present to me, and that I could choose. I chose Jesus.

I had chosen a Christ with almost no content. I was at the time virtually without a place in the world. I was in the process of being divorced. I had dropped out of University. I was using drugs regularly. Had this not been the case, I have no doubt I would not so readily have reached out to the Hand offered me – would have been skeptical about there being any Hand at all, or anyone to extend it. I was in the position of a drowning man. Candace’s (my future wife Susan’s sister) testimony to me of her own experience was my only Christian story.

The next day I knew that I must put some content into this tiniest flickering flame of faith. I had no sort of Christian background. Susan had been brought up Anglican, but when I met her, she was not actively attending church. If she had been, it is likely I would have attended Anglican (Episcopal) worship with her. During those first weeks of 1970, I heard radio advertisements for Prince of Peace Lutheran Church’s evening youth services (complete with electric guitars). Sue and I began attending. Pastor Norman Hammer baptised me on the 26th of July, 1970. By then I was no longer a Lutheran.

By that statement, I mean that by then I was already a non-Sacramentalist. I was – albeit not very consciously – in the evangelical camp. This came about because I was being catechised by some wonderful people connected with an organisation called Campus Crusade for Christ (now called Cru). Campus Crusade is non-denominational. I do not think they would have objected if people involved with them were Catholic. Nevertheless, at least in our group, the default assumptions were evangelical; indeed, were Baptist. At no point could I have said that anyone presented me with any doctrines other than that Jesus had died for our sins, the Holy Spirit was there to help us live as we ought, and that we ought to bring others to faith in Christ.

But when, sometime after my own baptism in the Lutheran Church – perhaps around the end of 1970 – I listened to the words Pastor Hammer said in baptising a child: something along the lines of ‘God, Who has regenerated you by water and the Spirit…’ – I was shocked. I had by then read a certain amount of Lutheran theology (including much of Luther), but a greater amount of Baptist (and dispensationalist) theology. I knew, I would have said, that baptismal regeneration -was wrong. It was a form of magic. We were born again by believing. By 1971 I had persuaded Susan that we must become Baptists. We joined International Baptist Church. We were married there on 20 May, 1972. We were still members of that church on 31 January, 1973, when we left Honolulu for my first post-University job lecturing in linguistics at the University of Auckland.

In Auckland, we joined Hillsboro Baptist Church. It was near the flat we lived in. It was Baptist. But by now I was already on my way into the Reformed Church.

From the morning that I turned to Christ, I read. I read voraciously. I read the Bible through – have done about once a year since. I already knew Greek, as my degrees are in linguistics. I taught myself Hebrew. I began reading Christian writers.

John Calvin

Being in a Lutheran Church at the start, I read Luther, and Lutheran authors: Helmut Thielicke is the one I best remember. But soon, from the Campus Crusade influence, I began reading others. I read Spurgeon. I read a lot of dispensationalist authors. I read many popular writers. I read Lewis Sperry Chafer’s multi-volume Systematic Theology. I was introduced to Calvin (by Spurgeon) and read the Institutes. And I read church history – Philip Schaff’s three-volume history, a number of other works. I cannot, at this time depth, remember the names of most of the writers whose books I read.

And, slowly, I was becoming convinced that the Baptists, excellent although they were, were inadequate. In particular, their theology seemed to me simplistic; and they were so extremely clearly a very recent innovation in the history of Christianity.

For I had some independent knowledge of Christianity through historical study. I knew, in particular, that traditional Christian worship had baptised infants. The Baptists argued, of course, that this was an error. It was difficult for me to believe that almost all Christians through most of history had been wrong on this point. And I knew, as well, that Christian worship had been more … well, formal! … through most of its history.

Amongst the authors I had been reading, I especially found the writings of R. J. Rushdoony, Greg Bahnsen, Cornelius Van Til, and others in the Calvinist line convincing. Their theology was much more satisfying. I had become, by now, a Calvinist Christian. There were, of course, Calvinist Baptist churches in New Zealand. But there was a group called the Reformed Churches of New Zealand that was Calvinist, and baptised infants. The covenantal theology they taught to justify baptising infants convinced me. Sue and I began attending a Reformed Church. At the beginning of 1975 we joined the Avondale Reformed Church. When John, our first child, was born on 12 July, 1975, he was baptised there. When we left Auckland for me to work in the Education Department of the island of Yap, our official church membership remained with Avondale Reformed Church. We were members of Reformed Churches until 1995, when we left to become Catholics.

Being Reformed

I was excited about being Reformed – and I continued reading Reformed writers. I was reading van Til. Rushdoony had led me to him. Rushdoony led me also to Gary North, whose wife is Rushdoony’s daughter. And Gary North led me to Jim Jordan.

Jim Jordan was a Calvinist – at least I believe he would accept the label. However, by contrast with some more doctrinaire Calvinists, he was also interested in good thought wherever it could be found – whether amongst Protestant writers, or Orthodox, or Catholic. His own background had been Lutheran. He wrote exciting things. He seemed to think that we Calvinists had thrown out the liturgical baby when we had thrown out the legalistic bathwater of the Roman Church. He thought we ought to have Communion every Sunday. He thought baptized children should receive Communion. He thought the Reformed liturgy should look a lot like the Anglican – even, in some respects, the Catholic – liturgy.

We lived eight years in Yap. Our three other children – Helen, Eddie, and Adele – were born there. When, on our 12th wedding anniversary – 20 May, 1984 – we returned to Auckland, it was to start a Reformed Church – and I returned as an evangelist of Jim Jordan.

Reformed Church

Although my degrees are in linguistics, I have been involved in computer programming since my first year at University, in 1960. The computer was a tool for my linguistics. In Yap, in 1977, I had ordered my first personal computer. By 1980, I was doing more computing in aid of the Education Department’s needs than in relation to linguistics. And in 1980, two of my dearest friends – one now a Reformed minister – made an agreement with me, that if I moved to Pukekohe, a satellite town of Auckland, Richard would sponsor us as the nucleus of a Reformed Church. In 1983, based on my computing experience, I was offered a job as a programmer with the firm Ross then worked for in Auckland. Susan and I moved to Pukekohe. At the beginning of 1989 the Pukekohe Reformed Church was formally instituted.

I was Reformed – but I was also a disciple of Jim Jordan. I was sure that Jim was right about so much. One thing that he pressed was that communion should be a part of every Sunday’s worship. So I pressed my elders – and they agreed to move from a position of quarterly communion to bimonthly communion. Another matter that I was very hot about was the age of communion. Jim said that the qualification for receiving communion ought to be baptism. Baptism, not a certain age. But in our church in Pukekohe, to be a communicant member was to be able to vote in congregational matters. The age of Communion, said our elders, was ‘marriageable age.’

I became very upset about this. None of our children could commune. I wrote an angry letter to Session about the matter, accusing them of the ‘sin’ (my word) of withholding communion from the baptised. This event proved a turning-point in my growth. I was asked to meet with them. I was very angry. I was sure I was right and they were wrong. What they said to me had nothing to do with the question of who was right on the issue. What they did was to explain that Christ had established His Church as His agent in the world. It was up to the Church to spread the Gospel – and to govern the Kingdom. I had stated that I believed this, that I considered them, the elders of Pukekohe Reformed Church, my ‘rulers’ (Hebrews 13:17). If I wished to take the matter up, it could not begin with my accusing them of sin. It could be a matter for discussion.

In becoming members of a Reformed Church, we answer ‘I do’ to four questions in the Public Profession of Faith. The fourth is this:

“Do you promise to submit to the government of the church and also, if you should become delinquent either in doctrine or in life, to submit to its admonition and discipline?”

For the Reformed Churches of New Zealand belief in a visible Church was an essential. From a section of Church Government:

“The New Testament places a great deal of emphasis on the visible church, that is, on particular churches in each place where God is gathering His people together. The apostle Paul wrote Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians and the apostle John wrote letters to 7 churches in Asia Minor as dictated by Christ Himself. Our Lord Himself gave His church a procedure for dealing with sin in the congregation which makes clear that the church He is building comes to expression in visible congregations. The apostle Paul writes specific instruction to Timothy and Titus so that they might “know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15).”

All of this makes clear that the visible church and how it is run (church government) is very important to our Lord. I may not have been completely Calvinistic; I was very definitely a churchman. I was shocked. I still thought I was right about the age of Communion. But I knew they were right about the Church. I wrote a statement retracting my intention to accuse them of sin. The matter itself rather faded out after that – but I was changed. I knew that they were right about the Church.

Something Missing

From 1975 I considered myself Reformed. Yet I felt a constant sense of something missing. I longed for … I knew not what. Although I had had no Christian upbringing at all, I had, in my imaginative life, an important exposure to Catholicism. As a teenager, I had read – and been deeply moved by – Sigrid Undset’s Lavransdatter. I have never been a keen reader of historical romances, but Kristin stuck with me. When I was at University, I found it in the library and read it again – and was so moved as to read also Undset’s The Master of Hestviken. That book gave me something I had never had before: a knowledge why Christianity made such a point of Jesus’s death. Olav, the ‘Master’ of Hestviken, hurrying home to his dying wife, is in an unconsecrated church – and meditates on the meaning of Christ’s Passion.1

Jesus thought He was God, dying for the sins of men!  I read this passage, and wept. I was staggered by such a conception.  It did not occur to me to wonder if this could be true.

Indeed, I do not know what content I might have put into a statement: ‘this man thinks he is God.’ I only knew that I was deeply moved by this idea, by the idea of this religion – and I identified this religion with Catholicism.

Until the night I became a Christian, I had little or no exposure to any religious ideas. Providentially, after my conversion, the writer I read and returned to time and time again with a real longing was C. S. Lewis.

But Lewis was not a Catholic.  Am I, perhaps, talking about Christianity in the ‘mere’ sense of Lewis’s “Mere Christianity?”

I do not think I am. The fact is that all of Lewis’s instincts are Catholic. His view of salvation as a ‘good infection’ (Mere Christianity) seems to me more akin to the idea of infused righteousness than that of the Reformed imputed righteousness. His writing is at odds with Calvinism at many points. I knew this, without really knowing how I knew it. All the 20 or so years I considered myself Reformed, I continued to read Lewis – but felt guilty doing so. I read him in secret. I would become unhappy about my Reformed worship in tears, at times – and would retire to my private office to read Lewis.

By 1991, I was thinking more and more about the Catholic-like practices: the Lord’s Supper as part of each Sunday church service, kneeling for prayer, a liturgy that more closely resembled what I thought of as Anglican but which was, really, Catholic. More accurately, my emotions were drawn more to these and similar things. Some songs that we sang before the service began – as I said above, we only used psalmody during the service itself – were translations of old Catholic hymns. One of my favourites was O Jesus Joy of Loving Hearts – a translation of St Bernard’s Jesu Dulcis Memoria.

Although this feeling is not the reason I became a Catholic – I could only become a Catholic because I believed it to be true – yet I think this emotional and instinctive feeling of missing is essential in explaining why, when I suddenly encountered the idea that Catholicism might be true, I was filled with a terrible fear – lest I be deceived – but with a great and deep joyous longing – that it might be true.

The Catholic Storm

In 1993, as part of my work as, by now, computer system administrator at the University of Auckland, I was connecting to the infant Internet. Today, the Internet is a part of everyone’s life. In 1993 it was my entry into a world I had not known existed. People from all around the world met together in this place. I discovered a Christian discussion group. There were people from all flavours of Christianity – including Catholics.

I had no conception of Catholics as … well, in truth, I had no conception of Catholics at all. My ideas were in fact simply imaginary stereotypes of one sort and another. There were Catholics here who seemed to understand the Christian faith – and to be convinced Catholics. I involved myself in one or another discussion – principally defending Catholics against Protestant misconceptions I knew not to be true.


Blessed John Henry Newman

Someone mentioned a Reformed minister who had become a Catholic. I was electrified. I had never heard of anyone becoming a Catholic. I knew of any number of examples of Catholics becoming Protestants. Who was this, I asked? The name Scott Hahn was given. Who was he? What did he write? My University library could have books of his.

‘No,’ someone said, books in the University library were unlikely. He had recorded tapes about his own conversion. If I was interested in books about Catholic converts, had I ever read Newman’s Apologia pro Vita Sua?

I had not. I had, however, heard of Newman. Newman was respectable in University circles, for he had written The Idea of a University, and University people read it, though I never had.

Francis Schaeffer had been an important early influence on me. In a taped talk of his that I had listened to, he had implied that Newman’s conversion to the Catholic Church had been dishonest. Newman had, Schaeffer had said, been exhausted by his struggles with liberalism. Newman, Schaeffer said, had wanted an infallible Church so that he would no longer need to work things out for himself. He had, in Schaeffer’s words, gone into the darkness of the Church and shut the door behind him.

I was terrified at being known to be seriously interested in Catholicism, but Newman was different. I thought of his writings as ‘serious literature.’ I went to the University library and got out Newman’s Apologia and his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. At about the same time I received, from one of the large number of kind, concerned persons in the Internet discussion group, a copy of Scott Hahn’s conversion tape, and one of Kimberley Hahn’s own story. I read both books in secret – I did not want my wife to know what I was doing! – and listened to the tapes, in my office, with earphones – instantly switching to the radio when Susan came in.

On 22nd September, 1993 – my 51st birthday – I knew I was in trouble. I had long since come to believe that many Catholic practices – such as communion as a part of every Church service – and some beliefs – such as Purgatory (which I had got from Lewis) were desirable and Biblical. As I finished reading Newman and listening to Hahn, I was horrified to find that I had come to think that the question was not what whether Reformed Christianity ought to bring back some Catholic practices and beliefs; the question was whether Jesus had in fact established a visible Kingdom on earth – and that that Kingdom might simply be the Catholic Church.

The ensuing ten months were the stormiest of my life. I have detailed something of what I experienced in the 1998 piece I referenced above. I re-read much of what I had read before in becoming, and being, Reformed. Many good people on the Internet sent me books, both for and against the Catholic Church. I consulted many on the Internet. I talked with the elder in our Reformed church who had been assigned as our family’s pastor. I talked (endlessly) with my family. I prayed. I prayed. I prayed.

Gradually, especially through reading Newman and other Catholic writers, I came to understand that the approach my Protestant – and a few Catholic – friends urged on me could not but fail. This approach was to compare the teachings of the Catholic Church with those of other Christian groups and to decide which taught the truth. In the nature of things, this could not succeed.

How was I to know which group taught the truth?
I was told I should consult the Bible. I should compare the teachings of the individual churches with what the Bible taught, and see which was most Biblical. But:
Why the Bible?
What books were the Bible?
What did the Bible teach?

The Bible is not, prima facie, a communication from God. As far back as 1985, in discussions with my Reformed pastor, I had been told that the truth and inspired character of the Bible had to be presupposed. I had to start with it; could not infer its nature from some other facts. If I did so, I was believing in myself, not in the Bible.

Further, in that same conversation, I had to presuppose the accuracy of the list of books in the Bible – in the Protestant Bible, forsooth! – in order to begin to think at all. Neither what the Bible was, nor what books constituted the Bible, were matters that could be proved from more fundamental premises. If I did so, I was believing in myself, not in God’s Word.

These considerations, nevertheless, were not of overwhelming practical importance. The contents of the Bible – at least the bulk of it, and, a decisive point, the New Testament – were agreed on by most Christians. I could start with the Bible in good company. The difficulty was with the teachings of the Bible.
For the Bible does not teach. The Bible records. People teach.

Some told me that the Sacraments were symbols only. Some told me that they were covenants that God made with me, but were not something independent of my faith in them. Some said that they were real things. For example, if I were baptised, God’s life was really made to exist in me, quite apart from my faith. Some said that there were two Sacraments, but I knew that most of Christians through most of history thought there were seven.

I was told that it was the clear teaching of Scripture that Baptism was a conscious testimony to the world of having been saved (and therefore should not be applied to infants). I was told that faith alone saved me – but that if my faith were alone – that is, did not show itself in works – that I had not truly believed.

The arguable nature of practically every Christian notion, from the very fundamental (the divinity of Christ; the personality of the Holy Spirit) to the smallest detail (must women cover their heads in Church?) cannot be doubted. All these issues are argued from the Bible. To discern the Church by its agreement with the Bible would be, in fact, to discern the Church by its agreement with my understanding of the Bible.

So I did what I had always done: I read. I re-read Van Til and Rushdoony; Luther and Calvin. I read many new books, books arguing for the truth of Catholicism and books arguing for its falsity. By June of 1994, nine months later, crisis came. I had read intensely. I had begun (in fear and trembling) attending weekday Masses at the University Newman Centre. I grew more and more terrified.

On a bus one sunny winter afternoon in June of 1994, I experienced fugue. It was not quite full loss of identity, but a terrifying state nonetheless. I had the dreadful conviction that God was determined that I must choose – and that He had determined that I would choose wrong, and be condemned for that choice. I got off the bus at a random stop. I thought I did not know where I was nor where I was going. I sat on a bench for perhaps an hour, simply trying to calm down.

In the event I did the only thing I could do: I rejected a malicious God, a God who was not only hidden but deliberately deceptive. I consciously refused to believe in such a God. If, I thought, I did my best to find the truth, either I would make the right decision, or God would lead me from there to the right decision. It was a turning point.

As it happened, Ronald Knox’s excellent book The Belief of Catholics was my freedom. Knox freed me, in particular, from the presuppositionalist trap. Speaking of the necessity of the use of ‘private judgement’ in approaching the Church, Knox says:

“Let me then, to avoid further ambiguity, give a list of certain leading doctrines which no Catholic, upon a moment’s reflection, could accept on the authority of the Church and on that ground alone.
The existence of God.
The fact that he has made a revelation to the world in Jesus Christ.
The Life (in its broad outlines), the Death, and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The fact that our Lord founded a Church.
The fact that he bequeathed to that Church his own teaching office, with the guarantee (naturally) that it should not err in teaching.
The consequent intellectual duty of believing what the Church believes.”

That which I had begun to see in reading Newman Knox now made clear for me. Jesus left (again, in Knox’s words) not Christianity but Christendom. He left no writing; He left an authoritative body – His Body! He established a Kingdom. He fulfilled His holy people Israel, by incorporating them, with the Gentiles who would believe in His Name, into His own Body. This Body had an earthly as well as a Heavenly unity. This Body had come down to our own time. It was the Catholic Church. On a ‘plane from Wellington to Auckland at the end of July, 1994, I prayed: “Lord, I will never dot every ‘i’ or cross every ‘t.’ But I know enough to be certain that if You were to tell me I was to die tonight, I would want a priest. If You do not stop me, I am going to become a Catholic.

Coming Into Harbour

The ensuing seventeen months were characterised by frequent storms; a variety of obstacles had to be overcome. The article I referenced earlier describes this period in some detail. By late December, 1995,I had parted, in real tears and grief, with our Reformed minister, the elders, the congregation that we had been instrumental in establishing. Susan, my wife, and our four children, had all determined to enter the Catholic Church. We had gone through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA). On the 23rd December, the day before we were to be received, the Diocese of San Francisco had judged my first marriage to be invalid (due to lack of due discretion).

That day – Saturday 23 December – we spent at the Sister’s house, making our retreat; making our first Confession (a terrifying, and, in the event, unspeakably good, experience). On Sunday morning – Christmas Eve – we affirmed:

“I believe and hold, what the Church believes and teaches.”

That confession contains, it seems to me, the essence of what it means to be a Catholic. It is not that I have sought the truth about this or that religious position, and then found that the Church agrees with me. The asymmetry of the Confession is precisely correct. It is the Church that teaches; I hold. The Church had accepted our Protestant Baptism as valid, so we were confirmed and received our first Communion. We were Catholics.

Looking Back

In 1848, Newman published Loss and Gain – his first publication after he was received into the Church on 9 October, 1845. In the novel, Charles Reding loses much – especially his family’s favor. In the event, the reader is told what he gained. An hour after his reception into the Church:

“[Charles] was … kneeling in the church of the Passionists before the Tabernacle, in the possession of a deep peace and serenity of mind, which he had not thought possible on earth. It was more like the stillness which almost sensibly affects the ears when a bell that has long been tolling stops, or when a vessel, after much tossing at sea, finds itself in harbor.”

I recall, with sadness, our Reformed pastor telling me, the night at the end of 1994 when I told him that I must become a Catholic, that this was yet another wild swing of my heart and mind; that within three years I would have left the Church; perhaps become a Muslim, or a Hindu. Newman, in the Apologia, concludes the history up to his reception, by writing:

“From the time that I became a Catholic, of course I have no further history of my religious opinions to narrate. In saying this, I do not mean to say that my mind has been idle, or that I have given up thinking on theological subjects; but that I have had no changes to record, and have had no anxiety of heart whatever. I have been in perfect peace and contentment. I never have had one doubt. I was not conscious to myself, on my conversion, of any difference of thought or of temper from what I had before. I was not conscious of firmer faith in the fundamental truths of revelation, or of more self-command; I had not more fervour; but it was like coming into port after a rough sea; and my happiness on that score remains to this day without interruption.”

So it has been with me. In the almost twenty years since I became a Catholic, our lives have gone through many changes. Our children have all grown up, of course, and left home. One has left the Church – indeed, for a time, struggled with belief in God, though now he is a keen Evangelical Christian. Sue and I have seven grandchildren. We are members, now, and, indeed, for the last seventeen or eighteen years, of Opus Dei, an organisation which helps us to seek holiness and sanctification in daily life. It is as difficult for me to imagine not being a Catholic as it would be for me to imagine having had different parents than I have. In John’s Gospel, Andrew and hear John Baptist refer to Jesus as the “Lamb of God.” They respond:

“And the two disciples heard what he said and followed Jesus. Jesus turned round, saw them following and said, ‘What do you want?’ They answered, ‘Rabbi’ – which means Teacher – ‘where do you live?’ He replied, ‘Come and see’; so they went and saw where he lived, and stayed with him that day. It was about the tenth hour” (John 1:38-39).”

I said above, at the end of the first section, that I had become a Catholic, not because the Church believes this or that doctrine, which I know on other grounds to be true. I became a Catholic to join the Church. I became a Catholic because that is where Jesus lives: in His Body, the Church; in the Eucharist, His Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity. I became a Catholic to join the Church.

1 ‘Meditates!’ What a bloodless word for what I experienced! For those interested, the passage is in the last chapter, chapter 15, of the second volume of the English translation of the work, beginning with the words “The snow crunched under their feet as they came outside.”

Love,
Matthew

The Fullness of Grace

Catholics believe we are justified by God’s grace. Christ has redeemed the whole world. We must freely choose, free will, to cooperate in that redemption. It’s that word “cooperate” that’s the rub here. Protestantism, I generalize, begins with Sola Fide, salvation through faith, alone, although none of the Five Solas are found in the Bible, aka Sola Scriptura. It’s that word “alone” that’s the rub here. Since belief in “faith alone” implies all one need do is declare “I believe!”, and one is “saved”, and grace is part of the package deal. One and done.

However, back to that word “cooperate”, Catholics feel that while that’s an awesome start, throw in Baptism, by necessity, and you’re rolling, but out of the pure joy of the prospect of salvation, you MUST, not optional, act. James 2:14-26. Catholics are never “assured” of salvation, and surely NEVER from anything we DO, that would be the heresy of Pelagianism. And, to say we were assured of salvation simply by saying “I believe!”, that would be presumption, a form of the sin of pride, by which Satan fell, presuming a declaration/decision belonging to God alone at the time of our particular judgment. We have reasonable confidence in the fact the saints are in Heaven, hence the ask for miracles in canonization as a sign of this fact.

To the Catholic mind you cannot just go on living your life as if nothing had happened or slip back into sin or immorality just because you said “I believe!”. You must, through His grace, ask for grace. ALL is grace!!!! ALL!!! It is free. It is granted to those who ask. Mt 7:7. Through grace, asked for & received, I cannot explain it, but try it, sincerely. (I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised. I know I am, over and over again. And, we’re not just taking natural phenomena and calling it “grace”. It’s subtle, but I do believe, from personal witness, it exists and is effective.) That through God’s unmerited favor, we will be able to live holy and holier lives as God commands. We are wounded by Original Sin, so this is NOT going to be easy!!! But, it is possible, Jesus commands it. Mt 5:20. Never through our own efforts, but by His unmerited favor, grace, which makes all of this possible. Praise Him!!!


-by Br John Paul Kern, OP

“Do Catholics and Protestants both believe that we are saved by God’s grace?

Yes! And today many Christians are realizing that this is an essential point of Christian unity.

In 1999, the Catholic Church and Lutheran leaders signed a Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, proclaiming together that “all persons depend completely on the saving grace of God for their salvation” (JDDF, 19).

In 2006, Methodist leaders affirmed that this statement “corresponds to Methodist doctrine.” This summer, on the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, leaders of the Reformed communities also accepted this common explanation of justification by grace.

What does this groundbreaking agreement between the Catholic Church and Protestant leaders mean?

After many years of harsh rhetoric and, often, misunderstandings, the Catholic Church and several large Protestant communities have been able to acknowledge together, publicly, that we both believe that Christians are saved by grace. Acknowledging such common ground is an important step toward a fuller Christian unity.

However, many Protestants remain skeptical that the Catholic Church affirms the priority of God’s grace in man’s justification, which Luther called the “first and chief article” of Christian faith (Smalcald Articles, II.1). Additionally, the Joint Declaration itself openly acknowledges and describes differences in the way that Catholics and Protestants understand how we are saved by grace.

Unfortunately, many Catholics and Protestants alike are unfamiliar with both the Catholic doctrine of justification by grace and the teachings of the Protestant Reformers. Therefore, let us explore what we share in common as well as where we differ regarding “the Gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24), to better appreciate this beautiful, saving truth in its fullness.

Common Ground: The Primacy of God’s Grace in Man’s Salvation

God, Who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved)… For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God—not because of works, lest any man should boast. (Eph 2:4–5, 8–9)

St. Paul knew from his own conversion that salvation in Jesus Christ comes through God’s gift of grace. Therefore, he strongly emphasized this central Gospel truth throughout his writings.

Having also undergone a radical conversion by God’s grace, St. Augustine of Hippo (354–430) famously rejected the error of Pelagius, who claimed man could save himself apart from grace.

The Catholic Church later employed St. Augustine’s teachings to refute “semi-Pelagianism”—the claim that man can earn the grace of justification by his own efforts—at the Second Council of Orange (529), and she continues to honor St. Augustine as the Doctor Gratiae (Teacher of Grace).

A thousand years later, Protestant theologians in the 16th century articulated their doctrine of justification sola gratia (by grace alone), which also emphasized the priority of grace.

When the Catholic Church promulgated her official response at the Ecumenical Council of Trent (1546–1563), she strongly reaffirmed the primacy of God’s grace. Once again, she explicitly rejected Pelagianism—the claim “that man may be justified before God by his own works… without the grace of God”—and Semi-Pelagianism.

Thus, the Catholic Church in the 16th century authoritatively agreed with the Protestant Reformers regarding the priority of grace in salvation. However, she was concerned that the Protestant doctrine of sola gratia greatly reduced the scope and power of the grace of justification by emphasizing God’s forgiveness apart from the effects of grace on man.

Therefore, the Catholic Church emphasized, and continues to emphasize, that God’s grace of justification cannot be understood in its fullness apart from:

  1. the role of grace in God’s entire plan for mankind;
  2. a radical transformation, renewal, and rebirth of the human person; and
  3. God’s elevation of man to partake of the divine nature and participate in divine life.

1. Grace is a Fundamental Part of God’s Entire Plan for Humanity

For Protestant Reformers, such as Luther, the central question was justification: how can a sinful person be justified before God? This is extremely important. However, a singular emphasis on this question often leads Protestants to view grace solely through the lens of “solving the problem” of justification.

Catholics, on the other hand, understand God’s grace not only as a merciful response to man’s miserable, fallen state after sin but also as a generous gift that God freely and lovingly chose to bestow upon Adam and Eve from the moment of their creation. The Catholic faith teaches that God created man in a state of grace, which allowed him to enjoy an intimate friendship with God, knowing and loving God in a way that would not have been possible without God’s grace.

After the sinful Fall, God’s grace restores man to a state of friendship with God and grants the forgiveness of sin. The Catholic Church teaches that God’s prevenient (prior) grace prepares, disposes, and moves man to freely receive the grace of justification, which communicates to man the righteousness of Christ. From beginning to end, it is grace that saves.

Starting at the moment of justification, Christian life is animated by sanctifying grace, which allows Christians to grow in holiness throughout their lives. Sanctifying grace includes the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity, the heart of the Christian life (1 Cor 13:13), and the gifts of the Holy Spirit (Isa 11:2). Christians who follow the Holy Spirit through the gifts enjoy the fruits of the Spirit (Gal 5:22–23), the highest of which are the Beatitudes (Matt 5:3–12).

Finally, the life of grace reaches its full fruition in the glory of heaven. It is not by man’s natural powers that he is capable of beholding the beatific vision of God but only by God’s gift of the light of glory, which is also a grace.

2. God’s Grace Has the Power to Actually Transform a Human Person

According to the Protestant Reformers, justification by grace is extrinsic to man. That is, justification describes man’s standing before God, in a sort of legal fashion, rather than the actual state of man himself. According to Luther, for example, man is justified when God graciously looks at Christ’s merit, which covers but does not destroy man’s sin, and imputes (credits) to us the “alien righteousness” of Christ, declaring us righteous by a judicial act though we remain sinners in reality. Thus, grace is simply the “undeserved favor” of God’s merciful judgment, which renders us “not guilty.”

In contrast, the Catholic faith teaches that while the wounds due to original sin still affect Christians, the grace of justification does not merely cover sin but destroys it, regenerates man to spiritual life (Jn 3:3; Titus 3:4-7), and restores his friendship with God.

Scripture recounts Jesus forgiving sins (Mk 2:1-12), casting out evil (Lk 11:14), healing (Mt 8:1-4), and raising people from the dead (Jn 11:40-44), all of which serve as powerful images for what God accomplishes in the human soul through the grace of justification.

God’s declarations match reality. God spoke the universe into being by saying, “let there be…” (Gen 1). Similarly, when God declares a person to be just and righteous, he simultaneously and actually makes that person just and righteous by the power of his grace, “so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21).

The grace of justification communicates the righteousness of Christ to man and has the power to actually transform man into the image of Christ (Rom 8:29). The Christian is reborn to a new life of grace infused by the Holy Spirit and is given a new heart (Ez 36:26–28), a new mind (1 Cor 2:16), and a new “nature” in Christ (Eph 4:22–24).

St. Paul explains, “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come” (2 Cor 5:17). Thus, Christians transformed by grace have “put off the old nature with its practices and have put on the new nature, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (Col 3:9–10).

Therefore, “justification… is not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the inward man [2 Cor 4:16] through the voluntary reception of the grace… whereby man who was unjust becomes just [Rom 3:23-24], and who was an enemy becomes a friend [Jn 15:15], so that he may be an heir according to hope of life everlasting” (Trent, Decree on Justification, Ch. 7).

God justifies a person by an infusion of grace, which brings about a transformation of the soul from a state of sin and injustice to a state of grace, justice, and righteousness. This conversion includes a movement of the intellect toward God in faith and a movement of the will to love God and to hate sin, and it simultaneously results in the forgiveness of sin (Summa Theologica I-II, q. 113, a. 6).

Thus, in his work of justification, God’s undeserved favor actively bestows upon us the gift of grace, which has the power to actually transform us and make us righteous with the righteousness of Jesus Christ.

3. By Grace We Partake of the Divine Nature and Participate in Divine Life

The Protestant Reformers also do not emphasize what is, perhaps, the most amazing thing about grace: that God’s grace elevates Christians to share in God’s Trinitarian life of love. Luther asserted that even “the just sin in every good work” (Denzinger, 771), and “every work of the just is worthy of damnation… if it be considered as it really is” (Möhler, “Symbolik,” 22). For Calvin, even Christian acts of charity “are always defiled by impurity” (Institutes, III, 18, 5).

In contrast, St. Peter wrote, “his divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness… that through these you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of passion, and become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet 1:3–4).

From the very beginning, “God… freely created man to make him share in his own blessed life” (CCC 1). That is, God created us to partake, by grace, in his own divine nature and to share in the divine life of Trinitarian love (1 Jn 4:7-16)—a life that is far above and beyond what is possible by human nature alone.

Even after original sin, God’s grace restores us from spiritual death to new life in Christ (Rom 6:4). Grace allows us to share in God’s own Trinitarian life as “adopted sons” in the Son (Gal 4:4–6) and as “children of God” (Jn 1:12–13) so that through, with, and in Jesus Christ, by the indwelling and power of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19), we may call God “Our Father” (Mt 6:9).

By grace, we are truly united to Christ as his members (1 Cor 12:12–27), and the life of the divine vine runs through us as branches (Jn 15:1–11), so that with St. Paul we may proclaim that it is now “Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20). As God’s children in Christ, we cooperate with God’s grace to bear the spiritual fruit of good works (Jn 15:16–17; Eph 2:10), which glorify God.

This supernatural life of grace, which begins on earth, blossoms into the life of glory in heaven. There, the gift of faith will be transformed into sight as we behold God face-to-face (1 Cor 13:12). Our hope will be fulfilled as we possess God, our eternal inheritance and reward, celebrating the wedding feast of the Lamb (Rev 19:6-9). Yet love, the core of the Christian life, will continue, perfected, in heaven as we experience the fullness of joy praising God for all eternity (1 Cor 13:8). Thus, the life of grace will be crowned and fulfilled in eternal life.

By grace, even now, we can share in God’s life of love and, in imitation of Jesus Christ, perform the works of our Father (Jn 4:34). Let us cry out “Abba! Father!” in praise of him whose merciful love offers us, by the saving work of his Son, through the Holy Spirit, this amazing gift of grace!”

Love, & always begging for His grace,
Matthew

Bearing False Witness: Debunking Ten Myths about Catholicism

BearingFalseWitness

rodney_stark
Dr. Rodney Stark, PhD

INTERVIEW WITH DR. RODNEY STARK, PHD BY CATHOLIC WORLD REPORT
Why is this non-Catholic scholar debunking “centuries of anti-Catholic history”?
An interview with Dr. Rodney Stark, sociologist and author of “Bearing False Witness”
May 07, 2016 03:21 EST
-by Carl E. Olson

“Dr. Rodney Stark has written nearly 40 books on a wide range of topics, including a number of recent books on the history of Christianity, monotheism, Christianity in China, and the roots of modernity. After beginning as a newspaper reporter and spending time in the Army, Stark received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, where he held appointments as a research sociologist at the Survey Research Center and at the Center for the Study of Law and Society. He later was Professor of Sociology and of Comparative Religion at the University of Washington; he has been at Baylor University since 2004. Stark is past president of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion and of the Association for the Sociology of Religion, and he has won a number of national and international awards for distinguished scholarship. Raised as a Lutheran, he has identified himself as an agnostic but has, more recently, called himself an “independent Christian”.

His most recent book is Bearing False Witness: Debunking Centuries of Anti-Catholic History (Templeton Press, 2016), a bestseller on Amazon.com, addresses ten prevalent myths about Church history. Dr. Stark recently responded by e-mail to some questions from Carl E. Olson, editor of Catholic World Report.

CWR: You begin the book by first noting your upbringing as an American Protestant and then discussing “distinguished bigots”. What is a “distinguished bigot”? And how have such people influenced the way in which the Catholic Church is understood and perceived by many Americans today?

Dr. Rodney Stark: By distinguished bigots I mean prominent scholars and intellectuals who clearly are antagonistic to the Catholic Church and who promulgate false historical claims.

CWR: How did you go about identifying and selecting the ten anti-Catholic myths that you rebut in the book? To what degree are these myths part of a general (if sometimes vague) Protestant culture, and to what degree are they encouraged and spread by a more secular, elite culture?

Dr. Stark: For the most part I encountered these anti-Catholic myths as I wrote about various historical periods and events, and discovered that these well-known ‘facts” were false and therefore was forced to deal with them in those studies. These myths are not limited to some generalized Protestant culture—many Catholics, including well-known ones, have repeated them too. These myths have too often, and for too long, been granted truthful validity by historians in general. Of course secularists—especially ex-Catholics such as Karen Armstrong—love these myths.

CWR: The first chapter is on “sins of anti-Semitism,” perhaps the most divisive and controversial of the topics you address. How have your own views on this issue changed, and why? Why do you think there continues to be a wide-spread belief or impression that the Catholic Church in inherently anti-Semitic?

Dr. Stark: When I began as a scholar, “everybody” including leading Catholics knew the Church was a primary source of anti-Semitism. It was only later as I worked with materials on medieval attacks on Jews that I discovered the effective role of the Church in opposing and suppressing such attacks—this truth being told by medieval Jewish chroniclers and thereby most certainly true. Why do so many ‘intellectuals,’ many of them ex-Catholics, continue to accept the notion that Pope Pius XII was “Hitler’s Pope,” when that is so obviously a vicious lie? It can only be hatred of the Church. Keep in mind that it is prominent Jews who defend the pope.

CWR: Why have various historians, such as Gibbons, presented the ancient pagans as either benevolent or mostly tolerant toward Christianity? What was the actual relationship between Christianity and paganism in the first centuries of the Church’s existence?

Dr. Stark: In those days, the safe way to attack religion was to let readers assume it was only an attack on Catholicism, so that’s what Gibbon and his contemporaries did. Perhaps surprisingly, once the pagans were no longer able to persecute Christians, they were pretty much ignored by the Church and by emperors and only slowly disappeared

CWR: How did the mythology of the “Dark Ages” develop? What are some of the main problems with that mythology?

Dr. Stark: Voltaire and his associates made up the fiction of the Dark Ages so that they could claim to have burst forth with the Enlightenment. As every competent historian (and even the encyclopedias) now acknowledges, there were no Dark Ages. To the contrary, it was during these centuries that Europe took the great cultural and technological leap forward that put it so far ahead of the rest of the world.

CWR: What relationship is there between the mythology of the “Dark Ages” and the myth of “secular Enlightenment”? How rational and scientific, in fact, was the Enlightenment?

Dr. Stark: The “philosophes” of the so-called “Enlightenment played no role in the rise of science—the great scientific progress of the time was achieved by highly religious men, many of them Catholic clergy.

CWR: The Crusades and the Inquisitions continue be presented as epochs and events that involved Christian barbarism and the murder of millions. Why are those myths so widespread and popular, especially after scholars have spent decades correcting and clarifying what really did (or did not) happen?

Dr. Stark: I am competent to reveal that the Crusades were legitimate defensive wars and that the Inquisition was not bloody. I am not competent to explain why the pile of fine research supporting these corrections have had no impact on the chattering classes. I suspect that these myths are too precious for the anti-religious to surrender.

CWR: In addressing “Protestant Modernity” you flatly stated that Max Weber’s thesis that Protestantism birthed capitalism and modernity is “nonsense”. What are the main problems with Weber’s thesis?

Dr. Stark: The problem is simply that capitalism was fully developed and thriving in Europe many centuries before the Reformation.

CWR: You emphatically state that as a scholar with a Protestant background working at a Baptist university you did not write your book as “a defense of the Church” but “in defense of history.” Why is that significant? And, finally, do you think most Americans actually give more credence to history than to the Church?

Dr. Stark: I think the distinguished bigots will have a hard time accusing me of being a Catholic toady, trying to cover up the sins of the Church. The only axe I have to grind is that history ought to be honestly reported. As to your final point: I don’t think ‘most Americans’ will ever know that this book was written. I can only hope that I will influence intellectuals and textbook writers—maybe.”

Love,
Matthew