In our culture religion is often considered a mere matter of personal taste. Just as some prefer vanilla and others chocolate, you have your religion and I have mine.
But Jesus Christ did not just claim to be another prophet or spiritual teacher; He claimed to be Truth itself, as when He said, “I am the Way the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father but through me.”
Upon hearing Jesus’ truth claims, Pilate scoffed, “What is truth?,”1 sounding very much like a skeptic in our own day.
But every person, ancient or modern, must confront Jesus’ claims to be the Messiah, the Son of God, whose blood atones for our sins, who dies and rises again, and will return as King and Judge of the world.
Such claims have only two possible responses: true or false. For if you claim to be God and the Savior of the world, you either are or you aren’t. As C.S. Lewis wrote, Jesus could have either been a lunatic, a liar, or the Lord—but the one thing he could not have been was a mere “good moral teacher,” as so many say.2
But if Jesus is truly the Lord, then He is the Lord of all—and that’s not a matter of personal taste!
1 – Jn. 18:8
2 – See Mere Christianity, Book 2, Chapter 3.
Few Catholic doctrines are more disputed than that of purgatory. And yet, if it is properly understood, we see that purgatory is a gift of God’s mercy.
Jesus did not come to merely forgive the penalty for our sins, but to cleanse us and make us His new creations.
Revelation 21:27 says, “nothing impure will enter heaven.” Those of us who die in a state of grace—or are “saved”—and still have selfishness and sin remaining on our souls, must undergo a purification before entrance into heaven is possible.
So purgatory is not a second chance at heaven, but simply a final stage of growing in holiness.
Notice that Jesus in Matthew 12 speaks of sins that will “not be forgiven in this age or in the age to come.” 1 And in 1 Corinthians 3, St. Paul writes that on Judgment Day there will be some who “suffer loss… [they will still] be saved, but only as through fire.”2
C.S. Lewis, the famous Anglican Christian writer, believed in purgatory and compared it to the burning sensation of mouthwash after having one’s tooth pulled at the dentist’s office.3
Indeed, while purgatory may involve pain, it will not be without joy, for it is the threshold to the gates of paradise.
1 – 12:32
2 – 3:15
3 – Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, 107-109.
While we should also privately repent of our sins to God, Jesus instituted the sacrament of reconciliation or penance for our own good. Statistics show that Catholic populations have historically had lower rates of suicide and depression than non-Catholics, which many psychologists attribute directly to the healthy practice of vocally confessing one’s sins.
Still we should regularly go to the sacrament of confession or reconciliation. Remember that in the Old Testament a Hebrew was to publicly go to the temple and offer a sacrifice for his sin. In John 20, our Lord gives the apostles authority to forgive sins in his name, when He breathed the Holy Spirit on them and said “whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.” 1 In 2 Corinthians Paul also notes that the apostles are Christ’s ambassadors who have been given the ministry of reconciliation.2
Common sense tells us that our sins have consequences. If after committing a sin, we confess, then God promises to forgive us. Yet there can still remain what the Church calls a “temporal punishment,” or consequence, for our sin.
For instance, in 2 Samuel 12 after David confesses his sin of adultery, the prophet Nathaniel tells him that the Lord has forgiven him, but nevertheless he will suffer the death of his child as a consequence of his sin.1 Ourrelationship with God is a personal one and our sins are not just rule violations, but personal offenses that need to be mended.
We can fulfill the temporal punishments for our sins through sincere sorrow for our sins, prayers, sacrifices, and acts of charity.
But as part of the Body of Christ, we can also assist in coming to the aid of our brothers and sisters, both living and dead. This is the basic principle of the Church’s practice of indulgences, and undoubtedly what St. Paul has in mind in Colossians 1:24 where he says, “I rejoice in my sufferings, and complete what is lacking in Christ’s affliction for the sake of his body, the Church.” Or perhaps it’s put best in 1 Peter 4:8, which simply states, “love covers a multitude of sins.”
In the minds of non-Catholics, Catholicism often conjures images of Catholic stuff: candles, crucifixes, rosaries, statues, holy water, oils, and the like. These are called sacramentals—not to be confused with the seven sacraments, they are material items that the Lord uses as conduits of his blessing.
Because of our belief in sacramentals, Catholics have sometimes been accused of practicing magic. But magic is the pagan or new age belief that an object has power in and of itself. Sacramentals are the Christian belief that the living and true God uses His creation as instruments of grace and healing.
So too the Church grows and develops as the living Body of Christ. Of course, the Church of over one billion people today is not a mirror image of the relatively tiny Church in the first century Mediterranean we read about in the New Testament—nor should it be. The Church’s organization and outward forms are dynamic, not static, and must change to meet the needs of the age—yet the Church remains the same Church believing the same Faith.
One of the most famous such events occurred in the year 700 A.D. at Lanciano, Italy. During Mass one day, a monk who had been doubting his Faith was shocked as the bread and wine suddenly changed into flesh and blood before his very eyes. News of the miracle spread rapidly, and the miraculous flesh and blood have been preserved to this day in the church.
Pope Benedict XVI said exactly this about the practice of lectio divina, which is an ancient form of praying over the Scriptures. In lectio divina, a passage is read and followed by silence. The hearers focus on a single word or phrase that jumps out at them and allow the “still small voice of the Lord” to speak to their hearts. The same passage is read another two or three more times, with each reading followed by another period of silence, and a time of sharing may follow for the edification of all.
You know, we shouldn’t kid ourselves that we can’t earn God’s love. That’s about as foolish as a kid down the street trying to earn his way into my family by mowing my lawn every week. To be reborn in Christ is to be adopted as God’s son or daughter, 1 something that could never be purchased or earned.
Nevertheless, there are still certain requirements for remaining part of that family. Just as a child can get himself kicked out of the house or even disinherited, so too we can separate ourselves from God’s grace through what the Church traditionally calls mortal sin.2 These sins can take the form of co-mmission, such as hatred or adultery, or o-mission, such as ignoring those in need or refusing to forgive someone.
Catholic marriages should not look like secular marriages. They are sacramental, which means that our marriages are to be the very thing in our lives that God uses to help us grow in holiness. Those who truly put Christ and the sacraments at the center of their marriage will find that in spite of the challenges, their love for one another will grow and help lead them closer in union to God.
There are many forms of church governance among Christians today. In some churches congregations vote to make decisions; in others the church is run by a group of elders; and in still others, authority resides with bishops.
While all Christians point to Scripture to support their church structure, it is very difficult to determine the precise way the early Church was governed from the Bible alone.
But in the year 110 A.D., only about 50 years after most of the New Testament was written, St. Ignatius of Antioch described the early church leadership in his letters: Each area was led by a single bishop who was accompanied by priests and deacons in ministry.
Ignatius wrote, “let no one do anything of concern to the Church without the bishop. Let that be considered a valid Eucharist which is celebrated by the bishop or by one whom he appoints. … [T]his … is pleasing to God, so that whatever is done will be secure and valid.”1
Ignatius himself was with the apostle John, so we have every reason to trust that this basic church structure which the Catholic Church has to this day comes from the apostles themselves.
1 – Letter to the Smyrnaeans 8:1
The term “born again” comes from John 3 when our Lord tells Nicodemus, “Amen, Amen, I say to you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above,”1 or “born again,” as some translations put it. Nicodemus is confused, thinking that Jesus is referring to a 2nd physical birth, so Jesus clarifies that “no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.”2 The early Church unanimously interpreted this as a reference to the sacrament of baptism, 3 which is no mere symbolic ritual, but the normative instrument that Christ instituted for our spiritual rebirth.
Romans 6 says that in baptism our old natures are buried and we are raised to new life in Christ. 4 And 1 Peter 3:21 puts it plainly, “baptism now saves you.”
To properly understand this, we must look at the historical context. As we read in the Acts, there was a group in the early Church called the “Judaizers,”1 which taught that Gentile converts to Christianity must be circumcised and follow the kosher laws.
Paul says in no uncertain terms that those trying to be saved through these Old Testament works of the Law have rejected Christ and lost their salvation.
The attitude of the Judaizers is contrasted with the faith of Abraham,2 who trusted and obeyed God even to the point of offering his own son, Isaac. Paul’s point is not that our works have no bearing on our salvation, but rather that these particular Jewish rituals were not necessary for eternal life.
For centuries Catholic priests, monks and nuns sanctified their days by praying the Psalms. This practice was inherited from the Jews, who prayed at set times in the temple. The Western Church was largely influenced by the Benedictine monks, who immersed themselves in the Psalms seven times each day, in addition to Mass and private prayer.
It took a while for the Catholic Church to compile the New Testament. Some books such as the 4 gospels were accepted by all, and others, such as the spurious gospels one hears about in The DaVinci Code were rejected by all. However, other books were completely orthodox but disputed, including some that weren’t ultimately included such as The Didache and others that were like Hebrews and Revelation.
When the apostles went out to teach the Faith, they did not whisper it in secret, but proclaimed it publicly to the multitudes. Oral tradition was the normative means of passing on the faith, as St. Paul’s says in 2 Timothy 2:2, “what you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.”
You know, as Catholics we believe that the Bible is God’s Holy and Inspired Word.
However, we don’t hold that our Lord intended the Bible alone to be our sole teacher in the Christian faith.
Just think how easily the meaning of our e-mails can be misinterpreted, sometimes causing great strife between people. Then take the Bible, which is infinitely longer, more complex, and written over a millennia ago in a world very different from our own, and we can begin to see why Jesus wouldn’t leave His teaching to just a book.
The Church looks to what it calls Sacred Tradition—which is rooted in things like Church Councils, Creeds, and the early Fathers of the Church—to safeguard our interpretation of God’s Word. All of the Catholic Church’s beliefs can be traced back to the earliest Christians.
Our Lord also chose the twelve apostles to go out and make disciples of all nations1 and promised them the assistance of the Holy Spirit.2 The apostles ordained bishops who have succeeded them down to this present day.3 The Catholic Church is a living voice that rings out for all to hear, proclaiming and interpreting God’s Word to every generation.4
1 – Mt. 28:20
2 – Jn. 14:26
3 – cf. Acts 14:23; 1 Tim. 3:1-8; 2 Tim. 1:6; 2:2; Tit. 1:5; Js. 5:14; 1 Pt. 5:1; Jd. 8ff
4 – cf. 1 Tim. 3:15; Mt. 16:18
On this Faith Check we’re talking about Tradition!
For many Christians, Tradition can be a sort of dirty word. This is probably because of Jesus’ harsh words for the tradition of the Pharisees,1 who added unnecessary rituals and ignored the weightier matters of God’s Law.
But some traditions can be good and helpful in our spiritual journey. Things like putting up a Nativity scene, praying the rosary, or fasting. These are not doctrines, but customs that we do as Catholics to help draw us closer to God.
Catholics also speak of Sacred Tradition with a “capital T,” which is the very message of Christ that has been faithfully handed down to us from the apostles.2 For example, St. Paul writes in 2 Thessalonians 2:15 to “stand firm and hold to the traditions you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.” Here Scripture itself teaches that the Word of God can come to us both through written Scripture and oral Tradition—either way, we are to receive it equally as God’s Word.
For 2,000 years the Catholic Church has been fulfilling this role in order that the Body of Christ might experience the harmony of being truly unified in heart and mind. Small wonder St. Augustine said, “I would not believe in the Gospel myself if the authority of the Catholic Church did not influence me to do so.”
On this faith check let’s talk about the Holy Eucharist.
Catholics believe that the bread and wine are more than just symbolic reminders. By the power of God working through the priest they are transformed into Christ’s Body and Blood.
Our Lord taught, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood you do not have life within you.”1 The Jews scoffed at this and asked, “How can He give us his flesh to eat.” Even His disciples said this was a hard saying and many stopped following Him.
Now when genuine misunderstandings occurred, Jesus corrected His listeners. But Jesus meant what He said, and did not back down: “[M]y flesh is food indeed and my blood is drink indeed … He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.”
For 2,000 years the Eucharist has been the heart of the Catholic Faith. In fact, the early Christians said, “without the Eucharist we cannot live,” preferring to risk their lives rather than miss Mass. Today He invites each one of us to receive His very flesh and blood.
1- All citations from John 6:50 – 58
You know, Jesus warned not to babble on like the pagans who think they’ll be heard because of their many words.1 Jesus was certainly warning against empty prayers not said from the heart, but He was not condemning any and all structured prayer or ritual, as some would suggest.
Jewish worship in the synagogue had repetitious, liturgical prayer, and Jesus participated in it. The Jews prayed Psalm 136 as a litany, which repeats the phrase “His love endures forever” over 25 times! And of course most of our songs are simply structured prayers set to music.
Rituals and rote prayers have immense value in enabling God’s people to pray together. They can also be helpful when praying alone, especially if you’re going through a spiritual dry spell and don’t have much spontaneous inspiration.
So we should use structured prayers in our worship, but always heed Jesus’ warning not to go through the motions mindlessly, but strive to worship with our whole heart, mind and strength.
1 – Mt. 6:7
On this faith check let’s talk about why Catholics believe the Virgin Mary is not just Jesus’ mother, but our mother too.
It was during the crucifixion in St. John 19 that Our Lord looked down at Mary and the apostle John at the foot of the cross and said to Mary, “Woman behold your son,” and to John, “Behold your mother.” 1
Bear in mind here that Jesus is suffering the pains of the cross—He must be doing something bigger than simply asking John to watch after his Mother. John here is a representative of all of Jesus’ followers, and Jesus is giving his mother to all of us.
In Revelation 12 John describes his vision of a “woman clothed with the sun,” 2 who brings forth a male child to rule the nations and defeat the ancient dragon who is the devil. Verse 17 says that the offspring of this woman are those who keep God’s commandments and bear testimony to Jesus.
On this faith check let’s answer the question, “why pray to a saint when you can pray straight to God?”
Of course, Catholics can and do pray straight to God. But we also pray to saints, not to worship them, but simply to ask for their prayers on our behalf, just like we ask our friends on earth to pray for us.
In the communion of saints we are spiritually connected to believers in the here and now and in the hereafter. For instance, Hebrews tells us we are surrounded by a “great cloud of witnesses,”1 who are aware of what’s going on here. We read in Revelation that the prayers of the elders and saints in heaven are ascending before the throne of God.2
The prayers of the saints are powerful because they have been perfected in God’s grace and as St. James says, “the fervent prayer of the righteous has great power.”3
Early Christian writings demonstrate that this practice was not a later corruption, but goes back to the very first centuries of Christianity. So let us join with Christians of all ages in saying “all you holy men and women, pray for us!”
Primacy of Peter On this faith check let’s talk about our first pope, St. Peter. I remember well a conversation I once had with a Protestant pastor who told me that if Peter were truly the first pope, he thought he’d see him exercising his papacy more in the Bible. Peter was no ordinary apostle. … Read more…
In the ancient world, kingdoms would have a leader underneath the king who was responsible for the administration of the government—we might call them the prime ministers. We find an example of this in Isaiah 22,2 when God declares that Shebna, the Prime Minister of Israel, will be deposed for his sins and replaced by Eliakim, whom God says will be a father to Israel and will carry the key of the house of David—“what he opens none shall shut; and what he shuts none shall open.”
When Jesus gave Peter the keys in Matthew 16, the apostles already understood their significance. Peter was to be their leader, the prime minister that will shepherd Christ’s Church. “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”3
Many scoff at the Church’s precepts and rules, and can’t fathom how our relationship with the Church could affect our relationship with Christ.
Let us remember that the high priests of Israel, due to their office, could inquire of the Lord. And recall Caiaphas’ prophecy about Jesus’ mission, which John 11 states was not said of his own accord, but in virtue of his being high priest that year.1
Our Lord upheld the legitimacy of the teaching office when He said in Matthew 23, “the scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so practice and observe whatever they tell you,” 2 though He quickly warned not to follow their bad example.
Jesus commissioned His apostles to be the leaders of His Church. He told them, “As the Father sent me, so I send you,”3 and “He who hears you hears me and he who rejects you rejects me.”4
The popes and bishops of the Catholic Church succeed the apostles in their teaching office,5 and it is they who, over the centuries, have passed on the Faith to us through creeds, Church councils, even Scripture itself.
We are called to accept the Church’s teachings with joy,6 knowing that the Church is a good mother who desires our eternal happiness—and, after all, who could reject his own mother?
1 – Jn. 11:50
2 – Mt. 23:2
3 – Jn. 20:21
4 – Lk. 10:16
5 – See The Catechism of the Catholic Church 77, 861-2.
6 – cf. Vatican II, Lumen Gentium 25
It’s something we’ve all heard before: I believe in God, but not organized religion.
But as Catholics we believe that Jesus started a Church—yes an organized religion, if you will.
The Church is a gift to the world, which God has ordained as the vehicle in which we are sanctified and grow on the way to our heavenly destination.
Above all, the Catholic Church is a family. Man is not an island, as it was once famously said, and we need the community found in our brothers and sisters in the Faith.
A visible Church is necessary for the dispensing of the seven sacraments, which Jesus instituted for the forgiveness of sins and growth in grace.
And God has always desired that His people gather to give Him glory by corporate, liturgical worship and sacrifice, which is fulfilled in the New Covenant by the Holy Mass.
Yes, the organized institution of the Church has often had its share of scandals and sins. The human face of the Church can be messy and imperfect. But God does not desire for us to escape to a spiritual island or alternative religion, but to serve Him and His people in the Church He founded and has promised to be with until He returns in glory.
Faith and Reason
“Come let us reason together, says the Lord” – Isaiah 1:18.
Many in our day strictly divide faith and reason, seeing science as based on logic and objective truth, but religion as solely emotional and subjective.
Not so, says the Catholic Church. Faith and reason complement and assist one another in the pursuit of truth. All truth is God’s truth and ultimately leads to Him who is Truth itself, Jesus Christ, so there is nothing to fear from scientific inquiry.
In fact, for centuries the Catholic Church was the patron of the arts and sciences. St. Thomas Aquinas used Greek philosophy to show the logical foundation of the Catholic Faith, many of the great scientific discoveries have been made by Catholic priests or scientists, convinced that the universe operated by fixed laws established by the one true God, not the mere whims of the gods as the pagans had previously believed.
Of course, faith is a gift and is not based on reason alone. Nevertheless, as Sir Thomas More says in the classic film A Man For All Seasons, “God made the angels to show His splendor, the animals for their innocence, and the plants for simplicity, but God made man to serve him wittily in the tangle of His mind.”
You’ve heard how the Pilgrims fled religious persecution in England, but have you ever heard how Catholics were persecuted there?
Recent scholarship such as Eamon Duffy’s book The Stripping of the Altars show that the vast majority of the English people did not freely choose to leave the Catholic Church, but were coerced into it. In fact, prior to King Henry VIII’s break with Rome, England was known throughout Europe as “Mary’s Dowry” because of its great piety. But under King Henry, Queen Elizabeth I, and others, failure to outwardly conform to the new state religion resulted in fines or imprisonment. Hiding a Catholic priest was considered a treasonable act punishable by death. Many suffered dearly, including famous martyrs like Sir Thomas More, or the 40 English martyrs that Pope John Paul II canonized.
Those openly professing Catholicism were barred from important positions in government and society well into the 1800s, and English law to this day prohibits a monarch from being Catholic.
Convincing evidence also shows that William Shakespeare was one such underground Catholic and that his plays included veiled appeals to the Queen for religious toleration.
So let us thank God that we can freely and openly practice our Faith, and honor all those who could not.
I once spoke with a priest of a large suburban parish with thousands of members, who told me that he could count the number of dinner invitations he had received over the past year from his parishioners on one hand. This shocked me as I knew he was very busy with his ministry, and I assumed that he was frequently invited to the homes and activities of his parishioners. Yet such was not the case.
It is easy to take our priests for granted. Our priests are men who have sacrificed everything—marriage, family, children—for the sake of the Gospel.1 And yet they are but men who, like everyone, need to be encouraged, welcomed, and loved.
Let us find ways to involve them in the lives of our families. Let us pray for them that they will grow in the grace of God and be protected from the attacks of the enemy;
And let us pray the Lord to send more priestly laborers into the harvest fields, so that the People of God might be sanctified, supported, and led in our earthly pilgrimage toward our Father’s House.
1 – cf. Mt. 19:10-12; 1 Cor. 7:32-35
God has granted exceptions to this, however, in the “incorruptibles”—saints whose bodies are miraculously preserved in tact after death, as a visible sign of their holiness. These miracles have withstood in-depth scientific and medical examinations that rule out any possible hoaxes and make clear that they are entirely distinct from those bodies preserved through extreme temperatures or mummification.
What does religion have to do with politics? If we can say that the mission of the Church is the happiness and salvation of all, then the Church will sometimes have to be involved with politics, since the actions of governments can have an impact on people’s happiness and salvation.
By reflecting on the Natural Law and the Gospel, the Church has developed social principles that should guide our societies and governments, including everything from the right to private property and a just wage to how we treat the poor and immigrants.
Of course, Catholics need not be monolithic in how these principles are applied, and there is room for legitimate difference of opinion on many issues.
On the other hand, the Church also teaches that some issues are so fundamental as to be non-negotiable.
In the document Sacramentum Caritatis, Pope Benedict named three specific issues that are paramount to the common good: first, defending human life at all ages and stages; second, upholding traditional marriage between one man and one woman; and, thirdly, protecting the natural right of parents to educate and raise their children according to their beliefs.1
Life, marriage, family—these three form the very foundation of societies, and should be given due priority by Catholics when we go to the ballot box.
1 – Sacramentum Caritatis 83 (Post-Synodal Exhortation on the Eucharist)
The Catholic teaching that it is a sin to use contraception is nothing new but is the perennial teaching of Judeo-Christian morality. Only in the 1930s did any Christians begin teaching that contraception could be morally acceptable.1