Disclaimer: When it comes to matters of faith (and matters of Catholicism in particular), emotions run high. It is a topic on which many have strong bents, preferences, and biases and regarding which particular views are held strongly. In many circles, there is much in the way of fear, misinformation, and outright antagonism when the topic of Catholicism is broached. I do not claim to speak in any official terms about matters Catholic, I claim only to speak for my own experience and journey. That being said, things may be introduced or stated in this series of posts which directly impacted my decision to convert. The purpose of stating these things is not to exact judgment on anyone or to incite anger or division, but only to provide reasoned explanations for why I now freely and deliberately chose to become Catholic.
Sean (aka "Dillie-O") gave me the great idea of talking about some of the common questions, objections, and misconceptions that there are out there when it comes to Catholicism. So that's what this post (and the next) are going to address.
A few things if interested in learning more:
* If you ever want to know what the official Catholic teaching on pretty much anything is, you can find it in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. There are a lot of voices out there making a lot of different claims, so if you're not sure if what someone claims about Catholicism is correct, or if you want to check your own assumptions, it's best to check it against the Catechism. If you don't own a copy, you can reference a free online version here. Every thought or paragraph is assigned a number by which you can reference it. For example, CCC 1996.
* I've learned oodles just by listening to Catholic radio. There are a number of call-in shows where anybody, regardless of denomination (or religion/lack of religion, for that matter) can call in and get a straight Catholic answer. What's even better is that you can listen live online, on Sirius satellite radio, or wherever you happen to have a radio (you know, one of those old-fashioned kinds). A number of their programs are also archived on the website and available to listen to in an MP3 format. I listen at work all day. Yep, I'm a nerd!
* Catholic blogs and websites are in abundance! These are also good places to look up questions, or just to peruse what's going on in the Catholic world. Here are just a few of my favorites:
Called to Communion
Prayer through the saints
This one is a biggie for a lot of people I know. It is not at all uncommon for non-Catholics to object that when it comes to prayer: 1) Those in heaven can't hear you or aren't aware of your prayers, 2) You should go straight to Jesus with your request, and 3) Christ is our sole mediator.
When people argue that the saints are unaware of our prayers, I have to clarify: are those souls in heaven alive, or are they dead? I think most Christians would agree that the saints in heaven are more alive than ever before. In the creed, we confess that we believe in the "communion of the saints." That is, we believe that the saints in heaven are part of the Church Glorified, and that we are one with them through faith and through baptism.
Some have objections regarding the ability of such saints to be aware of our requests and petitions on earth. The book of Revelation gives us a good indication that the saints in heaven are not only aware of the goings-on on earth, but that they are actually active in interceding on our behalf:
And I saw between the throne (with the four living creatures) and the elders a Lamb standing, as if slain, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven Spirits of God, sent out into all the earth. And He came and took the book out of the right hand of Him who sat on the throne. When He had taken the book, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each one holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.
Revelation 5:6-8, emphasis mine
In this passage, we see that those in heaven are bringing "the prayers of the saints" before the throne of God. It needs to be asked that if the elders in heaven are not aware of the needs and petitions of those on earth, whose prayers are they bringing before the throne of God? Do those already in heaven need prayers? Not likely. Rather, it seems far more likely that those are our prayers they are offering and presenting before the throne of God. They are interceding for us, the saints on earth!
Since I experienced it myself, I recognize the discomfort and difficulty with embracing this concept if you haven't encountered it much before. At some point, those who object to asking the saints in heaven for their prayers will often cite 1 Timothy 2:5: "For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus". But no one here is saying that the intercession of the saints usurps Christ's mediatorship, or that it steals any glory from Him. Does the act of asking one of your friends to pray for you violate any of Christ's commands, or offend him because you are seeking another "mediator"? Not at all! Rather, we are commanded to pray for one another, and this work continues for those souls who have experienced earthly death and are now more alive than ever in heaven. If the saints in heaven are alive and a part of the Body of Christ, if they are indeed aware of our requests and our needs, and if it is not a sin to ask someone else to pray for us, I'm hard pressed to discover how it is a sin to ask the saints in heaven for their prayers. It is to the glory of God that they participate in this work.
In general, I think there is also some confusion on what it means to "pray to the saints." Keep in mind that one of the definitions of prayer is to petition, or to ask. We don't pray to the saints because we want to replace Jesus or bypass Him, but because they, being in a glorified state, are in a special position to intercede effectively on behalf of the faithful on earth. We are asking for their prayers. "The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much" says James 5:6. And just how righteous are those souls in heaven? My guess is that we cannot fathom it! Because they are in heaven, asking for their prayers might feel and look a lot like it does when we pray to Jesus or God the Father. Trust me, I get how this might be weird or feel wrong if you're not accustomed to the concept. But really, it is just asking for their intercession, much like you would ask your friends here to intercede for you.
You can read more about Praying to the Saints at Catholic Answers.
Confession: I believed in purgatory as a Protestant (since my early college days, in fact). It's not something I talked about a lot since among Protestants, it's not a popular or welcome view. At the very least, the concept of purgatory made a great deal of sense to me. In short, my reasoning went like this: Nothing impure can enter heaven (Rev 21:27); without holiness, no one will see the Lord (Heb. 12:14). Obedience and suffering are used in our lives on earth toward our sanctification (Romans 5:3-5, Heb. 12:7-11). The idea of there being a temporary and intermediate state to which a soul will go after earthly death and before entering heaven is not unheard of in Scripture (Luke 16:19-31). If we are not so sanctified and pure when we die that we are ready at that moment to enter the kingdom of heaven, it makes sense that what remains of sin in our souls should be purified, or burned away before entering heaven (1 Cor. 3:12-15).
There is considerable evidence suggesting that early Christians, though they may not have termed it "purgatory", believed in the concept of a temporary place of purgation between earth and heaven. Saint Monica (St. Augustine's mother) wrote to him asking that her soul be remembered "at the altar of the Lord". In many of the catacombs, prayers for the dead are scribbled on the walls. Such requests would not be necessary if all departed Christian souls went directly to heaven. Protestant Christians don't accept the book of 2 Maccabees, but there is direct reference that based on the belief in the afterlife and in the resurrection of the body, Judas Maccabeus offered prayers for the dead:
Turning to supplication, they prayed that the sinful deed might be fully blotted out. The noble Judas warned the soldiers to keep themselves free from sin, for they had seen with their own eyes what had happened because of the sin of those who had fallen. He then took up a collection among all his soldiers, amounting to two thousand silver drachmas, which he sent to Jerusalem to provide for an expiatory sacrifice. In doing this he acted in a very excellent and noble way, inasmuch as he had the resurrection of the dead in view; for if he were not expecting the fallen to rise again, it would have been useless and foolish to pray for them in death. But if he did this with a view to the splendid reward that awaits those who had gone to rest in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Thus he made atonement for the dead that they might be freed from this sin.
2 Maccabees 12:42-46
This passage from 2 Maccabees makes a direct correlation between sin in one's earthly life and the purgation occurring in the afterlife on account of that sin. Judas Maccabeus's prayers for the dead were offered so that those who had fallen would be "freed from [this] sin" in the afterlife. The apostle Paul also writes of every man's work being tested when he dies, and for those whose work does not stand the test, being saved through fire:
By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should be careful how he builds. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man's work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.
1 Corinthians 3:10-15, emphasis mine
This passage states that "the Day" (i.e., the day of judgment) will reveal the quality of what we have done in our earthly lives. Paul says that fire will test the quality of "each man's work". If the work does not survive the test, the man himself will be saved, but "only as one escaping through the flames." Again, we encounter the notion of this refinement, this purging or purgation before entering heaven for those whose work is not of a heavenly quality.
Believing in purgatory does not mean that a Catholic does not believe in the sufficiency of what Christ accomplished on the cross. Rather, this purification or purgation is entirely consistent with Christ's desire that we not only be declared holy in a forensic sense, but actually be made holy (1 Peter 1:13-16). Consider that if the notion of temporary suffering in "the world to come" for the end of producing the sanctification of our souls is contradictory to Scriptural teaching, then on some level, the notion that patiently enduring suffering in this life produces sanctification would be in question as well. There are repeated references in Scripture where God speaks of refining his people, purging them of their sins, through the fires of suffering and affliction (Ps 66:10; Isa. 48:10; Jer. 9:7; Dan. 11:35, 12:10; Zech. 13:9). This suffering, or purgation, is all part of God's plan for our sanctification.
Scripture also offers evidence there is a place of limbo (referred to as Abraham's bosom, cf. Luke 16:22) which is referenced in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31. Lazarus has experienced earthly death, is not in heaven, but nor is he in Hades. Whether or not this place is the same as what Catholics refer to as purgatory, it does at the very least show that it is possible that there is a temporary, intermediate state, something other than heaven and hell that a soul may experience after earthly death. Such a state is not contrary to Scripture. What is more, Peter references Christ going to such an intermediary state to preach to the "souls in prison" there after His own death on the cross:
For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit; in which also He went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison, who once were disobedient, when the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah, during the construction of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through the water.
1 Peter 3:18-20
The good thing to remember about purgatory is this, my friends: it's not a punishment, but a grace. Purgatory only opens up. In other words, those souls who end up in purgatory have "made it."
There's a lot more than could be said, really. This scratches the surface, and maybe you're curious about reading a little more. Read the Catholic Answers article on Purgatory to dig a little deeper.
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Well, looks like I'll need to break this one out a little bit, too. In the next (and maybe final) installment, I'll talk a bit about Mary, the sacrament of Confession, and what is meant by the infallibility of the pope. You know ... light and fluffy stuff! ;o)
For those who have expressed interest in what I researched and wrote about the seat of Peter and the papacy, I'm trying to find a convenient way to make the document easily available (probably Google Docs, or something).