Swimming the Tiber 30: We Are the Branches

Then [he] throws water into the washing-vessel and [he] began to wash the feet of the disciples and to wipe [them] with the cloth with which [he] was girded. So [he] comes before Simon Peter. [He] says to him, “Lord, thouMost languages distinguish between singular and plural second-person pronouns; English is fairly distinctive that it does not. I have used the older English singular pronouns and retained the plural “you” where the Greek is plural. For more information on how to read my translations, see the relevant page at 31prayers.com. are washing my feet?” Having answered, Jesus also said to him, “What I am doing thou do not know now, but [thou] will come to know [it] after these things.” Peter says to him, “[Thou] must not ever wash my feet.”Lit. “[Thou] must/shall not (emphatic prohibitive subjunctive) wash my feet unto the age.” Jesus answered him, “If [I] do not wash thee, [thou] do not have a share with me.” Simon Peter says to him, “Lord, not my feet only, but also [my] hands and [my] head.” Jesus says to him, “The [one] having been bathed does not have a need if not to wash [his] feet, but [the] whole [of him] is purged; and you are purged, but not all [of you].

– John 13:5-10, my translation (emphasis original)

I am the grape-vine, and my father is the vine-dresser. Every vine-twig in me not bearing fruit, [he] will raise it up, and every [one] bearing fruit, [he] will purge it in order that [it] may bear more fruit. You are already purged on account of the word which [I] have said to you: remain in me, and I in you. Just as the vine-twig does not have power to bear fruit from itself if [it] does not remain in the grape-vine, thus neither [do] you if [you] do not remain in me. I am the grape-vine, you the vine-twigs. The [one] remaining in me and I in him, this [one] bears much fruit, because apart from me [you] do not have power to do anything. If anyone does not remain in me, [he] was thrown out as a branch and was dried up, and [they] gather them together and [they] throw [them] into the fire and [the branches] are burned.

– John 15:1-6, my translation (emphasis original)

As Christians, we know there are basically two options when it comes to death: there is a second (eternal) life with God, and a second (eternal) death without him. But when I was a Protestant, we didn’t talk much about the logistics, for lack of a better term. The closest I remember getting, even in theological classes, was a summation along the lines of a “snow-covered dunghill.”1

Basically, what I learned (or taught myself through reasoning based in my own wretchedness) was this: In life, we do bad things, but it’s okay, because whenever God looks at us, he sees Jesus instead. So it’s like…

You can see us a bit there in the back.

And since God sees Jesus when he looks at us, we don’t really have to change (though we should really try to, all the same). So when we keep sinning in life, we trust that God will fix all that after death. On our way to heaven, we will be purified and all our sins will be purged away in a great big fell swoop.

Only that doesn’t make any sense. Recall my posts on original sin and reconciliation and venial versus mortal sins. Consider Matthew 5:48; John 5:14; 8:11; Romans 6; 2 Corinthians 7:1; Hebrews 6:1-12; 10:14, 26-31; James 1:2-4, 25-27; and 1 Peter 2:21-24. God’s plan is not for us to sneak past his judgment by hiding under Jesus’ robes; his plan is for us to be purified, sanctified, and made truly holy and perfect in his sight.

But what happens when we aren’t perfect? This applies to the overwhelming majority of us, myself included. Far be it from me to suggest otherwise. What if we die before we’re perfect? Well, if we are willfully disobedient to God, committing mortal sins with all the intent and desire that goes along with that, then we are not living according to God’s love and we must cast ourselves on the mercy of God.

But if, on the other hand, our sins are not mortal, but merely venial, where do we stand? We are not willfully opposing God’s desires, but clinging tepidly to our old selves, our old desires. St. Francis de Sales (my dear friend of a saint) writes this about venial sin and sinful affections in his Introduction to the Devout Life:

Even so there are penitents who forsake sin, yet without forsaking their sinful affections; that is to say, they intend to sin no more, but it goes sorely against them to abstain from the pleasures of sin; they formally renounce and forsake sinful acts, but they turn back many a fond lingering look to what they have left, like Lot’s wife as she fled from Sodom. They are like a sick man who abstains from eating melon when the doctor says it would kill him, but who all the while longs for it, talks about it, bargains when he may have it, would at least like just to sniff the perfume, and thinks those who are free to eat of it very fortunate. And so these weak cowardly penitents abstain awhile from sin, but reluctantly; they would fain be able to sin without incurring damnation;–they talk with a lingering taste of their sinful deeds, and envy those who are yet indulging in the like.

– St. Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life 1.7
(2002 adaptions of the 1876 English translation)

The relevant story of Lot’s wife, for reference, is in Genesis 19.

I invite you to look again at the passages from John at the top of this post and to consider also Philippians 3:12-21 and especially 1 Corinthians 3:10-15. This is the essence of my post: that God intends to purify us from our sin. That’s it. We’re not snow-covered dunghills or demons wearing Jesus masks; we are, rather, the adopted sons and daughters of God and by his power we are cleansed from our sin and we have the capacity to go and sin no more. Like the apostles, we have been cleansed once by baptism (bathed), but we walk about in the world, and our feet get dirty (sinful affections and venial sins). We must be cleansed of those as well before the whole of us is clean, at which point we will bear much fruit (as long as we remain in Christ).

But if we die with our feet dirty, still they must be cleaned, because God cannot be united to sin (1 Corinthians 6:14-17). In Catholic theology, the process of washing the feet of the faithful one last time, of purging them of their venial sins and sinful affections, is called Purgatory. Purgatory is not a third destination, aside from heaven and hell–rather, everyone who goes to Purgatory is en route to heaven, where they will enjoy union with God. Between their death and God, though, they must be cleansed of the last vestiges of sin, now not by water but by fire (see again 1 Corinthians 3).

This may sound somewhat familiar; that’s because post-death sanctification is what I described as my belief when I was a Protestant–that is, we become holy after death by the grace of God. In traditional Catholic teaching, this purgation takes time (prompting us to pray for the quick purification and release of those in Purgatory), but Pope Benedict XVI elaborated in his encyclical Spe Salvi that time is immaterial in Purgatory:

It is clear that we cannot calculate the “duration” of this transforming burning in terms of the chronological measurements of this world. The transforming “moment” of this encounter eludes earthly time-reckoning—it is the heart’s time, it is the time of “passage” to communion with God in the Body of Christ.

– Pope Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi 47

I highly encourage you to read the rest of that encyclical, but it is fairly long.

But if Purgatory can be instantaneous, what’s the use of praying for people who experience it? Well, in part, it goes back to 2 Maccabees 12:38-45; this became Christian tradition because it was first Jewish tradition. The rest of it goes back to the point of time: Purgatory isn’t “instantaneous” or “long,” but outside of time, like heaven and hell. So our prayers can be efficacious because the prayer is not about the time (though it might be explained that way to stay simple) but about the people. We are a Christian family (and a human family), and our lives affect the lives of those around us constantly. Praying for others helps us (because it teaches us to be charitable and care for others first) and it helps others (because prayer is effective–see Matthew 21:22, et al). For more comments on that subject, see again Pope Benedict’s encyclical linked above.

And that, in a very small nutshell, is the idea behind Purgatory. Once I understood the details of it, I wasn’t bothered by it so much, so I don’t have quite as much to say as others might. Next week, we’ll use this understanding of Purgatory as a jumping-board into a historical look at the Church, focused especially on those events and activities people use to condemn Catholicism (which I will collectively call the “scandals” of the Church).

1 It’s important to note that this is not a real quote from the Protestant Reformation. It is often attributed to Luther, but it can’t quite be found in Luther’s written works. It is, however, fairly representative of Luther’s thought on the total depravity of man and his justification by grace–in short, that we are so completely corrupt that even our attempts to do good are mortal sins and that only the grace of God can hide (but not remove) our wretchedness. See here for more notes on the subject. Or return to where you left off.

Swimming the Tiber 7: The Church Is One

Ecclesia, however, ought to mean the holy Christian people, not only of the time of the apostles, who are long since dead, but clear to the end of the world, so that there is always living on earth a Christian, holy people in which Christ lives, works, and reigns per redemptionem, through grace and forgiveness of sins, the Holy Ghost per vivificationem et sanctificationem, through the daily purging out of sins and renewal of life, so that we do not remain in sin, but can and should lead a new life in good works of all kinds, such as the Ten Commandments, or Two Tables of Moses, require, and not in the old, wicked works: that is St. Paul’s teaching. But the pope and his followers have applied both the name and the picture of the Church to themselves alone and to his shameful, accursed crowd, under this blind word ecclesia, “church.”

– Martin Luther, On the Councils and the Church (1539), trans. C. M. Jacobs

Looking again through Luther’s On the Councils and the Church, the terms he uses in the quote above for Catholics may be the nicest things he has to say about us. But the main point of this quote is to refer to his stance on the invisible Church, which has been adopted broadly by most modern Protestants. (Many modern Protestants also, generally speaking, hold to Zwingli’s view, in that the invisible Church includes not only all Christians from all ages, but also all saved heathen, such as those without access to the Gospel, those who die in infancy, and so on. Luther would have repudiated that list.)

Luther does not deny the existence of the visible Church, but he trivializes it. The visible Church may be seen in small church congregations or in megachurches, but it always includes hypocrites and the unsaved, and so no church (whether building or group) can be considered a microcosm of the “true” Church, the invisible Church. The Catholic Church, according to Luther, is not part of the “visible Church,” but rather the “false Church,” and by 1539, he is equating Catholics with demons, generally speaking. (He only became more combative and vilifying as he aged.)

I said in my introductory post that I would spend a lot of time referring back to St. Francis de Sales’ Catholic Controversy; this is one of those times. Francis dismantles the argument that the invisible Church is the only true Church and he does it so handily that one is left confused how one ever believed otherwise. He spends four chapters on the subject in the first part of the book (1.5 – 1.8), so I’m not going to quote all of it. But for those of you who don’t want to take the time to read it right now, I will try to quote some highlights. He introduces the section thus:

Our adversaries, clearly perceiving that by this touchstone their doctrine would be recognised as of base gold, try by all means to turn us from that invincible proof which we find in the marks of the true Church. And therefore they would maintain that the Church is invisible and unperceivable. I consider that this is the extreme of absurdity, and that immediately beyond this abide frenzy and madness. I speak of the militant Church of which the Scripture has left us testimony, not of that which men put forward. Now, in all the Scripture it will never be found that the Church is taken for an invisible assembly.

– Francis de Sales, The Catholic Controversy 1.5, trans. Fr. Mackey, OSB

(For what it’s worth, in contrast to Luther, these are probably the strongest words de Sales has to say about Protestant doctrine.) His reasons, in short, are these:

  1. In Scripture, the Church is assembled, taught, ruled, greeted, persecuted; to it we are told to come, by it we are to be received. These are not things that can be done invisibly. Cf. Matthew 18:16-17; Acts 8:1, 3; 14:22, 26; 15:4, 41; 20:17, 22, 28; Galatians 1:13; 1 Timothy 3:15.
  2. In the Old Testament, the prophets describe the Church in visible terms–a glorious bride for the King (Psalm 45), the sun and moon and the witness of God’s promise (i.e., the rainbow–cf. Psalm 89:30-37), and a mountain (Isaiah 2).
  3. Likewise, that she is not only visible, but can be known. Cf. Song of Songs 6; Isaiah 8:8 (if even fools can find their way, must the Church not be plainly visible and knowable?).
  4. The pastors and teachers of the Church are visible, therefore the Church is visible. This is true of the Apostles, of the Papacy, of the priests, and also of Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, and your local pastor.
  5. The Church’s duties include preaching the Word and administering the sacraments, and these actions are visible.
  6. The patriarchs of Israel were visible, and the synagogue is a type, a precursor, for the Church. As I will discuss in some detail later, all types are inferior to the thing they prefigure. If Adam is human and visible, so also Christ is (at least!) human and visible; if Israel is visible, so also the Church.
  7. As the twelve patriarchs were visible and headed the Church in Israel, so also the Twelve Apostles were visible and headed the Church in Christ.
  8. As the Israelites lived visibly in the nation of God, so we live visibly in the Church of God. They had circumcision, we have baptism; they had the Levites and rabbis, we the elders and pastors; they had the paschal lamb and manna, we the Body of Christ; they were persecuted by Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, we by pagans, heretics, and radical Islam.

Goodness of God!–and we are still to ask whether the Church is visible! But what is the Church? An assembly of men who have flesh and bones;–and are we to say that it is but a spirit or phantom, which seems to be visible and is so only by illusion?

– Francis de Sales, The Catholic Controversy 1.5, trans. Fr. Mackey, OSB

Cf. Luke 24:37-43.

But let it not be said that Catholics believe the Church is only visible; of course, the Church is invisible, but it is visible also. The Church is one Church, as Christ prayed for us (John 17), and, like Christ, who is both man and God, and like each of us, who are both body and spirit, the Church is both visible and invisible; it has both interior and exterior, as Francis writes. The interior is even more beautiful than the exterior–look again at Psalm 45:13.

But never let it be said that the Church is only interior or only spirit or only invisible. A man is not a soul; a man is a soul and a body. On this Catholics and Protestants agree: E. Stanley Jones, a Methodist missionary, wrote, “A soul without a body is a ghost; a body without a soul is a corpse.” (The Unshakable Kingdom and the Unchanging Person 40) For the Catholics, we read: “The human person, created in the image of God, is a being at once corporeal and spiritual. The biblical account expresses this reality in symbolic language when it affirms that ‘then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.’ ” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 362; cf. Genesis 2:7)

In the same way, the Church is not merely a spiritual gathering, but a visible one, a physical one. Thus, and only thus, can the Church really be a universal Church (a “catholic” Church) as God intended (cf. again John 17; Ephesians 2:11-22).

“But-but-but!” you may say, “Of course there’s a visible side of things, but that includes all the heretics and false teachers, and the true Church doesn’t have anyone but the saved!”

Doesn’t it? The large house of God, which St. Paul calls the “assembly (church) of a living God, a pillar and a support of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15, my translation)–certainly the true Church, yes?–the large house of God contains “not only gold and silver objects, but also wooden and earthen [ones], and on the one hand, the [things] unto honor, but on the other hand, the [things] unto dishonor” (2 Timothy 2:20, my translation). As I wrote in an earlier post, St. Peter is given the keys to the kingdom of heaven (surely the true Church), and thus he has the ability to loosen (remit, forgive) sins or bind (retain) them–so those in the Church, which the gates of Hell will not overcome, sin and have sinned, and some will retain their sins (cf. Matthew 16). And we can be sure that any judging done by St. Peter and the apostles is done on those in the Church, because–as St. Paul tells us–those outside are judged by God alone (cf. 1 Corinthians 5:13). Remember, too, that both the servant and the son abide in the house of God for a time (cf. John 8:35); so the damned, at least for now, are included in the true Church.

And Francis de Sales has many more arguments on this point, but I think I’ve made enough for my purposes. The Church, the true Church, the Body of Christ, the house of God, the kingdom of heaven, is necessarily both visible and invisible. It includes both sinner and saint.

Tune in next time for a discussion of one the implications of a visible true Church: how do works fit in? Most Protestants accuse Catholics of having “works righteousness” and “salvation by works”–what does that mean, and why isn’t it the whole story? Let’s find out when “Swimming the Tiber” returns.

Swimming the Tiber 2: The Rules of Faith

It is obvious that tradition is only democracy extended through time. It is trusting to a consensus of common human voices rather than to some isolated or arbitrary record. The man who quotes some German historian against the tradition of the Catholic Church, for instance, is strictly appealing to aristocracy. He is appealing to the superiority of one expert against the awful authority of the mob. […] Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death.

– G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, “The Ethics of Elfland”

I have, in my finite wisdom, decided to begin with one of the most challenging topics for any Protestant trying to understand the Catholic perspective. Well, I say “any Protestant”; what I really mean is anyone from the evangelical denominations. The challenge is this: to set aside the sola in sola Scriptura and recognize the authority of sacred Tradition and sacred Church.

I have chosen to start here because acknowledging Tradition (and, by extension, the Church) is crucial to grasping the entire Catholic faith. Catholicism hinges on understanding that Tradition and the Church are just as much rules of our faith as Scripture. But before I delve into that reasoning, let me start where I, personally, started: not just sola Scriptura, but something like solissima Scriptura.

The sola Scriptura of the Reformers placed Scripture first, as the primary rule of faith, but allowed for the introduction of ideas and understandings from Tradition and the Church, provided they did not conflict with Scripture. I began in a place more like John Wesley’s position. He wrote, in the first section of a tract titled Popery Calmly Considered (calmly indeed!), “In all cases, the church is to be judged by Scripture, not the Scripture by the church. And Scripture is the best expounder of Scripture. The best way therefore to understand it is, carefully to compare scripture with scripture, and thereby learn the true meaning of it.”

At first glance, this seems delightfully succinct and self-enclosed. What need is there of Tradition or the Church? We have Scripture. Scripture will interpret Scripture, and all things will be made clear. I held to this view for more than twenty years, perfectly happy in my belief that “Scripture alone” could answer any question of faith. But one thing perturbed me, and ultimately led to the fracturing–and crumbling–of my adherence to this doctrine: if Scripture alone can answer all questions of faith, why didn’t all Protestants agree on questions of doctrine?

Protestant responses to this vary. First, some will say, Protestants all agree on soteriological doctrines: man is saved sola gratia per solam fidem in solo Christo (that is, man is saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone). Right? Well, what about Unitarians (those who deny the Trinity)? Or universalists (those who say that everyone is saved)? They’re Protestants, too. They have the same Bible as everyone else (well, except Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, but I’ll get to that later). Why are they so wrong?

Well, I would have said back in the day, they just are. The Holy Spirit isn’t showing them the true interpretation, or they’re allowing their own biases to interfere with the Spirit’s influence. And that was fine, as I said, for a while. But why would the Holy Spirit exclude anyone who earnestly pursues their faith? Or fail to convict someone who idolizes their own ideas? And beyond that, other doctrines matter, too. In fact, sola Scriptura suggests that all Christian doctrines work together to support our understanding of God, and they all stem from Scripture. And the mere existence of thousands of Christian denominations (not all of them Protestant, as one randomly selected website is careful to point out) suggests disunity of understanding.

And of all the sorrows of Church history, disunity is the greatest. On the night Our Savior was betrayed, he repeated in prayer four times his desire for the unity of the Church (John 17:11, 21-23). And I have never been satisfied by the claim, “But we are one! We all believe in Jesus. Isn’t that enough?” No, said I–it really isn’t. Even if that were enough for salvation (James 2:19 tells us it isn’t), it is a weak marker of unity. I agree with most Jewish faithful that Abraham and Moses existed and were who they claimed; does that make me Jewish? I agree with most atheists that Jupiter and Apollo and Juno are not gods; does that make me an atheist? If not, then why does my mere admission that Christ existed and spoke honestly make me a member of the very Body of Christ, the Church herself, in communion with all the saints and the faithful?

But the deepest problem of using Scripture as the ultimate authority is that it simply isn’t possible. Scripture has nuance, culture, and a deeply ingrained mythos isolated to a culture we do not share, and indeed is spread across hundreds, even thousands, of years of national history. Even if you take every passage literally, you will inevitably encounter passages that must be reconciled–was there one angel at the tomb or two? Were there five thousand men being fed, or only four? Am I still not allowed to get tattoos (Leviticus 19:28), or is that a part of the Law, like circumcision and uncleanness, that “doesn’t really apply anymore”? Is baptism necessary for salvation (Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38), or is it, too, like circumcision, an imposition of weak men? Is Peter the foundation of the Church (Matthew 16), or must it not be so on account of Luke 22 and I Corinthians 3:11? Like the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8), how can I understand unless someone shows me what it means? And when I go to that person of authority, I must choose who my authority is. It could be my local pastor, or the theology professor at the nearest seminary, or my friend who happens to read Greek and Hebrew, or my parent, or my spouse. But if I don’t like what that person says, I will go to another. And another. Eventually, I may take it upon myself to interpret the passage. Of course, I will pray for the Holy Spirit’s guidance; but what assurance do I have that I am not using my bias to interfere with the Spirit’s influence? Or that I am aided by the Spirit at all?

But if, rather, I go to the Church, and the sacred Tradition that has been handed down within the Church from the apostles, who received it from Christ himself, have I not gone as close to the source of all truth as I can in this physical realm? And while, yes, it is possible for God to speak directly into the ear or the mind, it is likewise possible for the devil; and not everyone has the gift of prophecy, and those that are so blessed do not always have the gift of discerning spirits. Reasoned self-doubt is appropriate here; we’re talking about not just my soul, but your soul–all souls. Understanding the Word of God is essential not only to my temporal well-being, but to the eternal well-being of myself, my family, and all those whom I might evangelize. This is too much responsibility to lay on the sinful and finite judgment of one man, who lacks even the auspices of God’s ordination. I am no one; who am I, then, to be the final arbiter of Scripture in my life and the lives of those around me?

These, then, were my thoughts as I approached at last the universal Church, bedecked in glory. She has those auspices. She was ordained by Christ himself, and he promised that the gates of hell would never overtake her. Here, certainly, I could find assurance in my faith.

It was not that simple, of course. I had objections. I said, “II Timothy 3:16-17 tells us that the Scriptures are of utmost importance.” St. Francis (see the introductory post of this series for a link to the relevant work) replied, “The Scriptures are indeed most useful, and it is no little favor which God has done us to preserve them for us through so many persecutions, but the utility of Scripture does not make holy traditions useless, any more than the use of one eye, of one leg, of one ear, of one hand, makes the other useless” (translated by Fr. Mackey, OSB, 103).

He goes on to remind me of John 20:30-31 and Romans 10:14 (especially, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book,” and, “How are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?”). When I refute with Galatians 1:8, which warns against false proclamations, St. Francis replies that Paul expressly declares that the Gospel has been preached, not merely written; so the gospel is both what was taught and what was written, and anything taught contrary to the traditions of the apostles, that which was taught but not written, should be accursed! And the good saint went on to remind me of II Thessalonians 2:14, II John 12; III John 13-14; II Timothy 1:13-14; 2:2; and more still.

By the standard of Scripture itself, I cannot, in good conscience and sound mind, reject the Tradition of the apostles.

What, then, of the third rule of faith for Catholics: the Church? It goes back to my first point, which I took so long to make: we have need of a judge when there is disagreement over the interpretation of Scripture. On any subject, any theological point, when we disagree, we say, “Let us look to Scripture!” But St. Francis reminds us of Matthew 5:13 and asks, “If the Scripture be the subject of our disagreement, who shall decide?” (ibid, 111)

Catholics, then, have this authority in the Church. From the Church extend all other rules of the faith–the ecumenical Councils (some of which some Protestants accept, and others not), the early Church fathers (some of which are accepted and others are not, though, I think, very few are accepted in toto), the papacy (which all Protestants reject, hence the name), the miracles and the saints, and the harmony of faith and reason. (I will touch on most of these topics, including the Church herself, in later posts.)

Thus can Catholics be assured of a right understanding of Scripture and holy Tradition, in sum, the Gospel of Christ–not when they, like Protestants, make their own judgments and apply their own opinions, but when they turn to the “awful authority of the mob,” the great unity of the Church and her doctrine, her understanding, handed down from the apostles, who themselves received it from Jesus Christ in the flesh.

These are the other great rules of the faith, and though I have paid them but little explanation, I hope I have summed up my own conversion. Next time, on Swimming the Tiber, I hope to address the specific relationship between Scripture and Tradition, especially the establishment of the canon of Scripture.

Swimming the Tiber 1: Introduction and Definitions

On this Reformation Day, marking 499 years since Martin Luther set the snowball rolling on what would eventually become Protestantism, I have decided to begin a series on my own Counter-Reformation. You see, of late I have been feeling a conviction of the Spirit that I have been too taciturn about my faith. Part of that is wanting to avoid a misrepresentation leading to misunderstandings; I may well do the topic a disservice. Part of my reticence, too, is avoiding the modern trend of getting fired for expressing my beliefs too publicly, too loud, or too obnoxiously.

But those reasons fall flat when examined. Careful exposition on the reasons for my conversion is not bad presentation; and if someone will be offended by my conversion, they will likely be so regardless of what time I mention it. Most employers (some excepted) do not fire good employees on account of a mild expression of their faith, even if that faith contradicts the opinions held by managers and executives at that company (and since I do not plan to use slurs or other grotesque terminology, legitimate reasons for my firing are not likely to come up); and besides that, even if I am fired on these grounds, I shall “offer it up”–that is, I shall adhere to Colossians 1:24.

The astute and frequent site visitor may doubt my resolve in beginning a long series. You’ve likely noticed that I haven’t reviewed many books lately, and that my translations of Romans have been inconsistently timed. This slow-down is due almost entirely to my busy schedule: two toddlers (or a toddler and a baby, depending on how much denial I’m in about the passage of time), a full-time job, graduate classes in computer science, and my work on The Aegipan Revolution (sequel to The Chimaera Regiment). In all of that, I don’t really have time to read regularly (which is a shame).

“But wait!” you interrupt. “If you don’t have time to read, why would you have time for a new series of blog posts?” Good question! The answer is that I probably don’t. Taking this up will likely deter some other hobby, but that’s okay. Like my translations of Romans, I think this is important enough to let other hobbies (especially those that are the least productive) fall by the wayside.

What, then, is this series about? I have mentioned it obliquely already: my conversion to Catholicism. It will not follow exactly the route I did; my path from Southern Baptist to Catholic was non-linear, darting from one topic to another without logical progression, until finally everything fell into place in a moment of clarity. Instead, I will try to provide structure, building upon each topic to establish the next. I don’t intend to cover every possible objection to the Catholic Church (an endeavor that would surely take a lifetime), but only those which I had myself (and a couple that are tangentially related). Even so, assuming I can post these on a weekly basis (which is my current plan), this series will take me the better part of a year to complete.

Before I get started, let me quickly say that, if you want your apology from someone more intelligent, more humorous, more structured, and more precise, go out immediately and read St. Francis de Sales’ The Catholic Controversy, which is a series of letters he wrote to his diocese as it became Protestant around him. (He succeeded in converting a great many souls back to the Church, and this is the book I blame more than any other for my own conversion.) More than a few of the points I will present come directly from St. Francis’ work. (You can read my review of it here, if you want an overview. And if you don’t want to buy it, though I recommend you do–taking notes is optional, but probable–there is an English translation available online.)

The first step in any good discussion is an agreement of terms. Disagreeing on definitions is the largest hurdle in any conversation about theology and it is the one most often missed or ignored. Simply put, Catholics and non-Catholics do not use the same terms in the same way, and assuming that they do creates a false understanding of the others’ teaching. I am endeavoring, in this first post of the series, to lay out the terms on which Protestants and Catholics frequently disagree so that these misunderstandings are minimized.

(It is probable that I shall edit this post in the future when I think of more terms that need to be defined.)

to pray
To ask or request. Compare once-common English usage, “Pray tell!” in which the speaker asks that the listener provide more information on a subject. Compare archaism “prithee,” literally, pray thee, used by Shakespeare 228 times to have one character ask another something. In Catholic circles, does not mean “to worship.” (In Protestant circles, excluding usages as in Shakespeare, means almost exclusively “to worship,” and praying can only be done to God. This is a linguistic oddity more than a theological one; Protestants use “pray” for its original meaning so infrequently that laypeople are rarely even aware of that definition.)
to worship
As a general rule, Catholics mean the same thing as Protestants when they say, “to worship,” but sometimes, very rarely, they mean it in a literal way: “to apply the appropriate worth to” something or someone. With this usage, it can be applied to just about anything. Because of the rarity of this usage, I prefer never to engage in it, but in case you come across someone saying, “We worship X, Y, Z (not-God),” don’t automatically say it proves that all Catholics are idolaters. It’s just another linguistic alteration over time, and some folks haven’t caught up yet.
I will delve into the soteriological implications of “works” in a later post, but for now, suffice it to say that the term needs to lose its baggage for a good conversation. For Protestants, this word often means that you have fallen into a paganesque method of rote behavior, thinking you can build a stairway to heaven; for Catholics, this word mostly means “labor,” “effort,” or “action.” Attributing more meaning to it will confuse a Catholic and infuriate a Protestant.
holy / holiness
More than a few Protestant evangelical friends of mine have defied usage of the term “holy” in one direction or another. Either “holy” is something that only God is, and therefore we should not apply it to people of any stripe (no matter how good they may be), or “holy” is something all Christians are, and therefore we should not restrict it to certain people. For Catholics, “holy” (synonymous with “saintly”) tends to be held in reserve for both God and the saints. I will delve into the saints in a later post, but for now, suffice it to say that the saints are those “set apart” by God in heaven. Catholic doctrine does not preclude the definition used by Paul (meaning “the faithful” or “Christians in general”) in Romans 15; I Corinthians 6; 2 Corinthians 1; and other places, both in the New and Old Testament. But rather, it favors the definition used by Paul (meaning “the ideal” or “those delineated as holy by God” or “those by the side of God”) in Romans 1; 8; Ephesians 5; and other places. Which of these is the more appropriate meaning can be debated, but the modern usage of Catholics has more than a thousand years of history behind it at this point.
The Five Solas
These belong to Protestantism, and the five solas are: sola Scriptura (Scripture alone is the final authority on God’s plan for salvation), sola gratia (men are saved by grace alone), sola fide (that grace comes through faith alone), solus Christus (that faith is in Christ alone), and soli Deo gloria (creation gives glory to God alone). These are not uniquely Protestant, in that some can be interpreted through a Catholic lens and be entirely accurate (most easily the last), but especially the first is peculiarly Protestant (excluding Anglicans, whose three-legged stool of faith gives no primacy to Scripture). To read more about the five solas, here’s a randomly selected website.

That’s all for now. Look forward to more posts in the future. The first topic will be Sacred Tradition, and will involve the daunting task of disagreeing with sola Scriptura. This may seem a very challenging place to begin, but without it, much of the Catholic Church may be dismissed by those who ignore her historical authority.

Exhortations on the Devout Life

Introduction to the Devout LifeIntroduction to the Devout Life by Francis de Sales
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is a superb example of Francis de Sales’ pastoral style and earnest faith. Everything in here is worthwhile Christian reading, regardless of your faith background. I cannot speak highly enough of Francis’ exhortations to the faithful. You may disagree that the goal of Christian living is devotion, or holiness, but you cannot claim that following the advice set forth here will make you a lesser Christian.

There is one section which strikes me as being particularly poignant in a “post-Christian” world. Part 4, Chapter 13 speaks in depth of the differences between true devotion and simply good feelings. In much of Christianity, there is a popular movement toward “emotional” faith, where devotion is proved by having the right feelings at the right time in the right way. Some say that if you don’t “feel” the Holy Spirit moving, or if you aren’t “filled with joy” when the church praises, then you must not really be a Christian. This kind of thinking can be devastating for the faithful who do not experience constant elation, even in the presence of the Almighty. Francis warns against this line of thought and exhorts his reader to be earnest, steadfast, and dedicated each day, especially in times of spiritual dryness, when it seems like God is far away. Faith is easy when you experience positive emotions in its every encounter; true devotion shines through only when the going gets tough.

There are also a few quotes which I find especially encouraging. Part 1, Chapter 13 includes these powerful words (emphasis added): “Alas, of all these things we know absolutely nothing: all that we do know is that die we shall, and for the most part sooner than we expect. […] Woe is me, for what mere trifles and unrealities have I ventured to offend my God? But, on the other hand, all devotion and good works will seem so precious and so sweet: Why did I not tread that pleasant path? Then what you thought to be little sins will look like huge mountains, and your devotion will seem but a very little thing.

Near the end of the book (Part 5, Chapter 14), he writes these words, “The whole world is not worth one soul, and the soul is worth but little without its good resolutions.” This reminds us of the words of Christ in Mark’s Gospel: “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?” Value your soul even more highly, Francis encourages us: live according to God’s Word and God’s Law, that you may be righteous.

These are just a couple of the great exhortations available in this book. I highly recommend it.

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