I recently spent two weeks in Milan, Italy. Our team built some really enjoyable friendships with some bright and thoughtful college students there. The excuse for our friendship was to provide some avenues of practice for their English. And while that was going on, we were all hoping to get to know them on a deeper level. Who wouldn’t want to hang out and drink espresso with young Italian students?
Right away, the biggest surprise for me was how many of the students held a generally atheistic or, at best, agnostic outlook. So many of them had decided to reject any idea of God once they became old enough to ask questions and make their faith something personal and important in their lives. But this was Italy, home of the Vatican, and almost all of them had been raised in “the church.” To them, church was exclusively Catholicism, and what my beliefs represented was more often viewed by their parents as a Satanic cult rather than basic Christianity.
I really wish I was joking about that, but from what I gather, this abandonment of faith is far more common than people realize. And it seems to be especially common among people raised in the Catholic Church. Not to say Catholicism is completely evil, or that any church has it perfect, for that matter. But the differences in fundamental Catholic teaching, in my opinion, warrant examination and a good bit of concern.
One of the students we met had recently professed Jesus as his Lord and Savior, had started to read the Bible, and even decided to get baptized. All the while, he was being told by his mother that he was worshiping Satan. He was a very vocal atheist before becoming a Christian, but somehow for his mom, anything but the Catholic Church was a spawn of the devil. She hated that he made time to see his cultish American friends every day, no matter how much more loving and joyful he was compared to before he discovered his faith.
It didn’t matter how many times he reassured his mom that he was reading the Bible and trusted that Jesus died for his sins. She had no answer when he asked her to show him where it says in the Bible that we can help someone else into heaven with our own prayer and monetary gifts to the church. She didn’t understand when he tried to explain that if something like that was possible, there was no need for Jesus to die. If that were true, there was no logic for why the temple curtain was split from top to bottom. And no matter what he said, nothing would help his mother realize that the concept of Mary, the mother of Jesus, being seen as a sinless co-redeemer and queen of heaven is not even slightly hinted to in the original gospel message, as told through the Bible. He asked her to read the gospels and find out for herself. Her response was to express her concern that her son was on the highway to hell.
A similar situation happened to another Christ-follower friend of mine (an American) whose mother was fearful about having apparently one less person who would pray for her through purgatory after she dies. Upon hearing her daughter had joined a different church, her response was, “How am I going to get to heaven if you won’t pray for me?” I’ve heard stories exactly like that from an alarming number of kids and grandchildren.
Another Italian student we talked to said that if she were to become “a Protestant,” her parents would very likely disown her. Seriously.
More educated Catholics may step in to argue here, claiming this isn’t what Catholicism teaches. But even if that were sometimes true, this is the belief that is commonly picked up when services and doctrines are performed with a veil of confusion where honest questions and transparency are not valued. In my opinion, this scenario is far too common to ignore any longer. Whether it’s a teaching issue or a belief issue doesn’t change the fact that it’s still a very big issue and many people are believing something that is not just unbiblical, but anti-biblical. It’s a problem when the people in a specific religious system who ask questions and want something genuine and personal about their faith are the same people who often give up and embrace atheism. They would rather believe in nothing if God is really like what they hear about in the Catholic Church. I’d say that’s a red flag.
You might say this is only Roman Catholicism, but modern and western Catholicism, even with its watered-down doctrines, is based on the same extra-biblical teachings of the Vatican. Bad arithmetic with a little bit of “better” arithmetic still gives incorrect answers.
Please don’t get me wrong: other denominations of Christian churches are also guilty of false teaching and unnecessary doctrines. But in my opinion, the members of those churches have a better shot at learning what Jesus actually taught. To them, or at least most of them, the concept of a personal Bible study is an active part of what their church values and encourages. From what I gather from former Catholics, that’s not the case in the Catholic Church.
It really comes down to this: the gospel was meant to be so simple. It was meant to do away with the tally keeping, reliance on priests, and memorized chants with a personal relationship with God Himself.
I completely understand and am glad that there are some who practice Catholicism and are enjoying what seems to be a healthy, close relationship with God through Jesus. If that’s you, then that is absolutely fantastic, and I am excited to call you a brother or sister in Christ. I’m just curious how much of the Catholic doctrine you really utilized to achieve that relationship. Was it the one hundredth rehearsal of the Hail Mary prayer that did it? Or could it have been the Holy Spirit personally leading you to have a simple faith in what Jesus achieved on the cross? I wonder where your assurance of salvation comes from. Is it your family’s promise to pray for you long enough after your funeral? Or could it have been something you read straight from the Bible– something about Jesus never letting anything take us out of His hands (John 10:28)? Or maybe later from Paul, where he says no powers of hell or schemes of man can separate us from the love of Christ (Romans 8:39)?
I’m not seeing how anyone who upholds the Bible as the historical foundation of our faith can claim the doctrines of Catholicism necessary. The list of purely Catholic practices is a long one.
- Treating the mother of Jesus as a life-long, sinless virgin (I’ve yet to meet any Catholic who has an answer for Matthew 1:25 where is says that Joseph didn’t consummate his marriage with Mary until Jesus was born. Still consummated. Mary and Joseph had sex.)
- Praying to specific Christ followers who have died
- Praying for dead people
- Confessing only to a priest
- Dress code for priests and other clergy
- Worship of icons and statues
- Holy water and in some cases, candles
- And I could go on…
I don’t see any of these practices backed up with Jesus’ original teaching. It’s almost like Jesus knew that doctrines like this would end up distracting the people who practice them from the simple, powerful act of Himself on the cross. The faith He calls us to have in Him alone is what leads to a direct connection with our Creator. No saintly intercessors or co-redeemers needed. No memorized prayers and no amount of repeating them makes a difference.
I understand that these practices are grounded in a certain reverence and respect that, in some cases, is loosely rooted in scripture. They often sound and look beautiful, which is great. I’m just also pointing out that, based on what I’ve seen all around the world, these respectful practices have become a massive distraction. People don’t understand where they’re supposed to fit into the gospel and they are massively confused about what the main point is. Some might understand perfectly; most don’t. And even for those who do understand, the explanations don’t match up well enough for my liking. For example, there’s just too much “if, then” connecting the dots that has to take place to tell someone why it’s okay to view Mary the way the Catholic Church does when Jesus never referenced her apparent holiness. Her name never appears in the Bible after the first chapter of Acts, indicating she was not meaningfully involved in the early church. And to say she is the queen of heaven because Revelation talks about a woman with a crown is to say that the entire book isn’t full of illustrative metaphors. If that’s how the Catholic Church interprets John’s writing, then they should be waiting for a literal dragon as well.
I think it’s a problem that one of the most common characteristics of Catholic believers worldwide is their habit of not reading the Bible for themselves. It’s worshiped, but rarely opened. I probably can’t say this enough: I know that this doesn’t describe all Catholics. But for an organization that is supposed to be rooted in the Bible’s teaching, it’s extremely alarming that it doesn’t encourage personal study. But it’s also convenient, if we’re honest. When no one is reading what you claim to be your inspiration, there’s no accountability.
Accountability is an entirely different issue in the Catholic Church, which I have neither the energy nor stomach to get into.
Catholicism is ancient– I get that. And while that is very respectable, I think that partially explains why it’s become so confusing. You see, when the Catholic Church was founded, books were not so easy to come by. Back then, the Bible was still being collected and inspired, even though the individual books and letters that would later comprise the New Testament had each been written. They were circulated through the church within two generations of Jesus’ death (by conservative estimates).
The machine printing press wasn’t invented until the 1400s (more on that in a moment), but that means there were about 1,300 years of religious teaching to populations that didn’t have uncontrolled access to the scriptures. Handwritten Bibles were far too expensive for commoners to afford, so the church was the rightful source of understanding when it came to the historic gospel story. But while the text of the Bible remained the same through those 1,300 years (thankfully we can prove this), there was little the common follower could do to see where the doctrines they were hearing about were coming from. Purgatory rules, hail Marys, indulgences, and other doctrines couldn’t be questioned, especially when the teachings of the church and its leaders were declared “infallible.”
The church undeniably grew, increasing in wealth and influence. To this day, the Catholic Church is the wealthiest organization on the planet. Early on, no one understood that this explosion of wealth was a direct result of the extra-biblical teachings it was “infallibly” handing out. But then the printing press was invented in 1439 by a German named Johannes Gutenberg. What was a massive win for literacy rates and Bible ownership was a direct threat to the Catholic Church’s doctrines. Newly educated and naturally curious people like Martin Luther were bound to express concern. Luther was also from Germany and was born less than 50 years after the printing press was invented. In other words, the fallacies were recognized within a single generation of the common population learning to read and having direct access to the original accounts of what Jesus taught. And to this day, the Protestant Reformation is seen by the Catholic Church as an evil plot to destroy God’s “infallible” truth. And faith from a Catholic standpoint still doesn’t seem to be holding up well among the young generations during our current age of information and verifiable education.
In my view, Luther’s Protestant Reformation was only trying to return the faith to the simplicity that it was originally intended to be characterized by. For Luther, it wasn’t about Protestantism or Catholicism. It was about trying our best to keep with the fundamentals. Jesus had a way of clearly revealing the priorities and practices that were most important–sometimes uncomfortably so. We can therefore trust that if there was a new teaching that was important for us to know (like Mary, saintly intercession, or purgatory), Jesus would have mentioned it. But as it is, there isn’t a single parable or reference to “the mother of the church” or any others, neither from Jesus nor the early church founders.
I have a hard time believing that Jesus intended to only give us some of the important things about gaining a relationship with God, and left us to connect the dots for ourselves about the other important stuff. Personally, I think Jesus did a good enough job at giving us what we needed to know.
Do we still fail at teaching the simplicity of the basic message? Absolutely. No church is perfect–I can’t say that enough. But it’s not accurate to say that all churches are equally imperfect. Not when you have a measuring stick of sorts with the use of (original) biblical scripture. I don’t think it’s an effective strategy to paint all Christianity as the same for the sake of getting along, despite any differences in fundamental belief. It’s fundamental belief that defines what Christianity is in the first place. So if those beliefs aren’t on the same page, then that’s a problem and it warrants correction. And that starts with calling it out, just like Jesus called out the different churches for skewed theology in Revelation 2 and 3. Correct theology, especially on the basics, matters to Christ. It should also matter to us.
Rule following is no different than the Mosaic Law, which God sent Jesus to complete by giving a bridge into lasting relationship with Him through faith.
The Catholic Church’s teachings were far removed from what the Bible says by the time of the Protestant Reformation, but it had already become the most powerful, wealthiest organization on the planet. They’ve done so much good for so many people in terms of a charitable perspective– no one can deny that. But we can also be assured that, at the time of Luther’s questioning, the governing body of the Catholic Church was extremely satisfied with the system exactly as it was because they were living on par with royalty. Why would they want anything to change? Why wouldn’t they do whatever necessary to protect it? They had an opportunity to get back on track with the simplicity that Jesus taught, and they let it pass them by because it would cost them too much. To me, that sounds too much like the Pharisees that Jesus was always at odds with. They were wealthy from the system as it was and enjoyed economic and political influence. What motivation did they have to knock over the structure that was putting them higher than everyone else?
I can imagine the sense of panic in church leaders when people began to grow more educated and start to ask reasonable questions and seek the answers for themselves from scripture. There was no longer a constant dependence upon the church organization for finding out how their sins could be justified with God. People began to realize that church wasn’t the place where they had to go and have a priest help them empty their sin buckets each week– it was actually where they could go to celebrate the fact that Jesus had destroyed their sin bucket altogether. It was where they could go to learn how to let their lives and relationships be constantly and progressively transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit.
The system of never-ending reliance on rehearsed or interceded prayers and atoning monetary payments wouldn’t survive if the Catholic Church began encouraging people to read the now-readily-available Bible. If they did, I believe people would understand their relationship and standing with God isn’t enhanced by memorized prayers or how many tickets to heaven they purchased– for themselves or for their loved ones.
I met an agnostic anthropologist in Italy, and I know she would agree with me on this next point. Mankind is, at least in part, defined by our inherent and generally unavoidable ability to corrupt and destroy things. That’s why it’s so encouraging that the gospel story was recorded within one generation of Jesus’ death. Even more encouraging are how the ancient copies we’ve found are so closely identical to the versions in the Bible today. Thankfully, it’s been protected from corruption, even while the Catholic Church wasn’t.
I understand that Jesus wasn’t handing out Bibles and telling people “Read this and you’ll know everything you need to know.” That’s ridiculous. But what the Bible is, at its core, is a careful compilation of the teachings of Jesus and what He upheld as truth. These basic ideas have been added onto the Old Testament, which Jesus completed and fulfilled. The Bible that we have today is the message that the very first Christ followers believed and what they taught to the early church, even before the books of the New Testament were written.
There’s a major, very fundamental flaw when the first threat to someone’s Catholic faith is simply to open the Bible and read what their own Catholic leaders claim to be teaching from. God forbid they start to pray what’s on their heart to talk to God about, or Google a tough but logical spiritual question about something they don’t understand.
I know and have spoken to far too many people who have chosen atheism after being raised Catholic. I have extended family members who are among this crowd. And I can’t say that I really blame them. If the only concept of God that I knew was from Catholic teaching, I think I would have agreed with them in thinking that God is a ridiculous concept. What’s genuine or even remotely spiritual about purchasing, performing, or repetitively speaking my way into right standing with God? Everything about that system screams “man-made” and “fabricated” to me as well, especially when you see the result of where all the money has gone. It takes a serious cash flow to run your own mini country.
To be fair, and please hear me on this: I completely agree that every religion has a large group of people who claim to be a part of it without actually having a clue of what it teaches. Read that sentence again if you missed it. I get it. Acting on real faith is an intention that few genuinely have, regardless of what religion they claim. I’m not saying that you cannot be a Catholic and a true Christian. I’m just saying that it is definitely not an automatic assumption. In the same way, some “Christians” aren’t even true Christians. I agree with that, although only God knows who will be saved and who will remain lost.
There are plenty who state belief and few who take it seriously, living as if it’s true. But I’m not arguing about whether or not there are real Catholics and fake Catholics. The question is whether or not what they believe and practice is relevant to the Bible, or even necessary. And for the record, the extra-biblical doctrines from other churches bother me all the same. To act as though being a Christ follower is about anything more than loving God and others is unbiblical. The only doctrine He taught was genuine love, which naturally spurs us to obedience and worship. And in that, we should all be united as Christ followers.
Faith is a must have for anyone who believes in God. Without it, God is a hoax. More on that next week when I address a couple of the most common atheist arguments I heard from the students in Milan.
There was a glimmer of hope, which I think is a good place to finish my rant. I was relieved to see some students interested in reading the Bible for themselves once I explained that much of what the Catholic Church teaches about who God is or what is required for salvation is not actually found in the Bible. All I needed to do was encourage them to read it for themselves, knowing that it’s one of the most accepted and reliable historical documents of human antiquity. That fact in itself is verifiable through research. It’s liberating to know that evangelism can sometimes be as simple as recommending someone to look at the source of it all for themselves, trusting that my additional commentary is unnecessary. As questions come up, then sure, conversations can be had. But it has to start with them seeking Jesus as He was sought in the beginning.