Do you love everything about the Catholic Church? No? Then this is for you. Yes? This is still for you.
I’m not writing this to convert non-Catholics or make all Catholics theologians. All I want, all I really want, is for everyone to know a few basic things about Catholicism. If you hate the Church, I hope this will help you hate it less. If the Church scares you, I hope this helps alleviate your fears. If you love your faith, but have a hard time telling others why, I hope this helps you start that conversation.
A common misunderstanding about Catholicism is that ecumenical councils make Church doctrine. Encyclicals and Bulls as well. The Nicaean Councils are often portrayed as the beginning of the Church’s teachings on Jesus’ divinity and Trinitarian theology. Vatican I instituted papal infallibility. Humanae Vitae started the ban on artificial contraception. In fact, councils are the terminus for doctrinal development. Encyclicals and bulls are maybe halfway markers at best. Councils and papal writings only come after a deviation from the universal custom is introduced, spreads, and causes confusion among the faithful.
This misunderstanding comes, understandably, from the fact that not all Church doctrine is explicitly stated in Scripture. Catholicism is not a faith of literalism, however. There are many historical facts in Scripture, but Catholicism doesn’t presume that Jesus covered every single point of doctrine explicitly; just because it’s not named doesn’t mean its not waiting in the wings. Take infallibility for example. Catholicism offers specific Scriptural allusions to papal infallibility (Mt. 16:18; 28:18-20; Jn. 14, 15, 16; 1 Tim 3:14-15; Acts 15:28), but it’s not mentioned specifically. However, the early Church acted in a manner that shows papal infallibility existed in principle. Peter, and the bishops of Rome after him, acted as the deciding vote in all serious ecclesial matters. This was not forced on the other major sees like Alexandria and Constantinople–they willingly sought out Rome to end disputes authoritatively. It took almost three hundred years after Christ’s resurrection for the principle of papal primacy to be questioned. Not long before the divinity of Christ was brought into question, incidentally.
All of the “non-explicit” doctrines of the Church are considered theological conclusions: those that logically follow direct revelation. It is much like a flowering bulb. A bulb is a plain, simple thing, but contains much more than it seems. The flower that results at the end was always the intent of the bulb, despite the bulb not being beautiful, colorful, or waft a nice perfume. This is how the Church understands and approaches Her teachings: as a reality already in existence, if not fully sprouted at a particular time.
2. The Catholic Faith is a fundamentally positive one.
If you aren’t feeling guilty about something, you aren’t doing Catholicism right, right? At least that’s the stereotype that I remember from my Protestant childhood. The problem for me, however, was that when I looked into Catholicism I couldn’t find any real basis for the relentless association of the faith with guilt and negative reinforcement. For instance, did you know that of all the creation myths that exist only the one held by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam is completely violence-free? And the fact of Jesus’ non-aggression against his detractors and executioners is a deliberate sign of consistency with this myth?
I think that a combination of the Old Testament being rule-heavy and how one is taught about the Incarnation has a great deal to do with Catholicism being perceived as largely guilt-inducing, negative, and condemning. There’s not much that can be done about the Old Testament being rule-heavy (and violent, to boot) other than put it into context. Not the context of its fulfillment in the New Testament, but in this fact: man is always the instigator of violence and negation in the Old Testament. God neither punishes nor judges a single soul without being severely provoked.
The Incarnation is a bit trickier. It’s possible to look at Jesus and dismiss His perfect human nature because, well, He’s God. Of course you would have a perfect human nature if you were united with God. But, ha ha, because Jesus took on human nature it automatically became united with God for all of us! That’s the point of the Incarnation. The Incarnation is proof that our fallen human natures can, in fact, be perfect too. This is why the Incarnation is central to Catholicism and the source we direct our hope to.
3. The Church is fundamentally pro-choice.
Don’t believe half of Catholic doctrine? That’s fine. Don’t think that its humanly possible (or even natural) to refrain from sex until marriage? Ok, then. That’s your choice, and its one that Catholicism insists you have the right to. Man’s free-will is an integral part of Catholicism, but its often overlooked because people are looking for the cultural version of free-will. Cultural pro-choice means being free to determine your own truth. I will believe what I feel is right, and respect your right to believe what you feel is true. This perspective is also why so many struggle with point number one above: truth has become subjective.
Catholicism doesn’t make truth. Catholicism doesn’t change truth. Catholicism only professes Truth, and stands at attention, waiting for your choice. Which brings me to my next point…
4. God does not condemn anyone to Hell.
God created man in his own image and likeness. Does it make sense that He would condemn a part of Himself? Jesus took on human nature so that we “may have life, and have it abundantly.” That doesn’t sound like someone who wants to throw you out in the cold, does it? The entire point of salvation history is salvation. Hell, or eternal damnation, is “the state of those who definitively reject the Father’s mercy…[Hell] is not attributed to God’s initiative because in his merciful love he can only desire the salvation of the beings he created. In reality, it is the creature who closes himself to [God’s] love. Damnation consists precisely in definitive separation from God, freely chosen by the human person and confirmed with death that seals his choice forever.”* Theologically speaking, this doctrine is a derivative from points 2 and 3.
The notion of God “condemning” anyone to Hell is a legacy of the early Protestant communities. The 1646 Westminster Confession of Faith states, “but the wicked, who know not God, and obey not the gospel of Jesus Christ, shall be cast into eternal torments.” Calvin professed the doctrine of predestination, where God determines a person’s eternal state independently of the person’s actions. Southern Baptists speak often of God’s judgment on sinners.
Hell is a popular appropriation of hate groups and bigots. Homosexuals are going to Hell, Black/Asian/Latino people are going to Hell, Muslims are going to Hell, even Christians are relegated to Gehenna simply for being. The reality of Hell is quite terrifying, and is also easy to use as a disciplinary tool. But these are bastardizations of what Hell means, of what it is. We all know this instinctively, which is why Westboro Baptist Church has yet to catch on in civilized society.
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I could go on and on about various theological points that are important, if not critical, to Catholicism, but I think these four points set the right tone for anyone who approaches the Catholic faith for any reason. What do you think?
*Quoted from Pope St. John Paul II’s General Audience on July 28, 1999.