Mary Ann Collins
Some Catholic apologists portray Protestant churches as being unstable, constantly splitting into new denominations, and full of wide-spread disagreement about foundational issues. (I’ve had them tell me that there are 25,000 different denominations.) The contrast this with the Roman Catholic Church, which they portray as being solid and unified. They say that when people interpret the Bible for themselves, it results in chaos and division, as shown by the many Protestant denominations. They conclude that, therefore, Protestantism doesn’t work, and interpreting the Bible should only be done by the Catholic hierarchy. [Note 1] In other words, Protestants should become Catholics.
However, the picture of Protestant division and the picture of Catholic unity are both greatly exaggerated. The “chaos” is an illusion. And the resulting conclusion is therefore not valid.
THERE IS BASIC UNITY AMONG PROTESTANTS
There are some beliefs which define Christianity. These include things such as the Incarnation (Jesus Christ is truly God and truly man), the Atonement (Jesus Christ died for our salvation), the Resurrection of Jesus, the Second Coming of Jesus, and the authority of Scripture. These are not negotiable. Any person who does not believe them is not a Christian.
Some things are negotiable. These include things such as the form of baptism, the kind of worship music, the form of church structure and organization, defining the relationship between free will and predestination, and eschatology (beliefs about what will happen during the End Times). These are important issues. They can affect the quality of a person’s Christian life. But they do not determine whether or not a person is a Christian. These are areas in which Christians can agree to disagree.
Differences among genuine Protestants occur in the second area, the negotiable items. They could be compared to flavors of ice cream. There are many kinds of ice cream, but they are all ice cream. They aren’t pie, or cake, or salad. In real life, people know when they are eating ice cream, and when they are eating something else.
Some Catholic apologists say that there are 30,000 different Protestant denominations. This is not true. Dr. Eric Svendsen has made an in-depth study of this claim. There is no valid foundation for it. His book “On This Slippery Rock” has a chapter about it, which you can read online. Dr. Svendsen also has an online article about diversity in Catholic beliefs. [Note 2]
I looked in my local Yellow Pages under “churches”. It listed Catholic churches, Orthodox churches, a few cults, and 73 varieties of Protestant churches. Of the Protestant varieties, many are obviously variations of the same thing. For example, it listed nine different kinds of Baptist churches.
Let’s compare this to something in everyday life. There is a huge difference between cats and dogs and horses. Now if you narrow it down to dogs, there are many different varieties. And within each variety, there are subgroups. For example, there are different kinds of collies and different kinds of poodles.
Catholic apologists act as if differences in Protestant churches are like the huge differences between cats and horses and birds and dogs. In reality, they are like the differences between different kinds of dogs (variations in the same kind of thing.) Often, they are like the differences between different kinds of poodles or different kinds of collies (small variations in things which are essentially the same).
THERE IS DIVERSITY AMONG CATHOLICS
The appearance of unity among Catholics is misleading. There are actually major differences in theology and in practice. I will only discuss a few of them, by way of example.
Protestants who have differences in practice and belief identify themselves by different names. They openly acknowledge their differences. However, Catholics who have differences in practice and belief still call themselves by the same name (Roman Catholic), and they say that the Pope is their leader. This gives a false impression of unity.
In spite of verbally saying that the Pope is their leader, there are some Catholic priests and theologians who openly defy the Pope’s authority. As we will see later, there are some priests who promote abortion and euthanasia, and there are some seminary professors who teach doctrines and practices that are contrary to foundational Catholic doctrines. Some Catholics have written books about these problems. [Note 3] There are also some feminist nuns who openly defy the Pope. (These will be discussed later.)
There are conservative Catholics who want to do things the “old” way that things were done before the Second Vatican Council. This includes having Mass said in Latin.
An ultra conservative group called True Catholic believes that Pope John II is not a valid pope because he has promoted “heresy” (things which are contrary to Catholic doctrine which was “infallibly” declared by previous popes). They believe that, as a result, the papacy has been vacant. In order to remedy the situation, they have elected a pope. (Their website has information about this.) [Note 4]
There are some Catholic theologians who teach liberation theology, which equates salvation with armed revolution. There are gun-toting Catholic priests who fight alongside communist guerillas, working for communist revolution. [Note 5] I first heard about them from a Latin American friend who personally witnessed the destruction and confusion which they have caused.
As we will see, some Catholic priests and nuns teach things which are clearly contrary to basic Christian doctrine. Yet they are still allowed to teach in the name of the Catholic Church, and to hold positions of influence and authority.
The Catholic Church has traditionally been a champion of the sanctity of life. However, some Catholic priests at a prestigious Catholic university are actively working to undermine the sanctity of human life, both theoretically and in practical ways.
Georgetown University is run by Jesuit priests. It is the home of the Kennedy Institute of Ethics, which is headed by a Jesuit priest. Some of its faculty members are also Jesuit priests.
The Kennedy Institute of Ethics actively promotes abortion and euthanasia, which are contrary to the traditional Catholic belief in the sanctity of human life. It is working to have “death” be redefined to include people in “irreversible” comas, so that doctors can get better quality organs for transplants. This is documented in the book “Culture of Death”. [Note 6 ]
The Kennedy Institute of Ethics trains doctors, nurses, lawyers, legislators, teachers, and hospital administrators. It also has an annual summer “Intensive Bioethics Course” which is attended by people from around the world. It has branches in Asia and Europe. According to the woman I spoke with, it has the most comprehensive library of bioethics literature in the world.
NEW AGE TEACHINGS AND PRACTICES
The “New Age” is a mixture of old paganism and Eastern religions that have been “westernized” by dressing them up in modern vocabulary and images. It denies foundational Christian (and Catholic) doctrines. In spite of this, there are some Catholic priests and nuns who openly promote New Age beliefs and practices. This is an area in which there is a wide diversity of beliefs among Catholics.
My article “New Age Catholicism” has a lot of detailed, carefully documented information about this. (It comes primarily from Catholic authors.) I’m only giving a brief summary here. [Note 7]
Some Catholic priests are teaching trusting Catholics to engage in occult practices, including “channeling” (having “spirits” speak through you). Some feminist nuns participate in pagan rituals, worship “the goddess,” and practice witchcraft.
There are Catholic retreat houses which promote New Age practices. A Catholic priest runs a Catholic-Hindu “house of prayer” which has statues of Hindu gods, plus a crucifix.
Some Catholic schools no longer teach foundational Christian doctrines, such as the Resurrection. Instead, they teach New Age beliefs. There are Catholic colleges which give workshops on withcraft rituals, channeling, and goddess worship. These New Age beliefs and practices are contrary to traditional Catholic teaching.
Another area of diversity is the approach toward some old fashioned Catholic “devotions”. I will illustrate this with one example.
Can Catholics be sure of getting into Heaven if they wear a specific religious item showing devotion to Mary? Modern theologians and apologists will probably tell you, “Of course not!” However, as we will see, there are Catholics who believe that Mary will give them “fire insurance” if they follow her directions.
According to tradition, on July 16, 1251, the Virgin Mary appeared to Saint Simon Stock, holding a Brown Scapular (two pieces of brown cloth attached by strings). She promised him, “Whoever dies clothed in this [the scapular] shall not suffer eternal fire.” This promise is for people who belong to the religious order of the Carmelites, or who are associated with them. Catholics can be “enrolled” into the “family of Carmel” by any Carmelite or authorized Catholic priest. In 1965, Pope Paul VI encouraged Catholics to wear the Brown Scapular and pray the Rosary. [Note 8]
Catholics who wear the Brown Scapular can also qualify for the “Sabbatine Privilege” if they fulfill certain religious requirements. The “Sabbatine Privilege” is a promise that if they go to Purgatory, Mary will get their Purgatory time shortened. [Note 9 ]
There are other Catholic devotional practices which have promises attached to them. They often involve the use of medals, rosaries, pictures, different kinds of scapulars, and specific prayers. There is even a “five way medal” which consists of a cross with medals at the end of each of the four arms. This enables people to wear a cross and four different medals at the same time in a neat and orderly way. (Five items on five separate chains could become quite tangled.) There are also “four way medals” which have four medals in the general shape of a cross. Sometimes the medal is enclosed in a circle. Some of these medals are solid gold, and quite expensive. [Note 10]
I have known Catholics with a wide range of approaches to these “devotions”. Some considered them to be old fashioned, or even superstitious. Others took them quite seriously. I knew one woman who was so devoted to praying the rosary that even when she was carrying on a conversation, her rosary beads were going through her fingers.
Roman Catholic seminaries have a wide diversity of teaching and practice. Some of them teach traditional Catholic doctrines, behavior, and piety. However, many do not.
Michael Rose is a devout Catholic and a professional investigative reporter. He wrote “Goodbye, Good Men: How Liberals Brought Corruption into the Catholic Church”. [Note 11]
You can read the book’s Introduction online. You can also read online feedback testimonials of seminarians and priests who read the book, as well as reviews of the book. [Note 12]
Rose interviewed over 150 people. His book only shows the tip of the iceberg, because many people were afraid to let him write about their experiences. Others allowed him to write about them, but insisted that he change their name to protect them.
Chapter 5 (“The Heterodoxy Downer”) tells of seminary faculty members who deliberately undermine the official teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. Some are openly disdainful of traditional Catholic doctrines, and mock seminary students who believe them. Some seminary textbooks openly deny basic Catholic doctrines such as papal infallibility, transubstantiation (the doctrine that Jesus Christ is literally present in the Eucharist), the basis for the Mass, and the basis for the Catholic priesthood. One seminarian threatened to sue his seminary for consumer fraud because it misrepresented itself as teaching Catholic doctrine.
But it goes much farther than this. Some seminary faculty members deny doctrines which are absolutely foundational to Christianity. And they teach things which are opposed to Christianity. Following are some examples from Chapter 5.
Seminarians who reported problems to their superiors were often reprimanded or ignored. Even appeals to bishops were ignored. The lack of response by people in authority is a recurring theme throughout the book.
This kind of doctrine and behavior is clearly contrary to what is taught in “The Catechism of the Catholic Church”. It demonstrates the wide diversity among Roman Catholics.
THE PROBLEM OF MISTAKES
Should men and women interpret the Bible for themselves? They might make mistakes. This is a problem because nobody is immune from making mistakes.
But mistakes can be corrected. We serve a living God who loves us. He is able to correct us if we get off track. Look at some of the prayers in the Bible.
Men and women who study the Bible and interpret it for themselves may sometimes make mistakes. But if people do not know the Bible well, and they are not used to understanding Scripture for themselves, then they will be easily persuaded by authority figures who teach unbiblical things. In order to test a teaching, people need something solid to compare it to.
Catholics are used to trusting priests and nuns, and accepting whatever they teach them. Catholics have not been taught how to test things, and check them out against Scripture.
The possibility of making mistakes is something that we have to deal with all the time. For example, there are no perfect parents. Fathers and mothers make mistakes. But that doesn’t mean that children should be raised by “experts” in institutions instead of being raised by their parents. “Experts” make mistakes, too.
The learning process always involves the risk of making mistakes. Hebrews 5:14 says that it is “by reason of use” that people “have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.” In other words, it takes time and practice to learn to discern things for ourselves. But God expects us to do it. 1 Thessalonians 5:21 says that we should “prove [test] all things; hold fast that which is good.” In other words, test everything and only keep what’s good.
Romans 8:28 says that “All things work together for good to them that love God.” That includes our mistakes. God is big enough and powerful enough and loving enough to make even our mistakes work out for our good. He is “able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy”. (Jude 1:24)
The Catholic approach says, “You might make a mistake. I’ll do your thinking for you.”
The Protestant approach says, “Even if you do make a mistake, our God is able to turn it around and use it for good. Do your best and with the guidance of God’s Word and the Holy Spirit, you will be able to grow into a mature Christian who is able to handle God’s Word correctly (“rightly dividing the word of truth”). (2 Timothy 2:15)
Although Catholics have a common name and acknowledge a common leader, there is actually a wide variety of practices and beliefs within Roman Catholicism.
Although there are variations in Protestant churches, genuine Protestants are in agreement about the foundational doctrines of Christianity. Their differences concern the practical application of how to nurture, develop, and express our Christian life.
It is somewhat comparable to nutrition. There are numerous approaches to nutrition, and “experts” still don’t fully understand it. All parents agree that we need to feed our children. But they have different ideas about what constitutes the best way of feeding them. Similarly, Protestant churches have different ideas about what is the best way to feed Christian “sheep”.
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