The Power of Words

Mary Ann Collins
(A Former Catholic Nun)

October, 2002
Revised May, 2004

What happens if two people are talking, and they use the same vocabulary, but they have a different dictionary? What if the same word means quite different things to them?

They may think that they understand one another when, in reality, they have no idea of what the other person is thinking. They may think that they are in agreement about something when they actually disagree.

This can happen between Catholics and Protestants. For example, let's look at the word "grace." According to the Bible, salvation cannot be earned. The Apostle Paul said:

"For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast." (Ephesians 2:8-9)

"Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us…" (Titus 3:5)

However, according to Catholic doctrine, if people do good works, and they fulfill certain specified requirements, then they can merit a "divine reward" from God. [Note 1] This is a doctrine of earning spiritual things by doing good works.

The liturgical ritual for baptizing infants includes a prayer asking God to give grace to the water in the baptismal font (the water that will be used to sprinkle the infant). [Note 2] So for Catholics, "grace" is something that can be given to inanimate objects, such as water.

When I was a Catholic, this made sense to me, because I was used to accepting whatever the priest said without question. Now that I am a Protestant, and I have some understanding of Scripture, the idea is incomprehensible.

In the Bible, grace seems to be a simple thing. But somehow the Catholic Church makes it seem complicated and mystifying. The "Pocket Catholic Dictionary" has a complex, technical, three-paragraph definition of "grace" that ends by recommending that the reader also look at entries for actual grace, efficacious grace, habitual grace, justifying grace, sacramental grace, sanctifying grace, and sufficient grace. It also has entries for "baptismal graces" and "state of grace." [Note 3]

Here is an example of how Protestants can think that they understand Catholicism, when they really don't.

A Catholic priest wrote to me saying that the Catholic Church teaches that we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. He failed to mention something. It teaches that we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ--PLUS being baptized, going to Mass on Sundays, receiving communion at least once a year, going to confession at least once a year, believing the official doctrines of the Catholic Church, and dying in a state of grace. (In America, Mass on Saturdays can be substituted for Mass on Sundays.)

Until the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), popes openly declared that there is no salvation apart from the Pope. [Note 4] That involves more than faith in Jesus Christ.

Modern popes taught that salvation comes through Mary. [Note 5] According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Mary has a "saving office" and her intercession brings us our salvation. [Note 6] In 1993, Pope John Paul II said that Mary "obtains for us divine mercy." [Note 7]

Words can cause confusion. For example, Catholic theologians speak of three degrees of homage, which have Latin words. "Latria" is the kind of worship that is due to God alone. "Dulia" is appropriate for honoring the saints. "Hyperdula" is appropriate for honoring Mary. It is higher than "dulia," but not "latria." Because of these three words, Catholic theologians say that Catholics do not worship Mary.

However, in the real world, these theological distinctions don't work. Most Catholics have never heard of these words. Of those who have, how many know how to apply them in practical ways? Catholics are not taught how to engage in "hyperdulia" without crossing a line that results in actually practicing "latria" towards Mary without realizing it.

When I was a Catholic, sometimes people would ask me about praying to Mary and the saints. I used to say that I was just asking them to pray for me, like I would ask a friend. But there is a difference. When I talk to my friends, I am talking to people who are alive-not people who have died. The Bible tells us that we should not communicate with dead people, that we should not seek the dead on behalf of the living. (Isaiah 8:19; Deuteronomy 18:11-12)

So what I said was misleading. However, I didn't realize it at the time.

Some ways of using words can result in statements that are technically correct, but the result is misleading. Here is an example.

For centuries, the Catholic Church would not allow the Bible to be translated into English. It was only available in Latin.

A Catholic apologist told me that this made no difference, because the common people were illiterate. They were unable to read and write. They would not have been able to read the Bible even if it had been available in English.

However, during Mass, the priests read passages from Scripture out loud. Even people who can't read are able to understand what they hear. If the Scripture passages had been read in English, then the people would have understood them.

When the Bible was finally translated into English, it was kept in a church. All day long, men took turns reading the Bible out loud, while crowds of people listened. [Note 8]


I have an Evangelical friend who has seriously studied Catholicism. He had an urgent, practical need for the information, because he married a Catholic woman.

At the time that he married her, he believed that Catholicism was "just another valid form of Christianity." He attended Mass with his wife on Sundays. After a while, he began to feel that something was wrong. Then he started investigating Catholicism. This is what my friend Jeff has to say:

"Today's ecumenical movement draws many Protestants and Roman Catholics together, because they believe that they share a common faith. The Protestants believe that there are outward differences, but the faith is the same. The Catholics believe that their faith is Biblical, and that Protestants are just separated brothers and sisters who need the Mother Church in order to experience the fullness of the faith. When you look into it, though, you'll find that the majority of Protestants and Catholics are unfamiliar with the history and official doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church, and, indeed, unfamiliar with the Bible. They prefer to get along with one another in matters of faith, rather than to investigate, understand, and contend for the Gospel of Christ, as laid out in the Bible, and to compare it with official Catholic doctrine. As a result, many Roman Catholic teachings remain out of view for the average church-goer and mass-attendee. Those who do earnestly investigate Catholicism, and compare it with the Bible, find that some of the language appears to be the same, but the definitions, beliefs, applications, and perspectives behind this language are anything but the same. They also find a multitude of additional layers and dimensions to Roman Catholicism that they would never have imagined." (Jeff Lawlor, used by permission. Emphasis added.)

In Jeff's case, the situation worked out. His wife became an Evangelical Christian. Jeff and his wife are in agreement about how to raise children, where to go to church, and how to practice their religion in their home.

I have corresponded with many suffering Christians whose situation did not work out well. After they married a Catholic, they discovered that Catholicism is radically different from what they thought it was. Because of that, they are no longer able to attend Mass, or to instruct their children in the Catholic faith. They have discussed their problem with their Catholic spouse, but their spouse remains loyal to the Catholic Church. As a result, their home is full of conflict and confusion, and their children suffer because of it.

Because these people didn't understand the differences between Catholicism and Protestantism back when they were courting, they and their children are suffering today. Verbal confusion can result in serious practical consequences.


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