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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Catholic Dilemma

Someone called me this week to talk about whether they as a Catholic would indeed end up in heaven. It was an interesting question, as I'm ordained a Baptist pastor and mostly practice a non-denominational brand of Christianity myself. I wondered why this individual would ask such a question. He'd been a long-time member of the Catholic church and felt he was a "good Catholic," practicing the Catholic traditions as he knew and understood them. Still, he described a nagging question in his mind about whether this was sufficient for salvation. I had to tell him it is not.

There is a dilemma with the Catholics, you know. It is one of the oldest religions in the world. It is also one of the most influential religions in the world. Founded in Rome (remember the Roman Empire from Biblical times), it's influence has prevailed over much of the world since after the death of Christ. Most would consider it a respectable religion. Few would question it. And of course, many millions of people follow it. So what's the dilemma? It is that the Catholic religion isn't all based on truth. Some of what the Catholics believe and practice is Biblical and true - but not all of what they believe and practice.

The Catholics have a number of beliefs and practices, which have been added to Biblical truth, that simply aren't Biblical and aren't true. Let's look at some examples:

Purgatory has been a long-held tradition among Catholics. It was like the "waiting room" to heaven, where people go who may not be quite as righteous as God would want. They wait there while God welcomes the true saints and most holy, godly people in. (I imagine it a bit like flying in coach and having to wait for the first class section to board first.) Interestingly, the Catholics have had another "waiting room" for babies and those too young to be sinners before their human lives ended. It was called "limbo." We aren't sure what happened there, but it was generally not considered to be good. (I imagined limbo a bit like flying stand-by, where your status is even less than coach passengers --- because we're not even sure you'll get on the flight!) Fortunately, the Catholic church abolished limbo not too long ago. Now we either go to heaven, hell or purgatory. there is no waiting line to get into the waiting room any more. The thing is that none of this is Biblical. The Bible mentions none of this. Jesus mentioned none of this. It is a figment of Catholic imagination.

The Virgin Mary is a cherished idol in Catholicism. She is regarded by Catholics at a level just below Jesus Himself. They believe she has supernatural powers beyond her human life. So Catholics pray to the Virgin Mary. They ask her to intercede (which means talk to God) for them. They ask her for other things. There is even a sect of Catholicism called "Maryology" - which is the study of "all things Mary." Make no mistake here --- Jesus was emphatic about the fact that nobody is holy save Himself. Even Jesus accurately described the role of his own birth mother in common, mortal terms. She has no supernatural power, no deity herself, and is not to be regarded any differently than anyone else God has used in history do execute His will. So not only does the Bible not mention the Virgin Mary's deity, it specifically speaks against such a notion for anyone. The current role of the Virgin Mary in Catholicism is a figment of Catholic imagination.

Communion, the Eucharist or whatever other terms you use for the taking of bread and wine in remembrance of Jesus is a common tradition in all Christ-centered religions. Jesus actually told us to celebrate communion, so it is an obedience issue. But Catholics believe that once the priest has "consecrated" (e.g. prayed over) the bread and the wine (or juice) --- it becomes the physical body and blood of Christ. Catholics then treat that same bread and wine (probably purchased at the local supermarket earlier that day) as sacred and holy. The leftovers cannot be thrown out, for example. The priest drinks the leftover wine himself, or it can be poured down a special sink which drains to the soil underneath the Catholic church. The bread must be saved and used in other communion events. Often it is taken to shut-ins who couldn't attend the communion service at the church. So here's the thing --- Catholics believe that the priest has the power, through the Holy Spirit, to change the composition of the bread and wine into actual flesh and blood of Christ. Once again, this is not Biblical. Jesus made no mention of converting their composition or making them holy and sacred. He simply said, "Use these as a symbol of my flesh and blood to celebrate my gifts to you." What Catholics are doing with the communion elements is a figment of Catholic imagination.

I could go on here, but I imagine you can get the picture. It's not that the Catholics are a cult or are evil. It's just that they've added things to Scriptural truth that simply aren't there. In a sense, they begin to look like the Pharisees that Jesus spoke so much about --- who took the Old Testament law and added things to it such that they lost the whole point of it.

So, to my Catholic friends ... and I have several whom I love dearly ... I would simply say to read your Bible and find out what is true. Jesus and other New Testament writers told us to test everything against Scripture. So see what the Catholic church is teaching you. Then see if you can find it in Scripture. If so, believe it and practice it. If not, ignore it and focus on what is true. I suspect that the "nagging question" which my friend described as occupying his mind is actually the Holy Spirit calling him to test what's he's being taught against Scripture, and to focus his beliefs and practices on Biblical truth instead of the teachings of any religion or church.

All religions, from what I can tell, are flawed and imperfect. I would never tell someone to leave their church because of a problem they found. Churches and religions are run by humans. And ultimately the question of who gets into heaven isn't decided by any of us. It is God's exclusive decision. And He makes that decision after calling each of us to engage in these imperfect churches!

So, can a Catholic expect to end up in heaven? Most assuredly he (or she) can. But it will not be because they are Catholic. Rather it will be due to the Biblical truths that they believed and practiced. And God will most certainly forgive the figments of Catholic imagination that they may have been mislead by.

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