Do you believe God loves you?
And when I ask that question, I’m not asking it in some abstract, “hidden hand” deistic sort of way – like, He put you here on earth, now good luck figuring things out. I mean, do you believe God really, truly loves you? Do you think He cares about how you are doing? About your pain and struggles? Do you think He’s trying to show you where to go and is guiding you along, even if you don’t always know where He’s taking you? Do you believe He loves you? If you didn’t know what to do in a difficult situation, do you think He would really, as James puts it, “give wisdom to those who ask” (James 1:5) and show you what to do? Do you think He cares about you that much?
Let’s pull the lens out a bit. Do you think He loves everyone that way? Do you think He loved everyone who came before you that much, and will He love everyone after you that much? Did He guide those in the past and will He guide those in the future like the Good Shepherd He says He is? (John 10:11)
It’s because I answered “yes” to all of those questions that I had to be Catholic. Why?
Imagine two fathers who lived in a small neighborhood. Both had a reputation for being good and faithful family men and each had only one child. The first father was around for his child’s birth. But in the years following, he had to go off on business trips quite often, not just for days or weeks or months, but for years. His wife, the child’s mother, tried to raise the boy in a way that she felt the father wanted her to. And the child, wanting to please his father, tried very hard to follow what he thought were his standards. There were rooms, for example, in the house that he wasn’t allowed to go in, and he obeyed. He heard his father was very good at sports, and so he tried out for the football team and baseball team and basketball team. In every way he could, he tried to imitate his father.
Later, though, as the boy grew up, his father began working less and was home more often. And the boy discovered, to his dismay, that he had it all wrong about his dad. There were not really any rooms he had to keep away from. His father was actually much more into academics, so all the child’s efforts to become a great athlete meant nothing to him. To make matters worse, it seemed every month his dad would change his mind about some expectation. One month, it would be OK for the boy to be out till midnight with his friends. Another month, he would have to be home by 8pm. One week, dating girls was completely forbidden, and the next his dad practically encouraged it. It became difficult for the boy to figure out what it was his father actually wanted. And in the end, he felt as though he could never really know.
The second father, on the other hand, was constantly around for his child. The rules of the home were so consistent that the boy almost always knew when he was in or out of his father’s favor. And when he was unsure about what his dad really wanted from him, since his dad was there on a daily basis, he could just ask him and get an answer. Their relationship grew strong, and the boy never doubted that his father would always be there for him and guide him.
The church, from Christ onward through the last 2000 years, is like each boy in the story. Catholics believe that, like the second father, God has always been around for His church. When she was being divided by heresy after heresy, His Holy Spirit was guiding her into the truth she needed in that moment. She needed, at one point, to figure out exactly what it meant that Christ was both God and man, and God told her. She needed to discover which books belonged in the Bible, and He revealed it to her. She needed to know where pictures of saints and Jesus fit into church buildings and homes, if at all, and He told her. She needed to know the sure path of salvation, and He illuminated it for her. All of this was done through ecumenical councils, the leadership exercised by the Pope with his bishops, and certainly the reflections of the church fathers throughout the centuries. This is why it’s so important to Catholics to align themselves with what the church has always taught. It’s not because we’re hipsters and like being retro. It’s because we believe God never abandoned us even from the beginning. And since it was Him speaking to and through the church 2000 years ago, 1300 years ago, 1500 years ago, etc., we don’t have the right to ignore what He said then just because it’s old.
The way nearly every other Christian denomination sees it (especially every Protestant denomination, as well as Mormons) is that God somehow left the building when He ascended and/or the last living Apostle died, leaving us to fight it out over what was actually right doctrine and right living, never actually knowing for sure whether we’re even right – hence, the multitude of Protestant denominations. This, I know, sounds unfair. I’m not trying to be offensive, but practically speaking, looking back on my life before I was Catholic, however much Christian terminology I dressed my former beliefs in, this is what it ended up being.
I tried to get it, but the more this reality sinks in, the more disturbing it becomes. I would pray for guidance in my own life and believed with all my heart that God, the Good Shepherd, was guiding and teaching me. Before I became Catholic, I would ask the Holy Spirit to open my eyes to the truth in the Bible and to understand it rightly. But I knew that Christians had been praying those prayers for centuries, that the church fathers were immersed in Scripture, and clearly, from a Protestant perspective, God either had not answered countless generations of Christians, or He had responded to everyone with opposing and contradictory answers. How else could I explain the multiplicity of churches chocked full of sincere, Bible-believing, God-loving Christians, with so many different doctrines and practices?
Some will say, “The Bible is clear about the essential matters, and Catholics (and other Christians who don’t hold my particular views) are clearly wrong on the essentials – just read the Bible.” But there are problems with this attitude. For example, “how to get to Heaven” is considered a pretty essential matter by most Christians. Does the Catholic view of salvation clearly go against how the Bible says we get saved? The answer is “yes”, depending on how you interpret the Bible. And “no”, depending on how you interpret the Bible. The main beef most serious Protestants have with Catholics (and what most ignited the Protestant movement 500 years ago) was the belief that Catholics made getting to Heaven contingent on believing in Jesus and pursuing holy living. Protestants said all we had to do was believe in Jesus (I’m painting with broad brushstrokes here). So what does the Bible say? Well, it says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God; it is not from works.” (Eph. 2:8-9a) Clearly Protestants are right. But it also says, “Faith without works is dead” (James 2:14-26) and that God will “will repay everyone according to his works” (Rom. 2:5-6), so now Catholics are right? As a Protestant, I would hear this dilemma solved by saying “the clear passages interpret the unclear ones”, meaning that we should build our understanding of the faith on the parts of the Bible that are easy to understand and interpret and let those shed light on the obscure and hard-to-understand parts. As far as I can tell, what actually ended up happening was that preachers would conclude that the “clear passages” were the ones that agreed with the theology they already believed in and the “unclear” ones were the ones that didn’t. This is not to say that pastors meant to do this, nor is it to say that Catholic interpreters of the Bible always get it right. But Catholics readily admit that the Bible is hard to understand, which is why we need the whole church – throughout the last 2000 years – and her Holy Spirit-guided leadership to clear things up for the rest of us.
Another objection was that Catholics believed in things that weren’t in the Bible. This is a tricky one because the assumption I had as a Protestant was that if you couldn’t find some teaching explicitly mentioned in the Bible, then you couldn’t hold it to be true doctrine. One somewhat extreme example of this I experienced recently. I was talking to someone who went to a church where they have no instruments and sing everything a’ cappella. I’m sure it sounds absolutely gorgeous in there, but the reason given was because the New Testament never says anything explicitly about using instruments in church services or liturgies. I don’t think most Protestants would go that far, but you get the point. Catholics believe a lot of things about Mary and the saints and angels that you don’t explicitly see mentioned in the Bible. This is dangerous and wrong to a lot of Christians because the fear is that man-made traditions and beliefs seep into (and have seeped into) the Catholic church this way.
But think for a moment about what the purpose of the New Testament writings were. When Paul, who wrote most of the New Testament books, sent a letter to one church or another, was his intent to write out a detailed systematic theology on every aspect of the Christian faith? Of course not. Was it even the intent of the Gospel writers to include every last teaching Jesus wanted His disciples to follow? Of course not. Paul mentions in Acts 20:35 that Jesus said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” Nowhere in the Gospels is it recorded that Jesus actually said that. Did the Jews of the Old Testament have an oral tradition, not written down in the Bible, that helped inform their faith? Yes, they did. So this comes down to a question of whether building your faith entirely and completely on only what the Bible explicitly says is even the way Jesus and the Apostles intended us to build our faith, or whether we were meant to inform our faith with the writings of the church fathers and other traditions that the church believes have been handed down by the Apostles.* The Catholic Church believes the latter.
Eventually, I had to admit that if I didn’t believe God was guiding the church these last 2000 years, then I couldn’t be sure God was guiding me either. And if I truly believed God loved me enough to guide me today, then I couldn’t believe God had abandoned His children for centuries to damning heresy. Either I was wrong as a Protestant and God was an ever-present Father and guide to His church, or I was right and God was an absentee dad.
Some will object, “Don’t blame God for the fact that His children don’t always read the Bible right.” Perhaps our differences stem from our own incompetence and have nothing to do with God’s presence or absence. But going back to my previous post on church history, think about Israel before Christ. They found themselves, constantly, in the depths of one heresy after another, one debauchery after another, with pretty much no excuse. And even in the darkest years, God sent a prophet or preserved a remnant of people who carried the torch of truth. Israel in the Old Testament is like this drunk guy trying to walk across a bridge for whom God always provides a couple friends to keep him steady.
Compare that to the church through the centuries, filled to the brim with martyrs and saints. Popes throughout the first 1000 years after Christ stood head to head against emperors who tended to have it in mind to change what the church had always believed. One Pope at least was exiled for his courage, and many more were martyred. Reading the writings of the great theologians of the church is to read the minds of people drowned in Scripture. They lived and breathed it. Every week, during Mass, the faithful would cry out to God for mercy – kyrie eleison. And this was the church He abandoned to heresy? Israel gets across the bridge drunk, but the church, sober, has to walk a tightrope with no guarantee?
I’m sorry if my tone is too harsh, but this was my existential crisis. It wasn’t academic. It was emotional and struck to the very core of my spirituality. Either God is with us and I am Catholic, or I have no clue whether or not God is with us and I am Protestant. I knew which path I had to choose.
*Keep in mind that there are some lower case “traditions” that the church feels perfectly fine with changing and upper case “Traditions” that she is not allowed to. For example doing Mass in Latin is something the church did for centuries, but it was not obligated to always do it that way.
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