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Why I Could Never Become a Catholic – Part 6: The Papacy

26 Oct

Roman Catholics claim that the Pope is, through an unbroken line of apostolic succession, the heir to the first “Bishop of Rome”. They further assert that that first Bishop was none other than St Peter the Apostle, to whom, they maintain, Jesus entrusted his church, thus making him the chief apostle.

This supposed supremacy gained an apparent legal status from forged documents that the Roman Catholic Church knowingly used for centuries despite their being known to be false. Out of these claims arose the dogma that the church is protected from “sliding into the error of heresy” through papal infallibility.

But such claims, as we shall see, are not substantiated in either the Holy Scriptures, the writings of the Early Church or Ecclesiastical history.

So let us start by examining what the Roman Catholic Church says on the subject.

1.Consequently, we declare state, define, and pronounce that it is altogether necessary to salvation for every human creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff.” Papal Bull, Unam Sanctam, (18th November, 1302)

2.We teach and declare that, according to the gospel evidence, a primacy of jurisdiction over the whole church of God was immediately and directly promised to the blessed apostle Peter and conferred on him by Christ the lord.” The First Vatican Council, chapter 1

3.and so, supported by the clear witness of holy Scripture, and adhering to the manifest and explicit decrees both of our predecessors the Roman Pontiff’s and of general councils, we promulgate anew the definition of the ecumenical Council of Florence, which must be believed by all faithful Christians, namely that the apostolic see and the Roman Pontiff hold a worldwide primacy, and that the Roman Pontiff is the successor of blessed Peter, the Prince of the apostles, true Vicar of Christ, head of the whole church and father and teacher of all Christian people. To him, in blessed Peter, full power has been given by our Lord Jesus Christ to tend, rule and govern the universal Church. All this is to be found in the acts of the ecumenical councils and the sacred canons.” The First Vatican Council, chapter 3.

The catechism of the Catholic Church states the following:

4.Simon Peter holds the first place in the college of the Twelve; Jesus entrusted a unique mission to him. Through a revelation from the Father, Peter had confessed: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Our Lord then declared to him: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” Christ, the “living Stone”, thus assures his Church, built on Peter, of victory over the powers of death. Because of the faith he confessed Peter will remain the unshakable rock of the Church. His mission will be to keep this faith from every lapse and to strengthen his brothers in it.” (CCC 552)

5.The Roman Pontiff and the bishops are ‘authentic teachers, that is, teachers endowed with the authority of Christ, who preach the faith to the people entrusted to them, the faith to be believed and put into practice.’ The ordinary and universal Magisterium of the Pope and the bishops in communion with him teach the faithful the truth to believe, the charity to practice, the beatitude to hope for.” (CCC 2034)

Thus, the whole edifice stands or falls on a) whether Matthew 16 – the only place that Jesus made the declaration to Peter – is interpreted correctly or not; and b) whether Peter was ever Bishop of Rome.

But before we examine the scriptural claim we must first dispose of the Papal Bull, Unam Sanctam.

In Unam Sanctam the Roman Catholic Church yet again imposes conditions on salvation that are not biblical. The condition that “every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff” is heretical and distracts the Catholic faithful from true salvation, which is dependent on faith in Christ alone, by making them subject to whatever the papacy decides is necessary for salvation, irrespective of the Word of God. In addition, through this requirement, the papacy has usurped God’s place as the ultimate judge of all humankind, condemning all non-Catholics to perdition on the basis of a man-made doctrine.

These are the actions, not of holy men, but of despots who fear losing temporal power (as we shall see later).

A. The Primacy of Peter as Supreme Apostle

The catechism justifies Peter’s holding first place by citing the listing of the 12 disciples in Mark 3: 16, in which (like the other synoptic listings[1]) Peter is the first named. This in itself is weak evidence, given that all the synoptic gospels state that Jesus first called Peter and Andrew and then James and John, thus it is natural that he heads the list and that he, with James and John (who may have been cousins of Jesus) form Jesus’ inner circle[2] (Mark 5:37; 9:2; 13:3; 14.33) . St John’s Gospel, however, tells us that the first disciple was Andrew, who brought his brother Simon to Jesus, who, on seeing him, named him Cephas, which is translated as Peter (John 1:42). Thus, if John is correct, Simon bore the name Peter from the outset and not just after his divinely inspired revelation of the true identity of Jesus as suggested by Matthew.

They also justify their claim of primacy in that Jesus appeared to Peter before the rest of the 12:

34 They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” (Luke 24:34)

5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.” (I Corinthians 15:5)

Given the corroboration of St Paul in I Corinthians 15, we can assume that the Simon mentioned is Peter (and not Simon the Zealot), but given that it is inserted at the end of the account of the appearance of Jesus to two men on the road to Emmaus, it is not clear whether the appearance preceded their meeting or not. Thus, the evidence for primacy here is weak at best.

Moreover, according to St John, Jesus first appeared to Mary Magdalene (John 20:10-18); and that is corroborated by St Matthew who reports that the first appearance was to “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary” (Matthew 28:9-10)) before any of the 12. Thus if we were to follow the Catholic argument to its logical conclusion, Mary Magdalene had primacy over the 12 disciples.

While it may be that during Christ’s ministry, Peter had a precedence (albeit with James and John) through his impetuousness, this did not last long into the post Ascension period as the early church moved from being entirely Jewish to largely gentile.

St Paul refers to the “acknowledged pillars” of the early church, as “James and Cephas and John” (Galatians 2: 9). Here we see a triumvirate – James the Brother of Jesus; Peter, Apostle to the Jews; and St John the Evangelist  – offering the “right hand of fellowship” to Paul and Barnabas for their work with the Gentiles. Later in the same chapter (Galatians 2:11-14) St Paul rebukes St Peter, suggesting that he had risen in the eyes of the church to a similar status: Apostle to the Gentiles.

Surely, if Peter were supreme among the Apostles he would have been mentioned first by Paul instead of James; and surely Peter would have made the final decision and not James, the brother of Jesus, at the Council of Jerusalem had he been the supreme apostle (Acts 15:19).

Surprisingly, the Catholic Church did not make use of Matthew 16:18 until the mid-third century.  The first pope to have appealed to the classic “you are Peter” text as the basis for Roman primacy was Pope Stephen I (254-257). But does his claim have any validity?

Let us do a little exegesis on the key verses in Matthew 16 – the context for which is that Jesus had been asking his disciples who people thought he was – in which Peter made his declaration that Jesus is the Messiah.

17 And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.’” (Matthew 16:17-19)

First, the promise contained in verse 18, on which the Catholic claim for the papacy is predicated, is not found in the earlier synoptic Gospels of Mark (8:27-39) or Luke (9:18-27). Catholics claim this is because Peter was too humble to allow Mark to include it (though this is not a plausible pretext given that the Gospel did not appear until after the martyrdom of Peter (and Paul)) and that Luke suppressed it for fear of persecution (equally unlikely given the early Christian view of martyrdom). These claims are even more improbable if Matthew wrote his Gospel first as many Catholics still claim (despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary).

Second, when we look at the Greek text of Matthew 16, we notice something odd in verse 18 that is not obvious in our English translations.

κἀγὼ δέ σοι λέγω ὅτι σὺ εἶ Πέτρος, καὶ ἐπὶ ταύτῃ τῇ πέτρᾳ οἰκοδομήσω μου τὴν ἐκκλησίαν, καὶ πύλαι ᾅδου οὐ κατισχύσουσιν αὐτῆς.

Notice the two underlined words Πέτρος (Petros) and πέτρα (petra) are of a different gender and, thus, have a related but different meaning. The first, Petros (masculine), which was the name given to Peter by Christ, refers to a large, moveable stone, whereas the second, petra (feminine) refers to bedrock; ie the former can be shaken loose (like the rocks in a landslide), while the second is fixed and immovable (like the Rock of Gibraltar). In the New Testament, apart from in John 1:42 to which we’ll come in a moment, Petros is only used as the name for Peter.

As in English, there is no distinction in Aramaic which has just a single word, Kipha, for rock. This is the root of the word used by Jesus on first meeting Peter:

42 He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas’” (which is translated Peter). John 1:42

In the Greek text of John 1:42, the word Κηφᾶς (Kephas) is translated as Πέτρος (Petros) to elucidate its meaning. However, appealing to the Aramaic, as Catholics are wont to do, is pointless in the case of Matthew 16:18 as the text is entirely in Greek and there is no Hebrew version extant (if ever one existed, which itself is moot).

So why would Matthew – and remember this verse is only to be found in Matthew – record this distinction if Jesus had not made it? Could it be that Jesus used the masculine form, not just because Peter was a man, but because he knew Peter’s impetuous and unstable character (Mark 8:32-34; Matthew 14:29-30; Luke 22:57-58; Galatians 2:11-14)? This is more plausible to my mind that the Catholic explanation.

But if Jesus was not referring to Peter when he used petra, to whom was he alluding? To answer this question one has to examine how the word rock is used elsewhere in the Bible.

In the Old Testament the word rock is sometimes used to describe God (eg Deuteronomy 32:4; II Samuel 22:2-3; Psalm 18:2,31, 46; Psalm 78:35; Isaiah 17:10; Isaiah 44:8; Habakkuk 1:12) but never used to describe any human.

In the New Testament, apart from Matthew 16, petra (or one of its declensions) only occurs 5 other times, two of which (Mark 15:46, Matthew 27:60) refer to Jesus’ tomb as being hewn from solid rock (petra); and three of which are used to refer to Christ:

4 and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock (petras) that followed them, and the rock (petra) was Christ. (I Corinthians 10:4)

33 as it is written, ‘See, I am laying in Zion a stone that will make people stumble, a rock (petran) that will make them fall, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.’” (Romans 9:33)

8 and ‘A stone that makes them stumble, and a rock (petra) that makes them fall.’”
(I Peter 2:8a).

Thus, it would be entirely inconsistent with the rest of scripture for petra to refer to Peter and the most logical conclusion is that Jesus was referring to himself using a well known Old Testament title for God that signified absolute protection and salvation, against which “gates of Hades will not prevail”.

Augustine of Hippo, having initially taken the traditional Catholic view seems to have realised his error as he writes:

For it was not said to him, ‘Thou art the rock.’(petra), but ‘Thou art Peter.’ (Petros). For Christ was the rock whom Simon confessing, as the whole Church confesses Him.” (Retractions 1:21)[3]

Moving on to Matthew 16:19:

19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind (δήσῃς – dēsēs) on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose (λύσῃς – lysēs) on earth will be loosed in heaven.’”

The Catholic Church sees this as being further confirmation that Peter was the supreme disciple as the words “you bind” and “you loose” are rendered in the singular in Greek. Yet this promise is not exclusive to Peter, which is what one would expect were he to be the supreme apostle.

Origen (an early 3rd century Church Father) in his exegesis of these verses says:

“But if you suppose that upon that one Peter only the whole church is built by God, what would you say about John the son of thunder or each one of the Apostles? Shall we otherwise dare to say, that against Peter in particular the gates of Hades shall not prevail, but that they shall prevail against the other Apostles and the perfect? Does not the saying previously made, ‘The gates of Hades shall not prevail against it’, hold in regard to all and in the case of each of them? And also the saying, ‘Upon this rock I will build My church’? Are the keys of the kingdom of heaven given by the Lord to Peter only, and will no other of the blessed receive them?” [Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, Book XII, 11]

His contemporary, Cyprian of Carthage, seems to agree as he writes in his First Treatise, On the Unity of the Church:

Assuredly the rest of the apostles were also the same as was Peter, endowed with a like partnership both of honour and power; but the beginning proceeds from unity[4].” (Chapter 4)

St John Chrysostom (a fourth century theologian, whose authority is widely accepted by both the Eastern and Western churches) concurs as he describes St John in the following manner:

For the son of thunder, the beloved of Christ, the pillar of the Churches throughout the world, who holds the keys of heaven, who drank the cup of Christ, and was baptized with His baptism, who lay upon his Master’s bosom with much confidence…” [Homily on the Gospel of St John 1:2].

Clearly, as late as the 4th century, it was believed that all the apostles, and not just Peter alone, were granted the “keys of the Kingdom of Heaven.”

And indeed, just two chapters later, in Matthew 18, where we find Jesus talking to all twelve disciples, we have scriptural backing for their teaching as we read in verse 18:

18 Truly I tell you, whatever you bind (δήσητε – dēsēte) on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose (λύσητε – lysēte) on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

Notice the change of the form of the verbs for bind and loose from the singular in Matthew 16:19 to the plural in Matthew 18:18. This binding and loosing – just as was the forgiveness or retention of sins (John 20:23) – clearly was granted to all the Disciples equally, and by extension, through his calling to be Apostle to the Gentiles, to St Paul also.

But what exactly did Jesus mean by binding and loosing, which The Jewish New Testament renders as “prohibit” and “permit”?

In rabbinic teaching, questions of Law were decided by whether Jews had to be bound by the letter of the Law or could be loosed from their strictures because of a special circumstance. Jesus used this rabbinic style in his teaching. For example, He bound his disciples not to judge others (Matthew 7:1-5) but loosed His followers from the strict observance of the Sabbath (Mark 2:23-28). Thus, there is responsibility to decide any ethical issues that may arise through the guidance of the Holy Spirit and in the light of the Gospel of Christ so that God is glorified. Quite a challenge for an entire church, let alone one man! Hence, in the early church at Jerusalem, we find the three “acknowledged pillars” supported by a Council (Acts 15).

Nowhere in the New Testament do we find any evidence that Peter ruled over any of the other apostles, nor anywhere in Scripture do any of the other apostles or Gospel writers refer to him that way.

Moreover, if Jesus had truly appointed Peter the head of the apostles, he surely would have said so when the disciples were arguing who was the greatest among them (Mark 9:33-34; Luke 22:24-30; Matthew 18:1[5]). Yet Jesus makes no mention of Peter (or any other disciple), but instead tells them how greatness is measured in the Kingdom of Heaven:

“‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ 36 Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37 ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’” (Mark 9:35b-37)[6]

This was a lesson that Jesus reinforced in a most memorable fashion during the last supper when he washed the disciples’ feet (John 13:1-17). The Son of God took on the role of a humble slave – how different from the pomp and splendour of the papacy!

The Catholic Encyclopaedia in its article on “Infallibility” cites Luke 22:31-32 in defence of Peter’s supposed supremacy, and thus the infallibility of “his successors”,claiming:

This special prayer of Christ was for Peter alone in his capacity as head of the Church, as is clear from the text and context; and since we cannot doubt the efficacy of Christ’s prayer, it followed that to St. Peter and his successors the office was personally committed of authoritatively confirming the brethren — other bishops, and believers generally — in the faith; and this implies infallibility.”

Despite their assertions to the contrary, it is they who have lifted the verses from their context.  The preceding verses treat all the apostles equally (verse 30 ending “and you will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.“) with no special mention of Peter having any greater status than the other 11; the succeeding verses (35 – 38) give instructions for the future to all twelve apostles.

The assumption that Christ prayed for Peter as “in his capacity as Head of the Church” is highly debatable.  Though Christ is indeed head of the church, at the point Christ prayed for Peter, there was no “church” to head.  It is much more probable that Jesus was praying for his impetuous and unstable friend, who He knew would, despite his bluster to the contrary, deny Him not once but thrice.

The next phrase, on which the Encyclopaedia so relies, “when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” (Luke 22:32), need not suppose any special leadership over his fellow apostles, but rather, through his greater fall and restoration, being better able to help them to be stronger in their following of the Risen Christ than they had been when they fled.

Furthermore, part of the fulfilment of that prayer was Jesus’ threefold restoration of Peter (John 21:15-19), which, though the Catholic Encyclopaedia claims it as another marker of Peter’s special status as the supreme authority, does not imply (let alone state) that Peter alone would feed the sheep (as noted elsewhere, the Apostle John outlived Peter by many years and the Apostle Paul left more of our New Testament than either of them).

Thus, all the evidence from the Gospels is that Peter had no special commission from Christ to lead the Church and must beg the question as to whether Peter saw himself as supreme apostle or head of the church.

When we look at the writings of Peter, nowhere does he refer to himself in that way – indeed, the opposite is true as in 1 Peter 5:1 he writes:

To the elders among you, I appeal as a co-elder…”

Surely if Peter were the supreme apostle he would have declared it here, if not at the start of his two letters, in which he describes himself as “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ,” (1 Peter 1:1) and “Simeon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ,” (2 Peter 1:1), which is similar to the way St Paul opens most of his letters (cf Romans 1:1; 1 Corinthians 1: 1; Galatians 1: 1; Ephesians 1: 1; Colossians 1: 1; 1 Timothy 1: 1; Titus 1: 1).

Thus, it appears that these claims of supremacy do not have their warrant in Scripture but come from a tradition that post dates the time of Peter and Paul, who were, according to Catholic tradition, both martyred in Rome.

So let us now see whether there is any warrant in the claim that Peter was the first Bishop of Rome.

B. Peter as the first Bishop of Rome

First it should be noted that the role of apostle, by its very nature, was itinerant and missiological and thus wholly incompatible with the office of bishop, which was (and is) territorial and gubernatorial.

Second, there was no agreement in the terms used to describe church leaders in the time of the Apostles or even immediately after, ie during the period of the Early Church Fathers. While the terms bishops (overseers) and deacons (I Timothy 3:1-13) increasingly came to be used, the terms presbyters (elders), pastors and presidents were also common (see Justin Apology 1 65-66; 1 Clement).

Neither Clement of Rome (who is claimed by the Catholic Church as an episcopal successor to St Peter) in his letter to the Corinthians (c 96 ad), nor Ignatius of Antioch in his Epistle to Rome (c 108 ad), give any evidence of there being a monarchical bishop in Rome.

Clement opens his letter in the following manner:

The Church of God which sojourneth in Rome to the Church of God which sojourneth in Corinth, to them which are called and sanctified by the will of God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Grace to you and peace from Almighty God through Jesus Christ be multiplied.” (1 Clement, Prologue:1).

Surely had he been Bishop of Rome he would have said so in his greeting, but he does not. He merely writes from one church to another, without any claim of superiority of supremacy. Nor is there any mention of a single ruling bishop, either in Rome or in Corinth, in the remainder of the Epistle.

Likewise, Ignatius of Antioch, who was a monarchical bishop, names other monarchical bishops (most frequently Polycarp of Smyrna) in the eight epistles he wrote shortly before his martyrdom, addressing the letters to them by name or office. Yet his Epistle to the Romans has no mention of any bishop by name or office.

Thus, while there is evidence of monarchical bishops in Jerusalem in the 1st century ad (“James, the first that had obtained the episcopal seat in Jerusalem after the ascension of our Saviour..”,[ Eusebius Church History] – which explains his supremacy at the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 and why he alone of the “acknowledged pillars” remained in Jerusalem) and in Asia Minor in the early 2nd century (eg Polycarp of Smyrna, Ignatius of Antioch), the evidence from the Apostolic Fathers very strongly suggests that there was no office of bishop in Rome at this time.

The reason for this difference between Rome and Asia Minor lies in the different organisational structures of the Jewish synagogues that would have sheltered the fledgling churches. In Antioch the synagogues and early churches were centrally organised, whereas in Rome the synagogues were independent, appointed their own leaders and conducted their own worship. It is natural that the first churches would have adopted familiar rather than novel organisational structures.

Despite there being little biblical evidence of Peter’s apostolic ministry, the Catholic writer SK Ray in his book “Upon this Rock” (published 1999) describes Peter’s supposed apostolic ministry in the following manner:

42-49 First sojourn in Rome…
54-57 Second sojourn in Rome; Gospel of Mark written under Peter’s direction…
62-67 Third sojourn in Rome; canonical Epistles of Peter…
67 Martyrdom in Rome and burial near the Necropolis at the Vatican

But is there any shred of evidence to support Ray’s assertions?

The earliest mention of Peter and Paul as joint founders of the Roman Church first appears in the late 2nd century in a list of bishops compiled by Iraeneus of Lyons; and Peter and Paul’s being martyred on opposite sides of the Tiber first occurs in the writings of Origen of Alexandria (early 3rd century).

While Paul’s presence in Rome is attested (Acts 28:14-31), there is no such scriptural evidence of Peter’s having been in Rome[7], let alone his being martyred there. While Clement refers to Peter’s martyrdom he gives no indication that it was in Rome (1 Clement 5:4). Indeed the only sources that make this claim prior to the late 2nd century are apocryphal and of dubious validity. Neither is it supported archaeologically, as the man who found the alleged tomb of St Peter in Rome doubts its veracity. Further contrary archaeological evidence is contained in the book “Gli Scavi del Dominus Flevit” written by P. B. Bagatti and J. T. Milik (both Roman Catholic priests) and published in 1958, which describes the discovery of the grave of Simon Bar-Jona in Jerusalem, close by those of Martha, Mary and Lazarus. Pope Pius XII was cognizant of the fact but he, and his six successors, have not seen fit to either deny or acknowledge it.

Again, had Peter been the founder of the Roman church and Bishop of Rome, Paul would surely have mentioned him in his Epistle to the Romans or in his second letter to Timothy, which was written from Rome during his second incarceration. Yet, he does not (though he mentions 27 others in Romans 16!). Even more to the point, it is implausible that Luke, careful historian that he was, would not have reported the fact in the closing chapter of Acts. Yet Luke’s account makes no mention of Peter but instead writes that when Paul called the Leaders of the Jews together they informed him:

21…We neither received letters from Judea concerning you, nor have any of the brethren who came reported or spoken any evil of you. 22 But we desire to hear from you what you think; for concerning this sect, we know that it is spoken against everywhere.” 23 So when they had appointed him a day, many came to him at his lodging, to whom he explained and solemnly testified of the kingdom of God, persuading them concerning Jesus from both the Law of Moses and the Prophets, from morning till evening” (Acts 28:21-23)

It is utterly inconceivable that Peter, the Apostle to the Jews, would not have preached to the synagogues of Rome and so the most logical conclusion is that Peter had never visited Rome prior to Paul’s arrival. Hence, he could not have possibly founded the Church of Rome.

Neither could Paul have been the founder of the Church in Rome as he writes:

20 Thus I make it my ambition to proclaim the good news, not where Christ has already been named, so that I do not build on someone else’s foundation, 21 but as it is written,

‘Those who have never been told of him shall see,
and those who have never heard of him shall understand.’

22 This is the reason that I have so often been hindered from coming to you. 23 But now, with no further place for me in these regions, I desire, as I have for many years, to come to you 24 when I go to Spain. For I do hope to see you on my journey and to be sent on by you, once I have enjoyed your company for a little while.” (Romans 15:20-24)

Thus, there must have been churches there prior to his arrival or he could not have written to them; a fact which is corroborated by Luke :

“15 The believers from there, when they heard of us, came as far as the Forum of Appius and Three Taverns to meet us. On seeing them, Paul thanked God and took courage.” (Acts 28:15)

Interestingly, Clement of Rome (who would have known Paul) throws doubt on Paul’s martyrdom being in Rome as he writes:

…and come to the extreme limit of the West, and suffered martyrdom under the prefects.” (1 Clement 5:6).

In no wise could Rome have been described as “the extreme limits of the West”, and surely had the martyrdom been in Rome, Clement would have written under the Senate or the Emperor and not “under the prefects”.

Therefore, given that neither Peter nor Paul founded the Church of Rome and its being unclear that either of them was actually martyred there, it is hard to see why Rome should have precedence over the more ancient churches of Jerusalem, Antioch or Samaria.

Moreover, if Rome had held such a special position in the early church, surely the Apostle John (the longest lived of all the apostles), whose writings encouraged true Christians to faithfulness, would have written of its importance to the faithful under his care.

Yet, the scriptural evidence from St John is the polar opposite. In his Revelation he refers to Rome as “Babylon the great” describing her as a wanton fornicator, out of which the people of God should flee (Revelation 18:2-5); and as “the great whore who corrupted the earth with her fornication”, who will fall under divine judgement to avenge “the blood of his servants” (Revelation 19:2).

This description of Rome is in stark contrast to the description of Jerusalem two chapters further on:

…the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” and as “the bride, the wife of the Lamb” (Revelation 21:2,9b)

Clearly, for the Apostle John, it is Jerusalem and not Rome, which is the holy city and, as the Orthodox Churches claim, “The Mother of all Churches”.

Thus, as we have seen there is no primacy for Peter or for Rome in either scripture or early Church History; rather both scripture and the first Christians point us in the opposite direction, leading us to conclude that it is just another man-made tradition – based on the kind “profane myths and old wives’ tales” that Paul warned Timothy about (I Timothy 4:7) – to promote power for the Roman pontificate.

That being the case, how did the Church in Rome manage to propagate and maintain such folklore?

C. Fake Foundations and Forgeries

It should be remembered that history and biography in the first centuries after Christ incorporated legend as well as fact and so must be treated differently from modern biography and history. Though their accuracy is in doubt, it does not mean that the writers necessarily set out to deceive but merely acted in accordance with the practices of their age. That said, however, there were also deliberate forgeries on which the Papacy relied long after they had been exposed as fraudulent.

With competing claims from other churches, it became important to trace the Roman See back to Peter[8] so as to justify Rome’s supposed supremacy. But whence came the list of “popes” – though the title “Pope” was not used until over two centuries later when it was adopted by Siricius (384-399 ad) and the title only became restricted to the “Bishop of Rome” by an edict of Pope Gregory VI in 1073 – between Peter and the first clearly identifiable Bishop of Rome, Anicetus (c 157 ad)?

The earliest verifiable list of popes dates from the writings of Iraeneus of Lyons in his “Against Heresies” (III 3:3) at the end of the 2nd century. The list contains names but no dates. His source is unknown but possibly was Hegesippus[9] , who had lived a half century earlier. Moreover, Iraeneus is the first to claim the joint founding of “the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul” [Against Heresies III 3:2], which, as we have clearly demonstrated above, is clearly false.

Eusebius of Caesarea, writing in the early part of the following century, appears uncritically to follow Iraeneus’ list in his Ecclesiastical History (Book V:6). However, the list in his Chronicle is slightly different (though admittedly these could be due to scribal errors).

However, Volume 4 of The Catholic Encyclopaedia (1908) lists 4 “varieties of order” for the earliest “popes” (sic). While some may be down to copying errors and variants of the name Anencletus, others are more fundamental in that they change the position of Clement from 3rd or 4th place to 2nd:

“1) Linus, Cletus, Clemens (Hegesippus, ap. Epiphanium, Canon of Mass).
  Linus, Anencletus, Clemens (Irenaeus, Africanus ap. Eusebium).
  Linus, Anacletus, Clemens (Jerome).
  2) Linus, Cletus, Anacletus, Clemens (Poem against Marcion),
  3) Linus, Clemens, Cletus, Anacletus [Hippolytus (?), “Liberian Catal.”- “Liber. Pont.”].
  4) Linus, Clemens, Anacletus (Optatus, Augustine).”

The late third century document, Apostolic Constitutions (which was considered to be of “apostolic origin” until the mid-seventh century) makes the same assumption as Iraeneus that Peter and Paul were co-founders of the church in Rome, but diverges from his order of succession and counters the claim that all Bishops of Rome were ordained by Peter, as it states:

Of the church of Rome, Linus the son of Claudia was the first, ordained by Paul; and Clemens, after Linus’ death, the second, ordained by me Peter” (Book VII, Section IV/Chapter XLVI)

Thus, the only consensus (with the exception of Tertullian, who places Clement first) is that Linus was the first “Bishop of Rome”.

Nothing definite is actually known about “Pope” Linus, though it is claimed that he was not martyred (why not if he was the “Bishop of Rome”?). It appears that his name has been randomly plucked from II Timothy 4:21, on the grounds that his greetings (along with others) are sent by Paul to Timothy. This does not necessarily imply that he was a permanent resident of Rome or even a church leader there (none of those listed in II Timothy 4 are in the list in Romans 16); rather, it suggests that it is someone that Timothy knows from one of the churches in Asia Minor (just as it is unlikely that Clement of Rome is the same Clement in Philippians 4). Thus, we have in Scripture two names, mentioned just once each, linked to Paul rather than Peter, who supposedly “ordained” them as his successor.

None of the early “Bishops of Rome” – Linus, Cletus, Clement – are mentioned by Polycarp, Papias or Ignatius (the Apostolic Fathers) in any of their writings; nor do they appear in the Didache or the apocryphal Epistle of Barnabas. In short, the earliest post-apostolic literature is entirely devoid of evidence of them or their being “Bishops of Rome”.

There is another fundamental problem for the Catholic mythology of unbroken apostolic succession through Rome. These early “Popes” (sic), who supposedly through Peter have primacy over all the rest of the Church worldwide, held office during the latter years of St John, the last surviving Apostle. But it is hard to see how that could be as the Bible tells us that there was no higher status than that of apostle (I Corinthians 12:28; Ephesians 4:11). The only authority any bishop would have had was derived from the apostle that appointed them (eg Polycarp of Smyrna, who had been a disciple of St John). It is absolutely absurd, given that Peter had no primacy other than, at best, “first among equals”, to claim that the first few “Popes” (who were no more than presbyters) would have had authority over a living Apostle, who had not just been an eye witness to Christ’s ministry and resurrection, but who had been in Jesus’ inner circle of disciples and described as “the disciple Jesus loved”.

As is so often the case when looking at Roman Catholic propaganda, the early book of Popes, “Liber Pontificalis”, which appears to have been based on an earlier document (Catalogus Liberianus), was falsely attributed to St Jerome[10]. This kind of attribution is not an isolated instance. As we will see, the Catholic Church knowingly used fake documentation to promote and protect its political agenda throughout the Middle Ages (and beyond). The mythology of Jerome being the author is maintained in the entry of The Catholic Encyclopedia and in the order attributed to him (Peter first, Linus next, then Anacletus and Clement in fourth place) in the extended version Annuario Pontificio, which is published annually by the Vatican. However, modern scholarship has subjected it to rigorous scrutiny and Philippe Levillain has exposed it as an “unofficial instrument of pontifical propaganda.”

This Liber Pontificalis also formed the “historical” framework for the forged documents known as the Pseudo-Isidorian Decretals , which were inserted into a genuine collection of material during the mid-9th century. The forgeries include approximately 100 forged papal letters apparently written by Bishops of Rome during the first three centuries, partially falsified council texts and papal letters from the 4th to 8th centuries and the earlier (non-Isidorian) forgery “The Donation of Constantine”. Where the False Decretals appear to have been written to preserve Episcopal independence from Rome (which benefited the Holy Roman Emperors), the Vatican used them to bring the episcopacy under more direct control, despite the blatant anachronisms, of which the clerical scholars who used them must have been all too aware (they were exposed in the 14th century after they were no longer of any use to the Vatican, though there are very few published versions since that time).

The Donation of Constantine” (Constitutum Domini Constantini) was a forged document that purported to be a Roman Imperial decree written in gold letters by the Emperor Constantine I himself. The Donation ceded vast regions of the Western Empire to the Catholic Church and established the Bishops of Rome (ie Popes), from Sylvester I forward, as being above all other Bishops, supposedly in gratitude for Sylvester having healed Constantine from leprosy. It was invoked in 1054 by Pope Leo IX (the first to do so), who quoted a large portion of it in a letter to the Patriarch of Constantinople, and in the investiture conflicts between the Papacy and Western secular powers throughout the 11th and 12th centuries. Parts of it were included in canon law, further legitimising the Papal claims and ensuring that the document’s validity would be asserted well into the 15th century.

However, by the 15th century the Renaissance had started and there was a new scepticism, from which the Catholic Church was not immune. A number of people, all from within the Catholic Church, separately declared the document a fraud.

The first to declare The Donation (along with the False Decretals) fraudulent and apocryphal was the German theologian, Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa, in 1433; the same conclusion was independently reached by Reginald Peacocke, Bishop of Chichester (1450-57); and in the 1453, Enea Piccolomini, Bishop of Sienna (later Pope Pius II), wrote a tract (which was never published) admitting it to be fake. Though the Vatican would not officially acknowledge the veracity of these claims until the mid 16th century, references to The Donation, from the time of Pius II onwards, are conspicuously lacking in church documents!

Though not the first, but by far the most influential was the Catholic Priest and scholar of classical Latin, Lorenzo Valla, whose critique was widely circulated from 1440 (though not published officially until 1517 – the same year as Luther’s 95 Theses). He demonstrated the falsity of the document through textual criticism which illuminated stylistic errors and exposed numerous anachronisms (eg sloppily calling Byzantium “Constantinople” and referring to it as a patriarchy long before the Empire ever divided) [Valla 95].

Not content with proving beyond doubt that it was a forgery, Valla also berated the papacy for its continued use of the document:

“…either to supine ignorance, or to gross avarice which is the slave of idols, or to pride of empire of which cruelty is ever the companion. For during some centuries now, either they have not known that the Donation of Constantine is spurious and forged, or else they themselves forged it, and their successors walking in the same way of deceit as their elders have defended as true what they knew to be false, dishonouring the majesty of the pontificate, dishonouring the memory of ancient pontiffs, dishonouring the Christian religion, confounding everything with murders, disasters and crimes.” [Valla 25, 27]

As Valla notes, another feature of the Papacy that undermines its claims is the personal and political behaviour of so many of its incumbents throughout the centuries.

D. Seduced by Secular Power

In their “Epistle to Pope Francis” the Orthodox Metropolitans have a section covering some three and a half pages on the secularisation of the Vatican. [11]

The Papal States, which were created by political manoeuvring and falsified documents, covered most of central Italy (including the city of Rome) from 756 ad until they were absorbed into the newly united Italy in 1870 by the Piedmont led forces. So used to secular rule were the Popes that, on losing Rome, Pope Pius IX ordered that the Vatican doors be shut and claimed that he was a “prisoner in the Vatican”.

While the “Holy See” is – and always has been – distinct from the Vatican City State, which came into being through the Lateran Treaty of 1929 (signed by the fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini), it is listed in the Almanach de Gotha under “Reigning Sovereign Houses”, where it is stated:

Since medieval times the episcopal see of Rome has been recognized as a sovereign entity. The Holy See (not the State of Vatican City) maintains formal diplomatic relations with 179 sovereign states…

Of the Vatican it states:

Vatican City is an ecclesiastical or sacerdotal-monarchical state, ruled by the Bishop of Rome-the Pope. The highest state functionaries are all Catholic clergymen of various national origins. It is the sovereign territory of the Holy See (Sancta Sedes) and the location of the Pope’s residence, referred to as the Apostolic Palace.”

The Catholic Encyclopedia notes that from the time of Sixtus IV (who augmented the Vatican’s coffers by taxing the Roman brothels and their 6,800 prostitutes[12]) to The Reformation “the secular interests of the papacy were of paramount importance.”

As the Canadian freelance writer Mark Owen has pointed out, internationally the Pope “is not subject to any authority on earth.” and as Lord Acton notably stated “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”.  Though the Papacy is supposed to reflect the spiritual leadership of St Peter and the Holy Apostles, the behaviour of numerous popes rather than being “spiritual”  endorses Lord Acton’s adage to such an extent that one might wonder whether they were subject to God either.

Popes traditionally expected to be (and were) treated as royalty, to such an extent that supplicants were to kiss the bared foot of the pope, though now bowing (or courtesying) and kissing his papal ring, to show allegiance is all that is required.  This is a far cry from their alleged founder, St Peter who, when Cornelius fell at his feet, acted humbly:

 25 …Peter made him get up, saying, ‘Stand up; I am only a mortal.’” (Acts 10:25) .[13]

The history of the papacy is riddled with nepotism and internecine strife, reflecting the struggles of leading families to take and maintain power, not just over the Papal States but over the kingdoms of the Western World. Little wonder that in Protestant states Catholic clergy were often seen as agents of a hostile, foreign power.

In his book “Vicars of Christ” the Catholic historian Peter de Rosa observes that

Popes had mistresses as young as fifteen years of age, were guilty of incest and sexual perversions of every sort, had innumerable children, were murdered in the very act of adultery…”

I do not intend to give an extensive list of Popes whose actions were, in the words of Valla “dishonouring [to] the Christian religion”, but to briefly look at a few of the most notorious so as to highlight the papal licentiousness and corruption which, in part, fuelled the Reformation.

John XII (955 – 964)

As with all Popes of his time, he involved himself in political intrigues. Yet, what marks him out is his sexual depravity. He reputedly held orgies in the Vatican and on holy sites, thus defiling them; raped anyone who spurned his advances (including his two sisters); and had sex with his niece. He was believed to have had a Cardinal, who opposed him, castrated and then murdered.

Benedict IX (1032 – 1044; 1045; 1047 – 1048)

Benedict was the youngest ever Pope and the only man to have held the papacy on three separate occasions. He was the nephew of his two predecessors and had the Papacy obtained for him as “an heirloom” by his father.

He was the first openly homosexual pope and had a reputation for rape and murder, which Pope Victor III roundly denounced in his third book of Dialogues, writing:

his rapes, murders and other unspeakable acts. His life as a pope was so vile, so foul, so execrable, that I shudder to think of it.”

He was driven from Rome twice but with the help of the Holy Roman Emperor was restored. He was paid a large sum by his godfather to give up the Papacy but shortly afterwards had a change of heart and returned to take Rome by force. He was eventually driven out by German troops and excommunicated.

The Catholic Encyclopedia, in a rare condemnation of a pope, understatedly describes him as “…a disgrace to the Chair of Peter.”

Alexander VI (1492 – 1503)

Possibly the most political and worldly, Rodrigo Borgia was the nephew of Pope Callista III. He gained the Cathedra through family ties and simony, only securing the 2/3 majority through his own vote.

Despite the prohibition on married clergy, he not only was married but had numerous mistresses and as many as ten illegitimate children who he gave church and political positions. His son Cesare (a Cardinal) is suspected of several murders of opponents of his father; his daughter, Lucrezia, who was married three times for large dowries (with the marriages rapidly receiving papal annulments, had an illegitimate son who was claimed by 2 separate Papal Bulls as either her father’s or brother’s (both of which would have involved incest) – she also sat in as substitute for her father at an official father Vatican meeting.

He also involved himself in political machinations, interfering in the politics of France, Italy and Naples. When his scheming backfired and caused him financial loss, he “proceeded to strengthen his position by repleting his treasury in ways that were more than dubious.” [The Catholic Encyclopedia].

Julius II (1503 – 1513)

This incumbent of the throne of Peter bought his election (having twice before failed in his attempt). He, like Alexander VI, was notorious womaniser who had numerous bastards and was rumoured to be so syphilitic that he dared not bare his foot for the ritual kissing. However, it is not his promiscuity that The Catholic Encyclopedia focuses on but his worldliness, saying of his pontificate – without criticism – that he saw his chief task as

“…the firm establishment and the extension of the temporal power. For the accomplishment of this task no pope was ever better suited than Julius, whom nature and circumstances had hewn out for a soldier.”

Julius III (1550 – 1555)

Surprisingly for the time, he was duly elected – without bribery, simony or nepotism – after a 10 week convocation. He involved himself in political intrigues and raided the Vatican’s coffers to build himself a luxury palace, Villa Giula. He decorated it to reveal his sexual perversion – sodomizing young boys, which was celebrated and defended in a poem by Giovanni Della Casa. He notoriously bestowed red hats on them and created his favourite a cardinal-nephew, a position which bestowed considerable power.

Little wonder that the reformer Martin Luther was to write of Rome

If there is a Hell, Rome is built over it. It is an abyss from whence issues every kind of sin.”

E. Infallibility

There are a number of assumptions that are essential to support the Catholic Doctrine of Infallibility.  If one cannot accept these underlying assumptions, which often have no clear Biblical basis, the doctrine is left tottering on the sole authority of Peter being the first Bishop of Rome and the Pope’s being his direct heir through an “unbroken apostolic succession”, for which, as we have seen above, there is no credible evidence.

The Catholic Encyclopaedia lists the following assumed ecclesiological truths:

that Christ founded His Church as a visible and perfect society;
• that He intended it to be absolutely universal and imposed upon all men a solemn obligation actually to belong to it, unless inculpable ignorance should excuse them;
• that He wished this Church to be one, with a visible corporate unity of faith, government, and worship; 
• in order to secure this threefold unity, He bestowed on the Apostles and their legitimate successors in the hierarchy — and on them exclusively — the plenitude of teaching, governing, and liturgical powers with which He wished this Church to be endowed.

The first two assumptions are patent nonsense.  There is no evidence in the Gospels that Christ intended the Church on earth to be “a visible and perfect society” but rather a group of people, sinners all, who strive to follow the way of the cross as His disciples, and who, through having accepted Jesus’ Lordship and forgiveness of their sins, finally arrive at the place He has prepared for them (John 14:2).

Nor is there any evidence that Jesus ever imposed his Gospel on anyone (to do so would be contrary to the Doctrine of Freewill).  He did not even place any obligation on those who he forgave and/or healed (eg the Woman caught in Adultery or the paralytic)  or on the Rich Young Ruler who walked away when he found Jesus command too difficult to follow.  In fact, Jesus actually turned people away through difficult teaching (eg Luke 9:57-62; Luke 14: 25-27; John 6:66).  True, salvation is in Jesus name, but His kingdom is not of this world and such forced obligation, which has more than a whiff of the infamous Inquisition, smacks of the kind of despotism displayed by those that so often sat upon the papal throne in earlier ages.

The problem with the third and fourth assumptions is not that they lack Scriptural warrant – in the way the first two do – but in that they try to make Holy Writ fit their premise rather than their premise fit the revealed Word of God.

Christ clearly intended the Church to be one (John 17:11, 21), but the assumption, once again, goes beyond what is written so as to insist on uniformity over unity.[14] Christ does not meet the needs of his followers uniformly with “off the peg” solutions but with the most personal “bespoke” remedies that treat each and every person as an individual (cf Mary of Bethany (Luke 10:38-42); the Penitent Thief (Luke 23:39-43); Mary Magdalene (John 20:11-18); Thomas (John 20:24-29); Paul (Acts 9)) .

The fourth assumption, while at first sight appearing valid, is so narrowly interpreted as to restrict “legitimacy” to St Peter and his successors alone. This interpretation neither recognises the obviously equal right to “Apostolic Succession” (assuming one accepts such a doctrine) of the verifiably more ancient churches of the East, nor the addition (without the aid or oversight of Peter) of St Paul to the group of Apostles. The ecumenical movement, on the other hand, promotes the whole Church coming together as one in Christ, but recognises that the Holy Spirit leads in different ways that bring more people to Christ than any one “Church” could without resorting to the enforced “religion” of the second assumption (which is so fundamental to radical Islam).

Finally, the greatest danger arising from such a Doctrine of Infallibility, especially when combined with the view that all other Churches are in “error”, is that it instils a false sense of security that it is impossible for the Roman Catholic Church to ever fall into heresy.  This is compounded by the fact that Papal Infallibility is non-falsifiable (ie it cannot be proved to be false). When a Pope speaks ex-cathedra on matters of doctrine and faith he is deemed infallible, but if the teaching is later proved to be wrong, he is deemed to have spoken only in a personal capacity as a theologian.  Such an argument, however, quickly becomes circular and self-serving.  While effectively thwarting any debate or serious cross-examination  of dubious doctrine or papal malpractice, it requires a blind acceptance of the supposed divine and unchallengeable authority of the Magesterium;  Yet, as we have  seen in earlier sections, the Magesterium has already unwittingly succumbed to heresy – heresies to which they stubbornly cling.

Conclusion

As we have seen, there is no scriptural basis for the claims of the Roman Catholic Church that the Pope is the apostolic successor to St Peter; in fact Scripture counters such a view.  Neither is there any evidence in the Apostolic Fathers and Early Church History that there was ever a monarchical bishop in Rome prior to the middle of 2nd century; nor that Rome had any supremacy over any of the other churches – without which any claim to papal infallibility is void.  Instead, to maintain both its Spiritual and Temporal power, the Papacy relied on Mediaeval documents which have long been debunked and their fraudulence proved beyond doubt.  Moreover, the behaviour of many of the occupants of the “Cathedra” of Peter (sic) demonstrate that the Papacy was not so much a spiritual authority as a temporal power that permitted all manner of excesses that are utterly incompatible with the Christian faith; and, while such manifest unrestrained behaviour appears to be a thing of the past, even today, from behind the shield of “Infallibility” blatant heresies are not just tolerated but actively promoted as doctrines of the Church.

As Christ taught “You will know them by their fruits.” (Matthew 7:16; Luke 6:44)

Endnotes

[1]  St John never actually lists the names of all 12 disciples but refers to them as “the Twelve” in chapter 6. He identifies 9 by name in various chapters.

[2]  It has been suggested that the reason that Andrew did not accompany the other three was that he was a more stable character and good administrator and so was left in charge of the other disciples.   If Andrew was the younger of the brothers, his name would always (by the tradition of the time) be given after that of Peter, despite his honour of having been the first disciple.

[3]  Augustine does, however, hedge his bets by saying that readers should make up their own minds as to which explanation is more plausible.

[4]  It is clear from his citing Ephesians 4:4-6 that the unity he speaks of is of Christ.

[5]  Matthew tends to sanitise Mark’s account – here by having the disciples ask a question rather than argue and by having the mother of James and John ask to sit at Jesus right and left hand, rather than James and John themselves.

[6]  Verses 36 and 37 were taken up by both Luke (9:48) and Matthew (18:4-5) in their renditions of the incident.

[7]  Catholics claim that because Peter closes his first epistle “13 Your sister church in Babylon, chosen together with you, sends you greetings; and so does my son Mark.” (1 Peter 5: 13) that Peter must have been in Rome (as John in his Revelation refers to Rome as “Babylon”). Setting aside whether Peter actually wrote this letter (the boundaries of the province mentioned in 1:1 were not established until 72ad), there were at least 2 Babylons in the 1st century – one in Mesopotamia and another in Egypt, both of which had strong Jewish communities. In Paul’s 2nd letter to Timothy, which it is agreed was written from Rome c 65ad, he asks him to bring Mark with him – if Peter and Mark were already in Rome this would not be necessary.

[8]  The Orthodox Church, following the Church Fathers, claim that the apostolic succession was through the churches of Asia Minor and, in particular, the Church at Smyrna, where Polycarp had been appointed by the Apostle John. They also claim that the Churches of Jerusalem and Antioch were older than Rome. Interestingly, after the Great Schism, though there is no evidence to support it, they claim that the Church at Byzantium was founded by St Andrew, one suspects to counter Peter’s supposed founding of Rome.

[9]  Eusebius, who quotes him extensively, is the only known source for the writings of Hegesippus, which are no longer extant. Thus, whether Hegesippus was listing a college of Presbyters that led the church in Rome rather than a succession of Bishops must remain moot.

[10]  An apocryphal letter, supposedly from Jerome to Pope Damasus I, was included in the preface of all mediaeval copies to authenticate it.

[11] The Epistle to Pope Francis by Andrew, Metropolitan of Dryinoupolis, Pogoniani & Konitsa and Seraphim, Metropolitan of Piraeus & Faliro, Section II “The Secularization and Spiritual Decline of The Vatican” (pp 6 -10),  10th April, 2014

[12]  Leading Pope Pius II to declare that Rome was the only city run by bastards (the sons of Popes and Cardinals).

[13]  See also Acts 14:12-15 in which Paul and Barnabas tear their clothes when mistaken for the Greek gods Zeus and Hermes saying “15 ‘Friends, why are you doing this? We are mortals just like you..” (v15a)

[14]  The Roman Catholic Church has not always been able to maintain its own unity, let alone unify the worldwide church, as witnessed by the era of the Avignon Popes.

Why I Could Never Become a Roman Catholic – Part 5: The Sacrament of Penance

25 Jul

I first have to be honest and declare that I no longer attend the Catholic parish.  This is in part due to the crystallisation of my theology through these writings and was given impetus by a change of time of the weekly Mass, which meant I had to attend other churches in the group where I felt less comfortable and more challenged by the differences.  However, I still visit and am still as welcome as ever when I do.

This section on penance turned out to be a lot more complex than I had first thought and,as a result, has taken much longer to put together than the previous sections.  From my reading, it seems to me that the Sacrament of Penance is little more than a jumble of man-made traditions – confession, penances, indulgences and purgatory – which are given precedence over the revealed Word of God set out in the Holy Scriptures.

The Catechism describes the Sacrament of Penance as “The forgiveness of sins committed after Baptism is conferred by a particular sacrament called the sacrament of conversion, confession, penance, or reconciliation.” [CCC1486].

It is claimed that this sacrament was instituted by Christ [CCC1446] and Catholic theologians usually cite three biblical examples in support of this claim:

1. The healing of the paralytic ( Mtt 9:1-7; Mk 2:1-12; Lk 5:17-26);

2. The sinful woman in the house of Simon the Pharisee (Lk 7:36-50);

3. The woman caught in adultery (Jn 8:2-11).

Let’s examine each one to see if the claim can be substantiated.

1. The Paralytic

The healing of the paralytic occurs in all three synoptic gospels.  Mark, the earliest gospel and the source for both Luke and Matthew, has the longest account, while Matthew has the briefest.  In none of them do we encounter any “conversion, confession, penance, or reconciliation” on the part of the paralytic, who is entirely passive until the point he takes up his bed and walks. There is no mention of his faith or of his even thanking Jesus.  The healing – a sign of forgiveness of sin – was prompted by the faith of his friends (Mk 2:5; Lk 5:20; Mtt 9:2).  Hence, there is no scriptural support for the claim from this healing.

2. The Woman in the House of Simon the Pharisee

Here, at least, there does superficially seem to be a semblance of support if one believes that the woman’s actions are a form of confession (of unspecified sins – which is not permitted within the sacrament)  or some form of penance (self-imposed as there is no indication that Christ or anyone else initiated it).  While the woman is clearly penitent, at no point does Jesus ask her to confess her sins.  Nor does he set her any penance for “satisfaction” (CCC1459).  Jesus simply, following the telling of a parable, forgives her many sins. He gives two reasons for this action of grace: her love (v47) and her faith (v50).  Clearly some kind of conversion took place, but none of it after baptism (CCC1486).  Thus, on closer examination, it becomes clear that the support from this text is as lacking as that of the healing of the paralytic.

3. The Woman Caught in Adultery

There is even less evidence of penance in this case than in the previous two.  The woman doesn’t even show penitence!  Far from seeking confession of her adultery, let alone setting any penance of reconciliation, Jesus refuses to condemn her but simply instructs her to “Go now and leave your life of sin.” (v11).  As we know nothing more of her, it is impossible to know whether any conversion or reconciliation took place and to base any claim on such a lack would be spurious.

It is clear, therefore, that the sacrament was instituted by Christ has no foundation in the Scriptures cited.  But if it didn’t originate with Jesus, could it have been instituted by the Early Church?

When we examine the earliest church writings (Didache – 1st Century ad), we find that there is no evidence that verbal confession was required by the Early Church.  However, by the time of Irenaeus (2nd Century ad) public confession appears to have been widely practised (as it is today in many Protestant churches), though there is no indication that it was (or had to be) to a priest.

Thus, we see there is no evidence that the Sacrament (sic) was instituted by Christ or that it was the practice of the very Early Church.  Given that the earliest evidence of confession to a priest occurs in the writings of Origen in the mid-3rd Century ad, more than enough time had elapsed for it to be a tradition of human rather than divine origin.

To return to the catechism, CCC1446 also further amplifies the description of the sacrament given in CCC1486 by stating that it is

for all sinful members of his church: above all for those who, since baptism, have fallen into grave sin, and have thus lost their baptismal grace and wounded ecclesial communion.  It is to them that the sacrament of Penance offers a new possibility to convert and to recover the grace of justification.  The Fathers of the Church present this sacrament as ‘the 2nd plank of (salvation) after the shipwreck of faith’ Tertullian (Trent 1547)“.

It appears from this and (CCC980) that, for Catholics, despite a convert’s sins having been washed in the Blood of Christ (Rev 1:5-6), which imparts redemption and the forgiveness of sins (Eph 1:7; I Jn 1:7), and his/her being “justified by faith” (Rom 5:1-2), s/he is not in a state of grace until s/he has been baptised with water; whereas, any babe in arms, despite his/her being incapable of faith, is through baptism deemed to be in a state of grace.However, this state of grace is, due to sin, precarious and may be lost at any time and so must be restored through human actions that are additional to faith in Christ.  This suggests that, contrary to Scripture, (eg Rom 3: 25-26), the work of Christ on the Cross is insufficient for salvation.

The catechism having listed all “the usual elements” of the sacrament of Penance in CCC1480, continues that, as with all the sacraments, “…Penance is always, by its very nature, a liturgical action, and therefore an ecclesial and public action.” [CCC1482]   This is further borne out by CCC1437 which asserts that “Reading Sacred Scripture, praying the Liturgy of the Hours and the Our Father – every sincere act of worship or devotion revives the spirit of conversion and repentance within us and contributes to the forgiveness of our sin.”  Once again this suggests that it is our actions rather than Christ’s sacrifice on the cross which lead to salvation.

This sense that penance, for Catholics, is a work of salvation extra to the Cross of Christ is confirmed by a statement in The New Saint Joseph Baltimore Catechism (1969, Vol 2, p 199): “The priest gives us a penance after confession that we may make some atonement to God for our sins, receive help to avoid them in the future, and make some satisfaction for the temporal punishment due to them.”

Yet the theological stance of these catechismal statements is at variance with Holy Scripture, in which we encounter the following texts:

21 But now, irrespective of law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23 since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24 they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; 26 it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.”  (Romans 3:21-26)

“4 But when the goodness and loving-kindness of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. This Spirit he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Saviour, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” (Titus 3:4-7)

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9)

But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace would no longer be grace.” (Romans 11:6)

But let us once again return to the catechism.

As “Confession to a priest is an essential part of the sacrament of Penance” [CCC1456], “every priest who hears confessions is bound under very severe penalties to keep absolute secrecy regarding the sins that his penitents have confessed to him. He can make no use of knowledge that confession gives him about penitents’ lives. This secret, which admits of no exceptions, is called the ‘sacramental seal’, because what the penitent has made known to the priest remains “sealed” by the sacrament.” [CCC1467].

While this “sacramental seal” may seem a worthy intention, given that no person is likely to confess anything of importance to their priest without the protection it offers, the very fact that it “admits no exceptions” means it also prevents the priest from protecting victims (potential or actual) from physical, psychological or sexual abuse. Thus, by his sacramental seal the priest is thwarted from preventing a paedophile from working with young children, a wife beater from continuing his abuse, or a murderer’s victims receiving justice, for example.

Furthermore, unless the priest hearing the confession does not know his flock well, the identification of the penitent is highly likely despite grills and other attempts at anonymity. It is utterly naïve to believe that the way a priest views a penitent, whose voice he has recognised, will not be coloured by what he has heard in the confessional despite both the sacramental seal and the priest’s best intentions to the contrary; unless, of course, the sins confessed are utterly mundane (which, given that most common penance seems to be saying a number of prayers over and over, would seem to be the case).

CCC1460 sets out a variety of forms of penance, which “must take into account the penitent’s personal situation and must seek his spiritual good.” and “It must correspond as far as possible with the gravity and nature of the sins committed.”

As noted above, the most common penance is the repetition of prayers from the rosary multiple times, which reduces prayer to a chore to be endured rather than a communication with the living God; and, additionally, risks contravening Christ’s warning in Matthew 6:7 not to emulate the Gentiles who “think that they will be heard because of their many words.”

Similarly, CCC1434 ends with the phrase “and the practice of charity ‘which covers a multitude of sins.’”(partially quoting I Peter 4:8 out of context, as is usual in the Roman Church). Given that the section begins with the themes of Prayer, Fasting and Alms-giving, it is clear that the writers are conflating the archaic use of charity with its modern sense. While older versions of the Bible translated ἀγάπη (agape – selfless love) as “charity”(i), they did not do so consistently, but alternated it with the word love (eg in I Cor 13 and I Pet 4:8 it is ‘charity’ but in Jn 3:16, Gal 5:22 and I John 4 it is ‘love’). The context of the word in 1 Peter, however, makes it clear that it is not charity in the modern sense of alms-giving or good works but in the sense of that self-less love, which is the first of the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22), which is intended.

CC1477, which is based on Indulgentiarum doctrina 5, talks about the “Church’s treasury” which, “includes as well the prayers and good works of the Blessed Virgin Mary. They are truly immense, unfathomable, and even pristine in their value before God.” As we have seen before, the Catholic Church ascribes attributes that rightly belong to Christ to the Virgin Mary, interposing her, in place of Christ, between the believer and God. And when we examine the public confession (when it is used, which is usually only in the penitential seasons of Advent & Lent), we find the same appeal to authorities other than Christ to intercede with God on the sinners’ behalf:

…and I ask blessed Mary, ever virgin, all the angels and saints, and you, my brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the Lord our God”.

It is unsurprising, therefore, that section CC1477 continues, “In the treasury, too, are the prayers and good works of all the saints, all those who have followed in the footsteps of Christ the Lord and by his grace have made their lives holy and carried out the mission in the unity of the Mystical Body.”  Again an unnecessary barrier is being placed between the believer and the direct access to God through Christ by his death on the cross contrary to the teaching of the Bible (Hebrews 4:147:25 & 9:24-25).

Not surprisingly, both the benefits of this “treasury” and the effects of the Sacrament of Penance are closely linked to the “doctrine and practice of indulgences” which the faithful can gain “for themselves or apply them to the dead” [CCC1471]. This doctrine finds Papal (Pius IV) approval in the Trentine Creed (1564), article 9 of which states, “I also affirm that the power of indulgences was left by Christ in the Church, and that the use of them is most wholesome to Christian people.” but without offering any shred of Biblical support for the assertion.

In response to the question “What is an Indulgence?”, CCC1471 gives the following definition:

An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints.” So here again, we have the Church replacing Christ as “the minister of redemption” and relying on an imagined treasury to bring remission of sin. However, depending on whether part or all of the temporal punishment is supposedly removed, such indulgences may only be partial or plenary (total) in effect [CCC1471].

So what constitutes an indulgence? Turning again to The New Saint Joseph Baltimore Catechism, one finds on the inside cover a prayer, below which are written the following words: “An indulgence of five years. A plenary indulgence on the usual conditions, provided this prayer has been recited daily for a month.”

On the same page is written, “The faithful who devote 20 minutes to a half hour to teaching or studying Christian doctrine, may gain: an indulgence of three years. A plenary indulgence on the usual conditions, if the above practice is carried out at least twice a month.”

Thus, we are back to the same old bugbear of Christ’s once and for all sacrifice on the cross being insufficient for the remission of sin and the penitent having to work for his own salvation, which is, as we have seen time and again, contrary to the revealed Word of God.

As we saw earlier, it was claimed that indulgences could be “applied to the dead” [CCC1471] and is confirmed by article 6 of the Trentine Creed, “I constantly hold that there is a Purgatory, and that the souls therein detained are helped by the suffrages of the faithful.” This claim is explained in CC1498 which states, “Through indulgences the faithful can obtain the remission of temporal punishment resulting from sin for themselves and also for the souls in Purgatory.” These practices, it is claimed, have their scriptural basis in Job 1:5 and II Maccabees 12:46 [CCC1032]. Apart from not being accepted as part of the Canon of Scripture by Protestants (such as myself), the text in Maccabees (like that in Job) cannot be used to justify indulgences as, like the animal sacrifices laid down in the Pentateuch, it pre-dates the saving work of Christ on the Cross, which rendered them no longer necessary [Heb 10:11-12].

CCC1030 declares, “All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.” The place (ii) of this purification and its supposed Scriptural foundation are given in CCC1031: “The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned…The tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture, speaks of a cleansing fire.”

This once again reinforces the view that, for Catholics, the saving work of Christ is deficient and that justification is not by faith alone, which is contrary to the revealed Word of God in the Bible. So on what biblical foundation do they make the claim?

The two passages cited in the Catechism are I Corinthians 3:15 and I Peter 1:7. Note, first of all that neither are the direct words of Christ; second both use literary devices (simile in the former and metaphor in the latter); third both texts are taken out of context, which permits the misinterpretation (“a text out of context is just a pretext“, as Kim Tan used to say).

In I Cor 3:10-15, the context is that St Paul is talking about his (and others’) missionary work, the quality of which will be tested with fire. In verse 15, which is supposed to refer to Purgatory, St Paul is clearly using a simile as indicated by highlighted the word: “If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved–even though only as one escaping through the flames.”

Likewise, when we examine I Pet 1:7, we see that St Peter is describing the trials suffered by his readers, mentioned in the preceding verse, metaphorically: “In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.”[I Pet 1:6].

Thus, we can see that Roman Catholic belief moves seamlessly from the dodgy doctrine of the “Church’s Treasury”, through the dubious doctrine of “Indulgences”, to the indefensible doctrine of “Purgatory” without any bona fide scriptural support.

Some Catholics have suggested that, as there is no Sacrament of Penance in Protestant churches, Christians of other denominations cannot be sure which sins have been forgiven and which have not. However, in my experience, it is more usual to encounter such angst over sin among Catholics than among Protestants (with the exception of the unforgivable sin of “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit” [Mk 3:9; Lk 12:10; Mtt 12:31-32] . Others have claimed, perhaps because of this lack of angst, that Protestants do not take sin seriously. This is not so. The Protestant Churches believe that the Bible, as the Word of God, takes precedence over any tradition. So let’s examine what the Bible actually says about confession.

St John tells us that we must confess our sins:

8 If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” (I John 1:8-10)

Note there is nothing to suppose that the penitent should confess her/his sins to a priest or even to any fellow believer. This is confirmed in the next chapter where St John says:

1 My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; 2 and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” (I John 2:1-2)

It should be noted that the words “atoning sacrifice” – ἱλασμός (hilasmos) in the original Greek – were often, in older versions of the Bible, rendered as “expiation” or “propitiation”.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines expiation as “The act of making amends or reparation for guilt or wrongdoing; atonement” and propitiate as “Win or regain the favour of (a god, spirit, or person) by doing something that pleases them.” As the verses above make clear, it is not the believer who “makes amends or reparation” or “wins or regains favour” but Christ alone.

In his book “Knowing God”, J I Packer, a well-known and widely esteemed 20th century evangelical theologian, contrasts propitiation in Christianity and other religions in the following manner, “In paganism, man propitiates his gods, and religion becomes a form of commercialism and, indeed, of bribery. In Christianity, however, God propitiates his wrath by his own action. He set forth Jesus Christ… to be the propitiation of our sins.” (p 207). We might detect a corrupted aspect of this “commercialism” in the much reviled Sale of Indulgences, which was a contributing factor to the Reformation in the XVI century.

It was at that time that John Calvin wrote his Institutes. In Institutes II:16:4, he quotes from an opus on the Gospel of St John by the Catholic scholar – and Teacher of the Church – St Augustine, who wrote:

Our being reconciled by the death of Christ must not be understood as if the Son reconciled us, in order that the Father, then hating, might begin to love us but that we were reconciled to him already, loving, though at enmity with us because of sin. To the truth of both propositions we have the attestation of the Apostle, ‘God commendeth his love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us,’ (Rom. 5: 8.) Therefore he had this love towards us even when, exercising enmity towards him, we were the workers of iniquity.” (John’s Gospel cx:6).

The noted and internationally respected Evangelical leader, John Stott, wrote that propitiation “does not make God gracious… God does not love us because Christ died for us, Christ died for us because God loves us” (The Cross of Christ, p 174), succinctly bridging the theological stance of both Packer and Augustine.

As none of the Scriptures cited in support of the so called Sacrament of Penance stand up to close scrutiny, we must conclude that it is of no true spiritual value, as it adds nothing to the saving work of Christ on the Cross, which, according to Scripture (eg Eph2:8; Rom 11:6; Heb 10:12), is wholly sufficient. Therefore, we must also conclude that its allied doctrines of indulgences and purgatory, which no other Church accepts (iii) , are no more than tenets of self-expiation that bind the faithful to the liturgical, priestly authority of the Roman Catholic Church in place of the propitiatory actions and divine authority of Christ our Redeemer.

__________________________________________________

Endnotes

(i)  The Greek word ἀγάπη has no direct translation to Latin or English so Thomas Aquinas, who appears to have had a dread of “love”, tried to equate it with the Latin word caritas, which has a somewhat different meaning (closer to the English word “grace”).

(ii) Contrary to popular belief, the Roman Catholic Church has not revoked this doctrine but merely reworked it to now claim that Purgatory is a “state” rather than a physical place (just as some theologians have argued that Hell is not a place but a state of being).

(iii) The Greek Orthodox Church, under influence from the Church of Rome, introduced indulgences in the form of Certificates of Absolution which were sold during the 17th century, a practice which was officially recognised at the 1727 Constantinople Council but which was condemned as a “horrid and unheard-of evil usage, originating in arrogance” [Encyclical 9th Clause] at the 1838 Council of Constantinople. The Orthodox Churches have always opposed the Doctrine (sic) of Purgatory.

A Straw Man Emerges From An Igloo

15 Jul

There is an image which has become popular on the internet. It shows the picture of an indigenous person from the Arctic region with the following text reconstructed from Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek:

Eskimo: “If I did not know about God and sin, would I go to hell?
Priest: “No, not if you didn’t know.
Eskimo: “Then why did you tell me?

Setting aside the fact that most of the indigenous people of the Arctic find the term “Eskimo” offensive, the argument is a straw man used by atheists to justify their non-belief, claiming that “it brings into question the existence of a benevolent god.”

The imaginary Inuk’s question is perfectly valid, but the priest’s reply shows a poor grasp of Christian theology. The correct answer is “perhaps”. The priest has not been appointed to judge the enquirer (I Corinthians 4:5; 5:12-13) but to instruct him/her as to a better way. The initial question implies that one only is punished when one knows about sin and that the speaker was at one time ignorant. This is a false premise, as we shall see.

If we were to change the initial question to “If I did not know about the speed limit, would I receive a penalty?”, no police officer, or lawyer, would give the supposed priest’s answer, as ignorance of a law is neither an excuse nor a defence in law. The action, whether you knew it to be wrong or not, has a legal consequence. All actions, both good and bad, have consequences.  Most societies (including those of the Arctic Peoples) have this as a tenet in some form or another.

Christian theology starts with the premise that, just as in physics, there are natural laws that are self-evident. Even if I do not know about gravity I am subject to its effects whether I want to be or not. If I jump off a high building, I will suffer the consequence of my ignorance (or wilful disregard) of the laws of gravity. If I commit a sin, it will have a consequence whether it was committed in ignorance or wilfully – the judgement handed down may be different (just as premeditated murder is judged differently from accidental killing).

Christians (following Jewish theology) see God’s nature as being dual; the merciful and loving “Chesed” is matched by the justice “mishpat” which arises from His holiness (“qodesh”) – two sides of the same coin. Without justice there can be no love. Notice the word is justice, not divine retribution – God is not acting out of character in allowing people to suffer consequences for their actions.

Parents usually will punish their children for breaking family codes and rules – therefore, to take the argument to logical absurdity, there is no such thing as a loving (benevolent) parent or they would never punish their children no matter what they did. Would that be a loving response? Of course not. And should a child reach out to touch a hot object (like an iron), a loving parent surely warns the child rather than letting him/her find out through experience. Yet the vignette suggests the opposite to be appropriate.

So let’s return to our imaginary enquirer. Was he really unaware of sin (or of a deity?) before the priest came? Did the people not have laws and social regulation before the missionary priest brought the gospel? Of course they did. This was in fact argued by St Paul in two passages in his letter to the Romans. In the first, he argues that God is revealed in his creation:

18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; 21 for though they knew God, they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools; 23 and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles. [Romans 1:18-23]

And in the second passage, Paul claims that even people who don’t know God have consciences to guide them:

12 All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. 13 For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous. 14 (Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.) 16 This will take place on the day when God judges people’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares. [Romans 2:12-16].

According to St Paul, our Inuk, will, like Christians, Jews and all other people be judged, but also that through Jesus Christ a way out from punishment has been provided (see his many epistles for examples). This is reaffirmed in the first epistle of St John:

1 My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; 2 and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. (I John 2:1-2)

It should be noted that the words “atoning sacrifice” – ἱλασμός (hilasmos) in the original Greek – were often, in older versions of the Bible, rendered as “expiation” or “propitiation”.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines expiation as “The act of making amends or reparation for guilt or wrongdoing; atonement” and propitiate as “Win or regain the favour of (a god, spirit, or person) by doing something that pleases them.” As the verses above make clear, it is not the believer who “makes amends or reparation” or “wins or regains favour” but Christ alone.

This brings me to the problem of the apparent claim by Jesus that he is the only way [John 14:6]). This is simply a problem of hermeneutics. Many Christians are guilty of lifting this verse out of both its time and context and presenting it as though it were a universal statement.

So let’s apply hermeneutics to it.

To whom was Jesus speaking? To our representative of the Arctic Peoples? To professor Richard Dawkins? To the Jews? To the Church? No – he was answering a question asked by St Thomas (v 5); in its wider context, he was giving words of comfort to his disciples (vv 1-4) and preparing them for what is ahead leading to the promise of the Holy Spirit (vv 15-17). By extension, this promise applies to all who would be his disciples. But there is no indication that Jesus meant it to apply universally – if he had, surely he would have proclaimed it to the crowds and it would have been found, not just in St John, but in all 4 gospels and the teaching of St Paul as well.

The problem is not one of “judgement” per se, but one of our wanting others to be punished while we are let off. We love to try and grade sin (just as we do crime) so as to claim that we are not so bad; but a crime is a crime and anyone breaking the law (even speeding) is a criminal in the eyes of the law.  Likewise, anyone who breaks the divine laws is a sinner (remember these laws are not arbitrarily set by God but arise naturally out of his holiness). Because this holiness is perfect “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” [Romans 3:23]. So to just punish some and not others is neither loving nor just.  However, paying the price due on behalf of another satisfies both God’s loving kindness and justice.  This God accomplished through Christ’s death on the cross.

The Bible tells us that sin breaks the relationship with a caring God. This is a God that loves the world enough, first, to not make us slavish robots who have no choice but to obey but to have the freewill to make our own choices and face the consequences of those choices (you don’t have to speed just because everyone else is – you choose to do it); and second, that the relationship is important enough for Him to pay the price that is the just consequence of sins which are rightfully ours. This is the benevolence.

Why did the missionary priests (often at great personal risk and cost) carry the gospel to the ends of the earth? Two reasons: one, we Christians have a message of hope and forgiveness that can (and does) transform lives; two, we are instructed to do so as that is the only way people like the Inuk in the story will hear about Christ’s propitiation of his sin on the cross and the salvation it offers on the day when, “2 Everything that is secret will be brought out into the open. Everything that is hidden will be uncovered. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight. What you have whispered to someone behind closed doors will be shouted from the rooftops.“[Luke 12:2-3].

However, there is no compunction on anyone to accept the salvation offered by Christ, but equally there is no excuse by which anyone can evade judgement that is a consequence of their sins if they do not.

Why I could never become a Roman Catholic – Part 4: The Bible

9 Jun

As suggested in the previous post, this section is more important as a barrier to my becoming a Roman Catholic than the previous section.  Let’s start by examining what the Roman Catholic Church says about the Bible.

CCC 85The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone. Its authority in this matter is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ.” This means that the task of interpretation has been entrusted to the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome.

CCC 95It is clear therefore that, in the supremely wise arrangement of God, sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture and the Magisterium of the Church are so connected and associated that one of them cannot stand without the others. Working together, each in its own way, under the action of the one Holy Spirit, they all contribute effectively to the salvation of souls.

Article 2 of the Trentine Creed (1564) states, “I also admit the Holy Scripture according to that sense which our holy mother the Church has held, and does hold, to which it belongs to judge of the true sense and interpretations of the Scriptures.  Neither will I ever take and interpret them otherwise than according to the unanimous consent of the Fathers.

Despite paying lip-service to illumination by the Holy Spirit, it is clear from the catechism and this tenet of faith that

a) the Word of God is no more important than their “tradition” (which as we have seen in the veneration of Mary is both unscriptural and of dubious provenance) to which it may be subjected in a manner similar to that used by the Pharisees – a thing which Jesus condemned (Mark 7:8-13); and

b) that they would restrict the illumination by the Holy Spirit (contrary to Scripture) to themselves, hence, limiting Almighty God. This supposed “infallibility” is entirely dependent on the claims made about the Papacy, which we will examine in depth in a later article.

St Paul tells us,

16 All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

but he says nothing about determining who may interpret God’s Word (there being no formal Church of Rome at the time Paul was writing) or of limiting it to the clergy or of restricting its use in private devotion by the laity (as was Catholic policy for some centuries before Vatican II made it acceptable again).  Limiting the Bible to public worship gave the Catholic hierarchy greater control over non-scriptural doctrines such as indulgences by which they profited financially.

Though I applaud there being three readings in the Mass, it is a shame that two of them are, as often as not, just a handful of verses taken out of context.  They are, in short, a pretext to support the theme of that day, and are rarely mentioned in the sermon.  All the focus is on the Gospel, which is apparently reserved to the clergy (this is by no means exclusive to the Roman Catholic Church, but I am equally against it in those Anglican and other churches where it is practised).  Yet even in the Gospel, verses are omitted for no obvious reason.  For me the whole Bible is important as it is the revelatory word of God against which orthodoxy has to be measured.  One of the reasons why I go to church is to hear the Word of God, and the way it is used in Catholic worship is cavalier.

While, “16 All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” (2 Timothy 3:16), that does not include the Apocrypha (which means “Hidden Books”) which is not part of the canon of Holy Scripture.  I see no reason to change the canon established by the Jewish faith in their Tanakh (Hebrew Bible).  These were the Scriptures that Jesus knew, loved and quoted; these were the Scriptures to which St Paul was referring in the verses cited above; and this was the Old Testament canon of the Roman Catholic Church up until the Council of Trent in 1546.  Thus, it seems to me that their inclusion is owed more to the theology of the Counter-Reformation, in that the books of the Apocrypha included, appear to support certain Roman Catholic doctrines (eg Purgatory, which we will deal with later) rejected by the Protestants.

While in the New Testament there are more than 260 quotations from the Old Testament (and even more allusions), not one of them is from the Apocrypha.  The obvious counter-argument to this is that there are books in the Old Testament that were never quoted either.  However, in Jewish thinking, to quote from any particular collection (eg the ‘Books of Truth’) was to accept the validity of the whole group.  Furthermore, all of the books in the Jewish canon were written in Hebrew, yet only three (and a part of a fourth) in the Apocrypha are, the rest all being in Greek.

The Jewish canon has its scriptures grouped into three categories: Torah (the Law) being the Five Books of Moses; Nevi’im (Prophets) both major and minor (with the exception of Daniel) and including Joshua, Samuel and Kings; and the Ketuvim (Writings) divided into three groups: the Books of Truth (Psalms, Proverbs & Job); the Five Scrolls, containing Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes and Esther; and the rest comprising Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah and Chronicles (the last book in the Tanakh).

This Jewish order of the Old Testament, which is still used today, is why Jesus used the allusion “From the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the House of God; yes, I tell you, it shall be charged against this generation” (Luke 11:51) when he wanted to show the gamut of Old Testament Scripture from the first martyr, Abel, in Genesis to the martyrdom of Zechariah in II Chronicles.  Though there were many martyrs in the inter-testament period (just look at the four books of Maccabees!), Jesus did not mention a single one of them; the simplest explanation for this is that they were not accepted by Him as Holy Writ, despite their having been included in the Greek Septuagint version.  The Jewish historian Josephus likewise rejected their being scripture, “It is true, our history hath been written since Artaxerxes very particularly, but hath not been esteemed of the like authority with the former by our forefathers” (Against Apion Book 1, Section 8).

The Church Fathers, from whom Roman Catholics claim support for the Apocrypha, are far from unanimous on the matter.   Melito and Origen, for example, were opposed to it.  Great teachers of the church such as Cyril of Jerusalem, Hiliary of Poitier and Epiphanius of Salamis all rejected it.  Jerome vigorously resisted its inclusion in his Latin Vulgate Bible.  Despite his best efforts, it was included and the Council of Carthage (418) declared it “the infallible and authentic Bible.”  Thus, though not given the status of canon they were regularly read by Roman Catholics throughout the mediaeval period.  This no doubt led to their wide acceptance by the parish clergy and to their inclusion in the first edition of the Authorised Version (or KJV) of 1611, perhaps as a compromise to the High Church wing of the Church of England.

However, the Church of England in its Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion (1563), following St Jerome,  states that the books of the Apocrypha are to be read by the Church “for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine” (Article VI) and the Church of Scotland more forcefully states that “The books commonly called Apocrypha, not being of divine inspiration, are no part of the Canon of Scripture; and therefore are of no authority in the Church of God, nor to be any otherwise approved, or made use of, than other human writings.” (Westminster Confession, Chap 1 s3).  Indeed, none of the books of the Apocrypha claim to be inspired and this to my mind makes the Kirk’s judgement the correct one.

I find it incredible that the Catholic Church still argues for the primacy (and thus supremacy of the Gospel of St Matthew).  This theory was long ago abandoned by serious scholars given that Matthew’s Gospel contains 91% of St Mark’s Gospel, even to the point of preserving the language used by Mark.  Many Catholics still argue that Mark copied Matthew.  Yet, that long debunked theory raises three serious questions that they fail to answer satisfactorily:

a)      Why didn’t Mark use any of Matthew’s birth or resurrection narratives?

b)      Why didn’t Mark use more of the teachings attributed to the shared source ‘Q’ and the source unique to                  Matthew, ‘M’?

c)       Where did Mark get his extra 9% from?

Furthermore, Mark’s authorship and the reliability of his Gospel are validated by the Apostolic Father, Papias (c 140 ad), who makes an assertion based on an even earlier authority, which states

And the presbyter said this. Mark having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately whatsoever he remembered. It was not, however, in exact order that he related the sayings or deeds of Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor accompanied Him. But afterwards, as I said, he accompanied Peter, who accommodated his instructions to the necessities [of his hearers], but with no intention of giving a regular narrative of the Lord’s sayings. Wherefore Mark made no mistake in thus writing some things as he remembered them. For of one thing he took special care, not to omit anything he had heard, and not to put anything fictitious into the statements. ”  (Fragment 6) [1]

That John Mark was a close associate of St Peter is backed up by his being mentioned as sending greetings along with Peter (I Peter 5: 13),  who had preserved his preaching.  Some believe that John Mark was even an eye witness to some of the events of Holy Week hinting at his presence in his own Gospel on the basis of Mark 14:51.

Thus, the view that  Matthew and Luke both used Mark as a framework for their Gospels is (and has been for some considerable time) widely accepted by the majority of reputable scholars.

The only reason for clinging to this outdated theory is that the claim of Papal Supremacy as the successor to Peter is relies on a particular interpretation of a passage found only in Matthew (Matthew 16:18).  This will be discussed very thoroughly in the section on the Papacy later.

As we have seen in the sections on the Mass and the Virgin Mary above, Papal diktat and human tradition clearly outweigh Holy Writ and, when the latter is lacking, supplement it with equal authority.  This I cannot accept.  Tradition, no matter how noble in sentiment or holiness, is always subject to Holy Scripture.  Anything else can – and to my mind already has – only lead to theological error and diversion of attention from Christ and his saving work on the Cross.

[1]  Though in the same fragment Papias claims that “Matthew put together the oracles [of the Lord] in the Hebrew language, and each one interpreted them as best he could.“, it is unclear as to what he was referring to as the Gospel of Matthew shows no linguistic traces of Hebrew and the Koine Greek used from Mark’s Gospel is not altered, merely corrected.

Why I could never become a Roman Catholic – Part 3: The Crucifix and Statues of Saints

2 Jun

You’ll be glad to know that this section is a lot briefer than the last.  I have chosen to put it here, not because it is the next most important to me, but because it logically follows on from the last one.

The ubiquitous use of the crucifix, for me, shows a lack of understanding of the true nature of the Cross – that it is empty because, Christ did not remain there, but rose from the dead, ascended into heaven and will come again in glory.  The crucifix, glories not in the risen and ascended Lord, but in his sufferings.  While it is important to remember those sufferings (Protestants are, perhaps, as is claimed by Catholics,  in danger of undervaluing them and their potential comfort to people who are suffering), Christ’s sacrifice on the cross is no more than a simple tragedy without the Risen Christ; a suffering that without the certainty  of  resurrection can only lead to interminable despair .  Good Friday only acquires significance in light of Easter and Ascension, which are far better manifested by an empty cross.

Furthermore, it is known that the Romans first stripped their victims naked before hanging them on the cross;  yet the crucifixes generally preserve a modesty that was denied Christ and, which was for a devout Jew, an additional humiliation.  Additionally, the veneration (eg kissing the feet of an image on a crucifix or kissing a dolly at Christmas) smacks of idolatry.    In John’s Gospel we are told:

18 No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.” John 1:18 (See also John 6:46)

30 I and the Father are one.”  John 10:30

Just as no one has seen God, all those who saw Our Lord in the flesh, are dead and left not the slightest description of His physiognomy.

Furthermore,

23 Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshippers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshippers the Father seeks. 24 God is spirit, and his worshippers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”  John 4:23-24

Such worship neither needs nor benefits from idolatry.

The same applies to statues of “Our Lady” be she Madonna or Queen of Heaven.  This is by far the worst example of this idolatry.  Mary dominates many churches, not just in one of her myriad guises in one or more side chapels, but in numerous churches in place of Christ over the altar (with the Saviour moved to the side!).  Little wonder that non-Catholics believe that she has been embedded into the Trinity as part of the godhead – a view that is given greater credence by calls for her to be recognised as “co-redemptrix” in addition to the existing Marian heresies.

Added to this is the use of the statues of saints, before which prayers are offered and candles lit, and which are paraded through the streets at Easter and on the relevant Saints’ Days.  These, while supposedly being aids to faith, direct the believer away from Christ to some worthy Christian of the past, who supposedly has more access to the ear of God.  They become a stumbling block to the truth of the Gospel, that through Christ every believer has direct access to God through Christ.  Once again denying the revealed word of God for man-made tradition.

The lack of necessity for these idols is put clearly by the writer to the Hebrews

19 Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.”  Hebrews 10:19 – 22

Why I could never become a Roman Catholic – Part 2: The Cult of the Virgin Mary

26 May

A.  INTRODUCTION

In this second part, I explain why I cannot accept the veneration accorded to the Virgin Mary by the Roman Catholic Church.

As someone once noted, when one enters a Catholic Church one s greeted by a dead (or dying) Christ but by a living Virgin Mary.  This is even more evident in Spanish churches where the Virgin is in a central position above the altar and Christ pushed off to the side.  This is the heart of the marian idolatary for me.

This veneration appears to have its origin in the worship of the Egyptian goddess Isis (and perhaps other pagan goddesses of the ancient world) which was prevalent in the Roman Empire until the end of the pagan era.  In fact, there are “surviving images of Isis holding Horus in a pose remarkably similar to that of some early Christian madonnas.” (Constantine and the Christian Empire: Richard A Todd, in Lion Handbook: The History of Christianity, Lion Publishing, 1977, p132)

So what does the Church officially say about the Cult of the Virgin?

IV.  THE CULT OF THE BLESSED VIRGIN IN THE CHURCH

66. Mary has by grace been exalted above all angels and men to a place second only to her Son, as the most holy Mother of God who was involved in the mysteries of Christ: she is rightly honoured by a special cult in the Church. From the earliest times the Blessed Virgin is honoured under the title of Mother of God, whose protection the faithful take refuge together in prayer in all their perils and needs.  Accordingly, following the Council of Ephesus, there was a remarkable growth in the cult of the people of God towards Mary, in veneration and love, in invocation and imitation, according to her own prophetic words: “all generations shall call me Blessed, because he that is mighty hath done great things to me.”  Vatican Collection Volume 1, Vatican Council II, The Conciliar and Post Conciliar documents.  General Editor Austin Flannery, O.P. New revised edition 1992; Costello publishing company, Northport, New York.  1992 page 421.

While the Protestant churches have perhaps neglected Mary and not given her the respect she deserves,as “Blessed”, this quotation from the Second Vatican Council shows that the Roman Catholic Church has elevated the Virgin Mary to near divinity and designated her with titles, attributes and qualities that properly belong to the Lord Jesus Christ.  So how has such a heretical error come to be official doctrine of the Church?

B.  MARY AS THE MOTHER OF GOD

It has its origin in a mistranslation of the ancient description of Mary as “Theokotos” (literally “God-bearer”), but which, in the Roman Catholic West, has traditionally been rendered as “Mother of God” (a title of Isis).  Neither the term “God-bearer” nor that of “Mother of God” are ever used anywhere in the New Testament, in which she is merely referred to as simply “Mary“, “his mother Mary” (Matthew 1; Luke 1 & 2) or “Mary the mother of Jesus” (Acts 1:14).[1]  Nestorius (a fifth century Patriarch of Constantinople) prophetically warned against such usage arguing that “…if Mary is the Mother of God she has been made a goddess, and the Gentiles will be scandalized.” As we shall see, this is exactly what has happened.

This fundamental error in translation has the direct consequence of creating a whole raft of apparently consistent beliefs:

(i)  The Mother of God surely must then be the “Queen of Heaven” (the title of numerous pagan goddesses including Isis, Innana, Astarte/Asterah and Hera/Juno) and (in the words of a supposed apparition of Mary to an adolescent visionary) “the permanent Bride of the Holy Ghost“.[2]  Despite accepting Epiphanius of Salamis’ condemnation of the Collyridians – a heretical sect that offered cakes (or bread rolls) to Mary as a goddess who was “Queen of Heaven”, the Vatican appears to have adopted the title on the basis of an unsubstantiated, private revelation of  Pope Gregory the Great (7th century), which was the supposed source of the Marian prayer Regina Coeli, over the revealed word of God in the Bible, where adoration of “The Queen of Heaven” is clearly condemned[3].

(ii) The phrase “second only to her Son” has led some within the Catholic Church to see Mary as “co-redemptrix” with Christ – a view that was utterly alien to the Early Church! Indeed, there is no evidence that Mary was held in equal, let alone greater, esteem than the leading Apostles: Peter, Paul, John (the disciple whom Jesus loved),  Andrew (the first disciple) and James (the Brother of the Lord), who were all greatly revered throughout the first and second centuries, as accords with the Biblical account in Mark 3:32-35 and Jesus´ teaching in Luke 11:27).

(iii) the use of “Mother of us All” (another of Isis’ titles), creates a vision of a Divine Family in Heaven, which complements the Holy Family on Earth, is largely responsible for the Islamic confusion over the nature of the Triune Godhead, into which Mary has effectively been inserted.  Additionally, it reinforces the false idea of Mary’s being “co-redemptrix, mediatrix and advocate“.

Naturally such a person could not have been anything other than immaculately conceived (obviating the need for salvation) and be bodily assumed into Heaven.  Of course, not a single one of these claims has any biblical support; nor do they find any support in the writings of the Apostolic Fathers.

The Council of Ephesus (431ad) is often cited (as in the quote from the Vatican Collection above) in support of this Cult of the Virgin.  Holly Hayes, who has an MPhil in Religious History from Oxford University, examined the relationship between the Cult of the Virgin Mary in Ephesus before and after the Council as part of her thesis.  She cites S. Vailhé, ‘Ephesus’.  The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. V (1909) in which it is stated that:

the opinion that the Blessed Virgin died there [in Ephesus] rests on no ancient testimony’.

Indeed, the earliest references associating the Virgin Mary with Ephesus are from Ephiphanius of Salamis (375 ad), who in the Panarion 3.78.11 “was concerned to point out that although the Bible says John was leaving for Asia, it does not say that Mary went with him.” (Hayes – unpublished MPhil Thesis, University of Oxford) and from a letter to the Christians of Constantinople from the Council of Ephesus which is far from clear in its meaning.

These “ ‘are the sum of the ancient contemporaneous evidence for Mary in Ephesus’ and both are indirect. Aside from these, there are no literary references to a legend, cult or church of Mary in Ephesus prior to 431.”

Furthermore, Hayes points out that “There is also no literary or archaeological evidence for either a tomb or relics associated with Mary in Ephesus” (Hayes, ibid)   and that “Archaeological evidence for devotion to Mary in Ephesus is also scant.” (Hayes, ibid)

Other scholars, like Dr Richard A Todd, point to the fact that “Isis in her travels became identified with many other goddesses, including Artemis, and was the ‘universal mother’ of later pagan religion.”

This gives a clue as to how Ephesus came to be associated with Mary as we know from the Bible that it was the city that belonged to Artemis:

27 There is danger not only that our trade will lose its good name, but also that the temple of  the great goddess Artemis will be discredited; and the goddess herself, who is worshipped  throughout the province of Asia and the world, will be robbed of her divine majesty.”   28 When they heard this, they were furious and began shouting: “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” (Acts 19:27-28)

What is more natural than that the worshippers of Artemis (and Isis) should “…look to Mary for comfort when paganism was outlawed and their temples destroyed at the end of the fourth century.” (Richard A Todd, ibid p132)

Though the New Testament is silent on the fate of Mary, the earliest writings about the tomb of Mary indicate that she died and was buried in Jerusalem with several 4th century documents placing her tomb in Gethsemane. This is conceded by the Catholic Encylopedia which states:

The apocryphal works of the second to the fourth century are all favourable to the Jerusalem tradition. According to the Acts of St John by Prochurus, written (160-70) by Lencius, the Evangelist went to Ephesus accompanied by Prochurus alone and at a very advanced age, i.e. after Mary’s death.”

The earliest sources (eg Transitus Mariae) are apocryphal, it is true, but all seem to have their origin in a single primitive document, which may have been written for liturgical use at Mary’s tomb, according to the biblical scholar Lino Cignelli who notes, “From the earliest times, tradition has assigned the authorship of the prototype to one Lucius Carinus, said to have been a disciple and fellow labourer with St John the Evangelist.”

Thus, it is unsurprising that this version was widely accepted by both the Eastern and Western Churches[4] and later documents claiming that Mary went with St John to Ephesus (eg the Syriac document copied in 874ad) were largely ignored by the Roman Catholic Church until the 19th century, when a nun, named Anne Catherine Emmerich, claimed to have had a vision of Mary’s last house in Ephesus (which is now a site of veneration for both Catholics and Muslims).

Thus, the actual evidence of an ancient cult of Mary in Ephesus is weak at best and would appear to only have occurred after the pagan era to accommodate those whose religion had been proscribed in favour of Christianity.

C. MARY AS THE QUEEN OF HEAVEN

Some Catholics claim biblical authority for Mary as “Queen of Heaven” (sic) citing John’s vision of “a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pangs, in the agony of giving birth.” (Revelation 12:1-2).  Lets examine this text to see if there is any validity in such a claim when the verses are put into the context of the rest of the chapter.

The vision John relates is very similar to the stories of the birth of the Egyptian god Horus (which was later adapted for the birth of the Roman god Apollo).  These universally told stories had been given a Jewish gloss, in which the 12 stars of the zodiac were replaced by the 12 Patriarchs of Israel and understood the Woman to represent Israel as God’s “chosen people”.  John has Christianised the Jewish version so that the Woman is clothed in the “sun of righteousness” (Christ) with her feet on the moon to indicate that her head is in heaven, and crowned by the 12 apostles, who have spread the Gospel (Matthew Henry, 1960).

It is clear that, as Henry states, that the Woman is representative of the Church, with whom Satan was angry and  who “went off to make war on the rest of her children, those who keep the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus.” (Revelation 12:17).  This verse clearly shows that the Woman cannot be Mary.

Johns adaptation of this popular narrative has a dual purpose:  it illustrates his own theme while tacitly excluding “all heroes of other faiths from the position of world Redeemer.” (The New Bible Commentary Revised, 1970:1294).

Even more fundamentally, were the Woman, Mary, why did not John say so?  After all, he surely would have recognised the woman he took into his home as “mother” and who he buried in Jerusalem, even were she in a heavenly vision.  That he merely refers to her as “the Woman” throughout, strongly suggests that he was speaking of the Christian Church, the true Bride of Christ, and not the mother of Jesus.

D.  THE PERPETUAL VIRGINITY OF MARY

However, we will start by examining the claims for Mary’s “perpetual virginity” (sic) with which these false doctrines are inextricably entwined.

The origin of the myth of Mary’s perpetual virginity lies in the “Infancy Gospel of St James“, an apocryphal gospel, the authorship and date of which are dubious (why, were it written by Jesus’ brother James, would it be reliant on a synthesis of the Gospels of St Matthew (only in which occurs the visit of the Wise Men) and St Luke (only in which is recounted the birth of John the Baptist)?) and denied by all reputable scholars.

Right from the start the emerging belief in Mary’s perpetual virginity was challenged by leading figures in the Early Church such as Eunomius, Jovian, Helvidus, and Bishop Bonosus of Sardica.  It was also denied by the Antidicomarianites (an Eastern Sect, which flourished between 200 and 400ad), mentioned by both Origen and Tertullian, who also rejected the emerging false belief.  Later opponents included St. Ambrose, St. Hilary, and St Basil the Great, who wrote:

“[The opinion that Mary bore several children after Christ] … is not against the faith; for virginity was imposed on Mary as a necessity only up to the time that she served as an instrument for the Incarnation. On the other hand, her subsequent virginity was not essential to the mystery of the Incarnation.” (Homilia in sanctam Christi generationem, PG 31:1468).

Proponents of this doctrine, not surprisingly, ignore St Basil in favour of his near contemporaries St Jerome (who was concerned that Virginity should be valued more than Marriage) and St Augustine of Hippo, who is cited in the Catechism, in support of their claims.

Mary ‘remained a virgin in conceiving her Son, a virgin in giving birth to him, a virgin in carrying him, a virgin in nursing him at her breast, always a virgin’ (St. Augustine, Serm. 186, 1: PL 38, 999): with her whole being she is “the handmaid of the Lord” (Lk 1:38).”  (CCC 510)

The doctrine gained ground during the 6th century – despite opposition from St. Gregory of Tours – and in 553, the Fifth General Council granted Mary the title of honour “perpetual virgin”.

If this perpetual virginity, a doctrine espoused by St Augustine, confirmed by the Fifth General Council and incorporated in the catechism, were essential to faith, surely there would have been some Biblical evidence to support it.  There is none indicating that the innovation is neither true to Holy Scripture nor to the teachings of the Early Church.

It is more likely that a story about the birth of Romulus and Remus, the mythical founders of Rome, by the Roman historian Livy, which was widely circulates during the first decades of the 1st century, is the principal source.  In this story, the twins, who are sons of Mars (the Roman God of War), are immaculately conceived by Silvia, a Vestal Virgin.  Is it possible that early Matthew, wishing to signal that this was the birth of a very important person – more important than that of the founders of Rome – adapted this myth in light of a mistranslation of Isaiah 7:14?

The original prophecy in Isaiah does not use the Hebrew word for a virgin “bethuwlah” but rather  uses the Hebrew word “almah”, which has no exact translation in English but which has the sense of “a young maiden of childbearing age”.  While such a woman could be a virgin, the word does not imply that she must be (she could be married but yet to conceive).  This is very same problem that faced the translators of the Old Testament into Greek (The Septuagint).  There was no word in Greek that directly translated the word “almah”.  Their solution was to use the word “parthenos”, which translates as “virgin” in English; but St Matthew does not use this word in his account of the birth of Jesus, using instead the word “eginōsken” which translates as “knew” with the sense of having “sexual relations” and, thus, implying virginity.

Moreover, Matthew is the only Gospel to imply a Virgin Birth; the Gospels of St Mark and St John have no birth narratives at all; St Luke, who does have a birth narrative, makes no mention of it (Luke 2:4-5).  It does not even appear in the super-miraculous, apocryphal Infancy Gospel of St Thomas.  Equally striking is that the great rabbinic scholar and Apostle to the Gentiles, St Paul, appears to be completely oblivious to this aspect of the birth of Jesus, an event to which he only alludes twice (Galatians 4:4 & Romans 1:3-4).  In the former he writes:

But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law.”

Note that St Paul uses the word woman (gunaikos), not virgin (parthenos).  In the latter passage he refers to Jesus’ descent from David:

regarding his Son, who as to his earthly life was a descendant of David,  and who through the Spirit of holiness was appointed the Son of God in  power by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord.”

As both Jesus’ earthly parents were “descendants of David” (Matt 1: 1-17; Lk 2:4 & Lk 3:33-38), there is no implication other than that he is the “Son of David” as much through Joseph as Mary.

Even accepting that Mary was a virgin at the time of Jesus birth (as most mainstream churches do), there are no grounds to suppose that her virginity had to be perpetual, unless it is to elevate her status to that of a demigoddess and, thus, to deflect the faithful from reliance on Christ, their Saviour, alone.

In fact, Matthew 1:25 is very clear on the matter:

25 But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.

Catholics theologians, following St Jerome[5], argue that the word “until” does not necessarily imply a change in condition and cite numerous Bible verses to support their claim.  Yet, this is merely semantics: there are an equal, if not superior, number of verses in which the condition has changed.  The meaning in each case is determined by context.  In Matthew 1:25, the context is clearly different from those verses cited by Catholic theologians.

The lack of sexual relations between Joseph and Mary (her virginity) is the central concept of the verse, as St Matthew wishes to demonstrate that Old Testament prophecy is being fulfilled in the birth of the Son of God.  The word “until” clearly shows a change of condition.

That Joseph and Mary had children after the birth of Jesus is well attested in Scripture (John 2:12; Matthew 13:55-56; Mark 3: 31-32 & 6:3; Luke 8:19-20; John 7:2-5 & 10; Acts 1:14; I Corinthians 9:5; Galatians 1:19).  There are also multiple instances in the book of Acts of James’ (the brother of Jesus) role as leader of the Church in Jerusalem.  Thus, to claim that Mary remained a virgin after the birth of Jesus is to unwittingly assign the unnecessary condition of Immaculate Conception to all of Joseph’s offspring.

Such a weak defence appears to be a clutching at straws in a vain attempt to defend the indefensible.  Therefore, this doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary has been shown to be both absurd and unnecessary to either the fulfilment of Old Testament Prophecy or Christology.

The Roman Catholic Church is guilty of even greater heresy in confounding the Virgin Mary with the deity of Christ through the attribution to her of two Christological aspects:  Immaculate Conception and Bodily Assumption into Heaven.  Neither doctrine has support in Scripture or in the Early Church Fathers.  While they were popular lay beliefs – tolerated by the papacy – from medieval times, neither was accepted as a Doctrine of the Church until 1854 and 1950, respectively.  Both pronouncements, which rest on the dubious self-assumption of Papal Infallibility, were made ex-cathedra without the benefit of discussion in Council, and thus to me, smack more of pandering to populism than serious theology.

E.  THE IMMACULATE CONCEPTION OF MARY

The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Saviour of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin.” (Pope Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus – CC 491)

The false doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary directly arises from a combination of the mistranslation of Theokotos and the (as we have seen) entirely unnecessary doctrine of perpetual virginity.

While this doctrine has its roots in antiquity (the Church in Antioch celebrated the “Feast of the Most Holy and All Pure Mother of God” on 8th December as early as the 5th century), as Ott admits in his The Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, it

…is not explicitly revealed in scripture…Neither the Greek nor the Latin Fathers explicitly (explicite) teach the Immaculate Conception of Mary.” (pp 201-202).

Despite this, Catholic scholars claim a number of “proofs from Scripture” which, when they are subjected to scrutiny, prove to be highly interpretive and less than reliable.

The proof from Genesis 3:15 relies on a mistranslation of the Hebrew word ה֚וּא [] as “she” in place of the correct “he“.  Even The Catholic Encyclopedia recognises that “The translation “she” of the Vulgate is interpretative; it originated after the fourth century, and cannot be defended critically.”  Reliance on this proof appears to be as desperate a clutching at straws as the “until” argument for Mary’s supposed perpetual virginity.

Their second proof relies on the Vulgate translation of the word κεχαριτωμένη [kecharitōmenē] as gratia plena [full of grace], which differs from the original Koine meaning of “highly favoured” or “graciously accepted” [6], which all Protestant translations use.  Thus, once again, the proof relies on an idiosyncratic translation which according to The Catholic Encyclopaedia,  “…serves only as an illustration, not as a proof of the dogma.

A third proof relies on a part of a single verse in the Song of Songs (4:7b) which is lifted out of context and applied to Mary (a favourite practice of Catholic apologetics).

The last Biblical proof (I reject the Apocrypha as Scripture and thus the supposed proof based on a passage in the book of Ecclesiasticus) is a liturgically inappropriate attribution of the personalisation of “Wisdom” in Proverbs 8 to Mary.  While such an attributions of passages from the Old Testament to Christ or the Church are common in the New Testament and Patrisitic writings, they are not applied to individuals (other than Christ).  This attribution, which wholly ignores the original context, confounds Mary with her Son (cf John 1).  It is further evidence of how Mary has been all but deified by Catholics and logically leads to the false belief that Mary is a co-redemtrix and mediatrix with Christ.

These last were omitted from  “Ineffabilis Deus” as, in the words of The Catholic Encyclopaedia, they “…do not avail to prove the doctrine dogmatically…”

Surely, had God intended this to be a fundamental doctrine of the Church there would have been some explicit mention of it in the Bible. Yet there is nothing but dubious translations (and, in the case of Genesis and Song of Songs, translation from an earlier translation), a partial verse out of context and inappropriate attribution of passage which clearly is not referring to Mary.  So from where did it come?

Just as with Mary’s perpetual virginity, her miraculous birth is related in the pseudo-gospel of James. Yet, it’s origin is likely to be much older.

As with the Theokotos confusion and the doctrine of perpetual virginity, the Immaculate Conception may well have pagan origins.  Prior to the fourth century bc, when she became conflated with the goddess Ishtar, the Persian goddess Anahita was worshipped as  “the virgin,” “the immaculate”.  In the Graeco-Roman era, this belief had passed to Artemis/Diana, which returns us to Ephesus, though not to Mary.

The Patristic writers were divided on the issue.  Indeed, the earlier Fathers were very cautious with St Basil and St Chrysostom not accepting the immaculate conception and Origen being conflicted in his views.  The official view is that in this regard they “were in error” (The Catholic Encyclopaedia).  However, there were those who ascribed to the burgeoning belief, which, when  the British monk Eadmer espoused the idea in the 12th Century, was opposed by St Bernard of Clairvaux who,”…warned the faithful that this was an unfounded innovation” (Ott p201).  His arguments, despite the rebuttal by Peter Comestor, continued to be argued well into the 17th century.

It is interesting that the concept gained a renewed popularity in the 19th century when Catherine Labouré, a Catholic nun and mystic, claimed in 1830 to have seen an apparition of Mary in which she saw an oval with the words  “O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.” around its edge and these were included on her “miraculous medal” with the the “Sacred Heart of Jesus and Immaculate Heart of Mary inscribed upon it.

It is less surprising that there was a second apparition at Lourdes in February, 1858 (4 years after Pope Pius IX infallible (sic) declaration of Mary’s immaculate conception) in which the the apparition stated “Je suis l’Immaculée conception” (I am the Immaculate Conception).  Though initially sceptical, the Catholic Church bowed to local pressure and unproven claims of healing and recognised the vision, creating  a new shrine to Mary.

That such adoration of the “Immaculate Heart” has become integral to mainstream Catholicism is shown by the following quote from an article in Zenit in an article in 2012, which opens by quoting Padre Pio “The Madonna is the shortcut to get to God” before continuing:

There is no doubt that in order to see the face of Jesus, we must turn to His Mother, and it is to Her who we look to heal our diseases, to turn our tears into prayer.[7]

Such sentiments fly in the face of biblical teaching.  Nowhere in the Bible is there any mention of Mary mediating between believers and her Son or of her ever having healed anyone.  To claim that she “heals our diseases” is to attribute – without warrant – the prophecy of Isaiah 53:4, which properly belongs to Jesus (Matthew 8:17), to Mary.

Thus again Catholics are being encouraged, contrary to Holy Scripture, to adopt the heresy of displacing Jesus as the one mediator with his mother in a way that neither fosters salvation nor glorifies God.

We mentioned earlier that the belief in Mary’s Immaculate Conception flourished briefly in Antioch. However, the belief was ultimately rejected by the Orthodox Church, the antiquity of which is greater than that of Rome. Their Patriarchal Encyclical of 1895 states:

“XIII. The one holy, catholic and apostolic Church of the seven Ecumenical Councils teaches that the supernatural incarnation of the only-begotten Son and Word of God, of the Holy Ghost and the Virgin Mary, is alone pure and immaculate; but the Papal Church scarcely forty years ago again made an innovation by laying down a novel dogma concerning the immaculate conception of the Mother of God and ever-Virgin Mary, which was unknown to the ancient Church (and strongly opposed at different times even by the more distinguished among the Papal theologians).”

More recently, in their 89 page letter to Pope Francis detailing the heresies of the Roman Catholic Faith, the Orthodox Metropolitans Andrew of Dryinoupolis, Pogoniani & Konitsa and Seraphim of Piraeus & Faliro condemn “the dogma of the ‘immaculate conception’ and the ‘bodily assumption’ of the Mother of God“. [8]

Let’s now examine the claims for the bodily Assumption of Mary into Heaven.

F.  THE BODILY ASSUMPTION OF MARY INTO HEAVEN

“Finally the Immaculate Virgin, preserved free from all stain of original sin, when the course of her earthly life was finished, was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory, and exalted by the Lord as Queen over all things, so that she might be the more fully conformed to her Son, the Lord of lords and conqueror of sin and death.”(Pope Pius XII, Munificentissimus Deus – CC 966)

 The Most Blessed Virgin Mary, when the course of her earthly life was completed, was taken up body and soul into the glory of heaven, where she already shares in the glory of her Son’s Resurrection, anticipating the resurrection of all members of his Body. (CC 974)

Regarding Marian relics, Calvin commented ironically that since the Roman Catholics believed in the Assumption of Mary, they have been deprived “of all pretext for manufacturing any relics of her remains, which otherwise might have been sufficiently abundant to fill a whole churchyard.

[SECTION UNDER REVISION]

G.  DEIFICATION OF MARY AS CO-REDEMPTRIX, MEDIATRIX OF GRACE AND ADVOCATE

Roman Catholics have always told me that there is no such confounding of Mary with the Deity and that I merely have not understood the theology.  So let us examine that theology further:

In countless hymns and antiphons expressing this prayer, two movements usually alternate with one another: the first “magnifies” the Lord for the “great things” he did for his lowly servant and through her for all human beings the second entrusts the supplications and praises of the children of God to the Mother of Jesus, because she now knows the humanity which, in her, the Son of God espoused.(CCC 2675)

“ ‘Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death:’  By asking Mary to pray for us, we acknowledge ourselves to be poor sinners and we address ourselves to the “Mother of Mercy,” the All-Holy One.”  (CCC 2677 on the Ave Maria)

Mary is the perfect Orans (pray-er), a figure of the Church. When we pray to her, we are adhering with her to the plan of the Father, who sends his Son to save all men. Like the beloved disciple we welcome Jesus’ mother into our homes, for she has become the mother of all the living. We can pray with and to her. The prayer of the Church is sustained by the prayer of Mary and united with it in hope.”  (CCC 2679)

After speaking of the Church, her origin, mission, and destiny, we can find no better way to conclude than by looking to Mary.” (CCC 972)

“From the Church he learns the example of holiness and recognizes its model and source in the all-holy Virgin Mary…” (CCC 2030)

and I ask blessed Mary, ever virgin, all the angels and saints, and you, my brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the Lord, our God.”  (Penitential Rite, RC Mass)

Here again in the Catechism we find Mary displacing her son, the Christ, as both the source of the Church and as the one on whom we should fix our eyes, “Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith” (Hebrews 12:2), who said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)

Therefore Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. (John 10:7a)

“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.”  (John 15:5)

The Catholic Catechism is clearly in conflict with the revealed Word of God as set out in the Holy Scriptures, subverting it with man-made traditions, which – no matter how honourable in intent – misdirect  devotees from the true focus of worship, our one Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.

Furthermore, Catechismal statements such as these are reflected in the declarations of supposed apparitions of the Virgin (eg Lourdes, Fatima) whose claims would have shocked the Apostles and Early Church.  Interestingly, such visions were rare prior to the 11th century ad and are (and always have been) predominantly to women.[9]

I do not intend a detailed examination of these apparitions and there pro-Marian statements but to look at a single example: that of the apparition at Marienfried/Pfaffenhofen (Germany).  It is claimed that the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared  to 12 year old Barbara Reuss at Marienfried on three occasions (April 25th, May 25th & June 25th, 1946).  The messages allegedly, inter alia, included the following heretical statements:

Where the strongest confidence reigns and where it is taught to men that I can do everything, there I will spread peace.” (First Vision)

I am the powerful Mediatrix of Graces. As the world can find mercy only through the sacrifice of the Son with the Father, so can you only find favour with the Son through my intercession. Christ is so unknown because I am not known.” (Second Vision)

I am the powerful Mediatrix of Grace. It is the will of the Father that the world acknowledge this position of His Handmaid. People must believe that I am the permanent Bride of the Holy Ghost and the faithful Mediatrix of All Graces. God wants it so.” (Third Vision)[10]

Yet nowhere in Holy Writ – nor in the teachings of the Early Church – is there any evidence that Mary is all powerful as suggested in the first excerpt; let alone the sole mediator to Christ as stated in the second excerpt; or worse still the “wife of God”(sic) as implied in the third excerpt.  Such professions are clearly ‘revelations’ that claim to surpass or correct the Revelation of which Christ is the fulfilment” and thus contrary to the Church’s official teaching in the Catechism.[11]  Yet the Catholic Church has not deigned to condemn their heresy (though neither has it sanctioned it) but rather granted the indeterminate status of constat de supernaturalitate (ie evidence of supernatural intervention), which can only mislead  credulous folk to false worship.

As has so often been the case in our exploration of the Marian cult, such ascriptions to Mary would appear also to have pagan origins as is revealed by Hislop’s discussion of the Assyrian goddess, who became identified with Ishtar of Nineveh (and later with Aphrodite), in which he writes:

“...as the mother of grace and mercy, as the celestial ‘Dove’, as ‘the hope of the whole world’ (BRYANT) was averse to blood, and was represented in a benign and gentle character. Accordingly, in Babylon she bore the name of Mylitta–that is, ‘The Mediatrix’.”[12]

Despite this, some in the Roman Catholic Church (eg Mark Miravalle[13])hold the view that Mary is not just the “Mother of God” (sic), but is a “co-redemptrix, mediatrix and advocate” with the Lord Jesus Christ, though this is not universally accepted as others retain a more traditional stance.  Although it is not currently a doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church – as there are as many opposed to it as for it – there is a fear that a ultra-Marian Pope – like the present incumbent, Pope Francis I – may follow the example of his predecessors (Pius IX & Pius XII) and make an “infallible” (sic) proclamation ex-cathedra that makes it a binding dogma on all Catholics.  Were this to occur, it is hard to see how the Roman Catholic Church could justifiably continue to be considered orthodoxly Christian.

While this desire to find someone holier than one’s sinful self to intercede on one’s behalf is wholly understandable, it is unnecessary and entirely contrary to Scripture in which we are told:

For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, 6 who gave himself a ransom for all.” 1 Timothy 2:5-6

“15 Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that openly profess his name.” Hebrew 13:15

 “4 As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him— you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”  1Peter 2:4-5

“9 But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.”  1Peter 2:9

“Seeing then that we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”  Hebrews 4:14-16

“For through Him we both have access by one Spirit to the Father.”  Ephesians 2:18

1For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. 15 For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba![m] Father!’ 16 it is that very Spirit bearing witness[n] with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.”  Romans 8:14-17

“My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” 1 John2:1-2

“14 This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. 15 And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him.”  I John 5:14-15

H.  CONCLUSION

Hence, as we have seen, nowhere in Holy Scripture do we find Mary mentioned in such terms, which appertain to Christ alone.  In fact the polar opposite is true as is demonstrated by Jesus own words as recorded in Mark 3:32-35 and Luke 11:27

32 A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, ‘Your mother and your brothers and sisters[a] are outside, asking for you.’ 33 And he replied, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ 34 And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’

27 While he was saying this, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, ‘Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!’ 28 But he said, ‘Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!’

The Bible is crystal clear (as we have seen above) that it is through Christ, our High Priest, that we have direct access to God as a  “chosen people” and a “royal priesthood” who are “joint heirs with Christ”  – no other intermediary, no matter how worthy of respect, is required: not even His mother.

The risk in replacing Biblical truth with human tradition is that it leads people away from God and into superstition and false worship.  In light of this, the cult of Mary is probably my greatest stumbling block to ever converting to Roman Catholicism.

_____________________________________________

ENDNOTES

[1]  Mary is only ever mentioned as “Jesus’ mother” or “his mother” and never by name in John’s Gospel.

[2] Babara Reuss, Marienfried (1946)

[3]  Jeremiah 7:16-20 & 44:24-30.

[4] Cf Epiphanius of Salamis, Gregory of Tours, Isidore of Seville, Modest, Sophronius of Jerusalem, German of Constantinople, Andrew of Crete, and John of Damascus.

[5]  See Jerome’s  Against Helvidius.  Helvidius, citing Tertullian and Victorinus, argued against Mary’s remaining a virgin after the birth of Jesus, which Jerome feared would devalue the importance of virginity among the faithful.

[6]  Cf Paul’s use of the closely related word ἐχαρίτωσεν [echaritōsen] (which shares a common root χαριτοω) in Ephesians 1:6, which is generally translated as “with which he has favoured us” except where the verse has been translated from the Vulgate which used the Latin gratificavit nos (has graced us).

[7]  Best Wishes for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, Rome, December 7th, 2012 Zenit.org  http://www.zenit.org/en/articles/best-wishes-for-the-feast-of-the-immaculate-conception

[8] La Stampa, Vatican Insider, 15th April 2014 citing Heresy XIV (p 5 of the Metropolitans’ Epistle).

[9]  An exception is the earliest such apparition which, by oral tradition, pertains to St James the Greater in 40ad (prior to Mary´s death and/or supposed assumption) and is the source of the veneration of Nuestra Señora de Pilar in Zaragoza, Spain.  Of course, there is no corroborating evidence for the oral tradition other than its antiquity.

[10]  http://www.miraclehunter.com/marian_apparitions/messages/marienfried_messages.html

[11]  “Christian faith cannot accept ‘revelations’ that claim to surpass or correct the Revelation of which Christ is the fulfilment, as is the case in certain non-Christian religions and also in certain recent sects which base themselves on such revelations.” [CCC 67]

[12]  Hislop A. Two Babylons. 1858. Loizeaux Brothers, 2nd American edition 1959, p. 157

[13]  A professor of theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville and supporter of Lúcia of Fátima.

Why I Could Never become a Roman Catholic – Part 1: The Mass

19 May

It should be stated that I am a regular, non-communicant attender of my local Roman Catholic Parish, where I am wholly accepted, heretic that I am.  My religious background is mixed: Christened Congregationalist, raised Church of Scotland, confirmed Anglican, worshipped with Baptists and Charismatics of various denominations, returned to the Kirk, and now attending a Roman Catholic church.  Thus, these reflections are part of the journey of faith and an explanation as to why I could not ever convert.

The reasons for my not being able to embrace the Roman faith are multiple, but principally centre round the supremacy of human tradition over Holy Scripture.  The core areas of disagreement are:   1) the Mass;  2) the Cult of the Virgin Mary;  3) the Crucifix and statues;  4) the way the Bible is used; 5) the Sacrament of Penance;  and 6) the Papacy.

1)   The Mass

I do not believe in the doctrine of transubstantiation which lies at the heart of the RC understanding of the Mass.  It is possible that I lack the faith to believe such a thing, but that alone would not be sufficient reason to reject it.  My objections are more fundamental.  It is a wholly unnecessary dogma.  The symbolic representation of Christ in the bread and wine, which follows the example of our Lord Jesus Christ at the Last Supper, is sufficient in itself for the remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.  The Real Presence of Christ does not rely on the superstition of transubstantiation or “a Tabernacle” but on the presence of the Holy Spirit, who God gives “without limit” (John 3:34).

I also question the theology of reserving the “Blood of Christ” to the clergy alone, thus denying the “People of God” the “Cup of Salvation”; especially when the Eucharistic Prayer explicitly states for both elements “Take this, all of you, and eat of / drink from it…“.   Such exclusion clearly runs counter to the example of Christ at the last Supper (as recorded in the Gospels – Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:19-20; Matthew 26:26-28) and the liturgical prayer as given by St Paul (I Corinthians 11:23-26), while intimating a false dichotomy, in which priests (through their ordination?) are inherently superior to other Christians, who by implication are unworthy to receive the Commnion in both kinds. Furthermore, it also gives creedence to the common, yet dubious, notion that Holy Orders are the only true vocation.  (Let it be noted that this giving of Communion in one kind is a Spanish practice that is no longer generally applicable in the UK or USA, though some older Catholics still choose to observe taking the bread alone.)

Allied to this separation is the claim that the Mass is a sacrifice by the priest on behalf of the congregation:  “The sacrifice of Christ the only Mediator, which in the Eucharist is offered through the priests’ hands,” (CCC, 1369).  This, to me, implies, contrary to Roman Catholic denials, that Christ’s once and for all sacrifice is repeated through sacerdotal offering each time the Mass is celebrated . I fully understand the Catholic Church’s response that it is a “re-presentation (makes present)” (CCC, 1367) of the sacrifice of the cross but, unfortunately, this argument does not stand up to scrutiny when other parts of the Catholic Catechism are taken into account:

“…this sacrifice is truly propitiatory…The sacrifice of Christ and the sacrifice of the Eucharist are one single sacrifice,” (CCC, 1367);

As sacrifice, the Eucharist is also offered in reparation for the sins of the living and the  dead,” (CCC, 1414).

These statements  indicate that it is a repetition of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross contrary to what the Bible tells us was a “once and for all” sacrifice (Hebrews 7:26 – 27; I Peter 3:18).  It also has the unintentional effect of making the priest  the one who sacrifices Christ to God (on behalf of the people) in direct contradiction to St John’s Gospel (10: 17 – 18), in which Jesus states:

18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.”  (John 10:18)

Thus, it is clear from Scripture that this once and forever sacrifice can only be made willingly by the Lord Jesus Christ.  Anything else is to put human tradition before the revealed Word of God, which can only divert attention from God’s plan of salvation.

Finally, despite it’s being proclaimed “the Communion of Saints”, there is the denial of Communion to non-Catholics, irrespective of whether they are Christians or not (salvation only being granted to Catholics who (as we shall see later) have earned their redemption).  While I understand the Roman Catholic position that the priest is trying to protect the heretic’s immortal soul by preventing them from committing a mortal sin (in line with St Paul’s warning not to partake of the Eucharist in “an unworthy manner” (I Corinthians 11:27-32), it does beg the question as to just whose table is being approached: the Lord’s Table or that of the Roman Catholic Church?  The difference, of course, lies in the fundamental belief that underlies the Eucharist: whether you are actually eating Christ’s transubstantiated physical body or, through the grace of Christ, are being invited, despite being a sinner, to come just as you are and share in the Paschal meal which is a “re-presentation” of the Last Supper in obedience to Christ´s command to “do this in remembrance of me.” (I Corinthians 11:24) in celebration of His “once and for all” sacrifice on the Cross by which we are saved.