Q: Back in the late ’60s I attended a university in the deep South. Once during a heated discussion on religion, I was informed — by a dean’s list student no less — that Catholics were not considered Christians because we were not allowed to read the Bible. I told the person that was news to me, a lifelong Catholic! But she was quite sincere. I chalked it up to local ignorance until I heard it again a few weeks ago. How did this urban myth start?
D.E., of Belleville
A: When, as legend has it, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses on the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenburg, Germany, he launched a rift known as the Protestant Reformation. And although that happened on Oct. 31, 1517, disagreements with and misunderstandings of Catholic practices and teachings persist even as we approach the 500th anniversary of this seminal religious event.
Luther was asking the church to reconsider its practice of indulgences, by which punishment for sins could be reduced or avoided through donations to the church. Pope Leo X had sent Johann Tetzel to Germany to sell these indulgences in part to help finance the rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica. According to church teaching, faith alone could not win salvation; good works and charity — to the church — were needed, too.
Luther took exception to this, sparking his written protest that became quite accusatory at times.
“Why does not the pope, whose wealth is today greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build this one basilica of St. Peter with his own money rather than with the money of poor believers?'” he asks in Thesis 86.
His actions apparently brought to a boil disagreements that had been festering for centuries over papal power, the practice of confession, publishing the Bible only in Latin so few outside the clergy could read it, etc. Soon, such reform-minded leaders as John Calvin were launching open attacks on Catholic churches, calling them heretical and apostate.
“Churches where Christ lies half-buried, the Gospel is suppressed, piety is put to flight, and the worship of God almost abolished,” Calvin wrote in his 1536 “Institutes of the Christian Religion. “In short, all things are in such disorder as to present the appearance of Babylon rather than the holy city of God.”
Today, indulgences are history and Catholics can own and study the Bible as much as they please, yet this anti-Catholic dogma persists. Go on the Internet and it’s easy to find hard-core fundamentalist sites still claiming the pope is the anti-Christ and the Roman Catholic church is unbiblical.
“Roman Catholicism is a legal religion, but Protestantism is evangelical Christianity,” Dr. Jack Arnold writes on www.thirdmill.org. “Catholicism is ruled by the principle of human authority, but Protestantism by the principle of freedom in Christ. Catholicism leads to bondage, but Protestantism to the true gospel and spiritual freedom.”
Father Christopher Collins begs to differ. The Jesuit is a theology professor at St. Louis University and last summer was named special assistant to the school’s president for mission and identity. Like Protestants, Catholics are certainly Christian, he stresses. It’s just that differences over the role of the individual versus the importance of the group may be fueling continued misunderstandings.
This plays out in what to Collins are two of the most contentious differences. He knows, for example, Catholics are often asked why they seem to worship Mary and a huge body of saints. Why don’t Catholics simply go straight to Christ with their prayers, the argument goes.
“As if we think that our salvation is dependent on the saints or Mary, which we don’t,” Collins told me. “It’s just that the saints are particular friends of Christ. They are people who let their lives be transformed by Christ. So we may occasionally ask the saints to pray for us.”
When kept in perspective, it’s no different than what Protestants often do in times of trouble, Collins argues. Rather than going it alone, Catholics are simply seeking help in the church as a whole.
“Like you may say to your friends or neighbors, ‘My grandma’s sick. Will you pray for her?’” Collins said. “This is exactly the same kind of thing we do through the saints and Mary. It sounds more lofty, but we’re really doing the same thing.”
The other classic disagreement lies in how salvation is obtained. Even 500 years ago, Luther and the other reformers argued that faith in Jesus Christ alone was sufficient to be saved. In response, Catholics pointed to James 2:26, which states, “For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.”
Again, Collins argues, the differences between these two points of view is not that great. If you truly know Christ, you will, by necessity, do good works, something on which even Catholic and Lutheran leaders have come to agree. It also may boil down again to the individual vs. the group.
“Protestant philosophy is very much focused on the individual,” he said. “How does the individual get saved — you know, ‘Am I saved?’ and then people ask you, ‘Are you saved?’ You know, it’s very particular. A Catholic’s sensibility, broadly speaking, is that we get saved together.
“So there’s something very good about both of those approaches. You know, it has to be very personal, but it’s not private, either. It should be communal at the same time. I mean, there were no gospels until the apostles tried to figure out what was going on among themselves. Then, a few decades later somebody started to write something down. So there is no Bible without the church and the people of God. And, related to that, there’s no way of knowing Christ without the church.”
So while Collins expresses gratitude that the Protestant movement challenged the Catholic church into re-examining itself to figure out what it believed, Catholicism always has been rooted in Christ.
“Catholics are Christian and we certainly see ourselves as Christian,” he said. “We pray directly to Christ, and we pray to the father as Christ taught us to.”
To believe otherwise, he would argue, just isn’t Christian.
Name the only person who ever won an Oscar for title-card writing — and was the first Oscar winner to die.
Answer to Saturday’s trivia: It’s not often an actor plays the same character so well in two movies that he earns Academy Award nominations for both performances. In fact, it’s happened only twice in film history. In 1944, Bing Crosby won an Oscar as Father O’Malley in “Going My Way” and earned another nomination the following year in “The Bells of St. Mary’s.” Then, in 1964, Peter O’Toole wowed audiences as King Edward II in “Becket,” the story of the archbishop of Canterbury who was murdered in 1170. Four years later, O’Toole donned the same crown and, with Katharine Hepburn, won rave reviews as the aging Edward in “The Lion in Winter.” Now O’Toole holds the dubious honor of most nominations without a win — eight.