What Catholicism is Not

I had an opportunity a few weeks ago to address a group of student leaders about preaching the gospel on college campuses.  The Gospel, I said, is fairly simple. There is a God.  He loves you and desires to make you part of His family. His plan is not just for you as an individual, but is to reconcile the whole human race. He will accomplish this through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, prolonged and made present through the Catholic Church. He desires to elevate your life to a supernatural dimension (best exemplified in the lives of the saints). That supernatural life will ultimately be fulfilled in heaven and in the resurrection of the dead.

confused pope

This broad outline of the gospel is familiar to many people on college campuses today, but unfortunately it is also subjected to significant distortion in the media and in the popular imagination.  The late atheist writer Christopher Hitchens was typical of this distortion when he depicted the Christian God as a greedy, exigent dictator, angry and bloodthirsty, who poured out his wrath on his only son. Our goal this weekend was to identify some of these distortions, and to correct them in light of the teaching of the Church.  What follows is a summary of those remarks.

What is God?

Is God a tyrannical dictator who stands over against the world, demanding, judging, and condemning?  And what, after all, is God? Allegedly, this is the first question that St. Thomas Aquinas put to his Benedictine teachers when he was a young boy.  It was also St. Thomas who gave the most articulate and subtle answer to that question. According to St. Thomas, God is not one being among many. Rather, God is the very act of to be itself. In Thomas’s words, He is ipsum esse subsistens. The world does not stand over against God as an independent entity, but exists more in the likeness of music to a musician. (One theologian said, “God hums the world.”)  As such, God is the ground of the world’s intelligibility.  To deny the existence of that God is simply to deny that reality is intelligible.

Why did Christ die?

Did Christ die to satisfy the bloodlust of a celestial dictator? Some Protestant sects have actually taught this, but that is not the teaching of the Catholic Church. The Church teaches that God became man to enter into solidarity with the human race, to restore what was lost in Adam, to infuse a divine principle into the human family. His death was not a divine punishment, but a freely given sacrifice, an act of love. We are joined to his death in a mystical sense in baptism: “our old man has been crucified with him, so that our body of sin might be destroyed.” (Romans 6:6) We also were “taken up into Christ” and his resurrection, so that we might live a new life. (Romans 6:4)

What is the Church?

Is the Church merely a corrupt and self-serving hierarchy? That’s how it is often portrayed.  But Catholicism sees the Church as a sign and instrument of cosmic reconciliation. Laity and clergy share a common dignity and are equally called to the perfection of holiness through love. “Really partaking of the body of the Lord in the breaking of the Eucharistic bread, we are taken up into communion with Him and with one another. Because the bread is one, we though many, are one body, all of us who partake of the one bread.” (Lumen Gentium)  The Church has a hierarchical dimension, to be sure, which serves the unity of the faith through the principle of authority. But that authority does not exhaust the meaning of the Church, but rather serves the final end of reconciliation through love. The true meaning of the Church is revealed in a special way in the saints and martyrs, the fullest proof of divine love.

There are many other reasons that our contemporaries reject that Catholic faith. Some are more sociological than theological. Our prosperity/entertainment culture creates a huge barrier to assimilating the message of self-denial and the life to come. Peer orientation among the young, the loss of tradition, distaste for ritual and authority, and the skepticism bred by religious pluralism all create obstacles to evangelism. But to evangelize effectively we still need to know how to answer the common stereotypes.   Fulton Sheen’s famous words are as applicable today as ever: “There are not a hundred people in America who hate the Catholic Church. There are millions of people who hate what they wrongly believe to be the Catholic Church — which is, of course, quite a different thing.”

7 thoughts on “What Catholicism is Not

  1. Brian Broggi - July 13, 2015

    Thanks for all the work you do. I am starting a “CALLING HOUR” (on Mondays for now). I recall when Rush L. had “Rush Hours” where his dittos would lunch during is rushologs and enjoy the sharing of their political beliefs. I think “Called to Communion” is excellent and perhaps there will be a movement to attend with others to the listening of your show . . . All the best! Pax Christi


  2. Santiago - May 31, 2015

    Dr. David I’m in a dialogue with a sedevacantist .
    I know that you are knowledge in church documents and I am wondering how I can answer him to this.

    Here is 100% proof, that if Paul VI was a true Pope, then the gates of hell had prevailed against the church in 1965:

    The Authority of St. Peter                      

    Pope Pius IX, Quanta Cura (#’s 3-6), Dec. 8, 1864, EX-CATHEDRA

    “From which totally false idea of social government they do not fear to foster that erroneous opinion, most fatal in its effects on the Catholic Church and the salvation of souls, called by Our predecessor, Gregory XVI, an insanity :


    The Authority of anti-Peter

    Vatican II Declaration on Religious Liberty: “PAUL, BISHOP, SERVANT OF THE SERVANTS OF GOD, TOGETHER WITH THE FATHERS OF THE SACRED COUNCIL FOR EVERLASTING MEMORY… This Vatican synod declares that the human person has the right to religious freedom … THIS RIGHT OF THE HUMAN PERSON TO RELIGIOUS FREEDOM SHOULD HAVE SUCH RECOGNITION IN THE REGULATION OF SOCIETY BY LAW AS TO BECOME A CIVIL RIGHT  … Each and every one of the things set forth in this decree has won the consent of the Fathers.  WE, TOO BY THE APOSTOLIC AUTHORITY CONFERRED ON US BY CHRIST , JOIN WITH THE VENERABLE FATHERS IN APPROVING, DECREEING, AND ESTABLISHING THESE THINGS  IN THE HOLY SPIRIT , and we direct that what has thus been enacted in synod be published to God’s glory… I, Paul, Bishop of the Catholic Church.”

    Did you see the contradiction? Nearly word for word contradiction.Both documents were Solemnly promulgated by a true Pope and an anti-pope. 

    Bottom Line: 

    i would greatly appreciated thank you God bless.

  3. Dave Hart - April 28, 2015

    Dr. Anders,
    I am an Anglican who now acknowledges the need for a Pope after seeing so much blood of the martyrs spilled recently. I recognize that the Pope is the only person on earth who can speak meaningfully and legitimately (and earnestly, when compared with our President) for all of our Christian brothers and sisters who are suffering horribly. I have caught about 5 minutes of your radio show twice now (a regular job and little kiddos don’t leave much time for radio) and I have enjoyed your answers and your evangelical posture. If you could help me with 3 issues, I would be very grateful. First CCC 460–specifically the referenced quotes from Athansius and Aquinas sound strange (almost Mormon). I get that the main point is participation in divine nature rather than becoming a God, but a couple of the threads on the forums at Catholic Answers regarding this question also indicate confusion and disagreement even among Catholics. The Catholic Church doesn’t mean that we are going to become gods of our own planets somewhere (close to Mormon belief) does it? Second issue: How does Isaiah 53 (crushed for our iniquities) work in the Catholic belief that Jesus was not specifically receiving God’s wrath for the entire sin of humanity during His passion and crucifixion? Third, the more I learn about Catholicism, it feels infinitely deep and complicated, and impossible to completely master and grasp starting at a late age (I’m 45). I am supposed to be the spiritual leader in my family and it seems that the Catholic Church has opinions on everything (I caught a brief snippet of an EWTN radio show where a Bishop was talking with a caller about appropriate uses of oils, cooking oils or Holy oils? The caller even noted that she sometimes used Holy oils in baking muffins or bread and the Bishop thought this was appropriate. The thought went through my mind that the Catholic Church has been around for 2000 years and probably has a position on everything–even baking bread and muffins with certain oils.) Between cannon law (which I know nothing about) and mass and religious orders and hierarchy, etc, I am resigned that I won’t ever fully understand the church that I feel is most appropriate for me and my family to join (and I am truly convinced that the Catholic Church will be the spiritually safest place for my 3 and 5 yo kids to be over the next 30 years). Protestantism/anglicanism feels like golf (just aim for the pin, keep whacking the ball until you get it in the hole, if you find yourself in the weeds, just redirect toward the pin and keep after it until you get into the hole–simple), but Catholicism feels like football with lots of moving parts and players (what is difference between spit end and tight end, how is halfback half of fullback, how then is quarterback half of half of halfback, what line is a linebacker backed up against, etc). Can someone be a Catholic if they submit to the authority of the Pope and just keep their eyes on Jesus, His cross and His blood, even if they don’t know all of the teaching of the magiserium over the last 2000 years ? Thank you for your time.

    Dave Hart

    1. David Anders - April 28, 2015

      Hi Dave,

      Thanks for the note.
      TO answer your question – No, the Catholic Church does not teach divinization as the Mormons do. Nor does the Church teach a pantheistc deification.
      Rather, the Church teaches that sanctifying grace is a share in the divine nature through the infusion of faith, hope, and charity. Thus, the experience of sanctifying grace in this life is not qualitatively different from the deification that occurs in the next. Grace is literally the seed of eternal life begun. “He who loves has been born of God and knows God.”

      As for Is. 53, have you looked at my article, “Why did Christ die?”

      Third, the Catholic Church asks simply that we believe whatever the Church declares to be revealed of God. That is actually a manageable amount of material and, as you note, it is not necessary to believe it all explicitly. The newly baptized infant has the gift of infused faith but has a belief that is 100% implicit. As we grow, we grow in our understanding, but we will not know fully until the resurrection. It’s really not all that complicated.

      Does this help?


      1. Dave Hart - April 28, 2015

        Thank you for your thoughtful reply. I did read your section “Why did Christ die” and that is what prompted me to write. I’m sorry, I suppose I’m thick headed–is the statement that the suffering servant was crushed for our iniquities (presumably according to God’s will) opposed to (or not?) the statement that His death was not divine punishment? I do understand that God’s wrath/punishment was not on the individual slaughtered lambs themselves from the original Passover until the end of the sacrificial cult. So, I can see where a similar understanding of Christ’s sacrifice can be inferred–but is that in contradiction with Isaiah’s understanding of the death of the suffering servant? Perhaps this is a situation where the Protestant biblical interpretation I’ve learned is false (as it has been outside the Catholic Church’s interpretation)?
        Thank you again.

      2. David Anders - April 29, 2015

        Hi Dave,

        Of course Christ was crushed for our iniquities and God consented to the suffering of the Messiah as an atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world. But what is the significance of Christ being crushed? Christ surrendered to the wrath of his enemies. It was the Jews and the Romans who “numbered him among the transgressors.” The prophet says that we considered him punished by God.


      3. Dave Hart - April 29, 2015

        That is very helpful, Dr. Anders. Thank you for your time this evening.
        Dave Hart

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