To Better Understand

and Defend

the  Catholic Faith

There are not a hundred people in America who hate the Catholic Church but there are millions of people who hate what they wrongly believe to be the Catholic Church. 

                                         Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen                                                                                                     

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The primary purpose of this pamphlet is to provide Catholics with a better understanding of some of the tenets of their faith, and to better equip them to respond to some of the more common challenges to it.  In this way Catholic and non-Catholic Christians alike can lessen the misunderstandings that prompted the Venerable Archbishop Sheen’s famous quote.  Perhaps in doing so we might come closer to accomplishing what Jesus so fervently prayed for:  that “all may be one” (John 17:21) 

 

“Deacon,” a cradle Roman Catholic and a permanent deacon, has had a deep and personal twenty-year friendship with “Pastor,” the pastor of a non-denominational Bible-based Christian church.  Their friendship is based upon their mutual love of the Lord and the Word of God among other things.  Yet respecting one another’s beliefs they only occasionally explored their theological differences, preferring instead to enjoy what they shared in common.  However, Pastor recently explained to his friend that a significant portion of his congregation was comprised of former Catholics.  He wanted to get a better understanding of what Catholics believe and why, so that he could be a more effective minister to his congregants and so he asked Deacon if they could spend some time going over some of what the Catholic Church believes and teaches, with particular emphasis on the common criticisms levied against Catholicism by Protestants.  What follows, then, is an account of much of the substance of their discussions. 

 


 

Richard Venezia ® is a permanent deacon in the Diocese of Palm Beach, Florida

Marlin H. Simon is the pastor of Spirit and Truth Ministries, Tavernier, Florida

 


Deacon:  Members of the mainline churches are collectively referred to as Protestants. May I include you and your church under that name?

Pastor:  No problem.  That’s what I consider myself.  And as you know very well my church is Bible-based and that’s what is most important to me. But many Catholics I know don’t seem to me to have the same emphasis on the Bible that we Protestants do.  Do Catholics truly believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God and without error? 

Deacon:  We certainly do.  In fact, if we are going to use the Bible as a source of proof, it seems to me that we should be clear as to why we believe that it is in fact the inspired Word of God.

Pastor:  Agreed.

Deacon:  Then for a moment I’d like us to consider the New Testament simply to be uninspired history along with some secular writings of the time.  We know, therefore, that a man named Jesus claimed to be God and subsequently proved it by performing many miracles but most importantly by rising from the dead after being crucified.  We also learn that this God-man established a Church with St. Peter as its head (Mt 16:18, 19) and that just before He left the Earth He empowered  and authorized His disciples to go out and teach everything He had commanded them, promising to be with them until the end of time (Mt 28:20). And since the Catholic Church can trace its existence in a direct line through all the popes from St. Peter through Pope Francis, it claims to be that Church of history --- the very Church to which Jesus made that promise. By the early part of the fourth century His Church came to be known as the “Catholic” Church. And so the Catholic Church, being divinely inspired through the presence of Jesus as promised, defined at the Council of Carthage in 397 which of the writings in circulation at that time were inspired works and which were not. Thus it gave birth to the “New Testament” of the Bible, teaching with authority that its 27 “books” were inspired by God. The Hebrew Scriptures that were in common usage by the Jewish people at the time of Jesus were accepted as inspired and became the “Old Testament.” And so we believe that the Bible is inspired for one reason and one reason only: the Catholic Church teaches us that it is.


Pastor:  We believe that the Bible is inspired primarily because Paul wrote to Timothy that, “All Scripture is inspired by God.” (2 Tim 3:16)

Deacon:  That passage is commonly used as a proof text by Protestants but take a look at the previous verse. In context it seems clear that Paul was referring only to the Old Testament since the New Testament had not yet been written.  Besides, it’s circular logic to use a passage in the Bible in order to prove that it’s inspired. One must first prove that the Bible itself is inspired before using a passage in it as inspired proof of anything.  Otherwise the same consideration would have to be given to the Koran and the Book of Mormon which also claim to be inspired by God.  I know that there are other arguments Protestants propose for believing in Biblical inspiration such as prophesies, science, lack of errors, etc., but they just don’t seem logical.  But even if they were, it would be a huge stretch to use them to prove that the exact Bible as we know it --- no more books and no fewer --- is inspired.  I would suggest that the miraculous healings and visions you have personally experienced argue the case for the existence of a loving God, but not for the inspiration of the entire Bible.  So I suspect that like most non-Catholic Christians you assume or take it on faith that the Bible is inspired.

Pastor: But even though we don’t share the same reasoning, at least Catholics and Protestants can agree that the Bible is inspired.  That being the case, however, why don’t Catholics seem to give it the same emphasis that we do? 

Deacon: In most Catholic churches Mass is celebrated every day. On Sundays there are four scripture readings and on weekdays there are three, and the sermons are supposed to address the readings. Nevertheless, if Protestants get that impression, it might be because we Catholics believe that the Church rather than the Bible is the “pillar and foundation of truth” (1Tim 3:15) as St. Paul described it.  Nevertheless, because we are taught to believe in the inspiration of the Bible, we therefore also believe that the Church must be faithful to it as the “rule of faith,” but that God’s ultimate authority on Earth still rests with the Church, an authority that is not dependent upon any individuals because individuals sin.  And so it seems to us that Protestants who claim that the Bible rather than the Church is God’s ultimate authority on Earth should have to be able to explain how, when and why that authority was passed from the Church to the Bible.  “Whatever you bind on Earth shall be bound in Heaven…” (Mt 18:18)

Pastor:  But to me there’s a big difference between “inspiration” and “interpretation.”  So I believe that the Holy Spirit not only inspired the writers of the Bible, but He inspires me when I read it so I get the meaning He wants me to get.   

Deacon:  I know you well, Pastor, and I have no doubt that you are led by the Spirit but the fact is that there are over 33,000 different Christian denominations, counting your church as one of them because it is non-denominational and unaffiliated.  So it is confusing to think that the Holy Spirit is guiding thousands of Christian pastors in the correct interpretation of the Bible when so many differ in what they believe it means.  Catholics believe that Jesus would not have left His body of revealed truth, the “deposit of faith.” on this Earth without safeguarding it.  Here again, we Catholics believe that the same Church that the Holy Spirit inspired to select the twenty-seven books of the New Testament in the late fourth century is logically the Church that would be the last word as it relates to interpretation.  By the way, at the time the Gospels were selected as worthy to be included in the Bible, there was at least one more in circulation --- the Gospel of Peter. And so if the Catholic Church as it was known by then had also accepted the Gospel of Peter into the canon I assume that you would be claiming that it too is the inspired Word of God, and by the authority of none other than the Catholic Church.  And in that case you would be absolutely correct!

Pastor:  Bible-based churches believe that if a teaching isn’t in the Bible then the people don’t have to believe it.  We believe that the Bible is their only source of revealed truth.  Everything else is of man.

Deacon:  Yes, I’m well aware of that. Bible-based churches generally teach a concept called Sola Scriptura (Latin for “Bible alone”).  But there is nothing in the Bible that supports such a claim.  In fact, St. John wrote that Jesus did many other things not found in the Bible and that the whole world would not contain the books that would be written (John 21:25).  So if Protestants discount a teaching just because it’s not in the Bible, where do they find and believe the specifics of the doctrine of the Trinity?  There are many more examples but it only takes one to cause one to seriously challenge the validity of Sola Scriptura

Pastor:  I think that the Trinity is at least implied in the Bible. But let me go on to something else.  Why is the Catholic Church so ritualistic? 

Deacon:  I assume that you are primarily questioning the Mass.  First let me point out that we humans regularly ritualize events such as birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, and much more.  Family traditions are important and we see Church as family.  There are Church traditions that have been passed down through the centuries and we continue to celebrate them.  One beautiful and meaningful one is the Mass itself, and it is very, very close to the worship service practiced in the early Church. We are certain of this through the writings of certain bishops of the first few centuries known as the “Early Fathers” of the Church, or “Patristic Fathers” as they are also called. And just as you and I use commentaries and concordances to help us to better understand and interpret the Sacred Scriptures, we use the writings of Patristic Fathers to help us clarify certain portions of the Bible. So at the Last Supper when Jesus told the apostles that the bread and wine He shared were actually His body and blood we believe it, and to a significant degree because the Fathers are unanimous in their belief and teaching that it is just as Jesus said. And because He said, “Do this in memory of Me” (Luke 22:19) we do it --- in fact every day except Good Friday.

Pastor:  But what you call the Eucharist is to us a meaningful and wonderful symbol but yet only a symbol.  I have even heard that some people regard eating the Eucharist as cannibalistic if Catholics truly believe that it is the body and blood of Jesus!

Deacon:  I’ve heard the same thing but we Catholics believe that the real presence is Jesus’ idea, not ours. The Eucharist is a way that Jesus shares his very life with us.  So along with the testimony of the Patristic Fathers, the sixth chapter of John solidifies our belief.  After the very symbolic feeding of the multitudes and the breaking of the bread Jesus makes it very explicit that those who will not eat His flesh and drink His blood shall not have life.  He allowed His disciples who could not accept the teaching to walk away confused and in disbelief.  He could have easily called them back, claiming that He was only using a symbol but He didn’t. And by the way, many, many irrefutable miracles have been associated with the Eucharist down through the centuries which further confirms the doctrine for us. One of them occurred in Lanciano, Italy over 1200 years ago.  Before the priest’s eyes the host turned into heart muscle which is preserved intact to this very day.  Google it!

Pastor: I’ll do that.  My sketchy understanding of the Mass is that Catholics see it as a sacrifice of Jesus all over again and yet the Bible says that He died “once and for all (1 Pet 3:18).”  So is the Catholic perspective different?  

Deacon:  For sure. First of all, the “once and for all” translation is Luther’s idea.  Correctly translated the passage reads, “…once, for all.”  So the Mass for Catholics is a continuation of Calvary --- one eternal sacrifice in which Earth touches the heavenly Liturgy and the heavenly Liturgy bursts forth into the earthly Liturgy --- all from the Book of Revelation and the liturgical rites surrounding the worship of and the supper of the Lamb.  Anyway, Catholics also celebrate and ritualize what we call “sacraments” which are special events through which God’s grace flows upon the recipients of them and upon others who participate in them.  Of lesser importance but nevertheless meaningful, we use holy water, holy oils, holy candles, etc., in our rituals.  They are made “holy” simply because they have been blessed by one empowered to do so through ordination --- a priest or a deacon.  I know that you have on more than one occasion presided over the blessing of the fleet.  It’s the same concept.

Pastor:  So priests and deacons can bless things. Then I assume that bishops can as well, right?

Deacon: Yes, I should have included them.  So in order to help you better understand, let me quickly describe the Catholic hierarchy.  The first level of ordained ministries is that of deacon --- the transitional deacon that is in the process of preparation for the priesthood, and the permanent deacon which is what I am.  The priesthood is the next level.  A small percentage of priests are made monsignors, but it is an honorary title only.  The highest level is bishop.  The other Church offices, archbishop, cardinal, and even that of pope are all specialized bishops which is why the Pope is known as the “Bishop of Rome.”         

Pastor:  Got it. So how does someone become a bishop?

Deacon:  We know through the early writings that Church authority was passed on through the laying on of hands by apostles upon the person to be commissioned or ordained.  The selection of Matthias to replace Judas would have followed that process.  So in the Catholic Church, only a bishop can ordain a priest or consecrate another bishop --- and the bishop presiding must be in the line of what is known as “Apostolic Succession.” In other words, the apostles ordained (consecrated) bishops, and they in turn ordained bishops, and they in turn ordained bishops and so on and so on. So the Catholic Church only recognizes ordinations that are effected by bishops in the direct line.

Pastor:  You mentioned traditions earlier.  The Bible explicitly warns against treating the “traditions of men” as if they were gospel (Col 2:8).  Aren’t Catholics guilty of doing that? 

Deacon:  This brings us back to Sola Scriptura again.  In a nutshell, Catholics believe in Sacred Tradition with a capital “T.” Jesus told us to “hold fast to the Traditions you were taught” (2 Thess 2:15).  Our understanding is that Jesus meant that whole body of revealed truth we call the “deposit of faith” which was to be protected and handed down from the Apostles through the centuries whether explicit in the Bible or not.  Sacred Tradition is on a parallel with the Bible in that both must be followed and adhered to. We agree that the “traditions of men” need not be followed and can be very misleading. 

Pastor:  But how do you tell the difference? 

Deacon:  The Traditional teachings are part of what we call dogma or doctrine.  Much is incorporated into the Catechism of the Catholic Church, a document that clearly spells out what we believe and why, with many, many scriptural references. Again, we believe that Jesus would not have left the earth without having the Church He established protect the deposit of faith.

Pastor:  Let me think about that one.  But let’s go on to something else. Why do Catholics worship Mary? 

Deacon:  We don’t worship her.  Worship is reserved for God alone.  But God in His infinite wisdom selected Mary to be the mother of Jesus and the spiritual mother of the Church.  Jesus gave her reverence, love, honor, praise, adoration and respect.  And are we not called to do the same? To imitate Jesus? And contrary to what some claim, we don’t worship statues or pictures either.  They are simply reminders of the people they represent, just as pictures in your home or wallet do. 

Pastor:  Your pictures and statues of Jesus often depict Him on the cross.  We prefer to show Him as resurrected so He’s no longer on the cross --- which is why Protestants usually wear plain crosses.

Deacon:  Yes, I know.  But we Catholics recognize as you do that there’s no Easter without Good Friday.  Seeing the crucifix helps to remind us that we helped to put Jesus there which in turn convicts us to avoid sin.  At least that’s the effect it has upon me.  My favorite but most painful crucifixion scene depicts St. John and Mary at the foot of the cross. At the Presentation, the holy man Simeon predicted that a sword would pierce Mary’s soul. She would of necessity suffer along with her Son but that would be so that the secret thoughts of many would be laid bare. Thus they would be known to be what they were, whether hypocrites, or good people, foes or friends of Jesus (Lk 2:35ff).

Pastor:  She indeed was faithful. But I have heard that Catholics consider Mary to have been sinless.  Yet Mary herself referred to God as her “Savior.”  How can that be?

Deacon:  Perhaps Protestants are trying to have it both ways.  They claim that we are saved by faith alone, and yet your question implies that if Mary were sinless she didn’t need a savior.  But we believe that she did and it is because all humans are in need of redemption.

Pastor:  I’ll have to think about that.  A mutual friend keeps talking about Mary appearing regularly in what was Yugoslavia and that is is a problematic concept for us Protestants.  What does the Catholic Church’s say about that? 

Deacon:  The Catholic Church considers such apparitions and visions to be “private revelation” and they are never declared officially to be objective truth.  The most approval that is given is a designation as “worthy of belief.”  But it is certainly not inconceivable that God would send Mary as a messenger just as He sent angels.  In fact, she has many times appeared as God’s messenger over the centuries.  Perhaps the most famous was at Fatima in Portugal where 80,000 people of many varied religions witnessed the “Miracle of the Sun” on the last day of the visions. “By their fruits you shall know them” (Mt7:16) seems applicable here, and the many, many miracles associated with certain alleged visions seem to validate the claims that they are of God. 

Pastor:  Even so, Deacon, the Catholic understanding of Mary is a stumbling block for most Protestants, so we need more dialogue and I look forward to that.  So let me ask you, why do Catholics pray to Mary?  We pray directly to Jesus because the Bible says that He is the only mediator between God and mankind (1 Tim 2:5). 

Deacon:  I know that we both believe in the power of intercessory prayer.  So when you asked your dear wife to pray for your back to be healed you were asking her to pray to God on your behalf. It would seem that you therefore weren’t going straight to Jesus. We believe that asking a friend to pray for us is no different than asking the Mother of Jesus to do so.

Pastor:  But we Protestants believe that we can’t ask those who have died to pray for us.  Why do you?

Deacon:  It’s called the “Communion of Saints” as mentioned in the Apostles’ Creed. It is the union of the faithful on Earth, the blessed in Heaven, and the souls in Purgatory, with Christ as their Head.  We believe that we are in communion with those who have passed and that they can pray for our intentions just as our prayer warriors here on Earth can pray for us, for each other, and for the souls in Purgatory.

Pastor:  Speaking of Purgatory, where does that notion come from?  We believe that as in Matthew 25 the people are separated into goats and sheep and there is no middle ground.  One is either sent to heaven or hell. 

Deacon:  As I mentioned, the doctrine of the Trinity is not explicit in the Bible, and likewise there is no explicit validation of Purgatory in the Bible either except in the book of II Maccabees. 

Pastor:  We don’t have that book.  You Catholics seem to have extra books.  Why is that?

Deacon:  The Catholic understanding is that it is your Bible that is missing some books.  Late in the first century, the Rabbis in Jerusalem came together to deal with their concern that many of the Jews of that time were coming to believe that Jesus was indeed the Messiah.  So in simple terms, they eliminated the books of the Old Testament that were written in Greek --- that is, not in Hebrew.  There are lots of points and counterpoints in the literature, debating the causes and effects of the decisions of the rabbis.  But one simple fact kept jumping out at me:  long before the rabbis convened St. Paul had already claimed that all the disputed books were inspired, and also by then they had been in regular use by the Christians in their liturgies.  1400+ years later, even though those books had been in common Christian usage during that time as well, Martin Luther eliminated them from the Bible because he could not accept the concept of there being value in praying for the dead as noted in Maccabees: “It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from their sins. (II Maccabees 12:46).”  As I see it, therefore, in eliminating the “extra” books, Luther has embraced the decision of the Rabbis over and above the God-inspired second letter of St. Paul to Timothy and I can’t accept that logic. 

Pastor:  So you are basing your entire belief in Purgatory on that one verse that isn’t even in our Bible?

Deacon:  Not really.  It’s a doctrine that like others was taught from the very beginning.  Again, it is a clearly established fact that the Patristic Fathers believed and taught the doctrine of Purgatory.  Besides, the Bible does mention that “nothing unclean will enter the presence of God in heaven (Rev. 21:27).  We take that to mean that every bit of impurity must be purged from our souls before we can come face-to-face with our Creator.  We of course believe in God’s mercy and forgiveness but being forgiven doesn’t necessarily mean that there are no consequences to our sin.  Remember that when God forgave David for his transgression He still exacted a punishment. That’s what Purgatory is all about.  And while I’m on the subject of forgiveness, you should know that we believe that we can go straight to God with our prayers for forgiveness, but the Church teaches us that if we are guilty of serious sin we must confess to a priest. 

Pastor:  I assume then that praying for the forgiveness and mercy of God can precede your confession, right?

Deacon:  Absolutely.  But it’s pretty clear to Catholics that Jesus gave the apostles the power and authority to act as mediators.  “Whose sins you shall forgive they are forgiven” (John 20:19-23).  In practice though, the priest is not free to deny absolution (forgiveness) to a penitent unless he or she expresses no sorrow for having sinned.  I’m sure that you agree that without repentance there is no forgiveness. 

Pastor:  I do. But I want to get back to the Purgatory thing again. In my mind the concept still clashes with the separation of goats and sheep passages in Mt 25.  How do Catholics deal with that?

Deacon:  The Church teaches that there will be two judgments.  The first, the so-called particular judgment, will occur immediately upon our death.  We will know right away whether our destiny is heaven, hell, or a time of purification in Purgatory.  The final judgment as described in Matthew is when all will be separated into the two final destinations.

Pastor:   I don’t necessarily agree but I’m trying to understand. There’s something else that has been bugging me.  The Bible seems clear about not calling an earthly man father, and so I need to know why Catholic priests are called “Father” in light of that passage (Matt. 23:9).

Deacon:  Jesus obviously was referring to spiritual fatherhood rather than biological or ancestral fatherhood. The Bible has numerous examples of spiritual fatherhood in both the Old and New Testaments (Joseph and the King of Egypt as a for instance).  Scripture scholars tell us that Jesus used a figure of speech, chastising the Scribes and Pharisees for their pride and their grasping after status and prestige.  Jesus was warning them against attributing spiritual fatherhood to those who did not deserve it. 

Pastor:  Can you shed a bit of light upon the use of the rosary?  It seems to be a prime example of the sheer “multiplication of words” that the Bible cautions against (Proverbs 10:19).

Deacon:  The Biblically inspired “Hail Marys” in the rosary are intended to be used as a mantra of sorts.  The person praying is encouraged to meditate on events in the life of Jesus and the Church while doing so. The events are known as “mysteries,” and there is a different one for each ten Hail Marys.  The repetition might actually be biblical in that in the story of the Pharisee and the Publican, the latter is presumed to have repeated over and over,”O God, be merciful to me a sinner” (Luke 18:13).  Anyway, the monks in the middle ages used ropes in which they tied knots on which they prayed all 150 psalms daily, and as that became burdensome they transitioned to praying fifteen sets of ten Hail Marys separated by the Lord’s Prayer.  In any case, the rosary has become a powerful prayer and like the Eucharist itself, it has been associated with miraculous happenings.

Pastor:  Another thing. The Bible speaks of Jesus’ brothers and sisters (Mt 13:56) so why do Catholics believe in Mary’s perpetual virginity?

Deacon:  Tradition has it that Mary was raised as a temple handmaid and that she took the vow of perpetual virginity.  The passage to which you refer admittedly uses the Greek word for siblings, but the Jewish writer would likely have been influenced by the fact that there was no Hebrew word for “cousin.”  Consider also that it would have been extremely strange indeed for Jesus to entrust the care of His mother to St. John rather than to her other children if she had any.  There are other credible arguments, not the least of which is the notion that her sacred womb should not have been used or violated by any other means or used for any other purpose than giving birth to Jesus.

Pastor:  I have another question.  Why do Catholics believe that the Pope can’t make a mistake?

Deacon:  We don’t believe that at all.  He can add two and two and get five.  You’re asking about the concept of infallibility which is entirely different.  Remember when I mentioned that we Catholics believe that Jesus would not have left the Earth without a guardian of His deposit of faith?  Infallibility simply means that the Holy Spirit prevents the Pope from teaching error with regard to matters of faith and morals when and only when he speaks or teaches after wide consultation as the occupant of the “Chair of Peter.”  As a point of fact, Catholic doctrine is well established and the concept of infallibility has been rarely applied in modern times.

Pastor:  I see.  I’d like to revisit another issue if we can.  You and I participated in the baptism of your grandson.   And as you know, my belief which is shared by many Protestants is that we should do a “dedication” rather than a baptism of infants because they are unable to profess a belief in anything.  Please explain to me why Catholics baptize babies.

Deacon:  Sure. First of all, there is no biblical prohibition against infant baptism.  Furthermore there are at least three biblical citations in which a person was baptized along with his or her household.  Although we cannot presume that there were children below the age of reason, it seems quite likely.  The strongest argument, however, is once again the writings of the Patristic Fathers.  It is a well-established historical fact therefore, that infant baptism was practiced in the early Church, and it was formally affirmed at the Council of Carthage in the fourth century.  When I prepare parents for the baptism of their infant child, I let them know that at the ceremony they will solemnly vow to do such a good job in passing on their Catholic faith that when the child is of age there will be no doubt that he or she will choose to follow Jesus.

Pastor:  Thanks for that explanation.  I guess that brings me to the most important question of all.  We believe that we are saved through faith in and through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.  What do Catholics believe?

Deacon:   We Catholics believe that by the grace of God we are saved from sin (redeemed) by the blood of the cross.  Our salvation comes through God’s free gift of faith, a gift that we must willingly accept for it to be effective.  However we reject the concept of  “once saved always saved” because St. Paul, had he believed in such would not have written about “fighting the good fight” or “running the good race” (2 Tim 4:7) as he faced immanent death.  Although we certainly concur that making a mature decision to be a follower of Jesus is extremely important and is often a deeply emotional and spiritual experience, we also believe that having God’s gift of free will, one who has accepted Jesus can subsequently choose evil and lose one’s soul. That is why St. Paul in recognizing that being saved is not just an historical event following the recitation of a formula, he cautioned, “work out your salvation in fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12). 

Pastor:  You’ve referred to an experience that we call being “born again” and it seems to be essential to salvation.  What is the Catholic belief?

Deacon:  St. John used a play on words as a teaching tool in Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus.  The Greek word Jesus used had two meanings just as many words in English have more than one meaning.  It meant “again” and also “from above.”  So when Nicodemus incorrectly understood Jesus to mean “again,” Jesus made his point.  The contextual verses make it clear in Catholic understanding that he was referring to Baptism as being born from above.

Pastor:  Then do I understand that Catholics believe that salvation comes through being born again?   

Deacon:  Yes, we do assuming that being born again is being baptized. 

Pastor:  Then do you believe that those who are not baptized are condemned?

Deacon:  Not necessarily.  This might sound like a stretch to you but believing as we do that God would not create a soul without giving that soul an opportunity to spend eternity in heaven, Catholics believe in what is known as “baptism of desire.”  Let me use Ghandi as an example.  He was a very good and holy man who did not embrace Christianity although he was attracted to it conceptually.  Baptism of desire in his case --- assuming he is in heaven --- simply means that he would have chosen baptism if he had understood Christianity properly. Therefore the Catholic Church teaches that it may be difficult but not impossible for a Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, etc., to be saved by Jesus without personally knowing Him.   Consider also that St. Paul writes in Romans that non-believers will be judged based upon their response to the law that is written on their hearts (Romans 2:14-16). 

Pastor:  Are you saying then that someone can earn their way into heaven by being good and doing good works?

Deacon:  Not at all.  I think that Catholics and Protestants alike believe that we cannot ever be good enough that God owes us heaven.  As I mentioned, we believe as you do that it is a gift.  But the relativity between faith and good deeds or works is a debate that has raged on since the Reformation. We take to heart the letter of James in which the author claims that faith without works is a dead faith (Jas 2: 14-17).We must be doers of the Word, not just hearers of the Word.  Fortunately the Catholic and Lutheran Churches published their “Joint Declaration” agreement on salvation and the relativity of faith and works on December 31, 1999.  You can find it on the internet. 

Pastor:  Thanks.  I’ll look it up.  As you know, many Evangelicals ask the time-honored question, “If you were to die tonight, are you assured that you will go to Heaven?” What’s the Catholic position on this?

Deacon:  Although we trust in God’s forgiveness and mercy as described in the Sacred Scriptures, we can’t presume to know the judgment of God in specific cases, including our own.  The exceptions are the saints that we “canonize.”  When Mother Teresa is canonized it will mean that after deep scrutiny and the attribution to her of two or more indisputable miracles she is declared by the Church to be a saint in Heaven. 

Pastor:  Thanks very much, Deacon, for your explanations.  I am certain that they will help me in ministering to my own congregation, and particularly those members who formerly professed Catholicism. And although I know that we are not in agreement on all issues, I know that we can continue to ask questions of one another and I value that.  I’d like to read something of the writings of the Early (Patristic) Fathers since you base so much of your beliefs upon them.  What is the best source?

Deacon:  First of all, Pastor, I want to assure you that if I came across as adversarial I am truly sorry.  It is difficult to defend what I believe without taking a contrary position at times, but I have the utmost respect for you and your beliefs and I treasure our friendship. May we always be able to be open with one another. Now for your question... The best source is “The Fathers Know Best” by Jimmy Akin and it widely available. In addition there are plenty of commentaries and documentations available on the Internet and I trust that you will find them very helpful.  May your exploring be blessed!