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Dr. Peter Kreeft was brought up as a Calvinist/Protestant in the United States. Throughout his family and school life, he was lead to believe that the Catholic Church was not only wrong, but evil (described as the "whore of Babylon"). However, as a young man he began to encounter the beauty of the Catholic Church, the enlightening teachings of the Church Fathers, and the truth of the faith. Dr. Peter Kreeft is now one of the most well-known Catholic academics and apologists of our time. Listen to his story in this video!
I was born into a loving and faithful family.
At the same time, I received in many ways the typical anti-Catholic prejudices that Protestants, especially in the mid-twentieth century, had. The Catholic Church was called the Whore of Babylon. It was the Great Idolater. They worshipped Mary and they worshipped the saints, and they worshipped images and they worshipped bread and they worshipped priests, and they were just worse than pagans. And to become a Catholic was unthinkable.
I remember in high school I won a prize by writing an essay on Dostoevsky's famous parable on the Grand Inquisitor, which is an attack on a kind of spiritual totalitarianism, and I interpreted it as an attack upon the Catholic Church. It wasn't a very well-written essay, but because it fit those anti-Catholic prejudices, it was orthodox, so it got the stamp of approval. But I rarely or never experienced hatred of Catholics, or writing off Catholics as subhuman. They were probably going to hell, but it wasn't their fault; it was the fault of the priests.
The first time I ever asked a question — it wasn't really a doubt; it was just a question — about my Calvinism, I must have been maybe twelve years old. I asked my father — I had learned about population statistics of different religions. I had learned that about fifty percent of all the people in the world now believed in the God of the Bible. They were either Jews or Christians or Muslims or some other non-affiliated theists, and that among Christians the Roman Catholic Church was the largest. And second was Eastern Orthodoxy, and third was Anglicanism, and then was Baptists, and then was Methodists, and we were way down on the list. We were only half a million, or a quarter of a million. So I remember asking my father, who was a very good man, a wise man, an elder in the church, and sort of theologically self-educated, "Dad, if there's only a quarter of a million of us, and we've got the right theology, and nobody else has, how can God let that happen? I mean, all these other Christians are seeking the truth, and seeking orthodoxy, and they believe they've got it, but they're all wrong, and we're the only ones who are right. There seems to be something wrong with that." And he gave a very logical answer; he says, "Well, you don't find truth by counting noses, and sometimes just because there are more people in one camp doesn't mean they are right." And I said, "Yeah, that's true, but there still feels something wrong with it." It didn't bother me much, but it was a doubt planted in my mind.
|This was like Mount Everest, and everything else was like little ant-hills. And I was enormously impressed — not just by the style, or by the theology, which I didn't quite understand, but it was massive; it was real. It wasn't silly and stupid.|
Another doubt — a more serious one — came from a less intellectual source. We lived in New Jersey, and we went to New York City a lot as tourists — I'm an only child — with my parents, and we went to St. Patrick's Cathedral, just to see it, and I'd never seen anything like that before. I was stunned. It was just like the gate of heaven. It was a different kind of beauty. I said to myself, this is the most beautiful piece of architecture I've ever seen in my life. And I turned to my father and I said, "Dad, this is a Catholic church, isn't it?" And he said, "Yes." And I said, "The Catholics are wrong, aren't they?" And he said, "Oh, yes, of course; they're very, very wrong." And then I said, "Then how can their churches be so beautiful?" And it was the first time in my life that my father didn't have any answer to a question at all; he was just stumped. I saw the confusion on his face. I think I was at the time much more scandalized by the fact that my hitherto-infallible father didn't have the answer to a very simple question than my doubts that the Catholic Church was as bad as I had thought it. Well, sermons in stone: You can argue with thoughts; you can't argue with beauty.
In high school, I'm not sure just when, but we went to the Jersey shore a lot. I loved the ocean; I even wrote a couple of books on surfing. There were no waves one summer. So I spent a lot of time on the beach, and not much time in the water. So I got bored. So I went to a bookstore, and I bought a book that I never saw before. It was called The Ascent of Mount Carmel, by St. John of the Cross. He was a Catholic mystic. I said, well, I'm looking for something weird and far out. So I read it, every word of it. I was fascinated. I didn't understand it; I didn't understand it at all. It was such a different thing. I had read stories of saints before, but nothing like this. This was like Mount Everest, and everything else was like little ant-hills. And I was enormously impressed — not just by the style, or by the theology, which I didn't quite understand, but it was massive; it was real. It wasn't silly and stupid.
I went to Calvin College, which is a very good college, a sort of little Ivy League type liberal arts college in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and learned a little more about Western culture and Western history, including the Middle Ages, and began to fall in love with things medieval, which of course are things Catholic. So I said to myself, this is a temptation — I'm falling in love with the Whore of Babylon. I can't quite figure out how she can be that smart, and how she can be that beautiful, and how she can produce that many saints, and still be such a whore, but this is wrong. I've got to deal with this temptation. I'm falling in love with the wrong woman here.
So I took a course in church history from a very orthodox, very correct, very smart professor, who was also a Calvinist preacher. And the very first day of the course, he tried to get the class involved. He said, "This is a course in church history. Let's start by defining the church; what is the church?" Nobody had an answer. So trying to get the class involved, he said, "Well, Catholics have an answer to that question that is different than ours; what's the difference?" And again, nobody had an answer to that question.
So he went on. He said, "Someday, you're going to meet a Catholic friend, and they're going to say, 'Are you a Christian?' And you are going to say, 'Yes.' And the Catholic's going to say, 'What church do you go to?' And you're going to say, 'Well, I'm a Calvinist.' And they're going to say, 'Well, you're in the wrong church, because you're in the church that John Calvin founded five hundred years ago, but we're in the church that Jesus Christ founded two thousand years ago.' What do you say to that?" I'd never heard anything so sharp and clear and simple before. I said, wow, that's a darn good question; he's got courage to ask that question. He's playing devil's advocate there. He'd better have a good answer to it.
Immediately, I thought of the Book of Ecclesiastes, because the first ninety-nine percent of that book is a question. Life looks like vanity of vanities; it's all meaningless. He sounds like an existentialist, like John Paul Sartre, and only in the last couple of verses does he give the answer. And the rabbis must have had a lot of courage to put that book in the Bible, because a lot of people forget the last two verses, and say, oh, vanity of vanities, that's it. So here he was playing devil's advocate, defending the Catholic Church, and nobody had an answer to the question.
|I'm falling in love with the Whore of Babylon. I can't quite figure out how she can be that smart, and how she can be that beautiful, and how she can produce that many saints, and still be such a whore, but this is wrong. I've got to deal with this temptation. I'm falling in love with the wrong woman here.|
Somebody said, "Well, the Catholic Church is not the church in the Bible, because in the Bible it's just a simple little thing, and the Catholic Church is this great big and messy thing," and he said, "Well, size has nothing to do with it; a seed is very small, but a plant is very large." "So why isn't that the same church?" And nobody had an answer. So he said, "Well, here's the Catholic theory of what the church is, and what church history is: Jesus started the church, and he planted a seed. And it gradually grew, and it's one plant, and only one plant, and that's the Roman Catholic Church. And then, about 1500, it got so corrupt that some people like Luther and Calvin said, we can't be in this church anymore; we're going to start a new one. So they lopped a branch off and planted it in the ground somewhere else. But you can't do that, because there's only one Christ, and only one church. That's the Catholic argument. What's wrong with that argument?" And I thought to myself, that's why I took this course — to find an answer to that question. And nobody had an answer to it.
So I was waiting for the professor's answer, and he said, "Okay, here's the answer to it — here's what's wrong with it." Still, nobody had asked a question; he was trying to get the class involved. He drew a picture of Noah's ark on the board. There were little bumps on the bottom. He said, "Anybody know what those are?" Somebody said, "They’re barnacles." "Right; you know what barnacles are? Well, they're little hard limpets that attach themselves to the bottom of the boat, and they're hard and they weight a lot, and there's too many of them, and they'll sink the boat because they're too heavy. So what do you have to do? You just have to scrape them off. All right, here's the true theory of church history. Jesus founded a church that was described in the New Testament, and then it gradually got a lot of barnacles on it, especially in the Middle Ages, all these pagan accretions that came from Roman legalism and Greek rationalism. And around 1500, a couple of the sailors, named Luther and Calvin and Knox, said hey, there're so many barnacles on the ship that we'd better scrape them off before the ship sinks. So they went overboard and scraped off the barnacles, and now we've got the church that Jesus founded. So Catholics say that we're the new kids on the block; it's only five hundred years old. It's just the opposite. The Catholics are the new kids on the block. We're the traditionalists that go back to Jesus. The Reformation wasn't something progressive; it was something traditionalist."
So I said to myself, gee, that's what I want to believe to justify my staying a Protestant. So I remember raising my hand and asked the first question, and the professor was glad to have a question. He said, "Yes," and I said, "I love science fiction. Imagine a science fiction story where there's time travel…" He said, "Where are you going with this question?" and I said, "Well, just wait. So I and my Catholic neighbor both get in this time machine, and we go back to the first century and we find the primitive church, and we go to worship together. Are you saying that I as a Protestant would be more at home there than he as a Catholic?" And the professor said, "Well, that's a weird way of asking the question, but he said, "Absolutely; definitely." I said, "Good."
I remember thinking to myself, these Catholics believe so many strange things that I'll never figure them all out, even if I have a lifetime, because they say it took the church thousands of years to figure them out. But I've reduced it to one question now: what was the early church like? Did Jesus found a Protestant church that went bad, that is, Catholic, in the Middle Ages, or did he found a Catholic church that went bad, that is, Protestant, at the Reformation? And I can find that out just by reading the Church Fathers, the earliest Christians. So I'll read the earliest documents of church history, prove to myself how Protestant they were, and justify my staying a Protestant, and that'll overcome my temptation to become a Catholic. Well, you know the rest of the story, especially if you've read Cardinal Newman's conversion story; that was basically his point. It was really one basic point: is it a historical fact that Jesus Christ founded the Catholic Church, or not? Is there continuity between the Catholic Church today and the thing the Gospels tell us that Jesus founded? If yes, be a Catholic; if no, don't. And you don't have to be a theologian to figure that out — just read the books.
|I was absolutely astounded to discover that unlike Protestants, every Christian in the world believed in the Real Presence. It was never doubted by anybody for a thousand years.|
Well, I found out that there was of course gradual development of these doctrines, but at no point in church history for the first thousand years was there ever a church-splitting controversy about anything that today divides Protestants from Catholics. There were a lot of controversies, and there were a lot of heresies, but for a thousand years everybody agreed who was orthodox and who was heretical, and it wasn't a Protestant-Catholic divide. And these gradual developments like the understanding of the primacy of the Bishop of Rome, who was later called the Pope, or figuring out how many sacraments there are, or what the sacraments are, what's the proper devotion to saints, and what's the role of Mary — these things developed, but they developed gradually, and nobody ever called out heresy during their development.
And the thing that blew me away totally was the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. I was absolutely astounded to discover that unlike Protestants, every Christian in the world believed in the Real Presence. It was never doubted by anybody for a thousand years. The first person who doubted it was a heretic called Berengar of Tours around the tenth century, and he was universally labeled a heretic and kicked out. And nobody raised that again seriously until around the time of the Reformation.
So I said to myself, wait a minute; this is not just some little issue. I mean, if the Catholics are wrong about this, and we Protestants are right — if these are just sacred symbols, then Catholics are not only idolaters, but they are the stupidest idolaters in history. They're bowing down to bread, and they're worshipping wine, thinking that it's Almighty God. How could they be that stupid, and more important, how could the Holy Spirit fall asleep for fifteen hundred years, and wait until the Protestant reformers to tell us that that was a mistake? On the other hand, if the Catholics are right, then we Protestants who don't believe in the Real Presence are missing out on the most amazing and astounding and intimate union with God that is possible in this life. We're, like, reducing a marriage to a friendship. So that really bothered me. I didn't know where to go with it.
But I had a very good philosophy professor, a very good strong Calvinist who made me a philosopher — we usually choose our vocations by personal example: "I want to be like him" — and I confided my doubts to him. I'm a coward, and therefore I don't do courageous and rash things, so I'm a procrastinator, so I thought to myself, maybe someday I'll become a Catholic, when I'm forty or fifty or something, but it'll take me a long time. But I confided to him that I was thinking seriously about Catholic claims, and they seemed very reasonable to me — I'd read a lot of Catholic apologists and theologians, and they dispelled my prejudices and they explained that Protestants had it all wrong, that Catholics didn't really worship Mary and the saints and all that. I said it seemed to make a lot of sense to me. And he astonished me by saying, "Well, you know, when I was your age and I went to college, I had exactly the same thought — I almost became a Catholic myself." "Oh, You?" "Well, yes, but I didn't. There were other options." Hmm.
Theologically, the issue that seemed to me to be the umbrella issue that covered all the others, that explained the difference between Catholic theology and Protestant theology in all of its details, was the issue of the relation between nature and grace, or nature and super-nature. Protestants tended to separate the two and make them rivals. More faith, less reason; more miracle, less science; more God, less man — as if they were rivals.
Whereas in Catholic theology, grace was always a friend to nature. Grace perfected nature; grace redeemed nature; grace used nature. And therefore Catholics had a very high view of human reason and of human culture and of human art and of the human person and of human things. Matter, for instance, in the sacraments. It seemed to me that if God loved nature into existence by creating it, He wouldn't just leave it alone, but He would use it and perfect it and raise it up like a good father did to his children. He wouldn't rival His children. He doesn't have an ego problem. He wants His children to grow.
And the professor sort of agreed with me. He said you don't have to be a Roman Catholic to believe that. I was told years later by his daughter, who was at his deathbed when he died, that his last words before he died — and she said he sort of sat up in his bed, and a little smile came into his face, and he said, "Everything is grace." I didn't know at the time that those were the dying words of St. Theresa. Hmm.
Well, the issue of nature and grace was a very important issue, not just abstractly, but personally, concerning salvation. Were you saved by grace alone, or did human effort and free will and works play a necessary part? And the Calvinist doctrine is that there is predestination but no free will. And I think that Calvin meant by that, we don't have the freedom to save ourselves, but it certainly sounds as if predestination does everything, and free will doesn't have any real reality at all. So I said, well, I'd better see what the Catholics say about this. So I read the treatise on grace in the Summa Theologica, which is as Catholic as you can get. And I read the decrees of the Council of Trent, which condemned and anathematized Luther on grace. And they both said the same thing, they said what I believed as a Calvinist, namely, that it's all grace. But then they added, but grace perfects nature, and therefore faith perfects good works, and faith perfects reason, and all the rest.
There are twelve questions in Aquinas's treatise on grace: Can man be saved without grace? Can he seek salvation without grace? Can he merit anything without grace? Can he do good works without grace? Can he perfect his nature without grace? Can he ask for grace without grace? And the answer to every question is No. I said, oh. Well, if I ever became a Catholic, I wouldn't have to stop believing anything that I believe as a Calvinist; I'd just have to start believing in a lot of other things like free will and the importance of good works. Hm.
I took a class in Shakespeare and I knew enough about Catholicism then to recognize a Catholic author when I saw one, and I remember having a course-long argument with the very good professor. I was certain that Shakespeare was a Roman Catholic, and he said, "No way; no way". And the evidence hasn't been in until the last ten years, but now it's almost certain that he was. But you can just see it; you can sort of smell it.
|When Napoleon kidnapped the pope, he said, "We will destroy you." The pope said, "Ha. We haven't been able to destroy ourselves for two thousand years. You won't be able to do it, either."|
There was another powerful clue from the arts. I had never heard Palestrina's music before, and I bought a record and put it on, and I almost had a mystical experience. I said, this is the music of angels. This doesn't come from earth; this comes from heaven. This is a different kind of music, just as a cathedral is a different kind of church. And I said, what horrible heresy called the Whore of Babylon possibly could produce music that heavenly? It was a kind of argument that couldn't be answered.
We sometimes ignore that third dimension of our faith. You know, there's the good, the true and the beautiful. We tend to ignore the beautiful. We didn't in the Middle Ages. Catholics produced all the greatest art, but not so much anymore. I personally know three ex-atheists or agnostics — one is a philosophy professor, one is an apologist, one is a Benedictine monk — all of whom told me, independently of each other, that the reason they are not atheists today is the "St. Matthew Passion" of Johann Sebastian Bach. And they all said, in almost the same words, "Here is the most powerful argument for the existence of God: There is the music of Bach; therefore, there is a God." And I intuitively understood that.
Some of my Calvinist friends tried to deter me from becoming a Catholic by giving me anti-Catholic literature, and some of it was simply silly, but some of it was kind of funny. I remember in particular that somebody gave me a copy of Boccaccio's Decameron. Boccaccio was a Renaissance Italian anti-clerical comedian, who told a lot of funny stories about Catholic corruption. And one of them moved me in the opposite direction from the direction they wanted me move me in. If you go to Italy today, you'll go in taxis and ask what's the latest scandal at the Vatican and of course they'll tell you; they love the scandals. And Boccaccio did too. And this was during the Borgia papacy. The Borgia family was basically the Mafia and they controlled the papacy. And the pope at the time was, I think, Alexander or John XXII. He had a common-law wife Lucrezia Borgia, who was one of history's most famous poisoners, and the pope had a whole bunch of bastard children, and it was made public, and he was filthy rich, and it was horribly scandalous.
Well, the story takes place in Paris. There's a pious Bishop of Paris who has a friend who's a Jew. His name is Abraham; he's a businessman. They're good friends. They talk theology together, and the bishop discerns that Abraham is perhaps interested in becoming a Catholic — he may even ask for baptism someday. One day Abraham comes to the bishop and says, "Hey, Bishop, wish me good-speed; I've got to take a ship tomorrow. Won't see you for three months; I've got to do some business in Rome." "In Rome?" "Yeah, I've gotta live with the papal family and do business with the Vatican bank." "Look, Abraham, I know that you're on the verge of baptism. Why don't you do that first?" "Why?" "Well, things are foggy down there — you don't see clearly down there. You see much more clearly up here." "No," Abraham says, "one of my rules is, do business first, then pleasure. If I get baptized, that'll be a pleasure, but I gotta do my business first. I'm off to Rome. See you in three months."
So he takes the ship the next day, and the bishop says, I've lost him. He'll see the corruption there and never become a Catholic. He comes back in the spring and he says, "Alright, I guess I'm ready for baptism now." "Oh, you didn't go to Rome?" "Yeah, I went there." "You didn't live with the papal family?" "Oh, yeah; I met them all." "You didn't do business with the Vatican bank?" "Oh, yeah; I did." "And now you want to become a Catholic? I don’t get it." Abraham said, "Look. I'm not a theologian. I don't disdain your theology. But I'm a businessman, and I know one thing for sure: no earthly business that stupid or corrupt could possibly last fourteen weeks; yours has lasted fourteen centuries. It's a miracle; I'm convinced!"
That's not only funny; that's a serious argument. How could any merely human institution, without supernatural help, manned by such idiots as us, possibly be the institution that has lasted for two thousand years and been faithful to its traditions without changing them? When Napoleon kidnapped the pope, he said, "We will destroy you." The pope said, "Ha. We haven't been able to destroy ourselves for two thousand years. You won't be able to do it, either."
But I'm a procrastinator and I kept saying, "One day, one day."
So next year after I graduated, I went to Yale. The very first day on campus — 8 o'clock in the morning — the first thing I did was knock on the door of St. Mary's church, wonderful Dominican church there, and a priest came down, very short and fat and Irish, and he was still in his nightshirt — I think I woke him up — and he smiled and said, "What can I do for you?" And I said, "Father, I want to become a Catholic" — all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. His response was, "Oh, that's nice. So who's the girl?" So he gave me instructions, and he gave me the penny catechism, and I would come to him with questions from St. Thomas Aquinas or St. John of the Cross, and he would say, "Well, let's look up the answer. Let's start with the simple stuff. First you crawl, and then you walk, and then you dance, and then you fly. You're just a baby, so let's start with the simple stuff." That was a great lesson in humility.
At the time, when you became a Catholic, they re-baptized you conditionally because non-Catholic baptisms are valid as long as they are not done in direct intention to contradict the Catholic Church. They didn't know whether the anti-Catholicism of the preacher was functional there or not. So I was conditionally re-baptized. I didn't know any Catholics at the time, except one of my friends at Yale. I didn't know any Catholic women at the time, so a girl that was dating one of my friends from Calvin, who was a New York Catholic named Maria, was my godmother. So she joked at the baptism, "Hey father, what if I fall in love with this guy?" The priest said, "Oh, that would be a big problem. You can't marry your godmother, that's spiritual incest. You'd have to get a special dispensation from the Pope, because in the Middle Ages, godparent was a very serious thing, almost as serious as parent, and the laws are still on the books." Well, two years later we go to the same priest and say, "Hey Father, you remember that conversation we had? Can you get that dispensation for us?" So I married my godmother.
I found at Yale that the Catholic community was very small but very strong, because of a lot of anti-Catholic prejudice, or at least there was at the time at Yale. And I had another great musical high in singing in a Gregorian chant group, which was not just great music, but music and worship at the same time. Augustine says, "He who sings prays twice."
At my baptism, when I received my first communion, nothing mystical happened, but everything got very, very quiet, and all thoughts and feelings just ceased, and I absolutely knew, without any feeling at all, that that was Jesus Christ. And ever since, I've been very grateful for the Eucharist, not merely for its objective reality, that first of all, but also for the fact that it doesn't taste like Christ, it doesn't look like Christ, it doesn't produce miracles like spouting blood, and it doesn't even produce great feelings, in me anyway, and that's good because I think most of us, especially here in America, we idolize our feelings. God is often just a means to our religious experience. And God doesn't want that. He doesn't want us to get a spiritual sweet tooth. So, yeah, he gives us some highs, but not too many. It's like the honeymoon, it doesn't last; it gets into something deeper. So like Christ and the cross, he didn't have many feelings; his feeling was, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" That's hardly a religious high, but that was the most important thing he ever did. So this has been a great exercising of deep spiritual muscles that have nothing to do with feelings. I remember one of the things that struck me in reading the lives of the saints was that they all say the same thing about feelings: They're not important. They're not important. Forget them. In this relationship with God, it's the will that counts. It's the heart that counts. Heart is not sentiment. Heart is the very center of a person, that mysterious center that has a mind, and a will, and feelings, and all this other stuff. And that's what God wants. Feelings are good. They're not bad. But they're extras; they're the sugar on the cake. They help, but they're not important. Ignore them, and they'll come. Don't ignore them — worship them — and they'll dissipate. And that's been true.
Ever since, I've found that this choice to come aboard the ark is just about the best thing I ever did. I've ever since thought of it as my main vocation, to build bridges between Catholics and non-Catholics. I was a signer of the Evangelicals and Catholics Together statement, and support that very strongly. I love somebody like C. S. Lewis whom almost all evangelical Protestants love, and almost all faithful Roman Catholics love. St. Augustine's another one; Catholics and Protestants both love him.
The divisions that exist now are very different than the divisions that existed when I became a Catholic about fifty years ago. The divisions between Catholics and Protestants are far less important to both sides now, even though they still exist, than they were fifty years ago, because we are facing a common enemy, a culture of death, a society that is becoming increasingly anti-Christian. When a common enemy threatens, then warring brothers put their civil wars on hold for a while, important as they are. Like the Irish and the English, who've had a lot of troubles, but fought together and died for each other in the trenches in World War I and again in World War II.
Flannery O'Connor, the great Southern Catholic writer, back in the fifties, living in I think Alabama, or was it Georgia, where there were very few Catholics, addressed an audience of Southern Baptists and startled them by saying, "You don't know it, but you guys are closer to the Pope than you are to some of the theologians in your own northern Baptist churches, and I'm closer to you than I am to some of the theologians in my own Catholic Church, because the modernists who don't believe in the supernatural and don't believe in miracles and don't believe in a literal resurrection, they're not even Christians, although they say they are. And whether Mary was assumed into heaven is pretty important, but it's not as important as whether Jesus rose from the dead. So the real arguments are against the heretics in each of our churches instead of against each other."
|He says that the ecumenical movement, the demand for reunification of the church without compromise is an essential dimension of the gospel. It's not an extra.|
They didn't understand that at the time, but most people are understanding that now, increasingly, and the common enemies that we face are doing exactly the opposite of what the devil wants to do, namely, dividing us; they're uniting us, in profound ways sometimes. A common action against a common evil like abortion has united Catholics and Protestants in their hearts and in their works, even though not in their heads. I heard a story — I'm not sure whether this is literally true or not, but some people say it is — in the early days of the prolife movement, about a dozen Southern Baptists and a dozen Roman Catholics were marching together outside an abortion clinic and they got thrown in jail together (for not observing the bubble zone or something), so they shared a common jail cell, about twenty-four people in the same great big cell. And that night, they didn't sleep; they just prayed and sang hymns together all night. In the morning, the Baptists went home and asked their family, "Why don't we love Mary like the Catholics do?" And the Catholics went home and asked their family, "Do you accept the Lord Jesus Christ as your personal savior?" Now that's evangelism of the trenches. I love it.
If you read one of the encyclicals of John Paul II, Ut Unum Sint (That They May All be One), you'll find that he is the most ecumenical pope in history. He says that the ecumenical movement, the demand for reunification of the church without compromise is an essential dimension of the gospel. It's not an extra. It's as important as the social gospel. You can't be a full Christian unless you love the poor. You can't be a full Christian unless you want, and seek for, reunion. But how can that be done without compromise? And you can't compromise truth. And each side, which seems to contradict each other, believes that they have the truth.
Well, maybe some of you don't even know this, but a miracle has already happened in ecumenism. The single most important issue that divides us has been solved without compromise. You ask any evangelical Protestant what is the most important difference between Protestants and Catholics, and they would always say: Are you saved by faith alone, or are you saved by faith plus good works? You Catholics believe that there's a two-part ticket to heaven — you have to do good works as well as have faith — and we believe it's a only one-part ticket. So you don't know how to get to heaven. And we say to them, well, you don't know how to get to heaven, because the Bible says faith without works is dead.
So fifty years ago, all the Protestants I knew thought that Catholics didn't even know how to get to heaven — they were probably all going to hell. And most Catholics thought the same about Protestants. So how can you compromise on that? That's the most important question you can ask. You can't compromise on that. Well, the Council of Trent anathematized Luther for teaching salvation by faith alone. And Luther anathematized the Catholic church for teaching that you must do good works to be saved, as well as have faith. And no side can compromise on that. How could that possibly be negotiated?
Well, I've got news for you; it has been negotiated. The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification has been approved by the Vatican, and by the Lutheran World Federation, first in Germany, and then throughout the world. And most of the Anglicans have signed on, and many of the Methodists. It's not united all Protestants, but most evangelical Protestants have signed onto that statement. And the statement says that we are teaching essentially the same thing here about salvation by faith and works, but we're using different language, because the Bible itself uses different language. There seems to be a contradiction between what Paul says in Romans and Galatians, where he says you are saved by faith alone, not by the works of the law, on the one hand, and what James says, that faith without works is dead. And Paul in I Corinthians 13 says you need three things: faith, hope and charity, and the greatest of these is not faith, but charity. So if the Bible doesn't contradict itself, maybe the two sides don't contradict themselves.
And to oversimplify a much deeper and more complicated issue, but to give the main thrust of it: you can use the word faith in a narrow sense or a broad sense. In the narrow sense, it's intellectual faith, belief, and that is necessary but not sufficient for salvation. The devil also believes but is not going to be saved. Or you can use faith in a much deeper and broader sense, which is saying Yes to God's offer of salvation, inviting him into your heart. And how much theological knowledge do you have to have to accompany that. We don't know. The Thief on the Cross was saved. He didn't have much theological knowledge. He had very little knowledge of who Jesus was, but Jesus said, "Today you shall be with me in Paradise". So if you are talking about saving faith, that's one thing; if you are talking about intellectual or theological faith, that's a different thing.
|You can't argue with a saint. Nobody ever won an argument with Mother Teresa. You can refute a person; you can't refute a saint.|
Alright, then, what about salvation? Well, there's two meanings to that, too — a broader sense and a narrower sense. In the narrower sense, it simply means getting to heaven when you die, passing the last judgment. In a broader sense, it means becoming a saint, because God won't let you go until you are. "You must be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect." So it's the difference between justification and sanctification. Having your sins forgiven, and becoming a saint.
Well, both sides were right, because when Luther said faith alone is sufficient for salvation, all he meant was that saving faith (faith in the broad sense) is sufficient for justification (salvation in the narrow sense). It'll get you to heaven. And when the Catholic Church said no, it's not; you need good works too to be saved, faith alone is not enough, they meant intellectual faith is not enough; it must be supplemented by hope and charity. And they meant by salvation not just getting to heaven, but becoming a perfected saint, which is why most of us will get to heaven only through purgatory.
So both sides were saying the same thing, namely, the thing that the Bible is saying, but both sides were using different language systems. And when they sat down with open minds and good will, and understood each other, they said, Good grief! We've been slaughtering each other on battlefields and condemning each other to hell for five hundred years, and that was a mistake. Oops! Short act of contrition: "Oops!"
Nobody thought that could happen, fifty years ago. Except one person. I remember reading in the 1950s at Calvin College a book by John Paul II's favorite theologian, von Balthasar. It was Luther and Thomas Aquinas on Justification. I remember saying, this is a crazy book because he says that these two people don't disagree. They obviously do disagree, I said. Everybody in the world know they disagree. But he was a prophet.
Well, if the Holy Spirit and divine providence can solve that problem, then I think the other problems can be solved, too. I don't know how; nobody knew how this was going to happen. How can we compromise on the Eucharist? How can we compromise on the authority of the Church? We can't. But maybe since God wants it — that's very clear: in John 17:21 Jesus prayed with tears "that they may all be one" — if we each love, above all, our common conductor, Jesus Christ, then though we seem to be playing different instruments and at cross purposes, we will play in harmony, because His will is harmony. So if we really want it with all our hearts, we'll get it. And that certainly will change the world.
Well, let me just finish by saying, if anybody asked me for the three best reasons to become a Catholic, I'll say they are the three things that everybody wants the most, the three things that nobody wants only a finite amount of, but an unlimited amount of, the three things that you're not bored with even in heaven for all eternity: truth, goodness and beauty. The only honest reason for believing anything is: it's true. You don't believe in Santa Claus anymore. Why not? It made you very good, when you were three years old. It made you very happy, when you were three years old. And being good and being happy are terribly important. But truth has to trump everything. So the only honest motive for believing the claims of the Catholic Church is that they are true.
Secondly, it's good; it'll make you good. Look at all those saints; where did they come from? You can't argue with a saint. Nobody ever won an argument with Mother Teresa. You can refute a person; you can't refute a saint.
Finally, beautiful. Not just aesthetically beautiful, artistically beautiful, but truly beautiful. The most beautiful thing, the most shatteringly beautiful thing we've ever seen in the history of the world, is Jesus Christ. I was once talking to some monks in Connecticut, and they were very wise and very holy, so I have no idea what I said to them; it couldn't have been terribly important. And at the end, the abbot said to me, "Here's the question we ask all of our speakers, and all of our visitors. If you could ask God for one gift for all of us, one grace for all of us, and He assured you that He would grant that grace, what would you ask for?" I said, "Wow; that's a very profound question." He said, "Answer it!" So I had to answer it right away. So I blurted out, "that each of you would fall totally in love with Jesus Christ for every moment for the rest of your life." And they all began gently to laugh. They weren't laughing at me. And the abbot explained, "The reason we're laughing is, Mother Teresa was here last month, and that's exactly what she said." So I can't end on a better note than that.
|"THE BLESSED SACRAMENT"|