I was raised as a Roman Catholic in a family with Catholic roots going back hundreds of years in Bavaria, and by my teenage years realized this was not the path I wanted to take. My primary reason for turning from Catholicism is that I was no longer comfortable identifying myself as Christian after examining historical evidence and the other alternatives available. But for the purposes of this article, I am not going to address the reasons I am not Christian in general (this is a far more complex subject). I simply wish to point out some issues I have with Catholicism specifically outside of any Christ-specific points of contention. In no particular order…
The doctrine of transubstantiation states that a priest transforms the host and wine into the literal body and blood of Jesus Christ. I have no problem with other churches (Lutherans, for example) that practice communion and refer to the act as symbolic. Religion is inherently symbolic as Carl Jung, Paul Tillich and many others have pointed out. However, I do not think that a priest has the ability to transform bread and wine into flesh and blood. Yet, this is what they allege they are doing. Further, the congregation is supposed to believe they are eating the physical body of Jesus. I think most of them think of the act as symbolic, but “true” Catholics have to accept cannibalism — the belief that the spirit of one being can enter into another through the act of devouring the former. This is more akin to paganism than Christianity when discussed in the most blunt of terms.
Although this ritualism seems to be the kind of thing that would be abandoned after the medieval period with the advances of science, the tradition is as concrete now as ever. In 1968, the “Credo of the People of God” was written by Pope Paul VI. He states that the consecration of the bread and wine make them body and blood — not merely symbol or a figment of the imagination.
Non-Catholic Christians also point out that the sacrament of communion is based off of the Last Supper where Jesus broke bread with the apostles and shared wine with them. As with priests today, he spoke the words “this is my body” (Matthew 26:26, Mark 14:22, Luke 22:19, Corinthians 11:24). But unlike priests today, Christ was quite obviously not sharing his physical body and blood with the apostles as he was still very much alive and whole during the meal. If we believe that the Last Supper was a symbolic ritual, why should we believe anything different about the communion?
If we want to say that Jesus is always right because he was essentially God, that makes sense if we accept that God is all-knowing. If we want to say that Paul (Saul of Tarsus) was right because he had a vision, that is fine. However, the doctrine of papal infallibility says that the Pope is always right in his judgments when speaking from the chair of Saint Peter on the matters of church doctrine. (I had previously written that “papal infallibility” is that the pope’s decisions were always right, but this broad generalization is inaccurate, as pointed out by Mike Brost.) I have a few problems with this.
First, this says that one man is given direct knowledge from God. If he did not receive these ideas from God (and rather from somewhere else), we should not be able to claim he knows absolutely what is the right thing to do. However, if the Pope was God’s messenger then we would hope he would also have been chosen by God. This is not so. A Pope is elected to his position the same as any other leader in a democratic society. The case could be argued that the people voting (the cardinals) are guided by God in their voting, but I find it more likely that politics play as big a role in the Vatican as they would in any secular society. If the cardinals were all guided by God in their voting, would they not all vote for the same man?
Now, let us say that even with the cardinals being human that the person chosen still has the direct connection with God. This makes them no less human and capable of error. Some of the finest men in the Bible had incredible flaws. Adam and Eve (eating the fruit), Noah (drunkenness), Jacob (stole his brother’s inheritance), and even Saint Peter himself (denied Jesus thrice). So to declare any decision made by the pope “infallible” is really not very likely.
Second, if the Pope is always right, what about his corrections of previous Popes? Many papal decisions are simply changing prior decisions. Was the first Pope’s decision wrong? Was the second? If either were wrong, then the doctrine should be false. Some disagreements can be accounted for by the time periods (a Crusade might be God-sanctioned in the Middle Ages but not today). But Biblical interpretation should never change if all decisions are absolute. Protestants, on the other hand, can reinterpret the Bible as new facts come to light and this does not hurt their beliefs one bit.
Now, we could be lenient here and state that papal infallibility as a doctrine was not official until 1870 (the First Vatican Council). And we could also be lenient in admitting that the infallibility has only been invoked twice — once for the Immaculate Conception of Mary (1854) and the other for the Assumption of Mary into Heaven (1950). (While 1854 predates 1870, this ruling is included as post-Vatican Council because the same pope was heading the Vatican during this time frame.) But this overlooks the point. When papal infallibility became doctrine, the implicit meaning was that all popes have had this power unofficially. The power is handed down from the first pope, Peter. So the point stands that any pope making a decision on doctrine in the past would have to have his decisions followed by all subsequent popes. While admittedly I cannot name an occasion this has failed, if the pope were not speaking truly on behalf of God we would assume that at some point a contradiction would arise.
Third, I see two flaws in having this power be handed down through Peter. One flaw is that as mentioned above, Peter was hardly free of sin and his judgments were not always correct. Catholics associate this correct judgment with Peter because of Mark 8:29, where Jesus asked the apostles who he is and Peter correctly answers that he is the Christ. This knowledge came through divine intervention. But one correct judgment does not mean all of Peter’s judgments are correct, and it certainly doesn’t mean that his successors will be any more or less correct, either. Why should the holiness of one man be transferred to another simply by his title? Another reason some Catholics give for Peter being infallible is that he had written two infallible epistles. But this is merely circular reasoning. We “know” Peter wrote infallibly because the epistles are in the Bible, and the Bible is God’s Word. Therefore, Peter’s word is God’s Word. But that’s backwards because it relies on the people composing the Bible to decide what is God’s Word (again possibly inviting human error) and indirectly implies that all authors of the Bible are infallible, a very bold claim.
The other flaw is that even if we assume that Peter had infallibility and his successors have this same gift, there is no way to identify his successors with any degree of certainty. Official Catholic tradition has an unbroken line of popes from Peter until Benedict XVI, but further investigation reveals there was no clear pope for a great many years — the Church was a scattered group for some time and numerous bishops existed (though no pope). This is hardly heretical or hidden; the Catholic Encyclopedia makes no attempt to deny that the lineage of papal succession was decided after the fact.
Inventing New Afterlife Destinations
As mentioned in my catalogue of world religion’s afterlife beliefs (see separate essay), Catholics have two dimensions Protestants do not: Purgatory and Limbo. My personal view is that all afterlife options as Christians understand them are based on the Bible in small part and based on tradition in large part. The Heaven and Hell of the Bible are probably not at all like the ones in the popular mindset. Purgatory and Limbo, meanwhile, are not mentioned in the Bible whatsoever. Granted, the reason they exist is a valid one. Those in Limbo would belong in Heaven or Hell and those in Purgatory should not go to one or the other unless there is a clear-cut deciding line. Yet, can we invent new things and call them real? Apparently if we are Catholic we can.
Furthermore, the Catholics believe that those in Purgatory can be moved into Heaven more quickly through prayer or by paying a tithe to the church. Yet, Paul repeatedly says our prayers or actions have no effect on the dead (Hebrews 9:27, 2 Corinthians 5:10, Romans 2:6, Ephesians 2:8-9). And Luke (16:19-31) states that after death, one cannot move from a place of punishment into a place of joy. So Purgatory (if viewed as a punishment) would have to be permanent.
Exclusion of Women
I think that religion should be open to men and women. Protestant churches are opening up to women, and Catholicism slowly is now, too (as a child I never saw an altar girl, but now I do). But there are no female priests, bishops, cardinals, or popes. Why? The tradition has men in power (and even God and Jesus are male). But is there something in the Bible that says men are greater than women in their connection to God? Can a man deliver a more meaningful homily than a woman? I do not deny people would be slow to adjust (even if they deny their bias, the majority of the world is more comfortable seeing men in power). But after the adjustment, would there be any solid complaints?
The treatment of women in the Church and religion is general is a vast topic, and I strongly encourage you to read “Religion and Sexism” (a collection of scholarly essays edited by Rosemary Radford Ruther) if you find this topic of interest.
At a Catholic service, much of what is done is a repetition of what the priest says or a pre-arranged response. The first few times you attend, you will have to learn these responses. But I do not think many people think of the meaning in the words they say (especially if repeating these lines since childhood). I can recall after years of this, I could repeat the lines in a droning fashion and I could just as easily have been saying made up gibberish. I did not hear my own words. While I still see this as a problem, I must confess this situation has improved. In the not too distant past, the mass was conducted in Latin. Latin has some advantages for a religion deep in tradition. But also, unless the congregation knows Latin (doubtful), they have even less of an idea what they’re saying than they do today. Shouldn’t words like “glory be to God” have some heartfelt backing in them and not just a hollow pronouncement?
I would like, for one Sunday, every member of that congregation to think about their responses. At least once in that hour each person should find at least one thing they say but do not understand. I suppose this is not only a problem with Catholicism, but the apathy of church-goers, as well.
Make no mistake with sexual abuse. If a priest does a criminal or sinful act, this does not make his religion wrong. If I assert that the earth is round and then kill someone, I am not suddenly wrong in my scientific knowledge because of my actions. Leaving the Catholic Church because of the actions of the clergy is a misguided idea — membership should be based on beliefs, and if your personal beliefs are those of the Catholics, stand firm.
This aside, the issue still needs to be addressed. I do not think a higher percentage of Catholic priests are molesters than the percentage of plumbers or funeral directors are. But two things: one, people in certain positions have a higher expectation placed upon them. And rightfully so. Priests are men of God, so when they fall, they fall hard. A higher standard should be used when hiring priests. I do not know how you would find someone to be a pedophile before they strike, but some sort of higher standard would be a start. These same restrictions should be applied to anyone in a public position around children (such as teachers or government-run daycare centers).
More importantly, the secrecy of the hierarchy must be unveiled. For bishops to cover up the allegations against priests is criminal. Covering up one crime is awful, but we have heard of bishops that have covered up priests accused numerous times who simply send them to a new church. This must stop. If bishops could be honest and brave enough to handle the problems rather than ignore them, some integrity might be restored to the Church. I doubt I would be in error to say the Church’s public relations are at an all-time low, due in large part to the pedophile scandal.
A note on celibacy: some people, including my colleague James Skemp, believe that celibacy is an underlying factor in the sexual abuse of the children. This belief is based on the idea that a lack of sexual gratification will lead to unnatural desires or actions. I disagree with this view. I see no connection between a desire for sexual gratification and molestation. Studies have found that viewing pornography does not lead to acts of rape. Furthermore, a stereotypical “geek” who lives with his mother all his life is not driven to abuse children or anyone else by his lack of sexual outlet. Lastly, many men (or women) with healthy sex lives still abuse or assault other people. Any correlation is more speculation than scientific.
A Further Note on Celibacy
While I am not outright opposed to priestly celibacy, I am also not outright opposed to priests having families. I think a solid examination of the facts and doctrines should be undertaken. The primary argument in favor of celibacy (as near as I can tell) is that this allows the priest more time to devote to God’s work. This may be true. But could we not also argue that other men with demanding jobs (doctors, lawyers, the President) are married and this apparently does not interfere with their work.
Saint Paul, in his second letter to the Corinthians, seems to encourage a life of celibacy and prefer one over the married life. However, he never condemns those who choose marriage — he finds this to be a perfectly suitable option (after all, God asks us to “be fruitful and multiply”). In fact, in other places, he praises the sanctity of marriage.
In his letter to the Hebrews, he states, “Marriage should be honored by all” (13:4). He tells Titus that elders ought to married and have children (1:5-6), and says essentially the same thing to Timothy (3:2). He later tells Timothy (4:3) that forbidding people to marry is a doctrine that can only be spread by “deceiving spirits” and “taught by demons.”
Another point is that priests are often asked to be therapists or counselors to a certain extent. Many people would not go to a marriage counselor who had never been married. Likewise, going to a priest for marriage advice seems equally as valuable. (The author has never been married, so can make no personal judgment as to which he would prefer.)
Original Sin and Baptism
I take issue with Catholic baptism for its being conducted at birth rather than later in life (such as the Baptists practice). A child is proclaimed Catholic without any decision on their own. We could brush this off as the same as parents choosing a child’s school, as they are acting in what they perceive to be the child’s best interest. But can a soul be anointed for God when that soul knows not what it desires? I am similarly opposed to Lutheran confirmation at age fourteen rather than Catholic confirmation around seventeen or eighteen. The teenager does not know what they belief, and having been through this process I can state firsthand only about five percent at most truly wished to be attending confirmation classes — the rest wanted their parents or grandparents happy.
The purpose of Catholic baptism shortly after birth is to remove the original sin. However, what is original sin? The Bible never speaks of this sin. In fact, there are clear indications that the Bible denies original sin altogether. We can read that sin cannot be transferred from one person to another or from father to son (Ezekiel 18:20, 2 Samuel 12:23, Matthew 18:10 and 19:14, Psalms 127:3-5). James, the brother of Jesus, states that sin is born only upon giving in to evil desires and temptations — of which newborn infants have none (1:13-15). Original sin is generally seen as the “sin” of copulation, either from the parents or from Adam and Eve. Yet, if the sin cannot be passed to the child, there can be no original sin in an infant.
If original sin does not exist, the only purpose of baptism is conversion to Catholicism by those who do not freely choose.
Marriage as an Induction of Non-Catholics
A primary goal of Catholicism (and many Christian sects) seems to be conversion. While there is nothing wrong with opening a person up to God or Jesus if they choose willingly, the Catholics do so in a devious and underhanded manner. I have already mentioned baptism of ignorant children.
Another way is by using love — God’s greatest gift to man – to make people convert who have no desire to be Catholic. When a Catholic and a non-Catholic get married, the non-Catholic must convert and the marriage must take place in a Catholic church to be valid. My own parents, a Catholic and a former Lutheran, were married in a Lutheran church. They were told to remarry in a Catholic church, or the marriage would be invalid and they would be living in sin. As instructed, they were remarried.
If a Catholic man’s wife has passed, and he wishes to marry a woman who is divorced, the woman must not only convert but have her prior marriage annulled. A bishop must rule the previous marriage non-existent, which raises some interesting questions when you have to account for living with one person twenty years and having children by them. The annulment is required whether or not the original marriage was in a Catholic church. I know of one woman who was married as a Baptist and her annulment process was a very invasive series of questions about her sexual history and all instances of abuse that may have occurred in the marriage. She had to relate what circumstances her and her prior spouse met under, and many other details that in this author’s opinion have no relevance to anything and should have remained personal memories.
A local trivia buff, who has asked to remain nameless, relates a similar story as what happened to my parents. He elaborates on another part of the pre-wedding paperwork, however. He was asked to have his children raised Catholic and to sign a paper stating this. He and his wife did not feel comfortable binding their unborn children to a faith and denying their mother’s heritage. The paperwork went unsigned and the couple was married in a Lutheran church, which means as stated above that they are sinners in the eyes of the Catholic church.
What sort of institution would place the beautiful act of marriage and love below the idea of conversion? Should it be more important to have a spouse who is a particular faith than one who is faithful? Following the words of Saint Paul, I do not see the conversion process as wholly necessary. His letter to the Corinthians (7:13-14) makes it clear an unbeliever may marry a believer without converting, because the children are still considered holy through one parent. So if the marriage is holy and the children are holy, should the conversion not be the individual’s choice rather than a forced act?
Confession through a Priest
I have never understood the sacrament of reconciliation — having to confess our trespasses through a priest. How does his listening to our sins and asking for arbitrary penance (two Our Fathers and three Hail Marys) accomplish anything? Why can we not simply ask God ourselves for forgiveness? What monopoly does the priesthood have on God’s ear? As near as I can tell, an honest confession is valid regardless of how you convey the message.
Others still in the Catholic faith have concerns with confession. Robert Capogreca II feels “confession is necessary only for mortal sins.” He further says that his “pastor does not seem to care much about the sacrament … When our church leaders start acting holy and less connected to the material world, then maybe the faithful will return to the church’s traditional ways.” He raises a valid point: I do not recall confession ever being stressed as an important sacrament. He also echoes my opinion that a priest is no more connected to God than the average man, so why confess to the mediator when you can go straight to the boss?
Tim Padgett reports on a Center for Applied Research on the Apostolate study at Georgetown University: in 2005, 42% of Catholics said they never go to confession and 14% went only once a year. So Robert Capogreca is not alone — Catholics as a whole are disillusioned with the idea of reconciliation (assuming that the numbers were once higher). Padgett tells of Franca Gargiulo, who says confession “lost its efficacy for me… It was too much a perfunctory exercise about church rules instead of Christ’s teachings.”
Ban on Contraception
Tim Padgett suggests their might even be link between decreased confessions and the ban on contraception. Since contraception is used pretty much by all Catholics, Padgett suggests confession is of less value because Catholics are knowingly living in sin all the time (by using birth control, as well as numerous other “minor” transgressions). I don’t know if Padgett is right in making this connection, but I do think — as most American Catholics do — that the ban on contraception is a mistake.
Pope Paul VI, in the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae (Of Human Life) reaffirmed the ban on contraception and it remains intact today. Although he wrote that marriages can have a sexual aspect that does not lead to having children, he says sex must “retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life”, and the “direct interruption of the generative process already begun” is forbidden. One wonders how sex can be pursued without the goal of having children, yet cannot be interrupted after it has begun.
The answer is the “rhythm method” — the idea that timing a woman’s cycle on a calendar can help predict when she will not be ovulating. This seems to do two things — make the avoidance of children unnecessarily risky and make the timing of the sexual act more mechanical and less spontaneous. Who wants to plan when romance and desire will be appropriate?
This all ignores the overall point, though: why should contraception be banned at all? The reason seems to be stemming from two key sources: the Biblical decree to “be fruitful and multiply” and the adoption of Aristotle’s Natural Law Theory (the idea that every thing has a natural purpose — sex being for procreation). But both of these reasons just seem deeply flawed.
In Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, he advises that if one is to be lustful, they ought better to be married than live in sin. This seems to suggest that marriage is an institution for sexual activity, not necessarily for the purpose of child-bearing. And Paul makes no point to say contraception is inherently wrong. The only point where the Bible suggests this is in the story of Onan (who performs coitus interruptus and spills his seed on the floor), and even then the point seems to be Onan was sinful for not carrying on the family line, not because of contraception.
As for Natural Law Theory, we can easily discard this when we realize many things have more than once possible or potential purpose. As sexual activity creates bonds between people and also happens to physically feel good, we could say it serves the purpose of bonding or physical pleasure as much as the purpose of producing children. Why should one purpose have more weight than another?
I am personally opposed to abortion, but even the strictest opponents will admit that exceptions exist… mothers who are raped or forced into incestuous relationships might be a good reason to have an abortion, and the best reason is if the mother’s life is directly threatened. The Catholic Church accepts no occurrence where abortion is acceptable, which seems to be a horrible mistake.
The Church is rightfully opposed to murder (one of the Ten Commandments). But they have supported “just war” and if a woman was being assaulted, shooting the attacker might be justified. While I happen to be a pacifist in most occasions, I recognize rare circumstances exist where bad behavior has good intentions. If the church can see things the way I do, why can they not see any exception for abortion?
What’s even more interesting is what happens when we compare theologian Thomas Aquinas with Paul VI (who condemned abortion along with contraception). This may be a surprise to most Catholics, but Catholics were not always officially opposed to abortion — this is a relatively new stance.
Thomas Aquinas considered only the abortion of an “animated” fetus as murder. If the fetus did not have a human shape, it had no soul and was thus not a murder. Unlike Catholics today, he did not believe that we were given souls at conception. And Pope Gregory XIV accepted what is known as the “quickening” test, which he determined happened 116 days into pregnancy (16½ weeks). This would make abortions carried out in the first trimester clearly acceptable under traditional Catholic law.
In 1312, the Council of Vienne confirmed Aquinas’ view of abortion, accepting the idea of “delayed hominization” — that man develops a vegetative soul, followed by an animal soul before developing a human soul (at which point abortion would be murder). According to ethicist James Rachels, despite subsequent decrees against abortion, delayed hominization has never been officially taken back. For Rachels, this creates a loophole — the Church can ban abortions, but at the same time officially accepts that fetuses are not always human — making abortion acceptable in the early part of pregnancy. Presumably, the Church would deny this loophole.
Abortion in the Bible even ranks below murder on the totem of sinful offenses. In the 21st chapter of Exodus, we learn the penalty for murder is death. The penalty for causing a woman to miscarry (essentially abortion)? A monetary fine.
Catholicism’s changing views on abortion do not mean they were right in the past and wrong now, but they do raise an interesting possibility — that abortions have not always been condemned and may someday be seen as acceptable again.
Abbott, Walter M. The Documents of Vatican II. America Press, 1966.
Capogreca, Robert II. “Infrequent Confessions,” Time. October 22, 2007.
Catechism of the Council of Trent. Tan Books and Publishers, 1982.
Jennings, Alvin. Traditions of Men Versus the Word of God. Bible Publications, 1973.
NIV Study Bible. Zondervan Publishing House, 1995.
Padgett, Tim. “The Unrepentant,” Time. October 8, 2007.
Panati, Charles. Sacred Origins of Profound Things. Penguin Books, 1996.
Rachels, James. The Elements of Moral Philosophy, Third Edition. McGraw-Hill, 1999.
Schreck, Alan. Catholic and Christian. Servant Publications, 1984.