There are a number of common arguments I’ve heard Protestants make against Catholics – or more precisely against the beliefs of the Catholic Church. There are certainly more arguments out there than what I’m writing about here. There are many reasoned debates to be had about the details of scripture and what exactly is meant by various revelations. But to be clear, most of the common arguments against Catholicism are the ones that the majority of folks are hearing. Most folks aren’t getting into deep debate about the phrasing of certain commandments, or the context in which they were written. Rather, most folks are hearing these common arguments. So let’s address them.
For this article I’m going to try and purposely not dig deeply into the subject in a way which will be boring, but rather to bring clear refutations of each argument in bite sized chunks so that they can be reasoned about without having to dive into the subject to far. Please note there is more beyond what it is I’m going to write here that you’re of course very welcome to research if you have the time! But I think that many folks often don’t, so let’s keep it light today.
“Catholics worship Mary”
This is arguably the most common one you’ll hear. It’s also exceptionally easy to defeat. Catholics do not worship Mary for one simple reason, they all express that they don’t worship Mary. Worship is a decision, and if Catholics say they don’t worship Mary that must be true! Catholics do not hold Mary to be God, or to be the origin of the divine nature of God (even when she is referred to as the ‘mother of God’).
To deny that Mary is the ‘mother of God’ or ‘bearer of God’ is to deny that Jesus (who Mary bore) was divine. This is a classic heresy called ‘Arianism’ and those who deny that Mary had a special place as the earthly mother of the divine Christ play with that same ancient heresy.
Now Catholics do believe in the idea that Mary should be revered for her special place in salvation history. God chose her personally to carry out this task, and set her apart from the rest of humanity for it. Mary is the only person in the Bible that an angel of God ever greets by hailing her (a very clear sign of the favor God gives her). Protestants will argue that the reverence shown to Mary is excessive, but then flip right around and show ‘reverence’ to their favorite musical artists, sportsball players, etc.
Mary is held in high esteem, she is not considered to be God, and is not worshiped as God.
“Catholics worship the Saints”
The refutation of this argument is almost identical to the refutation of the above claim that Catholics worship Mary. For Catholics to worship the saints they would have to choose to place the saints above (or on par with) God. This is not what is chosen. The saints are not considered to be anything more than the members of the church known to be in heaven. We are all called to be saints, and the belief is that many Catholics are in heaven who are simply not known for certain to be there.
The confusion arises in that Protestants think of ‘prayer’ as being exactly the same as ‘worship.’ But this is not the case. Catholics pray to the saints only to ask that they will also pray to God on behalf of them. This is called ‘intercessory prayer’ and it is an idea for which support can be found in both tradition and scripture. It is not worship, and it doesn’t expect the saints to play the part of God and swoop in themselves to help us. The hope is that the saints who are closer than we are to God will cry to him on our behalf, and through them and through Christ he will hear us.
Protestants do believe that Jesus is the intercessory priest between humanity and the father. Yet Protestants do not struggle with the idea that they should ask for prayers from the living members of their church. For some reason this is though to no longer be acceptable when the saints have moved on from this world to the next? There are passages in the Bible that show clearly the saints in heaven are able to see and hear us, they are not resting in the ground, we should ask them for their prayers all the same as we ask our friends today.
“Catholics worship idols”
This one is a bit extreme of a view. It is honestly really clear that Catholics do not worship idols. As opposed to some churches which keep their liturgy very plain the Catholic Church holds a strong liturgical tradition. But this liturgical tradition, to include things like sculptures, stained glass, grand cathedrals, etc… only seek to reinforce the reality of the stories passed by tradition and through the scriptures. They’re more similar to modern Protestant movies or ‘picture Bibles’ than you might think.
Especially here, please note that the importance of the liturgy was far greater in the past than it might be today. The lack of literacy in ancient and medieval Europe meant that often it was through these visual representations that the people were able to learn the stories in the Bible and see them more clearly and with greater impact. Not every home was able to afford a Bible, and most couldn’t have read it anyway. They heard the sacred scriptures read to them by the priest during mass, and saw the liturgical elements of the mass as a window from their senses to the divine.
“Catholics hid the Bible”
Following from the above discussion on the liturgy, we jump into another common refrain. Some will argue that the Catholic Church hid the Bible, or otherwise limited access to it for nefarious purposes. Often this is an argument used to imply that the Church wanted control and so used the access to the scriptures which we now all enjoy, as a method of gaining power.
This is simply wrong. The church wished for all to have access to the scriptures, and clearly this is shown in the reading of the sacred scriptures during the mass. The readings were done there for the benefit of all, not for the benefit of just some special few (as is often the claim). Not many people were able to read in those days, so it wasn’t that Bibles weren’t handed out to maintain the power of the church, folks simply couldn’t make use of them until literacy improved. When it did, the Bible became more available. Today (and please note this argument doesn’t claim that church today limits access to the Bible. It’s just a form of slander about the history of the church) the Catholic church thinks all should have a Bible in their home.
You’ll sometimes hear about the Catholics ‘chaining the Bible to rocks’ or ‘locking it away’. Some of these stories are certainly true, but completely misunderstood. A Bible back in those days took months if not years to copy. Remember this is before the printing press. The entire Bible had to be copied by hand. So they were worth a tremendous amount of money. You didn’t have to be literate in order to steal the Bible from the local priest, and sell it for enough money to buy a new house. So to make sure that all had access to the scriptures, the Bible was carefully guarded. If it hadn’t been, it would have simply disappeared.
“The Catholics added books to the Bible”
This is honestly a really funny argument. It’s funny because the Catholic Church in communion with the Orthodox – are the origin of ‘the Bible.’ Back in the early church, in the years immediately after Jesus life, death, and resurrection; there was no ‘Bible.’ The early Christians were actually just a branch of Judaism, and used various Jewish texts. Eventually, more distinctly Christian texts emerged, and around the 4-5th Century the biblical canon was worked out as being a set of those texts which were floating around that all the available churches could agree on.
During the Protestant reformation, the Bible was re-canonized to remove some of the books of the old testament that modern (at the time) Jewish scholars debated the importance of. Those books had previously been considered part of the Jewish ‘canon’ at the time the Bible was created, but fell out of favor because of the fact they were written in Greek (during a time of Greek occupation of the holy land).
In an attempt to be more modern, the reformers changed the Bible from what it had always been, into something new. Yet today the argument is made that the Catholics added books… no, the Protestants removed some.
“Catholics combined Christianity with Roman Mythology”
The early Christian Church grew in the Roman empire. It grew in opposition to pagan beliefs, and though it started out small, it eventually overtook Rome. Today, the old seat of the Roman empire is known for the Church more than for the empire. It was under a converted Roman emperor Constantine that the Christians were given legal status. The claim is then made by many Protestants that the differences between their expression of faith in Christ, and that of the Catholics is defined by a supposed ‘pagan’ things incorporated into Catholicism to appease the Romans.
This could not be more wrong. The claim is that things like prayer to Mary were developed at this time, but the truth is that evidence exists of these types of Catholic traditions back to the very earliest good records of the church. There is no sign that Christians changed anything at all about their religion – the one they had been dying for over the course of centuries – simply because they became ‘legal.’
In fact, it is very clear that quite the opposite is true. The reformation took place over a thousand years later, in the context of the era of ‘enlightenment’ in which the world was rapidly changing. Ideas about the nature of man, and the order of the state were being replaced – the old feudal systems on the way out, ideas of individual autonomy and government on the way in. How strange it is to note that this same ‘enlightenment’ appears to have played out in the doctrinal changes the reformation induced. For example, the idea that no magisterium (church leaders) are needed. That every person should simply govern their own religious life in communion with Christ appears at this time.
The earliest known forms of Christianity look a lot like the Catholic Church today, while Protestant churches look more like a religious form of the European Enlightenment.
“Communion is just Bread”
As with the above, the beliefs of the Enlightenment turned protestants into increasingly more materialist persons who reject the Bible’s claims when they don’t “make sense”. Catholics believe that what Jesus said is true, that this bread and wine are exactly as he says his flesh and blood. Protestants can’t fathom how this might work, and so assume that the very God of the universe must have been speaking metaphorically.
But careful examination of the text shows that this would not appear to be the case. Note two things (and go research more if you’re curious):
- When pressed on the ‘literal’ nature of this – Jesus stands firm (John 6)
- Jesus is the Paschal offering – the Paschal offering must be literally eaten as part of the ritual
Catholics don’t necessarily believe that you need to look at the Eucharist and see flesh under a microscope (though such miracles have occurred, please see: http://www.miracolieucaristici.org/en/liste/list.html). But rather believe that in all essential manner, the very God of the universe can choose to make himself literally present in the bread as if it is his flesh – body, blood, soul, and divinity.
The issue at the end of the day here, is one of faith. If you believe Jesus was the divine son of God. Then you believe what he says is true. When he told Lazarus to come out, what he spoke was made true. When he spoke to the sea and commanded it be calm, it was made true. When he said he was the bread and wine, it is made true.
“Catholics ‘earn’ their way to Heaven”
The explanation for how God’s grace is offered to us is a big conversation. This is called “justification” and we’re going to mostly avoid actually going into the details here, because most of what this complaint is about isn’t actually focused on justification. Rather, this complaint is made with respect to the penance Catholics do to work their way towards holiness, with the goal of avoiding purgatory.
When you sin, Jesus can forgive your sin. But even if you are forgiven the consequences of that sin may still remain in your life, and on your mind. For example, you could be forgiven through God’s grace for a crime you committed out of anger. But that anger may still remain part of your personhood. Certainly we all know imperfect Christians, all on their way to sainthood.
Catholics believe that the goal is not just to be forgiven, but to become holy in their person, to seek, speak, and do holy things. Some people suffer on this planet, and in this lifetime, and so are made holy through that suffering, ready to enter the gift of eternal life in heaven immediately upon their death. Others need additional work in holiness after death and so are purified before they may step into the perfection of heaven. These folks are forgiven all along, and hell does not await them. But they may yet still need purification.
Penance on earth can help stave off the need for purification after death. This penance does not earn one a spot in heaven. It is designed to help the person grow in holiness to prepare them to join the heavenly host at their reserved seat.
I hope this was helpful and interesting. I intend to make a part II of this series when I have the time. I know there are a lot more questions folks might have, and I know there are some common arguments I still haven’t touched on here. Definitely please do research these topics more if you’re interested. I’ve alluded to some of the additional background information for a number of the above, without explicitly mentioning it (for example, noting that something is covered in sacred scripture without quoting where exactly in the scriptures). There’s a lot of nuance to some of these questions. On the surface a lot of these arguments make sense if accepted uncritically. For example, from a protestant perspective the Catholics simply have more books in their Bible. But if you know the history, you know that it was the Protestants that removed books… The context, and nuance, shows how these arguments all fall flat.