Foundations of Christianity: Questions for the Catholic Church

Some people think of the church as a place we go to worship. To others, the Church is a religious authority who instructs us on how to live by God’s laws. Yet, neither of these definitions accurately describe what makes Christ’s church truly different.

The Old Ways and the New Way

In the Old Testament, God’s commands passed to the people through Moses, chosen by God. God also designated Aaron as the first of the priesthood. From that point forward, priests taught God’s laws to the people and offered the necessary sacrifices. In the temple, a thick curtain separated the sacred place of God, The Most Holy Place, from the rest of the temple. On the Day of Atonement each year, the Chief Priest alone could enter to offer the atoning sacrifice for sins of the people. Under the old covenant, the people relied on the priests to facilitate their relationship with God. When corruption corruption entered the priesthood this became a problem. The people had gone astray, but God was planning something new.

See, I am doing a new thing!
    Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
    and streams in the wasteland.

Isaiah 43:19

By sending His Son, we were provided with a perfect High Priest that would never mislead us. Jesus began his ministry by teaching the meaning behind God’s law. When he offered himself as the final atoning sacrifice, he changed everything!

 And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. 

Matthew 27:50-51

Through his body and blood, Jesus established a new covenant of grace. This ended the dependence upon the priesthood. The tearing of the temple curtain was the removal of what separated us from God- our sin. Only Jesus can make us worthy to stand in our Father’s presence. Faith in Jesus frees us from dependency on religious leaders and doctrine by giving us direct access through the Holy Spirit. So why do practices of Catholic Church foster spiritual dependency? The answer to that question requires us to understand the history surrounding the Roman Catholic Church.

**A large amount of research was performed to gather this information. I included my references as hyperlinks to connect you with my sources if you would like to investigate further. **

Founding the Roman Catholic Church

Without a doubt, the Catholic Church holds great historical significance. This long history is what lend such credibility to Church traditions. Many people mistakenly assume the Catholic Church grew from the church formed by the apostles. The Catholic Church even claims Saint Peter was the first pope, instituted by Jesus himself. Neither is not historically accurate.

The Romans strongly opposed Christianity. Peter and Paul were both put to death by the Emperor Nero in 65 CE (click here). The Romans continued to persecute Christians heavily for over 200 years. The worst period of oppression resulted in a decree of death for any Christian who refused to sacrifice to the Roman gods (click here). The Christians refused to yield, despite the mounting persecution. This continued battle over faith took its toll by weakening the Roman Empire. In 313 CE, Emperor Constantine, issued the Edict of Milan which legalized Christianity and ended the persecution.

Christianity was directly influenced under Constantine. He became very involved in uniting and solidifying Christian doctrine, both summoning and presiding over the Council of Nicaea in 323 CE (click here). Constantine claimed conversion to Christianity, but he continued his pagan practices as well. The Roman Catholic Church, formalized under Constantine, became state sponsored entity. He initiated construction of new churches and the Church also began to accumulate wealth.

Changes in Worship

Changes were also made to worship practices that violated scriptural commands.

You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.

Exodus 20:4

Worship practices became more elaborate and incorporated the use of icons. Both of these were features of Roman paganism. Constantine also established a date for the celebration of a new Holy day.

  • Christian icons are permitted (323 CE); Images are allowed in worship (375 CE); No church is to be consecrated without relics (787 CE)
  • The date of December 25 is chosen for Christmas, coinciding with established pagan festivals honoring the gods Saturn and Mithra (336 CE) click here

The Romans have a history of re-appropriating religions. Many of Rome’s pagan gods were renamed equivalents of Greek of Egyptian gods. Re-packaging pagan traditions as Christian traditions made it easier for pagan subjects to accept conversion. In 380 CE, Emperor Theodosius recognized Christianity as the official religion of the Empire. He outlawed pagan practices in 391 CE, with severe punishments for violators including death (click here). This may account for why veneration of Mary and the Saints developed around this time period (click here).

  • Practice of praying to Mary and the Saints begins with prayers written by Ephrem the Syrian in the 4th century.

The cult following of the Egyptian goddess Isis was so large that it posed a threat to developing Christianity. Isis had many names of reverence, but among them were names like “Mother of God” and the “Queen of Heaven” (click here). As you can see, Saint Ephrem reused some of these names for the Virgin Mary in many of his prayers.

O Virgin most pure, wholly unspotted, O Mary, Mother of God, Queen of the universe, you are above all saints, the hope of the elect and the joy of all the blessed…

Prayer to Mary, Mother of Compassion- Saint Ephrem

Christians destroyed the temple of Isis (click here) in Alexandria. New chapels to the Virgin Mary were built purposely on the remains of Isis temples (click here). These prayers laid the foundation in which the goddess-like image of Mary grew. The Church later incorporated these ideas as official doctrine. (click here)

  • Divine Motherhood dogma declares Mary is the “Mother of God” or Theotokos (Council of Ephesus- 430 CE) click here
  • Perpetual virginity of Mary is declared stating she remained ever-virgin (Council of Lateran-649 CE)
  • Immaculate Conception of Mary dogma states “that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege from Almighty God and in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, was kept free of every stain of original sin.” – Pius IX, December 8, 1854
  • Assumption of Mary dogma states “Mary, Immaculate Mother of God ever Virgin, after finishing the course of her life on earth, was taken up in body and soul to heavenly glory.” – Pius XII, November 1, 1950

There is no scriptural basis for this dogma (unquestionably true doctrine). Rather, it was declared that they were “divinely revealed.”

  • Pope Leo XIII is the first pope to officially refer to Mary as co-redemptrix (Lucunda Semper, 1894)

For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people.

1 Timothy 2:5

Likewise, patron saints assumed the role of Roman deities by answering prayers or providing protection for a variety of professions, interests, hobbies, and activities. (click here)

Access to Scripture

Originally, the apostles wrote their letters in Greek. As a well-known and accessible language, it gave their message a further reach. However, the language of the Roman Empire was Latin. As Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire, it also became the language of the Catholic Church.

  • St. Jerome translates the Bible from Greek into Latin creating the Vulgate. Only priests are permitted to read scripture. (430 CE) Mass was also conducted in Latin.

Not long after this occurred, the Roman Empire began to fragment. In 476 CE, Germanic tribes began conquering Latin speaking territories. The blending of these people created new hybrid languages. Latin was no longer a spoken language. By the 6th century, writing became less common as schools slowly vanished in all but a few Italian towns (click here). Few people outside the clergy understood Latin, but it remained the official language of the Church. Priests recited Mass in Latin with their backs turned, without any interaction with the congregation (click here). The understanding of Christianity was limited for a great number of Christians.

The “Dark Ages” of Christianity

Little history was recorded in Europe between 476 C.E. and 1000 C.E. There was significant illiteracy, and no educational opportunities outside of the clergy. This caused most people to be guided by the abundance of superstition (click here). The influx of Germanic tribes with differing customs slowed the process of Christianization. Many people still practiced ‘folk magic’ and held to the beliefs of their ancestors even while observing Christian rites and rituals (click here). 

The belief in fairies, sprites, and ghosts was so deeply embedded that many parish priests allowed members of their congregations to continue practices of appeasement. Rituals involving certain incantations and spells, eating or displaying certain types of vegetables, performing certain acts or wearing a certain type of charm – all pagan practices with a long history – continued to be observed alongside going to Church, veneration of the saints, Christian prayer, confession, and acts of contrition. This environment was ripe for the introduction of Purgatory, which blossomed during this period.

  • Pope Gregory I introduces and popularizes Purgatory. Main topics of his writing include miracles, relics, and saints. (590-604 CE)
  • Pope Gregory composed the list of seven deadly sins sometime before he died in 605 CE, and Saint Thomas Aquinas popularized this idea in his writing (click here).

Since the people knew little of scripture, the message delivered by the clergy went mostly unchallenged. Interestingly, it was members of the clergy who began to question Church tradition. These challenges were not well received.

  • First recorded occurrence of burning of humans for the crime of heresy (1022 CE) click here
  • Practice of oral confession of sins to priests is instituted along with the creation of an Inquisition to investigate heresy and turn guilty parties over to courts for prosecution. (Council at Lateran IV led by Pope Innocent III 1215 CE )
  • Possession of Old or New Testament books is prohibited for laity (non-clergy). Possession of any translation of these books is heretical. (Decree of Toulouse- 1229 CE)

The Authority of the Pope

But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ.

Matthew 23:8-10

Leo I successfully argued the supremacy of the Bishop of Rome over the entire Catholic Church with the theory of Petrine Supremacy. It asserts the supremacy of Peter among the apostles who established the church in Rome. Leo I argued that since Peter was the first Bishop of Rome and the “rock” the Church was built on, this power also applied to all of his successors (click here).

Leo I (who was himself the Bishop of Rome) was the first to be officially elevated to the title of Pontifex Maximus and the “Holy See”, or seat of Peter, was established. Important to note, the title Pontifex Maximus was also the highest office in the former pagan religion of the Roman republic. The Pontifex was not simply a priest, but held both political and religious authority. This title later became one of the many used to describe Roman emperors (click here). By granting this new supreme power, little room was left dissent.

“To believe that our Lord God the Pope has not the power to decree as he is decreed, is to be deemed heretical.” 

“Extravagantes” of Pope John XXII Cum inter, Tit. XIV, Cap. IV (1316 CE)
  • Pope Clement VI justifies the papal power to issue indulgences (1343 CE). Indulgences decrease the amount time spent being punished in purgatory for venial sins that occur after absolution.
  • Pope Eugene IV reaffirms “papal primacy” at the council of Florence establishing that an ecumenical (Church) council is not superior to the pope. (1438-1443 CE) click here
  • Pope Pius II prohibits appealing a papal judgment to future general councils (1460 CE). click here
  • Pope Leo X encourages Christians to pay money for indulgences to finance St. Peter’s Basillica and raise money for another crusade. (1515 CE) click here

“The Pope and God are the same, so he has all power in Heaven and earth.”

Pope Pius V (1566 -1572 AD)
  • Doctrine of Papal infallibility  becomes dogma (declared unquestionably true). The Pope is declared to have “full and supreme power of jurisdiction over the whole Church” and the Pope is declared infallible when speaking “ex cathedra“, or with the full authority of his office. (Council at Vatican I 1869-1870 CE) click here

They profess to know God, but they deny him by their works. They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work.

Titus 1:16

Unwilling to Change

There were several attempts to reform Church practices from within by clergy. These reformers argued for equal access to scripture and objected to doctrine like grace through merit and use of indulgences. Their objections were attempts to correct the Church, not to diverge from it. Small corruptions early on led to gross errors over time. Further unscriptural practices continued to grow from a faulty foundation of tradition. This was an opportunity for the Church to really re-evaluate their practices and course correct. However, the Church quickly showed it was not interested in dissent.

  • John Wycliff leads an early reform effort by writing publications that challenged Church practices. He was censured by Pope Gregory XI in 1377 CE. He wrote a translation of the Bible from Latin to English in 1382 CE. (click here)
  • Jan Hus is excommunicated at the Council of Constance for teaching that the Bible was a higher authority than the Pope (1414 CE). He is burned at the stake for heresy in 1415 CE. (click here)
  • John Wycliffe is condemned as a heretic, after his death, by the Council of Constance (1415 CE). His remains were exhumed, burned, and then scattered into the River Swift. (click here)
  • William Tyndale is strangled and burned at the stake for his translation of the Bible from original Hebrew and Greek into English (1536 CE) click here
  • Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses in disagreement with Church practices including the sale of indulgences. Pope Leo X decrees Luther’s ideas heretical (1520 CE). Luther is excommunicated for not recanting (1521 CE) and is forced into hiding. Emperor Charles V orders Luther’s writings to be burned. click here

Why does not the pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build the basilica of St. Peter with his own money rather than with the money of poor believers?

Martin Luther, 95 Theses

By answer to the criticisms of reformers, the Church held the Council of Trent (1545-1563 CE). At this council, all doctrine in question was reaffirmed (click here). In reference to any dissent, each canon concludes with the statement, “Let him be anathema,” meaning “cursed,” excommunicated from the Church, and doomed to hell. A summary of the content is contained in the Creed of Pope Pius IV:

  • God’s grace is available through the good works which humans can perform, including participation in the Church’s sacraments of baptism and penance
  • Old Testament deuterocanonical books (works of unknown authenticity or unknown authorship) are considered equivalent to authentic books of the Bible. These books are not accepted by the Jewish religion as scripture.
  • Declared that Church tradition must be accepted on faith, in the same way of Scripture.
  • The Vulgate translation to remain the only accepted text of Scripture. Mass will be conducted exclusively in Latin.
  • The ‘born again’ experience offered by the Church through the sacraments is required for salvation.
  • Re-affirmed that all seven sacraments were “instituted by Jesus Christ”.
  • Doctrines of purgatory, the invocation of saints and the veneration of relics were reaffirmed.
  • Reaffirmed the efficacy of indulgences as dispensed by the Church, according to the power given her.
  • Decision to establish a Forbidden book list (Index Librorum Prohibitorum) containing mainly protestant works.
  • Forbid all unauthorized interpretation of scripture, under pain of ex-communication, reserving this to the Pope alone.  (Benedictus Deus Pope Pius IV, 1564 CE)

Scripture is how we come to know our God. Because scripture is the Divine revelation of God, the ancient Jewish community emphasized learning the Scripture from an early age . In fact, their dedication to education made them one of the most literate communities of the time (click here). It was through interpretation of scripture that the apostles shared the fulfillment of messianic prophecy in Jesus Christ. Access to scripture had never been restricted until the rise of the Roman Catholic Church. Why wasn’t literacy and knowledge of scripture encouraged like it was in the Jewish community? Scripture allows us to access the words of our Savior, and his words lead to salvation. To remain obedient to God we must hold tightly to the words of Jesus. We can’t blindly accept tradition as truth.

We are the Church

I write these things to you about those who are trying to deceive you. But the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and you have no need that anyone should teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about everything, and is true, and is no lie—just as it has taught you, abide in him.

1 John 2:26-27

We are no longer reliant on religious leaders to lead us to God or interpret scripture for us. Jesus is our High Priest. He intercedes on our behalf and teaches us the way to life. The Holy Spirit is our Helper who guides our understanding of scripture, for those with a sincere desire to know God’s truth. We can choose to ask our church leaders for guidance or clarification, but there is no one with supreme knowledge of scripture. We may confess our sins to a church leader for accountability and support, but confession is between us and God. Jesus is the only one we need to intercede on our behalf. Sacraments are spiritual nourishment that connect us spiritually with God, but they are not a means to earn grace.

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God,

Ephesians 2:8

Scripture tells us that we can’t do anything to earn grace, it is an unmerited gift. We are made right with God through faith, not by performing good works. We could never do enough good works to deserve God’s grace. Rather, we desire to do good works as a demonstration of our faith. When we show love for others God’s light to shines through us and witnesses to his goodness.

Jesus instructed the disciples on performing baptism and observing communion in remembrance of his sacrifice, but they were never meant as criteria for salvation.

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.

Matthew 28:19

The unbaptized are never condemned by Jesus as unredeemable. Instead, when our hearts are changed by Jesus we desire baptism as a physical sign of our spiritual cleansing. Purified we can receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”

Acts 2:38-39

Likewise, when Jesus shared the bread and wine with his disciples it was not to fulfill a requirement for grace. He established this practice for the remembrance of his sacrifice through the generation. We enter into the new covenant through faith in Christ’s sacrifice for the forgiveness of our sin. Communion is a spiritual blessing that allows us to commune with our Savior as we remember his sacrifice.

Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”

Matthew 26:26-29

When we give our life to Christ we become members of his church. This is not a Church built on rules and tradition. It is a church built on Jesus and founded in love. Scripture is the guide that ensures we build upon the solid foundation of our Savior alone.

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