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Religious Misconceptions about the Catholic Church

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By Matthew Sewell

When I think of religious misconceptions and the Catholic Church, I legitimately have to stifle a laugh as I think to myself, “Where do I even start?”

It’s almost as sure a thing as death and taxes, in my experience, that misconceptions abound about the Catholic Church — what she believes, the ramifications of her members behaving badly, whether or not her teachings are outdated. One could look anywhere and find them.

A quote from the late Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen has always said it best for me:

“There are not one hundred people in the United States who hate The Catholic Church, but there are millions who hate what they wrongly perceive the Catholic Church to be.”

It’s a very intriguing statement, when you think about it, and I believe it’s profoundly true.

There should be no doubt that the Catholic Church is a tour de force in our world, and has been for centuries. For better or for worse, everyone who’s been to a university, been treated in a modern hospital, or lived virtually anywhere in the world has been affected, directly or indirectly, by Catholicism.

One example is Pope Francis’ visit to the United States last September; for those days, the American public was treated to the “most positive news week I have ever seen,” as one writer put it.

But two questions still remain: Why should I care? And how can the good things matter when so much bad has been done by the Church over the centuries?

To address the latter first, it’s a good question, and one that deserves a real answer. For most things — like the Inquisition, Galileo, or the Crusades — the true answer is simply a matter of history (click the links for more). Suffice it to say, when it comes to those common objections to the Church, it’s by-and-large a simple case of misinformation.

For the other bad things — like the priest sex abuse scandal, or abuses during Reformation times by certain misleading indulgence preachers — no excuse can be made for such immoral behavior, especially from someone acting from a position of trust and authority. One victim of such a thing is one victim too many. And furthermore, as St. Paul writes in his beautiful discourse on the Body of Christ, “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it,” (1 Cor. 12:26).

But we must keep in mind, just as a bad schoolteacher doesn’t make the profession of teaching invalid, the same holds true that one bad priest doesn’t condemn the entire office of the priesthood or the Church as a whole. We must understand that the Church is greater than any one person.

Which brings us to the final question: Why should I care?

Well, I can’t tell you why you should care. All I can offer is why I do. I care because I’ve found Catholic Christianity to be the fullest expression of the Christian life possible.

I care because Jesus Christ actually lived and claimed to be God, then lived up to the promise. I care because I believe Jesus not only died and rose for me, but that he loved me enough to leave me with a Church, protected by the Holy Spirit, who I could follow to lead me to Him.

I care because I know I can’t offer myself salvation, and that when Jesus said “My flesh is true food,” he meant it.

I care because the 2016 Catholic Church has been one and the same since the very beginning, boasting saints like Ignatius of Antioch (110 AD) who said:

“Where the bishop is to be seen, there let all his people be; just as, wherever Jesus Christ is present, there is the Catholic Church” (Letter to the Smyrneans 8:2)

Or like St. Cyprian of Carthage (253 AD), who said:

“Peter speaks there, on whom the Church was to be built, teaching and showing in the name of the Church, that although a rebellious and arrogant multitude of those who will not hear or obey may depart, yet the Church does not depart from Christ; and they are the Church who are a people united to the priest, and the flock which adheres to its pastor.” (Letters 66)

The Catholic Church isn’t just an institution. It isn’t just a charitable organization. Rather, it’s the vessel through which we encounter the Creator in an intimate, personal, and real way. That’s all.

Come and see.

Join SpokaneFAVS for a Coffee Talk forum on “Religious Misconceptions” at 10 a.m., Feb. 6 at Revel 77, 3223 E 57th Ave. Sewell is a panelist.

Matthew Sewell

About Matthew Sewell

Matthew Sewell, a Denver Broncos fan and amateur Chestertonian, loves golf, music, truth and good food. A lifelong Catholic, he graduated from a Catholic college (Carroll College; Helena, Mont.) but experienced a "re-version" to the faith during graduate studies at a state school (N. Arizona; Flagstaff, Ariz.). Irony is also one of his favorite things. He and his wife currently reside in Spokane, though they're Montanans at heart. He blogs at mtncatholic.com.

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  • Admir Rasic

    Matt,

    I am wondering if you have non-Catholic and non-biased sources when talking about the Inquisition, Crusades, or Galileo. I found that nearly all of your sources came from Catholic websites. There is a concern that this information is biased. I also find it very troubling that your source on the Crusades states, “From its beginnings, Islam has been a violent and imperialistic movement” and “Christians and Jews were considered to be barely above the status of slaves in Islamic society.” There are no sources listed to back up these aggressive claims. I believe that they are incorrect.

    More importantly, to me it looks like the writer is trying to get on the Islamophobia bandwagon and blame Muslims for the “necessity” of the Crusades. He is setting up an argument that the lands were conquered by Muslims first, so the Crusades are justified and necessary in order to counter Islam’s “violent and imperialistic movement.” As a matter of fact, I had a hard time finding any sources cited for any of the claims that are made in the links that you have included. I would urge you to consider using various sources when doing research in the future.

    • Matthew Sewell

      Hi Admir – thanks for reading, and for your comments!

      First, how is it fair to automatically disqualify a source because the writer happens to be Catholic, or because an article itself is housed on a Catholic website? In fact, I know the authors of these articles to be very fair to the topic — Steve Weidenkopf, for example, does not shy away from describing bad deeds done on the part of Crusaders, but he also spells out the accurate and historical reasons for those wars.

      I also only included some starter articles that I found helpful as an overview, in the interest of time and space in this post. However, here are a couple additional ones on the Crusades, both of which include mentions of good material for further reading:
      http://www.firstthings.com/article/2005/06/crusaders-and-historians (First Things is an interfaith publication)
      http://www.crisismagazine.com/2011/the-real-history-of-the-crusades (Written by the same author)
      – Steve Weidenkopf also has a full-length book, found here: http://www.amazon.com/Glory-Crusades-Steve-Weidenkopf/dp/1941663001/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1454531037&sr=8-1&keywords=steve+weidenkopf

      It is a historical fact, however, that Islam, by and large, used force in order to spread. It may well be the case now that the majority of Muslims aren’t violent in nature or tendency, and that’s a great thing. Crusaders, in vast majority, had to sell nearly all of their possessions in order to fund themselves going to war, and only went in order to defend their Christian brethren who had been conquered (most, I would add, who had been conquered for many decades before any action was taken).

      • Admir Rasic

        Again, if you are going to include sources, those sources should state where they are getting their information from. Stating that “Christians and Jews were considered to be barely above the status of slaves in Islamic society” should come with proof. Likewise, your statement that “Islam by and large used force in order to spread” should come with some facts if you are claiming that it is a fact rather than your own opinion. Otherwise, you are engaging in the exact same type of ignorance and fear spreading that leads to hate crimes against Muslims. I also think it is somewhat hypocritical to paint Crusaders as honorable warriors defending Christianity but Muslims as bloodthirsty imperialists for doing the same thing.

        Additionally, I am not defending Muslim empires. I have a fair amount of criticism of past empires and current Muslim-majority countries. This discussion is about Catholicism and the Crusades. I am interested in different opinions about the Crusades, but the arguments you and your sources have presented are about blaming Muslims for the Crusades or arguing for their valiance instead of (perhaps) rationalizing them with a new perspective.

        For example, I have heard that the Crusades were more about economics than religion. That is an interest perspective that is not an apologetic approach to history.

        • Neal Schindler

          Didn’t the Crusades take a considerable toll on the Jews as well?

          • Matthew Sewell

            From my understanding, Neal, they definitely did. Many times it was right alongside Christians that Jews were persecuted and oppressed. The one exception (sadly, and as far as I know) was the Fourth(?) Crusade, where a Christian army, after having overextended itself and basically gone into debt with an anti-Jewish state (the name is escaping me), was forced to pay their debt by sacking Constantinople and committing violence against the Jewish people, among others. (Again, I’d encourage verifying that yourself, but I think that’s the gist of it)

  • Matt, daring little article indeed! It’s interesting that in seeking to bring understanding, which is meant to bring people closer in some way, you present an ecclesiastical line in the sand. Join the Priest you “rebellious and arrogant” defector is in the same contentious corner as and the Jihadist’s cry of: “Kill the Infidel!”.

    • Matthew Sewell

      Yikes! Is that how it came off? I definitely didn’t intend it that way, if so. Where did you find the “rebellious and arrogant” quote? Also, I guess I’m a little perplexed at which part indicated an ecclesiastical line in the sand?

      • “Where the bishop is to be seen, there let all his people be; just as, wherever Jesus Christ is present, there is the Catholic Church” (Letter to the Smyrneans 8:2)

        Or like St. Cyprian of Carthage (253 AD), who said:

        “Peter speaks there, on whom the Church was to be built, teaching and showing in the name of the Church, that although a rebellious and arrogant multitude of those who will not hear or obey may depart, yet the Church does not depart from Christ; and they are the Church who are a people united to the priest, and the flock which adheres to its pastor.” (Letters 66)

        “…a rebellious and arrogant multitude…”

        Did I read that wrong? To me that reads as a line in the sand. I’m not trying to be contentious on this issue but I was a little surprised. Not that you are not entitled to that view based on the position of the Church. I am not asking you to back down on it if that’s what you think is true.

        • Matthew Sewell

          Aha, missed that one – thanks! I think the line does read as a line in the sand, but perhaps not in the way you’re thinking — at the very least not in the way our modern sensibilities would incline us to believe. Now, we have tens of thousands of Christian denominations, many of which have been around for decades, if not centuries. In reality, most adherents to those were born into that belief system, or have come to a belief in that particular system through every intentional faculty they possess. So, even if (hypothetically) the Catholic Church did possess the fullness of the truth and is the fullest expression of the Christian life, that’s no stain on the souls of most adherents to other faiths.

          However, back then, there were instances like that of the Heraclius, for example. After renouncing his Christian faith in order to save his own life during Roman persecution in the early 4th Century, Heraclius and his friends were asked to do proper penance by Pope St. Eusebius and those in the clergy who had remained faithful despite persecution before they could be let back into the fold. It’s a precursor to what we now know as the sacrament of Confession — a proper repentance of one’s sin before being accepted back into communion with the Lord. Heraclius, though, took HUGE issue with this, even stooping to incite violence because he didn’t want to do penance for the monumental sin of sacrificing to pagan gods and renouncing Jesus Christ. This attitude, to put it concisely, could definitely be described as “rebellious and arrogant”.

          So, I guess it is a line in the sand, but that line in the sand has different ramifications now compared to what it did 1800 years ago. Now, I would say that adhering to the truth as far as one knows it is that line in the sand — it’s objectively wrong to go against what one knows to be true, and it’s even sinful when it has to do with what the Lord asks of us — and I think that’s all St. Cyprian was saying.

          I hope that clarifies!

          • It does, thanks for the historical clarification, but why did you use it in your article?

  • I’m surprised the historicity of violent Islamic jihadist expansion but one not need look into the crusades of the past era to see the violent reality of many countries and regions on this planet right now. Christian persecution watchdog group Open Doors, releasing its annual list of countries where Christians face the greatest persecution, has found that 2015 was the worst year in modern history in this regard. Before that, 2014 had held that distinction. More than 7,000 Christians were killed for their faith between Nov. 1, 2014, and Oct. 31, 2015.

    Though North Korea was listed as No. 1 on the World Watch List, making it the greatest persecutor of Christians in the world for the 14th consecutive year, the other countries in the top 20 are mostly Muslim. Iraq is #2, followed by Eritrea, Afghanistan, Syria, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan, Iran, Libya and Yemen. In Nigeria (#12), the Boko Haram terrorist group murdered more Christians in 2015 than any other terrorist group. The “Palestinian Territories” are listed at #24 – persecuting Christians at a higher rate than countries such as Tunisia, China, Algeria, Kuwait, and Colombia.

    https://www.vomcanada.com/download/prayermap.pdf

  • Kimberly Burnham,PhD

    Matt I agree with Admir. It feels like you are perpetuating stereotypes in an effort to justify violence on the part of the Catholic Church. At the end of the article you seem to be saying we should all care because Catholicism is the one true way, which doesn’t really sit well with me as a member of an interfaith community here on SpokaneFAVs.

  • Neal Schindler

    I have trouble with the “one bad apple doesn’t spoil the bunch” idea of the priest sex abuse scandal because the remedy seems to have two parts: 1) Remove the offenders, and 2) Change the structural/institutional components of the faith tradition, as it exists today, in order to minimize chances of recurrence. My sense is that if the Church has been working on the former, it still gets criticized for not doing the latter enough, not even focusing on it enough. If teaching were set up in a way, as a profession, that made it relatively easy for abuse to occur, then not only the “bad apples” would need to be removed but the orchard, as it were, would need to be reconfigured and maybe some of the trees cut down and replanted. Systemic problems need to be addressed; “isolated incidents” have accumulated to the point where it’s doubtful the Church just had really awful luck over and over again with individual priests.

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