The Visible Church

Though Protestants and Catholics have many points of disagreement, it seems the most fundamental area of conflict has to do with the nature of the Church. Is the Church a visible, physically identifiable reality with an institutional government that keeps guard over doctrine and discipline, or is it a kind of invisible, loose union of various communities of Christians with different opinions on doctrinal questions and no institutional reality beyond the local level? Both Protestants and Catholics acknowledge the Church has an invisible, supernatural element; Catholics, however, assert that in addition the Church has a physical, visible side - that it is physically identifiable on this earth. Protestants, following Luther, tend to view the Church as a fundamentally invisible reality. In this essay, we will examine the biblical passages that point to the Church as a physical, institutional reality in conformity with Catholic Tradition.

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Protestant Implications for Doctrine and Unity

In this article, I'd like to break from my normal genre and speak directly to our Protestant friends for a moment. Not about any particular point of dogma, but about the concept of dogma itself, and how this relates to the question of Christian unity. What, for a Protestant, is dogma? How do you Protestants define it? For a Catholic, a dogma is a teaching that has been revealed by God and must be believed with the assent of faith that is due to God, who cannot lie and whose teaching is sure - and what falls into this category is defined by the Church's Magisterium. But for a Protestant, what is dogma? And how does it relate to the concept of Christian unity?

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Virgin Mary Crucified?

In their attempts to discredit Catholic veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary and demonstrate that Mary takes the place of Jesus in Catholic piety, Protestants have sometimes made the assertion that different Catholic shrines around the world depict Mary as crucified for the sins of mankind, essentially sending the message that Mary, not Jesus, is the Savior of the world. This accusation appears in the popular evangelical book Fast Facts on False Teachings by Ron Carlson and Ed Decker (2003), where the authors speak of an altar in the Cathedral of Quito, Ecuador, that features an altar with a crucified statue of Mary above it. The same accusation is made in the video Catholicism: Crisis of Faith by Lumen Productions, an anti-Catholic video produced by disgruntled ex-Catholics. The implication is that Catholics believe they owe their salvation to Mary, not Jesus.

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Petra vs. Petros: The Silence of Luther and the Greeks

If petros and petra are such astonishingly different words in the Greek that upon their meaning hinges the validity of the papacy, why did neither Martin Luther nor the Greek Orthodox take notice of this fact in their disputes with the popes? Most educated Catholics are probably familiar with the argument raised by non-Catholics about Peter being called the "Rock" in Matthew 16 that is based upon drawing a distinction between the two Greek words petra and petros.

If you are not familiar with this argument, Google it and you'll come up with a lot of material on it from Protestant and Catholic apologists. I think it is a rather weak argument; Patrick Madrid has dealt with it admirably here. Catholic Answers has a helpful tract about the topic as well, and Steve Ray's book Upon This Rock uses a plethora of sources, including Protestant scholarship, to dismantle this common Protestant objection.

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The Pridefulness of Sola Scriptura

Besides the many arguments against the Protestant concept of Sola Scriptura from history, Scripture and logic, I think we could posit another fourth category of objections based on the subjective dispositions such a doctrine brings about in those who adhere to it. It is my contention that the Protestant doctrine of Sola Scriptura leads to a prideful disposition in the soul, which is forced by logical necessity to invest its own opinions with the authority of divine revelation. The Catholic teaching of an authoritative Church that hands on doctrine, however, leads the soul to humility and docility, for the doctrine is received as a gift given gratuitously. Let us examine this further.

Catholics and Protestants come at the truth through two different avenues. In Catholic theology, we look at the content of Divine Revelation and interpret it through the lens of our own tradition, which we hold to be authoritative. Thus, while certain questions are open for discussion, there are many others which we hold as "settled."
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St. James and St. Paul on "Works of the Law"

In any discussion with Protestants about how we are saved, the Catholic who insists on the reality of merit and the efficacy of good works done in grace will inevitably be countered by biblical passages that seem to indicate that our salvation is not contingent upon anything we do. What are the relevant biblical passages in this debate, and what is their true meaning? In James 2:24, St. James clearly says, “Man is justified by works and not by faith alone" (the only time the phrase "faith alone" appears in the Bible). For a Catholic, this could not be more clear. Yet Protestants will typically counter by turning to St. Paul's discussion of justification in Romans, specifically Romans 3:28, where St. Paul says precisely the opposite of St. James: "We hold that man is justified by faith apart from works of law." What is the solution here?

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