“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.”
—Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen
Misconceptions and misperceptions die hard. They may start innocently enough, but with enough repetition—especially by well-meaning and otherwise trustworthy people—and they take on the heft and force of actual facts.
In the case of the Catholic Church, some of these mistaken notions have had centuries to brew and rattle around in the echo chamber of history from generation to generation, reappearing again and again to challenge the witness of faithful Catholics in the modern age. Here are a few of them, with suggestions as to how they might be answered:isconceptions and misperceptions die hard. They may start innocently enough, but with enough repetition—especially by well-meaning and otherwise trustworthy people—and they take on the heft and force of actual facts.
- Catholics aren’t really Christians. Catholics actually were the very first Christians, since the faith was passed down directly from Jesus through the apostles and their successors. The early fathers of the Church established confession, infant baptism, the offices of bishop and the papacy and other traditions which were observed by Christians for centuries and continue to form the foundations of belief and practice in the modern Church. Also, it was the Catholic Church that ultimately determined which books would be included in the Bible.
- Catholics are discouraged from reading the Bible. This idea gained traction because in the distant past, before books were widely printed and distributed, rare, expensive, hand-written and illuminated Bibles were locked away in churches and not available to most people. This was done not to restrict access—although that was the result—but to prevent the Bibles from being stolen. In fact, the very first Bible was produced by the Church, as was the first printed Bible—turned out by the Catholic inventor of movable type, Johannes Gutenberg. The first Bible with chapters and numbered verses was produced by a Catholic: Stephen Langton, the Cardinal Archbishop of Canterbury.
- Catholics worship Mary and the saints and idolize their images. Catholics do indeed pray to Mary and the saints, but not as a form of worship. Rather, the faithful ask Mary and the saints to pray for them and to intercede with God on their behalf. While saint are considered to be “heroes” of Catholic tradition and partners on Catholics’ spiritual journey, the faithful do not worship or adore the saints—not even the Blessed Mother—but rather venerate and honor them. As for the claim that Catholics are worshiping “graven images” by praying before statues and other artistic representations in church, Catholics use the representations to bring to mind the person or thing that is depicted as a catalyst to contemplation and prayer, not direct worship of the image—much like a photograph of a friend will bring to mind memories of that friend.
- Catholics believe the pope is infallible in all things. Pope Francis neatly debunked this early in his papacy when he was asked to describe himself. He was, he said, “a sinner whom the lord has looked upon.” Papal infallibility as a doctrine was defined by the First Vatican Council in 1870. The council declared that the pope was preserved from the possibility of error “when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church.” This is known as speaking ex cathedra, or from the seat of Peter. The only time since the declaration of infallibility in 1870 that a pope actually has spoken ex cathedra was when Pope Pius XII defined the Assumption of Mary as an article of faith in 1950. Meanwhile, popes continue to make typographical errors, dial wrong numbers and forget to put out the cat.
- The Catholic Church is opposed to science and rejects the theory of evolution. While in its earlier history the Church often had a contentious relationship with scientific discovery that was in conflict with traditional teachings—Galileo’s discovery of heliocentricity, for example—in the modern age the Church has been unusually supportive of scientific research and exploration, maintaining such offices as the Vatican Observatory and the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, where the membership rolls include dozens of Nobel laureates. A few Catholic scientists and their discoveries: Rene Descartes, who discovered analytic geometry and the laws of refraction; Blaise Pascal, the inventor of the adding machine, hydraulic press and the mathematical theory of probabilities; the Augustinian priest Gregor Mendel, who founded modern genetics; Louis Pasteur, founder of microbiology; Nicolaus Copernicus, who first theorized that the earth rotated around the sun. George Lemaitre, a Belgian physicist and priest, proposed the “Big Bang” theory. Several European cathedrals were designed to also serve as sophisticated observatories. As for evolution, Pope Francis, in a speech to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, said, “The Big Bang, which today we hold to be the origin of the world, does not contradict the intervention of the diving creator but, rather, requires it. Evolution in nature is not inconsistent with the notion of creation, because evolution requires the creation of beings that evolve.”
- Non-Catholics cannot go to heaven. Vatican II dealt with this subject extensively. The council’s Decree on Ecumenism, the Declaration on Religious Freedom, and the landmark Declaration on Relations of the Church with Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate) all put to rest the question of salvation. Pope Francis also addressed this subject, to great effect. Speaking on Vatican Radio, he said, “The Lord created us in his image and likeness, and we are the image of the Lord, and he does good and all of us have this commandment at heart, do good and do not do evil. All of us. ‘But, Father, this is not Catholic! He cannot do good.’ Yes, he can… The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the blood of Christ, all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone! We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.”