My Journey Out of Catholicism
By David Dombrowski
Over the years, I have encountered many Christians who wonder, “What’s wrong with being Catholic? After all, they believe in the Cross; they believe Jesus is the Son of God. It can’t be all that bad.” If you are a Christian who has wondered about these things, this special testimonial report is for you.
I was born and raised as a Roman Catholic, so I am writing of things I know about and lived with for over thirty years. From my earliest childhood, I had a hunger and a thirst for God. I largely attribute this to my mother who instilled in me the love and reverence for God that she had. Born and raised in Poland, she grew up Catholic, but when she was about thirteen years old, while kneeling in a chapel alone, she invited Jesus Christ into her heart to be Lord of her life. Just prior to this, she had lost both of her parents to mushroom poisoning. Jesus filled a void in her life that carried her through many difficult years. Years later, she shared with me that this must have been her born-again experience, though in the Catholic church she had not heard of such terminology; altar calls and making decisions to receive Christ were totally alien to her experience.
The fact is that there has never been a place in the Catholic church for evangelistic crusades and personal decisions because every child raised Catholic is brought up with the belief that he is automatically “Christian” because he was baptized as an infant. In years past, many Anabaptists were burned at the stake because they recognized the fallacy and false assurance associated with infant baptism.
I guess I could accurately say that my mother had a personal relationship with the Lord, not because of Catholicism but in spite of it. As in her case, few Catholics even realize or understand what Catholicism really teaches and how the actual doctrines and teachings are polar opposites to biblical Christianity. Yes, the Catholic Church does teach morals, as do most religions, but when it comes to salvation, the actual teachings hinder and prevent the lost from finding The Way.
As a little boy, I had a very firm belief in God, and I knew that Jesus Christ is the Son of God who died on the Cross for my sins. I grew up as a religious boy, but my consciousness of sin and my sense of guilt never escaped me. As I grew to adolescence and then adulthood, the realization of my own sinfulness haunted me all the more. I can still remember one snowy night in winter in Portland, Oregon when I was nineteen; although it was nearly midnight, I decided to go for a walk. The moonlit snow enabled me to see my way clearly, and looking up at the stars that night somehow made me feel in touch with God. I still remember saying out loud to God at that moment, “God, I believe if I were to die tonight, I would go to Hell; and if that is going to change, you’re going to have to do something.” This was one of those rare moments where I was completely honest with God and addressed Him in a manner other than the rote, memorized prayer I was taught in the Catholic church.
I suppose if one thing can be said for Catholicism, it can help foster a sense of guilt in a practicing Catholic. My church life consisted of confessing my sins to a priest on a weekly basis, then receiving “absolution” only to come back the following week riddled with sin and guilt again. I think few Catholics and even fewer Protestants actually know or understand the Catholic way of “salvation,” yet it is still printed in the Baltimore Catechism that we are saved by our participation in the sacraments. Central to Catholicism, in fact its very focal point, is the sacrament of the Eucharist where it is believed that bread and wine are literally transformed into the body and blood of Jesus. The implications of this belief, although unbiblical, may seem innocent enough until one realizes that this practice is without question the very heart and core of the Catholic “gospel.” In other words, your participation of this sacrament is what saves you. The point is that your salvation depends on something you do. It gives you a temporary and false sense of assurance until you sin again. In fact, according to Catholic teaching, one can never be assured of one’s own salvation. To have such assurance is to be guilty of the sin of pride. And looking back on it now, such a conclusion makes perfect sense because if our salvation were based on our performance (i.e., participation in the sacraments), we would have something to boast about. So logically from that point of view, if we don’t acknowledge or recognize our salvation, at least in theory we can be humble about it. But Paul saw the error in all this fallacious thinking when he penned the words:
For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)
For the Catholic, the concept of salvation by grace through faith alone is nearly impossible to receive because rooted in the heart of man (and virtually all religions) is the idea that we must earn our way to heaven. Now that Catholics are beginning to read their Bibles, they will sometimes quote other Bible passages, especially from James, to prove that we are, after all, still saved by works. Little do they realize that James was trying to explain what biblical faith really is. It is not an intellectual ascent but a full trust and commitment to our Savior that expresses itself in the way we live. If James were trying to say that our good works justify us, he would not have used the story of Abraham, Isaac, and the altar to make his point. Surely, Abraham was a man of unusual faith, but he did not pretend that he could find salvation through his own goodness, nor was his attempt to sacrifice Isaac on the altar an expression of goodness but rather of his faith in God alone.
In my case, growing up as a Catholic, I had virtually no knowledge of the Scriptures because we were never encouraged to read the Bible on our own lest we should come up with our own interpretations. And here is the crux of the matter: Christians often make the mistake of thinking that because Catholics believe in Jesus and the Cross, everything is O.K. But the reality is that as a Catholic, I knew that Jesus had atoned for my sins on the Cross but that redemption was not freely available to me. In some way, I had to earn my right to the Cross. This belief of mine was rooted to the very core of my being from participating in thousands of Masses where Jesus is re-crucified for my sins again and again. This deep heart-felt belief of mine that fostered my ongoing guilt was unfortunately not misconstrued but one hundred percent Catholic and totally in line with Catholic teaching. Salvation was, therefore, something attainable but always uncertain and out of reach. It is no wonder that the highly acclaimed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who spent her life ministering sacrificially to the poor and sick in India, spent her final hours in serious doubts of her own salvation.
And every priest standeth daily ministering and offering oftentimes the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins: But this man, after he had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down on the right hand of God . . . For by one offering he hath perfected forever them that are sanctified. (Hebrews 10:11,12,14)
I was now twenty years old and had completed my second year of college. I had feared the Viet Nam draft because I heard they were now drafting college students into the military, but now that I was twenty, I felt secure that I need not fear the lottery any longer. But then, I received my draft notice in the summer of ‘72. I saw this as God’s judgment on me, but little did I know at the time that God was answering what I had said to Him on that starry night a few months earlier.
My time in the Army brought a drastic change to my life. It was the first time I was away from home. It also was my first experience in getting to know other people on a deeper level as I lived and worked with them. For the first time in my life, I met Christians who shared with me the Gospel. One of them even gave me a New Testament, which I did read as I had made the decision that I would use my time in the military to seek for and hopefully find God.
In contrast, having been sent to Germany, I witnessed the selfish and destructive lifestyle of most of the soldiers. In my unit, the majority of them got high on drugs at every opportunity. And drunkenness and prostitution was widespread too. But, I was known as the straight guy. In fact, I was so disgusted by what I saw happening around me that I determined not to have one taste of alcohol while I was there. Some of the soldiers mocked me, though I tried to be amiable and live at peace with them. I still remember one soldier blowing marijuana smoke in my face because I would not get high with them.
But all the while, I knew that my heart was unclean, and I saw in these soldiers a reflection of the dirt in my own life and knew that I was headed toward moral destruction. This made me all the more anxious to find the victory and peace I was witnessing in the lives of the Christians. It was at this very low point of my life that I realized again, like on that night beneath the stars, that without God’s intervention, my life would go to ruins. Up until now, I thought I had the power to change myself, but I now realized I was continuing on a spiritual decline. I picked up a Gospel tract that one of my sergeants had given me and found that salvation is within easy reach of anyone who will acknowledge his own sinfulness and inability to save himself. The hard part was getting to the place of recognizing my need of a Savior. And the Catholic gospel of justification by grace through works had hindered me from finding Christ for years.
I should caution you that if you were to approach the average practicing Catholic with this article, they would either tell you that I was mistaught Catholic doctrine as a youth or things have changed since Vatican II. However, the truth is literally staring us in the face when we realize that the Catholic priest performs an unbiblical ritual in the Eucharist, and Catholic doctrine still says that our participation in this is what saves us. In fact, if you were to take the Eucharist out of the Catholic Mass, you would no longer have the Mass. And if you took the Mass out of Catholicism, you would no longer have the Catholic church, and no priest can deny this.
Some may say, well perhaps the Catholic church is right about the doctrine of Transubstantiation. Maybe the communion wafer and the wine literally do become the body and blood of Jesus—under false appearances of course. But if this were true, then Jesus would necessarily have been lying to his disciples when He told them He had been using a figure of speech; rather than using the earthly term “flesh” in the literal sense, He used the term to express spiritual truth.
It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life. (John 6:63—Italics mine)
But let’s just suppose for a moment that Jesus had answered his disciples in another way when they began to murmur, “this is a hard saying; who can hear it?” Let’s just suppose Jesus answered their confusion by saying, “Oh yes, I really meant it literally. Eating my flesh is profitable and will give you spiritual life.” Given this scenario, would the Catholic church be right in the celebration of the Mass, where Christ is re-crucified daily on an altar? The answer is no because we would still be speaking of another gospel than the one each of the apostles preached. And this is the one key point I want to get across in this article: Our justification is by grace through faith alone, not by our participation in a ritual. Being born of the Spirit is what gives us life—eternal life. By the way, Nicodemus was also troubled when Jesus said to him, “Ye must be born again” (John 3:7). He could not understand how anyone could come out of his mother’s womb twice. Jesus was always speaking of spiritual things, using earthly terms and parables to express His meaning, but man, being carnal, always misunderstood His meaning, and so it is today.
My time in the service ended shortly after I read that tract and received the Lord in full trust to be my Savior. In fact, I found the Lord about two months before I left the service. God had wrought a miracle in my life in just two years, and I came out of the Army a new man—thanks to God, of course. God also opened my understanding of the Scriptures, but I did not know where to find fellowship. Then, I found out about Catholic charismatic meetings in my area. It seems that a goodly number of Catholics had found the Lord at the tail end of the Jesus movement, and these meetings provided a place for fellowship. I still remember a discussion we had as to whether or not we should leave the Catholic church. The consensus was that we should stay so as to be a light to those who are still lost. For this reason, I remained in the Catholic church for a number of years. Finally, as my life was more and more transformed by the Word of God, I realized that staying was not accomplishing my hope of being a light to Catholics, and the best witness I could provide was to leave. While I do not judge those who stayed for the benefit of the lost, I want to point out a serious fallacy in this thinking because the Catholic church is non-reformable. As I alluded to before, the sacrament of the Eucharist is another gospel, but to do away with it would be to do away with the whole structure of the Mass, and the Catholic church would then cease to exist. I feel very sorry for those believing Catholics who decided to stay; it must be very difficult for them and awkward for them not to feel like hypocrites.
At the tail end of my stay in the Catholic church, I joined an evangelical Christian community. From the day I found the Lord, I was always intrigued by Acts chapter 4, where the first Christians “were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things in common” (Acts 4:32). The whole idea of community seemed like a piece of heaven on earth. I joined the community with the determination to make it work, even if the task was difficult. And difficult it turned out to be. Oddly, when I became a Christian, I was soon identified by other believers as having a gift of discernment, but now in this community it seemed that the opposite became the rule for the day: if something bothered me, the leaders said it was because I was fighting against God. I remember testing out this attitude one day when our community took a few days vacation trip. Somehow, our vehicles got separated, and sitting across from the driver, I said in jest, “I think maybe we should turn left.” His immediate reply was, “Okay then, I’m going to turn right.” Although done in humor, this incident was a true reflection of the attitude the members of the community had toward me.
Then, the day came when some of the leaders announced that they were considering becoming Catholic—this was a decision they were making not just for themselves but for all of us. When I joined the community, it was non-denominational though its roots were in a Baptist church. It had begun as a recovery ministry for young people who had forsaken drugs and alcohol or just needed a place to live. The fact that these leaders were now entertaining thoughts about Catholicism came as a great disturbance to me, but not as a total surprise. I had witnessed over the years how some of the members seemed somewhat intrigued with the Catholic church and with Catholic mystics like Henri Nouwen and Thomas Merton. I remember one Christmas Eve when three of the women decided they were going to attend midnight Mass. I overheard them the next day talking about how enjoyable an experience it had been.
But the meeting where the leaders announced their move toward Catholicism was anything but enjoyable for me. It was like watching a mutiny in one of those old pirate movies but without the violence. The senior elder of the community strongly opposed our becoming Catholic by saying that it did not represent who we were. But there were too many others who had already decided they wanted to move in this direction. The senior elder was immediately removed from the community as a “discipline,” but as time proved itself, he never came back. The community very quickly spiraled into the web of Catholicism.
I remember the night a Catholic priest was invited to speak to the community about Catholicism. This priest was recognized as a leader in the renewal movement of the Pacific Northwest. On that night, he proclaimed a great number of things. Here are some of the key points he shared with us:
What is Ecumenism? The Protestants do not know what ecumenism actually means to the Catholic church. They think it means that the Protestants and Catholics can have fellowship together as co-equals. What it actually means is that the Protestants will eventually be reabsorbed into the Catholic church.
Protestant pastors have no power when they do a communion service. They only go through the motions but nothing really happens. Only the Catholic priest has the power and authority to perform a communion service.
Protestants are the lost brethren because they have rebelled against (forsaken) the one true church.
A good Muslim, a good Hindu, and a good Buddhist are saved. They have more hope of getting into heaven than the Protestants.
The Protestants have a false notion of evangelism. As I have just told you, people of other religions are already saved. But the Protestants need to return to the Catholic church.
Hearing these things that night helped me realize that the Catholic church, as an institution, is much worse than I had allowed myself to believe. Although hearing these things was not actually new to me, it did surprise me that a leader in a renewal movement, where Catholics and Protestants mingled together, had such a low regard for the Protestants and a whole different agenda.
And perhaps what was even more surprising was that these sincere Christians, whom I had loved, lived with, and worked with side by side for over six years did not challenge this priest with his heretical beliefs that night.
The community was moving full steam ahead toward becoming Catholic, but there were some practical issues that had to be dealt with. For example, the leaders of the community had made a covenant to stay together for life, but the senior elder was no longer with them. They brought this problem to this Catholic priest who had a ready answer. He told them that he had the God-given power to dissolve the covenant. He explained that becoming Catholic superseded anything else. Then there was the matter of what to do with me. They thought if they sent me to talk to this priest one-on-one, he could persuade me to return to the “mother church.” But when it became apparent that I was not turning back, I was told that I must leave.
Other things happened in that community. Things got really hot at times; there were fights between members. Eventually two marriages broke up where in both cases, the husband left the community, but the wife and children stayed behind to become Catholic. One of these husbands later confessed to me that when I was removed from the community he thought God was removing me because I was not a part of God’s special remnant. But after he was kicked out, he realized that what was once a loving Christian community had become a cult.
Not long after I was removed, the community became fully Catholic. They remain so today.
As I am writing these things, I am amazed to think how quickly the years have gone by. These events that seem like yesterday began over twenty-five years ago. And through all these years, I have never publically shared the story about the community. But there is a reason why I felt compelled to share it now. When the community was deciding to become Catholic, they were very excited because they felt that they were pioneers in going back to the mother church. They felt confident that many others would eventually follow their example. Today, I see that this is beginning to happen in large numbers. The community shared with some of their friends that they had grown spiritually as far as the Protestant church could take them, and if they were going to grow anymore, they would have to become Catholic. It is the same thing that is happening today. Many Protestant leaders are now standing up and proclaiming that we need to glean from the teachings and practices of the Catholic church. Particularly appealing to them is contemplative prayer or mysticism and the spiritual disciplines. There is no doubt in my mind that contemplative spirituality is a bridge, bringing Protestants “back” to the Catholic church. The emerging church movement is equally a bridge toward Catholicism, and the Purpose Driven movement has had a role in this as well.
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