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C is For Catholicism—An Evangelical Primer on Catholic Terminology
By Kevin Reeves
I remember well those hot pre-summer vacation days in Philadelphia, standing in formation with my classmates in the parking lot of the Catholic church/school to which I belonged, the sun baking my hatless head as we sang in unison the praises of Mary, the Mother of God. It was a yearly festival, this May Procession, and although we grade-school kids were supposedly there to honor Mary, we all knew that if we adhered close enough to the religious choreography, the parish priest looking on would cut that school day in half. And, if we were really sharp, he would give us off the whole next day. That was the real goal, and we knew it—for each to keep his place in formation, standing straight and uncomplaining, responding correctly to cues from the nuns. It usually paid off, though I clearly recall once being stiffed by the priest although we’d suffered admirably through the hot, endless ordeal.
I bring up the May Procession, not by way of mocking, but because it is indicative of the Catholic Church at large. The term “religious choreography” is aptly used, because it is descriptive of the rigidity of the faith and practice in which I was immersed for the first twenty-four years of my life. The church called the way we were to move, think, act, if we wanted to remain in good standing and possibly attain salvation.
It has been my experience that Roman Catholicism is basically composed of rules to be obeyed. The closer one adheres to said rules, it is taught, the holier one becomes. Though the Scriptures are utilized—albeit in conjunction with what Protestants believe are non-canonical books, like Maccabees and Tobit—they are never stand-alone but are always viewed through the lens of Catholic tradition and doctrine and take secondary place to that church’s form and structure. Catholicism teaches that one cannot be righteous apart from the Catholic system; salvation, as such, is not solely on the basis of the shed blood of Jesus Christ, but also on the basis of works—works which adhere to the Catholic formula. For all those years, I was taught, and believed, that it was the Catholic Church that saved me, not Jesus alone. And for all those years of faithful belief and practice, including twelve years of Catholic school, I never once heard the undiluted Gospel preached.
It was said with pride within my own family that we came from 200 years of Catholic tradition. Our spiritual forebears included poor Irish farmers, assorted rogues one step ahead of the law, fiddlers, and (I was told, anyway) an Irish archbishop, and with such an impressive, unbroken line of Catholicism, we were born into the fold. Until I drifted away from the Catholic Church at twenty-four, all my religious experience had been formed by that ancient tradition. I was raised among statues of Mary and the saints, scapulars, holy water, and blessed palm leaves, but I don’t recall ever seeing a Bible in the house. We really didn’t need one for the spiritual path we were on. The parish priest and nuns taught us all we needed to know to be good Catholics. Not good Christians, mind you. Good Catholics. I say without animosity that there was, and is, a huge difference, one which Catholics do not seem to understand.
For the past several decades, there has been a concerted effort by both the Catholic hierarchy and some leading evangelicals to join hands, forget the tumultuous past, and work together as brothers and sisters in Christ. Though it has always been a subtle thrust of the Vatican to draw back to its church those who consider themselves “Protestant,” now the move has gained such momentum that subtlety is no longer warranted. Today, so much Catholic tradition has inundated even mainline churches that the lines between truth and error are blurred, or worse, eradicated altogether.
Even many Bible-believing Christians love Saint Francis of Assisi, that gentle mendicant at whose beckoning wild animals would supposedly become tame. They have no idea that in real life he was a Catholic mystic, whose vision of Christ supposedly pierced his own hands, feet, and side with the visible, painful wounds of Christ’s crucifixion; they don’t know that Francis honored and held as holy his pope, Innocent III, who instituted the first serious persecution of those who deviated from Catholic tradition; they do not know of the many popes who had mistresses, sired illegitimate children, lived in luxury, ruled as emperors and yet whose word, spoken “from the chair” of Saint Peter was still considered by the faithful to be the very word of God.
When asked about the discrepancy, a Catholic may indeed admit to a checkered papal history, and at the same time confess that a reigning pope can and does speak infallibly, “from the chair.”
Many Christians who don’t recognize the danger infiltrating Christ’s church might well remark that because the pope and his emissaries don’t do those same things today, then we should forget the past, forgive, and move on, recognizing what is good in Catholicism and even incorporating some (or many) of its tenets and practices. I wonder if John Hus, William Tyndale, or scores of other good Christian men and women who gave their all to free multitudes from the religious bondage of Catholicism would think it appropriate to let bygones be bygones. Remember, for all the papal bluster about goodwill toward those outside Vatican purview, the Catholic Church is still basically the same as it was many hundreds of years ago. It has never renounced the Counter-Reformation, nor repented for the execution of men like Hus, nor repudiated its most dearly held doctrines like transubstantiation (the re-sacrifice of Christ on the Cross in every Mass) or the belief in Mary as mediator between Jesus and men.
Many of the following terms were pulled from my memory of long association with and participation in the Catholic Church. As a child I learned the Mass in Latin, competed for “holy cards” in Catholic school, revered both the priests and nuns, and, faithfully adhered to the system marked out for me from birth. Some outworking of Catholicism may have changed since my Catholic days, but the system, the doctrine, and the practices are essentially the same. I have also turned to the research and work of Roger Oakland, director of Understand the Times, International and his excellent book, Another Jesus?: The Eucharistic Christ and the New Evangelizations to confirm the meanings of the following terms.
As Christians who hold fast to the Scriptures and abide in Jesus, we need to love Catholics, while at the same time expose the errors of the religious system in which they are enmeshed. Only by speaking the truth in love and finding no place for compromise with error can we glorify the God who saved us through the shed blood of His only Son.
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)
Catholicism in Terms
Absolution: The forgiveness of one’s sins by a priest, who acts as a mediator between God and man. That the priest is the one who forgives sin is confirmed by the priest’s own words: “I absolve thee in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” As a teenager once, prior to confession, I asked a priest, “Father, can you forgive hatred?”
“I can forgive any sin, son,” he said with confidence in his authority.
This is in direct conflict with Scripture, which states in 1 Timothy 2:5 that “. . . there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.”
Ash Wednesday: Catholic holy day wherein a priest smudges the sign of the cross on the foreheads of the faithful with a semblance of the words, “dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return,” a warning of the short earthly life span of man. The faithful usually wear the ashes on their foreheads the entire day, in full view.
Assumption: The supposed heavenly taking up of the body of Mary into glory.1
Bleeding Host: A communion wafer that oozes blood and/or pulses like a heart.
Catechism: A book enumerating and explaining the teachings of the Catholic Church. It is given to potential converts and, historically, taught in Catholic schools to students.
Confession: The act of confessing one’s sins to a priest in order to obtain absolution. The priest acts as mediator between God and men, forgiving sins and prescribing what he considers an appropriate penance.
Confessional: The dark, boxlike structure where Catholics to go “confession” (see cover of this booklet). A screen is between the priest and the sinner so that neither can clearly see the other, for privacy’s sake.
Contemplative Prayer: Going beyond thought by the use of repeated prayer words or phrases. The religious chanting common in some monks’ orders qualifies as contemplative, since the phrases, intonation, and method used in the chant is designed to lift the practitioner from the earthly to the divine realm.
Counter-Reformation: The movement, exemplified by the Council of Trent, organized by the Catholic Church and meeting for years that codified Catholic belief in opposition to the Protestant reformers. The council essentially denied the simple truth of the Gospel in favor of longstanding Catholic tradition and Vatican interpretations, and placed an anathema (curse from God) on those in disagreement with its findings on such things as transubstantiation.
Crucifix: Cross on which a figure of Jesus still hangs. Central point of any Catholic church and affixed to the rosary chain, the crucifix reminds the worshipper of the suffering of Christ and His sacrifice for the salvation of souls. Praying while staring at the crucifix is common among Catholics, as the crucifix is used as a prayer assist.
Ecstasy: The ultimate goal of the Catholic mystic in his seeking of God, usually involving separate incidents over a lifetime of devotion. Manifestations accompanying ecstasy, such as visions, crying, rapture, trance, levitation, the receiving of the stigmata, etc., have been reported throughout history.
Eucharist: The sacrament of the partaking of the Communion wafer and wine consecrated by the priest during the Mass. Believed to impart special grace, because the recipient is said to be eating and drinking the actual body and blood of Christ. Also refers to the Communion elements themselves.
Eucharistic Christ: The actual, physical presence of Christ in the consecrated Host, which is to be worshipped by the faithful. It is important to remember that Catholics do not believe they worship a wafer; they believe they worship the Christ that appears in wafer form.
Eucharistic Miracle: Communion wafers that bleed, pulse like a heart, etc. Wine that turns miraculously into human blood. If reports are genuine, then these are actual supernatural occurrences, and completely at odds with the Scriptures, hence demonic in origin.2
Ex Cathedra: Literally, “From the Chair,” meaning the chair of Saint Peter, whom Catholics believe was the first pope of the Roman Church. When a pope speaks Ex Cathedra, his words are considered to be the very words of God.
Father: Official term of address for a priest, as he is seen as a mediator between God and men, the conduit through which the eucharistic transubstantiation is performed, and in matters of faith and practice the wise leader of a spiritual “family” (his parishioners). This is in direct violation of the commandment of Jesus in Matthew 23:9, wherein our Lord states, “And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, who is in heaven.”
Though Catholics downplay the importance of this distinction, to call anyone “father” in the official, spiritual sense indicates deference to his presumed spiritual standing, which is believed to be higher and more in tune with God. Implied in this term and image of the Catholic “father” is the idea of a God who is not directly approachable by the “laity,” or the everyday Catholic. Instead, the common people who come with petitions or confessions to God the Father approach through a complex spiritual protocol of Mary, the saints, the angels, and, of course, the family or parish priest. But the Scriptures tell us repeatedly that “. . . because ye are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father” (Galatians 4:6) and that we are to “come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16). By His death and resurrection, Christ Himself has torn the veil that separated us from God (Matthew 27:51) and removed the system that required a human high priest as intermediary. A priest, Catholic or otherwise, is no longer needed for the Christian to directly approach his Father God.
Genuflection: The act of bowing down on one knee before the altar, often in consort with a sign of the cross, in worship of the Jesus whom Catholics believe is physically present in the Host. The Host is kept in a special, ornate box behind the altar. The faithful Catholic, before leaving the church building, turns, faces the Host (the body of Jesus), and falls on one knee in worship of the Host he believes to be God. This is no less than idolatry.
Good Works: In the Catholic sense, necessary to maintain one’s salvation. Catholics will cite James 2:17 (“Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone”) to support their assertion. But James here is speaking of works showing that you already have faith in Christ, not that faith plus works equals salvation.
Hail Mary: A prayer of devotion to Mary, ending with the plea, “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”
Holy Water: Water blessed by the priest and normally kept in small water dishes near the inside entrance to a Catholic church. The faithful dips a finger or two in the water and makes the sign of the cross.
Host: From the Latin hostia, meaning “victim,” because Christ is supposedly sacrificed repeatedly, in every Mass. Physically, it is the Communion wafer consecrated by the priest. When lifted up at the high point of the Mass, and blessed by the priest, the Host is said to become the actual body of Christ. Likewise, the wine, when lifted up and consecrated during the Mass, is said to become the actual blood of Christ.
Immaculate Conception: The doctrine which declares that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was born without original sin in order to be the perfect vessel for the birth of the Son of God. The Scriptures say that only Jesus was born without sin, because He was God incarnate.
Indulgence: A pardon or shortening of the time that a soul is sentenced to purgatory, granted by an act of the pope. The selling of indulgences to raise monies for the building of a new church or add to the Vatican treasury, etc., was so widespread during the Middle Ages, that a ditty developed from the practice: “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs.”
Infallibility: A characteristic presumed of the pope when speaking officially on faith and doctrine. His words are considered inerrant, without flaw, as coming from God.
Lectio Divina: Means “sacred reading.” In today’s contemplative movement, it often involves taking a single word or small phrase from Scripture and repeating the words over and over again.
Lent: The forty-day period preceding the day the Lord’s resurrection is celebrated. During Lent, Catholics donate extra money, give up certain harmless pleasures, make a more serious commitment to the church, sacrifice for others, etc.
Limbo: The supposed state just short of heaven wherein reside those good souls who had not been baptized into the Roman Catholic Church. This includes babies stillborn or those who died before being baptized.
Lourdes: A famous grotto in France where the peasant girl Bernadette Soubirous supposedly witnessed multiple appearances of the Virgin Mary. The grotto later became a pilgrimage site for the sick and infirm, and many supernatural healings have been said to occur there.
Mary: The mother of Jesus in the Bible, called The Mother of God by Catholics. She is the object of adoration to the faithful who pray to her for mercy, forgiveness, or miracles. The faithful sometimes make vows to her, contrary to the admonition in Matthew 5:33-37 to utter no oaths at all. Also called the Blessed Mother, Blessed Virgin, Virgin Mary, Our Lady, and the Queen of Heaven. One common prayer of praise to her states, “Hail, Holy Queen, Mother of mercy, our life, our sweetness and our hope.” So much in this prayer usurps the authority of both Christ and the Father in the life of the true Christian. In 2 Corinthians 1:3, God, not Mary, is the one from whom mercy flows, He being called “the father of mercies and the God of all comfort.” In the above prayer to Mary, she is also called “our life,” but Colossians 3:4 states that “. . . when Christ, who is our life, shall appear . . .” Later in that same prayer to Mary, she is called the Catholic’s “advocate,” thus again usurping Christ’s position, as 1 John 2:1 calls Him, not Mary, the Christian’s advocate.
This image of Mary as a powerful go-between is so central to the Catholic faith that it is impossible to conceive of Catholicism without her in the position of adoration that she holds. It is of utmost importance to realize that the Bible says very little about the mother of Jesus. Catholic tradition is responsible for the Marian construct we see in operation today.
Marian Apparitions: Though not exclusively a Catholic term, it is used to denote supposed appearances of Mary in her glorified state. She is said to have appeared to individuals or groups of people in many locations throughout the world, including at Fatima, Portugal in the early part of the twentieth century.
Mass: A celebratory re-sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. This is a contradiction of the many Scriptures that declare Christ died only once, for all men, for all time, such as Hebrews 9:28, which states that “Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many.” He is never to be re-offered as a sacrifice for sin, such as is done in the Mass. His one sacrifice was sufficient.
May Procession: A spiritual celebration of the Catholic Church, which, in my time, was composed of schoolchildren in the Catholic school I attended, and directed by nuns and priests. Mary is honored as the Mother of God. One of the songs sung during the celebration is “Immaculate Mary.”
Mediatrix: Term applied to Mary, the Mother of Jesus, who is said to be a co-redeemer with Christ. In Catholic practice, Mary is often the mediator between men and Jesus, it being suggested that she is more merciful and that her Son in heaven would refuse her nothing.
Monstrance: The ornate, hand-held container that is used to display the Host. A priest raises the monstrance above his head and passes it before the congregation, allowing them to worship the supposed Jesus in the Host.
Mortal Sin: A sin that, if not repented of before death, condemns a soul to hell.
Mystic: In Catholic parlance, one who seeks complete union with God.
Mysticism: A direct experience with the supernatural realm outside scriptural boundaries.
New Evangelization Plan: A program by the Catholic Church designed to win the world to Christ (the Eucharistic christ), with the Eucharist as the focal point.3
Our Father: The Catholic term for the Lord’s Prayer. “Forgive us our debts” is usually substituted with “forgive us our trespasses.”
Pope: From the Latin papa. The supreme, spiritual head of the entire Roman Catholic Church on earth, considered the “vicar” of Christ.
Purgatory: Place of punishment wherein those who died with venial sins on their souls will be purged. Considered by some Catholics to be a place of fiery torment of unspecified but limited duration.
Penance: Good works, restitution, or a set of prayers to be prayed after a priest absolves sin. Failure to do penance when so ordered invalidates the absolution.
Relics: Anything once belonging to a deceased, sainted Catholic, including bones, articles of clothing, personal possessions, etc., that are considered imbued with supernatural power. Historically, the sale of relics was a booming business. Supposed pieces of the “true cross” and spots of “Christ’s blood” were once peddled in Europe.
Righteousness: The position of being in right standing with God through good works, prayers, and devotion to the teachings of the Catholic Church. Contrary to the use of the term in the Bible (2 Corinthians 5:21, Romans 3:28), righteousness in the Catholic system is not imputed and irrevocable, but rather maintained by following the Catholic protocol.
Rosary: A set of beads, ending in a crucifix, that is used with a particular pattern of fixed prayers, especially the Our Father and the Hail Mary. Primarily a devotional tool to Mary.
Saints: Devoted Catholic men and women, most notably mystics, who were canonized by the Catholic Church after a Vatican investigation has proven that two miracles occurred through or by their intervention. Catholic tradition ascribes to some saints rather fantastic characteristics, such as bi-location (being in two places at one time), levitation, or the stigmata.
Separated Brethren: Any Christian who is not a Catholic. Protestants.
Scapular: Small piece of consecrated cloth, with a picture of the Mother of God and/or the saint to whom it was first given. The scapular is designed to be worn about the neck as a symbol of consecration to Mary. Supposedly presented by Mary to Catholic Saint Simon Stock in the early medieval period, in the form of a monk’s habit. It was eventually cut down to its present form for use with common Catholics, with the promise that the faithful who die wearing the scapular will not be sent to hell.4
Sign of the Cross: Short ritual, using the hand to touch first the forehead, then the center of the chest, then the left side of the chest or shoulder, then the right. During the ritual some bow their heads, and some say, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.” The ritual is a symbol of worship and humility.
Statues: It would be difficult to overstate the importance of statues (those miniature or life-size representations of Mary, the Catholic saints, and Christ) in Catholic worship. In a church, or consecrated by a priest for private use, such statues are viewed as holy by “the faithful.” Catholics kneel before them, fix their eyes upon them while praying, and implore favors from those they represent. This practice is in direct violation of the Second Commandment, written in Exodus 20:4-5, which forbids the pagan practice of bowing before images in worship. Doing connotes idol worship.
In many churches, bouquets of fresh flowers are placed at the feet of a statue of Mary, by the faithful as evidence of their devotion to the Mother of God. Statues may also be attired according to month, holy day, or festival, such as those of Mary in certain Catholic nations, where the statue is crowned, dressed in fine garments and jewels, and paraded on a garlanded platform through the streets amid throngs of worshippers. In some churches, the statue of Mary, normally placed near or beside the altar rail, is shown with a serpent under her feet, indicating that she will tread down Satan. The Bible states that only Christ, not Mary, will crush the serpent’s head, since it is He alone who purchased salvation for believers at the cost of His own blood.
In the past century, miracles attributed to Catholic statues include mouths moving as if to speak, and blood or tears or milk flowing from the eyes. In view of the Scriptures, such bizarre manifestations can only be considered demonic.
Stigmata: Visible marks depicting the wounds of Jesus’ crucifixion, appearing on the hands, feet and side of certain mystics, such as Francis of Assisi.
Tabernacle: The ornate box on the altar containing the hosts.
Transubstantiation: The doctrine that asserts that during the Mass, the Host (the communion wafer) and the communion wine are transformed miraculously into the literal body and blood of Christ.
Venial Sin: A “smaller” sin, one that does not place the soul in eternal jeopardy. It is believed that a Catholic may die with venial sins on his soul, and, after a time of suffering in purgatory, be taken to heaven.
Visualization: Can be used as a springboard to mysticism, i.e., visualizing oneself walking with Jesus, talking with Him, sitting at His feet and listening to His teaching. This goes much farther than harmless imagining in that visualization is utilized to actually bring one into contact with God.
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2. Joan Carroll Cruz, Eucharistic Miracles: And Eucharistic Phenomena in the Lives of the Saints (Rockford, IL: Tan Books and Publishers, 1987), back cover; cited in Roger Oakland’s Another Jesus? (Eureka, MT: Lighthouse Trails Publishing, 2004), page 115.
3. Read chapter 6, “The New Evangelization” of Another Jesus? for more information.
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