A questioner once asked me: Is it so bad that
a Catholic becomes a biblical fundamentalist? Wouldn't a fundamentalist
still believe in many basic doctrines of the Christian faith
and have a solid moral code? The answer is yes, but biblical
fundamentalism, despite what it can preserve, really distorts
the challenge of Jesus Christ. It provides an absolute certainty
based on a belief that every word in the Bible really has been
dictated by God and one needs only hold to the literal meaning.
It does not recognize that every word in the Bible, even though
inspired by God, has been written by human beings who had limitations.
The message of the Incarnation is that there is
no way to avoid the interplay of the divine and the human in
approaching God. Biblical literalism, since it makes all divine,
supplies a false certitude that often unconsciously confuses
the human limitation with the divine message. A literalist interpretation
destroys the very nature of the Bible as a human expression
of divine revelation.
One must understand that only human beings speak
words. Therefore the very valid description of the Bible as
"God's word" has both the divine element ("God's") and the human
Some 'don'ts' and 'do's'
Those familiar with what works and what doesn't
work in responding to fundamentalist challenges have come up
with the following bits of wisdom.
Don't waste time arguing over individual biblical
texts with fundamentalists. The question is a much larger one
of an overall view of religion, of Christianity and of the nature
of the Bible.
Don't attack fundamentalists as if they were fools.
Often biblical literalism is an attitude of self-defense even
on the part of extremely intelligent people. They want to preserve
their faith in God, and this seems to them the only way. They
will understand your attacks on them as an attack on their faith.
Indeed, were you to be successful in convincing an intelligent
biblical fundamentalist that the position is wrong, you might
be surprised to find that the former fundamentalist does not
become a more moderate Christian but an atheist.
Some fundamentalists are very well informed about
biblical technicalities, such as languages. There are occasionally
evangelists who know a lot more about the Bible than the average
Catholic priest or mainline Protestant minister.
Don't be sure that your standard arguments against
fundamentalism will work. Biblical fundamentalists have developed
careful defenses against the contrary arguments that they have
encountered. For instance, if you triumphantly point to the
fossil argument supporting evolution, you may be surprised to
find a fundamentalist who maintains that God created the world
with fossils already in it and that therefore such fossils tell
us nothing about the antiquity of the world.
An important "do" is to present the Bible in an
intelligent, nonliteralist way. There is no use moaning about
the number of fundamentalist media preachers if we have no one
in the media presenting the Bible in a sensible, nonliteral
manner based on modern biblical approaches, and not simply using
the text as a jumping-off point for a pietistic homily. When
fundamentalists are the only ones to offer people knowledge
about the Bible, people will go to fundamentalists. A very solid,
scholarly approach to the Bible can be spiritually nourishing
and mentally satisfying. Catholics must encourage that in the
One might object that on the Catholic scene there
is a shortage of priests and that some priests are not good
expositors of the Bible. Then one must capitalize on the real
interest among the laity who should be tapped and professionally
prepared for this service. If as a Church we recognize this
as a major problem, then we should mobilize our forces in order
to supply intelligent biblical leadership among Catholics.
Effective teaching of the Bible is not a challenge
that affects Roman Catholics alone, and so there is no reason
why the mainline Protestant Churches and Roman Catholics cannot
join in a common effort to present the Bible intelligently in
the media. Some of the Protestant Churches have developed excellent
textbooks for reading the Bible.
The fear of loss of Roman Catholic doctrine if
we cooperate with Protestants in such biblical exposition is
largely exaggerated. Indeed, if such cooperation were sponsored
by various Church leaders, I think they would all recognize
that the essential issue is to communicate a basic, intelligent
approach to the Bible. It would respect Christian doctrine on
which we all agree.
Ten challenges and responses
Often Roman Catholics become a bit tongue-tied
when the teachings of their faith are challenged by biblical
fundamentalists. Many Catholics are very articulate in explaining
the doctrines of their faiththe Mass, the sacraments,
the papacy, Mary and the saintsin the words and phrases
remembered from their catechism. But nothing in their training
equips them to handle the objections that such beliefs are nonbiblical.
Their first reaction to a fundamentalist probing may be to respond
in terms of Church teachinga response that confirms the
fundamentalist in the opinion that Catholic beliefs are totally
foreign to the Bible. It might help if Catholics were able to
speak about these issues in biblical language that fundamentalists
Consequently, I have written out 10 responses
to 10 challenges often raised by fundamentalists against Catholic
positions. I have tried to formulate these responses so that
they present the Catholic positions in terms of biblical
Obviously, there may be more than one way to phrase
the Catholic responses from a biblical perspective. I think
my wordings, which I have tested on friends, are accurate: but
I don't pretend that they exhaust the full meaning of Catholic
faith on the subjects discussed. I am treating only aspects
of those subjects that are of most concern to biblical fundamentalists.
I have tried to put the 10 challenges in everyday
languagejust the way you might hear them in a conversation
with a Christian fundamentalist at your front door or during
a lunch break at work. The challenges are in the form of questions
reflecting how fundamentalists understand Catholic positions
that bother them.
1. Why don't Catholics see the Scriptures
as containing the fullness of God's revelation instead of always
running to the teaching authority of the Catholic Church for God's
The Roman Catholic Church considers
itself a biblical Church in the sense that it acknowledges and
proclaims the Bible to be God's word. In the teachings of Moses
and the prophets, and in the teachings of Jesus proclaimed by
the apostles, to which the Scriptures bear witness, the
Catholic Church confesses that God has revealed himself to humankind
in a unique way. It acknowledges the sufficiency of the revelation
witnessed by the Bible in the sense that no new revealer or no
new special revelations are necessary for men and women to find
the will of God and the grace of salvation.
If great attention has been given to
the teaching of the ongoing Church in Roman Catholicism, that
teaching is not presented in terms of a new revelation but as
the result of the Church's continuing task to proclaim the biblical
revelation in light of new problems in new generations. In carrying
on that task, the Church regards itself as the instrument of the
Paraclete-Spirit promised by Christ which would take what he had
given and guide Christians along the way of truth in subsequent
times (John 16:13).
2. The Bible teaches us that we
are saved through faith in Jesus Christ, our sole mediator. Why
do Catholics contradict this by teaching that people can be saved
through good works or by praying to the saints?
The Catholic Church proclaims to its
people that, just as the Bible indicates, justification and redemption
come through the grace given by God because of the death and resurrection
of Jesus. Human beings cannot earn redemption or salvation. Neither
is it won through good works. Good works are done through God's
grace in response to God's redemptive work in Christ. Accordingly,
Christ is the unique mediator between God and human beings.
Roman Catholicism has recognized the
intercession of the saints. That is part of its understanding
of the biblical injunction that we must pray for one another.
The "we" includes not only believers on earth, but those who have
gone before us as saints in God's presence in heaven. Such intercession
is useful and salutary but in no way necessary in the sense in
which the mediation of Jesus Christ is necessary. Any intercession
on the part of the saints must be accepted by God and joined to
the supreme intercession of the one high priest Jesus Christ.
There is no other name by which we may be saved, as Acts 4:12
3. Why don't Catholics recognize
we are saved through a personal relationship to Jesus Christ,
not through membership in a Church?
While the Catholic Church proclaims
the all-sufficiency of the redemptive death and resurrection of
Jesus Christ, it acknowledges that Christians must respond in
faith and commitment to Christ so that God's redemptive grace
may transform them as children of God. Therefore, encountering
Christ and believing in him in a personal way is very much a part
of Roman Catholic thought.
Jesus Christ redeemed a peoplethat
is why we belong to a Churchand one becomes part of that
people by adhesion to Christ.
Baptism of infants, which makes them
part of the Christian family of God, in no way is meant to substitute
for the later personal decision that is intrinsically a Christian
demand. In the wholeness of Christian faith, Baptism and personal
commitment must accompany each other.
4. Why do Catholic priests repeat
what you call "the Sacrifice of the Mass" instead of recognizing
that Christ died once and for all and that his death can be the
only Christian sacrifice?
Following the New Testament injunction
of Jesus, "Do this in memory of me," the Catholic Church in its
liturgy regularly breaks the bread which is the Body of Christ
and offers the cup which is the communion in his Blood. It accepts
fully the teaching of the Epistle to the Hebrews that the sacrifice
of Jesus Christ on the cross is once and for all. There is no
need for other sacrifices.
The liturgy of the Last Supper, which
we call the Mass, is a sacrifice in the sense that it makes present
again for Christians of different times and places the possibility
of participating in the Body and Blood of Christ in commemoration
of him, proclaiming the death of the Lord until he comes. The
Mass is in no way a separate sacrifice from the sacrifice of the
cross. It is not a new sacrifice replacing the sacrifice of the
cross or adding to it as if the sacrifice were insufficient. Jesus,
the Catholic Church holds, is the one high priest of the new covenant.
Catholics refer to our clergy as priests.
That terminology recognizes that when a Christian, designated
by ordination, presides at the Eucharist, which recalls the death
of the Lord until he comes, that person represents Jesus the high
priest and not merely the community. Our doctrine of the Mass
as representing the one priestly sacrifice of Jesus is, in our
judgment, fully biblical.
5. Why do Catholics go to the Church
and its sacraments as the source of grace rather than to the Savior
Christ saves Christians in and through
the Church. The Church, which is the Body of Christ for which
he gave himself (Ephesians 5:23, 25), has great dignity and importance;
but the Church itself does not save people. We believe that Christ
is operative in the sacraments of the Church and that it is Christ
who gives the grace that touches lives. The Catholic teaching
that the sacraments work ex opere operato (that is, through the
sacramental action grace is conferred) never should be understood
to mean that the sacrament of itself, independently of Christ,
is effective. That formula is meant to say that the efficacy of
the sacraments is not dependent on the clergyperson or administrator
of the sacrament. Rather, for those who are disposed to receive
his grace, Christ is operative in the sacrament.
6. Why do Catholics say that the
pope is the head of the Church when Scripture says that Christ
is the head?
Catholics believe that Jesus Christ
is the head of the body which is the Church. No human can take
his place, dispensing with his headship. The pope has no authority
independent of Christ or in rivalry with him. Even as the New
Testament speaks of overseers or bishops guiding individual churches,
the pope is an overseer through whom Christ supplies guidance
to the whole Church, keeping it in the truth of the gospel.
7. Why do Catholics look on Mary
as divine or more-than-human instead of recognizing that she needed
In Catholic faith Mary, like all other
descendants of Adam, had to be redeemed through Christ. We honor
her especially for two biblical reasons: (a) She is the mother
of Jesus who is Lord and God. (b) According to Luke 1:26-38 she
is the first one to hear the good news of Jesus' identity and
to say, "Be it done to me according to your word"thus becoming
the first disciple to meet Jesus' standard of hearing the word
of God and doing it (see Luke 8:21).
We believe that God gave her special
privileges, but these are related to the graces of discipleship
given through Christ and in no way divinize her. All believers
in Christ are delivered by his grace from the sin of Adam: All
believers in Christ will be raised bodily from the dead. Catholics
believe that Mary, the first one to profess belief in Christ as
revealed by an angel, was through Christ's grace the first to
be totally freed from Adam's sin (conceived without sin) and the
first to be raised bodily (assumed into heaven).
While we acknowledge that these doctrines
of the Immaculate Conception and Assumption of Mary are not found
in the New Testament, we hold them as consonant with the picture
in Luke of Mary as the first one to believe, and with the picture
in John where she is especially honored as Jesus hangs on the
8. Why do Catholics neglect the
biblical teaching that Christ is coming back again?
We Catholics believe in the second
coming of Christ. For us that means that God has yet to establish
fully his Kingdom and to judge the world. All this will be accomplished
through Christ and is not attainable by human endeavor. As for
when, through the coming of Christ, God will establish his Kingdom,
we believe in the teaching of Jesus recorded in Acts 1:7: "It
is not for you to know the times or seasons which the Father has
fixed by his own authority." All human guesses as to the time
of the second coming must yield to that biblical teaching.
9. Why does the Catholic Church
discourage private interpretation of Scripture and make its members
submit to official teaching?
We Catholics do not exaggerate the
principle that the Church is the interpreter of Scripture. The
Roman Catholic Church has rarely, if ever, defined what a text
meant to the person who wrote it. The Church encourages interpreters
of Scripture to discover with all the means available to them
what individual passages meant when they were written and encourages
all of its members to read the Bible for spiritual nourishment.
Church interpretation for Catholics
deals primarily, not with what the biblical text meant when it
was written, but with what it means for the life of the Christian
community in subsequent eras. On essential issues it maintains
that the Spirit who inspired the Scriptures will not allow the
whole community of believers to be misled about faith and moral
Individuals from their Bible reading
may come to radical conclusions. This has indeed happened in the
course of history. Some have even denied the divinity of Christ,
the Resurrection, Creation and the Ten Commandments. The Catholic
Church will take its guidance on such biblical matters from the
long tradition of Christian teaching stemming from reflecting
on the Bible.
10. Why don't Catholics defend God's
word in the Bible against all possibility of error, scientific
The Roman Catholic Church teaches that
the Bible communicates without error that truth which God intended
for the sake of our salvation. Affirming biblical inerrancy (freedom
from error) in that sense, it also resists modern attempts to
make the Bible answer problems that the biblical authors never
thought of. It resists attempts to take biblical texts that envisioned
other situations and apply them without qualification to situations
of our times. Some of the conflicts between Roman Catholic practices
and "literal" interpretations of the Bible rest precisely on this
The Roman Catholic Church believes
that none of its positions are in conflict with the literal interpretation
of the Scriptures, when "literal" means what the author intended
in his times as a communication of the truth that God wanted for
the sake of our salvation. It resists the use of biblical
interpretation to support scientific or historical statements
that lay beyond the competency of the biblical authors in their