Protestant speaker and social media personality, Joshua Feuerstein, has released a video “every Catholic should watch…with a very special message for all of [his] Catholic friends”. In his video, he seems to assume that Catholics—by virtue of being Catholic—lack a real and personal relationship with God.
Watch the 2 minute video here.
He politely asks his viewers to “share” his video—and at this moment his video has accumulated 3, 584 Facebook shares and 4, 367 “likes”. Honestly, I think Mr. Feuerstein’s heart is in the right place (and those who are taking efforts to applaud or pass on his message), as he appears to be seeking to fulfill his Christian duty to evangelize the lost. It is, however, apparent that Mr. Feuerstein has been taught about a false “Catholic Church”—and not about the Catholic Church founded by Christ.
Josh seems to have concluded that the mediation of the priest in Confession (also called the Sacrament of Reconciliation) is a hindrance to a Catholic’s personal relationship to God. He invites Catholics to a personal relationship with Jesus; and surely this is an acceptable invitation since all Christians should be challenged repeatedly to a renewed relationship with Jesus. But this concept of a re-newed relationship—a relationship that is “new again”—with Christ is the essence of the Sacrament of Reconciliation; and this is evident from the words of St. Paul:
“Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:17-18)
St. Paul goes on to describe the role of the presbyter (AKA the “priest” or “elder”) as an instrument of Christ through which Christ forgives sins. He describes the ministry of reconciliation entrusted to his apostles and their successors:
“God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. So we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us.” (2 Cor 19-20)
According to the apostle Paul, Christ has entrusted the ministry and message of reconciliation to his apostles, through which He touches the souls of sinners and makes them a new creation. The priest forgives sins by the power of Christ—that is, Christ forgives our sins today by acting in a “communion of wills” with the priest—and this is why we say the priest forgives sins in persona Christi or in the presence of Christ. Ultimately, Christ forgives sins—not priests (just as an author writes a book, not his pencil). Yet the priests do forgive sins by participation in Christ’s ministry of reconciliation.
These are the words St. Paul uses in the same letter to the Corinthians (notice the prevailing theme of “forgiveness of sins” in this letter):
“What I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ [in persona Christi in Latin]” (2 Cor 2:10)
Where did this teaching come from? It came straight from Jesus:
“As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (John 20:21-23)
Jesus is “sending” the apostles giving them a new mission. He “breathes” on them giving them the power of the Holy Spirit to forgive sins. In Genesis, when God breathed on dust He created man. Now He breathes on His apostles making them a new creation of a different kind.
Jesus says it plainly: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” If Mr. Feuerstein is going to reject the notion that Jesus conferred the power upon certain men to forgive sins in His place, then he will need to come up with a better explanation of Jesus’s words here, as well as the words of St. Paul’s stated above—and he’ll need to explain the testimony of Church history.
Indeed, from the beginning of Christianity, it was understood that sins were forgiven in fullness through the ministry of the Church. Mr. Feuerstein says that he realizes “the Church has taught for years that you have to go through a priest” to have your sins forgiven. And he is correct. John writes that there is “sin which is mortal” or deadly, and sin that is not (1 Jn 5:16-17). There must be, then, a way to have these deadly sins forgiven and be restored to life in Christ by His grace. This way, as St. John clearly suggests in John 20:20-23, is through the ordained ministers of the Church.
Consider these excerpts from early Church writings:
From the Didache:
“Confess your sins in church, and do not go up to your prayer with an evil conscience. This is the way of life. . . . On the Lord’s Day gather together, break bread, and give thanks, after confessing your transgressions so that your sacrifice may be pure” (Didache 4:14, 14:1 [A.D. 70]).
“[The bishop conducting the ordination of the new bishop shall pray:] God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. . . .grant this your servant, whom you have chosen for the episcopate, to feed your holy flock and to serve without blame as your high priest, ministering night and day to propitiate unceasingly before your face and to offer to you the gifts of your holy Church, and by the Spirit of the high priesthood to have the authority to forgive sins, in accord with your command” (Apostolic Tradition 3 [A.D. 215]).
From Ambrose of Milan:
“For those to whom [the right of binding and loosing] has been given, it is plain that either both are allowed, or it is clear that neither is allowed. Both are allowed to the Church, neither is allowed to heresy. For this right has been granted to priests only” (Penance 1:1 [A.D. 388]).
Indeed amidst all the heresies of the first millenium of Christianity, there was never a heresy defined as “the erroneous belief that Christians should confess their sins to a minister of Christ that they may receive God’s forgiveness”. Confessing to a priest was accepted as right Christian practice as a sacrament (a physical sign that communicates [or gives] a spiritual reality or grace).
The point is this: the rejection of confessing to a priest goes against what the Bible and Christian tradition teaches. The Old Testament prefigures a priestly mediator for obtaining God’s forgiveness (ie. the sin offering of the Levitical priest – see Lev 6). And presumably, Mr. Feuerstein has no problem with a necessary human mediator for a Christian marriage, such as a pastor (you cannot get married “from a distance”) and for this reason, and in light of the evidence, he should not have a problem with a mediator for the forgiveness of sins, established by Christ and gifted with His authority, that allows the confessing Christian to hear the tangible, concrete words “I absolve you of all your sins”. Jesus had given the apostles authority to do great things by His power, such as in Lk 9:1 (“he called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases”), and now He has given them the authority to forgive sins as mediators. This idea of Jesus sharing His divine authority and giving special powers to men (such in John 20) is not unprecedented in the Bible (as Lk 9:1 exemplifies).
This begs the question: Can men be mediators along with Christ? But doesn’t St. Timothy write that “there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus”? Well yes, but Jesus shares His mediatorship with us all by giving us the power to pray for one another and serve one another in other ways. God doesn’t convert sinners all by Himself; He allows us to spread the Gospel and He converts hearts through us. Like his priestly duty to share in the mission of reconciling sinners, Paul also understood his duty to share in Christ’s saving mission:
“To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.” (1 Cor 9:22)
As did Timothy:
“Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.” (1 Tim 4:16)
Surely when a Protestant, (like Joshua Feuerstein) is asked to pray for a friend’s sick relative, surely he will not respond, “Heck no! That’s idolatry. Jesus is the one mediator—why not just go straight to Him instead of asking me?” Obviously the Christian will act in love and pray—and thereby mediate—at his friends request.
What Mr. Feuerstein has failed to recognize is that God allows us to participate in His act of mediation. As a perfect union of God and man, Jesus is indeed the one mediator between God and man (for He is both God and man and was thus able to die and atone for all the sins of mankind); but if God can share His “divine nature” with us (2 Pet 1:4) surely He can share his ability to intercede for others, and He does. We don’t have to ask Mary to pray for us, as Mr. Feuerstein points out, but indeed it is right and good to do so, as it is right and good to ask our friends to pray for us. As the Scriptures tell us, the saints and angels offer our prayers before the throne of God in heaven:
“The twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and with golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints” Rev 5:8; see also Rev 8:3-4)
God allows the saints and angels in heaven to pray for us because they too are part of the one body of Christ and are perfected in charity by virtue of being in heaven (Rev 21:27). It is charitable to pray for fellow members of the Church and therefore it seems rather commonsensical that God would allow those in heaven to pray, out of the perfected goodness of their hearts, for us on earth. Indeed “the prayer of a righteous man is powerful in its effects” (James 5:16), and since those in heaven are perfected in righteousness (Heb 12:23), their prayers the most powerful among creatures—especially Mary, who is the mother of God and the only human to be greeted in the Bible by a title of reverence (“full of grace” or kecharitomene). As the queen mother in the Davidic Kingdom (see 1 Kings 1 & 2) was revered by the king as “first lady” (1 Kings 2:19) and by the people as their intercessor before the king, so too is Mary revered by Jesus as His mother and by His people as their intercessor. This tradition of honoring Mary goes back to the earliest days of the Church, and the Christian art portraying her in the ancient catacombs testifies to it.
Feuerstein reassures Catholics that praying to statues is unneccessary. Catholics agree and take his statement further—praying to statues is idolatry and therefore bad. This is why Catholics don’t pray to statues; but they pray (sometimes) in front of statues or images for the sake of having their hearts drawn to God or the saints, who radiated with God’s grace and glory. Just because a Catholic kneels before a statue does not necessarily mean the statue is being worshipped; just as a Christian who kneels in prayer before his Bible is not necessarily worshiping a book—the book before him is serving a higher purpose as an instrument (or pathway) drawing his heart to God.
Mr. Feuerstein implies that Catholics believe we need to pray repetitive prayers. He is right—if these prayers are in vain. However repetitive prayers, like the rosary, are often said by Catholics (and Protestants too) out of love, enthusiasm and reverence for our God of wonders—just like the angels who prayed, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory” (Isa 6:3). The angels were not praying vain repetitions; they were praying from their heart. A succession of Hail Marys (which is a prayer derived largely from Luke 1, by the way) or several Our Fathers said in a row is not sinful or unnecessary if prayed with love. As long as one is praying from the heart, who cares “how many times in a row” a certain prayer is prayed? Jesus was concerned with vainly repeated prayers, not all repeated prayers.
The real problem underlying Mr. Feuerstein’s assumptions is this: he holds to sola scriptura, the belief that the Bible alone is formally sufficient for knowing all there is to know about how to live and love as a Christian. This, however, was not taught by Jesus nor any other New Testament writers; nor was it taught in the early Church. The Bible’s authority and inerrancy was taught, yes, but not its sole authority. There are verses and passages in the Bible that teach the Bible to be the God-breathed and inerrant Word of God, and to this Catholics say “Amen”. But there is no passage in Scripture (not even at the end of 2 Tim 3) that teaches sola scriptura. Not only is sola scriptura unscriptural, but the belief in the New Testament books (accepted as Scripture and as a closed canon) is not “biblical” per se. The Bible’s “Table of Contents” is a universal Christian tradition not found in the Bible, but discerned by the bishops and leaders of the Catholic Church to be the inspired Word of God, worthy of being called Holy Scripture. All Protestants, therefore, hold to at least one Catholic extrabiblical, but Holy-Spirit inspired, tradition—the New Testament canon (in an appreciable display of humility and logic, a Protestant graduate student once admitted this point to me during a flight from Toronto to Regina).
What is taught clearly in the Bible is the authority of Scripture alongside sacred oral tradition (1 Thess 2:13; 2 Thess 2:15; 1 Cor 11:2; 2 Tim 2:2; 1 Pet 1:25) which together form the totality of God’s Word (written and oral) The interpretative authority of the apostles and their successors (Acts 1:20) lead by the bishop of Rome (see Matt 10:1 16:18; 18:15-20; Lk 10:16; 1 Tim 4 & 5; 2 Tim 1;2 Tim 2:2; Titus 1) is also heavily implied in the Bible. For more on the authority of St. Peter, the apostles, and their successors, read this, this and this.
With much more I’d like to say, I must bring this to a close; but before I do so, I’d like to return to Mr. Feuerstein’s concern about Catholics’ lack of personal relationship with Jesus: indeed this is his most drastic delusion about the Catholic Church.
It is based on pure reason and not out of arrogance that I say nobody can have a closer relationship with Jesus Christ than those who believe in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist—for a spiritual and bodily relationship are made possible through this Blessed Sacrament. The clarity of Jesus’ words in the Scriptures testify to this reality (and for this reason the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist was not disputed by Christians until around 1000 years of Christianity had passed). This is why St. Paul testified to the real presence of Jesus under the form of bread and wine (1 Cor 11:27). This is why the Church writers of the first 8 centuries were unambiguous about their uncontested belief in the the Real Presence. This is why the Romans called Christians “cannibals” (which we surely aren’t since the flesh and blood of the glorified Christ is distinctly other from all other forms of flesh and blood, and under the physical properties of bread and wine, and eaten by God’s own command). It is a mystery, but a mystery believed by the vast majority of Christians in all ages of the Church (For more on the Eucharist, here’s an article I wrote on the topic).
Further, although a individual and personal relationship with Christ is important, what is more important is a relationship with the fullness of Christ, a relationship with Christ as the Head of the Church but also with His Body, that is, the Church itself (see Romans 12 and 1 Cor 12). St. Paul gives thanks for his relationship with “the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20), language conveying a one-on-one relationship with the Lord. But far more often than using the words like “me” or “I” in reference to his relationship with God, he uses words like “we” and “us” through his letters. Being united with Christ as head of the Church while rejecting His Body, is only a partial union and not a full Communion. This is why the Catholic Church teaches “Christ and his Church thus together make up the “whole Christ”. The Church is one with Christ” (CCC 795).
This is also why the Catholic Church offers Mr. Feuerstein and every other person in the world a relationship of wholeness with Christ, in Head and Body, spiritually and bodily. The Catholic Church, which bears Christ’s mystical presence in the world, offers every man and woman a Eucharistic relationship with God—the ultimate relationship between God and man. I invite Josh and all who have shared these mistaken views of the Catholic faith to re-read the Bible with an open heart, read Church history and pray that God would give them the courage to come to the Eucharist, where the fullness of Jesus dwells.
I’m thankful for Josh’s concern (and all those who have shared his video) for the lost. Indeed we, as Catholics, should join Josh—a brother in Christ—in his evangelistic pursuit of the lost inasmuch as he seeks to evangelize the culture of death and those who are truly lost. But we, by virtue of being Catholic, are not lost. Rather, by virtue of being Catholic, we are Home.