Sunday, February 27, 2005

Attending Protestant Services

I've been asked whether it is permissable for a Catholic to attend Protestant services. Some have indicated that this was a sin. I disagree.

Some schismatic Lefebrvists in the past have insisted to me that this was a sin because the Church prohibited it, quoting from Pope Pius XI, Mortalium Animos, 1928:
"it is clear that the Apostolic See cannot on any terms take part in their [pan-Christian] assemblies, nor is it anyway lawful for Catholics either to support or to work for such enterprises; for if they do so they will be giving countenance to a false Christianity, quite alien to the one Church of Christ."

I assert that this canonical discipline is not entirely immutable. Such disciplinary norms were necessary in 1928, and are certainly still necessary today insofar as Catholics are prohibited to "give countenance to false a Christianity." Likewise, the 1917 Code of Canon Law, canon 1325 forbade Catholics to engage in debates or conferences with non-Catholics without the permission of the Holy See. That the law explicitly stated that permission could be given by the Holy See shows that this was never meant to be immutable dogma, but a canonical discipline that can be dispensed or abrogated in certain situations. The 1917 canon seems to be at least partially abrogated by Paul VI, NOSTRA AETATE, 1965:

"The Church, therefore, exhorts her sons, that through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, carried out with prudence and love and in witness to the Christian faith and life, they recognize, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among these men."

... as well as the 1983 Code of Canon Law, canon 755.

Can. 755

§1. It is above all for the entire college of bishops and the Apostolic See to foster and direct among Catholics the ecumenical movement whose purpose is the restoration among all Christians of the unity which the Church is bound to promote by the will of Christ.

§2. It is likewise for the bishops and, according to the norm of law, the conferences of bishops to promote this same unity and to impart practical norms according to the various needs and opportunities of the circumstances; they are to be attentive to the prescripts issued by the supreme authority of the

Pope John Paul II affirmed in his encyclical letter Ecclesia de Eucharistia, number 30:
"It is unthinkable to substitute for Sunday Mass ecumenical
celebrations of the word or services of common prayer with Christians from the aforementioned ecclesial communities, or even participation in their own liturgical services. Such celebrations and services, however praiseworthy in
certain situations
, prepare for the goal of full communion, including eucharistic communion, but they cannot replace it”.

Note that the "ecumenical celebrations of the word or services of common prayer" and even "participation in their own liturgical services" are called "praiseworthy in certain situations." So situationally dependent, such services are not prohibited, nor sinful, but "praiseworthy." Yet it is emphasized that they "cannot replace" Sunday Mass.

Moreover, if by "active participation" in Protestant services, one gives "countenance to a false Christianity" which means the appearance of approval to doctrines and practices contrary to the Catholic faith, then such active participation in this sense is prohibited. In such instances, we act contrary to our faith which we are obliged to profess always, in our words and deeds. The Catholic profession of faith is fundamentally different than Protestant ecclesiology, epistemology, and with regard to many theological doctrines and liturgical practices. We must always avoid countenance to Protestant beliefs and practices which are contary to Catholicism.

Catholics can, however, in certain situations "observe" Protestant services for educational and ecumenical purposes to deepen one's understanding of that particular ecclesial community, and to foster all that can lead to unity and harmony, all the while being careful not to give even the appearance of approval of a false Christianity. So, one must act prudently, weighing the ecumenical value against the risk of giving countenance to a false Christianity.

Pius XI's words are not contrary to ecumenism, but rather protect the Church from a false or misguided ecumenism which confuses the identity, purpose, and mission of the Catholic Church which possesses the fullness of truth and communion with Jesus Christ with something less.

The goal of ecumenism is to bring all into fullness of communion with Jesus Christ in "one, holy, catholic, and apostolic" church as we profess every Sunday. We do this through honest and charitable dialogue, fervent prayer, and challenging our Protestant brothers and sisters to seek the truth. Dialogue for the sake of dialogue is fruitless. It must be an honest dialogue seeking the truth and the intention of Jesus Christ.

The following excerpt from the Pontifical Council for Fostering Christian Unity is also significant:

"In liturgical celebrations taking place in other Churches and ecclesial Communities, Catholics are encouraged to take part in the psalms, responses, hymns and common actions of the Church in which they are guests. If invited by their hosts, they may read a lesson or preach." (Pontifical Council for Fostering Christian Unity, Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism, Ch.IV , par. 118, Mar 25, 1993, approved by Pope John Paul II)

It is also important to note that in the same document, the Church continues to caution against indifferentism:
"Each party [of a mixed marriage], while continuing to be faithful to his or her Christian commitment and to the practice of it, should seek to foster all that can lead to unity and harmony, without minimizing real differences and while avoiding an attitude of religious indifference." (ibid, par. 148)

So, while in certain situations taking part in Protestant services is "praiseworthy," and "encouraged" we must always avoid "coutenance to a false Christianity."

Portions of the above answer comes from discussions with Peter Howard, STL, Dir, of Communications, Diocese of Colorado Springs, which can be read in full here:

Participation in Protestant Services (10 Dec 2004)
Participation in Protestant Services -- PART II (13 Dec 2004)


Blogger Wray Davis said...

I'm so glad to have found someone so knowledgeable about the Catholic Church. I've had many Catholic friends, and even one who wanted to be a priest, but none so knowledgeable.

So... None of those aforementioned friends seemed to think that I, as a Protestant at the time, was damned. Though they certainly didn't speak for the Vatican, I'd sort of thought that was the general Catholic position as well. If participating in Protestant services is of such dubious nature (whether or not it's permissable), does that mean that perhaps I'm not so lucky as I thought?

On that note, how does this fit into the concept of, "All things are permissable, though not all things are beneficial." If early Christians could eat meat sacrificed to false idols with impugnity, shouldn't they also be able to worship Christ in any context, so long as their own heart is pure?

9:05 PM  
Blogger itsjustdave1988 said...


Thanks for your kind words. I figure if I'm going to profess to be Catholic, I ought to do my best to learn what the Catholic Church teaches, especially if I have any hope of explaining Catholicism to another.

You said:
"None of those aforementioned friends seemed to think that I, as a Protestant at the time, was damned."

They were correct, as nobody is damned until God judges them as such. God isn't done with you yet. ;) Nor is He done with me, I hope.

Yet, nobody can have absolute certainty that they will persevere in faith and attain heavenly glory while they are still living, apart from a direct private revelation from God to that effect.

Faith can fail. Jesus prayed for Peter, so that his faith would not fail. Such a prayer would have been nonsensical if faith could never fail. One can always fall from grace, as Scripture constantly warns against. So, whether you will be damned or not is no more absolutely certain, according to Catholic theology, than whether I will be damned or not.

It is still true, however, that one who has faith in Christ can have hopeful confidence in the promises of Christ. The virtue of hopeful confidence ought never to be confused with its sinful extremes: despair on the one extreme, or presumption on the other extreme.

The Church did not damn even those excommunicated from the Church, like Martin Luther. Instead, those excommunicated were solemnly warned by the Church of their objective grave sin. In the end, only God can damn someone, as the Church does not have perfect insight into the impediments of an individual's will and intellect, whereas God does.

Whether one is Catholic or non-Catholic, it is only those who die finally impenitent in either original sin or mortal sin who will not attain eternal glory in the presence of God, according to Catholic theology. Said positively, those who attain eternal glory are only those who die in what Catholics call a "state of grace," in a state of final repentance. The only unforgivable sin, then, is final impenitence.

Yet, just as Scripture teaches, some may commit grave sin yet be forgiven of it if in their sinfulness they suffered from ignorance of the true Divine will. For instance, as implied by Christ's prayer from the cross, those who rejected Him and crucified Him had the potential to be forgiven by God, due to their ignorance, "for they know not what they are doing."

To be clear, however, one cannot fake ignorance with God. If God is the one urging you, either directly through his grace, or through the deeds and actions of others especially His Holy Church, then one is bound to obey. Those who knowingly and willfully reject the truth will suffer just punishment for their disobedience, and certainly risk eternal damnation (see Heb 13:17).

According to the constant teaching of Christianity, expressly affirmed by the Council of Trent, original sin and any personal sins, if any, are remitted upon baptism or at least the implicit desire for baptism. Only those born again in baptism or its desire will attain eternal life. For example, Cornelius in Acts ch. 10 was sanctified by the Holy Spirit, not based upon an explicit acceptance of Christ, but based upon an implicit acceptance of Him, shown in the way Cornelius lived his life. The Holy Spirit poured out upon Cornelius and his family and friends prior to sacramental baptism by water. Yet, Peter "commanded" them to be baptized with water, sacramentally, just the same. Note the word in Scripture is translated "commanded," indicating Peter's authority in this matter.

Moreover, Catholicism teaches that for a sin to be mortal, three conditions are required: 1) grave matter, 2) full advertence, and 3) perfect consent of will. There's such a thing as objective or material sin, as distinct from formal sin. One can be a material heretic, clinging to material heresy, suffering in ignorance of their sinfulness, yet having what the Catholic Church calls "good faith." Heresy is a grave sin, but it is formal heresy that is specifically a mortal sin, and those who commit such a sin impenitently risk eternal damnation if they remain finally impenitent of this sin unto death. Yet, material heresy, although still a grave matter which can lead to mortal sin or lead others to mortal sin, is of itself a venial sin, as full advertence is necessary lacking. Those who reject the true deposit of faith, indeed risk eternal damnation. However, for those who do so in ignorance of the true faith, even those who cling to material heresy may be said to be separated from the Catholic Church in body, yet be united to the Catholic Church in soul.

Pope St. Pius X asserted:

"If he is outside the Church through no fault of his, that is, if he is in good faith, and if he has received Baptism, or at least has the implicit desire of Baptism; and if, moreover, he sincerely seeks the truth and does God's will as best he can such a man is indeed separated from the body of the Church, but is united to the soul of the Church and consequently is on the way of salvation" (Catechism of Pius X, The Ninth Article of the Creed)

St. Augustine too affirmed:

"When we speak of within and without in relation to the Church, it is the position of the heart that we must consider, not that of the body. . . . All who are within in heart are saved in the unity of the ark" (ibid., On Baptism, Against the Donatists, 5:28:39, AD 400).

5:20 PM  
Blogger Wray Davis said...

For those like myself who are fairly aware of the Catholic Church and its differences from Protestantism (though I certainly am not an expert), yet have chosen not to become Catholic and remain a part of the Protestant Church (or even diverge further, like myself), would the official Catholic position be that if we died in this state, we are lost?

The majority of Protestant sects I've become familiar with teach that the act of accepting the grace of God and calling on Christ as your Savior once and forever clears the docket of sins against you (unless you later willingly reject that grace). If I died as a Protestant, I would not necessarily have asked for absolution of the last several sins, believing them to already be absolved (the point of continued asking of forgiveness being to encourage a contrite heart and right intentions - an attitude change instead of actual forgiveness). Would this put me in jeopardy from the Catholic perspective?

8:10 PM  
Blogger itsjustdave1988 said...


You asked:
"... would the official Catholic position be that if we died in this state, we are lost?"

Presuming you have been validly baptized as a Christian, or at least desired baptism, then your original sin has been remitted. The only thing that would send you to hell is to die unrepentent of one or more mortal sins.

"There is sin that is mortal... there is sin that is not mortal." (1 John 5:16-17, NRSV)

"When the will sets itself upon something that is of its nature incompatible with the charity that orients man toward his ultimate end, then the sin is mortal by its very object . . . whether it contradicts the love of God, such as blasphemy or perjury, or the love of neighbor, such as homicide or adultery. . . . But when the sinner's will is set upon something that of its nature involves a disorder, but is not opposed to the love of God and neighbor, such as thoughtless chatter or immoderate laughter and the like, such sins are venial" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1856, St. Thomas Aquinas, STh I-II,88,2)

Rejecting the dogmas of Catholicism is an objectively grave sin, and if done with full advertence and perfect consent of will, it is a mortal sin. Whether your act is done with perfect consent of the will and/or with full advertence of the intellect (i.e., formal sin) is, like I stated earlier, only known to God.

Having a better than average understanding of the teachings of Catholicism does not mean you have full advertence and/or perfect consent of the will. Maybe you do, maybe you don't. Only God knows. "Imputability and responsibility for an action can be diminished or even nullified by ignorance, inadvertence, duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments, and other psychological or social factors.
" (CCC 1735).

Your responsibility is to inform your conscience, then follow it.

"Conscience is man's most secret core, and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths" (CCC 5, Gaudium et Spes 16). "Conscience can remain in ignorance or make erroneous judgments. Such ignorance and errors are not always free of guilt." (CCC 1801) "Faced with a moral choice, conscience can make either a right judgment in accordance with reason and the divine law or, on the contrary, an erroneous judgment that departs from them." (CCC 1786) "A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience." (CCC 1800)

The official Catholic position is that sins must be a voluntary act to be imputable acts. To the extent that voluntariness is dimished, imputability is diminished.

"Full advertence in sinning is had when we know perfectly well that we are doing a serious evil." (Catechism of Pius X, The Sacrament of Penance)

"Perfect consent of the will is verified in sinning when we deliberately determine to do a thing although we know that thing to be sinful." (ibid.)

If you know the Catholic Church was founded by God through Christ and you refused to enter into it or remain in it, you are not in a state of grace, and are not on the way of salvation, according to Catholic theology.

"They could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it or to remain in it" (CCC 846)

"Unintentional ignorance can diminish or even remove the imputability of a grave offense. But no one is deemed to be ignorant of the principles of the moral law, which are written in the conscience of every man. The promptings of feelings and passions can also diminish the voluntary and free character of the offense, as can external pressures or pathological disorders. Sin committed through malice, by deliberate choice of evil, is the gravest." (CCC 1860)

So, the Catholic Church continues to pray for those that are outside the true Catholic faith, and even prays for those canonically excommunicated from the Catholic Church, so that they may come to believe and live charitabley and faithully as Christians.

You said:
"The majority of Protestant sects I've become familiar with teach that the act of accepting the grace of God and calling on Christ as your Savior once and forever clears the docket of sins against you (unless you later willingly reject that grace)."

Yes. This is known by some authors as "cheap grace." The "act of accepting the grace of God" means something different to a Protestant than it does to ... well, other Protestants, and Catholics, and Orthodox.

You said:
"If I died as a Protestant, I would not necessarily have asked for absolution of the last several sins, believing them to already be absolved (the point of continued asking of forgiveness being to encourage a contrite heart and right intentions - an attitude change instead of actual forgiveness). Would this put me in jeopardy from the Catholic perspective?"

From a Catholic perspective, remittance of mortal sin is not possible without contrition of charity. (1 Pet 4:8 "love covers a multitude of sins"; also Prov 10:12 "love covers all offenses"). This contrition of charity need not be explicitly expressed, but can be implicit, and includes at least the implicit intention of confessing your sins explicitly.

"Contrition or sorrow for sin is a grief of the soul leading us to detest sins committed and to resolve not to commit them any more.... a grief of soul for having offended God because He is infinitely good and worthy of being loved for His own sake.
... without [contrition] no pardon for sins is obtainable, while with it alone, perfect pardon can be obtained, provided that along with it there is the desire, at least implicit, of going to confession." (Catechism of Pius X)

4:00 PM  
Blogger Wray Davis said...

Thank you! That's an excellent and thorough answer.

8:37 PM  

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