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Why Not Investigate the Catholic Religion
By Rev. John A. O’Brien, Ph.D
Thirty-ninth Edition, 200,000
Printed and Published in the U. S. A. June 1, 1959
By Our Sunday Visitor Press, Huntington, Indiana
Nihil Obstat: Rev. Edward A. Miller, Censor Librorum
Imprimatur: † Leo A. Pursley, D.D., Bishop of Fort Wayne, IN.
As I am a stranger to you, dear friend, who read these lines, and am one whom you will probably never know personally, perhaps it may be permissible for me to state that I present the teachings of the Catholic faith to you in a spirit of friendliness and good will. If I were a narrow-minded zealot without sympathy or love for those who differ from me in their religious views, I would scarcely be honored with the repeated invitations, which have come to me to speak in the various Protestant churches in the community in which I live, on the practices and belief of the Catholic Church.
Neither would I have received a gold Knights of Columbus emblem from the Acacia, a fraternity composed exclusively of Masonic students at the University of Illinois, as a token of appreciation of the influence which they esteem I have exerted in the interests of friendship and good will between Catholics and non-Catholics in the community in which I ministered for nearly a quarter of a century. I mention these facts in an objective manner with no thought of personal glory and even with some reluctance, simply that you may believe me when I say that this visit with you is prompted by a heart full of friendship and love for you.
While all souls are essentially equal in the eyes of God, and all are infinitely precious to Him, I must confess that the task of spreading a knowledge of Christ's teachings among my own countrymen makes a greater natural appeal to me, and seems to have a prior call upon my affections and my loyalty than even the apostolic work of carrying it to the people of the Orient. That is most important, indeed, and I view with profound admiration the heroic missionaries who wear out their lives in foreign lands in breaking the bread of truth to the natives there. With about seventy millions of my fellow citizens, however, bound to me by the strong ties of a common love for my country, and a common tongue, who are unaffiliated with any Christian Church, I feel the special urgency of the obligation of sharing my treasure with my own immediate neighbors and countrymen—inviting them first of all into full membership in the household of the faith.
In so doing, my efforts are not to be viewed as those of a propagandist in the sense in which that term has come to be used since World War I. In those hectic days, our country and those of the Old World as well were flooded with propaganda designed to portray the opposing forces and all their works in a wholly evil light. The aim seemed to be to increase our own morale by inducing us to hate the enemy with a more intense animosity. We know now that much of the propaganda consisted of lies, half-truths, highly colored accounts of alleged atrocities, and a suppression of the enemy's version of all occurrences. When we discovered after the armistice, how much of the propaganda was colored and distorted, and how many falsehoods had gained currency and respectability under the camouflage of patriotic propaganda, we rightly developed a distaste for the propagandist who seeks to influence the belief of people by a one-sided and unfair representation of evidence.
I share that distaste. I would never wish to lead a person into the Catholic faith by a misrepresentation of the credentials of either the Protestant or the Catholic religion. No Church, I think, has suffered more from such misrepresentation than my own. I have nothing but abhorrence for those who indulge in such unscrupulous and dishonest tactics.
My appeal is to the intellect not to the emotions. The end desired is not a temporary commitment arising from an emotional appeal, but that permanent loyalty that results only from a true intellectual conviction. It alone can weather the storms and trials of a lifetime. There will be no importuning, no high-pressure salesmanship. Among the several hundred whom I have been privileged to receive into the Church, I have never yet asked a single one to embrace the faith. I explain it, and leave it to the judgment of the individual to accept or to reject in accordance with the dictates of his own conscience. Faith implies the free assent of the will after the intellect achieves conviction. Without freedom and internal conviction there can be no real faith, but merely its outward shell.
Why Not Investigate the Catholic Religion
There is no subject, which is more worthy of investigation than the Catholic religion. It has exercised a profound and enduring influence upon the thought and the life of humanity. Indeed, no person can aspire to be truly educated, who remains ignorant of the one institution in the world today, which traces its origin directly back to Jesus Christ. Founded by our divine Lord in the year 33 A.D., the Catholic Church has continued in existence throughout nineteen centuries, carrying on her divinely appointed mission of preaching the gospel of Christ to every nation under the sun.
At the present time the Catholic Church numbers 484,077,000 human beings—the largest religious organization in the world today.' While her members are of every race and tongue and have different racial temperaments and diverse national traditions, they are all bound together by the strong bond of a common faith. They believe the same doctrines, receive the same sacraments, and recognize the same spiritual head. The unity is not merely in name but in reality: a Catholic can hear Mass, receive the sacraments, and assist at the devotions in any Catholic church in the world, and feel as much at home as if he were worshipping in his own parish church.
During both World Wars, it was a source of surprise for many of our young men drawn into the army from rural districts and small towns, where there were few Catholics, to discover that the one Church they could be certain of finding in practically every village and city in Europe was the Catholic Church. Other churches, familiar enough in the United States, were found to be almost unheard of in the countries of Europe.
While it was a source of comfort for the Catholic soldiers to be able thus to continue the practice of their faith in any country in Europe, it was also the occasion of affording many hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens a new insight into the worldwide character of the Catholic Church, which would have been scarcely possible for them to secure within the narrow horizons which bounded their previous outlook. For the first time they got glimmerings of a religion that is truly international and interracial and which sinks its roots deep into the history of Christendom. In other words, they went far along the pathway, which leads to the discovery of that most essential truth: Catholicity and historical Christianity are identical.
Catholicity Is Historical Christianity
The only form of Christianity—save for a few heretical sects that have cut themselves off from the center of unity and for the most part subsequently withered away —that can be found in the history of Christendom for the first sixteen centuries is the Catholic Church. Blot her from the pages of history, and the Bible as well as Christianity disappear from the face of the earth. Neither would Protestantism exist; for Protestantism is founded upon the private interpretation of holy Scripture. And since the books of the Bible constituting both the Old and the New Testament were determined solely by the authority of the Catholic Church, without the Church there would have been no Bible, and hence no Protestantism. The Catholic Church is therefore the one central fact in the religious history of Christendom.
Not only is the Catholic Church the largest religious organization in the world today, but it is the only institution that has survived the fall of the Roman Empire. When that great world empire fell beneath the successive onslaughts of the vast hordes of barbarians that poured in upon her from the North and the East, the Church proceeded to Christianize and civilize them. In literal truth, she made the captor captive. In so doing, she clearly showed that her mission was not merely to the Jews, the Greeks, or the Romans, but to all mankind. At this early date, she displayed the Catholicity, inherent within her very nature by opening her arms as wide to the barbarian Vandal, Visigoth, or Hun as to the mighty Roman or the cultured Greek. To that mark of Catholicity or universality she has always clung, as being the very imprint of the Divine upon her.
How can one then justly claim to be educated, who is ignorant of the history of the institution, which has been the most potent single factor in shaping the life and the thought of Western civilization? She established schools and universities throughout the world and inspired painters, sculptors, and musicians in the achievement of their masterpieces. She fostered a love of literature and encouraged investigation of the secrets of nature and thus laid the foundations of modern science. As that penetrating student of the history of human culture, Eugene Savage, Professor of Art at Yale University, aptly declared in a recent lecture at which I was present: "All that separates the white man from barbarism is the Christian Church." That Church, as I have pointed out, is the Catholic Church since she is the only Christian Church, which can trace her existence through those ages of transition hack to Christ Himself.
It is not to be expected that a Church, which spans so many centuries, which is so intimately interwoven into the daily life and thought of hundreds of millions of people, and which colors their whole outlook and shapes their sense of values, will at times be misunderstood and misrepresented? Not only is it evident that at times her teachings are misunderstood but also that at other times they are deliberately misrepresented by hostile critics who wish to curtail her growth and influence. It is so much easier to set up a man of straw, and with much gusto demolish it, than it is to face a real foe. To this temptation, many critics of the Church, seeking to refute her claim to the universal allegiance of mankind, have fallen easy victims.
As evidence of this, I would ask my non-Catholic reader, if he has not heard one or more of the following widespread misrepresentations of Catholic belief and practice: 1. The Catholic Church forbids her members to read the Bible. 2. Priests charge money for absolving penitents in confession from their sins. 3. Priests claim that for certain money payments they can secure the release of departed souls from purgatory. As one friendly narrator explained it to me, "For a certain fee, a priest will lift a soul from the bottom pit of purgatory to a place near the top. Then for a little more money he will lift the soul out altogether." There are many more slanders of this nature, widely circulated and apparently believed by millions of our separated brethren. But these will suffice to indicate the general derogatory nature of such misrepresentations.
Of course, as every Catholic knows, there is not a particle of truth in any of the statements. And yet, in more than thirty years of experience in conducting inquiry classes for many hundred persons, I have never encountered a class in which the majority had not been assured of the truth of the above mentioned falsehoods. These inquirers were drawn largely from a University constituency and might fairly be presumed to come from homes somewhat better informed than the average. The saddest part is that some report hearing such statements from the pulpits of non-Catholic churches. Does it seem almost incredible that ministers pledged to preach the gospel of the Prince of peace and of truth should so prostitute the pulpit of their churches as to render it a vehicle for the imparting of falsehoods and calumnies against their Catholic neighbors?
Do you recall hearing such representations of Catholic belief from the lips of a minister in a Christian Church? If you do, you can be sure that he is an unreliable herald of the gospel of Christ; for either he was in good faith and believed such preposterous statements to be true, or else he was in bad faith and deliberately circulated a canard, which he knew to be false. Now if he was in good faith, he was guilty of criminal negligence in not using ordinary prudence and diligence to ascertain the truth or falsity of charges seriously reflecting on the good name of many millions of his fellow citizens. If he looked into any one of the thousands of books approved by the Church as containing a correct exposition of her belief and practice, or if he consulted any well-informed Catholic, he could speedily satisfy himself as to the complete falseness of such charges. On the other hand, if the minister knew at the time that they were unfounded and reflected merely the hatred of her enemies, and used his Christian pulpit for the further circulation of such slanders, you can see for yourself how far such an individual has deviated from the path of the true word of Christ; for all such heralds are charged by Christ, speaking through the solemn words of St. Paul: "Carefully study to present thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.” (2 Tim 2:15. Italic mine)
The utilization of the machinery of the various non-Catholic churches, the Sunday school, the church paper, and evangelistic organizations directed by ministers, reached its climax in the Presidential campaign of 1928 when for the first time a Catholic was nominated by one of the two major parties for the presidency. The extent to which ministers and evangelists throughout the country used their pulpits to deliver political tirades against Governor Smith not merely because he was opposed to the Prohibition Amendment, but also because he was a Catholic and "in league with the Pope," was reported in the press of the nation at that time and was shown to be very widespread. Especially in the churches of the South, the traditional stronghold of the Democratic Party, were the denunciations of Smith and his Catholicism most scathing and vigorous.
Bishop John F. Noll collected large numbers of church papers, pamphlets, periodicals, and leaflets distributed by the millions, which were teeming with vile cartoons of nuns, priests, bishops and the Pope, and with vicious slanders of Catholic belief and practice. These were compiled into a book entitled, "Book of Horrors." Those pictures will be preserved to show future generations the extent to which Christian churches used their pulpits and their official publications to poison the minds of millions of people with vile calumnies against twenty-six millions of their Catholic fellow citizens. The "Book of Horrors" is being preserved at the library of the University of Illinois where it is available to all who wish to view it.
That there were many laymen as well as ministers who discountenanced such wholesale use of the machinery of the church to spread religious prejudice and foment hatred among the citizens of our country is undoubtedly true. Here and there, noble voices were upraised in Protestant pulpits by ministers who refused to be swept away by the wave of hysteria and emotional bitterness that was sweeping like wildfire across our land. Rising above the din and tumult of the mob, they proclaimed the duty of truthfulness and denounced the widespread slanders that were being circulated in the name of religion against Catholic aspirants for public office.
The reaction of many high-minded non-Catholic citizens is illustrated by the following instance narrated to me by an educator of note. "I was the principal of a public high school," he said, "in a town in Illinois at the time of the Smith-Hoover campaign. From the pulpits of the three Protestant churches in that town, there came tirades against Mr. Smith. It was not merely because he opposed the present Prohibition Law, but because he was a Catholic and would take his orders from the Pope." The animus against him as a Catholic was evident throughout the denunciations. Besides the three Protestant churches, there is also a small, struggling Catholic church. About three months before the election, the priest there read to his congregation a letter from the Bishop. It stated that, in accordance with the usual Catholic custom of separating religion from politics, no single word was to be spoken in the church concerning the political campaign then in progress.
"The contrast," he continued, "was striking. The temptation to fight back against those who were calumniating his religion must have been great; he took no notice, however, of them. He used his time each Sunday morning to preach to his people about Christ. Never once did he urge his congregation to take sides in the campaign that was then stirring the nation. Never once did he attempt to dictate or to indicate even by innuendo how his people should vote."
"Father," he concluded, "I am a Protestant, and have been active in the work of my church. But I don't know of anything that has depressed me more than the spectacle of our churches rushing into the political campaign, using their pulpits for the fomenting of religions prejudice. It has robbed me of my enthusiasm for them and alienated almost all my attachment for them. Whether I shall ever recover it, only time will tell."
Shortly after the close of the Smith-Hoover campaign, I was honored with an invitation to address a large Methodist congregation on "Papal Infallibility and its Bearing Upon the Rights of the State." In the period for answering questions that followed the lecture, a young man arose and made the following contribution to the discussion:
"In the small rural community in which I live," he said, "the feeling ran high that if Smith were elected, America would be subject to papal domination. I recall one citizen telling another of the woes that would befall us. `Why,' he said, `the Pope will be the real ruler. He will dictate all the appointments to Smith. He will even try to get control of the Supreme Court. Things will be so bad,' he concluded, 'that before we know it, we won't be able to get our mail until it has first been censored by the Pope.'
Such were the apprehensions, which prevailed among millions of our fellow citizens in the event of Smith's election to the presidency. This, in spite of the fact that in the century and a half of our national existence there has never been a single instance of a Catholic proving false to his civic duties because of any pull exerted upon him by his religious faith. No matter how much men may speculate about a theoretical conflict of civil and spiritual loyalties on the part of Catholics, the stark fact remains that no Catholic incumbent has ever yet discovered any obligation arising from his Catholic faith at variance with that which presses inexorably upon his conscience to discharge to the full the duties of this civil office.
Far from finding any impediment to the fulfillment of his civic duties, the Catholic office holder has found in the teachings of his Catholic faith the strongest incentive to their faithful and conscientious discharge Furthermore, Catholics have held every important office in the land, being Governors of States, Congressmen, and Senators, Chief Justices of the Supreme Court—every office save those only of the Presidency and the Vice-Presidency. Surely if there were any incompatibility between their civil allegiance and their spiritual loyalty, some one of the multitudes of Catholics who have held office in the course of our national existence would have discovered that fact by now.
Nicholas Murray Butler Speaks
In the light of the performance of so many ministers and evangelists who leaped into the limelight with their blood-curdling recital of the secret machinations of Rome to control and capture America, misrepresenting the simplest tenets of the Catholic faith, one can see more clearly the foundation of the frank and courageous statement of Nicholas Murray Butler, then President of Columbia University:
"Many of these theological students have no college training whatever, and many more have had a college training, in whole or in part, which would not differ greatly from that offered by an average secondary school. In other words, the standard of intellectual and scholarly attainment is low. Not a few of the most distressing and widely heralded of present-day happenings in the United States are traceable directly to this fact. Unhappily that 'illiterate ministry' which it was the purpose of the pious founders of Harvard College to forfend (to defend, secure, or protect), is now, after three hundred years, in ample evidence on every side. . . If the full truth were said, it would probably be that the greatest obstacle at present to religious faith, religious conviction, and religious worship is the attitude and influence of a very large proportion of the poorly endowed and poorly educated Protestant clergy" (Annual Report of the President of Columbia University, 1925, pp. 50 and 61).
In citing the statement of President Butler, and in pointing out non-Catholic agencies, which have lent themselves to the circulation of misrepresentations of Catholic belief and practice, I do not for a moment wish to appear in the light of making sweeping reflections upon the Protestant ministry as a whole. That would be grossly unjust. There is no doubt in my mind that the number who consciously lend themselves to such unfair practices is in the marked minority. The overwhelming majority would surely repudiate such un-Christian actions. I want to pay my tribute to the honesty and sincerity of the Protestant ministry as a whole. Indeed the ministers with whom it has been my privilege to work in the University community in which I have labored have been men of high spiritual ideals, eminently fair and uniformly courteous.
It has been my rare privilege to address large congregations in Methodist, Episcopal, Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Disciples of Christ Churches, setting before them the teachings of the Church on subjects of Papal Infallibility, the Power of the Priest to Forgive Sins, the Relations of Church and State, the Temporal Power of the Pope, the Indissolubility of Christian Marriage, the Structure and Organization of the Catholic Church. In every instance, I found the people hungry and eager to know the real teachings of the Church. After the lecture, I answered questions from the audience. The entire discussion was always conducted in a spirit of friendliness and good will. In every case, the meeting was closed with an expression of gratitude to me for clearing away many misconceptions of the teachings of the Church, which they had previously entertained.
It was the conviction of all that a better understanding of the faith of Catholics, so often misrepresented and misunderstood, was conducive to a better community spirit and therefore to better citizenship in our American democracy. An understanding of the real teachings of the Church speedily removes the basis of societies of organized bigotry, which spring into existence from, the apprehensions and distrust created by the misrepresentations of the Catholic position, especially on such a topic as the alleged divided allegiance of Catholics to the government of the United States. The true weapon against them is not force or heat, but light. With the widespread dissemination of the real teachings of the Catholic Church, they disappear because the falsity of their charges becomes apparent.
From what has been said, I think you will see that in setting before you the credentials of the Catholic faith, I am actuated not only by love of the Church which has been so bountiful and loving a Mother to me, but also by the love I bear my non-Catholic fellow citizens and our common country. To advocate the reasonableness and truth of the teachings of the Catholic Church is surely compatible with both esteem and affection for my countrymen of different faith and of no faith at all. I write as no narrow bigot or partisan propagandist when I set before you in a calm, impersonal manner the faith of Jesus Christ and of the Apostles. I leave the decision entirely to your own reason and conscience; nothing could be fairer than that.