Why I Left the Catholic Church

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I loved Catholicism.

I love the grandeur of the sanctuary with its carved wood, arched windows, and stained glass. I love the deep, resonate amalgam of voices confessing the Nicene Creed and the honesty and humility expressed in the kyrie: “Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy; Lord, have mercy.” I love memories of simple things, like braiding cruciform-shaped palm leaves for Easter.

Most of all, I loved our priest, Father Tom, who occasionally visited our home. His black clerical shirt with unfastened collarino (collar in which the white plastic insert fits) expressed the nature of his relationship to us. It said, “I am here not only as your priest, but also as your friend,” like Bing Crosby’s character, Father O’Malley, in whose presence one gets the feeling that “God is in his heaven; all is right with the world.”

But I had to leave.

My Problem with Catholicism

In short, I collapsed under the weight of religious guilt, the nagging fear that preoccupied my soul and questioned whether I was truly forgiven by God. I would often go to bed and wonder, “Has my behavior been good enough to merit divine approval?” Like Martin Luther who attempted to find a gracious God, I never knew whether I was fully accepted.

Historian Martin Marty describes the religious journey of Martin Luther by saying, “He makes most sense as a wrestler with God, indeed, as a God-obsessed seeker of certainty and assurance in a time of social trauma and of personal anxiety, beginning with his own.”[1] By observing a range of austere religious works, Luther sought to grow in holiness and thereby find himself pleasing to the Divine Judge. In his own words:

I greatly longed to understand Paul’s Epistle to the Romans and nothing stood in the way but that one expression, “the justice whereby God is just and deals justly in punishing the unjust.” My situation was that, although an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my merit would assuage him.

Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement that “the just shall live by his faith.” Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before the “justice of God” had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven. . . .[2]

Facing the Tiber

As a Catholic, I knew nothing about Protestantism and, quite frankly, I didn’t care to. Protestants, in my view, were an imitation of the one true Church. If you own a set of Big Bertha golf clubs, why be concerned with imitation knockoffs? But, on account of my Dad’s heart attack at age 21 and the myriad challenges that it provoked, my stress had grown to unmanageable proportions. Under this pressure I agreed to visit a friend’s evangelical church.

The parking lot of Faith Evangelical Church was packed. In amazement I looked around thinking, “It’s a Wednesday night; these people must get a life!” With a mixture of humiliation and curiosity I entered the building and sat in the rear pew of their “worship center.” Devoid of any wood carvings, arched windows, or stained glass, it was simply a large room with a stage. Worse than austere, it was ugly.

Occasionally, I looked through my peripheral vision at my friend, Jan. Her eyes remained closed as she sang. Oh, and did we sing! After forty minutes of choruses that seemed familiar to everyone but me, the senior pastor finally entered the pulpit. With a style combining Al Pacino and a young Billy Graham, he quoted John 15:5-6:

I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned (ESV).

The preacher continued:

Humanity attempts to produce its own fruit. We run around exploring this and that religion, this and that philosophy, and by the end of the day, when we lay our heads down upon our pillows, our souls are still empty.

The Bible says in Psalm 121, “I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.” And what do we find when we look up to the Lord? The Lord Jesus says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

In what are you resting? In what does your life find meaning and purpose? What will be there for you the second after you take your last breath and depart in death? Consider the Good News! Jesus the Messiah died for our sins, rose from the dead, reigns in eternal glory, and at this moment is calling you to repent and embrace him.

Everyone on earth faces the same fundamental choice. Will we continue to live independent of Christ, in restlessness of soul, eventually to be gathered like a useless branch into a pile to be burned? Or will we submit to his authority and abide in his peace? The former person dies in a never ending state of alienation; the latter enjoys God’s acceptance now and for eternity. What will it be?

New Life

I don’t know how to properly describe what came next. Anticipation surged through my veins and my mind swirled with questions. Then, suddenly, the eyes of my soul opened. They immediately blinked, again, and again, as though they were awoken from sleep by a flash of light. The object of my vision appeared so new and bright that my initial response was to retreat.

As my inner eyes tried to adjust, I sensed an imposing presence. I didn’t see the angelic host or hear them singing. Instead, I felt divine mercy closing in on me. After a moment, this grace reached out to grasp my guilt and shame—previously reasons for hopelessness—and it brought to mind three simple words: “It is finished.”

In that moment I finally understood the meaning of Jesus’ cross and resurrection. My search for hope had ended. The Lamb of God had died in my place, not simply as an offering for “sin,” in a general sense, but for me personally. Not Christ accruing superabundant merits to be stored in a heavenly treasury and dispensed to me as I participated in religious rites, but the complete satisfaction of God’s wrath and forgiveness of my sins.

The joy of redemption became a reality. At once, I identified with the penitent thief on the cross who encountered the Lord’s promise, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43), the adopted orphan-turned-son (John 1:12-13), and the rescued rebel delivered from the domain of darkness (Col. 1:13). Why such a dramatic change? In Jesus’ words: “I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life” (John 5:24).

Similar to converts like Augustine, Pascal, Luther, Newton, and a host of others throughout history, I encountered God in such a profound way that my life was permanently changed. To this day, I don’t have a better way to describe it than with the words of Charles Wesley in his famous hymn “And Can It Be That I Should Gain”:

Long my imprisoned spirit lay, fast bound in sin and nature’s night;

Thine eye diffused a quickening ray, I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;

My chains fell off, my heart was free;

I rose, went forth and followed Thee.

In retrospect, I believe this was the day when I ceased to be a Roman Catholic.


[1] Martin Marty, Martin Luther (New York: Viking Penguin, 2004), xii.

[2] Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (Nashville: Abingdon, 1978), 49-50.

10 Comments

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  • Chris,

    I know this is a personal account, and I want to be sensitive to you, in your sharing of this part of your story. I’m puzzled by a couple things you say. You say:

    “I collapsed under the weight of religious guilt, the nagging fear that preoccupied my soul and questioned whether I was truly forgiven by God. I would often go to bed and wonder, “Has my behavior been good enough to merit divine approval?””

    When the priest would say, “I absolve you of your sins,” in the sacrament of confession, did you simply not believe that Christ was forgiving you? How can it get any clearer that God forgives you than the priest speaking in persona Christi saying to you “I absolve you of all your sins”?

    I also don’t understand why you thought you had to merit divine approval. The Catholic belief is that God wills that all men be saved. He gives actual grace to all men, all the time. Yes, once in a state of grace we can merit rewards (that’s in the Bible), but the grace by which we can merit anything is free and gratuitous; God has come to us first, which already shows His divine approval. He sent Christ to us, for us; He has already shown us His love for us, in Christ. Do you mean that you worried about having possibly committed a mortal sin? Once in a state of mortal sin, and therefore without sanctifying grace, there would be no way to merit His approval. (That would be Pelagianism.)

    You also say, “The Lamb of God had died in my place, not simply as an offering for “sin,” in a general sense, but for me personally.” That’s also what the Catholic Church teaches, that Christ died for each of us, personally. He loved me and gave Himself up for me.

    Another thing that’s’ puzzling to me here is why your experience of God’s mercy translates into ceasing to be Catholic. Augustine and Pascal experienced God’s mercy but did not cease to be Catholic. So why did you think that your experience of God’s mercy required schism from the Catholic Church?

    I get the impression from what you wrote that you came to believe that you could never lose salvation, i.e. that you came to believe once-saved-always-saved. Is that right?

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  • Thanks Bryan, your point is valuable. Too often we Protestants accuse Catholics of teaching salvation by meritorious works, which is inaccurate. However, it is equally true that in many Catholic parishes (observed in two years of focus groups across the country and my experience working professionally in the Catholic Church) one’s religious activity vis. the precepts for the church (things I do to maintain relationship with God) constitute the primary focus. There is a reason, for instance, why the stereotype of “Catholic guilt” is famous the world over. I.O.W., among many people, the Catholic system feels like “salvation on probation.” It is this emphasis (para 2041-2043 in the Catechism) that opens the door for doubt and injurious forms of guilt. To your particular question, yes, I felt forgiven when my priest pronounced the words of absolution. But within two days, against the backdrop of my juvenile delinquent life, my doubt and religious angst would again return.

    The transactional nature of the Treasury or Merit in terms of the way supererogatory works are distributed is what I had in mind when I referred to the impersonal nature of Catholic salvation.

    The reason I felt the need to leave the Catholic Church, ultimately came down to the way we receive grace. I could no longer say “amen” before the consecrated host as the source and summit of faith. Protestantism, while very less than perfect, has it right, I believe, by putting the message of the gospel from Scripture at the center. Of course, this is precisely where we disagree along with our Reformation forefathers. Thankfully however, unlike them, I genuinely like you and neither of us are searching for kindling wood for the stake : )

  • Hi Chris,

    Thanks for a wonderful post. I happen to share your experience of growing up in the Catholic church and forever having that nagging guilt that necessarily follows Catholics between visits to the confessional.

    What really opened my eyes was that God forgives sins – and does so in advance – so that the “sacrament” of confession means nothing to one of God’s elect and worse, raises false hopes in the non-elect. (I refer specifically to Jeremiah 31:31-34, Hebrews 8 & 10). So, just like the slain animals in the Old Testament spoke of how God had already delivered the Israelites from bondage, the shed blood of Christ speaks of the finished work of the cross. Not the work that has to be endlessly repeated in hope that one dies “in a state of grace”.

    I am also grateful to have been freed from the foolishness that God is a failure. If God wills all men to be saved, and we know from Christ that not all are, then God is necessarily a failure. What a joy it is to proclaim the true, triumphant God of heaven and earth whose will never fails. (Isaiah 46:10) The impact of this thought on worship is something I never experienced as a Catholic. Relieved of worrying about myself, I am totally free to worship Him Who saved me.

    And Church history has further buttressed my (and your) decision. Augustine has been completely thrown under the bus by modern Rome so I take great joy in knowing I now follow the faith of the ancient church. Just as Augustine railed against Rome when it erred, we should so do today.

    Thanks again, for your great work.

    Peace.

  • Constantine,

    That “God wants all men to be saved” isn’t just an empty Catholic slogan that is incompatible with the words of Christ, but a quote from sacred scripture. I’m sure there are Calvinists who have found ways to harmonize that with their theological commitments, but it shouldn’t be flippantly rejected.

    In what ways did St. Augustine disagree with the faith of Rome in his own day, and in what ways would he and you agree against Pope Benedict today?

    Chris,

    You mentioned the Eucharist in your last comment here. Do you think you stopped believing that it was the “body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ” before, during, or after the day that you think you ceased being a Catholic? I was just wondering if it was an instant thing or if it happened gradually afterward, or if you had been gradually drifting away from the Church’s teachings prior to that day?

  • When I first got the phrase “Catholic Guilt”, I did not understand it.
    Where I live, Catholics are the party people. The Catholic Rhineland is known as open minded, tolerant, immigrant-friendly and in constant party mood. To be Catholic means to have a positive outlook on life. That may be prejudices.
    However, the prejudice against Protestant areas are less flattering. Protestants are considered stingy, legalistic and sour.
    Strict church discipline and the question whether one belongs to the elect, has driven more than one to despair. Exchanging a vague sense of guilt for a “Geknechteten Willen” or a soul, which is perhaps doomed before birth seems to me a bad trade. Although Protestantism today is trying to get rid of the reputation to be a bunch of joyless gray mice, these efforts are not particularly convincing. It seems more of a kowtow to the state and to the public opinions.
    Yes, the Church is in a bad condition here, only 17% are practicing the faith but Protestants are down to 3%. If you want to preach about the freedom and joy to be Protestant come to the motherland of the Reformation, because here no one believes in it anymore. And by the way, the modern Protestants here do not believe in Jesus, except that he was a wise teacher. Two months ago,one of the national Protestant leaders made us know, that the Apostles’ Creed is an ancient impertinence. Great, isn’t it?

  • It is much worse. While Protestant churches that are not under the umbrella of the EKD, have a share of only about 0.5% of the population, you can find there not only the loudest, but the scariest preachers. I saw friends of mine who were originally from moderate Baptist or traditional independent churches, move to communities, that were similar to Jesus People or Vinyard, and then drifting into very cult-like groups such as Wort und Geist.
    The high number of small cult-like groups is frightening and, for me, a sign of disorientation within the – as I said – very small free-church scene in Germany.
    But the impression that people who leave the EKD join growing american-style evangelical chruches is wrong. They are leaving for no-mans land. Look at this stat and you get an impression what realy is happening here. http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religionen_in_Deutschland#Entwicklung_der_Religionszugeh.C3.B6rigkeiten

  • Kevin,

    Sorry for the delay.

    True, the Bible does say what you quote, but it also says that only a remnant will be saved (Romans 9:27). So it seems that if Rome is what it says it is, it should provide a way to explain this (apparent) discrepancy. Has Rome provided one? So back to Chris’s point, I left the RCC for reasons just like that. Rome binds the consciences of good people like you on no reasonable, historical or theological basis.

    And Augustine would certainly be thrown out of the Roman communion today. For starters, his doctrine of (double) predestination was condemned by the Council of Orange. Second, his teaching on marital relations, which was the bedrock of RC teaching for centuries was upended by Pius XII, completely on a whim. Augustine’s view of authority, scripture, the sacraments are all outside what Rome teaches today.

    So I hope that you will prayerfully consider this information, Kevin. I don’t mean it to be an affront.

    Peace.

  • Hi Constantine,

    No problem at all, and I don’t take your response as an affront.

    To your first question, I don’t believe there is any defined position on how best to reconcile free will (and God’s desire that all men be saved) with predestination. I do believe that the extreme boundaries of orthodoxy are defined at this point, that is, that no one can totally reject free will or predestination, in some sense. This would, I believe, exclude the view that God creates particular men and women for the sole purpose of reprobation, and the view that God is the author of evil, but there is a lot of liberty here. I could be wrong, but I think this is correct.

    St. Augustine, incidentally, sets out these exact same boundaries dozens of times in City of God, explicitly rejecting what would later be known as double predestination. I understand that at other times St. Augustine seems to imply double predestination, but certainly when he wrote City of God he did not accept it, and my recollection is that his “arguments” for double predestination are more in the form of admittedly speculative theology.

    A few points on the Council of Orange. The Council was local and is not considered ecumenical (that is, is not believed by Catholics to be part of the extraordinary, infallible magisterium). However, I think the teachings of Orange are totally consistent with Catholic teaching, and as I recall it was essentially the teaching of the then-pope, relying considerably on the theological insights of St. Augustine. So Orange didn’t condemn Augustine.

    I have no idea what you refer to in terms of why the Catholic Church would expel him for his beliefs on marital relations… The Catholic Church in those days (and St. Augustine) and the Church today believe that marriage is a sacrament, is permanent, and that contraception is wrong.

    In terms of St. Augustine’s views on authority, scripture, and the sacraments, I suppose there are at least two ways of looking at it. First, we could simply make a list of doctrines that he holds in common with Catholics v. those he holds in common with (some) Protestants. For example, he accepted all seven Catholic sacraments, he believed they worked ex opere operato, he accepted the primacy of the bishop of Rome, the authority of the visible Church that was one, apostolic succession, the episcopacy, baptismal regeneration, the real presence, purgatory, prayers for the dead, the Catholic canon of scripture, teaching against contraception/divorce, veneration of relics, the perpetual virginity and sinlessness of Mary, the division between mortal and venial sin, the veneration and invocation of the saints, etc. etc. On the other hand, he seems to (at times) support double predestination, which some Protestants today support against Catholics, etc. etc. I’d say it’s obvious that St. Augustine is more like a modern Catholic than a modern Protestant in terms of his doctrine, but evidently John Calvin either thought otherwise or thought it was important to make it seem like he thought otherwise.

    Another and possibly more fruitful way to look at it is through St. Augustine’s life, his actions, and not just his doctrine. He was a bishop. He believed himself to be a successor of the apostles. He was the only Catholic ordinary in Hippo. He was in full communion with the bishop of Rome throughout the entirety of his ministry. He was trained by St. Ambrose of Milan. He committed himself to celibacy. Most Protestants don’t even have bishops (or promises of life-long celibacy), much less full communion with the Roman pontiff. Whether or not all of his beliefs line of up with the developments of Christian doctrine that would come after his death seems less relevant than the facts of his own biography.

    In your last comment you wrote, “Just as Augustine railed against Rome when it erred, we should so do today.” I can understand your desire to “rail against Rome” as a Protestant, but I don’t understand grounding your right in the historical claim that “Augustine railed against Rome when it erred.” Do you have a single example?

    You wrote, “Rome binds the consciences of good people like you on no reasonable, historical or theological basis.” I assume you mean to say only that Rome binds the consciences of good people on reasonable, historical, or theological grounds that you think are actually unproven or not crystal-clear from scripture. The Church certainly doesn’t ever define doctrines that don’t have an extensive basis in reason, history, and theological study. You can argue that the Church hasn’t totally convinced you on these grounds, but you can’t argue that she doesn’t make these arguments.

    Peace to you brother,

    Kevin

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