From the outside, the Catholic Church seems overtly judgmental, especially when you combine it with Hollywood’s skewed representation of its history and clergy. But from a policy point of view, the Catholic Church is far less judgmental than depicted—in fact far less judgmental than just about any institution, political or religious. The Church may, on rare occasion, excommunicate someone but the act is intended to bring the person back into the fold, and prevent a final judgment that leads to damnation. The vast majority of moral judgments are not made by the authority of the Church but by the individual. That’s right—we are to judge ourselves before God while the Church simply trusts that you will judge yourself thoroughly in the light of Church teaching and a carefully examined conscience.
When I go to Mass, no one stands at the door waiting with a spiritual body wand and interrogates me to determine if I am sufficiently pre-disposed to participate in the sacred ritual. When we begin Mass with the Penitent Rite it is I, not the priest or anyone else, who am to examine myself, recollect my sins, acknowledge them, and repent. When I receive communion, no one withholds the bread from me as a summary judgement. If I am in a state of unconfessed mortal sin and willingly received communion against church teaching, it’s my eternity on the line—not the priests, not the pope, not the guy behind me.
No one makes me go to confession or scour my mind to make sure I have confessed all my wrongdoing—confession is not tribunal. I am to examine my own conscience. I am to make the unilateral decision to go to confession and to continually amend my life in the process of salvation. The Church merely provides the sacrament of confession for me to use.
The Church may canonize saints and determine them to be in the beatific presence of God. But they will never canonize an individual to the depths of hell no matter how reprobate, heretical, or heinous their earthly life. That judgment belongs to God. The Church body is to pray for the deceased regardless, not assuming they went to heaven nor assuming they went to hell. Compare that to the typical Protestant funeral where everyone makes the assumption they went straight to paradise or avoid the idea that the individual was never saved and ended up you-know-where. It’s all buttered over because the alternative is to renounce key doctrines of the Reformation—salvation through grace alone or the non-existence of purgatory. And sadly, praying for the dead—a source of solace for the bereaved—is discarded in those traditions.
I am often asked by Bible Christians why the Church doesn’t excommunicate or expel Catholic politicians like Nancy Pelosi, Joseph Biden, Tim Kaine, or Mario Cuomo—politicians who support policies that protect the abortion industry knowing that abortion is a mortal sin in the teaching of the Church and those who facilitate it are also culpable. For the reasons mentioned above, these politicians who know (or should know) Church teaching and go ahead and disobey it or circumvent it willingly and continue to participate in the sacramental life of the Church may be heaping judgment on themselves in the ultimately analysis. But that is not the prerogative of the Church even after such people pass into the next life. The Church mission is to continue to bring everyone to repentance through moral teaching and the ministry of the sacraments. The decision to excommunicate such politicians publicly would be counter-productive anyway: it would likely alienate the individual and be distorted by the media to vilify the “intolerant” Church.
As a final note, late last year, the daughter of an ENT doctor that has often cared for our family passed away. She was a young woman in her thirties and needless to say, her passing was a tragedy— no parent should have to bury their child. The same beloved doctor was also a patient of my parish priest who put the young woman in our bulletin and mentioned her by name at the Mass during the prayer of the faithful. When she passed away, the repose for her soul was also sought during the Sunday Mass—all par for the Catholic course.
Now once upon a time, the idea of praying for the dead would have seemed strange and non-Biblical. But even as a newly minted Catholic assenting to the teachings of the Church, praying for a woman who, as far as anyone knew, died an unbaptized Muslim, seemed wrong to me. Admittedly, a remnant of Bible Christianity was hanging onto my thinking which adhered to the old binary decision: trusted in Jesus? Heaven; did not trust in Jesus? Hell. Ne-e-e-xt!
And this is the summary metric many Bible Christians use to judge themselves—“because I trusted in Jesus at some point in time, I KNOW that I am going to heaven!” I know? I know? I think it is more accurate to say “I presume” if you say anything, but only God KNOWS. Although we are to continually judge ourselves in the light of Church teaching, the final judgement is not ours—it is God’s.
In Matthew 7:21 Jesus says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”
Do you say “Lord, Lord” in the current life? Then this verse should terrify you. It does me, along with Luke 13:22-30 which talks about making every effort to enter through the narrow gate. You will notice that this comports with the doctrine of salvation through grace and works. It never really says to sit down and convince yourself that you are saved once and for all and repeat it over and over again until you and everyone around you are solidly convinced. From a Catholic perspective that’s extremely dangerous—and, oddly, many an American Catholic believes it [As one put it, many American Catholics are no more than Calvinists that go to Mass]. About the most one might deign to hope for is a slot in purgatory and making every effort to enter into that narrow gate as commanded by the Creator of the Universe. I pray that my friends, family and readers embrace this timeless, very Biblical, teaching of the Church. And it is good to know that when you pass on to the next life, the Church militant continues to pray for you.
Eventually I asked my parish priest about our prayers for the young Muslim woman. He reminded me that it was arrogant to assume that the only people in heaven are Catholic. Really! Was he repudiating the teaching of the one true holy, catholic and apostolic Church? On the contrary, he was upholding it. Now maybe heaven is populated with only Catholics—but it is not our place to presume or decide—it is the decision of the final Judge. And we are not to be judgmental about the souls in the hereafter, but faithful in our spiritual duty here on Earth—and making every effort ourselves to enter through the narrow gate.