The Catholic Controversy

Saint Francis de Sales Rule of Faith

“If then the Church can err, O Calvin, O Luther, to whom shall I have recourse in my difficulties? To the Scripture, say they. But what shall I, poor man, do, for it is precisely about the Scripture that my difficulty lies. I am not in doubt whether I must believe the Scripture or not, for who knows not that it is the Word of Truth? What keeps me in anxiety is the understanding of this Scripture, is the conclusions to be drawn from it, which are innumerable and diverse and opposite on the same subject, and everybody takes his view, one this, another that, though out of all there is but one which is sound…Everybody would embark on the ship of the Holy Spirit; there is but one, and only that one shall reach the port, all the rest are on their way to shipwreck. Ah, what danger am I in of erring! All shout out their claims with equal assurance and thus deceive the greater part, for all boasts that theirs is the ship. Whoever say that our Master has not left us guides in so dangerous and difficult a way, says that he wishes us to perish. Whoever says that he has put us aboard at the mercy of wind and tide, without giving us a skillful pilot able to use properly his compass and chart, says that the Savior is wanting in foresight. Whoever says that this good father has sent us into this school of the Church, knowing that error was taught there, says that he intended to foster our vice and our ignorance. Who has ever heard of an academy which everybody taught and nobody was a scholar? Such would be the Christian commonwealth if the Church can err. For if the Church herself err, who shall not err? And if each one in it err, or can err, to whom shall I betake myself for instruction? To Calvin? But why to him rather than to Luther, or Brentius, or Pacimontanus?”

– Saint Francis de Sales, The Catholic Controversy –

In order to accomplish his assigned mission of bringing Calvinist Geneva back to Mother Church, Saint Francis de Sales wrote a series of apologetic pamphlets defending the faith against the “pretended ministers” of the “reformation.” This series of pamphlets became, The Catholic Controversy: A Defense of the Faith. In addition to reigniting the souls in Geneva, this remarkable book was the final nail in the coffin of my commitment to Protestantism and Calvinist theology.

The ongoing theological and philosophical arguments between Catholics and Protestants have not substantially changed since Martin Luther instigated the Protestant revolt. The heresy of Protestantism continues to linger while Catholic truth endures. The erudition of Saint Francis lucidly exposes the errors of the pretended ministers. Every important innovative doctrine espoused by — Luther, Calvin, Beza, Zwingli etc. — are heretical teachings. What ever doctrines were not invented during this era were taken from the Catholic Church; hence, Protestants borrow from the very worldview they seek to undermine.

The most basic issue between Catholics and Protestants comes down to one word – authority. Who has the authority to define and proclaim Christian truth? The problem of authority is the very first issue Saint Francis addresses in his work. Once all Protestant claims to an authoritative mission to reform the Church have been undercut, everything else starts to crumble under the weight of their philosophical and theological fraudulence. Like a house built upon sand, Protestant theology cannot weather the storm of Catholic truth.

Here are some of the best passages from Saint Francis demonstrating the illegitimate authority proclaimed by Protestant ministers:

“First, then, your ministers had not the conditions required for the position which they sought to maintain, and the enterprise which they undertook. Wherefore they are inexcusable, and you yourselves also, who knew and still know or ought to know this defect in them, have done very wrong in receiving them under such colors. The office they claimed was that of ambassadors of Jesus Christ Our Lord; the affair they undertook was to declare a formal divorce between Our Lord and the ancient Church his spouse, to arrange and conclude by words of present consent, as lawful procurators, a second and new marriage with this young madam, of better grace, said they, and more seemly than the other. For in effect, to stand up as preacher of God’s Word and pastor of souls – what is it but to call oneself ambassador and legate of Our Lord, according to that of the Apostle: We are therefore ambassadors for Christ? And to say that the whole of Christendom has failed, that the whole Church has erred, and all truth disappeared – what is this but to say that Our Lord has abandoned his Church, has broken the sacred tie of marriage he had contracted with her? And to put forward a new Church – is it not to attempt to thrust upon this sacred and holy Husband a second wife? This is what the ministers of the pretended church have undertaken; this is what they boast of having done; this has been the aim of their discourses, their designs, their writings. But what an injustice have you not committed in believing them? How did you come to take their word so simply? How did you so lightly give them credit?” (Pg. 3)

“And first, as to ordinary and mediate mission, they have none whatever. For what they can put forward is either that they are sent by the people and secular princes, or else that they are sent by the imposition of hands of the bishops who made them priests, a dignity to which at last they must have recourse, although they despise it altogether and everywhere. Now, if they say the secular magistrates and people have sent them, they will have two proofs to give which they never can give, the one that the seculars have done it, the other that they could do it, for we deny both the fact and the right.” (Pg. 5)

Here is the primary conundrum that the first reformers were faced with,

“If it be that from which they have taken mission, their mission is false, for from a false church there cannot spring a true mission. Whichever way it be, they had not mission to preach what they preached, because, if the Church in which they have been ordained were true, they are heretics for having left it, and for having preached against its belief, and if it were not true it could not give them mission.” (Pg. 8)

The opening chapters continue in this fashion, plainly demonstrating that the Protestant ministers have absolutely no authority to preach their message, let alone the authority to proclaim new theological truths. How are Protestants supposed to get around this dilemma? This is where the doctrine of Sola Scriptura comes into play. This doctrine, says that Scripture, the written word of God, is the only infallible rule of faith and practice for the Church. According to Protestantism all revealed truth, whether formal or material, are contained in the 66 books of the Protestant version of the Bible. There is nothing outside of Scripture that is divinely inspired, therefore nothing outside of Scripture is authoritative in comparison.

There are multitudinous problems with this doctrine, but the most significant obstacle for this teaching is that Scripture does not teach it. Even James White, in his debate with Gerry Matatics, admits that 2 Timothy 3:16-17 does not use the word “only” when discussing inspired Scripture as a rule of faith and profitable for teaching. Moreover, the doctrine of Sola Scriptura doesn’t make sense given the historical fact that the written Word of God is preceded by a Church commanded by Christ to “do this” with respect to the Eucharist, rather than to “write this” with respect to the New Testament documents.

G.K. Chesterton beautifully exposes the fundamental mistake in the idea of stripping the written word of God from the bosom of the Church ordained to protect the revealed truth contained within the Scriptures,

“To this I owe the fact that I find it very difficult to take some of the Protestant propositions even seriously. What is any man who has been in the real outer world, for instance, to make of the everlasting cry that Catholic traditions are condemned by the Bible? It indicates a jumble of topsy-turvy tests and tail foremost arguments, of which I never could at any time see any sense. The ordinary sensible skeptic or pagan is standing in the street (in the supreme character of the man in the street) and he sees a procession go by of the priests of some strange cult, carrying their object of worship under a canopy, some of them wearing high head-dresses and carrying symbolical staffs, others carrying scrolls and sacred records, others carrying sacred images and lighted candles before them, others sacred relics in caskets or cases, and so on. I can understand the spectator saying, “this is all hocus-pocus”; I can even understand him, in moments of irritation, breaking up the procession, throwing down the images, tearing up the scrolls, dancing on the priests and anything else that might express that general view. I can understand his saying, “Your croziers are bosh, your candles are bosh, your statues and scrolls and relics and all the rest of it are bosh.” But in what conceivable frame of mind does he rush in to select one particular scroll of the scriptures of this one particular group (a scroll which had always belonged to them and been a part of their hocus-pocus, if it was hocus-pocus); why in the world should the man in the street say that one particular scroll was not bosh, but was the one and only truth by which all the other things were to be condemned? Why should it not be as superstitious to worship the scrolls as the statues, of that one particular procession? Why should it not be as reasonable to preserve the statues as the scrolls, by the tenets of that particular creed? To say to the priests, “Your statues and scrolls are condemned by our common sense,” is sensible. To say, “Your statues are condemned by your scrolls, and we are going to worship one part of your procession and wreck the rest,” is not sensible from any standpoint, least of all that of the man in the street.” (The Catholic Church and Conversion, Pg. 39-41)

Consider this passage from Saint Francis on the rule of faith,

“…God revealed his Word and spoke, or preached, by the mouth of the fathers and Prophets, and at last by his own Son, then by the Apostles and evangelists, whose tongues were but as the pens of scribes writing rapidly, God thus employing men to speak to men; so to propose, apply, and declare this his Word, he employs his visible spouse as his mouthpiece and the interpreter of his intentions. It is God then who rules over Christian belief, but with two instruments, in a double way: (1) by his Word as by a formal rule and (2) by his Church as by the hand of the measurer and rule-user. Let us put it thus: God is the painter, our faith the picture, the colors are the Word of God, the brush is the Church. Here then are two ordinary and infallible rules of our belief: the Word of God, which is the fundamental and formal rule; the Church of God, which is the rule of application and explanation.” (Pg. 59)

Sola Scriptura is an attempt to invent a doctrine that undermines the authority of the Church established by Jesus Christ. Additionally, this doctrine has many unintended consequences. The Protestant revolt challenged the divine authority of the Church and conjured a doctrine to support this skeptical attitude. From this skeptical attitude flows, quite naturally, the ability to become skeptical about the divinely inspired written Word of God, which is further supported by the vast discord in Protestant denominationalism. If the Bible has failed to bring unity to those who claim it is the only rule of faith and practice, the Bible’s status of being any kind of reliable source of revelation becomes completely undermined. This became evident in the writing of the Enlightenment philosophers, especially Spinoza. It then follows that if there is no objectively identifiable source of revelation present in the world, maybe there is simply no divine revelation at all; and if there is no divine revelation, maybe there is no God to be seeking in the first place? If there is no God to be sought after, what good is metaphysical speculation when there are more reliable means of understanding reality? If metaphysical speculation is entirely futile, we need a more dependable tool for ascertaining truths about the world. This tool happens to be the scientific method guided by the presupposition of naturalism. This is the current world we are now living in – scientists are believed to be our new priests and the discoveries of physics contained in easily understood pop science literature is believed to be our new sacred scripture. We now live in the age of scientism because of the unintended consequences of the Protestant revolt.

Although this is the spirit of the age, the Catholic Church still remains the “pillar and bulwark of truth.” The Protestant revolt seeking to replace the Catholic Church failed. The Enlightenment project ushering in the aspirations of modernity has also failed. The Church still remains, and she carries with her the truth of the Gospel.

Saint Francis de Sales unashamedly exposed the errors of the pretended ministers during his era. What about today’s pretended ministers? Let us now examine, with Saint Francis as our model controversialist, the errors of contemporary Calvinists seeking to attack the Catholic Church.

James White of Alpha and Omega Ministries is one of the premier anti-Catholic reformed theologians working today. He has debated a number of Catholic apologists and his book, The Roman Catholic Controversy, is the primary script utilized when attempting to refute Catholicism.

When recently re-reading White’s anti-Catholic treatise, I was immediately reminded of the misrepresentations, straw-men, and flat out falsehoods that leap off of every page. This book was clearly a work seeking to rally the troops rather than take Catholicism seriously by addressing her greatest minds and her most powerful arguments. Ironically, on page 31, White says this,

“Our intense dislike of misrepresentation should make us sensitive to our need to portray the beliefs of others accurately. If we want to refute distortions of our own beliefs, we must be careful not to actively misrepresent the beliefs of others.”

You don’t say!

Here is a paragraph perfectly demonstrating one of his many flamboyant parodies of Catholicism (Pg. 49):

“The powerful attraction of this concept should not be underestimated. Rome offers certainty on the basis of her alleged infallibility. Do you want to avoid questions about the canon of Scripture? Trust Rome. So you want to know the Bible is inspired? Trust Rome. Do you want to know exactly how the Gospel works? Trust Rome. Are you troubled by the claims of Jehovahs’ Witnesses and others regarding the Trinity or the deity of Christ? Trust Rome. Does it bother you that you can’t find evidence of Papal Infallibility or the Bodily Assumption of Mary in the Bible (or in the early history of the church for that matter)? Trust Rome! And how could it be otherwise, since she claims the final and ultimate authority in all things religious?”

The errors in this paragraph are legion.

White begins by confusing the idea of an infallible guide for revealed truth identifiable throughout history with his construction of a mindless follower of truth claims who never bothers to learn anything about their faith. Yes, Catholics do trust the authority of the Church, but this trust is often practiced in conjunction with a mountain of struggle, study, thought, prayer, and worship that goes into understanding what these truth claims amount to. White makes it sound as if no Catholic has ever opened a book or thought deeply about their faith, and that Catholics are comfortable with simple answers to tough questions. I can draw from my own conversion experience and know for a fact that when I came to my priest, Fr. Joseph, with an important question he did not say, “Trust Rome” resulting in my walking away with a shoulder shrug satisfied with the answer. Fr. Joseph and I would sit for many hours reasoning through the issues of Transubstantiation, Papal Infallibility, or even the Bodily Assumption of Mary. In addition to my personal experience, the Church would not let my wife get away with the simplicity of “trust Rome” or even the “I trust my husband” solution. Fr. Joseph asked my wife if she was comfortable with joining the Catholic Church. She replied by saying that she trusts my decision and will follow me to the Church that I choose for our family. Fr. Joseph rejected this position. He emphatically reminder her that she was responsible for her decision and that she needs to feel comfortable about becoming a Roman Catholic. Instead of mindlessly “trusting Rome,” Fr. Joseph told my wife she needs to think and pray about this decision.

Not only is this my personal experience, but those in my parish also seek to understand their faith in a deep and profound manner. There are quite a number of programs available to those who are hungry to learn more about their faith. This idea that all in communion with Rome check their mind at the door in exchange for slogans is simply a ridiculous caricature by James White, which happens to violate his own standard of getting his opponent’s views correct as referenced above. Are there people in the Catholic Church that could fit this caricature? I am sure there are many. But how is this any different with regard to the Protestant denominations? Would the laziest members of the Baptist community be enough to mock and refute the truth claims made by this denomination? Not likely. The purpose of such a description is to paint an immediate negative image of those in communion with the Catholic Church in order for White’s readers to scoff at the very possibility that Catholicism should be taken seriously. It is an exercise of confirmation bias, not serious scholarship or argumentation.

Another error I would like to address is this concept of not trusting an authority with regard to revealed truth claims. This mentality is entirely ahistorical. Take out the series of “Trust Rome” proclamations and replace them with “Trust the apostles” and we can begin to see that White’s mocking is an egregious error. Trusting the appropriate authorities seems to be one of many significant realities of the early Church. Since there was no New Testament canon, and most people were illiterate, they had to quite literally trust the apostles when pressed with the hard questions similar to those listed above in White’s paragraph.

Let’s look at a series of questions examining this:

  1. So you have trouble accepting the doctrine of the Trinity? Trust the apostles.
  2. Do you have a problem accepting the concept that there is only one God rather than many gods? Trust the apostles.
  3. Do you find it difficult to believe God became a man, died on a cross, and defeated death? Trust the apostles.
  4. Do you have a tough time accepting the idea that in order to have eternal life one must eat the flesh of Christ and drink the blood of Christ? Trust the apostles.
  5. Does reason cause you to doubt the idea of the Incarnation and the Hypostatic Union? Trust the apostles.

Should we mock any of this? No, of course not. We would say yes, trust the apostles. Not only because what they say is true, but because they have the authority to make such proclamations. They were given this authority by Jesus himself, “Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.” (Luke 10:16) Moreover, this authority was handed down by the twelve to their successors within the authoritative structure of the sacramental priesthood. For example, to reject the teaching of Timothy would be to reject the teaching of Paul, which would be to reject the teaching of Christ, which would be to reject the Father who sent the Son.

Let’s not only replace the “Trust Rome” mantra created by White, but let’s also replace my comparative “Trust the apostles” examples with something Protestants can get on board with – “Trust the Bible.”

  1. So you have trouble accepting the doctrine of the Trinity? Trust the Bible.
  2. So you have trouble accepting the regenerative effects of water baptism? Trust the Bible.
  3. Do you have a tough time accepting the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist? Trust the Bible.
  4. Are you uncomfortable with the idea of offering prayers for the dead? Trust the Bible.
  5. Is it difficult to understand how the end-times are going to unfold? Trust the Bible.

This series of questions is getting at something very important – we cannot trust the Bible alone on these issues because these issues are what are in dispute in the first place. In addition to this, the Catholic is going to have a larger set of Scriptures to work from than that of the Protestant. Question #4 is easy to settle in the Catholic canon, but is going to be much more difficult to settle from the smaller Protestant canon. So this immediately pushes us to ask the question, who has the authority to settle these issues? In fact, who has the authority to decide what is allowed in the canon of Scripture in the first place?

As I said in the beginning of this article, the issue comes down to authority.

Imagine a person is investigating whether they should join the Catholic Church or to join James White’s “church”. This person, let’s call him Alex, has been studying for a long time and has James White, as well as a priest, sitting across a table discussing the relevant issues under dispute. This could range from the topics of justification, sanctification, the Eucharist, baptism etc. James White will be arguing that Alex should reject the teaching of the priest when discerning these matters. Instead, Alex should trust White’s claims with regard to what he accepts as the canon of Scripture, his exegesis of this canon, his interpretation of Church history, his understanding of worship, his philosophical commitments etc. White isn’t saying that Alex should simply trust Scripture, since understanding the Scriptures is what is under dispute. James White is saying to trust James White. He is saying, trust the traditions of Calvin and Calvinism (or his understanding of Calvin). He is saying to trust his views on baptism, communion, justification, sanctification, the rejection of the priesthood, and the belittling of the Blessed Virgin Mary, because he has set himself up as an authority over and against the authoritative claims of the Catholic Church. White is saying that Alex must make a choice to trust the Scripture, tradition, and magisterium of those who revolted against the Church, eventually aligning themselves with Calvin rather than Luther or the Methodists or the Anabaptists etc.; or to trust the Scripture, Tradition, and Magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church. Alex must submit to an authority or stand up as Martin Luther once did and say, “Here I stand,” whereby he chooses a path that submits to nothing other than his autonomous self, which is ironically aligned with White’s reformation tradition. Moreover, Alex could say, “You know what? Let’s bring in a Presbyterian, a Methodist, a Lutheran, a Pentecostal, an Episcopalian, an Anglican, and maybe a liberal and conservative version of each denomination. While we are at it, let’s bring in a Mormon and a Jehovah’s Witness as well, since after all, they are merely repeating the motto of Martin Luther.”

In fact, why even stop there? Why not invite an atheist, a pantheist, a polytheist etc. to the table? If all of these different traditions of Christianity are unable to properly discern revealed truth, maybe they are all full of it in the first place? Scientific naturalism seems to get a lot of things correct, and these guys are a lot more humble than the arrogant pontifications of James White. Maybe atheism is more appealing than submission to Calvinism. If Alex is going to be submitting to nothing but his subjectively chosen value preferences when choosing a denomination, he might as well go all they way and embrace his autonomy and reject revelation altogether.

If this scenario were to take place, something interesting would likely happen. The narrative presented by the Catholic priest would start to sound quite appealing among the perpetual clanging of those protesting the claims of Rome. In fact, Alex would begin to realize the only place of agreement existing among these more “conservative” versions of the Protestant factions is what they have borrowed from the Roman Catholic Church, including the New Testament canon, and their unified pronouncements against the Catholic Church to make such infallible declarations! If the priest were a well-trained Thomist, the scientific naturalism being offered as a viable alternative would be defeated as well. If Alex were serious about his investigations, there would eventually be one person at the table making the most sense. Moreover, the priest would not be saying, “Repent and follow my tradition.” No. He would be saying, “Repent and follow Christ through his Church.” Alex would be submitting to Christ and entering into his organic body of believers.

Catholicism is controversial. It is the ark of the Church that defies the perilous flood of worldly error, and only in her can the fullness of truth be experienced. The pedigree of the pretended ministers is marked by a rebellion against revealed truth, and divinely instituted authority. The pedigree of the Catholic Church has four important marks – One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic.


– Lucas G. Westman

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