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Was Paul Anti-Catholic?

Catholics recognize that Jesus founded only one Church. Vatican II’s document Lumen Gentium (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church) states, “This Church constituted and organized in the world as a society, subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the bishops in communion with him” (8).

This statement was made in the spirit of ecumenism to promote unity among Christians. After all, Jesus intended his Church to be one, not a conglomeration of many different denominations. The fullness of that one Church subsists in the Catholic Church.

Opposed to this teaching, though, is a train of thought which appeals to Scripture in an attempt to pit St. Paul against the constant teachings of the Catholic Church, including the governing authority of the office of Peter and his successors. Some Christians quote specific Pauline verses as direct refutations of Catholic teaching and claim that, if Paul were living today, he would not be a Catholic. Let’s look at some of those verses.

Shrines Made by Man

In the Acts of the Apostles, Paul proclaims, “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all men life and breath and everything” (17:24-25).

Non-Catholics sometimes quote this passage to refute Catholic teachings on the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist and the sacramental priesthood. Since the Eucharist is reserved in tabernacles and worshipped by the Catholic faithful, Catholics are said to be in conflict with Paul’s teaching that God “does not live in shrines made by man.” The sacramental priesthood is said to be unbiblical, as God is not “served by human hands.” The claim goes that Paul’s words oppose related Catholic teaching and practice.

Of course, understood in its proper context, this passage addresses neither tabernacles nor Catholic priests. On Paul’s second missionary journey, he traveled to Athens, where the pagans worshipped multiple gods. Even today, pagan temples and ruins can be found throughout much of the city. In Paul’s day, a site just below the Acropolis served as a type of court—the Areopagus. Paul had been preaching in the local synagogues and marketplace before he was brought to the Areopagus to explain his teaching. There, his words in Acts were significant to those who heard them.

I visited the Areopagus in 2007 while on the Catholic Answers Cruise to the Mediterranean. I heard Catholic apologist Steve Ray recite Paul’s words on location. As Steve read, “God . . . does not live in shrines made by man,” he pointed to the many pagan temples and shrines still visible today. It was clear that the “human hands” Paul spoke of were the hands of the pagans worshipping false gods in these structures.

In fact, Paul was not condemning Catholic tabernacles and priests. His belief in the Real Presence and the priesthood are evident elsewhere in his writings. For example, Paul could only have in mind the Real Presence when he asked, “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (1 Cor 10:16).

Also consider, “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself . . . For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself” (1 Cor 11:27-29).

As for the sacramental priesthood, Luke attested to Paul’s Catholic belief in Acts:

[Paul and Barnabas] returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, exhorting them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they believed. (Acts 14:21-23, emphasis added)

Elders here is translated from the Greek word presbyterous, from which we get the English word “presbyter,” the official name of the office of Catholic priest.

Paul expected Titus (and others) to do likewise: “This is why I left you in Crete, that you might amend what was defective, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you” (Ti 1:5).

Everything God Created Is Good

Another Pauline passage sometimes offered as a challenge to Catholicism is the following:

Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by giving heed to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, through the pretensions of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and enjoin abstinence from foods which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving; for then it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer. (1 Tm 4:1-5)

The claim is that Paul today would oppose the Catholic practices of a celibate priesthood—said to “forbid marriage”—and Lenten fasting and abstinence. These disciplines are described as, in Paul’s own words, “doctrines of demons.”

Again, though, understood in proper historical context, we find that Paul was not referring to Catholic disciplines at all. Rather, he was speaking about Gnosticism, which opposed anything material and forbade marriage among its followers. And the Jewish faith’s dietary laws required complete abstinence from certain “unclean” foods. Paul opposed these doctrines.

In contrast, however, Paul embraced the Catholic disciplines of priestly celibacy and sacrificial abstinence (i.e. forgoing a good for a greater purpose). Consider these passages related to celibacy:

  • To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain single as I do (1 Cor 7:8).
  • I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried woman or girl is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord . . . [H]e who marries his betrothed does well; and he who refrains from marriage will do better. A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. If the husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord. But in my judgment she is happier if she remains as she is (1 Cor 7:32-35, 38-40).

Also, recall Acts 14:23 (quoted above) in which Paul commends fasting: “[W]ith prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they believed” (Acts 14:23).

These passages alone leave little doubt that Paul would approve of today’s Catholic disciplines of priestly celibacy and Lenten fasting and abstinence.

Cephas Corrected, Respectfully

Finally some non-Catholics claim that Paul did not recognize our first pope’s authority. To illustrate this, they cite the following passage:

[W]hen Cephas [Peter] came to Antioch I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he ate with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And with him the rest of the Jews acted insincerely, so that even Barnabas was carried away by their insincerity. But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?” (Gal 2:11-14)

Peter knew that Christians were not bound by Jewish dietary laws and, therefore, he did not follow them because he ate with Gentiles. But when Jewish converts entered the scene, it seems Peter went back to observing those laws so as not to offend the converts. This was problematic because the Gentile Christians sensed a separation from their religious leader. Paul did well to correct Peter, and such fraternal correction was not disrespectful toward Peter’s office. Fraternal correction is an act of charity—even in relation to a pope, for popes are sinners!

Scripture shows ample evidence that Paul readily submitted to the authority of Peter’s office. Consider Galatians 2, which took place about 17 years into Paul’s missionary ministry after his conversion (cf. Gal 1:18, 2:1): “I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along with me. I went up by revelation; and I laid before them (but privately before those who were of repute) the gospel which I preach among the Gentiles, lest somehow I should be running or had run in vain” (Gal 2:1-2).

It seems from this passage that Paul wanted to be certain that his own teaching was in conformity with the teaching of Peter and the apostles. Indeed, although Paul considered himself an apostle, he considered himself least among them: “Last of all, as to one untimely born, [Jesus] appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God” (1 Cor 15:8-9).

Paul Was Catholic to the Core

Ultimately, scriptural evidence proves that Paul embraced Catholic teaching and discipline, and he fully submitted to Peter’s authority. In fact, like the spirit of ecumenism emphasized by Vatican II and Lumen Gentium, Paul, too, rejected division and exhorted Catholic unity: “I appeal to you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no dissensions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment” (1 Cor 1:10).

Let us pray for Christian unity through the conversion of all Christians to the fullness of the faith which subsists only in the Catholic Church.

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