They travel in pairs, carrying copies of their magazines. They’re Jehovah’s Witnesses (JWs), part of a non-Christian religion. Their publishing house—the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society (WTS)—is headquartered in Brooklyn, New York, and publishes two magazines that appear twice each month: Awake!, which is a general interest magazine with occasional religious content, and The Watchtower, which more formally presents the doctrines and beliefs of the WTS and is usually intended for initiates or those who have at least expresssed an interest in knowing more about the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
It doesn’t take long, after browsing through a few issues, to learn that the Witnesses have a fixation with Catholicism. They devote an inordinate amount of space in their magazines to attacks on Catholic beliefs. On the whole, the debunking is done in a relatively inoffensive manner, but nonetheless it’s obvious which ecclesiastical organization is seen as the great enemy. (In the 1920s and 1930s—the era of "Judge" Rutherford, the second president of the WTS—the attacks on the Catholic Church were more virulent and direct, but the WTS has since toned down its approach.) Let’s look at representative issues, but first it’s necessary to understand the WTS’s use of anonymity in its articles and publications.
Privacy at All Costs
The officials in Brooklyn value anonymity highly. The Jehovah’s Witnesses publish their own translation of the Bible—the so-called New World Translation (NWT)—which was produced by committee, but the names of the committee members have not been revealed by the WTS. This version is used routinely—but not exclusively—in their publications. It should be noted that JWs will use other Bible translations, but only when it suits their purposes to do so.
The NWT is universally rejected by non-Witnesses, including secular Greek and Hebrew scholars. These scholars, and informed critics of the Watchtower, speculate that few of the members who served on the committee were experienced as translators or even knew the rudiments of Hebrew or Greek; the NWT appears to be little more than a modification of already-existing English versions. It was by means of two former Witnesses, Bill Cetnar (who worked in the Brooklyn headquarters) and Raymond Franz (a former member of the WTS’s Governing Body) that the identity of the committee members became known and therefore that the scholars’ suspicions were confirmed. According to Cetnar and Franz, only one member of the committee (Frederick Franz, fourth WTS president and Raymond Franz’s uncle) studied biblical languages at all, and he studied non-biblical Greek for only two years.
Also, with the exception of some personal testimony stories, readers of both magazines will fail to find the names of people who authored the various articles contained in them. The WTS does this partly because it supresses individuality within the organization and partly because it prevents the reader from examining an author’s requisite credentials to teach on the given subject matter. Witnesses are taught to submit to the WTS, not to question its publications. Consequently, the anonymity is understandable.
The November 8, 1988, issue of Awake! features on its cover a painting of the Virgin and the title, "Mary: The Answer to World Crisis?" Inside are seven short articles about Mary and Marian devotion. All but one, a personal conversion story, are anonymous. The byline for the first, for instance, is this: "By Awake! correspondent in Italy."
The first article in Awake! is about a recent Marian year. Like other pieces Awake! has run about things Catholic, it takes swipes at the Church of Rome. The reader is told that "traditionalist Catholics" were pleased with the televised proclamation of the Marian Year, but "for others, both Catholics and non-Catholics, it was a useless waste of money, a ‘cosmic show’ of doubtful taste."
Why did Pope John Paul II proclaim a Marian year in the first place? Because, "for quite some time, in the more conservative Catholic spheres, there has been concern over the fact that Marian worship seems to have been obscured." (Notice that Catholic doctrine has been subtly misrepresented. Catholics do not "worship" Mary, but they do honor and venerate her. Such misrepresentation is not an uncommon occurrence in the pages of WTS publications.) The writer says there were other motives—for instance, it was hoped that increased pilgrimages to Marian shrines would result in increased priestly vocations.
Not all Catholics were pleased that a Marian year had been proclaimed. "Catholic priest Franco Barbero [otherwise unidentified] caused a stir when he publicly declared that he never prayed to Mary. In his ‘Letter to Mary,’ Barbero states that she has been crushed ‘under a mountain of dogmas, relics, devotionalisms, legends, superstition.’ The same priest has also stated that even ‘speaking of a "year of Mary" could raise legitimate perplexities.’"
So far, these complaints sound as though they could come from any "Bible Christian" or even any secularist. But the Witnesses have twists of their own. The Awake! author asks why so many Catholics have become "Madonna worshipers." He answers, "There are many reasons. Some of them stem directly from doctrines taught by the Catholic Church. For example, since the Church teaches that Jesus is equal to God, this leaves no independent intermediary between man and God. God and Christ, surrounded by an aura of Trinitarian mystery, are no longer approachable, and for this reason the role of ‘intermediary’ between the Divinity and humankind has been delegated to the ‘Madonna.’"
These lines might be confusing to those who don’t realize that the Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t believe in the Trinity. They believe that Jesus is not divine, is not the Second Person of the Trinity—in fact, that there is no Second Person, because there is no Trinity in their view. If Jesus is not divine, what is he? A creature, though the best of creatures. He was the first thing created by God and had a prehuman existence, and it was through him, as an agent, that God created everything else.
Jesus Only an Archangel
Still, he’s only a creature. The miracles he performed attested not to his own divinity, but to approval of him by God. In heaven, Jesus is now known as Michael. (This identification of Jesus and Michael the Archangel relies on Jude 9, Daniel 10:13 and 12:1, and Revelation 12:7-8. Read them for yourself and see how far-fetched this is.)
What these beliefs of the Witnesses amount to is the ancient heresy of Arianism, which is nothing new. Athanasius battled it a millennium and a half ago. The Witnesses, in condemning Marian doctrines, often come up with reasons of their own, quite distinct from those given by Fundamentalists. Like Fundamentalists, they oppose giving Mary the title Theotokos (Greek for "One who bore God" or, less literally, "Mother of God"). "It does not appear in the Bible," writes the anonymous author. Worse, "she cannot be described as the ‘Mother of God’ for the simple reason that Jesus was not ‘God the Son,’ but ‘the Son of God.’ The Trinity doctrine was no part of ancient Hebrew belief and is not taught in the Bible."
No Fundamentalist would argue like this. He would agree that the notion of Mary as Theotokos does not appear in the Bible (and he’d be wrong), but he’d never argue that Mary isn’t the Mother of God on the grounds that Jesus isn’t God. The Fundamentalist fully accepts our Lord’s divinity.
Awake! is not adverse to misquoting and twisting the words of Catholic writers when doing so can help them slam the Church. Referring to Mary, the anonymous writer says, "The [Catholic] Church claims she was always virgin. While the Bible itself specifically states that Mary was ‘a virgin’ before giving birth to Jesus, ‘virginity after childbirth is not indicated in the New Testament,’ writes Catholic theologian [René] Laurentin." This makes it seem that Laurentin, an expert in Mariology, disbelieves in the perpetual virginity of Mary. Quite the opposite. What he was saying is that the New Testament doesn’t say, in so many words, that Mary remained a virgin after Jesus’ birth—and it also doesn’t say she didn’t. But this quote is a typical example of how the WTS will cite sources in a selective and slanted manner: First, readers of WTS publications are never given the context of the sources cited. Second, the WTS will quote only a portion of relevant passages, giving the appearance that the author holds a view directly opposite of what he or she actually believes—and this opposite view conveniently supports WTS beliefs. Third, the WTS rarely provides sufficient references for their sources, leaving readers unable to check the sources for themselves.
Perfectly good arguments can be made that the New Testament does, indeed, establish Mary’s perpetual virginity, but Laurentin was only acknowledging that we won’t find in the text a line that says, "And Mary never had any other children." We are left to infer that from other facts given to us in the text.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ other magazine is The Watchtower. Twenty-two million copies of each issue are printed in well over 100 languages, and about a third of those copies are in English. (Awake! has a somewhat smaller circulation.)
The December 1, 1988, issue of The Watchtower features a photograph of a cathedral on its cover. Superimposed is the question, "What Traditions Please God?" Apparently not something like All Souls’ Day, which "seems strange or even bizarre to an outside observer." And well it might, since we’re told that it and many other "religious traditions are plainly derived from, or at least [are] astonishingly similar to, non-Christian religious rites. For example, All Souls’ Day virtually parallels the Buddhist festival of ‘Ullambana,’ a day set aside for ‘the expression of filial piety to deceased ancestors and the release of spirits from bondage to this world.’" The New Encyclopedia Britannica is cited as the source of the last quotation. The (again) anonymous author asks, "Are followers of such traditions really worshipping in truth?" He refers the reader to John 4:23, "The true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth."
The next paragraph is a give-away. It throws a bright light on the author’s confusion. It says: "Some argue that the mere acceptance of traditions into the Church justifies them. Said the Second Vatican Council in 1965: ‘It is not from sacred Scripture alone that the Church draws her certainty about everything which has been revealed. Therefore both sacred Tradition and sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of devotion and reverence.’"
The confusion here is equating mere traditions—customs or ways of doing things—with Tradition, the oral teaching given by Jesus to the apostles and passed through their successors, the bishops. Vatican II, in this passage, was talking about "upper-case" Tradition, not "lower-case" tradition. The writer for The Watchtower was either grossly ignorant of the meaning of Catholic terms, or he tried to pull a fast one here, knowing that the word "Tradition"—also called "sacred Tradition"—implies something other than mere "tradition"—or "human tradition."
Such an approach is not unusual for the WTS, which often misrepresents or confuses official Catholic doctrine, and then refutes the mistaken notion rather than the actual teaching. This approach is called the "straw man" tactic. The misrepresented belief, which is essentially "made of nothing" and thus called a "straw man," is set up and then easily refuted or "knocked down." To the unsuspecting person, this tactic makes the WTS appear quite scholarly and biblically astute. The danger, however, lies in the fact that the WTS is refuting beliefs and teachings which are not legitimate Catholic doctrine.
All Souls’ Day is a custom the Church developed centuries after the apostles, not a doctrine. Yet when Vatican II speaks of Tradition, it refers only to those doctrines and practices which have been handed down from the apostles, either implicitly or explicitly. It is only the latter—those which have come down to us from the apostles—that are automatically accepted. Those invented later can be changed, modified, or even abandoned as needed.
In any event, there is nothing wrong with All Souls’ Day. The Bible teaches that we should pray for the dead (2 Macc. 12:44-45—though Witnesses rely on the Protestant canon of Scripture, which cut this book out of the Bible). And no serious historian would claim that All Souls’ Day is in any way derived from the Buddhist festival Ullambana—though this is precisely the conclusion suggested from the way the WTS presents its sources.
These are but a few examples of how the WTS distorts Catholic beliefs and presents "scholarship" in support of its views. These examples provide a "representative slice" of the thinking andmodus operandi of the WTS, and they should serve as a warning signal for those unsuspecting people who open their doors to JWs and welcome their message. When dealing with WTS publications, be forewarned that the material exhibited there is distorted in such a way so as to present what appears to be a rather compelling case for WTS theology. But all that glitters is not gold.
NIHIL OBSTAT: I have concluded that the materials
presented in this work are free of doctrinal or moral errors.
Bernadeane Carr, STL, Censor Librorum, August 10, 2004
IMPRIMATUR: In accord with 1983 CIC 827
permission to publish this work is hereby granted.
+Robert H. Brom, Bishop of San Diego, August 10, 2004