I’d like to take this opportunity to clarify something. A few weeks ago, while talking about the sacrament of Reconciliation—known as Confession to us old-timers—I made this statement: “The Catholic Church is the only institution in the history of the world that offers answers to the two deepest longings of the human heart: true forgiveness of sin and eternal life in Heaven once our time on earth is over.”
After that particular essay made the rounds, I received feedback from some of my Protestant friends. They asked, rather forcefully, whether I was claiming that ONLY Catholics can go to Heaven.
Oh my, that is definitely not what I was trying to say. I am in no way repeating the mistake promoted by Fr. Feeney in the 1940s. (Cliffs Notes version of his story: Fr. Leonard Feeney of Boston preached that only Roman Catholics could be saved. Despite admonishments from his bishop and even the Vatican, he persisted and eventually was excommunicated. Thankfully, he admitted his error and reconciled with the Church before dying in 1978.)
The two wonderful things that I mentioned, true forgiveness of sin and eternal life in Heaven, are made possible solely by the supernatural power of Jesus Christ. The Lord, and the Lord alone, has the ability to save sinful and selfish humanity. We must be clear about that. Having our sins forgiven and avoiding the fires of Hell are possible only because of the grace of God. Grace, by the way, is defined as unmerited favor, something we do not deserve, nor can we earn on our own. It is a gift from God.
Now, of course, when God offers us the gifts of forgiveness and salvation through grace, we have to accept those gifts and use God’s grace to change our lives. As St. Paul explained in his letter to the Ephesians, we are saved FOR good works, not saved BY good works. (See: Eph 2:8-10.)
This good news of forgiveness and salvation through Christ is the heart of the Gospel message. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life” (John 3:16).
That is the message, and Jesus is the source of the power that can make it happen. However, Jesus established a church here on earth, and He gave that church the authority to preach this message to the whole world. For the first 1,000 years of Christianity, that church was the Roman Catholic Church.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church is very clear about our “separated brethren” in other non-Catholic Christian communities, including Eastern Orthodox and Protestant denominations. The Catechism says these groups possess four things: valid baptism; the right to be called Christian; the Word of God; and most important of all, the means of salvation. So, anyone making the claims Fr. Feeney made is opposing clear Church teachings.
But let’s not forget, it is an undeniable fact that all Christian denominations, including those of my Protestant friends, received the Good News of forgiveness and salvation originally from the Catholic Church. Even Martin Luther, no friend of Catholicism, acknowledged this. He said, “We are obliged to yield many things to the [Catholics]—that they possess the Word of God which we received from them, otherwise we should have known nothing about it.”
So, don’t get nervous, my friends. I’m not doing a 21st century version of Fr. Feeney. I was just pointing out that the two things the human heart desires desperately—true forgiveness of sin and eternal life in Heaven—are made possible by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.
This is the Good News of the Gospel, and only one institution has been proclaiming this message consistently for almost 2,000 years: the Catholic Church.