Many Roman Catholics were faced with a bit of a quandary earlier this year when they learned that St. Patrick’s Day would fall on a Friday—during Lent. As as you know, many people in America celebrate St. Patrick’s Day by eating Corned Beef. Also, there are a number of Roman Catholics who have Irish heritage. This, combined with the Roman Catholic Lenten prohibition against eating meat on Fridays, gives us a context for a collision of traditions.
As you might imagine the issue did not just go away; it simmered like a proper Irish Stew. Recently, Roman Catholic leadership began to speak to the concern and provide guidance for inquiring parishioners. Attempting to furnish a reasonable response to the concerns, their answer only seemed to confuse things further. But in the confusion that ensued we have the opportunity to gain some clarity. Those watching with a keen eye can discern some of the stark, historic differences between Roman Catholics and their Protestant counterparts. I’ll highlight just a couple of them below.
Leadership and Authority
The Roman Catholic Church has an elaborate hierarchy. In their system, there is one Pope who serves as the functional head of the church on earth. Under him there are descending ranks: Cardinals, Archbishops, Bishops, Priests, and Deacons. In the United States, the Archbishops over local dioceses have the authority to grant a dispensation to allow Catholics to eat meat on Friday. A dispensation is basically an exemption from a requirement to obey a law. To make matters more interesting not all of the dioceses are doing the same thing. This article shows how in some places parishioners are granted freedom to eat meat without having to make it up, in other places (like here in Omaha) Catholics are asked to transfer their day of abstinence from meat to another day, while other places require inquires to make their case before their priest where they may be granted, on a case-by-case basis, the right to eat meat guilt-free on St. Paddy’s Day.
Protestants who are watching this play out should see a stark contrast. The authority in the Roman Catholic Church is vested in church leadership, and decisions can change and even vary from year to year or county to county. As Protestants, particularly evangelicals, we embrace a biblical principle of sola Scriptura, which maintains that the Bible is the ultimate authority to regulate the life and practice of the church (2 Tim. 3:16-17). It shapes who we are and what we are to do as Christians. It is important to note that Roman Catholics do not deny the Bible, they simply place it in a subordinate position to the interpretation of the teaching of the church, as the Catholic Catechism says, “Sacred Scripture is written principally in the Church’s heart rather than in documents and records, for the Church carries in her Tradition the living memorial of God’s Word, and it is the Holy Spirit who gives her the spiritual interpretation of the Scripture.”
Intent on Lent
Why do Roman Catholics forbid the eating of meat in the first place? If you ask practicing Catholics why they participate in this practice, most would say it is to commemorate the great love of Jesus where he gave up so much for us. Giving up something during Lent, especially meat on Fridays, is a small sacrifice to remind them of something so big. However, when one digs in a bit to Catholic teaching there are more nuanced reasons for the practice. In the 1960s the Church modified its requirement for Catholics to abstain from eating meat on Fridays all throughout the year and instead kept it in force during Lent (while still encouraging the practice to be observed year-round). In a statement issued by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops we learn more about the “why” of Lent: It has the “elements of popular piety which we bishops would wish to encourage.” In so doing they maintain confidence that “no Catholic Christian will lightly hold himself excused from this penitential practice.” And further, they note that this practice of piety on Fridays (during Lent or other times throughout the year) is “a time when those who seek perfection will be mindful of their personal sins and the sins of mankind which they are called upon to help expiate in union with Christ Crucified.”
Here we see another marked contrast. Roman Catholics see works that they do to help with expiation. Fusing together justification and sanctification, they see justification as a process: “Justification includes the remission of sins, sanctification, and the renewal of the inner man.” The good works that are done help with this work of expiation. By nature then it is an incomplete process.
On the other hand, Protestants speak in terms of justification and the atonement as being already accomplished while sanctification is ongoing (Rom. 3:23-25, 5:1; Heb. 9-10; 1 Jn. 2:2). Rather than something that happens inside of us and is an ongoing process, Protestants believe that justification is a one-time, legal declaration of righteousness based upon the work of Christ alone, by grace alone, and received by faith alone. We also believe the atonement is a completed action. The two biblical words that get at the heart of the atonement are expiation and propitiation. Expiation has to do with the taking away our sin, and propitiation refers to the satisfaction of God’s wrath due our sin. The prefix “ex” means “out of” or “from,” so with expiation we are referring to taking something away. With propitiation we are referring to a change in God’s disposition towards us (from angry to propitious). In expiation what is taken away? The answer is sin. What is changed? It is God’s disposition toward us.
As Protestant we speak and think very differently about expiation. We don’t offer our “help” in any way. Even the most pious deeds are always in response to Christ’s complete and all-sufficient work, never in conjunction to it. We can’t help do something that is already done.
Caution for Protestants
As a pastor I often get questions about the differences between Roman Catholicism and Protestant theology. I always want to be charitable and affirm the important things that we have in common (i.e. Trinitarian theology, a burden for the dignity of life, and so on). However, we cannot do this without acknowledging significant differences that we have on the authority of the Bible, human depravity, justification, and the nature of the atonement. And these are not insignificant matters! Here on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation we are reminded that still today there is a deep chasm between what the Roman Catholic Church believes and what the Reformers taught. Even today we are not a few steps but miles apart on the gospel.
Further, I know that many Protestants participate in Lent. I don’t mean to impugn their practice or their motives, but I would encourage discernment. If Protestants do participate then they should do so being clear as to what they are doing and what Roman Catholics are doing. Does a Protestant mean the same thing as a Roman Catholic when they celebrate Lent? Certainly not. However, my concern is that Catholics, Protestants, and a watching world think it’s all the same. In order to maintain a clear gospel witness we must be clear on the gospel.
In God’s providence St. Patrick’s Day falls on a Friday this year, and it enables us to ask important questions and make important observations. Perhaps it would be a good discussion over some Corned Beef this Friday?