No artificial contraception–period. No skipping Mass on Sundays or on Holy Days of Obligation, not even when you’re on vacation. And when you go to Mass, you have to kneel a lot and use words like “consubstantial.” To be sure your mortal sins are forgiven, you have to go to Confession and tell another human being all of the rotten stuff you’ve done. Oh, and “faith alone” won’t get you to Heaven. Being Catholic sounds like a real blast, doesn’t it?
It is teachings like these that Protestants tend to find repulsive. And, in that reaction, they are joined by pretty much everyone else on the planet. But, unlike everyone else on the planet, Protestants feel compelled to justify their rejection of the Church’s teachings on Biblical grounds. They’re not in a position to say that they reject everything the Catholic Church teaches, because that would mean rejecting things like the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection as well. So what do they do with these teachings? Well, for myself as a Protestant, I labeled all Catholic teachings with which I disagreed the “tradition of men,” added on to the “pure Gospel” by a power-hungry Church intent on lording it over the common people, just like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day. And, since Jesus quite obviously didn’t like the Pharisaism of His time, He must not like Catholicism either.
Underlying my position as a Protestant was some vague sense that one of the main reasons Jesus came to Earth was to abolish the very idea of religious hierarchy and all of the silly rules that went along with it. As a consequence, I’d ask: “Don’t those Catholics get that Christians are under grace now, not under law?” I can now see, though, that my position was inconsistent with some pretty basic aspects of New Testament Christianity.
First, if Jesus was opposed to religious authority per se, why in the world did He choose twelve Apostles who obviously had some special role to play in the establishment of the Church–beyond simply being its first 12 members? And why did this Church, early in its history, convene the Council of Jerusalem, made up only of the leaders of the Church (and not everyone calling themselves Christians), to address the issue of the Judaizers who wanted to require Christians to keep the Jewish dietary and circumcision laws? If there was necessarily a problem with a religious hierarchy defining the exact contours of the faith (i.e., the rules), then the early Church should have taken a democratic vote on these questions. It didn’t.
Second, it’s simply not true that the New Testament message is 100% about grace and 0% about law. The Sermon on the Mount makes at least two things quite clear: (1) that Jesus had no intention of abolishing the concept of a law that governs human behavior; and (2) that the rules Jesus’ followers would be expected to live by would be stricter–not more lax–than those of the Jews of old (which included an intricate system of religious rituals, the observance of numerous holy days like Passover, the Feast of Tabernacles, Yom Kippur, etc., and a comprehensive moral code). There’s also, of course, Jesus’ instruction that His followers must take up their crosses daily and follow Him. That doesn’t sound like it’s exactly a walk in the park.
Paul’s writings later on are completely consistent with this. Protestants–especially Calvinists –tend to present Paul as a preacher of nothing but grace, particularly in the book of Romans. And it is certainly true that Paul taught the primacy of God’s grace in the process of salvation, in passages such as Ephesians 2:8-9. That’s not all he taught, though. For example, in Galatians 6, Paul refers to the “law of Christ,” which he says we are to fulfill by bearing one another’s burdens. His use of this phrase makes no sense if he thought that the entirety of the Gospel could be reduced to the teaching that we’re under grace now and not under any law whatsoever. His statement in 1 Corinthians 9 about how he drives and trains his body so that he will not be “disqualified” from winning an “imperishable crown” (i.e., making it to Heaven) also is nonsensical if Paul thought his eternal destiny depended upon God’s grace alone.
If Jesus’ and Paul’s actions and teachings do not support the contention that all rules are bad, simply because they’re rules or simply because they’re issued by a religious hierarchy, then the Protestant “traditions-of-men” argument (at least as I used it when I was a Protestant) pretty much falls apart. That meant I had to grapple with the reasons the Catholic Church gave for all of those rules that didn’t make any sense to me as a Protestant and which didn’t leap off the page on a cursory reading of the New Testament. And that’s when I discovered something truly amazing, something that completely surprised me–the Catholic Church hadn’t simply made up the rules on artificial contraception, Mass attendance, etc., so it could impress its power on people–which was one of the problems with the Pharisaism that Jesus confronted. No, in each and every case, the Church established these rules to help her children live fuller, better, holier lives that increased their chances of making it to Heaven, and the rules were just as hard, if not harder, for those in the Church hierarchy.
Take, for example, the prohibition on the use of artificial contraception. This teaching is articulated by a hierarchy consisting entirely of men who have pledged themselves to celibacy for the rest of their lives. Consequently, I found it difficult to muster up a lot of righteous indignation about the “severity” of the Church’s teaching when those responsible for defining it have embraced an even stricter standard for their own lives.
In the end, I concluded that brushing off those Church teachings with which I disagreed as mere “traditions of men” was just a way of avoiding listening to the Church’s reasons for teachings I simply didn’t like. And, as with artificial contraception, I discovered that the reason behind each and every teaching I had at one time questioned wasn’t to oppress me but was to help me live a life best suited for joy in this life and in the life-to-come. As Chesterton put it, when discussing the doctrine of original sin (another wildly unpopular doctrine):
All other philosophies say the things that plainly seem to be true; only this philosophy has again and again said the thing that does not seem to be true, but is true. Alone of all creeds it is convincing where it is not attractive . . . . Theosophists for instance will preach an obviously attractive idea like re-incarnation; but if we wait for its logical results, they are spiritual superciliousness and the cruelty of caste. For if a man is a beggar by his own pre-natal sins, people will tend to despise the beggar. But Christianity preaches an obviously unattractive idea, such as original sin; but when we wait for its results, they are pathos and brotherhood, and a thunder of laughter and pity; for only with original sin we can at once pity the beggar and distrust the king. Men of science offer us health, an obvious benefit; it is only afterwards that we discover that by health, they mean bodily slavery and spiritual tedium. Orthodoxy makes us jump by the sudden brink of hell; it is only afterwards that we realize that jumping was an athletic exercise highly beneficial to our health. It is only afterwards that we realise that this danger is the root of all drama and romance. The strongest argument for the divine grace is simply its ungraciousness. The unpopular parts of Christianity turn out when examined to be the very props of the people.
 The Council of Jerusalem also, quite obviously, didn’t consult the Bible for determining how to resolve these issues because the Bible as we now have it didn’t even exist at the time. Indeed, much of the New Testament hadn’t been written yet.
 Calvinists subscribe to the teachings of John Calvin, which are often summarized using the acrostic TULIP–Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, and Perseverance of the saints. Extreme Calvinists assert that even the act of believing in Christ is a “work” that “totally depraved” human beings are incapable of accomplishing. The Catholic Church, in contrast, teaches that man is able to cooperate with God’s grace and respond to the call of the Holy Spirit, all the while affirming that salvation is initiated by God’s grace alone and is impossible without the atoning sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. The Catholic Church does not teach (and I can’t say this often enough) that man is capable of reaching Heaven based on his own merits. Even Mary, who was sinless, would not be in Heaven now, absent God’s grace.