Why Catholics Don't Know
James G. McCarthy


Catholics donít know whether they are going to heaven or not. This is because from the day that a Catholic is baptized until the day he dies, he is on probation with God. Life is a trial during which he must prove by his faith and obedience that he is worthy of heaven. His eternal salvation hangs in the balance. Thatís what Catholics I interviewed outside Saint Patrick Cathedral in New York City told me when I asked them how they hoped to get to heaven.

"I hope to get to heaven," Julia, a Catholic woman coming out of the Cathedral told me, "by leading a good life and being honest with people."

Norman gave me a list of requirements to get to heaven: ". . . prayer, and perseverance, and by doing what the Catholic Church teaches. Be honest. Do good. Go to confession. Go to church. And treat your neighbors as good as you can."

Sharon, from New York State, also spoke of salvation as the accomplishment of a list of activities: "Doing good works, believing in Jesus Christ, trying to practice your beliefs and your religion in your everyday life, doing things for humanity."

Joyce from Michigan summarized the requirements as: "Follow your Ten Commandments . . . , live a good Christian life, love for everyone."

Did these Catholics think that they could accomplish these things well enough to get into heaven? Most admitted that they werenít sure.

"Well, I got a lot of work to do," Ray, a Catholic from Ohio, told me. "I hope to go to heaven when I die. I hope and pray to God that I do. And if I donít, I know I did something I shouldnít have done."

"I hope the good things I do on earth will sit well with God and Heíll look favorably on it and take me into heaven," said Fran, a Catholic from Seneca Falls, New York.

"If you did right youíll get there," another man explained. "If you havenít done right by your Man, youíll get your just rewards, maybe in hell, maybe in purgatory."

The Catholic belief that entrance into to heaven is the reward for good works performed on earth is expressed at every Catholic funeral. One of the suggested readings in the funeral liturgy is from the book of Wisdom, part of the collection of books that the Catholic Church claims is part of the Old Testament. With reference to the deceased person, the minister reads: "Afflicted in a few things, in many they shall be well rewarded: because God hath tried them, and found them worthy of himself" (Wisdom 3:1-5).

The inspired Scriptures speak to the contrary. They say that "there is no one righteous, not even one. . . . There is no one who does good, not even one" (Romans 3:10-12). In the day of judgment, God will find none worthy of Himself. It is only in Christ that we can find acceptance before a holy God (Ephesians 1:3-8; Jude 24).

In Catholicism, the individual himself must stand before God in judgment and be found worthy of eternal life. Entrance into heaven is a merited reward. This is expressed throughout the funeral liturgy. For example, there is a selection of 47 prayers provided to tailor the funeral rite to the particular circumstances of the deceased. These include prayers for the person who has died after a long illness, one who died suddenly, an elderly person, a young person, a baptized child, and a child who died before baptism. The minister chooses the prayer that is most appropriate. If the deceased (weíll call him John) had been a Catholic priest, the liturgy instructs the minister conducting the funeral to pray:

Lord God, you chose our brother John to serve your people as a priest and to share the joys and burdens of their lives. Look with mercy on him and give him the reward of his labors, the fullness of life promised to those who preach your holy Gospel. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen. 1

This prayer asks God to give the deceased priest what he deserves: "the reward of his labors." His recompense should be "the fullness of life."

Should the deceased be even more deserving, a bishop, for example, the liturgy instructs the minister to pray:

Almighty and merciful God, eternal Shepherd of your people, listen to our prayers and grant that your servant, John, our bishop, to whom you entrusted the care of this Church, may enter the joy of his eternal Master, there to receive the rich reward of his labors. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.2

This is another give-him-what-he-deserves prayer. It asks God to grant the deceased bishop entrance into heaven based on "his labors."

The same kind of prayer is found in the funeral rite of a pope:

O God, from whom the just receive an unfailing reward, grant that your servant John, our Pope, whom you made vicar of Peter and shepherd of your Church, may rejoice forever in the vision of your glory, for he was a faithful steward here on earth of the mysteries of your forgiveness and grace. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.3

This prayer asks God to give the deceased pope the reward of rejoicing forever "in the vision of your glory." The pope should receive this privilege because he was "was a faithful steward here on earth."

One might wonder what the writers of the liturgy would do if called upon to compose a prayer for a deceased Catholic who was known by all to be a poor lost sinner with no merits of his own. The funeral liturgy actually provides one such prayer, prayer number 44. It is for the person who has ended his life by his own hand. The Church considers suicide to be a serious and potentially mortal sin that incurs eternal punishment. Under the Code of Canon Law that was in effect until 1983, a Catholic who committed suicide was denied a Church burial. Since then the Church has taken a more sympathetic view and has lifted the ban. Nevertheless, in composing a prayer for the one who has taken his own life, the Church realized the deceased would have only one possible one hope of salvation. And what might that be?

God, lover of souls, you hold dear what you have made and spare all things, for they are yours. Look gently on your servant John, and by the blood of the cross forgive his sins and failings.

Amazing! Prayer 44 drops all pretense that the deceased deserves to go to heaven or has any claim to eternal life based upon his own merits. Apparently even Rome realizes that the only hope of salvation for a genuine sinner is to plead the blood of Christ, the biblical basis of salvation. In the liturgy, however, Prayer 44 is the exception, not the rule, for Rome fails to realize that we are all lost sinners, who must trust Christ, and Him alone, if we are to be saved.

1. The Rites of the Catholic Church (New York: Pueblo Publishing Co., 1990), vol. 1, pp. 1077-1078.
2. Ibid., p. 1076.
3. Ibid., p. 1076.

Adapted from Conversations with Catholics by James G. McCarthy, Harvest House Publishers, © 1997.


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