Fr. Dwight Longenecker on the Catholic Tradition [Voices from the Branches]


“Christ Giving the Keys to St. Peter” by Pietro Perugino

{This is the first installment of a series on Christian traditions called Voices from the Branches–a collection of interviews with pastors, bloggers, and scholars from various traditions. Read more about it here.}

We begin our series with the largest and most historic tradition: Catholicism. Fr. Dwight Longenecker has a blog at Patheos called Standing on my Head, and has written a number of books, which you can find here. He currently serves as parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Greenville, South Carolina.

Many of us Protestants grew up in traditions that are apathetic (at best) or hostile (at worst) toward the Catholic Church. As a former Protestant Evangelical himself, Fr. Longenecker knows the sort of images that Catholicism conjures up for us. I am so grateful for his willingness to be a part of this much needed conversation.


Tell us your story. How did you end up in the Catholic tradition?

Fr. LongeneckerI was brought up in a Protestant Evangelical home and attended Bob Jones University. While there I became an Anglican and after college went to study at Oxford to train as a priest in the Church of England. After ten years in that denomination I realized that my faith journey was leading me to the fullness of the Christian faith in the Catholic Church. We were received into the Catholic Church in 1995. For more details on why I took this step and how it happened I refer readers to my published faith stories here.

Give us a brief introduction to the Catholic tradition. How did it begin?

The Catholic Church was founded by Jesus Christ when he handed his divine authority to the leader of his apostles Peter. (Mt. 16:18)  Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ and Peter himself are the Rock on which Jesus founded the Church. This delegation of authority to Peter is confirmed when Jesus the Good Shepherd hands his role as shepherd to Peter after his resurrection. (John 21). The early Christians understood that Jesus’ apostles handed on their authority to their successors. So at the end of the first century Clement of Rome writes, “Our apostles knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be strife for the office of bishop. For this reason, therefore, having received perfect foreknowledge, they appointed those who have already been mentioned and afterwards added the further provision that, if they should die, other approved men should succeed to their ministry” This same authority continues in the Catholic Church today through the successor of Peter–the Bishop of Rome and the Catholic bishops worldwide. For more information on this subject go here.

What are the distinguishing doctrines of Catholic theology?

A study of the writings from the first four centuries of the church reveal that the doctrines of Catholic theology are those from the early church. Catholics believe now what Christians have believed from the beginning. Catholic theology is a united whole, and those things which seem to be distinctive Catholic doctrines only seem distinctive to those who reject them. Another way of saying this is that Catholics do not have any particular doctrines that are ours alone. We simply believe and teach what the whole church has believed and taught down through the ages.

The best compendium of Catholic teaching is found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. This is available online here.

What are the sacraments and why are they important?

The Catholic Church teaches that there are seven sacraments. Three are sacraments of initiation: Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist. These are the sacraments through which our faith is actualized and applied for membership in Christ’s body the church. The two sacraments of service are Holy Matrimony and Holy Orders. Through these two sacraments grace is given for couples to live in a grace filled marriage and for priests and deacons to serve Christ’s church. The two sacraments of forgiveness are reconciliation (confession) and anointing. Through these two sacraments Catholics obey Christ’s command to the apostles that “Those whose sins you forgive are forgiven” (Jn. 20:23) and the teaching in the epistle of James that “if any are sick among you call the priest and pray over the person and anoint him with oil and his sins will be forgiven.” (James 5:14) Sacraments are important because through these physical signs God’s grace is applied and made effective. We believe the sacraments “affect what they signify”. An example is baptism. It signifies a washing and we believe that it actually does wash sins away through God’s grace and our faith. So baptism signifies salvation and applies that salvation effectively. “Baptism now saves you” (I Peter 3:21) 

Describe the changes in Vatican II to a Protestant.

The Second Vatican Council was called by Pope John XXIII in 1962. The aim of the council was to call all Catholic bishops in the world together to help the Catholic Church move forward positively into the modern age. The documents of the council are extensive theological and pastoral documents that address liturgy, the life of religious orders, the mission of the church, the church’s relationship to other Christians and other religions and more. The most noticeable changes were radical alterations to the liturgy: Mass as now celebrated not in Latin but in everyone’s usual language. Many religious orders of nuns and brothers went through radical and not always positive transitions. Many traditions that had accumulated and no longer made sense were abandoned. Modern music began to be used in worship. Modern buildings were constructed instead of gothic replicas. The most important changes, however, were not cosmetic, but fundamental. The aim was to get back to basics, to restore the missionary zeal of the church and to adapt in proper ways in order to spread the good news of Jesus christ to the modern world.

Bishop Sheen famously said, “There are not one hundred people in the United States who hate The Catholic Church, but there are millions who hate what they wrongly perceive The Catholic Church to be.” Is that true in your experience? What are some common misconceptions Protestant believers have concerning Catholicism?

Unfortunately too many Protestants cling to impressions of Catholicism formed by outdated antiCatholic propaganda. No we do not worship Mary. No we do not worship dead people. We do not believe in salvation by works and we do not believe you can buy your salvation.  

What resources would you recommend for getting more acquainted with Catholic theology?

My book More Christianity is an easy to read, friendly introduction to Catholic beliefs written for an Evangelical audience. Another good resource is to simply read the Catechism of the Catholic Church  Most non-Catholic Christians would read this and agree with almost everything in it. Catholic Answers is a great website which presents the Catholic faith in a positive and robust way without being offensive. Dave Armstrong has a great website called Biblical Evidence for Catholicism. It is a huge resource with loads of material. Look up books by Mark Shea, Karl Keating, Scott Hahn, Steve Ray and view the TV show The Journey Home with Marcus Grodi.


In the next post in this series we will look at the Lutheran tradition with Dr. Caryn Riswold.


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