How important is it for Christians to get their doctrine right? Well, according to St. Paul:
“Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim 4:16, NIV)
Should we baptize infants? Is divorce permissible? Is Christ really present in the breaking of the bread?
As St. Paul emphasizes, we cannot take these questions of religious truth lightly for the question of “right doctrine” is a matter of the will of God—and salvation.
At the close of the 4th century, the great theologian and Doctor of the Church, St. Augustine wrote:
“But I would not believe in the Gospel, had not the authority of the Catholic Church already moved me”. (Contra epistolam Manichaei, 5,6)
But what authority was St. Augustine referring to? The authority of the Catholic Church (“Catholic” comes from the Greek term kata holos meaning “according to the whole” or more colloquially “universal”).
The Catholic faith holds, and has always held, that the Church is the living Body of Christ (see Rom 12:4-5; 1 Cor 12; Col 1:18; Eph 1:22-23) and as such, Christ acts with His divine authority through the Church because of His presence in it.
For guidance in life, love and worship as Christians, Catholics look to a threefold combination which works in harmony to bring Christian truth to the world: the Scriptures, sacred oral Tradition and the teaching office of bishops.
Today, however, many Christians believe that the only Christian authority on faith and morals is the Bible alone. The Church, though a real entity is not an authoritative entity, according to this stance. The problem is and has proven itself to be that the “Bible alone” approach rejects the need for an infallible (meaning “non-erring”) interpretive authority—fallible, individual interpretation suffices; but ever since the birth of sola scriptura at the Protestant Reformation we have seen over 30,000 contradicting “interpretive authorities” rise up in contradiction. Individual interpretation of the Scriptures has been tried and found wanting.
Furthermore, the Christian disunity that has bubbled to the surface on matters of faith and morals has been devastating to the image of Christianity as Christ so warned (Jn 17:20-23).
At its root, today’s Christian disunity is a crisis of Church authority, the result of a reverse exodus of Christians who have been scattered from their true Home.
Thus, it is essential that we ask:
Are there good reasons to believe in the authority of the Catholic Church?
The House Built On The Rock
“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matt 16:17-19)
In this passage and in its context, it is clear that Jesus is blessing and bestowing a mission to Peter alone. By changing his name (see Gen 3:5; Gen 35:10), giving him the keys to His kingdom (see Is 22:15-22) and the words of binding and loosing, Jesus has commissioned Peter with a special mission — and a special authority shared by no other apostle for carrying out that unique mission. By a special grace and by virtue of the keys granted to them, God has prevented Peter and all of his successors to Pope Francis from teaching error on matters of faith and morals to the Church. This is what is meant by papal infallibility.
Peter’s special authority is also magnified by such sayings of Jesus as, for example, this one from the Gospel of Luke:
“Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren.” (Lk 22:32)
Jesus uses the words “you” and “your” in the singular sense here. He is being direct. There can be no question (especially in light of the totality of evidence in the Gospels) that Jesus has a special role in mind for Peter as an individual in the Church (see also John 21:15-19). Catholics, of course, recognize this special office instituted by Christ and revealed in the Gospels as the papacy — the unique office of steward of Christ, head apostle and leader of the Church which is to be sustained by successors through all generations until Christ returns (Acts 1:20).
Early Christian writer, Tertullian, writes at the opening of the 3rd century:
“Was anything withheld from the knowledge of Peter, who is called ‘the rock on which the Church would be built’ with the power of ‘loosing and binding in heaven and on earth’?” (Demurrer Against the Heretics 22 [A.D. 200])
“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone…But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you…If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matt 18:15-18)
In this particular teaching, Jesus is clearly establishing the Church as the final authority in matters of (at least) morality. Notice that if the man who has sinned will not listen “even to the church” he is to be as a Gentile and a tax collector; in other words, he is to be excommunicated, or one severed from communion with the Church based on his disobedience and unfaithfulness. To reject the authority of the Church is a serious matter because it is a rejection of Christ’s mystical Body and a failure to accept the whole Christ” (CCC 795).
Moreover, Jesus uses the familiar “binding and loosing” formula which—for the 1st century Jew—represented an extraordinary conferral of authority (this is confirmed here in the Jewish Encyclopedia); however this time the authority is given to the apostles as a group (or “college”).
Thus, although Peter has been given special authority as the head of the apostles, the body of apostles have also been given authority by God to safeguard the doctrines of Christ in service of the faithful and oversee the inner workings of the Church.
This then begs the following question for today’s Christians: if Christ established an authoritative Church on earth where is it today? Where is that final authority instituted for the good of His people?
After all—it must be somewhere. We have Christ’s promise that “the gates of hell will not prevail against” the Church He founded (Matt 16:18). There is no question that Jesus recognized His disciples’ need for a trustworthy final authority, empowered by the Holy Spirit, that could instill assurance of truth regarding faith and morals (1 Tim 3:15) and properly form the Christian conscience.
No Church has claimed to be that Church since the earliest centuries except the Catholic Church.
Consider the words of St. Ignatius, disciple of John the beloved apostle, from the beginning of the second century:
“Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude of the people also be; even as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.” [Letter to the Smyrnaeans, 8]
Where is this Church now? Catholics believe for good reasons, both biblical and historical, that they’re in it.
The Threefold Mission of the Church
“And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” (Matt 28:18-20)
Jesus, risen and glorified, is here sending out His mystical Body — the Church — into full force. The Church is given three main missions to fulfill in the world:
I. Evangelize (make disciples). The early Christians fulfilled this duty with fervour and faithfulness unto death. Tertullian wrote of their evangelization efforts:
“The blood of Christians is the seed of the church.” [Apologeticum 50, 13]
II. Sacramentalize (baptize). Baptism was not a merely symbolic ritual to the early Christians. It was a sacrament. Jesus taught it, and they understood it, as a spiritual sign that communicated an actual spiritual change in the baptized person (making it a “sacrament” or “covenant oath”). This sacrament, thus, made the Christian a “new creation” in and through Christ (2 Cor 5:7). The Sacrament of Baptism washed away sins and was (and still is) the way the Christian was initially justified by grace (see CCC 2010. See also Jn 6:3; 1 Pet 3:21; Acts 2:38; Acts 22:16; 1 Cor 6:11).
The special authority granted by Jesus to the leaders of the Church, to act in the presence of Christ (2 Cor 2:10) as healers, both spiritual and physical, is clear from His earthly ministry:
“And he called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to preach the kingdom of God and to heal.” (Lk 9:1; see also James 5:14 for the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick)
Then after the Resurrection:
As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (Jn 20:21-23)
Here Jesus has given the apostles a clear participation in His divine authority to forgive sins. Could Jesus have been more clear? From this moment in the upper room, Catholics believe that “Confession” was unveiled. St. Paul calls it the “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:18). Christ had already died for the forgiveness of our sins and won our salvation by His merits alone (we are saved by grace)—but now He had a instituted “the way” to receive the Gift.
This kind of conferral of divine power to the disciples is not unprecedented in light of, for example, the power and authority He gave them to heal diseases, speak in tongues and do exorcisms. If Christ can make us “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet 1:4) He can surely give the Church and its ministers the power to be His “voice, hands and feet,” as it were, in such extraordinary ways as the sacraments (where Christ communicates His grace through physical signs like bread, water, oil and words.
III. Catechize (teach). Contrary to the attitudes of many Christians today (of all denominations), doctrine was important to Jesus. To teach right doctrine was not just a service; it was a duty! In fact, it was a matter of salvation. St. Paul wrote to St. Timothy:
“Take heed to yourself and to your teaching; hold to that, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.” (1 Tim 4:16)
Timothy was not just a random friend of St. Paul’s. He was a presbyter (which means “elder” or “priest”) of the Church — and an ordained one at that (see 1 Tim 4:14; 2 Tim 1:6). Through his ordination by the apostle Paul, Timothy was made both an overseer and a presbyter — a bishop and a priest (in the early Church the offices of bishop and priest were most likely one and the same). Timothy’s functions as an ordained leader of the Church were to provide the sacraments to the faithful, and to “contend for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3) by teaching Christians to observe all Jesus had commanded them.
To this day, the ordained men in the Church continue to devote their lives to safeguarding the apostolic traditions (see Acts 20:28) which have been passed down in written and unwritten form (1 Thess 2:15; 2 Tim 2:2). Furthermore, these modern day presbyters of the Catholic Church (and the Eastern Orthodox Church) have received their ordination, or Sacrament of Holy Orders, through the laying on of hands of bishops who are real successors of the original apostles of Christ (see Acts 1:20). This claim cannot be made or matched by any other Christian denomination today.
The Authority of the Church Is Christ’s
“He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me, and he who rejects me rejects him who sent me.” (Lk 10:16)
When Jesus sent His apostles out (“apostle” means “one who is sent”) He remained with them and acted in them in a mystical way. The same divine mystery continues today in the Church. Jesus’ mysterious presence in and unity with the Church is evident in His words to the Church persecutor, Saul:
“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4)
Christ is intimately united and actively working through His mystical Body, the Church. For example, when the Church finalized the New and Old Testament canons at the councils of Rome, Hippo and Carthage in the 4th century (an extra-biblical tradition all Christians accept), this was not the sole work of humans, of the pope and bishops in the Church. It was the work of Christ through the pope and bishops made possible via the special graces they had received by virtue of the Sacrament of Holy Orders (see 1 Tim 4:14 & 5:22; 2 Tim 1:6).
The Church, thus, speaks on Christ’s behalf through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. This has been the accepted apostolic tradition since the beginning.
St. Irenaeus wrote in the second century:
“As I said before, the Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although she is disseminated throughout the whole world, yet guarded it, as if she occupied but one house. She likewise believes these things just as if she had but one soul and one and the same heart; and harmoniously she proclaims them and teaches them and hands them down, as if she possessed but one mouth. For, while the languages of the world are diverse, nevertheless, the authority of the tradition is one and the same” (Against Heresies 1:10:2 [A.D. 189]).
Catholics believe that the Bible has divine authority as the written Word of God — but not it alone. The Scriptures just don’t agree with this, nor does Church history. Rather, the Word of God comes to us in both written and oral form (1 Thess 2:13; 2 Thess 2:15; 1 Cor 11:2; 1 Pet 1:25) from the apostolic age.
Indeed, an inerrant gift from God cannot serve fallible humans without an infallible interpretive authority—a guarantor of truth; and for this Christ has given the Church to the world as the servant and official interpreter of what He has divinely revealed.
Let us be clear, then, that the Church is not a mere building or human institution. It is a divine institution, physical and spiritual, visible and invisible, that is endowed with the authority of Christ as a pillar and foundation of religious truth for all men.
Yes, it preaches the Good News of Christ’s resurrection like the rest of Christianity—but the Catholic Gospel is a Eucharistic Gospel for, until He comes again in glory, the risen Christ remains with His Church under the veil of bread and wine, offering Himself completely—body, blood, soul and divinity—to His bride at each and every Holy Mass. This is the fullness – the Summit – of the Gospel message.
Let’s continue to pray for Christian unity.