Two millenniums ago God entered space and time in the flesh and dwelt among the men, women and children of the Eastern world. After three decades of walking, talking, eating, laughing and praying with men He was put to death on a cross for a crime He did not commit. Proving His divinity definitively three days later, He rose from the dead in a glorified body, as reported and recorded by eyewitnesses. Forty days later He ascended to heaven before their very eyes, but not before first establishing an indestructible Church to feed us and equip us to follow Him. A few days later at Pentecost God breathed life into his Church; that same Church—as He promised it would—stand firm upon solid rock still today.
After the Last Supper and only minutes before his arrest, Jesus prayed for His Church: “…Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one…so that the world may believe that you have sent me (Jn 17).”
From the Inside Out
The division among Christians today is a scandal to the world. If we want to evangelize an ever-increasing pagan world we must first, within our own Christian family, clean up our own mess if we wish to see Jesus’ will be done in and by the Church; and we must work from the inside out.
First we need to “take a look in the mirror”. There are today estimated to be tens of thousand Christian denominations who disagree on what they believe to be right Christian teaching. Furthermore, among those who call themselves Christians are those who live no differently than those who do not, even going as far as renouncing certain “inconvenient” teachings (especially moral ones) that their own Church has defined as unchangeable and true as the will of God. This we see all too often among so-called Catholics. The integrity of these Christians does not represent real Christian integrity and thus, along with the scandal of Christian dis-unity, is not especially attractive to outsiders.
As the secular world grows ever more opposed to Christian morality, particularly in the Western World, more and more young people raised as Christians are ditching their original faith once they leave home. They adopt self-serving creeds like “I am spiritual but not religious” or “You believe what you wanna believe and I’ll believe what I wanna believe,” or worse, publicly bow their heads in agreement as city buses decorated with slogans like “THERE’S PROBABLY NO GOD. NOW STOP WORRYING AND ENJOY YOUR LIFE” roll on by amidst normal everyday traffic.
The point is this: Christians need to get their act together for the sake of the world—and that goes for men and women, parents and children, Catholic and Protestant. The point of the Church is to build up God’s kingdom – to make saints. But to most effectively collaborate with God in “making disciples of all nations” we must be maximally united to Christ’s Body, since it is through union with God that we gain the necessary wisdom, courage and clarity to powerfully propose the Gospel to the un-evangelized or de-Christianized. Jesus promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against His Church (Mt 16:18) and for this reason, we can be assured that His Church still exists in its fullness here on earth. But where is it and how will we know when we’ve found it? As the great apologist Frank Sheed writes:
“With hundreds of churches claiming to give the Christian message, it is necessary that a church should be ready to show its credentials. Otherwise no one can know whether it is the true church or not” (Catholic Evidence Training Outlines, p. 37).
In The Beginning
In the beginning the Church that Jesus founded was called “Catholic.” In his Letter to the Smyrnaeans, St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote in A.D. 110: “wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church (Ch 8). St. Ignatius is not using the term for the first time here but rather, when read in context, is using the word as though it is already familiar to the Smyrnaeans. Catholic, or kataholos in Greek, means “according to the whole” or “universal.” A specific term for the true Church was needed early in Christian history because of heretical or schismatic sects which were breaking off from the Church due their rejection of certain orthodox Church beliefs and traditions. The true Church spreading across the world since Pentecost needed to be recognized universally with a common name, and that name for the earliest Christians was Kataholos.
We know it was God’s will to have one, unified Church (1 Cor 12:12; Rom 12:5; Jn 17). In the beginning, the Church was indeed one and it was strikingly Catholic-looking. But what does “Catholic-looking” really look like?
The four marks of the Church Jesus founded are professed in the Nicene Creed (since the first ecumenical Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325) as one, holy, catholic and apostolic. Hidden in these four marks are two attributes which we can see in the Catholic Church today and at every other point in Church history. From its foundation this one Eucharist-centred Church has also been distinctly visible within society and hierarchical in its structure. Let’s take a closer look at whether today’s Catholic Church has maintained the early Church attributes of “visible” and “hierarchical.”
The Church, Visible and Invisible
A common Protestant belief is that the Church founded by Christ is invisible – merely interior or “within us” – as Jesus said “The Kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17). Truly, there is an invisible component to the Church. As Catholic theologian Ludwig Ott writes in Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, “Side by side with the outward visible side, the Church, like her Divine-human Founder, has also an inner, invisible side” (p. 302). We all have an invisible and interior part of us that can only be revealed if we speak outwardly. So too does Jesus who also reveals his inner reality through His Word. Like us, Jesus has a Body and Soul – the Body is His Church, His Soul is the Holy Spirit which gives life – and light – to the Body.
Within just four sentences, Jesus commanded his disciples to be “light(s) of the world, “a city set on hill,” “a lamp…on a stand,”and a light that “so shines before men, that they may…give glory to your Father who is in heaven (Mt 5:14-16). In other words: be visible! Stand out! Be in the world but not of the world!
Now yes, we must all individually in our own lives be “lights” in the world but as a unified body we must also be one great light flooding the world with the light of Christ – a radiating Body, an illuminating “monstrance” before the world that is unique and recognizable to all. As the universe is the sum total of time, space and matter so the Church is the sum total of Christians and Christ, and as we can observe a particular and unchanging order in the universe since its beginning, so too can we observe an unchanging order in the Catholic Church since its foundation.
A Rocksolid Foundation
The Church is and always has been hierarchical. That is, it is governed (and more specifically, ministered) by individuals with differing amounts of authority – from the pope to the bishops, from the bishops to the priests, from the priests to the deacons and so on. This is not as strange or inappropriate as some might plead. It is just plain practical. In the family there are levels of authority, for example: The father has more authority than his oldest teenage son, but his oldest teenage son has more authority than his toddler brother. In schools, the principal has more authority than the vice-principal, but the vice-principal has more authority than the math teacher. This is a normative way for humans to maintain order within an organized body of people united for a common purpose. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:
“The very differences which the Lord has willed to put between the members of his body serve its unity and mission. For ‘in the Church there is diversity of ministry but unity of mission…(873)”
The mission of the Church is to transmit the Truth to the world and thereby, to make saints (Mt 28:19). The Church is the “pillar and bulwark of Truth” (1 Tim 3:15). In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus illustrates that there must be a Church that can be turned to in the case of disagreement between men (Matt 18:18). The Church therefore must be reliable and trustworthy. It must be unwavering and consistent. If it is truly fortified and held indestructible by the indwelling of the infallible God (Mt 16:18) who is Truth, then it must be in and of itself an infallible source of Truth as that is what it contains and distributes. But for our fallible human minds to make use of infallible eternal Truth, we must have a way by which the Truth (the Scriptures for example) can be infallibly interpreted.
To illustrate this point Sheed quotes the Dominican Pére Benoit in Theology and Sanity:
“Only a public authority divinely guided can spell out without error a public message divinely revealed” (Preface, p.17).
The lack of a “public authority divinely guided” among Protestant churches is evident in the constant fractures and offshoots that have led to thousands of individually-governed denominations under the umbrella of the Reformation. “We are guided by the Holy Spirit” they say, but the Holy Spirit does not contradict Himself and each individual Protestant denomination contradicts all the others leaving outsiders wondering “which church is the true one?” Some teach infant baptism, some do not. Some teach the validity of speaking tongues by the Spirit, some do not. Some affirm praying to saints, most do not. There is mass confusion among Christians.
Here’s the issue: Protestants believe in Scripture alone as a guide for living a life of faith in Jesus Christ. No tradition. No pope or bishops. Just the Bible. But the members of an evangelical “Bible church,” for example, only have the pastor’s fallible interpretation of Scripture (which may differ from the pastor before him) which comes from the theologian’s fallible interpretation which comes from the theologian’s fallible intellect. He may protest that his fallible intellect is inspired by the Holy Spirit to understand infallibly, but that’s what the pastor down the street says too about the same passage but with a conflicting interpretation! Same with the Mormon. Same with the Jehovah’s Witness. So who’s really inspired here?
If left to our own fallible interpretation of the infallible Word of God, our understanding of what God’s Word means becomes about as reliable as a golf ball hit by a blind-folded five year old towards the hole (evidenced by the Protestant’s interpretation of John 6). In the golf analogy there are no guarantees that the ball will go in the hole, and the chances of a hole-in-one are mighty, mighty slim due to limitations in ability and capacity. The consequences of a missed hole-in-one, however, are not eternal and the consequences of missing the mark in biblical interpretation can be.
The Catholic Church has never retracted a teaching that it has been “infallibly declared” by the pope and college of bishops. Jesus said to the first bishops – the apostles – “He who hears you, hears me;” most certainly he meant it (Lk 10:16). It has remained rocksolid in its doctrinal integrity because Jesus builds His Church on the apostles and their successors (CCC 765; Rev 21:12-14; Mt 19:28; Lk 22:30). Despite the human corruption that has existed within its membership and leadership through the centuries, it has not crumbled. From a merely secular perspective, it remains the oldest “human” institution in the world. Despite the deep-seated hate and persecution that has existed from its onset and which continues today, it has endured and maintained its integrity in its teachings, proving the God-breathed wisdom that radiates from its position on the hillside of the world. It has truly resisted the rocking and swaying caused by the antagonizing gusts of heretical theologies and doctrines, and an increasingly divisive Christian world (not to mention an increasingly hostile non-Christian world). It has stood firm and not fallen because it has been built on “Kepha.” It has been built on the Rock (Mt 7:24-27)
The head of the apostles and the leader of the Church is the pope. The first pope was Peter (Mt 16:18; Lk 21:31). This is evident in early Church writings such as the Letter of Clement to James 2, written in A.D. 221:
“Be it known to you, my lord, that Simon [Peter], who, for the sake of the true faith, and the most sure foundation of his doctrine, was set apart to be the foundation of the Church, and for this end was by Jesus himself, with his truthful mouth, named Peter”
An so it has been for two millenniums, as we trace through history from Pope Francis back to St. Peter in an unbroken and historically verifiable succession of Catholic pontiffs. Yes, Jesus is our foundation and the chief cornerstone of the Church, but the apostles and their successors share in protecting and upholding the House of God:
“You are fellow citizens of the saints and members of the household of God. You form a building which rises on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the capstone” (Eph 2:19-20)