A Case For Catholicism – 1. Authority To Teach

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A few months ago I made an announcement of my desire to join the Catholic Church. This 2-year desire will reach its ultimate fulfillment this Holy Saturday, as I receive my Lord and my God, Jesus Christ—His body, blood, soul and divinity—in the Eucharist at my local Catholic Church. If one understands what the Catholic Church teaches about the Eucharist, then they may begin to appreciate the excitement I feel for this momentous occasion!

Initially, when I announced that I was planning to become a Catholic, I had a fair number of people understandably ask why. It was my heart, however, not to go into too many specific details for the sake of unity—how often do we concentrate on what separates us rather than what unites us? And having been raised an evangelical Christian as well as working in full-time ministry for a number of years, this unity is dear to my heart. I have been greatly influenced by various evangelical leaders, some of whom I know personally, others I have known briefly, and yet many more I know of from afar. These are soldiers in Christ. And we desperately need each other as the mind of our culture increasingly becomes close-minded to, or ignorant of, God’s ways.

With that in consideration, I nonetheless feel it is appropriate at this time for me to provide my inquisitive friends—and most importantly—fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, a reasonable explanation for why I’m becoming a Catholic. My reasons may or may not persuade you—‘que sera sera’! My only motive is to present my journey to those interested with a clear and honest approach, and I dearly hope my conviction is not misinterpreted as putting anyone down.

Hence, in a heart of humility and love, I intend over the course of several blogs to provide a few reasons as to why I am becoming a Catholic. So, without further ado, let’s begin with reason 1:

1.    The Catholic Church has a valid claim to authority

As I have aforementioned, I was raised an evangelical Christian for which I am deeply thankful. Moreover, I was nurtured to love Scripture from an early age. It was my late night habitual reading of the Bible when I was 11 years old that prompted me to question whether I was interpreting Scripture properly. Reading Bible commentaries I soon realised that they did not always agree with one another—in fact there was hardly what you would call consensus on even essential Christian truths. As I expressed this concern to others I was recommended by some to ensure that I read Scripture ‘with the Holy Spirit’. This certainly sounded intriguing at the time, although later on I realised that this technique simply did not cut it when it came to teaching Christian truth. Furthermore, this over-reliance on subjective feelings seemed to skirt dangerously with the warning in James 3:1 that Christian teachers are judged more strictly by God—I thus concluded that this doctrinal confusion was a serious problem. This issue can be illustrated by the fact that two protestant pastors reading St. Paul’s letters, both filled with the Holy Spirit, can come to opposite conclusions in regards to the nature of Christian baptism. One would teach baptism is absolutely necessary for salvation, the other that it is merely a symbol of faith that has no power to save and therefore not strictly necessary; two Holy Spirit-filled Christian leaders, two sincere hearts, one Bible, and disturbingly opposite opinions on a very important technicality regarding salvation. Even the earliest protestant leaders such as Martin Luther, John Calvin and Huldrych Zwingli, etc. would often vehemently disagree with one another on core Christian teachings such as the nature of Jesus Christ, salvation, grace, baptism & infant baptism, communion, free will & predestination, etc.—this isn’t beauty in diversity; this is doctrinal chaos!

Martin Luther

Martin Luther, the monk who—according to legend—nailed his ‘Ninety-five Theses’ to the door of the Schlosskirche in Wittenberg in protest against the sale of indulgences.

It became clear to me that there needed to be an authority outside the Bible to correctly interpret Scripture on these essential points of truth. But also an authority more grounded than the subjectivity of people who claimed the Holy Spirit guided their Biblical interpretations. It seemed to me quite unacceptable that God could guide His Church so remarkably in the 1st Century only to let it veer off-course until Martin Luther arrived on the scene in the 16th Century as a vessel used by God to steer it back on track. I also found it unacceptable that God could seemingly drop a book down from Heaven called the Bible and leave His devoted followers scrambling, arguing and debating with one another on what it teaches regarding the most essential doctrines that relate to salvation itself—it is the Bible after all that admits to being occasionally difficult to understand1 while simultaneously dishing out grave warnings about false teaching2. Furthermore, Hebrews 6:1-2 added insult to injury by calling some of these key disputed doctrines within different denominations ‘elementary doctrines’; 2000 years on and we still couldn’t agree on the simplest teachings of the Christian faith! For sometime I gave up on trying to rationalise elements of my faith and simply yielded to the possibility I would never be given logically satisfactory answers this side of heaven, at least as it pertained to some of the issues I have mentioned.

Years later, however, due to my reading of Church history, common sense struck me a blow when I suddenly perceived that the Bible had not magically appeared from Heaven—as if God had let it fall from the sky bound and complete in King James English! Quite the contrary! I was intrigued to discover that the Bible in fact came from the Catholic Church itself, and that through this Church God has lovingly provided us with everything we need to have the utmost confidence in our Christian faith & salvation. Have I lost you? Let me justify that last statement.

For the first 1000 years of Christian history there was one Church, and the first documented case of it being called the ‘catholic Church’ comes a mere 70 years or so after Jesus in the writings of a Catholic bishop called St. Ignatius of Antioch3. It is basic math that informs us that the inception of protestant denominations from the 16th Century onwards such as Lutheran, Reformed, Episcopalian, Methodist, Baptist, etc. means that, at most, each denomination is only 500 years old. Before this time, mainline Christians were either Catholic or Orthodox. As well as, I found that history clearly showed that the present day Catholic Church is the historical continuation of the Church you see in the pages of the New Testament and of history. Now that is not to say there was no just reason to ‘protest’ over the few hypocritical and dishonest clergymen in the Catholic Church during the 16th Century, but I simply question the decision of these early protestant leaders in leaving the Catholic Church and forming their own denominations4.

I qualify this by pointing out that it was Jesus in Matthew 16:18 who decided to form and build His Church on his most preeminent disciple, St. Peter:

And I tell you, you are Peter [which means rock], and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it”.

Elsewhere Jesus promises to send His Spirit to lead this Church into all truth5. Once more, St. Paul affirms this reality in 1 Timothy 3:15 when he calls the Church the ‘pillar of the truth’.

Blog 1b

A painting by Pietro Perugino (1482) illustrating Matthew 16:19 where Jesus gives St. Peter the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven, i.e. the authority to teach.

History reveals that it was this Holy Spirit-led Church—the Catholic Church—that decided which books were to be put in the Bible. Moreover it was the Catholic Church that definitively declared the Bible to be the inspired word of God. Hence to deny the authority of the Catholic Church makes our reason for trusting the inspiration of Scripture weaker…in fact our main argument would become circular. Without believing in the authority of Christ’s Church we are forced to mainly argue that the Bible is inspired because the Bible itself says so…although anything can claim special status by it’s own authority. The holy book of Muslims—the Quran—claims to be inspired, and so we must see that the more effective arguments for the Bible’s inspiration are those arguments that extend beyond it’s very own pages.

For that reason, since Jesus Christ promised to lead His Church into all truth, when this Church—back in the earliest years of Christianity—declared the Bible to be the inspired Word of God, we are reasonably able to trust that declaration because God does not break His promises! And the Catholic Church has consistently reaffirmed this truth from generation to generation. It is this Church that, according to Jesus, cannot fall into doctrinal error6 and additionally was blessed with Jesus’ High Priestly prayer that it would remain one and whole7.

On the other hand, this is not to say that Catholics are discouraged from reading the Bible ‘with the Holy Spirit’. Personal reading of Scripture is encouraged (ever heard of ‘Lectio Divina’?!) and there is still lots up for grabs in regards to interpreting other portions of Scripture (e.g. how literal one should interpret parts of Genesis). But at least within the Catholic Church the essentials of the Christian faith are safeguarded and the Christian truth is preserved from error, from generation to generation, because the Holy Spirit is leading His Church into all truth.

And where is the proof in the pudding? One such proof is that the early Christians—the disciples of Jesus, the disciples of the disciples of Jesus, and the disciples of the disciples of the disciples of Jesus, and the disciples of the disciples of the disciples of the disciples of Jesus, and so on—committed to writing their interpretations of Scripture which testify to the validity of Catholic interpretation & teaching up to the present day. All these early Christian writings outside the Bible, some as early as the 1st Century, sound extraordinarily—and suspiciously—Catholic!

Interested? Read them yourself: http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/churchfathers.html

Another proof I was astonished to discover, from a careful study of history, was that the Catholic Church has never changed it’s teachings in regards to doctrine or morality8. Some modern day controversial examples, which the Catholic Church has not budged on, include its doctrine regarding the impossibility of ordaining women priests9, or it’s moral teaching on abortion or contraception10. The Catholic Church will not—and indeed cannot—change or contradict its doctrine or moral teachings. Teachings may indeed develop over time and disciplinarily, liturgical or governmental practices may change, and superficial changes may seem evident as the Church relates to the modern day, but in spite of that, the Catholic Church cannot change the substance of it’s teaching since that would contradict the promise of Jesus to lead His Church into all truth. During those rare moments11 where it solemnly defines doctrine, it is not just teaching the opinions of intelligent men, but has Jesus’ promised inspiration to be the very truth of God.

Conclusion

Therefore, on a personal note, I am only able to conclude that joining the Catholic Church makes a lot of sense due to the fact that it has a God-given authority to teach and safeguard the truths of the Christian faith. Although I would point out that good has come from the 9000 protestant denominations and counting (some quote 33,00012), I for one do not see a similar strong claim to authority in safeguarding and teaching the Christian faith contained within it, evidenced in the fact that new denominations seem to appear on quite a frequent basis. I have even noticed that some non-Catholic Christians try to resolve this problem by aiming to devalue the importance of doctrine, despite many Bible verses13 that appear to emphasise the importance of correct teaching working alongside acts of charity, humility and love. If you’ve ever heard someone insist that “Christianity is a relationship and not a religion”, used in a way that appears to undermine the relevance or importance of theology, then I would suggest that there is a good chance you have subtly encountered this attitude yourself! Of course, bearing spiritual fruit in love of God & neighbour is what matters more, however, as paragraph 89 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church states so beautifully, doctrines are: the lights along the path of faith; they illuminate it and make it secure’. In other words, doctrine helps us draw closer in our relationship to Jesus. Hence, we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath water just as much as we shouldn’t seek quick fixes that skirt the issue.

And so there you have it. I appreciate this reason may not be convincing for everyone—and I have not even begun to address the controversial and misunderstood aspects of a few specific Catholic teachings—but this point was nonetheless significant in my journey towards Catholicism.

Lots of love,
Chris

Disagree? Need clarification? Think I’m speaking out of line?
Do not hesitate to message me on Facebook or at: chrisjohnnewton@gmail.com

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Footnotes

1. 2 Peter 3:16

2. Romans 16:17, 2 Peter 2:1-3, 1 John 4:1, 2 Timothy 4:3, 1 Timothy 6:20-21, Galatians 1:8, etc.

3. “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.” St. Ignatius of Antioch’s Letter to the Smyrnaeans (107AD).

4. Whether the protestant leaders were forced out of the Catholic Church by the Church itself, or whether they forced themselves out of the Catholic Church is a matter of perspective.

5. John 16:12-13, John 14:26, John 14:17.

6. Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) paragraphs 888–892 and 85–90, Matthew 16:18, 1 Timothy 3:15, John 16:12-13.

7. John 17:20-23

8. Read: https://www.catholic.com/qa/can-the-church-change-its-doctrines

9. Read Ordinatio Sacerdotalis by Pope John Paul II (particularly his closing remarks)

10. I was alarmed to discover that up until 1930 all protestant denominations, alongside the Catholic Church, were against the use of contraception. Today only the Catholic Church has retained it’s original moral teaching on this matter. (Sources: Humanae Vitae; Lambeth Conference 1930)

11. The Catholic Church only rarely uses its gift of infallibility—most of these infallible teachings come from infrequent Church councils (such as the first Church council which can be read in Acts 15). As well as, the Pope’s last infallible statement on the teaching chair of Peter was back in 1950.

12. “World Chris­tian­ity con­sists of 6 major ecclesiastico-cultural blocs, divided into 300 major eccle­si­as­ti­cal tra­di­tions, com­posed [sic] of over 33,000 dis­tinct denom­i­na­tions in 238 coun­tries” (Vol. I, p. 16 of the World Chris­t­ian Ency­clo­pe­dia).

13. 1 Timothy 4:16, Titus 1:9, Titus 2:1, Jude 1:3, 2 Timothy 4:2-4, 1 Timothy 6:3, 2 Peter 1:20, 2 Timothy 2:15, 2 Timothy 1:13, Romans 16:17, 1 Timothy 6:20, 1 Corinthians 11:1-2, 2 Thessalonians 2:14-15, Galatians 1:8, Proverbs 18:15, Proverbs 15:14, Proverbs 2:3-5…and so on.

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11 thoughts on “A Case For Catholicism – 1. Authority To Teach

  1. A very interesting and persuasive case! Thanks for this. Have you read Christian Smith’s, How To Go From Being a Good Evangelical to a Committed Catholic in Ninety-Five Difficult Steps, or Mark P. Shea’s By What Authority: An Evangelical Discovers Catholic Tradition, by any chance?

    • Hi Barney, thanks for the comment! I have heard Mark Shea share on his spiritual journey before but have not encountered that book before. Nor have I heard of Christian Smith or his book. Thanks for sharing them with me. I assume they must cover similar points? Part of this material was influenced by a fictional story by Marcus Grodi about a protestant pastor, called ‘How Firm A Foundation’.

      • Yeah Mark Shea’s book takes much the same line you’re arguing here. Christian Smith touches on this but also many other areas. It’s a highly readable and stimulating read – I recommend it!

  2. Hi Chris,
    Interesting! Quick question – didn’t the decisions of what should be included in the Bible happen before the Catholic/Orthodox divide happened – when catholic still just meant everybody? In which case, I’m just wondering why become Catholic rather than Orthodox? I guess maybe you’ll cover this in future posts…
    Thanks.

    • Hi there,
      Yes you’re correct! That very thought did cross my mind as I was writing this blog, however for the sake of brevity I decided it deserved more than a quick mention. The Orthodox/Catholic question is quite a dilemma for some protestants Christians who feel that they cannot, for whatever reason, remain protestant but yet cannot choose between Orthodoxy & Catholicism. In short, as I’m sure you are aware, it boils down to whose interpretation of the Pope’s role is correct. Historically this was not the main cause of disagreement, but today this is certainly where the heart of the disagreement lies. I find one can study history carefully and come out 50/50 on the historical evidence from both camps, but one thing can be ascertained from taking the historical approach to finding the answer: throughout history each Pope certainly believes they have some sort of special authority (as well as honour). My question to myself was: “Who is more likely to understand their own role better, the Popes themselves or others?” But yet even non-bishops of Rome such as the bishop at Hippo, St. Augustine say remarkable things, e.g. “Rome has spoken; the cause is finished”, and other non-bishops of Rome with no clear political agenda support the supreme authority of the Pope. In contrast, the chair at Constantinople, and subsequently many Patriarch’s of Constantinople throughout antiquity, have been engrossed in hot political contests between Patriarch and Emperor – particularly during the Muslim invasions of Constantinople. To obtain greater security, often Patriarchs would bolster their own claim to authority; this is partly why the Eastern Orthodox & the Catholic Church would drift in and out of communion which each other for quite a number of years before the final split in the 1450s (some claim 1054AD though I do not believe history supports this date as the final split). I must also point out that Orthodox bishops signed an agreement during the Council of Florence in the 15th Century affirming the Catholic interpretation of the Pope – unfortunately it just didn’t stick when the Orthodox bishops returned back home to the East! Furthermore, I found that the Orthodox have compromised on their moral teachings regarding divorce & contraception – hence a change in moral teachings, which, as I mention in the blog, was a piece of evidence for Catholicism. Lastly, I find that logic can help crack the code in all of this: it just seems logical that there would be one figure with more authority, akin to the High Priest of Israel in the Old Testament, and passed down from the obvious supremacy of Peter in the Gospels. I imagine most governmental or business leaders will appreciate the practicality of having an authority who–at the end of the day–can have the final word. And then there is even more to say such as the ‘suspended infallibility’ of the Orthodox Church based on the fact that they only accept the first 7 ecumenical councils – that means that, according to their view, there has been no definitive Holy Spirit-guaranteed truth from an ecumenical council for centuries! This seems to show some sort of harm or injury within the Church which I believe clashes with Jesus’ promise that the gates of hell would not prevail against His Church. Hence I chose Catholicism. Not to mention that the choice is far easier! (I don’t even think there is an Orthodox Church near where I live–which I suppose is a small argument within itself if Christ’s Church is to be truly ‘universal’!)

      I almost wrote another blog here! Sorry for the wordiness – I suppose this is why I left it out of the blog in the first place! But please note this is really just scraping the surface. You might appreciate this article by former evangelical-now-catholic, Jimmy Akin: http://jimmyakin.com/why-i-am-not-eastern-orthodox

      Of course one must also hear the Orthodox version of events & weigh it up.

      God bless,
      Chris

  3. Thank you for articulating your thoughtful process well. I too am an evangelical by culture and a new catholic Easter 2016 I am trying to find the best way of “coming out” to more than just family. I’ll be following your blog closely.

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