Monday, March 30, 2009

Can We Clear up Some Things About the Church Itself?

This article is fairly long, but meaty. I'd encourage you to read it in its entirety, but for your convenience I've provided some links to the questions answered within this piece:

After reading a few of the comments I thought it might be helpful to just bring this topic out to the forefront and allow more discussion. The questions of authority, church, magisterium and Scripture are all tied together. I will do my best to try and lay out the Catholic understanding of this and hopefully help people understand at least what the Catholic Church understands it all to mean. A great document to read is from Vatican II on the Church and can be found in its entirety at

The Catholic Church teaches and believes that Jesus Christ intended and did leave a visible Church to guide mankind towards salvation. The Body of Christ, as it is often referred to, is made up of various people who have different roles to play in the Church. Ephesians 4:11-16 "And he gave some as apostles, others as prophets, others as evangelists, others as pastors and teachers, to equip the holy ones for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of faith and knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the extent of the full stature of Christ, so that we may no longer be infants, tossed by waves and swept along by every wind of teaching arising from human trickery, from their cunning in the interests of deceitful scheming. Rather, living the truth in love, we should grow in every way into him who is the head, Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, with the proper functioning of each part, brings about the body's growth and builds itself up in love."

Jesus didn't intend a hierarchical Church, did He?

The first common objection is that the Catholic Church is made up of a hierarchy, which was not Christ's intention in the first place, nor is it what Scripture reveals to be the true Church. Sometimes it will be said that what Jesus intended was to simply leave the Holy Spirit who would guide all to the Truth and those who are of one mind and heart would make up the church.

Somewhere in this discussion we take for granted that the Holy Scriptures are available to us to read and meditate upon, but rarely do we really look at what it took for Scripture to come about over many years.

Actually, Christ did setup a hierarchy, as Saint Paul reminds us, with Christ at the head of the body, the Church. We also see that Christ chose certain men to be called as apostles. If Christ's desire was to make everyone equal and capable of knowing, teaching and preaching the Truth, why did He separate the 12 from everyone else? When we read Acts of the Apostles we can clearly see that a structure is being set up, but that they are still trying to figure out how it will look. The Church realizes that the Apostles cannot do everything and were not meant to, thus we have the deacons chosen and created in Acts 6. Now Jesus did not say to have deacons, but somehow the Church decided it was not only necessary but fitting. Acts 6:5 "The proposal was acceptable to the whole community," this shows us one way in which the Church makes decisions. The entire community comes together and in union with the bishops (apostles) a decision is made. This is of course for us not the only way but it is one way. Acts 6:6 "They presented these men to the apostles who prayed and laid hands on them." This is an example of the Church acting on behalf of Jesus Christ. The men are presented to the apostles, who lay hands on them, not simply to the community as a whole who then lay hands on them. The men did not decide for themselves that they would be deacons, but instead felt called to be presented to the Church, who made the final decision. We see a similar example in the replacement of Judas in Acts 1:15-26. We also see in Acts 15 at the Council of Jerusalem the Church gathering to solve a dispute and it being left to the Apostles to make the final decision, with Peter speaking on behalf of the Church. After the council Acts goes on to talk about those who have gone forth without a mandate from them (Acts 15:24). Now they will go on to say that what they are saying comes from the Holy Spirit not just from them, which again reiterates what the Church believes to be the case as to how the Truth will be conveyed.

As time goes on the structure of the Church takes form and becomes more visible and stable so that the Truth of the Gospel may not be watered down nor distorted. When you are just preaching to a small group of people it is much easier to not have any structure, but the minute you begin to spread out and grow there is always a need for structure and order to keep the Truth straight. We would say that in Mt 16:18 Jesus is setting Peter up as the visible head of the Church so that one person would be the final authority on earth for the Truth of the Gospel.

If the Church is really the earthly body of Christ, made up of sinful people, can we really trust it to consistently communicate God's will?

Sometimes people will comment that the Church is made up of sinful, imperfect people, so there is no way they could get it right all of the time or be trusted to hand on the Truth. Others will say that giving this much power and authority to one person is not only dangerous but unscriptural. One might even say, 'Just look at the history of the Catholic Church and the point is made with all the sinful bad Popes.' Yet everyday Christians across the world trust in sinful imperfect men to get it right when they read Scripture. When a person reads Scripture how do they know they understand it correctly? Is it because they are perfect or is it because the Holy Spirit is perfect and guiding you? Have you ever made a mistake about what Scripture meant? How did you know you were wrong or right? Have you ever corrected someone? By what authority did you correct them? Do we decide by a majority? Do we decide by quoting Scripture? The early Church did not just let people do whatever they wanted and in fact we read often of Saint Paul battling those who had perverted the Truth for their own gain and glory.

The Holy Spirit guided the hand of the writers when the books of the Bible were being written. The same Holy Spirit guided the Church when She selected the Books which would be considered Scriptural. Now we would not say that somehow these men were sinless or perfect, but they did manage to allow the Holy Spirit to guide them in such a way that what they wrote and chose were God's Divine Word. I think sometimes the difference is that Scripture was written and chosen a long time ago and we can rest on it not changing so it is much easier to say they got it right that time, but it is much harder to trust that the Holy Spirit will be able to guide us today or tomorrow.

This is also why the Catholic Church does not claim to be authoritative in all matters, just those dealing with Faith and Morals and it is also important to note that everything the Pope says is not spoken with authority; it is only when he clearly intends to speak in such a manner. One must also realize that just because a person fails to live out the truth does not mean they do not believe it to be the truth. Often we find examples of Christians not living the Christian way of life, but their failure to live it out does not somehow negate that there is a true and moral way to live, more that we like Saint Paul often find ourselves doing what we do not want to do. When Peter answers the question of who Jesus is in Matthew 16:16-20 what we see is Jesus reminding Peter that it was not his own ability but the Holy Spirit's ability to guide his answer. Thus we are not shocked to see Peter mess up in the next chapter, for he was thinking not as God does.

What about when Scripture and Tradition contradict one another?

People will often ask "What if Scripture and Tradition contradict each other?" and the Church would say they won't. It is like asking, "What if you have a round square?" you can't. We would say that it is an apparent contradiction, but God cannot contradict Himself. Jesus told us not to call any man our Father (Mt 23:9), but then Paul refers to Abraham as our father in faith (Rom 4:12). So what are we to do now that Scripture has contradicted Scripture? We would say that one has misunderstood what Jesus meant by 'call no one Father' not that we have found something in error in Scripture. The Catholic Church refers to Her priests as 'father' and people will often say this is an example of Tradition contradicting Scripture, but we would say it is no different from the previous example of St. Paul referring to Abraham as father or even the numerous times Paul refers to himself as a father.

Do I even need an institutional church? Doesn't the Holy Spirit guide me just as well as an individual?

Too often we argue that we do not need structure nor authority because we are guided by the Holy Spirit, but Saint Paul found himself constantly up against people who had twisted Scripture to advance their own agenda. Again the argument begs that question, "Where did Scripture come from in the first place?" We need to have a visible magisterium to guide us as a people of faith. Had the apostles not taken the role as leaders how would the Church have grown? Who would have made the decisions? One could argue that the Holy Spirit would have guided the people but ask yourself, How often in my church has everyone agreed on one thing? Or more likely how often has a leadership team been the one to make the final decisions about what it True. Then if we still disagree what do we do? Where is the final authority on earth? Again we listen to Jesus as He tells Peter that he is being given the keys to the kingdom of heaven and whatever he binds on earth will be bound in heaven (Mt 16:19) or John 20:21-23 where he breathes the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles and gives them the command that whatever sins are forgiven by them are truly forgiven.

One must admit that we accept someone's authority, by accepting the authority of the Scriptures, for Sacred Scripture did not fall out of the sky, nor was it dictated by an angel, nor was it written by the hand of Christ. Instead it was the early Church that wrote, selected and preserved them. If this authority was present at one moment in time why would God not permit that authority to continue throughout time so that when a disagreement arises we can do as the early Church did by turning to the successors of the apostles to be guided by the Holy Spirit.

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