Thursday, March 27, 2008

A Question of Authority

What drew you, after nearly 35 years as a Presbyterian, to the Catholic Church?

The true - but it will sound trite - answer is that the Holy Spirit drew me. But I understand the aim of your question, Candice: why Rome, as opposed to any number of other Christian options?

The answer is simple: the fullness of the truth is there. I know this may sound arrogant, and it did to me for a long time. In fact, I believed for the longest time that there wasn't much truth there at all, and that Catholics had gone wrong a long time ago. This is openly taught in many Protestant churches (where, in some, there is even hostility, calling the Catholic Church "the whore of Babylon," an image from Revelation). But to say 'the fullness' is there doesn't mean that other Christian traditions are completely in error. The key word is 'fullness.' Maybe it should be, "The full splendor of the truth" is there, bringing to fullness everything foreseen and foreshadowed in the Old Testament in its theology, liturgy, and spirituality.

It isn't that I and my wife went "church shopping" (a peculiar American term - even our religion is about being consumers) after becoming more disappointed with the growing accommodation of the Presbyterian church to the secular culture and decided to settle here for now. In fact, I'm very grateful for our experience in all the Protestant churches we've been part of, and I respect those who remain in those traditions. But this leads me to the two main reasons for becoming Catholic: the issue of authority, and a desire for the sacramental life.


Conservative Protestants affirm the authority of scripture for doctrine and practice, rightly so, and the Reformers proclaimed 'solo scriptura,' that is, 'scripture alone' - any questions about doctrine or practice should be ultimately grounded in Scripture. The key word is ultimately. A problem arises when there are multiple interpretations of scripture (apart from healthy literary interpretation) resulting in splits. The "ultimate" authority then passes from Scripture to the one reading it or preaching it. There are now 20,000 Protestant 'denominations' and new ones form all the time because of differences in interpretation. Is communion merely a symbol or is Christ present sacramentally, and if so, in what way? Should homosexuality be normalized and avowed gays allowed to marry? This issue is splitting the Episcopalians and Presbyterians today. These are only two issues - one sacramental, one social - that result in the parting of ways. So the basic issue is: where does the authority truly reside? Most Americans today might say, if they recognize the authority of Scrtipture at all, that the authority to interpret it is in each individual. Hoo-boy! And how culture-bound. Thus, 'denominations' are just groups of individuals who all happen to interpret everything the same way - well, until there's a disagreement. Then like-minded individuals will break away and form a new 'group.'

Interestingly, the scripture itself provides the answer: First Timothy 2:14 says that "the Church is the pillar and bulwark of the truth." How can this be? Consider how, for a long time, there were no scriptures of the "New Testament" at all. Paul's letter to the Thessalonians is the earliest piece, about 50 AD, and Mark is composed somewhere near the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans in 70 AD. John is one of the latest, perhaps 80-90 AD, and 2 Peter, which barely made it into the canon, is probably much later (circa 150 AD) and written by a disciple of Peter, not Peter himself. These documents were hand-copied and passed around and came to have the same authority as the apostles who wrote them (or who were close to an apostle, as Mark was to Peter, and Luke to Paul). The authority of the documents derived from the authority of the apostles who knew Jesus and who had been commissioned by Him personally. When many spurious documents came out bearing apostles' names and claiming apostolic authority, the Church had to come together and decide which documents had apostolic authority and which ones didn't and which - being questionable - could be recommended but not recognized either as 'inspired' (guided by the Holy Spirit) or apostolic (such as the Didache and The Shepherd of Hermas). The upshot is this: the scriptures as we have them today have their authority by virtue of the fact that the real authority resides in the church that acknowledges apostolic succession. It is the Church that gave us the scriptures. The Church came first, the scriptures later (I'm not speaking of the Hebrew Scriptures, which were accepted from the beginning, as noted by Jesus' frequent quotes from them and 2 Timothy 3:16). In a manner of speaking, the scriptures are part of the handed-down oral tradition and teaching of the Church (as plainly said in 2 Thessalonians 2:15 and First Corinthians 11:2). It is also the Church that, through a series of councils, resisted Arian, Persian and other 'pagan' interpretations, and settled certain doctrinal matters (such as the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, and so on) resulting in the creeds which are 'bottom-line' statements where every line was prayed over and fought over. This is why, for Catholics who understand church history better than anybody, authority resides ultimately in The Church which Jesus established, appointing Peter as its first head. The unbroken line of apostolic succession continues to affirm the authority of the Church (were there bad popes? Sure. Multiple ones at times? Yup. But the current one can trace the laying-on-of-hands directly back to Peter and Jesus). Is the Bible still inspired and authoritative? Of course, and every educated Catholic will tell you so. But no Catholic is at liberty to decide what to accept or reject or what spin to put on a passage to match one's personal preferences (such persons are called "cafeteria Catholics" - picking and choosing what to accept, based on current cultural trends and one's personal tastes). Authority resides in Christ's Church. The collection of settled matters over the years is called "Sacred Tradition" which does not add to Scripture but preserves the deposit of truth which the Church protects and proclaims, unchanged (again, I appeal to 2 Thessalonians 2:15 and hasten to add that "Sacred Tradition" isn't the same as 'the tradition of the elders' that Jesus rebuked religious leaders about in Mark 7:8,9). It is this historical continuity that is attractive, too. The Catholic Church (and Eastern Orthodox churches) go back to the very beginning. British intellectual and convert John Henry Newman said that no Protestant can be a student of history and remain a Protestant. In my case, he was right. As I read Ignatius, Polycarp, Clement, and other early Church "Fathers" who received the faith directly from the original apostles, the more the Catholic Church looked like the authentic New Testament church - to my great surprise.

The second major factor in my decision - the pursuit of the sacramental life - will be the topic of my next posting.

Grace and peace.

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