What is the Church?
Put simply, the Church is a community of faith founded by Christ which celebrates and makes known her Lord through his teachings and sacraments. This Church is composed of the clergy, laity and consecrated religious.
Does the Bible speak of the Church?
Yes, it does, a fact that is quite disturbing to those who disavow any significant role for her and who reduce Christian faith to a personal experience with occasional Christian fellowship. Jesus said: “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.” (Matthew 16:18). St. Paul also speaks about “the church of the living God” (Timothy 3:15). In Hebrews 12:23, he calls her the Church or “the assembly of the first-born.” Revealing something of the intimacy between Christ and his people, St. Paul says in Ephesians 5:25, “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” Jesus compares the Church to a flock of sheep: “So there shall be one flock, one shepherd” (John 10:16).
Does the Bible say anything about Christ founding a Church?
Our Lord chose twelve apostles and commanded that they teach and insure that believers observe all that he had given them. Christ, himself, admits to his own authority, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18) and extends it to his apostles, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” (John 20:21). Christ appointed a visible headship or ultimate leadership among his apostles in Peter: “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18). This “rock” signifies that Peter should be the foundation stone and chief shepherd of the Church. Christ told him “Feed my sheep . . . Tend my lambs . . . Feed my sheep” (John 21:15-17). In other words, he was to lead the apostles and teach the People of God. He was to minister to them and insure the efficacy of the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist.
When did this Church really begin?
The Acts of the Apostles chronicles how the apostles were empowered and began to exercise their mission on Pentecost. The Church expanded and prospered. Bishops were appointed to assist and to be the successors to the apostles. This living legacy extends all the way to today.
Can the origin of the Church and its apostolic succession be proven?
Sure, history and Church documents themselves are evidence of Church leadership and activity throughout the ages. Significant are the lists of succession, especially that of the Pope which extends back to Christ and his appointment of Peter. There has also been a successive series of Church fathers and doctors who have explained and defended the faith in every century. We might point further to the Church councils, which have corrected and maintained teaching and discipline against error so as to be faithful to Christ.
Can we really be sure from biblical testimony that Christ gave Peter a special supremacy and power?
Christ asserted that Peter was the rock or foundation stone of his Church. He tells him to feed his flock, to teach and minister to clergy and laity alike. He makes no qualm in saying, “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” (Matthew 16:19).Yes, the singular role of Peter is pretty clear.
Does the Bible assert that Peter was the chief apostle and that he exercised supremacy over them?
St. Peter personally presided over the election of Matthias. He was the first to address the crowd after the descent of the Holy Spirit. At the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem he took it upon himself to speak in the name of all the apostles. He presided in Jerusalem over the first Church council (Acts 15). He resolved disputed matters (Acts 15:7). St. Paul consulted Peter about certain practices. Indeed, early Christian history tells us that after Christ, Peter was considered the head and chief teacher of faith.
Can it be proven that the Catholic Church is the true Church?
Christ established the Catholic Church almost two thousand years ago. Her Christian teachings have remained consistent against the fads and fashions of time. Her saints have written our Church history in lives of holiness and sometimes even of martyrdom. She has spread throughout the world to the many nations of the earth. She has not deleted or compromised the teachings of Christ. She has an unbroken succession of leadership (that can be chronicled) going back to Jesus. The Catholic Church alone has weathered all the storms of dissension, schisms, paganism, and persecution.
How can it be said that no other denomination is the true Church?
Except for the special position of the Orthodox churches and their relationship, albeit fractured, with the Catholic Church, all other Christian denominations emerge from the personal opinions of certain men. These figures alter, add, and delete from the deposit of faith according to their own whim and private notions. Non-Catholic churches [properly called ecclesial communities] disagree with one another and only possess fragments of Christ’s teaching, not the whole truth. All saving truth “subsists” in the Catholic Church. These other ecclesial communities extend back a few centuries or merely a couple years, not two millennia like the Catholic faith. These denominations exist only locally or in a few countries and are not worldwide. Having not formed under the watchful eye and guidance of the apostles, non-Catholic Bible-Christians frequently and ultimately explain the Scriptures in ways to suit human opinion.
Does the Bible actually say that we should submit our opinion to the Church?
We read St. Paul in Hebrews 13:17: “Obey your leaders and submit to them.” Jesus said to the apostles: “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” (Matthew 28:18-20). “He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me, and he who rejects me rejects him who sent me” (Luke 10:16). Thus it is that we should hear the Church and submit our opinions to her.
But blind submission violates the freedom of human inquiry and thinking, does it not?
This submission is not blind. We are obliged, to the best of our ability, to study the reasons and background for Catholic teachings. But, should we encounter “mystery” and we will, then we should render a religious assent to the views of the Church, which received the command from Christ to teach and to explain the truth.
Does not everyone have a right to his or her own opinion?
Yes, but only so long as the facts admit to differing opinions. But if truth should be made manifest or decided by a competent authority (like the Church), then we must submit. Children have opinions; would we say that they are always mature and correct? The insane have views too, would we consider all truth relative so as to give them credence? No, of course we would not.
Could not Christ have made things a lot easier for us, just by spelling out his doctrines so that no confusion might develop?
Christ did provide for the eventuality of misunderstanding. He gave us a certain and infallible teacher for his doctrines. In cases of uncertainty, we have a means of discerning the truth. He principally gave this infallibility to Peter, the Bishop of Rome, and to his successors.
But, is not the Bible an infallible teacher?
No, because many texts require explanation. There are some Scriptures difficult to understand. The multiplicity of denominations in this nation alone is proof that the Bible is no infallible teacher.
Does the Bible really say that St. Peter has infallible teaching authority?
Christ said to St. Peter: “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” (Luke 22:31). In Matt. 16:17-19, Jesus said to Peter: “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. 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.” This proves that Peter was empowered by Jesus Christ so that his faith would not falter and that he should insure and strengthen the faith of his brothers. Christ confided his Church to Peter as on a rock that will never be disturbed by false teachings or by the gates of hell. Christ said to Peter: “Tend my lambs . . . feed my sheep,” (John 21:15), which means to teach and care for the whole Church. If Peter was charged to teach the whole Church, then Christ had to insure that he would be able to teach without error. Otherwise, no one could be required to believe what he taught. Except for some window dressing and the development of our appreciation of doctrine, the Church has taught the same unchanging doctrine for two thousand years.
But if Peter swore that he did not know Christ, how could he be infallible?
This question emerges from a common misunderstanding between “infallibility” and “impeccability”. While St. Peter was infallible in teaching matters of faith and morals, he was not free from sin. Further, when Peter denied Christ, he had not received the Holy Spirit who would preserve him free from error in teaching the Church. Christ had yet to give him full and empowered charge of his flock.
What does “ex cathedra” teaching mean?
It is a technical term, which means literally from the chair; it signifies when the Pope speaks from his role, as the universal teacher, some matter of faith and morals which must be accepted throughout the world. He puts the full weight of the seat of Peter behind it. His private conversations and such are not infallible.
Does such a view of infallibility create an atmosphere for ignorance, making people passive in investigating the truth?
No, quite to the contrary, infallibility insures that we do not follow any false leads. The truth is studied on a firm foundation and in the light; those who have no such guide search for the truth in the dark. The fragmentation of Protestantism is evidence of this latter route.
But wait a minute; is not the teaching regarding infallibility of recent origin?
It was formally defined toward the end of the 19th century as a necessary retort to a world that was increasingly secular and dismissive of the role of the Church. However, even before it became a declared article of faith, the Popes were always infallible. Papal infallibility is not a new doctrine; rather, it is an ancient perpetual truth given a clearer definition.
But some Popes were terrible public sinners; does this not invalidate this business?
No, just as with Peter, infallibility does not mean an exemption from sin.
Could it be that Peter was infallible, but no Popes after him?
The guarantee from Jesus was that he would remain with his Church until the end of the world. Thus, the infallibility of Peter must endure as long as the Church exists and the teachings of Jesus have need of preservation from error. Anything less would be unjust. Every generation has a right to the truth. Remember, Christ promised he would send to his Church the Spirit of truth which would abide with her forever (John 14).
At the time of the reformation, about the year 1500, did not the Catholic Church fall into idolatry and superstitious practices?
No, her beliefs have remained essentially the same throughout all history, going back to the apostles and the first Christians. These charges are the result of bigotry and misunderstanding.
Were there not many abuses in the Catholic Church at the time of the reformation?
The Church is holy because Christ is holy. However, many individual members of every “church” may be guilty of sinfulness and abuses. The Church has never formally approved of religious abuses and has legislated “Church” penalties, including excommunication, to discourage such activities.
Is it correct to assume that Protestant denominations possess the same faith and teachings as the first Christians?
No, this would be a false presumption. Many cases of deviation can be documented, not to mention their breach with the Catholic Church. While the first Christians acknowledged baptism as necessary for salvation, many of these “new” churches dismiss its importance. Ancient believers also believed in the Church’s jurisdiction over the sacrament of penance and the value of confession to a priest; all the Protestant sects renounce this mystery of mercy. The early Christians made the Eucharist the center of their lives, trusting that in Holy Communion they received the real body and blood of Jesus Christ. Most Protestant sects denounce the real presence, spiritualize it, or reduce it entirely to ordinary bread. Early Christians also inherited from the Jews of Christ’s day the practice of praying for the dead; this also, the non-Catholic denominations have discarded.
What is so serious about a denomination changing or modernizing its tenets of faith?
Implicit in such an activity is the assumption that the previous tenets were incomplete or erroneous. Both cannot be right. The true teachings of Christ and the apostolic Church, the very matters of faith required for salvation, cannot be reversed or altered. Attempts to do so sever the connection between believers and the true Church of Christ. Of course, issues of discipline can be revised according to changing circumstances. Further, the many languages of men and the various societies in which the Church finds herself may also dictate reformulation in the expressions of changeless doctrinal truths. It could also be said that the full meaning and ramifications of certain teachings develop or are only realized over time.
Does the Catholic Church fabricate new articles of faith?
No, she does not have the authority to create new teachings. Rather, she sometimes defines matters of faith that have existed in the Church from the very beginning. As for discipline, she can create or revoke laws according to changing circumstances.
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