It was in reading the Catechism of the Catholic Church on the topic of its authority that I first realized something that gave me a jolt.
I had been an active evangelical for 28 years, of which included seminary training, professional work on the staff of a church for several years, countless hours of Sunday School teaching and church committee meetings. I spoke regularly and devotedly about “the church,” and I thought I had a solid notion of what it meant.
In my years as a member of various churches, I had confidently stated that “I believe in the holy, catholic Church” whenever we recited the Apostles’ Creed. Yet when I got to the section of the Catechism that began with that quote, I was in for quite a surprise. I had never been exposed to what the Catholic Church teaches about its nature, its mission, and, most especially, its authority…and the jolt came when I discovered that as I followed its thread of biblical teaching on its authority, which was so reasonably and beautifully laid out, I could not match or refute it from anything I knew about the Church.
Try as I might, I could not escape the conviction that as an evangelical Protestant, I had only a passive, descriptive notion of “the church” as “the body of believers” and that my background and experience had somehow blurred the distinction between the authority of the Church and my authority as a believer. I found the Catholic teaching to be extremely compelling, and I trace my conversion to the Catholic Church back to that electrifying jolt.
As with everything in Catholic belief, the Church’s teaching about its authority has its beginnings in God’s great love for men. This seems like such a simple statement, but centuries of misunderstanding and flawed examples have given many people (even some Catholics) the idea that the authority of the Church has a human, institutional stranglehold on wayward members, keeping everyone in line and perpetuating itself out of reluctance to relinquish power. Yet this is not at all the tone of the Catechism’s teaching on the Church:
Christ is the light of humanity; and it is, accordingly, the heart-felt desire of this sacred Council, being gathered together in the Holy Spirit, that, by proclaiming his Gospel to every creature, it may bring to all men that light of Christ which shines out visibly from the Church…The Church has no other light than Christ’s; according to a favorite image of the Church Fathers, the Church is like the moon, all its light reflected from the sun…Having shown that the Spirit is the source and giver of all holiness, we now confess that it is he who has endowed the Church with holiness. The Church is, in a phrase used by the Fathers, the place “where the Spirit flourishes.” (CCC, 748-749)
Contrary to what I had anticipated, the teaching of the Church about itself doesn’t begin with an institutional description or with issues of order. As the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council wrote in Lumen Gentium:
The eternal Father, by a free and hidden plan of His own wisdom and goodness, created the whole world. His plan was to raise men to a participation of the divine life. Fallen in Adam, God the Father did not leave men to themselves, but ceaselessly offered helps to salvation, in view of Christ, the Redeemer “who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature.” All the elect, before time began, the Father “foreknew and predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, that he should be the firstborn among many brethren.” He planned to assemble in the holy Church all those who would believe in Christ. Already from the beginning of the world the foreshadowing of the Church took place. It was prepared in a remarkable way throughout the history of the people of Israel and by means of the Old Covenant. In the present era of time the Church was constituted and, by the outpouring of the Spirit, was made manifest. At the end of time it will gloriously achieve completion…(LG, 2)
Catholic thought about the Church is focused through a very wide lens. “The gathering together of the People of God began at the moment when sin destroyed the communion of men with God, and that of men among themselves. The gathering of the Church is, as it were, God’s reaction to the chaos provoked by sin.” (CCC, 761) Made necessary in the Garden of Eden, prepared for by God’s gathering together a nation of His own who would be the sign and the source of His blessing on all mankind, the Church in the Catechism takes shape as the Kingdom of God on earth, the new Israel:
It was the Son’s task to accomplish the Father’s plan of salvation in the fullness of time. Its accomplishment was the reason for his being sent. The Lord Jesus inaugurated his Church by preaching the Good News, that is, the coming of the Reign of God, promised over the ages in the Scriptures. To fulfill the Father’s will, Christ ushered in the Kingdom of heaven on earth. The Church is the Reign of Christ already present in mystery. (CCC, 763)
It looks ahead to the perfection of the Church in the life of the world to come:
The Church will…receive its perfection only in the glory of heaven, at the time of Christ’s glorious return. Until that day, the Church progresses on her pilgrimage amidst this world’s persecutions and God’s consolations. Here below she knows that she is in exile far from the Lord, and longs for the full coming of the kingdom, when she will be united in glory with her king. The Church, and through her the world, will not be perfected in glory without great trials. Only then will all the just from the time of Adam…be gathered together in the universal Church in the Father’s presence. (CCC, 769)
I must say that as I read this description and explanation of the Church, my heart was pounding with the sheer thrill and glory of it. It was completely consonant with everything I ever imagined (and much that I hadn’t) about the Church. For example, the Catechism quotes Sacrosanctum Concilium, another Vatican II document:
The Church is essentially both human and divine, visible but endowed with invisible realities, zealous in action and dedicated to contemplation, present in the world, but as a pilgrim, so constituted that in her the human is directed toward and subordinated to the divine, the visible to the invisible, action to contemplation, and this present world to that city yet to come, the object of our quest. (CCC 771, SC 2; cf. Heb. 13:14)
Where could there be any criticism of this? I had none.
Perhaps that’s why, as I moved on through the unfamiliar and startling teachings of the Catechism about the Church’s authority, I did not find myself antagonistic. Instead, I wanted to see how all this got developed, how the love story turned out, so to speak. Because by then it didn’t feel like theology anymore. It felt like an account of a courtship, of all things. How does Jesus care for and sustain and prepare His Bride?
Christ the Lord, in whom the entire Revelation of the most high God is summed up, commanded the apostles to preach the Gospel, which had been promised beforehand by the prophets, and which he fulfilled in his own person and promulgated with his own lips. In preaching the Gospel, they were to communicate the gifts of God to all men. This Gospel was to be the source of all saving truth and moral discipline. (CCC, 75)
This is surely a statement to gladden the heart of any evangelical, especially one who might be predisposed to think of the Church as a detractor from the Gospel.
God desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth: that is, of Christ Jesus. Christ must be proclaimed to all nations and individuals, so that this revelation may reach to the ends of the earth. God graciously arranged that the things he had once revealed for the salvation of all peoples should remain in their entirety, throughout the ages, and be transmitted to all generations. (CCC, 74)
This is precisely what one would expect a loving God and a faithful Church to do. Yet within this statement is the preview of where Catholics and Protestants part company. “God graciously arranged that the things he had once revealed…should remain in their entirety” looks innocent enough, but the curious evangelical needs to get ready for the jolt it will deliver.
In keeping with the Lord’s command, the Gospel was handed on in two ways:
– orally by the apostles who handed on, by the spoken word of their preaching, by the example they gave, by the institutions they established, what they themselves had received—whether from the lips of Christ, from his way of life and his works, or whether they had learned it at the prompting of the Holy Spirit;
– in writing by those apostles and other men associated with the apostles who, under the inspiration of the same Holy Spirit, committed the message of salvation to writing. (CCC, 76)
This suggestion of an oral apostolic tradition as a means of preserving gospel teaching was a completely new thought for me. I had always assumed that the Catholic word “tradition” simply meant “the way things have always been done.” I had no idea that it was so organically connected to the apostles themselves.
Having to pause and think about this was a real turning point for me, because the fact that I had only the dimmest notion of how we got from the preaching of the apostles on the day of Pentecost to the modern evangelical church exposed my lack of knowledge of church history before the Reformation. If the Church really is the human/divine organization described in the pages of the Catechism, how could I justify knowing so little of her history, especially about the time right after the apostles? I knew the Scriptures of the apostles very, well. But what did I know of this oral tradition? It made solid sense to me to imagine the apostles teaching people truths that had not been written down by one of them. After all, very few of the Twelve wrote anything. None of the gospels claim to teach all there was to say about what Jesus said and did. In fact, John seems to indicate that would be impossible (John 21:25). None of the epistles make a claim to full revelation, either. Usually they were written for a specific purpose in a particular church. Often they were written hurriedly, because a personal visit, which was always preferred, had to be delayed (I Tim. 3:14-15; I Cor. 11:33-34). The writers of the New Testament never direct the believers to accept and obey only what got written down (2 Thess. 2:15; I Cor. 11:2); indeed, in the entire New Testament there is no orientation to a singular importance of written testimony. There is strong and unequivocal importance laid upon obedience to apostolic teaching (I Thess. 4:1; Heb. 13:7).
When I began to reflect on the fact that the original preaching of the gospel was entirely oral and that the Church existed, spread, and turned the world upside down for nearly 400 years without a New Testament as we know it, I knew I had to at least give the Catechism a chance to make its case for this suggestion.
Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture, then, are bound closely together and communicate one with the other. For both of them, flowing out from the same divine well-spring, come together in some fashion to form one thing and move towards the same goal. Each of them makes present and fruitful in the Church the mystery of Christ, who promised to remain with his own “always, to the close of the age.”
Sacred Scripture is the speech of God as it is put down in writing under the breath of the Holy Spirit. And [Holy] Tradition transmits in its entirety the Word of God which has been entrusted to the apostles by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit. It transmits it to the successors of the apostles so that, enlightened by the Spirit of truth, they may faithfully preserve, expound, and spread it abroad by their preaching.
As a result the Church, to whom the transmission and interpretation of Revelation is entrusted, does not derive her certainty about all revealed truths from the Holy Scriptures alone. Both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honored with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence. (CCC,80-82)
This appeared to me as eminently reasonable. In fact, it was so appealing and so biblically satisfying that I was curious to know more, especially about how we can know today what this “apostolic tradition” actually was.
This living transmission, accomplished in the Holy Spirit, is called Tradition, since it is distinct from Sacred Scripture, though closely connected to it. Through Tradition, the Church, in her doctrine, life, and worship perpetuates and transmits to every generation all that she herself is, all that she believes. The sayings of the holy Fathers are a witness to the life-giving presence of this Tradition, showing how its riches are poured out in the practice and life of the Church, in her belief and her prayer. (CCC, 78)
So, with a minimum amount of pain (none at all, really) after the initial jolt of seeing the Catholic claim to having two modes of divine revelation, not just one, I had traveled pretty far into the Catechism’s teaching on its authority. To follow its development required no great leaps, no blind acquiescence, nothing sinister at all. It looked as if we had stayed very close to Scripture and to history. A quick look at the Catechism’s footnotes verifies the historicity of this Catholic Church (i.e., “Where there is Christ Jesus, there is the Catholic Church”—St. Ignatius of Antioch: ca. A.D. 110). Although quite different from what I was used to, nothing here seemed strained or sub-Christian (which is what I expected).
Feeling relaxed, I pressed on to the final piece of the Catechism’s teaching on authority in the Catholic Church:
The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living, teaching office of the Church alone. Its authority in this matter is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This means that the task of interpretation has been entrusted to the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome. (CCC, 85)
The New Testament gives much support to the idea of apostolic succession, from Peter’s announcement that the “office” left empty by Judas needed to be filled (Acts 1:20-21) to the Council of Jerusalem’s inclusion of the “elders” in making its decision in the circumcision controversy to Paul’s directive to Titus to appoint “elders” in every town (Titus 1:5). This is certainly not an idea intruded into the New Testament picture of the Early Church. As for Peter being in some way the head of this Church, what else would make sense of that conversation Jesus had with him in Matthew 16?
Yet this Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it. At the divine command and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it listens to this devotedly, guards it with dedication, and expounds it faithfully. All that it proposes for belief as being divinely revealed is drawn from this single deposit of faith.
Mindful of Christ’s words to his apostles: “He who hears you, hears me,” the faithful receive with docility the teachings and directives that their pastors give them in different forms. (CCC, 86-87)
Had I lifted this out of context, I might have just scoffed and dismissed it. But because the Catechism so clearly presents this teaching as being just what one would expect a loving God to do—arrange for an apostolic structure in His Church that will always know, preserve, develop, and teach the absolute truth (“infallibility”)—for the first time in my Christian life, I actually was willing to at least think about it. Thinking led to more reading, studying the Scripture, examining church history, and reflecting as dispassionately as possible on my Protestant heritage. I had always assumed that defining truth is left up to the individual believer, led by the Holy Spirit. But there was no denying that this method led to chaos as far as theological absolutes were concerned. “Chaos,” after all, was what happened in the Garden when our first parents thought the decision between two competing claims to “truth” was left up to them. That’s what precipitated the necessity for the Church in the first place!
I discovered that the ability to believe that the Magisterium had this kind of authority took no more effort than I already expended on believing in the authority of Scripture. That is, could I believe that the Holy Spirit could write the perfect Word of God through fallible, even sinful men (David, who wrote the Psalms, was a murderer and an adulterer)? If I could imagine that kind of human/divine cooperation for the production of written truth, why couldn’t I imagine it for the preservation of oral truth or, most importantly, for the interpretation of those truths?
I could. I did. My experience in submitting to the Church’s authority has been much like how G. K. Chesterton described conversion into the Church:
Nothing is more amusing to the convert…than to hear the speculations about when or whether he will repent of the conversion…The outsiders…think they see the convert entering with bowed head a sort of small temple which they are convinced is fitted up inside like a prison, if not a torture-chamber…They do not know that he has not gone into the inner darkness, but out into the broad daylight.
From beginning to end the Catechism’s teaching about the Church and its authority plants one’s feet firmly in the wide open space of God’s great love and man’s true freedom. Is there any other place to be?