I am a Catholic today for one reason: obedience to Christ. This was not the reason I joined the Church in 1971. I joined because it was important to my devout, cradle-Catholic wife. Of course, I was able to find reasons to join which satisfied my intellectual pride. Then in 1991 my beliefs about the Church were challenged within my own family. I was forced to hit the books to defend my faith.
Through study, I discovered a Church capable of surviving through two millennia of Roman persecutions, bad popes, and the Protestant Reformation. I found a Church constantly reforming and renewing itself from within, a Church adapting itself to every age and every culture without compromising God's eternal truths. I learned of a Church not founded on the theology of any man or group of men, but by Christ through the apostles.
I have listed below four propositions central to why I believe the Catholic Church is the one true Church established by Christ. For those who believe my eternal soul is in jeopardy because of these beliefs, I offer this challenge. If you can disprove even one of these propositions, I will leave the Catholic Church and become a Protestant.
First, I believe that, without the Catholic Church, I can have no assurance of Christian truth. The Holy Spirit prevents the Church from teaching error. Therefore, once the Church dogmatically defines a doctrine, it will "stand firm and hold fast" to that truth until the end of time. If the Catholic Church is the Church I believe it to be, its doctrines should be self-consistent throughout its history. I have found no evidence to contradict this.
Protestants can make no such claim. Martin Luther launched the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century. Within Luther's own lifetime, however, John Calvin and Huldrych Zwingli were already disputing his teachings. They differed over central doctrines, like the Lord's Supper, baptism, and predestination. Doctrinal and denominational divisions within Protestantism have continued to escalate. At last count there were more than 25,000 different Protestant "denominations" throughout the world.
Therefore, my first proposition is:
The Catholic Church, in nearly 2,000 years of existence, has never reversed or contradicted a single doctrine, once that doctrine has become part of the infallible teaching of the Church.
Be careful! Before you challenge this claim you should know the difference between Church doctrines, disciplines, customs, and devotions. Dogmas are the infallible teachings of the Church and include such things as purgatory and the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Church disciplines are the Church's human laws and rulings; these include priestly celibacy and the excommunication of Galileo. Church customs and devotions are things like novenas and the priest's vestments.
Church disciplines, customs, and devotions are not part of the defined teaching of the Church and are subject to change. They can even be subject to human error-dogmas cannot. It is dogma alone for which I make the claim of historical consistency.
Doctrines do not have to be formally defined by Church councils or popes to be part of the dogmatic teaching of the Church. In fact, most doctrines of the Church are formally defined only when challenged . For example, the Church has consistently taught, from apostolic times, that Christ is really present in the Eucharist. The writings of the early Church Fathers, such as Ignatius of Antioch, Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, John Chrysostom, and Augustine, bear witness to this truth. Not until the thirteenth century, however, after four centuries of theological controversy, did the Fourth Lateran Council formally define the doctrine.
As John Henry Cardinal Newman pointed out, the Church's understanding of a defined dogma may develop. Indeed, the richness of Christian theology derives exactly from the Church "pondering in her heart" over centuries all that God has revealed and coming to deeper and deeper awareness of the truth.
It is also important to keep in mind what papal infallibility is and is not. It is a negative protection of the Holy Spirit which will not allow the pope to teach (as defined dogma) error in matters of faith and morals. Infallibility does not mean the pope receives private revelations. Nor does it include the private opinions of the pope, nor his teachings before he became pope-it is not retroactive. It does not mean he will say the right things at the right times, or lead a holy life. Papal infallibility does not extend to physics, algebra, or the outcome of sporting events.
With those clarifications, have at it. All you need to do is search through Church history and find just one doctrinal teaching of the Church which it later reversed or contradicted.
The Canon of Scripture
There are few things more central to Christianity than the Bible. Yet how do we know which books should be included? No book of the Bible ever lists the other books. For Catholics, assurance lies in the consistent teaching of the Catholic Church throughout Christian history. The Council of Rome in 382, under Pope Damasus, first listed the Old and New Testament books as Catholics know them today. This list of books was formalized at the Council of Florence in the fifteenth century, before the removal of seven Old Testament books by the Protestant reformers.
Therefore, my second proposition is:
A Christian cannot have an absolute assurance of which books belong in the Bible without accepting the authority of the Church.
Since Protestants reject the authority of the Church, how do they know which books belong in the Bible? Some say Scripture is self-authenticating-when one reads the Scriptures, the Holy Spirit convicts the reader of their inspiration. If so, why did many early Christians have doubts about 2 Peter and the Book of Revelation? Why wasn't it immediately clear to them that these books should be in the Bible? Why did Christians for 1,500 years believe First and Second Maccabees should be in the Old Testament-yet in the sixteenth century the Reformers threw these books out?
Others say the biblical books have always been accepted throughout Christian history, and that is proof enough. If this is a valid test of Christian truths, then the Bible is being accepted on the basis of "tradition"-the communal transmission of Christian teachings, whether oral or written. Yet Protestants reject other traditions much older than the accepted canon of Scripture, such as apostolic succession. Even anti-Catholic James R. White concedes that many of the early Fathers taught apostolic succession. Speaking of the Marcion and other early heresies, he said "Irenaeus, too, struggled with the issues presented by these various movements. Some of this struggle ushered in the concept of 'apostolic succession' and the traditions attendant to this. Rather than directing people solely to the Scriptures, some of these early Fathers made the grave error of seeking a source of authority outside of the completed revelation of God."[ Answers to Catholic Claims (Crowne Publications, 1990), 85.] But the early Church struggled with the biblical list-it was not always clear which books belonged. Some thought the Epistle of Barnabas or the Apocalypse of Peter should be included. There was no version of the Bible universally accepted until the Church defined one in the fourth century.
I have yet to hear a compelling argument for the acceptance of the canon of Scripture which does not ultimately rely on the authority of the early Church. Yet Protestants believe the early Church was in error on other important doctrines. If the Church was wrong about apostolic succession, couldn't it also have been wrong about the Epistle of James ? Don't forget, Protestants believe the Church was wrong about seven books of the Old Testament, and Martin Luther wanted to remove James from the Bible.
Arguments for the canon which reject the authority of the Church must rely on one's subjective feelings or the witness of other fallible men. As the well-respected evangelical Protestant, Dr. R. C. Sproul, once said, Protestants have "a fallible collection of infallible books." [Tape series on Roman Catholicism, Ligonier Ministries.]
Sola Scriptura is the Achilles' heel of Protestantism. Protestants claim that all truth binding on Christians must be found in the Bible. Yet two of the central beliefs of Protestantism are not found in the Bible. Therefore, the doctrine is self-refuting.
First, all Protestants believe there are twenty-seven books in the New Testament, from Matthew to Revelation. Where in the New Testament are these books listed? Nowhere (the table of contents doesn't count)! Second, where in the Bible does it say the Bible is the sole rule of faith? Nowhere!
So my third proposition is:
The Bible does not teach that Scripture alone is the sole rule of faith for Christians (sola Scriptura).
If you believe the Bible is self-authenticating, which verses of Scripture teach the doctrine of "biblical self-authentication"? If you believe a unanimous consensus developed among early Christians, which verses of Scripture teach the doctrine of "unanimous canonical consensus development"? No matter how you arrive at your canon of Scripture, sola Scriptura demands Biblical proof.
The Bible does say all Scripture is inspired-all Scripture is useful (2 Tim. 3:16). The Catholic Church believes this as well. But the Bible does not say only Scripture is useful. What the Bible says is to " . . . stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught, either by an oral statement or by a letter of ours" (2 Thess. 2:15); and the Church is the "pillar and foundation of truth" (1 Tim. 3:15).
As far as we know, our Lord never wrote a single word while on earth, nor did he ever command his disciples to write. He told them to ". . . go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations . . ." (Matt. 28:19). Only a handful of apostles wrote; fewer still had their writings included in Scripture-what happened to the teachings of the others? The Apostle John says " . . . there are so many other things that Jesus did . . . I do not think the whole world would contain the books that would be written" (John 21:25). Catholics know that everything necessary for salvation comes to us through the the sacred deposit of faith, which includes Scripture and Tradition.
It is clear: our Lord left us a Church-not a book. The book came from the Church and not the other way around. Those who proudly claim their church is "founded on the Bible" are admitting theirs is not the church of the first century-there was no Bible then. If their Bible has only 66 books, and not 73, they are not even in agreement with the Church of the first fifteen centuries of Christianity.
The Early Church Was Catholic
John Henry Cardinal Newman, the great nineteenth-century Catholic convert, wrote in the introduction to his classic work, An Essay On The Development Of Christian Doctrine, ". . . the Christianity of history is not Protestantism. If ever there were a safe truth, it is this." As I began a serious study of my Catholic faith in 1991, the catholicity of the early Church overwhelmed me. Not just a quote from Clement here, and a line from Augustine there, amid contradicting statements from other early Fathers.
What I found was an amazing unanimity on the central doctrines of the faith. Not that the early Fathers agreed on every point-there were development of doctrine and theological controversies throughout Christian history. But what was the Church like during the first four centuries of Christianity?
Ordained bishops headed the local churches, with the bishop of Rome (Peter's successor) having primacy over the other bishops; the Church celebrated the Mass and considered it a representation of Christ's once-for-all sacrifice on the cross; the Church honored Mary, said prayers for the dead, and believed in final purification after death which we now call purgatory. [The following citations are from St. Augustine (paragraph numbers from Jurgens'Faith of the Early Fathers ): primacy of the Bishop of Rome: 1418, 1507, 1862; Mass as a sacrifice: 1424, 1844, 1977; honoring Mary: 1518, 1643, 1644, 1794, 1974(d); prayers for the dead: 1513, 1516, 1780, 1930, 1934; Purgatory: 1467, 1544, 1776, 1920.] I did not find the early Fathers teaching salvation by faith alone, the Bible as the sole rule of faith, or the " Pre-tribulational Rapture."
Finally, my fourth proposition is:
The beliefs, government, and worship of early Christianity were clearly Catholic and not Protestant.
Don't worry: you don't have to take my word for these historical claims. You can verify them for yourself. If you have several hundred dollars to spare, or a good library nearby, you can use the 38-volume The Early Church Fathers (Hendrickson). For only $45, you can get Jurgens' three-volume Faith of the Early Fathers (Liturgical Press). If all you can afford is $10, get Early Christian Writings (Penguin Classics). Be careful! As Cardinal Newman also said in his essay, "To be deep into history is to cease to be Protestant."
If you believe you can disprove any of the above propositions, I will review your information prayerfully. If I'm convinced your arguments are correct, I will become a Protestant. If you cannot disprove at least one of these points, obedience to Christ will demand I remain Catholic. You might reflect on what obedience requires of you.
If you think these questions about the nature of the Church are unimportant, I ask you to reconsider. Either Christ did or did not establish a visible Church, with bishops, priests, and deacons. If he did not, the claims of the Catholic Church are not just wrong-but arrogant and b.asphemous. But if Christ did establish such a Church, then ". . . the gates of hell shall not prevail against it" (Matt. 16:18). Membership is not optional-Christ commands that you join his visible body.