Monday, December 23, 2002

Apologetic Apology

I am sorry we have done such a poor job teaching our children to defend our Catholic faith. One of our most devout parishioners recently told me her daughter had left the church and became a Presbyterian because she just couldn�t accept some of the teachings of the Catholic Church. She went on to say that two other children of another devout Catholic couple have done the same thing. Is this the result of poor catechesis? Should we blame the parents?

We do a lousy job of teaching our faith. One reason is that the majority of those doing the teaching do not understand the faith themselves. When it comes to faith and morals, many eventually come to the conclusion that their conscience must be the ultimate guide. They know what the church teaches, but think dissent is acceptable in certain controversial areas. They become cafeteria Catholics, picking and choosing what doctrines they will accept and which they will reject. In some cases, they will find other denominations that seem more compatible with their personal beliefs and leave the Catholic faith altogether.

One way to combat dissent would be to instruct all Catholics in basic apologetics. Unfortunately, most Catholics do not even understand what it means. A Catholic apologist is one who defends the Catholic faith. When someone offers a dissenting opinion of church doctrine, a Catholic apologist defends the church�s position. Defending the Church�s position in matters of faith and morals is an easy position to defend because in matters of faith and morals, the church is always right.

So, what should you say when your son or daughter comes to you and says, �Mom and Dad, I�ve given this much thought, and I�m leaving the Catholic Church�? First of all, ask why. There can be a myriad of reasons, but most of them will fall into certain categories, and nearly all of them will eventually boil down to questioning church authority. We need to help them understand the implications of rejecting the teaching authority of the Catholic Church.

Most Christians who leave the church for another denomination will select a Sola Scriptura or Bible-only faith. The Catholic Church is a stable, three-legged stool. We have the original oral teaching, sometimes called Apostolic Tradition, handed down from generation to generation. (For the first Christians, that was all they had.) The New Testament had not been written yet. We have the Bible, the inspired Word of God in written form. And, we have the Magisterium, the Pope in union with the Bishops, speaking infallibly in matters of faith and morals. These three entities form a solid foundation for the formation of our Catholic Faith.

When one rejects the teaching authority of the Pope and the Bishops, and also rejects Apostolic Tradition because they view its origin as the Pope and the Bishops rather than the Apostles, who by the way WERE the first Pope and Bishops, then all that is left is the Bible alone. This is where we get the idea of a Sola Scriptura faith. Most non-Catholic Christian faiths believe in some form of Sola Scriptura, a one-legged stool stabilized only by the legs of the interpreter who sits upon it.

So what�s the problem with that? The problems are many. First of all, we have to ask the Bible-only Christian where that Bible, the sole basis for their faith, came from. Throughout the first four centuries of Christianity, many early writings claimed to be inspired by God. As one might expect, many documents were universally accepted, many universally rejected, and many were disputed. At the Councils of Hippo and Carthage, bishops of the Catholic Church determined which of the early Christian writings were inspired by God. Without the inerrant teaching authority of the Church, how does one know the Epistle of James is inspired while the Epistle of Barnabas is not? How does one know the Gospel of John is inspired while the Gospel of Thomas is not? If one does not believe that Jesus gave inerrant teaching authority to His Church, one must be able to prove the inerrancy of Scripture apart from the Church. Trying to do so is a little like trying to build a perpetual motion machine. Some may claim they can do it, but it doesn�t really work.

Some try to get around it by claiming the Church had inerrant teaching authority at the time, but later lost it. Many of those making that claim will also reject infant baptism, but one can find evidence that the Catholic Church was baptizing infants at the time of the Council of Carthage in 253 AD, some 150 years before the Bible was finalized. If infant baptism is an error, then the Church was already teaching error before they determined the content of the Bible. The ultimate irony is when someone tries to use the Bible to prove the Catholic Church teaches in error. Without the inerrant teaching authority of the Magisterium, there is no guarantee of the inerrancy of Scripture.

Oh, but what about Galileo and all the other times the church has had to apologize for its errors? How can we claim the Church as an inerrant teacher when we know it makes errors? One must understand that Church inerrancy, more commonly called papal infallibility, extends only to matters of faith and morality � not astronomy, nor mathematics, nor anything else. Furthermore, only dogmatic decrees issued ex cathedra or from the chair, are considered to be infallible. For example, Pope Honorius is accused of holding heretical opinions, but he did not declare these positions ex cathedra. They were never official church teaching.

But isn�t this infallibility thing self-proclaimed? Where does this authority to speak for God come from? In Matthew 16:13-19, Jesus tells Peter that He will give him the keys to the kingdom of heaven, and says, �Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.� In Luke 10:16, He says, �He who listens to you, listens to me, and he who rejects you rejects me.� In John 16:12-13, He promises to guide the Church into all truth, and the Bible calls the Church �the pillar and foundation of truth� in 1 Tim 3:15. The authority to speak for God is not self-proclaimed. It comes from Christ Himself. Christ bestows this authority to the Apostles and their successors, the Pope and bishops.

Those who are paying attention may think I just made a circular argument. I made the case for the Church�s divinely bestowed authority by citing the Bible after claiming that we can�t rely on the inerrancy of the Bible without the authority of the Church. To avoid a circular argument, we need to first scrutinize the early Christian writings, not as divinely inspired Scripture, but rather as we would any other documents of antiquity, verifying authorship, historical accuracy, manuscript authenticity, etc. After doing so, you can reasonably conclude as a historical fact that a man named Jesus lived, claimed to be God, worked miracles and rose from the dead as evidence of His divinity, established a Church with Peter as prime minister, gave him authority to bind and loose, and promised to send the Holy Spirit to guide it to truth. After you establish the authority of the Church, then it is THAT Church which declares which of the early Christian writings are God-breathed and should be included in the Bible.

Even if one could prove the inspiration of Scripture without the authority of the Catholic Church, problems with the Bible-only approach to faith are still many. Without an authority, the Bible must be self-interpreted. What happens when people reach conflicting conclusions? Is infant Baptism desirable or an abomination? Is divorce acceptable or not? What about things that didn�t even exist when the Bible was written, such as birth control pills or cloning? Convert and apologist, Ken Howell, refers to this as the Protestant dilemma. When two Sola Scriptura Christians disagree on Biblical interpretation, they must either compromise their faith to maintain unity or they must split. By some estimations, there are now more than 20,000 different Protestant denominations, each teaching their own personal interpretation of Scripture. Many of these fractures were the result of conflicting doctrines derived from differing interpretations of Scripture.

Can�t we just let our consciences be our guides in all of these matters? The answer is . . . yes and no. Certainly our consciences will be the ultimate guide; however, we have a moral obligation to inform our consciences. We are not free to blindly decide for ourselves what is right and wrong. We must seek the truth and act accordingly. Knowing that the teaching authority of the Church comes directly from Christ Himself, one cannot justify a personal belief which is in conflict with Church teaching. (Remember Luke 10:16.) We cannot be �cafeteria Christians�, picking and choosing which teachings we want to obey. We must actively seek the truth.

I deeply regret the fact that many Catholics do not have a basic understanding of these facts so they could easily and confidently refute attacks upon the Church. Is the Church perfect? Actually, yes! But, those that make up the Church are not. Catholics, including the Pope and Bishops, are sinners. Yet even in times of scandal, we are still obligated to obey the Church, just as Christ told his disciples to obey the Scribes and the Pharisees, but not to follow their example. (Matt 23: 1-3) Sure it�s tough sometimes, but Christ promised us that the gates of hell will not prevail against His Church. It's our haven unto heaven. It�s the safest place we can be.