Saturday, September 27, 2003

What's Up Doc?

There is an old joke about the guy whose doctor tells him he needs an operation and it would cost several thousand dollars. The patient says he has no insurance and cannot afford the operation, and asks the doctor if there is an alternative. The doctor says, "Well, for fifty bucks, I can touch up the x-rays."

I was reminded of that story after hearing of an acquaintance I'll call Ron who had been feeling a nagging pain deep inside. It came and went periodically, but persisted for quite some time. He had no family doctor and thought maybe it was time to find one who could get him back on the path to good health. Ron picked up the phone book and searched the yellow pages for physicians. He found one not far away, and made an appointment for an examination.

The doctor put him through a battery of tests and made a diagnosis. "You have a number of problems," he told Ron. "You are overweight, you have heart disease and are borderline diabetic. You need an angioplasty, and possibly surgery to open three arteries. Afterwards, I'll put you on a strict diet and exercise regimen.'

That really wasn't what Ron wanted to hear, so he decided to get a second opinion. He went back to the phone listing and called another doctor. After another series of tests, the second doctor told Ron he had signs of heart disease, but surgery would not be necessary. The pain was the result of gallstones, and he told Ron that the gall bladder should be removed. He prescribed medication and put Ron on a low-fat diet.

Still wishing to avoid surgery if possible, he went to the phone book and selected a third doctor who told him his pain is caused by an ulcer. He was told to take an antacid and refrain from spicy foods. There was no mention of his heart disease or diabetes by the third doctor.

A fourth doctor told Ron his ailments were typical for someone his age. There was nothing seriously wrong. The doctor prescribed Tylenol for his pain. Feeling more comfortable with this treatment, Ron decided to follow the advice of this doctor. No surgery, no diets, no mention of the need to exercise, Ron felt as though a burden had been lifted. He chose the fourth doctor to be his physician.

Which doctor should Ron have chosen to be his family physician? What criteria should he consider in making his decision? Obviously, each doctor had a different opinion on which path Ron should follow. His physical wellbeing could hang in the balance. If the fourth doctor underestimated or misinterpreted the test results, Ron's life could be in jeopardy. Only time will tell.

Recently, a couple new to this area told me they had been "church hopping". They had been sampling several different churches looking for one to join. One church had a three-hour long Sunday service, with lots of singing and dancing. Too long and a little strange, they thought. Another had a preacher they didn't care for, but the people were friendly. Still another didn't allow dancing or alcohol consumption. Thank God, they didn't find one they liked before stumbling upon our Catholic Church. Apparently, neither our priest nor anyone in the congregation has done anything to drive them off yet.

Like Ron's method for choosing a physician, this method for choosing a church is misguided and potentially dangerous. While choosing the wrong doctor could jeopardize one's physical health, choosing the wrong church could jeopardize one's spiritual health. While doctors may disagree on a diagnosis, different churches often disagree on doctrine. The choice of a church should not be based upon which provides the most comfortable path to follow.

If one doctor provides a diagnosis which conflicts with the diagnosis of another doctor, one or both of them is wrong. The choice of a doctor should be based upon which doctor is most likely making the correct diagnosis, not which diagnosis we would prefer to hear. As general practitioners, are these doctors even qualified to treat serious diseases? Which one is the authority on heart disease, diabetes, or internal medicine?

Similarly, the choice of a church should be based upon which church is preaching the truth, not which church tells us what we want to hear. When doctrines are in conflict, somebody is wrong. Who is the authority on matters of faith and morals? We know that Christ established a church and gave it authority. (Matthew 16:18) But, how do we know which church that is today?

Church Doctrine should not change. Most Christian denominations believe that God�s revelation ended about 100 AD. Therefore, what was accepted by those early Christians as truth then, should remain true today. If a denomination teaches doctrine which contradicts the commonly held beliefs of the earliest Christians, then someone other than Christ has altered the doctrine. The easiest way to learn what the Catholic Church teaches today is to pick up a copy of the Catechism. The essentials of the faith are laid out in detail with plenty of footnotes and references. But how does one know what the earliest Christians believed?

One way is to go back to the Doctors -- not physicians this time, but the Doctors of the Church. Ecclesiastical writers, such as Augustine, Jerome, Athanasius, and Thomas Aquinas were instrumental in determining the doctrine of the Church. More than thirty great thinkers have been declared Doctors of the Church, and their writings are still available to shed light on the Church's rich history.

Early Christian writers, known as the Church Fathers provide tremendous insight to the earliest years of the Church. Some of them date back to the apostles themselves. While their writings are not authoritative, the Church Fathers serve as witnesses to life in the early Church, revealing beliefs and practices that still exist today only in the Catholic Church.

Church Fathers such as Clement I, Hermas, and Ignatius of Antioch write about the authority of the church in the first century. Excerpts can be viewed at the Catholic Answers website. One cannot read the writings of Cyprian of Carthage in 251 AD without seeing the same Catholic Church we know today.

Picking a church based upon the music, decor, length of services, or oratorical skills of the pastor, is superficial. It's like choosing a spouse based strictly on looks. It's like choosing a doctor based on cheapest fees or bedside manner. Rather, we should choose the church that provides us with the best chance for salvation, regardless of the cost or effort involved.

We should be in the original Church that Jesus Christ established for us, not a facsimile. Cardinal John Henry Newman, a convert from Anglicanism, said, "To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant." To be truly Christian is to immerse oneself in that history and seek the truth.