People who leave the Catholic Church often cite sin within the Church as a reason for leaving. The sex abuse scandal did tremendous damage to the reputation of priests, even though a very small percentage were involved. Our own parish priest was the recipient of a verbal insult from a stranger while walking down a street in New York City. It’s no wonder some priests do not like to don the collar in public.
People who abandon the Church because of sin within the Church need to think about the reason Christ established a Church in the first place. If it weren’t for sin, we would not need a Church. As disease is to the body, sin is to the soul. The Church is like a hospital for sinners. We turn to the Church to maintain our spiritual health and to be healed when our health has failed. As preventive medicine for our spiritual health, we need to go in for treatment at least once a week.
Our bodies need regular nourishment to thrive. Likewise, our souls need regular nourishment too. Weekly infusions of grace are necessary to maintain and enhance spiritual growth. Without it, we become weak and prone to failure. The Sacraments provide us with life-sustaining grace needed to maintain spiritual health.
Even doctors occasionally get sick. They may be so consumed caring for other patients that they ignore their own symptoms. Doctors are just like the rest of us, and even though their knowledge of the human body should enable them to take better care of themselves, their health can still fail. When this happens, we do not assume the hospital is at fault. And so it is with the Church. Even though priests should have superior spiritual health, they can still fall into sin, even grave sin. When it happens, it is foolish to use their sin as a reason to leave. One should not reject Peter because of Judas.
The Catholic Church is authorized to speak for God and everyone in this world ought to listen if they are seriously interested in spiritual health. Not only is that a tough statement for non-catholics to stomach, but also for many Catholics who prefer to make their own judgments. Any extensive apologetic dialogue with a Protestant or lukewarm Catholic will eventually get around to defending Church authority, and all Catholics need to be well versed in understanding this biblical truth.
This past Sunday, we heard readings from Isaiah 22:19-23 and Matthew 16:13-20, two of the most often cited bible passages concerning the origin of Church authority. In the first reading, the office of master of the palace in the Kingdom of David is being passed from Shebna to Eliakim. Kings and queens typically have prime ministers authorized to run the day-to-day operations of the kingdom. In this case, the Lord says, “I will place the key of the House of David on Eliakim’s shoulder; when he opens, no one shall shut, when he shuts, no one shall open.” This office in the kingdom of David pre-figures the authoritative office given to Peter in Matthew 16 when Jesus said, “I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." This authority to bind and loose was later given to all the apostles, but only Peter was given the keys to the kingdom, and that primacy of authority was passed on to his successors continuing to Benedict XVI today.
Those of us who dabble in Catholic apologetics are very familiar with these Bible verses. I wonder how many average Catholics in the pew would be able to explain Matthew 16 where Jesus says, “You are Peter and upon this rock . . .”? How many understand the common objections to Peter being the rock, and how to explain the passage correctly in light of the translation from Aramaic to Greek and to English? For the typical cafeteria Catholic, coming to an understanding of Matthew 16 can be a real eye-opener. If you are a regular listener to the Catholic Answers Live radio program, you probably hear this explained frequently in response to caller’s questions. Sadly, I don’t think I have ever heard it explained from the pulpit.