Last August, another parishioner and I began a weekly dialogue with a couple of Jehovah’s Witnesses. (See my September blog) Now twelve ninety-minute sessions later, we are still going strong. Are we making any progress? Well, they are still JWs and we are still Catholic!
You might think even a mediocre Catholic apologist should be able to win this argument handily, and that is true, but the best team doesn’t always win the match. In football terms, we are spending much of our time playing defense, while the other team is controlling the ball. Scoring points without the ball is difficult. Should we be more aggressive? Probably, but discussion with Jehovah’s Witnesses is different from that of mainstream Protestants. Their view is so foreign to us that we often find ourselves bewildered for a reply. I often wonder what point they are trying to make, and why they find it relevant to their belief. Even though they are willing to use a Catholic bible in our discussions, they can draw very questionable conclusions from various passages. We haven’t even touched on the problems with their New World Translation yet.
Most non-Catholic Christian faiths, including the Witnesses, justify their existence by believing an apostasy occurred where the Church went off the rails, and they got it back on track. This week, I asked them if they believe they have the same faith as the apostles. They said they did. I brought up the old story of George Washington’s axe, or my Grandfather’s axe, as it is sometimes told. Do you still have George Washington’s axe if both the handle and the head have been replaced at different times throughout its history? Similarly, do you still have the faith of the apostles if say Martin Luther removed the head, and the JW Bible translators put a new handle on the Scriptures? I think not.
The question of George Washington’s axe is a somewhat simplified version of Theseus’s Paradox, proposed by Plutarch, a Greek writer in the late first century. He asked whether a ship that eventually had every single plank replaced as they deteriorated over time was still the same ship. If so, what if someone gathered all of the old planks and reassembled them as they were originally? Now you have two ships. Are they both the same ship?
In applying this thought to the Church, the answer is quite simple. Once essential elements are removed or changed, you no longer have the same Church. Once the papal head is eliminated, the canon of Scripture altered, and Traditional teaching ignored, the original identity is lost. If someone tries to re-form the original without the original parts, the result is two churches, or even twenty-eight thousand churches over the centuries. The only way to claim true possession of George Washington’s axe is to find the original handle and the original head. The same principle applies for finding the true Church.