Once you come to believe in a God, and then go further to believe in the God of Christianity, that still does not get you to Catholicism. Christians do not all believe the same thing about what the Bible says or what a Christian should believe or how a Christian should live. You might have noticed all the different labels Jesus-believers give themselves: Catholic, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, Orthodox, 1st Baptist, 2nd Baptist. The labels go into the tens of thousands, and between each of them, the differences can range anywhere between slight and major.
For some, this is a damning fact in itself. My fuzzy memory conjures Christopher Hitchens saying this in a debate. They argue that if so many religions exist and contradict each other, it must be reasonable to think that none of them are true.
If any atheist still makes that argument, it’s one of the more stupid ones. Here’s why: Imagine me walking outside tomorrow morning to find five of my neighbors arguing about what a fellow neighbor’s dog looks like. They all agree it’s a dog, but one says it’s a golden retriever, another a poodle, and so on. The last thing any of us would do is say, with a smirk, “Well, if none of you can agree on what the dog looks like, the dog must not exist.”
No, the problem isn’t that God doesn’t exist. The problem is that we all have different ideas about who exactly God is and what he wants from us.
In the problem itself, though, lies the answer to why Catholicism is so compelling among the branches of Christianity. This takes a little theological digging to get at, but bear with me.
Most Christians would say we need to rely on the Bible to tell us what we know about God, and so we do. We all rely on God’s Holy Spirit to guide us. Most of us come with open hearts, ready to listen to him. And yet here we are with thousands of denominations with differing beliefs and counting. What’s going wrong?
When I was a Protestant, this didn’t bother me much. I had my community church, my nourishing faith, and that was enough. But the more I sat with it, the more it didn’t sit well with me. Despite reading the same Bible I did with loving and passionate hearts of devotion, other Christians disagreed with me on major issues.
Was Communion just bread and wine or the literal body and blood of Jesus? Either one group was grossly downplaying the importance of the Eucharist or the other was committing idolatry. What of the Gospel? The message of how we get to Heaven? The strand of Christianity I grew up with thought Catholics were heading to Hell, so far off were they in their understanding of salvation. Or is it those who are not Catholic who are terribly wrong?
You could make the case, as Catholics do, that a person can’t be judged for what they don’t know. You could argue that God is merciful and will overlook the ignorance of those who don’t get their theology just right. I believe that. But if God is real, it must still be important to know him as he truly is. He’s the ground of all being, after all. And wouldn’t being in the right church imply that you have the fullness of the Christian faith? Wouldn’t being closer to the truth mean being closer to the heart of God? Doesn’t that matter?
Catholicism has understood this “dilemma of differing opinions” from the very birth of Christianity 2000 years ago. Catholics believe the unity of the church’s teaching rests with those who have the authority to teach – aka, the clergy. As Catholics see it, Jesus gave authority to his disciple, Peter, to lead the church in her teaching (Matt 16:17-19). The other disciples were given a similar, if not entirely equal, authority (Matt. 18:17-20). This authority was then past on to clergy after they died – bishops and priests – with the pope being the final arbiter of truth.
For the first thousand years of the faith, this dogma was taken for granted. It was how the church sorted through controversy after theological controversy, heresy after heresy, threading the needle of truth amidst the numerous lies. It was how they maintained a unified presence for hundreds of years.
After the first thousand years came a split between the Orthodox and what we call the Catholic Church now, but even then, the Orthodox still held to the idea that truth is arbitrated by the clergy. And even after all this time, I can hardly tell a bit of difference in theology between the two branches of the faith.
Five hundred years after that split came the real explosion, though. This novel idea that every person should decide what the Bible means on their own crept in and chaos ensued. People called “reformers” left the Catholic Church, but they couldn’t agree even among themselves on what the Bible said. The splinters have been continuing ever since.
I can’t go into every explanation for why this is so problematic. There are many points and counter points that could be made on this issue. But I think I’ve said enough to drive home the point that the Protestant model is faulty. Multiple God-loving people reading the Bible, trying to come to the same conclusions about it, simply won’t work. There is no guarantee that I, a sincere believe, will understand the Bible rightly on my own.
As Jesus said, “Wisdom is proven by her children.” We all knew that savage wolves would come among us and not spare the flock, but Catholicism is the only strand of Christianity that offers a full-proof way of sorting the truth from the lies. And we can point to chapter and verse in the Bible to support our method.
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