Thursday, January 8, 2009

Name that Bishop

I'm working on another stab at a letter to try to provoke interest in what the Catholic Church has to say. Let me know what you think.

Dear Friend,

I have been trying to think of whether there was one simple thing that hit me, and made me realize that there might be something to the claims of the Catholic Church. I was not persuaded by arguments unless I saw evidence to back them up. I know that reading the Catholic point of view on interpreting various parts of the scriptures was key, but there is no one verse that makes all the difference, so this cannot be narrowed down enough for one letter. Then, recently, I reread one of the things that struck me. It is a letter by a well respected bishop.

Perhaps I have misinterpreted the facts; those regarding this bishop, and others. I am, after all, human, and am capable of self-deception. And after all, all Americans "know" instinctively that the Catholic Church MUST be wrong, don't they? We "know" that submission to authority is just wrong, we "know" the Catholic Church was incomparably cruel and oppressive in the middle ages, we "know" that the superstitious Catholic Church tried to suppress real Christians, we "know" the Catholic Church hates the Bible, we "know" that Roman inventions crept into the Church after a few hundred years, and that there was no Pope until Constantine created the Roman Catholic Church.

But do we really know these things, or is this just what we have been led to believe? Examine with me this (somewhat long) set of quotes from the bishop's letter:
"For what does any one profit me, if he commends me, but blasphemes my Lord, not confessing that He was [truly] possessed of a body? But he who does not acknowledge this, has in fact altogether denied Him, being enveloped in death."

"Let no man deceive himself. Both the things which are in heaven, and the glorious angels, and rulers, both visible and invisible, if they believe not in the blood of Christ, shall, in consequence, incur condemnation. "He that is able to receive it, let him receive it." [Matthew 19:12] Let not [high] place puff any one up: for that which is worth all is faith and love, to which nothing is to be preferred. But consider those who are of a different opinion with respect to the grace of Christ which has come unto us, how opposed they are to the will of God. They have no regard for love; no care for the widow, or the orphan, or the oppressed; of the bond, or of the free; of the hungry, or of the thirsty."

"They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again. Those, therefore, who speak against this gift of God, incur death in the midst of their disputes. But it were better for them to treat it with respect, that they also might rise again. It is fitting, therefore, that you should keep aloof from such persons, and not to speak of them either in private or in public, but to give heed to the prophets, and above all, to the Gospel, in which the passion [of Christ] has been revealed to us, and the resurrection has been fully proved. But avoid all divisions, as the beginning of evils."

"See that you all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as you would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is [administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic church. It is not lawful without the bishop either to baptize or to celebrate a love-feast; but whatsoever he shall approve of, that is also pleasing to God, so that everything that is done may be secure and valid."
The first two paragraphs could well have been any traditional Christian. But what about the next two paragraphs?

Is this bishop not a Catholic bishop? He asserts that the Eucharist (or Communion) is the flesh of Christ (in another translation, "the self-same body..."), the very flesh that the Father "raised up." He insists that the believer follows his bishop. He calls the true church "the catholic church." These are peculiarly Catholic things. Other churches have bishops, but they would not ascribe this kind of power to them, and other churches do not teach that Communion is the flesh of Jesus Christ.

Who was this bishop? When did he live? Was he from 1500 AD? 1000 AD?

What shocked me was that this quote was from the Epistle to Smyrnaeans, written by Ignatius, fourth bishop of Antioch, around 113 AD. He was martyred during the reign of the Roman Emperor Trajan, who reigned from 98-117 AD. That means he wrote this within 25 years of the death of the Apostle John. He was neither obscure, nor a heretic. He was well respected in the early Church. As you see from the quote, he was someone who fought early heresies, here attacking Docetism, the belief that Jesus was not truly human (thus denying the reality of his death and resurrection).

Further reading of such early Christians supports the idea that there were only two kinds of Christians: Those who were united to their bishops and carried peculiarly Catholic beliefs, and those dissidents (heretics) who denied some fundamental aspect of Christian doctrine (and thus weren't truly Christian at all).

Now it seems to me that there are a few ways to view this information. One is the conspiracy theory view: The reason we only have the writings of Catholics and heretics during the early Church is because the Catholic Church destroyed the records of the Protestant-like True Christians (Mormons, Muslims, and other groups rely even more heavily on this theory, saying that even the Bible was altered). But if this were the case, then why are so many gnostic writings and other documents which conflict with Catholic teaching still in existence? Why were only the Protestant documents destroyed? Why would God not preserve some record of this True Church?

A second Protestant view goes something like this: The Catholic Church was the only Christian Church for some time, but over time they grew further and further away from the truth, so eventually God had to inspire the reformers to set the truth of the scriptures free again. Of course this view doesn't hold up as well if the modern Catholic Church holds doctrines compatible with the early Christian views, and Protestants deny the beliefs of these early Christians.

Another way to view the information is simpler: The Catholic Church is the same Church as that of the early Christians. It has certainly grown, as Christ said it would, "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed[...]. Though it is the smallest of all your seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches."[Matt 13:31-32] This Church is still united, and orthodoxy can still be found reliably by listening to her bishops.

Of course this would not have been enough to convince me the Catholic Church was right. I have not sought here to answer every question about the Church. But on the off chance that early church history is not covered up by conspiracy, but is exactly how it seems, should we not give the Catholic Church some consideration? Should we not be moved by the possibility that our Lord Jesus Christ established a visible Church which the Holy Spirit uses to guide us, even if that church is composed of humans who have often committed horrible sins? Or should we be like those who disdained Christ for eating with the tax collectors?

With this example in mind, doesn't it seem likely that what we "know" about the Catholic Church is wrong? Couldn't these things be like the things that secular modernists "know" about Christianity? They just "know" Christians hate everyone else and want everyone to go to hell, they "know" there's no such thing as miracles, they "know" we hate science, and that somehow science disproves religion, and they "know" that morality is relative.

Perhaps it is different to think we know about something, and to actually know it.

1 comment:

Nathan said...

I'm planning to add something like this to the final letter:

But even if the Catholic Church is correct, why should we leave churches where we are comfortable, when we already have a relationship with Christ?

Because, in the Catholic Church, Christ has offered us many gifts. We would be unloving to refuse them. He offers us greater access to the truth, thus allowing us to know him better, and giving us a clearer moral code. He offers us a powerful physical connection through the Sacraments, his body in the Eucharist, his forgiveness in Confession. Outside the Catholic Church we have access to many of Christ's gifts, but if Jesus is offering us more, who are we to refuse?