Another Analogy for Church Authority

Here’s another brief analogy I thought of for the authority of the Church:

The U.S. ConstitutionTake the United States Constitution. It’s a two hundred-year-old document that has been amended twenty-seven times, and has been subject to constant and continuous interpretation and reinterpretation throughout its history. Suppose, though, you hand it to the founders of a new republic, and ask them to re-create the American government from nothing but that document. They could probably come up with something — but it would be rough, lacking definition. The Constitution lays out the framework of government that needs to exist, but it conveys nothing of how to implement such a government. It conveys nothing of the historical context in which the document was produced. It conveys nothing of the specific interpretations and definitions that have been worked out by the courts over the years.

In the United States, we’ve inherited a rich and complex legal tradition, not just from the Founding Fathers and the Constitution, but from English common law, several centuries of statute law, and other precursors and precedents. Whatever your position on constitutional interpretation — whether you are a strict constructionist, believing that the Constitution means what it says, on its letter, and that we should follow the original intent of our Founding Fathers in writing it; or a loose constructionist, believing that the Constitution is a living document, constantly evolving with the nation’s views — our understanding of the Constitution is informed by our legal tradition. To understand the original intent of the Founders, we have to read what they wrote and understand what they believed. To understand the Constitution as a living document, we have to understand the definitions and interpretations that legal minds of the past have hammered out. To create a replica of the United States government, we would need not just the Constitution, but the web of statutes that Congress has woven to implement it.

The Supreme Court, by virtue of holding the entire, unbroken legal tradition of the United States in its hand, and of being made up of nine men and women held to be learned and capable legal minds, is the highest authority of law in our nation. It alone has the power to interpret the Constitution with binding effect. In making their decisions, the justices of the Supreme Court consider all of the resources at their disposal: case law, the past decisions of the Court, the writings of the Founding Fathers and other legal minds, just to mention a few. Those decisions and those thinkers haven’t all agreed with each other, it is true; but considering this entire body of law, the Court can arrive at the correct interpretation. The Supreme Court has the authority to interpret the Constitution because that is the authority it was given; that’s what it was created to do; that is its purpose.

The Delivery of the Keys (Perugino, Sistine Chapel, Rome)

Christ giving the keys to St. Peter.

Likewise, the Church, by virtue of holding the entire, unbroken tradition of the teachings of Christ and the Apostles in her hand, and of being made up of the body of bishops held to be learned and authoritative by their merits and their inheritance from the Apostles themselves, has the authority to interpret the Scripture and Tradition of the Church. In making her decisions, the Church considers all of the resources at her disposal: Scripture itself, the writings of the Church Fathers, the dictates of bishops and popes and councils over the ages, just to mention a few. Most of all, she prays and seeks the guidance and discernment of the Holy Spirit. The Church has the authority to interpret Scripture and Tradition because that is the authority she was given by Christ — the authority to bind and loose, to decide points of interpretation of the law with binding effect, given explicitly to St. Peter.

Handing the Constitution alone to founders of a new government, detached from its history and tradition, is like handing the Bible to a new religious sect and asking them to create a church, sola scriptura. This is essentially what many Protestant groups have done — sought to create a “pure,” “biblical” church, with Scripture alone as their guide, without any accretions of tradition. Some have taken it further than others. Most Protestants, whether they admit it to themselves or not, are as rapt followers of tradition as any Catholic: they follow, with little deviation, the traditions of Luther, or Calvin, or Cranmer, or Knox, or Wesley, or even of their own grandfathers or great-grandfathers. Tradition pervades the way they worship, the way they practice, and most of all the way they interpret Scripture. They adhere to a body of essential Christian tradition that not even Protestants have abandoned: Sunday worship; the shepherding of a Christian flock by a pastor; the liturgical practice of baptism and Communion; the celebration, according to an established liturgical calendar, of Easter and Christmas; the canon of Scripture itself. Take even a “contemporary,” “hip,” “non-denominational” evangelical “worship center.” A worship service will begin with songs, followed by a sermon, in a tradition of order as ancient as the Church, but found nowhere in the Bible. Typically such a church’s doctrine — whether it even admits it has doctrine — is loosely Reformed or loosely Arminian; relaxed but nonetheless exclusive of certain doctrines rejected by the Protestant tradition (“oh, we definitely don’t believe that“). If sola scriptura is followed as rigidly as some Protestants insist, then some practices and doctrines must be excluded because they are not explicitly described in the Bible — for example, the Churches of Christ’s insistence on no instrumental worship, or the Seventh-Day Adventists’ insistence on Saturday worship. A church that literally followed sola scriptura, with no inkling of tradition anywhere in it at all, would be a strange-looking beast indeed.

Tradition and Authority

Eyes to SeeOne of the greatest struggles in my journey of faith has been finding a point of authority in matters of faith. Protestants stress sola scriptura as a rule of faith — that Scripture alone is their authority. Especially those Protestants of an evangelical or fundamentalist bent believe that biblical doctrine is clear on the surface of Scripture, without any interpretation. But at once this presents a problem. If Scripture is so clear, and if biblical doctrine is so self-evident, then how do various Christians and various denominations reach such diverse interpretations and such diverse doctrines? And more important, how could I, observing intelligent, rational people supporting each position, and finding merit and value with each, discern between them? What gave me, a man, the authority to dismiss some views as incorrect and declare another the right one?

This problem perplexed and frustrated me for years. It was the source of unending turmoil, every time I dared approach it. During my time in the wilderness, and especially more recently, I tried on many occasions to study doctrine and theology and Scripture, and determine, once and for all, what it was I actually believed, and therefore what church I belonged in. But I couldn’t do it. Time and time again, I reached an impasse at the point of authority.

After years of beating my head against it, I reached a solution to the problem that satisfied me, I thought. If there was no authority — no point from which to argue that any position was any more correct than any other — then they all must be equally correct. The correctness of doctrine must be relative. If God saves souls and changes lives in a variety of different Christian traditions — and this I observed, and believed, and still believe — then all of our doctrinal differences don’t amount to a drop in a bucket in God’s eyes. It was a position of thoroughgoing ecumenism, or even doctrinal relativism; a belief that all (or at least all orthodox) Christianity was equally valid. One’s choice of a church was merely a matter of preference, of what worked for each person individually. This was comfortable. I learned to respect and value all different Christian traditions, to learn from them and seek to understand them (this is a lesson I hope I never lose). Deep down, though, my position felt empty. If the correctness of doctrine was relative, then ultimately, doctrine was meaningless and inconsequential.

This was the position at which I stood when I began this Catholic journey. I had written at length to myself about the characteristics and values I was looking for in a church, and planned to go “church shopping.” My ideal looked very little like the Catholic Church — at least, not like my preconceived image of the Catholic Church. It was only by a happy accident that I stumbled onto this road. Once again, I don’t believe in happy accidents.

In the very first conversation I had with Audrey about Catholicism — the first time she invited me to Mass — I mentioned to her, off the top of my head, one of the problems I had with Catholicism. It wasn’t even the chief problem, I thought, but one that seemed innocuous enough for an initial conversation. “I don’t like that the Church insists on interpreting Scripture for believers.”

Her response was simple, rational, clear. It made sense. It didn’t sink in at the time that it was the key to unlock my riddle, or that she was the only person who could have answered it for me this way. “I see it like authority for an historian. We base our arguments on authority, on the arguments and interpretations of the past. Each generation builds on what was done before and gains a deeper understanding of the truth. And the Church has 2,000 years of authority behind her interpretation of Scripture.”

The Gettysburg Address

A primary source (the autograph of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address).

As an historian, how do I discover the truth? I go to the source: I take the testimony of the most reliable, most primary sources toward the event in question. But sources don’t speak for themselves. They have to be interpreted. No source says, “This is exactly how it happened, and these are exactly its implications” — if there were such a source, then it, too, would have to be interpreted: Who would have the authority to write in such a way, and how could they be so certain? And so historians, naturally, also look to other interpreters of a source, to understand how that source has been interpreted in the past. Due weight is given to those interpreters who speak from authority — who were closest in time to the event, who knew the people and events and circumstances involved, or whose interpretations were qualified by extensive study or academic credentials. Historians build their interpretations on these older, authoritative interpretations, creating an historiographic, interpretive tradition, with each generation adding to the store of knowledge and furthering their understanding of the truth.

Likewise it is with the Church and Scripture. Protestants may treat the Bible as a contemporary, self-evident source whose meaning is clear to the modern reader; but the truth is that it is an ancient, 2,000-year-old collection of documents. The first step in interpreting it, necessarily, has to be understanding how it was received in its own time — how the first generations following Christ received and understood his words and teachings, and how the faith of the Apostles was passed down. This tradition is the essential context to interpreting Scripture. The Church Fathers — those learned men of the Church’s first centuries — commented on Scripture at length. Their interpretations necessarily have far greater authority than mine, that of a layman 2,000 years departed.

The Council of Trent

The Magisterium of the Church, assembled at the Council of Trent.

And even more important, the Church itself claims the ultimate authority to interpret Scripture, through the Holy Spirit. The Church, because of who she is, because of the tradition she has inherited, has a far greater authority to interpret Scripture than I do. The Magisterium of the Church — the bishops in communion with the pope, as successors of the Apostles — is alone in a position to speak with true authority.

This kind of claim to authority simply isn’t present in the Protestant world. The Protestant Reformation consciously severed all ties to authority. In most evangelical churches, the highest authority in matters of doctrine and discipline is the local church: authority rests with the pastor or the body of elders. And that person’s authority is only as strong as his personal integrity and ability. If the congregation doesn’t respect it, then its members are free to — and so often do — split away to form their own churches or denominations. Since the Reformation, in the absence of any unifying authority, Protestant churches have splintered into so many thousands of fragments.

But the Catholic Church has the authority to interpret Scripture and Tradition. It has the authority to teach the truth of revelation and doctrine. When my path lacked any definition at all, the Church showed me the marked road, and gave me a compass. And this is key that has at last made sense of my journey.

The Historical Church

Tonight was the second week of RCIA. There are about thirty inquirers, I would say — I first started trying to jot down their names, then at least count them, and finally stopped at “a lot.” We went around the room and introduced ourselves. The lesson tonight was on “Religion vs. Spirituality,” the difference between the two, the world’s definition and view of religion, and the Catholic answer to it. I spoke up several times to contribute to the discussion or to answer questions; but often I feel that my comments may appear to others that I’m trying to show off my knowledge, and I end up kicking myself.

We were asked to explain what was drawing us to the Catholic Church. I named about three things (though I’m afraid I rambled a bit): the Church’s continuity and connection to history and tradition; the unity and authority of the Church; and the order of Catholic doctrine and liturgy, and the peace that it brings. Several other people mentioned being drawn by the Church’s history and the conviction that it is the true and original Church. And that brings me back to where I was a few nights ago, before my train of thought was wrecked: the premises on which I’m undertaking this journey.

After interrogation and reflection, I’m going to revise the first one:

Premise #1: Everyone who calls on the name of Christ, and subscribes to historical, ecumenical creeds of the Church, is a Christian. God, in His mercy and grace, works through many different churches. But not all churches are the same.

I maintain that spiritually, we are all part of Body of Christ — even if one arm, and other various appendages, have gone and hacked themselves off. The Roman Catholic Church, I’ve come to believe, embodies the true Church that Christ founded through His Apostles, in which His Real Presence subsists and ministers.

Second — and I’ve been trying to write this for days:

Premise #2: The Roman Catholic Church represents an unbroken continuity of history and tradition from Jesus Christ and His Apostles to the present.

The Church’s history, more than anything else, is what has drawn me to the Church; what has lit my way to its threshold. I’ve been fascinated and compelled by it since the very first time I encountered it as a teenager. In college, as a history major, the history of the Church and its saints captured my heart more than almost anything else.

Christianity, the Bible tells us, was founded by Jesus Christ and His Apostles in Jerusalem, in Judaea, ca. A.D. 33. According to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus entrusted His Church to the Apostle Peter: “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18). St. Peter, both Catholic and Protestant scholars widely agree, journeyed to Rome and was the first bishop of the Christian church there. Over a period of several centuries, the primacy of the bishops of Rome — their authority over all other bishops — came to be accepted by the rest of Christendom. Today, the bishop of Rome is better known by another title: pope (from Latin papa, a child’s word for “father,” as per English “papa”).

For 1500 years, the Roman Catholic Church was the Church in the West (the Eastern Orthodox Church formally split from Rome in the Great Schism of 1054). Across those years shine innumerable saints and heroes of the faith who have captured my love and admiration and inspired my faith. In the Church have been handed down the traditions and beliefs of the Early Church, and of countless believers over the centuries. When Martin Luther, John Calvin, and other leaders of the Protestant Reformation brought about their split from the Catholic Church, they discarded wholesale many, if not most, of these traditions and beliefs. The Reformers went far beyond their original grievances, finally cutting away everything but the Bible itself, leaving sola scriptura (Scripture alone). In so many ways, I feel they threw out the baby with the bathwater — which, it can’t be denied, was befouled and muddied. The Church needed to be reformed. What it didn’t need was to be shattered.

Since the Reformation, with no single, recognized authority, Protestant churches have continued to fragment into literally thousands of separate sects and denominations. Anyone with a complaint or grievance simply breaks away and forms a new church or denomination. Every division and schism marks a further degradation of the Historical Church — a further generation departed from the history and traditions of the Apostles. With each generation, more and more tradition is discarded as irrelevant (though some churches have attempted to reclaim parts of it). My church upbringing marked tradition’s total loss: there was no sense of tradition at all; no sense that anyone or anything had preceded us; no instruction in belief, practice, theology, or doctrine that had been handed down; no mention that we as Christians had any history at all, aside from a few references to Azusa Street, barely expounded upon. I pined for it. I longed for it, before I even knew what I was longing for.

In the Roman Catholic Church, I feel I’ve finally found what I’ve been longing for all my life: a connection to the past, to the continuous, unbroken history and tradition of Christ’s Church on Earth; a connection, always felt but never fully, to all the saints of all the ages. The wealth of tradition, of devotion, of belief, that I’ve been missing all these years, was not lost, but was all right here. I am coming home to that glorious city.