Wednesday, August 3, 2011

A non-biblical, non-traditional, reasonable defense of Catholicism

I got the idea for this post from reading a philosophical discourse on the ontological argument for God's necessary existence. It didn't delve into established philosophical schools or even establish a logic proof (those are fun!) one way or the other. It made a succinct and simple appeal to logic and reason. Why should I do the same for Catholicism? Two reasons.

1. Biblical defense of the Church is limited, because we also hold Sacred Tradition to be, well, sacred; and
2. Biblical defense relies heavily on how one interprets the scriptures.

For example:

"I name you Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it" (paraphrased).

The Catholic interpretation is that the physical and spiritual Church was established as a unit. I have an earlier post about a holistic treatment of these two concepts and my own musings on the hypostatic union being mirrored in the Church. I believe such a concept to be sound exegesis and not in conflict with Catholic doctrine. No Bishop has come forth to say that I have erred, so we will assume it to be sound.

The Protestant and Evangelical argument is that this foundation applied only to the spiritual Church, and so, by the time the physical Church was hijacked/corrupted/lost/supplanted/usurped/etc. by the Fourth Century, it didn't matter because Christ was talking about His spiritual Church only (and we get yelled at for over-complicating Scripture).

This presents a problem. Catholics use this a proof text for the legitimacy of the Church itself, regardless of Tradition. Protestants write it off because, simply, they need an explanation for why God would have waited 1500 years (or more in many cases) to reveal the "true" Church in the face of such a long-reaching and fundamental corruption. It is this insurmountable conflict of interpretation that necessitates a Scripture-free defense.

So, let's begin.

In the first, we have two suppositions:
1. God is infinite, and there is no other being greater or more perfect than He (also the foundational supposition of the ontological argument)
2. God was made incarnate in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, who inspired the Gospels and the whole of the New Testament.

Building upon these, the Church that is developed from this person is largely reliant on two things: the written record of his life, and the handing on of information from first hand accounts. The historical record holds that Christianity in its early years spread rapidly throughout the Levant, Egypt, and Anatolia--modern day Turkey. Seutonius refers to it as a minor sect and mentions it only one time in his classic biographical "Twelve Caesars". So given its rapid spread (which, taking the Epistles as historical documents, suggests a rapid spread into Anatolia within a single generation, let alone the many generations separating the Apostles from Seutonius), its influence within the Roman Empire was low even after such a monumental expansion.

We do not have the development of an established scriptural canon until (possibly) the Council of Hippo in 393 AD, which we know was reaffirmed at the Councils of Carthage in 397 and 419. The Decretum Gelasianum, if correctly associated, describes the Council of Rome in 382 issuing an identical canon. So, it is a reasonable (and arguably correct) assumption, that until the Fourth Century saw general agreement on the canon of scripture, a great deal of discrepancy necessarily existed. This also sheds light on the necessity of the Epistles that make up the bulk of the New Testament.

Within a largely illiterate and spread-out community, it would have been impossible to enforce orthodoxy of belief without some kind of clarification on a number of issues. Examples of early controversies are the requirement of Christians to adhere to Mosaic Law (covered in Acts), the nature of Jesus of Nazareth (fully human, fully divine, both, or neither), the role of works and grace in the plan of salvation, etc. Without an established canon, there was only one authority to which the new Christian sect could turn--Apostolic authority.

It is for this purpose, and this is generally agreed amongst the majority of Christian denominations, that the Apostles fanned out and established their various bases (or, more properly, Sees) throughout the Christian world. Notable ones are Alexandria, Jerusalem, Antioch, and Rome, among others. Each of these Sees were overseen by a Bishop who was tasked with enforcing orthodoxy amongst its jurisdiction, and each of these Bishops could trace their lineage back to one of the original Apostles. It was because of this that the Bishops could speak authoritatively on matters of faith and orthodoxy, and it is for this reason that it was Bishops who assembled and still assemble at the various councils to establish doctrine and dogma.

Of great importance for those who subscribe to the corruption-of-the-Church theory is that, though Constantine called the Council of Nicaea and proceeded to declare Christianity the state religion of the empire, not being a Bishop meant he could not vote on anything that came up in the council. For all intents and purposes, the same Apostolic authority that gave the Bishops the right to be present also gave them the special privilege of deciding what came of this particular council. No interference from Constantine allowed.

It is only after the Council of Nicaea that a strict reference to scripture is made possible within Christian exegesis and theology, because it is only in the post-Nicaean world that Christians could exercise their faith openly without fear of repercussion. It is also only in the post-Nicaean world that written records weren't constantly in danger of being confiscated and otherwise destroyed. Hence the incredible lack of documentation of the intervening years between 33AD and 325AD. Almost three hundred years of development and barely any shred of evidence to prove that anything happened outside the scriptural record. Until one remembers that the Bishops spoke with the authority of the Apostles, and didn't have an established canon to reference at all times. Time to delve into that thorny business of the Bishop of Rome.

It will be remembered that the Apostles fanned out and established their bases of operation. Each chose an administrative successor, who was thus ordained and raised to the status of Bishop to be able to oversee his jurisdiction. Peter established himself in Rome. How long or how well established this power base was is understandably under debate, considering Peter is, himself, a sainted martyr. But this is where not only Sacred Tradition, but also those scant fragments of documentation from the first few centuries AD, start to shed light.

Pope Saint Clement, around the year 80, wrote an Epistle to the Corinthians. Corinth was not under the jurisdiction of the See of Rome. Yet they appealed to Rome for Rome's intervention, and Clement consented. In it, he writes "But if any disobey the words spoken by Him [Christ] through us [gotta love the Royal "We"], let them know that they will involve themselves in sin and no small danger." Barely fifty years after the death of the Christian Messiah, the Bishop of Rome (still the official title of the Supreme Pontiff) was exercising special jurisdiction over the other Apostolic Sees.

Why would this be important? If Jesus had established His Church solely in the spiritual sense, and the established norm for Church-wide decision making was the council, the role of any individual Bishop would have necessarily remained purely administrative at the respective local level. If Jesus established his Church both in the spiritual and physical sense, and issued this powerful decree to a single Apostle, it stands to reason that he was naming not only the CEO of this new faith, but he was issuing a powerful statement about succession of leadership. Where the Twelve had looked to Jesus as their spiritual guide, after His death, they were to look to where Peter established himself. They were to look to the only Bishop to have been awarded the title "Vicar of Christ". They were to look to Rome.

Now wait just a second, says the Sola Scriptura nay-sayer. Even a spiritual Church needs to be led by somebody, because you can't be calling councils every twenty minutes! This is true. But if Christ was only establishing a spiritual Church, and did not establish a physical hierarchy to run the worldly affairs of His spiritual Church, then the only authority in the lack of any authoritative canon would still have been the Apostles. Or worse yet, a Messiah who did not, does not, and seems likely never to have a telephone. So we return to an earlier point--who then speaks with authority than the Apostles? Who then speaks with authority when the Apostles have died but their successors? And who advises with authority in the interim between councils than the successors of the one Apostle who was given the greatest responsibility of all in being the rock upon which the Church was to be founded?

At this point, it becomes moot whether or not Jesus was speaking of a strictly spiritual, physical, or united Church because the point remains valid that authority had to come from somewhere in the absence of Jesus, and then it had to come from somewhere else in the absence of the Apostles in the time before the canon was established. Vis-a-vis, the Bishopric, and the special status afforded Peter and his successors.

Another historical document from the period that makes explicit reference to the succession of Peter (establishing in the first two Centuries Apostolic Succession as an historic fact) is "Against the Heresies" (180 AD) by Pope Saint Irenaeus:

"The blessed apostles, then, having founded and built up the Church, committed into the hands of Linus the office of the episcopate . Of this Linus, Paul makes mention in the Epistles to Timothy [2 Timothy 4:21]. To him succeeded Anacletus; and after him, in the third place from the apostles, Clement was allotted the bishopric."

From here, history takes over and you can read all about the development of the Church after Nicaea. The various councils that established all the doctrine and dogmas of the Church have all drawn their authority from the same source as the earliest Bishops who had to make rulings and decisions in the absence of a scriptural canon. Because this can not be adequately refuted without twisting and reinterpreting scripture, one must necessarily ignore history to alter this basic philosophical and reasonable authority.

It is for this reason that most Protestant Churches refute Apostolic Succession entirely. If they accepted it, then they have to explain why, for the better part of Christian history, the successors of the Apostles had been getting it wrong. Likewise, they lose any authority to rule on Sacred Tradition, and must similarly abandon it. This secondary effect makes it easy to simply ignore historical articles and records contained in the writings of the Church Fathers. If the Church Fathers lacked any kind of authority, how could they record history correctly? From here, the errors of Consubstantiation and (the worse error) denial of the Real Presence, denial of confession, denial of Mary's perpetual virginity and immaculate conception, and all other errors of Protestantism stem.

To defend Catholicism without reference to the Bible requires only two suppositions:

1. God is infinite, and there is no other being greater or more perfect than He (also the foundational supposition of the ontological argument)
2. God was made incarnate in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, who inspired the Gospels and the whole of the New Testament.

Whereas to adequately defend Protestantism and post-Reformation theology at all, a third supposition is required:

3. The Biblical Canon has always, and without alteration, existed from the time of the Apostles until the present day.

Without this third supposition, a whole host of problems arises in explaining how the body of scripture can be authoritative if it didn't exist as a body until after the "corruption" of the physical Church.

And history, no matter how scarce and faded the record, refutes this third supposition entirely, invalidating any arguments (and doctrines) derived therefrom. Ultimately, occam's razor comes into play here. In the absence of objective truth, the simplest explanation must be correct. A rational, appeal to reason in defense of Catholicism 1) uses only two suppositions, and 2) does not rely on the interpolation of hypothetical, entirely faith-based phenomena and interference, whereas a rational, appeal to reason in defense of Protestantism 1) uses three suppositions, and 2) must allow the interpolation of hypothetical, entirely faith-based phenomena and interference. The former is simpler. The latter is complicated. For all its pomp and glory and ritual that is confusing to people who don't have a handy Catholic friend to explain it, Catholicism is the simpler defense, and therefore stands on a more solid foundation.

I'm going to end this not with a Lady Gaga reference, but with the Prayer for Pope Benedict XVI. I hold true that he is the successor of Peter. He is the Bishop of Rome and Vicar of Christ, and is guided in all things by the Holy Spirit to speak infallibly on matters of faith and morals, and I encourage his work, and pray for the Holy Spirit to continue to guide his way.

Lord, source of eternal life and truth, give to Your shepherd, the Pope, a spirit of courage and right judgement, a spirit of knowledge and love.

By governing with fidelity those entrusted to his care may he, as successor to the apostle Peter and vicar of Christ, build Your church into a sacrament of unity, love, and peace for all the world.

We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son, Who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.

(Prayer sourced from

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