A Universal Apology Point One: ON AUTHORITY
A matter which I cannot address in public without some disquiet has risen again, and courtesy asks I address it.
A dissenter, enamored of his own opinions, has scoffed at authoritative orthodoxy of the majority of the Christian faith in somewhat heated and incoherent language. I will not answer his unsupported accusations, because unsupported accusations are not an argument and need no answer aside from a general denial. A man whose argument consists of nothing but a curse and the single word ” ‘Tis!” merits no more answer than a blessing and the single word ” ‘Tisn’t!”
Nonetheless, neither an ebullience of passion nor a lack of oratorical ornament divorces a brother in Christ from the family. Despite any lack of wit or charity in how the question was asked, I respect why it was asked. I owe an answer as clear and charitable as my limited powers can produce to any Christian gentleman who asks me to account for that hope I have within me.
My reluctance in taking up my pen to discuss this hideous divorce between orthodoxy and its various deviations is partly from a natural dislike of voicing disagreement with beloved brothers. If my tone seems controversial, that is due to the nature of the controversy, not due to any pride on my part. It is simply a fact that I cannot say why I think I have found the right answer without implying that those who say otherwise have not.
My reluctance again is partly from a pragmatic dislike of exposing the weakness of disunity to our mutual foes, secularists, atheists, Leftists, cultists of Political Correctness, and other jeering and famished monstrosities circling with bloodshot eyes and lolling tongues the broken bulwarks and the fading fires of our dying citadel called civilization, assaulted from without as betrayed from within.
My reluctance finally is partly from, surprisingly enough, humility. It is rare emotion for me. Frankly, I am jovially proud of nearly everything else in my life, from my excellent education, to my natural skill at writing, to my happy family life, to my towering height, to my monstrous girth, to my fine-looking beard like a manly yet silent explosion of hair. But when it comes to divine questions, I was in this matter for so long and so deeply deceived, and so thoroughly sunk into the very Marianas Trench of folly and error, that I take no delight to disagree with another reaching conclusions other than mine. From age seven upward I was an atheist, and a skillful and zealous and successful proselyte of that false doctrine, and I grew from a youth too stupid to grasp the palpably obvious, into a man too arrogant to see the blindingly obvious. So I am reluctant to give voice to my vain imaginings lest wiser men and more learned come across them, and expose them to a just mockery.
On the other hand, my loyalty to Christ and my love of truth for its own sake bids me speak, and the hope that my words might aid some other in any struggle he might have with conundrums akin to mine.
I have elsewhere given an account of the visions and miracles and ecstatic experiences which overwhelmingly and unambiguously transformed me from a zealous atheist to a zealous Christian. It was a supernatural event, and it is not within my power to repeat it for the inspection of casual onlookers. Consequently, I do not expect to convert atheists to theism by power of reason alone, for I was not converted by reason alone, but by the Holy Spirit.
Unlike my supernatural transformation from atheist to theist, the decision which of the competing denominations to join was a natural one, and I relied upon my own unreliable nature and mother-wit to make it. It is that decision this essay is meant to recount and justify.
Reason alone makes a powerful argument that the Catholic Church is what she says she is, and contains the fullness of revelation that other denominations contain only in part. Even if that argument is not convincing to all, honesty asks me to recount why I found it convincing; and hope tells me any man approaching the question from the direction I approached it will likewise find it convincing.
For I approached the question from the outside. The mind of an atheist is so far from the mind of Christendom that it may well be another planet, and all the continents and mountains and seas of your world were like a bright dot to me, as the features of Earth seen from Mars. The differences between Greece and Italy are invisible even in outline to the Martian whose telescope distinguish features of Europe and Asia.
In particular, because an atheist has an equal disdain and contempt for all forms of religious thought, I had no preferences between you and your twin brothers.
I did not, for example, have any opinion whatsoever on the question of the two natures or one of Christ, nor whether the Spirit proceeds from the Father only versus from the Father and the Son, nor whether the Host is a memorial only or contains the real presence of the Son. I was neither attracted nor repelled by the painted statues of the Catholics nor the icons of the Orthodox, nor was I attracted nor repelled by the unornamented simplicity of the New England chapels nor by the splendor and intricacy of the Gothic cathedrals. And I was completely lacking in that odd and phobic revulsion many a Protestant has toward the Virgin Mary.
If I deviated from a the perfect objectivity of perfect indifference, it was only in this regard: What I did possess was the typical attitudes and opinions one might expect from someone raised in mid-Twentieth Century America, to whom classical liberalism of the Enlightenment is bred into his bones, and the idea of separation of Church and State is an automatic one. Also, my attitudes and judgment were remarkably and deeply marked by the writings of the Greek and Roman philosophers and historians, particularly Epictetus, Lucretius, Thucydides, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, but most of all Aristotle. I am and was a thoroughgoing Aristotelian. My intellect is congenitally cool and logical; I am unmoved by appeals to emotion, howsoever heartfelt.
No doubt my Nestorian or Monophysite or Russian or Greek Orthodox readers, or Protestants, or Puritans, or Mormons, or Moonies, or Arians, or Unitarians, or Albigensians, or Witches might wonder with a start of dismay how it comes to be that so wonderful and wise a person as myself could find himself freed the stench and clinging darkness of atheism only to be immediately snared in the filthy meshes of the Roman Catholic Church, so notorious in song and story as being a haunt of devils and pederasts and idolaters and cannibals.
The short answer is that I am neither so wonderful as the question supposes, nor is the Church so dark as she is painted.
When I looked into the matter, I found to my infinite shock that the songs and stories are wrong, and very nearly everything a non-Catholic says or believes about the Catholicism is either propaganda maliciously spread or propaganda unwittingly believed.
(I say ‘unwittingly’ rather than ‘gullibly’ for I myself am as skeptical as it is possible for a human being to be, and even I did not detect any gaps or clues or inconsistencies in the nearly perfect smokescreen of falsehood erected by her enemies that surrounds the towers and walls of the beleaguered Church and blots her from honest view. In nearly every case, I was not even aware that was any controversy, much less another side of the story.)
So if you, my dear Nestorian or Monophysite or Russian or Greek Orthodox reader, or Protestant, or Puritan, or Mormon, or Moonie, or Arian, or Unitarian, or Albigensian or Witch, had never heard the rumor that there was a Catholic rationale or apologetic or reason to support the Church, allow me to acquaint you.
Several things convinced me of the truth of the Catholic claims. I will tell them in chronological order rather than any argumentative order.
Authority: The first was the paradox of the claim by denominations accepting the Catholic teaching, such as the existence of a man called Christ, but rejecting the magisterium on whose sole authority those teaching are to be believed, or even known.
This paradox would be like hearing two messengers from a distant king, both of whom accuse the other of corrupting the message, but finding that the second messenger got his copy from the first, whom he also accuses of corrupting the message.
Canonicity: The second is the paradox of accepting the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Trinity but rejecting the Catholic Church whose Ecumenical Councils on whose sole authority those doctrines rest.
Magisterium: The third is the paradox of asserting an infallible scripture was canonized by a fallible Church; or again that an authorized scripture was authorized by an unauthorized Church.
Scriptural Authority: The fourth is the paradox of claiming an independent, self-defining or self-authorizing authority for scripture.
Unity: The fifth was the paradox of claim that Christ founded a single and unified Church against whose authority He wished His loyal followers to rebel, because His wish was for disunity.
Communion: The sixth was the paradox of the claim that His immediate followers misunderstood the meaning of the sacrament of the Eucharist instituted by Christ, but that visionaries or theologians hundreds or thousands of years after those followers, understood that meaning perfectly.
Continuity: The seventh was the paradox of the claim that Christ instituted eternal rules and disciplines for His followers which He also meant to evolve with the times, following the fickle fashions of the world.
Chastity: The eighth was the paradox of claiming to be Christian while scorning Christ’s own clear words forbidding divorce and other unchaste practices.
Historicity: the ninth was the difficulty of assigning a date at which the Church lost her authority. The date is either early or late. If late, it is a paradox to continue to accept, as canonical, her teachings after that date; and if early, it is a paradox to call yourself Christian while rejecting everything the Christians ever taught.
Ignorance: the tenth was the stunning realization that denominations other than the Catholic are naturally ahistorical.
Tradition: the eleventh was the realization that a lack of history implied a lack of universality.
Heresy: the twelfth was a realization which sprang from seeing the pattern of historical ignorance, liturgical paucity, a lack of seven sacraments or all of them, and so on. Heresies are always simplifications of a complex and interdependent organism of ideas into a single master idea, which, upon consideration, has no warrant for supremacy.
Another peculiarity of heretical opinions is that they are rarely novel opinions, but merely a repeat of an old error.
A thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth convincing point was on the questions of the nuanced nature of the balanced judgement of the Church, the crass and erroneous nature of the accusations against the Church, and the sacramental life within it.
Let me address each of these points in order each in a separate essay.
NOTE: in the passages that follow I intend to use words like ‘orthodox’ and ‘heterodox’ and ‘schismatic’ and ‘heretic’ even though these fall awkwardly on the modern ear, because these words are clear and precise. I am not going to use a phrase like “a faithful follower of Christ whose opinion is at variance with the lawful authority for determining the canonicity of Christian teaching, etc.” rather than a word like “heretic” because I am constitutionally unable to substitute a cumbersome phrase for a term of art admitting of no ambiguity.
If you don’t know the difference between a “heretic” and a “heathen” then I respectfully suggest you acquaint yourself with a dictionary. These are not swear-words nor ad copy nor meaningless emotion-noises as are the un-words used so adroitly by the Politically Correct.
Any reader for whom such words have some bad emotional connotation is asked to snap out of his silliness and cease paying heed to emotional connotations of words, which are subjective, but instead to the meaning of words, which is objective.
Or, contrariwise, I may suggest that if the word “heretic” like the word “traitor” or “pervert” has a bad connotation, I might suggest that the connotation exists because it is merited. While we all admire rebels against lawless tyrants who exceed and abuse their authority, we all condemn those who betray the trust entrusted to them, or who rebel against goodness, revolt against reason, or those whose lives are in insurrection against natural affection, and nature’s God.
Let me address the first question here:
I have several reasons for accepting that the Catholic Church is what she says she is, and not what the various break-away denominations says she is.
The first was an argument I came across way back when I was an atheist. It was a theological argument presented as a dialog between the ghost Thomas Aquinas and the ghost of Martin Luther with an imaginary C.S. Lewis on the authority of Christian tradition.
I do not recall where I came across it, nor who wrote it. I thought it was written by some bright and slightly flippant college student with too much free time on his hands, but I also thought it singularly clear and persuasive.
[N.B.: in preparing this essay, I tried to find that article again, and discovered to my infinite surprise that it was written by the great Peter Kreeft, who is indeed bright and slightly flippant, and might as well also be the reincarnation of Socrates. So it is not to be taken as any surprise that the argument was clear and persuasive.]
It had no effect whatsoever on my belief at the time. I thought it was an argument between two people arguing about nonexistent things, much like hearing an argument about whether or not Wolverine’s claws could penetrate Captain America’s shield.
Nonetheless, such arguments can have a winner and a loser even from the point of view of a skeptical outsider, because if you grant the unreal premises, one man’s conclusions will follow and the opposite will not.
Within the logic and continuity of the comic book universe, if you can show how in Issue 301 of AMAZING MARVEL TEAM-UP where it was established that the admantium weapon of Ultron was shown to be able pierce the admantium-vibranium alloy of Captain America’s shield, and that Wolverine’s claws are admantium weapons, the conclusion follows logically, even concerning make-believe things, that the shield of the Red-White-and-Blue Avenger can be penetrated by the claws of the scrappy Canadian X-Man. Any continued argument on the other side must distinguish the cases (that is, say how Ultron’s feat is not proper precedent for Wolverine, or say why Issue 301 is not canonical).
In this case, the ghost of Luther argues that Christianity teaches that there is one scripture, one salvation, and one sovereign Lord; and that therefore the claim by the Catholic Church to have a magisterium, a teaching and interpreting authority in effect adds a second scripture to the first; next, that salvation is by faith alone and therefore the claim of the Catholic Church to require good works in effect adds a second means of salvation; and third, that divine grace alone saves man, not man’s cooperation in that grace, and therefore the claim of the Catholic Church that man has free will adds a second sovereign to the universe, and impugns the power of God.
On the other side, the ghost of Aquinas argues that sola scriptura, a doctrine not found in scripture, is a contradiction in terms, that it must lead to endless fissiparation not to mention that it undermines the Church authority by whose sole witness anyone knows the Bible to be authoritative; that man is indeed saved by faith alone, but that good works are a necessary outgrowth of that faith, if it be real faith; and that if sovereign God wills man to have free will, it does not impugn that will, no more than the freedom of Homer to pen Odysseus as a character who, in his tale, has free will and freely makes his character choices within that tale (as, for example the heroine in TRILBY does not when her will is robbed by the mesmerism of Svengali).
Now, without going into the details of that argument (which frankly I do not recall) this was the first time it was brought to my attention that the Catholic Church and the Protestant denominations are not making the same claims.
It is not like the old television gameshow TO TELL THE TRUTH where a man and two imposters all claim to be one and the same celebrity, and the panelists by cunning questions attempt to discover his identity before the master of ceremonies asks the real celebrity please to stand up. It is more like a law case where a mother and a daughter both claim to have the exclusive right to inherit the patrimony of an absent father, the mother basing her claim on widowhood, and the daughter asking the court to divest the mother and turn the property over to her on the grounds that the mother has mismanaged the estate.
The idea is no doubt familiar to religious believers, but this was the first time in my blissful atheist existence, that I came across the idea that the Protestant claim to speak authoritatively and magisterially on Church teachings logically presupposes the magisterial authority of the Church, that is, the Catholic Church, to establish Church teachings, such as the canon of the Bible.
Even though, as I said, to me this was as meaningless as an argument between two fanboys about the imaginary weapons made of imaginary metals wielded by imaginary superheroes, as a matter of logic, I thought the ghost of Aquinas scored a clear, perhaps even unanswerable, victory in the debate. As far as I could tell, the argument carried the day: Luther’s admantium claws could not penetrate Aquinas’s vibranium shield.
Now, let me emphasize that the reason why this argument lodged in my memory was due to sheer contrarian perversity. I had not known the Catholics (sad inmates as they were in that airless tower of superstitious darkness called the Church) could make logical arguments, much less make sound ones.
But, neither as an atheist with no dog in that brawl, nor as a Catholic vowed to live and die in the faith, to this day, do I see any error in the argument.
In effect, the Lutheran claim is a claim of the right to rebel against the teaching authority of the Church, on the grounds that the Church is apostate. Unfortunately, the sole witness for the apostasy of the Church is an alleged disagreement between Church teachings and the scriptures on which the Church relies for those teachings.
But the sole witness for the validity, canonicity, historicity, and divinity those selfsame scriptures is the authority of the Church whose members wrote them, gathered, sanctified, protected, promulgated and canonized them.