I am recounting my spiritual voyage of discovery over the several years that passed between my conversion, and my reception in the safe harbor of the Roman Catholic faith.
The sixth point I encountered was the question of the Host.
I had noticed that various non-Catholic denominations were willing to share with me, even though I was not one of them, their bread and wine of their Host. It was not until later that I discovered that this was not a Host at all, but merely a memorial or symbol of the Host.
That formed a powerful reason in my mind why I could not join them: Like Groucho Marx unwilling to join any club that would admit him, I was not willing to join any communion not serious enough to exclude me.
Let me not pass this point flippantly, for I mean it seriously. While I was debating and weighing the decision of which denomination to join, one Protestant friend of mine urged me not to join the Catholic Church on the grounds that she could not explain to her daughter why it was that they two were not allowed to take the Host at Mass when they visited a Catholic service, whereas their friendlier denomination forbade nobody.
I asked her if she believed the bread and wine was the very body and blood of Christ. She said in the strongest possible terms that it was not.
I asked her on what grounds she believed 1500 years or so of Christians to be mistaken on this point, and she replied by telling me the scripture on this point is allegorical: when Christ says “this is my body” and “do this in memory of me” He was speaking in parables. She seemed unaware of the body of Christian writings penned between the moment after Saint John put down his pen and Martin Luther picked up his. When I asked her about the Antenicene Fathers (who seemed, if anyone could be, to have been immune from any allegations of early corruption, since they lived during persecutions) her reply was to tell me not to read them.
Again, I was not Catholic nor Protestant at the time, but the simple logic of the situation made me unable to sympathize with my friend’s plight, or even to understand it.
Either the bread and wine is Christ’s body, or it is not. The Protestant says it is not on the quite reasonable grounds that it does not look or smell like it is. The Catholic says it is on the quite reasonable grounds that Christ said it was.
Without deciding the nuances of that fundamental argument, it is clear enough that if a Catholic walks into a Protestant chapel and is offered bread and wine that is quite ordinary in every respect, except as a symbol showing loyalty to Christ, to eat and drink is no more idolatrous and irresponsible than to salute the flag or doff your hat to a lady. It is a gesture of respect and nothing more. Hence it is perfectly reasonable that Protestants allow Catholics to partake in their holy meals.
It is also clear enough that whether or not the Catholic claim is true, the claim being made is that the bread and wine in a Catholic mass is the sacred body and blood of Christ, who is God. Now suppose a Protestant approaches the altar rail for a wafer of this bread.
There are only three possibilities. First, that the bread is Christ but the Protestant thinks it is merely bread, in which case, to eat is blasphemy, because it denies divine worship owed to a divine thing.
Second, that the bread is not Christ, and the Protestant knows it is not Christ, but he nonetheless consumes it in an act of worship, in which case, to eat is idolatry, because it shows divine worship to what is not divine.
The third possibility is that the Protestant thinks it is the body and blood of Christ, in which case he has no business being a Protestant, and should join the Church so he can eat the bread lawfully.
But no matter who was right or wrong about the question of the Real Presence, both parties surely must agree that the Catholics treat the matter of the bread and the wine with much more seriousness and sobriety than the Protestants. Right or wrong, the Protestants say what they are doing is a gesture, nothing more. Right or wrong, the Catholics say what they are doing is a sacrament, as real as childbirth or marriage or death, and touching divinity.
Also, the sheer unfairness of my friend’s accusation was quite striking to me. No sane man makes claim that Luther was the Pope and that the Church rebelled against him, leading all the princes of Italy and France, Spain and Austria into a new and heretical sect that bowed to St Peter. All sides agree that it was Luther who was not Pope, and he rebelled against the Church, leading the princes of Germany and Netherlands, Switzerland and Norway, and inspiring England to revolt. My friend, or her ancestors, left the Church, and then accuses the Church of injustice, because the Church will not admit into communion those who fought both with words and swords to depart from that communion.
Now, at the time I was a “mere” Christian of no denomination, coming from an atheist background with no previous opinions and no presuppositions. I did not automatically think that adoration of the Host was idolatry, nor did I automatically think the refusing to adore the Host was blasphemy.
What I did think was that God, being omnipotent, could incarnate Himself into bread and wine as easily as He did into flesh and blood, and the one claim was not any more or less absurd or sublime than the other.
But, again, upon looking into the matter, I was struck once again by the undisputed fact that the claims are not symmetrical. We have 1500 years or so of Church practice, which even Arians and Donatists and Albigensians performed, of consecrating the host and taking it as if it were the body and blood of Christ. Then we suddenly have Martin Luther and his epigones who discover that the Host is a symbol only, not the Christ.
On the one hand, the claim is that this is and was the Church practice from Pentacost onward, as attested to by the Patristic writings and all surviving records. On the other hand, the claim is that this practice crept into the Church by copying pagan models, such as the sacred meals of the Second Century devotees of Mithra, and God saw fit that all the Christians from Iceland to India for fifteen centuries should be consigned to perdition, and not until Luther did God reveal the long-buried and forgotten truth.
From an objective point of view, speaking as someone neither Protestant nor Catholic, I could not see how the Protestant claim could be true if the Catholic claim was false, since the evidence from the Patristic Writings quite clearly showed the Host being adored as the very body and blood of Christ long before Christianity became of the official religion on the Empire, hence long before there was any reason for any unscrupulous Church official to compromise the truth of the faith. Men who are willing to be thrown to the lions rather than burn a pinch of incense to Diocletian are not likely to preach what they know to be idolatry of a morsel of ordinary bread to their persecuted flock. If you are knowingly performing idolatry, and if you have so much control over the minds of the gullible Christians that they will accept idolatry without demur, why not simply say that God allows the faithful to give incense to Diocletian, and avoid being torn to pieces by lions or red-hot pincers?
This question in my mind, as did so many other questions, was resolved by trying to establish the date of the apostasy of the Church. For the Protestant claim to be true, there had to be a date before the first trace of pagan corruption or the doctrines of men crept into the Church, and there had to be a date (either the same date or a later one) after which the Church corruption was irrevocable and acted as a final abdication of her authority. Anything between those two dates was suspect, and could as easily be a corruption as be true doctrine.
The problem was that the Patristic writings show that all the crucial unique Protestant doctrines, such as the merely symbolic nature of the Host, or the lack of prayers for the dead, come from a strata of time earlier than such things as Arianism and Patripassionism.
In other words, the things alleged to be corruptions date from a time before the things alleged to be true doctrines, such as Trinitarianism and the Incarnation. On the other hand, there is no trace whatever of uniquely Protestant doctrines in any writings before the Fifteenth Century, such as the doctrines of Sola Scriptura, Sola Fides, and Sola Gratia, and there is certainly no trace of a Church that consists of a national king or secular leader having the power of a General Church Council or Pope to define doctrine, or which elects all its officers with no Episcopal hierarchy.
Also, there was growing in my mind a mild impatience with the claims of Church corruption if the date of Apostasy was pushed to the time before the Ecumenical Councils which established the Nicene Creed or the doctrine of the Trinity.
While a Mormon or a Christian Scientist, who espouse theories even further from the mainstream than Arianism and Albigensianism, can say without a blush that all the Ecumenical Councils were wrong, no one who believes the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Trinity can do so. These doctrines have little or no basis in scripture, and no basis whatever in natural reason: they are purely artifacts of the deposit of faith entrusted to the Apostles and their successors, and rest solely on the authority of the Church to define Christian doctrine. Anyone who denies that authority has no warrant to believe them; anyone who believes them has no warrant to deny that authority.
At the same time, there was growing in my mind a truly vast impatience with the claims of Church corruption if the date of Apostasy was pushed to the time ever closer to Pentecost, or even to before it.
Mohammedans and Mormons and Christian Scientists told me without a blush that Mohammed and Mary Baker Eddy or Joseph Smith understood Christ better than Polycarp, who studied at the feet of Saint John; or understood Christ better than Saint John, who laid his head on the breast of Our Lord at the Last Supper; or understood Christ better than Christ.
Joseph Smith claims, that as a prophet, he has the authority which perished from the world when the last of the Twelve Apostles perished, and that the Twelve Apostles had no authority to baptize followers nor anoint successors. Joseph Smith, in effect, claims Peter or John had no authority to lay his hands on a follower (such as Polycarp) and proclaim him a bishop, and ergo no authority to found the old Church, but Joseph Smith somehow had the authority to found a new church. Smith claims to understand the Christian teaching better than St Polycarp, who learned it from St John.
Mary Baker Eddy claims that when Saint John says Jesus Christ was the Eternal Word who was with God and who was God, he is mistaken or speaking in a misleading metaphor, since Jesus was a mortal prophet only; she claims that the mission of Christ was to teach men how to heal the sick, and that the Crucifixion did not reconcile Man to God, but was merely an example or demonstration of the illusionary nature of suffering and death, or, in other words, the illusionary nature of the belief that Man is severed from God and needs reconciliation to Him. Mary Baker Eddy, in effect, claims that she understood the nature of the Incarnation and Crucifixion better than St John, who missed the point.
Mohammed claims that Christ was a Mohammedan. Like Mary Baker Eddy, he calls Christ nothing more than a human prophet, not different than Moses or Elijah. Mohammed reads the scriptures where Christ makes outrageous claims to be God, and concludes that the real Christ never made these claims, but will mock the Christians as idolaters on Judgment Day. Mohammed claims to understand the Christian teaching better than Christ.
Now, these prophets of these claimed to have sources of revelation independent of Church authority, so that they knew about Christ and His true teachings from the archangel Gabriel, or the angel Moroni, or from diligent prayer and meditation leading to signs and wonders.
The truth or falsehood of those claims rest upon the reliability of the prophecy of the prophets. Since they are inconsistent, at times wildly inconsistent, from the prophets they themselves claim as their forefathers and forbearers in faith, from Moses to Saint Mary, it is not logically possible for the claim to be true. No Jewish prophet can claim he knows more about God than Moses, and no Christian visionary can claim he knows more about Jesus than St John.
The crackpot Dan Brown makes a claim of Church apostasy from the time of Constantine; this claim, while supported by not even the slightest scintilla of historical evidence, is at least logically possible.
The denominations who base their schism on the writings of a single visionary, like Mormonism of Mohammedanism, make a claim of Church apostasy from the time of the Patristic Writings is less possible; this claim involves a conspiracy theory view of history.
The claim of Church apostasy from the time of Polycarp is laughable, but not logically impossible. But the claim of Church apostasy from the time of Pentecost, or the Crucifixion, or the Incarnation, or the Exodus from Egypt, is not logically possible, because this makes the apostate Church older than the Church.