OUR FAITH PRACTICES
THE SOURCES OF OUR FAITH
There is only one primary source of the catholic faith — scripture. The Roman Catholic Church used to list “tradition” as a second primary source. But that has changed. Even they now acknowledge that scripture is the only primary source, with tradition being a secondary source. But “tradition” is a rather vague concept, and one that has been abused over the years. It includes secular histories of the New Testament era, the writings of the church fathers, apocryphal (Definition) writings, and oral tradition. These can be valuable sources of insights regarding church doctrines, but they cannot be sources of new ones. Let us be specific about what parts of “tradition” are legitimate secondary sources of the catholic faith. They are the creeds and the seven ecumenical councils of the undivided church. Thus there are a total of three sources of our beliefs: Scripture, Creeds, and Councils. Let’s look at each of these in turn.
The core of all Christian belief (and therefore of the catholic faith) is the person of Jesus Christ and the loving God revealed to us by him. The job of the church is to make them known to the people, so that knowing God, they can love God, serve God, and be happy with God for all eternity. By far the richest, most valuable, and most authoritative source of this knowledge is the Bible. The Bible (Old and New Testaments) contains all the information necessary for salvation.
Through history and the writings of the church fathers, we gain valuable insights into the faith and practice of the early Christian church, its worship, and its relationship with the society in which it survived. But scripture is the inspired word of God. In it we find the source of all that we must believe.
Many people believe in things (like the Assumption of Mary into Heaven) which have no basis in scripture. These things may be true. But if belief in them were necessary for salvation, God would have inspired Luke or someone to include them in the scriptures. It is argued that some of the more recent doctrines were widely believed in the early church, and therefore should be included in the “catholic faith.” Others argue that no dogma of only one denomination can be considered believed everywhere by all, and thus cannot possibly be “catholic.” This argument is best resolved by resorting to St. Augustine’s “In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, diversity; in all things, charity.” Since these extra-Biblical doctrines are clearly nonessential, diversity of views should be respected. Therefore, without passing judgment on the truth or “catholicity” of these beliefs, we can conclude that they are not part of the “essentials of the catholic faith.” This gives us one general rule: We should not require belief in anything which is unsupported by scripture.
This sounds a great deal like the Protestant “sola scriptura” (Definition) — and indeed it is. At the same time, neither we nor most protestants (Definition) ignore tradition, the church fathers, or the Ecumenical Councils. As we shall see, much of the “catholic faith” was defined in these sources, but found its roots in scripture. An example is the doctrine of the Trinity. The word isn’t even found in the Bible, and the details were argued about for several hundred years before being defined by the church in Council. Yet who can deny that the Trinity is supported by scripture? Jesus commanded his apostles to make disciples of all nations, “baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” There is ample reason for including belief in “three divine persons in one God” as an essential of the catholic faith. The details of how one visualizes these three interacting, however, should be included in the “nonessential” category. (See our discussion of the “filioque” in the Nicene Creed below.)
The next question is, “Must we require belief in everything in scripture? Must catholics believe in the inerrancy of scripture?” This is a very complex question, but the short answer is “No” (though they certainly may, and many do).
Until the eighteenth century, belief in the general truth of scripture was pretty much universal, and therefore such belief can certainly be considered “catholic.” Yet, today there is great division — not just between those who do and do not believe in inerrancy, but over just what inerrancy means, even among those who claim to believe in it. Most believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God. A few go farther and hold that God dictated the text word for word. Many more would say that God gave the writers the thoughts and ideas, but not the words – they are the product of the human authors, with all their cultural biases, hangups, and misconceptions. Most theologians and biblical scholars accept modern biblical criticism. They recognize some stories and whole books as allegorical. They acknowledge cultural influences and historical inaccuracies. Yet others do not. (Most scholarly inerrantists would balk at “historical inaccuracies,” while accepting the rest.)
One of the biggest divisions is over interpretation of the six days of creation in Genesis. If one takes this literally, the earth is only about six thousand years old. “Young Earth creationists” hold strictly to this view. Some scientists say that since the earth has been proven to be billions of years old, the Bible is all myth and garbage. And there is a whole spectrum of intermediate beliefs. “Old earth creationists” say that the “days” of Genesis are “ages” or “eons” and there is no conflict between creationism and science. (Since truth is truth, there can be no conflict between correct science and correct Biblical interpretation. This much is clear.) Others say evolution is true; it’s the way God chose to create the universe. The point of all this is that the church should not require belief in something it cannot be sure of. The Roman Catholic Church did that to Galileo, and only recently acknowledged its mistake. Just as we should not require people to believe that the Sun revolves around the Earth, we should not require them to believe any particular interpretation of the creation story in Genesis. The only “essentials” in the story are that God created the universe and created man and woman in his image. All the rest belongs among the “nonessentials.”
It is prudent for the church to allow great diversity in the interpretation of scripture, while carefully considering the results of biblical scholarship and archeology. The church should be slow to embrace new ideas, but even slower to reject them. Open minds are less likely to repeat the mistakes of the past.
While inerrancy, properly understood, is a “catholic” belief, to require belief in it as an “essential” of the faith can lead to squabbles over interpretation and even purges such as have plagued the Southern Baptist Convention for the last decade or so. We do not want, and cannot accept such a prospect. We desire unity, not uniformity. We also have a pastoral concern for those who are taught inerrancy. Their faith can be shaken by the discovery of mistakes or contradictions in the Bible. Ultimately, our faith should be in God, not in the book. Neither, however, should we buy into a squishy liberalism. To treat the Bible as a collection of myths is unacceptable. To throw out everything miraculous (including the resurrection) is to proclaim God small, remote, and inept and leaves little worth believing in. While not requiring belief in inerrancy, we must teach the Bible as the reliable source of the truths that matter.
One more question about scripture remains: “What Bible do we believe in, the Protestant Bible or the Roman Catholic Bible?” In other words, what do we do with the Deuterocanonical (Definition) books of the Old Testament? (There is no disagreement over the New Testament.)
The status of these several books and parts of books was unclear until the reformation. The Protestant reformers labeled them apocryphal and threw them out. The Council of Trent reacted by declaring them part of the Canon (Definition) and of equal status with the rest of the Bible. The split reflected a millenium-old argument. The Jewish authorities who determine the canonicity of the Hebrew scriptures did not include these texts. But this decision was not made final until after 70 AD, when parts of the young Christian church had already begun using them. St. Augustine thought they should be included. St. Jerome (probably the greatest Biblical scholar of all time) did not. He considered them useful but not of equal stature with the rest, so he inserted them in an addendum at the end of the Old Testament. The Orthodox churches generally follow this practice.
Things probably would have continued in this imprecise way indefinitely except for one thing. The only Biblical support for the existence of purgatory (Definition) and prayers for the dead is found only in one of the deuterocanonical books (2 Maccabees). Since the selling of indulgences (Definition) and the doing of “works” for release from purgatory were the most egregious abuses of the medieval church being protested by Martin Luther, the canonicity of the text became a very big issue indeed. Not surprisingly, each side came to the conclusion that supported their position. Of such things are schisms made.
It would seem appropriate to deal with the deuterocanonical books by classifying them as nonessentials, and therefore to allow diversity of belief in their canonicity. It is recommended that churches allow their people to use whichever version of the Bible they prefer. Moreover, out of respect for the widely-held view that the disputed texts are not canonical and therefore not the inspired word of God, churches should not require (or forbid) belief in doctrines not supported without resort to them. For example, many of our people believe in purgatory. Many others, including most Orthodox theologians and nearly all Protestants, do not. Frankly, it doesn’t matter. No one is going to lose the tiniest bit of God’s love and blessings because they do or do not believe in purgatory. It is a nonessential. And while praying for our departed loved ones is a Christian practice dating back to the early church, it is not universal. It follows, therefore, that it is preferable if prayers for the dead (other than within a funeral Mass or service) are not a part of our public worship.
Pastoral concerns may sometimes dictate otherwise, but in general our churches should not encourage non-scriptural beliefs. In charity, we do not condemn such beliefs (unless they contradict core doctrines of the catholic faith). But we must lead our people to understand the primacy of scripture as the source of our faith.
The ancient creeds, especially the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed, arose in the first centuries of the church. They were based on the authority of scripture and were intended to combat heresies such as gnosticism and Arianism. They serve to this day as brief summaries of the faith, and are subscribed to and used in worship by nearly all Christian denominations. They pass the threefold test of catholicity, and summarize some of the most important articles of the catholic faith. At the same time, a single word in the Nicene Creed, “filioque” (which is Latin for “and the son”), was instrumental in precipitating the Great Schism of 1054. The original wording of the Creed had the Holy Spirit proceeding “from the Father.” The Roman Patriarch (the Bishop of Rome) wanted to add the “filioque” to make the Creed say that the Holy Spirit proceeds “from the Father and the Son.” All the other patriarchs rejected this innovation, believing that it made the Holy Spirit look like a second-class member of the Trinity, subservient to both the Father and the Son. This minor dispute, coupled with the Roman bishop’s claim to jurisdiction over the entire church, caused the East-West split which endures to this day. Now, more and more Western churches are recognizing the folly of the “filioque” dispute and are reverting to the earlier Orthodox version of the Creed. This move raises hope for eventual unity between these Western churches and our Eastern brothers and sisters. Indeed, the United Catholic Church has entered into full communion with the Byzantine Catholic Church (a non-papal jurisdiction). The point of this story of the “filioque” is that we must strive to have the ancient creeds unite us rather than divide us. It is important, therefore, that while subscribing to them, we do not allow them to be straight-jackets. Flexibility in translation, wording, and interpretation is called for, along with faithfulness to the original meaning. “In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, diversity; in all things, charity.” The creeds contain many of the essentials of the catholic faith. But they are not scripture. They were created by committees of human beings and translated by other mere mortals. The words are not carved in stone.
Raise the subject of councils and Vatican II comes to mind. It was Pope John XXIII’s valiant and inspired attempt to breathe new life into the Roman Catholic Church by opening the windows to the Holy Spirit. It brought the church into the twentieth century and went a long way toward healing the breaches with both Orthodox and Protestant Christians. It implemented about ninety percent of what Martin Luther had called for in the 16th century, and undid some of the damage done at the reactionary Council of Trent.
Vatican I in the 1870s was very different. It declared the infallibility of the Pope and ratified the 1854 dogma of the Immaculate Conception, precipitating yet another schism. Many bishops left Rome at that time and joined the bishops of Utrecht in forming the Old Catholic Church. The formation of this church was an attempt to retain catholicity by rejecting the innovations of the pope and his curia. The Old Catholic Church still exists, and is particularly strong in Europe. It is the source of the Apostolic Succession of many independent Catholic churches around the world, including most of those in the United States.
None of the above councils are true Ecumenical Councils. They are councils of the Roman Catholic Church alone. The only “catholic” councils were the first seven, the Councils of the undivided church. They were Nicea (325), Constantinople (381), Ephesus (430), Chalcedon (451), Constantinople (553), Constantinople (680) and Nicea (787). These are the only councils recognized by the Orthodox churches, the Roman Catholic Church, the Old Catholic Church and most mainline and evangelical Protestant churches.
If we do not require belief in the inerrancy of scripture, much less should we require acceptance of everything said in these councils. Still, they are an important secondary source of doctrine. These councils formulated creeds to combat heresy, defined the canon of the New Testament, proclaimed the Trinity, and decreed that Jesus had two natures — that he was fully human and fully divine. These pronouncements of the seven councils are rooted in scripture and are part of the “catholic faith.”
Having briefly discussed the sources of our beliefs, we now turn to the specifics of what we believe. In particular we wish to discover those core beliefs, those essentials of the faith that make us “catholic.”
THE SPECIFICS OF THE CATHOLIC FAITH
Our faith incorporates what we believe about God, what we believe about Jesus, what we believe about salvation, what we believe about the sacraments, and what we believe about the church. Many of these beliefs come right out of the ancient creeds. They are shared by all Christians and are not controversial. These I will pass over rather quickly. But other articles of our faith have become quite controversial and have resulted in divisions, schisms, hatreds, wars, and untold deaths. That this should happen in a religion that was supposed to be characterized by “These Christians, how they love one another!” is indeed scandalous. One of the major purposes of this treatise is to attempt (once again) to point a way toward the healing of these divisions and a return to the unity of the catholic faith.
We believe in one loving and merciful God in three divine persons. We believe that God created the universe, loves each of us, and desires for each of us to be happy, both now and for eternity. There is much more theologians have said about the nature of God, but none of it is essential. All we really need to know about God can be found in the words of Jesus in the Gospels.
We believe that Jesus is the Messiah (Definition), the Son of God; that he said and did the things related in the gospels; that he died for us, and that he rose from the dead. We believe that he will come again.
For centuries, salvation was pretty well understood. We Christians are saved by grace (a free unmerited gift of our loving God) on account of our faith (our acceptance of Christ and our faithfulness to him). This grace not only saves us but changes us. We are born anew and show forth the fruits of the Holy Spirit. From us good works flow.
Faith without works is dead; that is, if our lives are unchanged, then we have blocked the grace God wants to pour out on us. We have not opened ourselves to him; we have not responded in faith. But if we put our trust in him, he will set us free and make us a new creature. That is the Lord’s promise and unfailing truth.
For centuries no one saw any conflict between the “you are saved by faith” of Paul and the “faith without works is dead” of James. They are both part of God’s truth. But gradually, over the centuries, legalism and fear of sin came to dominate over the simple, joyous faith of the early church. The hierarchy started doing to the people exactly what the Pharisees had done to the Jews (and which so infuriated Jesus). This legalism, rule-keeping, and fear of hell and purgatory (and the wrath of the clergy) were compounded by abuses like the selling of indulgences. By the time poor Martin Luther came along, the faith of the apostles was barely recognizable.
Fortunately, Luther did not succumb to despair, but retreated to the scriptures, where he rediscovered the forgotten truth of salvation by grace through faith in the atoning sacrifice of Christ. It’s no wonder Luther tried to reform the church. It’s also not surprising that he even considered throwing out the Book of James because of the way the church had abused “faith without works is dead.” But in the end, he didn’t. He couldn’t. It is scripture.
Predictably, both the Protestants and the Roman Catholics went to extremes to defend their positions and polarization and schism were the result. Now we have churches which teach Paul and others which teach James. The truly “catholic” understanding of salvation includes both. Neither is complete without the other. And fortunately, many on both sides are realizing this. Dialogue is continuing between Evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics, and many from both extremes are moving toward the historical position held by the United Catholic Church and by responsible Christians of all denominations.
One of the distinguishing marks of a “catholic” church is that it is a sacramental church, believing in the sacraments instituted by Christ, and administering them to the Body of Christ, his people. From the very beginning, Christians believed that the sacraments are not mere symbols, but that they actually do something. It is therefore an article of catholic faith that the sacraments, through the action of the Holy Spirit, impart the grace which they signify.
This belief was shared by the Protestant reformers, but has been abandoned over the years by many of the churches they founded. The protestant rejection of sacramentalism was an understandable reaction to abuses whereby the Roman Catholic Church in the middle ages used the granting or withholding of the sacraments as an instrument of power over the people. Yet it was an unfortunate reaction. The answer to the evil of withholding the sacraments from people seeking God’s grace is simple. Dispense the sacraments with generosity, as Jesus did. Yes, the church has the responsibility to make sure people are prepared for certain of the sacraments (Confirmation, Matrimony, and Holy Orders). And, at least for Holy Orders, the church can be downright selective. St. Paul, after all, instructed Timothy that when selecting candidates for consecration as bishops, he should choose only those of good character with only one spouse. But even in these cases the church should act with wisdom and discernment, not legalism. What’s most important in preparation for Confirmation, Matrimony, and Holy Orders is not knowledge or even sanctity, but attitude. As for the rest of the sacraments (Baptism, Eucharist, Reconciliation, and Anointing of the Sick), these are sacraments for sinners. They are specifically designed to impart God’s free gift of unmerited grace to sinners who believe and are humble enough to receive. To deny people these sacraments on technicalities or because of lifestyles or because their sin is more obvious than our own is an abuse of the power Jesus left his church.
It was Jesus who left us the sacraments. The gospels tell us that Jesus personally and directly instituted at least four of them — Baptism, Eucharist, Reconciliation, and Holy Orders. And there is biblical support for the other three (Confirmation, Anointing, and Matrimony) as well.
Most sacramental churches believe in the seven sacraments discussed above. Yet the number “7” was not defined until the 12th century. The number “7” is a nonessential. It is not important how many we believe there are. What is important is that we acknowledge that they are instruments or channels of God’s grace, that they do what they signify.
I would now like to discuss some of the individual sacraments, beginning with Matrimony.
The sacrament of Matrimony is unusual in that it is the only one in which the persons administering the sacrament are the same as those receiving it. The bride and groom administer the sacrament to each other. The function of the priest is primarily to be the official witness of the church. The priest also guides and assists the couple in their administration of the sacrament (sort of like an altar server or acolyte).
In theory, at least (although most churches won’t allow it), it is possible for a man and woman to administer the sacrament of Matrimony to each other without the assistance of a priest. (The Roman Catholic Church did not require the presence of a priest until the year 1563.) The church may not recognize the validity of the marriage, and the state certainly won’t unless its rules are followed (the clergyman also functions as the official witness for the state). But it is possible for a Christian couple to marry before a justice of the peace or a notary public and then administer the sacrament of Matrimony to each other in private, obtaining God’s blessing on their union and his abundant grace to withstand the difficulties and trials that always come with married life. So could a couple who find themselves alone on a desert island (a la “Blue Lagoon”). So too, I contend, could a couple whose church for some reason refuses to marry them.
I know many couples at least one of whom had been married before and was divorced. Some of these second marriages have lasted thirty or forty years — without benefit of clergy. Such marriages may lack the blessings of “church,” but not, I contend, of God. God, in his love and mercy, sees beyond the legalisms into the heart. He knows the circumstances that ended the first marriage, and he knows the commitment (or lack of it) that is brought to the second. For a church to stigmatize such a couple as “living in sin” and to refuse them the sacraments (particularly the Eucharist) is unwise, unkind, un-Christlike, and unacceptable.
It is difficult for any church to uphold the sanctity and permanence of marriage. Witness the sorry state of marriage today, with people trading partners at will. Yet it is not clear that the answer lies in requiring annulments (decrees that the first marriage never existed). This leads to a great deal of hypocrisy, and can be extremely hurtful to the former spouse and to the children. Even if they are not declared to be “bastards,” an annulment makes them feel like they are. Divorces hurt; and annulments often compound the damage. Better to emphasize the permanence of the commitment up front in pre-marital counseling, make first marriages harder to get into, give more assistance to couples in trouble, and make divorces more difficult to obtain.
If, however, a divorce happens, it should not be a permanent impediment to remarriage, or the celebrat
Let us now turn our attention to three of the sacraments (Baptism, Eucharist, and Holy Orders) which have caused deep divisions in the church. This is all the more ironic and tragic because God intended these sacraments to be signs of unity, not division.
There are two major controversies about baptism: (1) Is one saved by baptism, so that the sacrament is absolutely essential to the salvation of one’s soul? and (2) Is it appropriate to baptize infants? The two questions are related, since if the answer to the first is “yes,” then so must the answer to the second, since it is unthinkable to postpone baptism and thereby jeopardize the child’s chances of eternal happiness with God in Heaven.
Fortunately, the answer to the first question is “No.” Even Roman Catholic theologians say that an unbaptized child can go to heaven. Professor Richard P. McBrien of Notre Dame, for example, says that we do not “need” Baptism. “Every human person, by reason of birth and of God’s universal offer of grace, is already called to be a child of God and an heir of heaven. Catholics are not required to believe that unbaptized infants go to limbo.”
Then is the answer to the second question also “No”? Is infant baptism inappropriate? Not necessarily. McBrien warns us to avoid two extremes about baptism. One is a mechanistic “washing away of original sin” (which would make infant baptism of the highest priority). The other is that baptism without faith is meaningless (and therefore baptism of infants is useless, because they can have no faith). One extreme treats sacraments like magic. The other treats them as mere symbols of something which has to already exist. Neither extreme is correct. The conferring of grace through a sacrament is a free act of God. A child is born into a human family with no capacity for giving love — but that does not stop it from receiving love. Similarly, through Baptism an infant is brought into the family of the church and made a child of God. With no capacity for loving God, the child nonetheless receives God’s love through the church and through whatever channels of grace God chooses. So the answer to the second question is, “As you prefer.” Infant baptism is neither crucial nor meaningless. Like so many other things, it belongs in the “nonessentials” category — something which should never be a cause for disunity among the churches.
Originally, Confirmation was that part of the Baptism rite performed by the bishop. Its development as a separate sacrament, one which can be administered years later, provides a way to satisfy both sides. Baptism can be done in infancy, and Confirmation postponed until adulthood (perhaps the age of 18 or 21). In this way, the young person can be a lifelong Christian and, after suitable preparation, make their own faith commitment to a life of service in the church. However and whenever Baptism is performed, it should be as a symbol of unity. As St. Paul says in Ephesians 4:5, “(I) urge you to live … bearing with one another through love, striving to preserve the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace: one body and one Spirit, … one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all.”
If there is one thing that distinguishes a catholic Christian, it is our belief in the real presence of Jesus in the sacrament of the Eucharist. We believe he is present in the Assembly (“Where two or three are gathered, there I am in the midst.”). We believe he is present in each other (indeed our mission as Christians is to be Jesus to each other). We believe he is present in the actions of the celebrant. And we believe he is present in the bread and wine (“Take and eat, this is my body. Take and drink, this is the cup of my blood.”)
The following churches all have affirmed their belief in the real presence: Orthodox (all patriarchates), Old Catholic, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Reformed, Disciples of Christ, United Catholic, and (to the best of my knowledge) all independent and national Catholic churches.
All the great Protestant reformers believed in the real presence — Luther, Calvin, and Wesley (for example). And why not — they were catholic; and so were their churches. Alas, the new Protestant churches split and split again. Many of the new offshoots were so repulsed at everything Catholic that they abandoned everything “catholic” including, gradually and tragically, the real presence. Now, gradually, evangelical Christians are sensing that they have been missing out on something wonderful.
John Reid, in his little book “The Chief Meeting of the Church” argues that the celebration of the Lord’s Supper is the most important thing the church does. For the first 21 pages he does this quite convincingly. Then, without warning, he says that it is merely a commemoration, and is not to be regarded as a means of grace. He goes on to claim that, “The emblems never change or become anything but what they were, namely bread and wine.” Ironically, in arguing that there should be a doorkeeper to see that no unsaved persons are permitted to partake, he quotes 1 Corinthians 11:27 which says, “Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord.” But how can one be guilty “of the body and blood” of the Lord by consuming a symbol?? Then Reid goes on to quote verse 29, which says, “For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself.” But how can one discern the body if (as he believes) it isn’t there??? He knows there’s something terribly important about the Eucharist, but he can’t seem to explain what it is. And as long as he can’t get beyond the “symbol” stuff, he never will.
Our great blessing as catholics is that we understand that just as we give ourselves to God, he gives himself back to us. Yes, Jesus gave himself, body and blood, for us at Calvary 2000 years ago. But he also gives himself to us as spiritual food, every time we celebrate the Mass.
Fortunately, many evangelical and charismatic Christians are discovering the real presence, and because of it are becoming catholic. The Chicago Call in 1977 started a process that has resulted in many thousands of Evangelicals becoming catholic Christians — some Orthodox, some Anglican, some Roman Catholic. Many have joined the independent Catholic churches. One of my favorite bishops is a former Baptist minister. Hundreds of his parishioners followed him into the catholic fold. Similar things have happened in other parishes around the country and around the world in a great Convergence Movement. And what unites these people now? They love to receive Jesus in the Eucharist!
At the United Catholic Church, we invite all baptized Christians (of whatever denomination) who perceive the real presence to receive Communion with us at God’s altar. And, as our Lord was at the Last Supper, we are lenient about how one perceives the real presence.
Roman Catholics (officially at least) believe in transubstantiation, meaning the bread and wine cease to exist at the consecration. Lutheran catholics believe in consubstantiation, meaning the body and blood are present along with the bread and wine. Methodist catholics believe in a spiritual presence. Orthodox catholics believe in a physical presence, but don’t define how it happens. They just call it a mystery. And all of them understand more about the real presence than did the apostles in the Upper Room. They heard Jesus say the words, but they didn’t have a clue what he was talking about until after Pentecost. Yet that didn’t keep Jesus from giving them that first Eucharistic meal. His attitude was “Partake now; understand later.” That is the attitude we should have in our churches. The mechanics of how Jesus becomes present in the Eucharist is unimportant. It is among the nonessentials. Transubstantiation, consubstantiation, and all the other legalistic explanations are the stuff of divisions. But the real presence of Jesus in the Holy Eucharist is the stuff of unity for all us catholics of whatever denomination.
“The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.”
Going hand in hand with our love of the Eucharist is the respect we catholics have for our ordained clergy. (This does not mean that we think they are better than the laity. Members of the clergy are mortal, fallible, sinful human beings, every one of them. And some of them have been downright evil. Yet they are able to serve as imperfect channels of God’s perfect grace. Throughout the scriptures we learned that our all-powerful God can use bad people to accomplish good ends. He is still doing it.)
Yes, we are all a royal priesthood. But we believe that our ordained clergy have been set apart by God for special ministries. Jesus gave special powers to his apostles. He gave them the power to forgive sins in his name. And he commanded them to carry on the Eucharistic feast in remembrance of him.
In the Book of Acts we read how the apostles drew straws to see who would replace Judas. The lot fell to Matthias, and they laid hands on him and he became one of them. As the church expanded, they laid hands on others to preside over churches in different towns. These bishops in turn laid hands on others to take their place or start churches of their own. For most of the history of the church, the people elected their bishop. But they always had to get other bishops to lay hands on him and pass on what we now call the Apostolic Succession.
The New Testament relates how deacons were ordained to assist the bishops. Their first task seems to have been to wait on tables and see that the widows didn’t go hungry. Most catholic churches also have priests. They came about some time after the writing of the New Testament was completed, so there is no mention of Christian priests in the Bible. So if a church doesn’t want to have priests, that doesn’t mean they’re not catholic. Remember our very first rule: don’t require belief in anything not supported in scripture. But there is no excuse for anyone not believing in bishops and deacons. A priest is sort of an assistant bishop anyway. So there’s no reason a church can’t get by with just bishops and deacons, as long as they have enough of them.
For the first three centuries of the church’s existence, the Eucharist was celebrated mostly in homes. The presider was sometimes the bishop if he was available. But often it was the head of the house — quite often a woman. There is abundant archeological evidence that there were women priests in the early church. In a basilica in Rome, there is a mosaic of a woman. The inscription reads “Theodora Episcopa” which means “Bishop Theodora” and the word for “bishop” is in the feminine gender. Does this mean that it is an essential of the catholic faith that women should be ordained to all levels of the clergy? No. From our primary source, the scriptures, there is only clear evidence of women being ordained to the diaconate (Definition). Though there are tangential references in the New Testament that seem to refer to women presiding at the Eucharist, there is no clear proof in scripture that women in apostolic times were ordained beyond deacon. Of course, at the same time there is absolutely no biblical evidence that they were not. A papal commission appointed to study this issue found no scriptural basis for denying ordination to women. So, like many other issues, we must allow diversity and act with charity.
Though the United Catholic Church allows the ordination of women to all levels of ministry, we do not require it. What we do require, however, is that all member churches and denominations accept and respect the clergy ordained by sister churches — regardless of their gender or marital status. Regulatory rules may be imposed by a church on its own members, but they may not be imposed on members of other jurisdictions. Until it becomes universal, the ordination of women will continue to be controversial, especially within those denominations which do not allow it. But it should not be a source of divisiveness between churches.
Another issue that has caused ill-feeling between denominations is the recognition of the validity of each other’s line of apostolic succession. This has been especially painful between the Roman Catholic and Anglican communions. The Vatican has refused to recognize the apostolic succession of Anglican and Episcopal bishops and therefore has called into question the validity of the ordinations of all their clergy. This in turn has cast suspicion on the sacraments administered by priests of the worldwide Anglican communion. We catholics of all denominations believe that apostolic succession matters. But we do not believe that, because of legalistic problems four centuries ago, God would deny the grace signified by the sacraments to millions of people who in good faith believed they were receiving them. “In all things, charity” requires that other catholic churches respect the validity of Anglican apostolicity. The Orthodox, Old Catholic, Roman Catholic, and United Catholic churches all recognize the unquestioned validity of the apostolic succession, ordinations, and sacraments of each other. It is a start. Some of us also recognize the Anglican succession (as noted above). After a period of transition, the Lutheran church will be gaining similar recognition. To those, like the Methodists, who have purposely separated themselves from the apostolic line, we offer consecration into the apostolic family for the sake of unity. (My own apostolic succession includes Old Catholic and Roman Catholic bishops, the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, and patriarchs of the Greek, Syrian, Byzantine, Jacobite, and Antiochean churches … and some Anglicans as well.)
Many Evangelical Protestants have come to believe in the catholic faith as outlined in this document and have sought consecration into the apostolic line. It is my personal belief that we should be receptive and should welcome those qualified with great joy as God heals old divisions and unifies his church. The apostolic succession should be a sign of unity, not a source of division.
What is distinctively catholic about our belief in Holy Orders is this: We believe that the sacrament not only sets those ordained apart for special ministries but also conveys God’s grace to help them accomplish God’s purpose for those ministries. We believe that the successors of the apostles have inherited the special privileges given to them by Christ of conveying God’s grace to his people through the sacraments.
Those who argue that the powers and privileges of the apostles died with them and were not passed on to their successors point to the fact that our bishops do not do miracles of healing, and most of us do not speak in tongues. And that is true. Those gifts seem to have been for a very specific time in the church’s life, its infancy. But our Lord never commanded the apostles to continue performing miracles or speaking in tongues. He did, however, command them to baptize, to forgive sins, and to perform the Lord’s Supper (the Eucharist) in remembrance of him. The need to follow those commands did not die out with the apostles. And therefore, we believe, neither did the powers of ordination.
Since Vatican II, even the Roman Catholic Church does not identify “the Church” with an institution or hierarchy. The Church is the people of God, the Body of Christ, the assembly of all believers. This concept of “the Church” is almost universally accepted throughout Christendom, and it is this concept of church we are discussing here.
As catholics (Protestant catholics, Orthodox catholics, or whatever), we state our most important beliefs about the church every time we say the Nicene Creed: “We believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.” Let’s take a look at these four characteristics or marks of the church (in reverse order, to leave the most contentious for last).
We have said quite a bit already (in our discussion of Holy Orders above) about what we mean by an “apostolic” church. First, it is one whose sacraments are administered by clergy ordained by bishops validly consecrated in the apostolic line of succession. Second, an apostolic church is one whose teaching and practice is consistent with the gospel received by the early church from the apostles themselves.
What do we mean when we say the church is “catholic”? For the most part, that’s what this whole paper is about. A church is “catholic” if it holds to the “catholic” beliefs which have been believed everywhere, always, and by all.
The church is holy first and foremost because it is the Body of Christ, made up of his people, the members of his body, the temple of the Holy Spirit. It is also holy in that it is a source of grace to its members, enabling them to grow in holiness. Any church capable of producing St. Francis of Assisi, Dorothy Day, Billy Graham, Oscar Romero, Ron Sider, Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Pope John XXIII has something going for it.
This is the hard part. Every time we say the Creed, we express our belief in “one” church. Yet Christendom is split into thousands of pieces. At this very time, some of these pieces are warring against others — the Orthodox Serbs against the Roman Catholic Croats in Bosnia, the Presbyterian Orange Scotch-Irish against the Roman Catholic nationalists in Belfast. How can we say the church is “one”?
We say so because God does. We are all part of the Body of Christ. Unfortunately, parts of the body are warring against each other. The hatreds are cancers within the one body. They harm not only the members, but ultimately the body itself — Christ. Oh, for a cure for this cancer! Inasmuch as the individual churches fail to instruct, inspire, and enjoin their members to cease the violence, to forgive, and to love one another, to that extent are they failing their mission. Of course, there has been injustice — and continues to be. But injustice is not an excuse for hatred. Our church is founded on injustice. Christ’s resurrection was a victory of love over the most unjust act in history — the crucifixion. We celebrate that unjust act with the sign of the cross, with the crucifix on our altars, and in the Eucharist we share. How can we reject the Great Commandment to love because we have been subjected to some “injustice.” We knew it would happen. Jesus promised us it would happen. “You will be hated for my sake.” “Blessed are those who suffer persecution for righteousness’ sake.” And what did Jesus tell us to do about it when it happens? Fight? Hate? Kill our persecutors? No. “Love your enemies.” “Overcome evil with good.” “Take up your cross and follow me.” His cross was not just. Why should we expect that ours will be? No. We are to meet injustice with love, as he did. Of course it’s not easy. But why aren’t all our churches telling their people at least to try?
The unity we pray for, the unity God wants, the unity Jesus prayed for before he died, it is not a mere institutional unity. It is a unity of the heart and mind. Does God want a unity in which everybody submits to the authority of the pope? No! God wants a unity in which everybody submits to the love of Christ!
The monarchical church was never the model. It was not the model the apostles left us. The apostolic church was collegial, rather than hierarchical. For matters of great import, such as whether Gentiles could be baptized, the apostles met and reached consensus. But on most matters, they were autonomous. Bishops were free to establish liturgies compatible with the customs and ethnic makeup of their churches. Some of the apostles traveled to the far east, establishing churches very different from those in the west. The focus of the church was in Jerusalem, then Antioch, then Alexandria, then Byzantium, and eventually in Rome. But always it was collegial. The bishops were equal. Of course, they were never really equal in influence. That can’t be legislated. Some were always more persuasive than others, or more carefully listened to. In the Jerusalem church, it seems to have been James, the brother of the Lord, who always had the last word. Peter, of course, had enormous influence and was the chief spokesman for the apostles in the period immediately after Pentecost. But he was not the ruler of the church. Can you imagine Paul admonishing Peter the way he did if Peter were the pope?
Neither was the monarchical church the model Jesus left us. He gave us his vision of ministry, authority, and hierarchy at the last supper when he washed the feet of the apostles. No, the unity we must try to restore is one in which the churches share a common “catholic” faith, preach a common gospel, share a common love, and revel in their diversity with respect to everything else.
We have discussed what catholics believe about God, Jesus, Salvation, Sacraments, and Church. But some might ask, “What about everything else?” What about Mary? What about abortion? What about praying to the saints? What about birth control? What about homosexuality? What about bingo??
These things are important. Some of them are controversial. I have written articles on some of them. Others I intend to tackle in the future. But none of them involve the essentials of the catholic faith. In nonessentials, diversity. In all things, charity. That is where such things belong. But what about ethics? What about sin? What about the ten commandments?
The last time I checked, the ten commandments were still in the Bible. We have already said that belief in the Bible was an essential of the catholic faith. So we all believe in the ten commandments. There are, of course, differences between Christians over how they should be interpreted. Take “Thou shalt not kill” for example. Some say this prohibits abortion. Some say it prohibits capital punishment. Some say it prohibits Christians from going to war. Some of us say, “All of the above.” But some disagree. They say it is only talking about criminals. The point is, these disagreements do not change the fact that we’re all Christians, all catholics. These things, as important as they are, do not hold our salvation in the balance. Whether we like it or not, we must accept those who disagree with us as brothers and sisters in Christ, and we must love them. Otherwise, we can kiss Christian unity goodbye.
All right, if you insist, I will enumerate all the commandments, rules, and regulations that we must follow to be authentic catholic Christians. Are you ready? Love God and love your neighbor. Period. End of list. All the rest is commentary, amplification, or legalism.
A FINAL WORD
In the final analysis, being a catholic or even a Christian is not about being a member of an institution. It is about being a member of the Body of Christ. It is not about what you believe. It is about Whom you trust. It is not about following the rules. It is about following Jesus. May God grant us all the grace to do his will and follow Jesus in all things.