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What Is It With History, Anyway?

Among faithful Catholics, there is a confidence that Christian history bears out the conviction that the Church of the New Testament, the Church that Christ founded, is the Catholic Church. Consequently, all Christians should be members of the Catholic Church.

At the popular level, you might hear someone say, in response to a question about them seeking full communion with the Catholic Church, "I read the Church fathers." It's kind of a quick answer that may not tell one anything at all. And you might be well aware of Protestants who read and know the Church fathers.

I believe that one can say there is a theological significance to the passage of time, and to the gradual refinement of the articulation of dogma. The Incarnation and the totality of the paschal mystery means that the world as it was made, and all the people therein, belong again to God through Jesus Christ, by the working of the Holy Spirit. So, it would be reasonable to expect that the same faithfulness that characterized the unfolding of salvation history would characterize the age of the Church as well. Not, however, as an ultra-optimistic expectation of total victory with ease, but indeed, with at least an expectation that God Himself would make truth known, and provide ways for people to assent to it, and to live it out.

It is amusing to consider that, at the moment when some people realize the implications of God's free offer of salvation in Christ, and that it could entail full communion with the Catholic Church, they claim that knowing anything supernatural or infallible is impossible. That's a curious and alarming stance for any Christian to take. It's understandable, given the prejudices and fears about the Catholic Church many people have. Still, it ought to be beyond question at least that if God wants us to believe things he has revealed, they would be knowable in some manner, and not open to question in themselves, as having the quality of Him who can neither deceive, or be deceived.

The Protestant says that everything we need to know about God and ourselves is in the Bible. Leaving aside the somewhat awkward problem that he is not in agreement with the Catholic Church about the number of books in the Bible, it's at least a thought.

But what or who exactly is the Church? We can understand together that Jesus mentioned His Church, and that he would protect it from harm by the devil, at least to the extent that it would not be destroyed (cf. Matthew 16:18). St. Paul tells St. Timothy that the Church is the household of God, and the pillar and bulwark of the truth (1 Timothy 3:15). That sounds good; where is it?

Protestants claim today that the Church is invisible, that the "saved" are all those who profess the "true faith." In what does that true faith consist? I might entertain the argument that two people could be united invisibly in the "true faith" despite the fact that one is a Methodist, and one a Lutheran, if it were possible to know precisely what the content of the true faith was. I might also add that I can't see the help of a pillar and bulwark I can't find. And if it were true that believers are united despite their differences, then it follows that none of those differences constitutes an essential part of the true faith. At that point, it becomes clear that most people aren't consistent with their principles. Try out that argument; see how it goes. Actually, it goes bad either way: he either professes a body of truth he can't be certain is from God, or you win him over, to indifference.

But the witness of history produces an exciting but challenging possibility: Suppose that every Christian division is evidence of variation on a Catholic theme. Indeed, what if the Catholic Church is the baseline, the vital center? If indeed you find Catholic faith, sacraments, and governance in the history of Christianity, that is what you have found. You might also find people you thought were heroes, professing the wrong thing, dividing the Church, or both. But the reason a person can challenge you with the question, "Do the fathers seem more Catholic, Protestant, or something else to you?" is because God is faithful. If Christ's coming is the ultimate expression of God's love for us, then history since will be an extension of it, at least on God's part.

The pope, apostolic succession, Eucharist. If you find these things in the writings of the fathers, you'll understand why the Catholic Church claims to be the Church Christ founded, because these three things are exactly what the Catholic Church today rests its claim on.


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