Crossing the Tiber – Pt 3
October 11, 2011 § 3 Comments
Swimming Full Stride
…continued from Crossing the Tiber – Pt 2
The more I dug and read, thousands of pages in fact (more than I had ever read in undergrad and grad school combined), written by titans of the faith (on both sides of the Tiber), I began to discover the real history of the Church of Christ, and it was this truth on which so many of my questions about Catholicism were finally answered. I learned that Christ had charged Peter–the head of the Apostles–with founding his Church on Earth, the visible, unified Body and Bride of Christ. To Peter were given the ‘keys to the kingdom’ and that, aided, encouraged and educated by the Holy Spirit, the ‘gates of Hell would not prevail against it’.
Peter and the Apostles set out quickly in establishing new churches all over the Mediterranean region, Peter founding the church in Rome. Each of them took charge over these churches and the subsequent churches founded by their leaders in those respective regions. I learned that these Apostles has become the first bishops of the churches. When they grew too old and frail to continue their leadership, they handed over their authority to the next generation of bishops, giving them charge to teach and train all that they had learned from the Apostles who had been with Christ and had been taught by the Holy Spirit. Thus began an apostolic succession.
Peter, I discovered, had always been the head of the church, the ‘rock upon which Christ founded his Church’. All bishops looked to Peter for final authority on doctrine and church matters. Thus began the papacy which continued on in Peter’s line of succession. It was this succession of leaders who continued the teaching and authority given directly to the Apostles by Christ that formed the authority charged with finally canonizing the Bible, with the aid of the Holy Spirit, after nearly 400 years. But until that time, the Gospel, the doctrine of Christ, had persisted consistently and authoritatively as an oral tradition. Christianity was not the written word but rather the Gospel of Christ writ on the hearts of the leaders of the Church and nurtured by the Holy Spirit. I learned further that this authoritative oral tradition both informed the authority of Scripture and legitimized it. Thus the Tradition of the Church fathers, handed to them by Christ through the disciples, rested alongside the Bible as the basis of all faith…precisely because they both were the word of God writ on the hearts of the leaders and on the pages of the Bibles they translated and trasnscribed. Together they were the Gospel.
This Tradition, both oral and written, remained consistent and unchanged for 1500 years. What I found was that for a millennium and a half, Catholics did not often refer to themselves as Catholics. They were simply Christians. To call oneself Catholic was to state the obvious. ‘Well of course we are’, would have been the response. Save for periodic heresies, there was no other kind of Christian. Then I discovered that the Reformation, haplessly begun by Martin Luther, was as much a political revolution as it was a doctrinal fight. And what resulted from it was as far from what Christ had charged the disciples with as anything could be. He charged them with unity, ‘above all things’. And yet this new movement declared that the individual was the final authority and could decide for himself what the doctrine of Christ was. And so they did, and new churches with new versions of Christianity began springing up all over Germany and then Switzerland and England. And it was on this basis that Henry VIII declared the Church of England to be free and independent of Rome. And the story goes on and on and on into America where the splintering of denominations runs into the tens of thousands, all fighting with each other over this doctrine or that. Is this really what Christ wanted? I knew it surely was not.
So, I had to ask myself the fundamental question. If the Church that Christ charged Peter and the Apostles with founding and growing and spreading, which ultimately became the official religion of the Roman Empire under Constantine, had the authority and wisdom and guidance of the Holy Spirit to give us the final, canonized Bible and to be sure that the letters and books floating around that were not inspired remained out of the canon, then when did those church leaders lose that authority and inspiration from the Holy Spirit? If the Reformation which resulted in so many feuding denominations had been justified, then I should be able to find a point in history when the leadership of the Church renounced or lost its authority and inspiration from the Holy Spirit. I searched for that point in history. Alas, I could not find it. I asked so many knowledgable Christians where and when it was that this had happened. No one had an answer.
I was in a quandary. How then could the Reformation have been justified? Why was the authority given to Peter and passed down through the ages to the men who canonized the Bible suddenly gone in 1517? There was no credible explanation.
If I could not absolutely trust that Luther was justified and correct in his assertions about Rome, then how could I trust the authority of the denominations who had built their doctrines and traditions on Luther’s words? An interesting aside: I also found ironically that much of what Luther preached was still in agreement with Rome (as were John Calvin’s teachings) and that most of modern day Protestant faiths do not believe what Luther believed. So where did all of this modern Protestantism come from and where did the authority come from for these men to start their own movements with so many various contradictions among them? The Reformation clearly was a disaster for Christianity.
So I had to dig back into what the fathers of the early church (in the first 100-200 years after Christ) believed. These leaders in many cases had been taught personally by the Apostles or in other cases taught by those who succeeded them. What I found was ground-shaking. They revered Mary and ask her to pray for them, just as they might ask a living Christian. They regarded Peter, and his successors, as their Holy Father, the Pope. They believed in infant baptism, the Eucharist and the real presence of Christ in it, the perpetual virginity of Mary, and that God the Father had created all things through Christ, given His only Son to die for the penalty of our sins, and sent the Holy Spirit to sustain and guide us in all salvation unto the end that we may run the race to the finish.
This was the faith of the earliest Christians…in their own words. So I was perplexed. I had either to conclude that I had been wrong all this time or that the Christianity that began from the very outset under the leadership of the Apostles was wrong, that it was wrong for 1500 years (despite that these men who believed the wrong things somehow maintained enough inspiration to correctly canonize the Bible) until finally some very odd fellows in Germany stumbled onto true Christianity. I have my prideful moments, but not so much to think I know better than 1500 years of brilliant Christian scholars, many of whom are cited and admired by Catholics and Protestants alike (Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Cyprian, et al).
I then turned to modern day leaders. I looked for other imminent Christian leaders who had once been Protestant but converted to Catholicism. What I found was nothing short of amazing. Here is a list of just a few of them. I began to realize that so many of the major Catholic thinkers throughout the last 150 years were converts. This had escaped me before. Even C.S. Lewis, though Anglican at the time due to his birth in Ulster, Ireland, believed almost all of what Catholics believed. So many of the great leaders of the Catholic faith were once members of other denominations and often-times did not become the leaders they were until after they converted.
So, again, I was in a quandary. Should I trust my own judgment or should I give some credence to the authority of so many trusted men and women of God? No one I consulted could offer answers to the fundamental questions I had asked. And all of these questions boiled down to one: by what (or whose) authority did they believe and practice the things they did? Either Christ’s authority given to Peter and the Apostles was final or it wasn’t. If it wasn’t then Christianity was a sham religion. It is was then that I had to trust in that authority and in the Church that the Apostles built in His name and by His power.
The rest was simply a matter of rediscovering that faith which they labored to protect under threat of torture and death. And it is a beautiful thing. After 10 years of searching in the wilderness – we have finally come home. On November 20, 2011–The Feast of Christ the King–we entered into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church.
[This is the short version]