Catholic Apologetics

"Where the bishop is there is the Catholic Church" - St. Ignatius of Antioch, 110 AD.

This paper is an introduction to a series of essays I've written on Christianity and the Catholic Church.  These are directed mainly at any non-Catholic Christian who is interested in learning more about the Church's history and teachings.  These essays make the argument that the Catholic Church is, in fact, the original Christian Church founded by Christ, and today represents the fullness of Christian doctrine - the complete truth of God's revelation to man.  That is, the Catholic Church is the Church Christ founded (according to the Gospel) with Peter as its first head and Peter's successors as Vicar since then, with a priesthood made valid by Apostolic succession, and protected from error in doctrine concerning faith and morals by the Holy Spirit as promised by Christ.  You will see in these essays ample evidence for this assertion - evidence completely unknown, in my experience, to the vast majority of modern American Protestants and even, yes, the majority of modern American Catholics as well (who have mostly been very poorly catechized).

My motivation for writing is mostly the fact that what I'm going to share is so incredibly unknown in this country and I have come to feel a strong calling to do whatever small part in rectifying that that I can.  The discovery, for me, of the Catholic Church, together with the irrefutable evidence of its truth, has been one of the most exciting events of my life.  Then there is the huge amount of ignorance, prejudice, and outright hostility towards the Catholic Church and Catholics, from almost everywhere in American society- the secular, the liberal Protestant, and the conservative fundamentalist/evangelical - something to be vigorously opposed.  I write to spread understanding and appreciation based on the facts of history and logic I'll present and also in the hope of inspiriting conversions to the faith.  (This is a time of many Catholic conversions - almost all of my favorite Catholic authors are former Protestants, incidentally.  These include Scott Hahn, Mark Shea, Dave Armstrong, Steve Ray, and David Currie.)

I wish to say a word about Catholic-Protestant relations and how this relates to what I write.  It may be that you, dear reader, are a Protestant with a neutral or even somewhat positive general impression of Catholicism.  Such a thing is certainly not unheard-of (especially in this ecumenical age).  If that is the case, that is wonderful, for you are likely to be more open to things you will read.  However, it is a definite fact that Catholicism is much maligned by a great many Protestant individuals and organizations in the world - and this should really not be surprising given the venom put forth at the birth of Protestantism by its founders.  Hard-line evangelicals/fundamentalists (hereafter abbreviated as 'E/F's) teach that the Catholic Church is a non-Christian religion, or a strange mix of Christianity and paganism, and that somewhere between many and all Catholics are doomed to Hell for practicing a 'religion of works' and other nonsensical assertions that bely a total misunderstanding of Catholic doctrine and practice.  Even when such beliefs are not fully accepted, their influence is felt.  (I know - before I was a devout Catholic, I attended two different 'Bible' churches and was active in one of their young-adult groups.  They always seem to have their share of fervent Catholic bashers - lifelong Protestants, new converts, and ex-Catholics who didn't understand their faith, some innocently misled and some probably less so.)

(In contrast, the Catholic attitude towards non-Catholic Christians is far more charitable, sensible, and informed.  The Catholic teaching regarding our Christian brothers not in full communion with the Catholic Church is that they are just that - our brothers and sisters in Christ, who have part of the Truth but not all of it.  We honor their baptism as a valid sacrament and count them among the Body of Christ.  We respect the good in their members and their sincere search for Christ.)

With that introduction, let's talk about the essays.  I do not consider what I'm doing here to be original work - I've read a lot of books in the last several years, 20 or more, about the history of Christianity, especially the early Church, and Catholic apologetics.  To a large degree, what I'm doing is distilling and repackaging a lot of that wonderful and eye-opening information.  I will include a bibliography to allow people to go directly to the sources, which is what I enthusiastically recommend.  

One of the most frequent and most baseless accusations leveled is that the Church is "not Biblical".  I will show that the Church is and always has been completely true to all Scripture (the Catholic Church, of course, itself produced the canon of Scripture) in its official teaching and practice.  It is often said that ignorance and prejudice are what has kept people from the Church and the former proves to be the case in many matters regarding Scripture.  For starters, Protestants tend to read the Bible through the lenses formed through their churches.  They do not see how colored their interpretations often are, and just how many seemingly confusing and contradictory passages are brushed aside as a matter of course.  Most of the large errors in Protestant theology come as a result of what I have called "a theology of sound bites" - reading certain verses in isolation and not reading Scripture as a whole.  What a truly informed and enlightened reading finds, in contrast, is that all of Scripture is very successfully incorporated in and explained by Catholic theology.  Catholic theology is incredibly beautiful in it's end-to-end consistency and its completely holistic, all-encompassing totality.  It is also staggeringly unwavering - unchanging - through the ages as well.  Though many doctrines have grown - become more precise - as they were meant to, all have their firm roots in Christ and the Apostles.  

(This is a Catholic dogma - the period of public revelation ended with the death of the last apostle (John) and there have been no new doctrines or dogma since then - only greater understanding and formalization of such.  A common criticism leveled at the Church is that her doctrines have, in fact, "changed" - but this is not true - they have only become more precise.  Nothing is ever rejected or revised, only clarified.  Protestants should take note that many doctrines that they themselves accept without question, such as that of the Triune nature of God and the Incarnation, were definitively specified by Catholic ecumenical councils, several hundred years after the Resurrection.)

So, in terms of the evidence for the arguments I will put forth, the first major area is Scripture.  This is obviously fitting, for the Bible is critically important to all Christians.  Considering, especially, that sola scriptura is (along with sola fide, "faith alone") one of the two foundations of Protestantism, demonstrating that Scripture firmly supports Catholic theology provides even more impact.  (It turns out that Scripture itself does not support sola scriptura - it firmly contradicts it.  For but one example, see 1 Timothy 3:15 which calls "the Church", not "the Bible" (which didn't yet exist), "the pillar and foundation of all truth".)

The second area from which I draw evidence is the belief and practice of the early Church given to us by those known as the Church Fathers - the Christian leaders (priests, bishops, and popes) in the first three centuries of Christianity (for there have been priests, bishops, and a pope since the resurrection).  What's amazing to learn is that the testimony of the Fathers as to Christian doctrine and practice in the Church's infancy is entirely Catholic in every area of Protestant disagreement - the Eucharist & the sacraments, the priesthood, the necessity of visible and concrete Church structure, Apostolic succession and the primacy of the Bishop of Rome, Purgatory and prayers for the dead, honoring saints and the Mother of Christ, the role of Apostolic Tradition, and more.  The early Church was, as is the Catholic Church today, entirely sacramental, with the Eucharist as the absolute center of spiritual life.  Can the relevance of these things be overstated?  We are talking in some case about Fathers that knew the Apostles themselves directly, such as Polycarp and Iraneous, both of whom were disciples of John.  No, we must conclude - even outside of all the other evidence - that the Christianity of these men and this time was the Christianity of the Apostles and of Christ Himself.  There exists, in fact, from Apostolic times to the present a complete and total continuum of Catholic belief and practice - and this easily demonstrable fact makes the Protestant falsehood that the Church is not the Church of the Apostles simply untenable.  We can debate about Biblical interpretation for hours, but we have tomes upon tomes telling us what the earliest Christians actually did - we have their interpretations, and to claim that this is not of value is not terribly rational.  As the famous Cardinal Newman, a convert from the Anglican church, once stated, "To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant."

But, make no mistake, it is not necessary to make use of any resource other than Scripture Itself to come to the logical conclusion that the Catholic Church is the specific, visible, hierarchal Church that Christ founded.  For, a reading of the New Testament demonstrates that Christ did found a specific, visible, hierarchal Church, upon Peter (primarily, with the other apostles), and that the promises that He made about this Church make it clear that 1) It will exist until the end of time and 2) It will not, via the protection of the Holy Spirit, ever teach error.  Knowing this, we simply have to look for a Church that exists today that is descended from that of Peter and the apostles, and there very clearly is only one such Church.  It is a fact acknowledged by even secular historians that the popes extend through history in an unbroken line back to Peter, who named his own successor before his martyrdom in Rome.  Even Luther acknowledged that the Catholic Church that he left was the Church founded by Christ!  (His contention that the Church started off fine but lost its way flies in the face of what Scripture teaches and the actual history.  The Church, as the NT demonstrates, is a divine institution full of fallible, sinning human beings.)

The comment regarding irrationality in a preceding paragraph is the next sub-topic I wish to address.  It is true that many people do convert to the Catholic faith from the Protestant world and that what convinces all of them is understanding of the Church that comes from the study of the Bible and of Christian history.  It can also be said that many in the E/F community, both laymen unfamiliar with history and professional apologists (such as James White and Jack Chick), display what might be called an abandonment of rationality.  I wish to choose my words carefully here to avoid offense, but I must use language that describes what I see - a conscience and deliberate refusal to engage in rational and logical thinking when it comes to Catholicism.  For example, to state that what the Church believed and practiced in the first and second centuries is irrelevant because "only the Bible is authoritative" is irrational.  It is irrational because the Bible itself tells us that it is not the sole, or even primary, source of authority, and because the Bible didn't even exist for the early Christians, and because the Catholic Church produced the Bible.  Secondly, to refuse to accept what the Catholic Church itself and Catholics themselves state are the beliefs and teachings of the Church, as I have seen far too many times to mention, is irrational - but such authors repeat again and again the stereotypical falsehoods about the Church and what It actually teaches.  There is an obstinate ignorance at work - a stark refusal to ever broaden ones' view, process new information, or, again, simply think in a logical manner.  Some Fundamentalist churches go so far as to claim that reason is the enemy of faith, but this can never be so, for the Creator of the universe is the epitome of rationality and reason.  I mention these things due to the difficulties that arise from them in the field of apologetics.  

I had a realization after a number of months of pouring through volume after volume about Catholicism and the early Church - in an instant, I understand how so many preposterous falsehoods about the Church came to be: the only way to "beat" the Church, really, is to setup a straw-man Church in its stead and attack it - a Catholic Church that does not exist.  This Church that does not exist is the one that worships Mary and the saints, teaches salvation by mans' works, worships bread, makes up entirely new doctrine and dogma every few centuries, doesn't consider the Bible infallible, and has murdered millions of Protestants (by some counts, more human beings than have ever lived in the entire history of our race).  I am not, of course, suggesting that the average Protestant engages in such intellectual dishonesty - the lies, for the most part, came to be long ago and are now passed on largely with innocent ignorance.  That is how propaganda works.

What else is there that makes Catholicism so appealing and so beautiful?  There is its inherent rationality and intellectualism and it's familiarity with and friendly relationship with science.  It was the Church's dominance of western culture, and the university system that it built, that allowed the scientific age to dawn.  The Catholic Church has produced so many monumental intellects it's not possible to discuss more than a smattering of them in a forum such as this essay introduction.  From St. Augustine, quoted today in peer-reviewed thesis on quantum mechanics for his stunning insights into philosophy and science, scientists like Georges Lemaitre, the priest who initially proposed the "Big Bang Theory" of the creation of the universe, the geneticist Mendel, Copernicus, countless Jesuit astronomers, etc., the legacy of the Church in the areas of science and philosophy is really amazing.  The Church accepts observable science. We know that scriptures are infallible. Hence, when science appears to contradict scripture, it is not scripture that is wrong: it is our interpretation of scripture that is wrong.

Concerning Luther and the Revolution

The average American is unaware of many of the relevant facts.  In place of them, we have a distorted urban legend passed off as fact in our Protestant-formed society - the legend of Luther as the gallant crusader for Truth against a corrupt, outdated Church that had ceased to speak for the Apostles.  But the fact is that, while there were indeed scandalous abuses at the time (mainly the sale of indulgences and Church offices), these were not as widespread as the legend says - and, more importantly, such things are irrelevant to what actually occurred in the 'Reformation' - the wholesale discard of a great deal of the doctrine and dogma of the Church Christ founded and the splitting of that Body, which He prayed would be one.  Luther was entirely correct to have found distaste in the corruption he saw, but entirely unjustified to make himself the new, "infallible" church (he wrote several times that he considered himself infallible) and rewrite fifteen centuries of Spirit-guided interpretation and Apostolic Tradition.  What the casual observers do not realize is that the two subjects are not even related.  The new teachings Luther created, such as sola scriptura and sola fide, teachings somehow nobody had so much as conceived of in the first 15 centuries of Christianity, had nothing to do with the scandal he initially objected to - and nobody could deny that.  Furthermore, Luther changed his own teachings on several core theological issues, as can be readily verified by reading his writings.  So, what did the corruption he saw really have to do with this priest's decision to renounce the vows he made before God and man, marry an ex-nun, and start his own church?

And, of course, the whole history of Protestantism has been nothing but more of the same.  Largely due to the political situation of the time, it did catch on rapidly.  But Luther's new church was not palatable to all: it was not long before John Calvin disagreed with him, and formed the Presbyterian church.  Some time later Henry VIII decided he could not bear the moral restriction of not being able to take whatever new wife he wanted and toss the old one out, and he was excommunicated and started his own church.  The came Wesley some time later, the first Methodist.  And so it has gone on - it may be that the natural state of private interpretation of Scripture (condemned by St. Peter in his epistle contained in the Protestant Bible!) is one denomination for every non-Catholic.  For the number of major denominations now numbers in the hundreds.  Every one has formed in the same way: a member of an existing Protestant church came up with a new interpretation of at least one teaching and founded their own church.  (Of course, this situation became visibly ridiculous enough that there arose the "non-denominational"/"Bible Christian" group of churches - but these are not different at all from any other Protestant denomination.)

But, we know that this cannot be the situation Christ wants.  Every single time Christ spoke of His Church, it was just that - the singular.  One.  “There shall be one fold and one shepherd." ... "And the glory that thou, Father, hast given Me, I have given to them, that they may be one even as We are one."  Furthermore, the doctrine of an abstract, invisible Church also does not work for many reasons.  For starters, Christ told the apostles "He who hears you hears Me" - thus, we can recognize this Church in the apostles and their appointed successors.  Second, there are the critical verses proclaiming Peter head of this eternal Church, with a type of power that requires succession in order to function.  Thus, the Church Christ founded is one, universal ("catholic"), and visible. St. Paul, in his Epistles to the Galatians, says: "Though we Apostles, or even an angel of light were to come and preach to you a different Gospel from what we have preached, let him be anathema."  The true faith was established by God, not by any man.

Let's address the issue of corruption in the Catholic Church briefly here.  There are many today who would give as reason for leaving or not joining the Catholic Church the scandals of priestly abuse that have erupted in the last decade.  These events - the cover-ups possibly even more-so than the actual abuse - were utterly shocking and disgusting beyond words, there is no doubt.  However, the men committing these acts were men, and not the Church.  The Church is not the people in it - a concept that many Protestants do have a difficult time understanding, it would seem.  And that is understandable, as they know that their churches are, frankly, human institutions started by men.  But Christ's Church is a divine institution though populated with imperfect people, as has been noted.  Christ's parable of the wheat & the chaff foretold the bad seeds in the true Church, and the fact that they'd be often hard to spot as well.  (Few people are aware that the chaff he referred to is a weed that looks almost identical to a wheat plant!  Thus, it would not necessarily be easy to spot the wolves - His parable has real subtlety!)  There are now over one billion Catholics in the world and the notion that they must or should all lead moral lives to prove the worthiness of the Church itself does not hold logical water - in fact, it is very silly.  What matters is that the doctrine & dogma as taught officially by the Church through the millennia is true.  

The Essays - Synopsis

The Eucharist was the center of Christian worship and life of the early Church since the time of Apostles.  It is still so today in the Catholic Church.  The belief of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist was upheld by all the Church Fathers we have on record (as it is by the New Testament); the theology is entirely Catholic, and only the Catholic Church maintains this theology as it has since the apostles taught it.

The Papacy was established by Christ when He named Peter head of His Church, told him that what he bound on earth would be bound even in Heaven, and gave him the Keys of Paradise itself.  Scripture tells us this and also that Peter was prime among the Apostles after the Ascension; the further historical record tells us that Peter eventually became Bishop of Rome and was martyred there.  (There are over 300 quotes from the Fathers of the first three centuries speaking of Peter teaching, ruling, and dying in Rome.  Peter's tomb, directly beneath the Vatican, was discovered and excavated in the 1960s.)  Peter's direct successors have ruled the Church as Vicar of Christ since his death (the first 32 all being martyred).  That Peter's chair in Rome was considered prime in the Church and exercised control over all other churches is evident by writings no later than the close of the 1st century (by Clement's letter to Corinth); the doctrine of infallibility of Christ's Vicar in matters of faith and morals in official teaching is apparent in works written no later than the 2nd century.  

Sola fide ("faith alone") is one of the two pillars of the Protestant Revolution (this is a more accurate term than "Reformation").  It says that humans are saved - attain Paradise - by faith in Christ alone, and that "works" - what a person does - have no bearing.  Protestants charge that the Catholic teaching that Christians "earn" their salvation through their good works is incorrect - and blasphemous.  The first problem is that this is not Catholic teaching and never has been - the Church has always taught that the grace necessary for salvation is a gift from God which no man merits, and that the soul must claim this gift through faith and works working in concert - the two are, ultimately, inseparable.  Luther's theology here was brand-new (amazing thought no one had even considered it in 15 centuries of Christianity, just like his other novel teachings) and directly contradicts Scripture in many areas.  As far as the words of Christ Himself, salvation is almost always put in terms of behavior - caring for the poor and other acts of charity are what Christ tells us get us to Heaven - along with faith.  Luther's new theology was predicated on taking a very few, select verses out of context and ignoring - even disparaging - the Scripture that could not possibly be reconciled with his teaching.  (Such as James, which he called "an epistle of straw".  If the "reformers" had ever had real reverence for Scripture, the Reformation never could have gotten off the ground for it depended upon an arrogant man's ego deriding Scripture from the outset.)  This continues to this day - except that many Protestants sects themselves have abandoned sola fide due to the overwhelming Scriptural evidence against it.  

Sola Scriptura ("Scripture alone") is the other of the two main pillars of the Revolution.  This teaching, also completely new - revolutionary - said that the oral tradition handed down by the Apostles was no longer valid in any sense - only the written Word of God had an relevance.  To most modern Americans, this sounds sensible, because we're a Protestant society and this is what we're used to.  Even the enemies of Christianity tend to assume that all Christians believe 'the Bible' is all there is of substance.  But, there are a couple of very serious problems with this teaching, the first being that Scripture itself directly contradicts it.  Christ told us that the oral, unwritten Tradition of the Jewish Law and it's teachers was valid, and the New Testament epistles tell us again and again that the Church is the source of authority - the oral teaching of the Apostles and their successors.  When one considers that the early Church had no written gospels until a at least a generation after Christ, with some of the epistles coming much later, that there was no official canon until the Catholic Church created it in the 4th century, that books at this time of history were extremely rare and expensive due to the manual labor of copying, and that the solid majority of the population of Palestine and Asia Minor at the time were illiterate, this makes a great deal of sense.  Though every Catholic dogma and moral teaching is very much rooted in Scripture, the Church always has and must consider the oral Tradition valid as well.  The Church and the Faith existed before the New Testament - the Church produced the Bible, not the other way around.  Only five out of the twelve Apostles wrote anything. The Church was teaching and administering the Sacraments, the apostles were forgiving sins, and the first martyrs were dying for their faith for seven to ten years before one word of our New Testament was written!

Purgatory (and the related notion of praying for the dead) is one of the most misunderstood areas of Catholicism.  (Actually, almost all of it is greatly misunderstood, but this is one area where some of the more preposterous accusations and falsehoods are seen.)  Luther saw the abuse of the sale of indulgences being committed in some circles (indulgences themselves are a very Biblical concept and a staple of the early Church) and essentially threw all the babies out with the dirty bath water.  Both Purgatory - a state of the soul neither Heaven nor Hell - and the practice of praying for deceased souls that have not yet attained Paradise have a good deal of direct Scriptural support and were practiced in the earth Church, as described by the oldest documents available.  

Honoring Saints the way the Catholic Church teaches is something else generally greatly misunderstood (or, worse, intentionally twisted).  The key word is honor - this is what Scripture teaches us to do.  

Mary Most modern Protestants are unaware of how their un-Biblical beliefs in this area evolved over time - for Luther held deep devotion to the Mother of God and preached such regularly.  He, for example, defended Mary's perpetual virginity and regarded her Immaculate Conception as "a pious and pleasing thought".  Cut off from the Church Christ founded, various Protestant denominations have drifted farther and farther into error in many areas, and this one is a prime example.  Not even Luther would recognize the modern Lutheran churches' Marian teachings (or total lack thereof) not to mention those of the Fundamentalist sects.  (Yet, a Catholic from the 15th century - or the 1st century - would immediately recognize every major Catholic teaching & practice as identical in substance to his own.)