Archive for November, 2007


A mistake commonly made by modern Catholic apologists is that of assuming that the early Church looked much like the Catholic church of today. While this notion isn’t totally baseless—I would contend, contra a fair number of Protestants, that neither did the early Church look much like most of today’s Protestant churches in either doctrine or practice—it creates the impression, simply untrue, that the teachings of Christ were fully understood and delineated and articulated and the Church’s devotions fully laid out in 70 A.D.

Concerning apostolic succession: was this doctrine understood by the early Church—by the Apostles who cast lots to determine Judas’ successor and by later Christians who chose successors for the Apostles after they had died—in the same way it is today or was even a hundred years after Christ’s death? No, I am willing to admit that it probably wasn’t. But this isn’t to say that new doctrines were made up over the course of time; rather, it entails that, confronted with unprecedented doctrinal and practical difficulties, the Church throughout the ages has been creative in mining Scripture and Tradition for answers.

Klaus Schatz, a Jesuit professor of theology, has some interesting things to say about the development of apostolic succession as a doctrine and practice of the Church and its relationship, at least by analogy, to the New Testament canon. Two passages from his book Papal Primacy, one short and one slightly longer, are particularly worth noting. First, the short one:

We probably cannot say for certain that there was a bishop of Rome [in 95 AD]. It is likely that the Roman church was governed by a group of presbyters from whom there very quickly emerged a presider or ‘first among equals’ whose name was remembered and who was subsequently described as ‘bishop’ after the mid-second century. (Schatz 4).

And now the long one:

A further development began toward the end of the second century, against the background of the conflicts with gnosticism and the resulting emphasis on paradosis (tradition) as the objective rule of faith. Gnosticism, in itself a very complicated movement, was characterized by, among other things, its appeal to a deeper insight in faith, accessible only to an elite of the cognoscenti, handed on in ‘secret traditions,’ and thus to that extent immune to historical mediation or scrutiny. The faith of ordinary Christians was regarded as merely the primitive first stage for beginners; only the cognoscenti, those who ‘possess knowledge,’ can enter the inner sanctuary.

In their debates with these movements, orthodox authors emphasize a tradition that is open to all, historically accessible, and comprehensible even for ordinary Christians. This accessibility is twofold: in sacred Scripture and in the apostolic succession of the episcopal office. The authentic writings of the New Testament were now gradually assembled to form a canon and distinguished from the ‘nonauthentic’ traditions in the apocrypha. The composition of ‘lists of bishops’ extending back to the apostles was an effective way of saying that this uninterrupted succession guarantees that the public tradition [i.e. that which was being taught in the apostolic churches] is true. There are thus no ‘secret traditions.’ Everything is carried on in the full light of day (Schatz 7).

In the first few decades after Christ ascended, there was not, then, a firm concept of apostolic succession guiding the Church. But, then again, neither was there a firm concept of a Christian canon (apart, of course, from the Jewish Scriptures). St. Paul probably didn’t assume that his epistles would become canonized Scripture, nor did the writer of the Gospel of St. Matthew necessarily anticipate the same. Both were writing to spread the word and prevent error; both no doubt expected Christ’s immanent return. The New Testament and apostolic succession thus bear a resemblance to one another in their historical development as doctrinal and practical solutions that arose in reaction to and as a safeguard against the heresies which threatened Christianity in the 2nd century.

One cannot, of course, uncritically equate Sacred Scripture and the priesthood as defined by the early Church; the issues surrounding both are too varied and complex to simplify their relationship in that way. Yet the question still comes to mind: can one stand without the other?


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From The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600):

No passage in Cyprian’s writings has received more detailed attention than the two versions of the exegesis of these words in chapter 4 of his Unity of the Church: one version seems to assert the primacy of Peter as prerequisite to unity among the bishops, while the other seems to treat the primacy of Peter as only representative of that unity. It seems that the first of these versions came first, chronologically, while the second was a clarification of it issued by Cyprian himself, because Rome was making more of his words than he had intended. But the debate over the ‘papal’ versus the ‘episcopal’ exegesis of Matthew 16:18-19 should not obscure the more fundamental point shared by both kinds of exegesis: the indispensability of the empirical unity of the church, ‘this holy mystery of oneness, this unbreakable bond of close-knit harmony… portrayed in the Gospel by our Lord Jesus Christ’s coat, which was not divided or cut at all… [For] that man cannot possess the garment of Christ who rends and divides the church of Christ.’

In making such an issue of the empirical unity of the church, Cyprian [whose date of birth is unknown; he died in 258 A.D.] was expressing the conviction of the church catholic from the beginning. Heresy and schism were closely related because both of the them violated the unity of the church. It is interesting that in all seven epistles of Ignatius [who lived ca. 35-107 A.D.] the church was explicitly called “holy” only once, while the unity of the church in the bishop was one of the overriding preoccupations of all the epistles, so much so that it seems accurate to conclude that ‘the most important aspect of the church for the apostolic fathers is its unity’ (Grant 1964). It has also been observed that the noun ‘unity’ occurred eleven times in Ignatius and the verb six times, but that neither was found anywhere else in the apostolic fathers. For both Ignatius and Cyprian, moreover, the bishop was the key to authentic unity, and schism was identified as party spirit in opposition to him. Therefore the efforts to superimpose upon the second or third centuries the distinction made by Augustinism and especially by the Reformation between the visible and the invisible churches have proved quite ineffectual, even in interpreting the thought of Origen, whose dichotomy between the heavenly and the earthly churches might seem to have tended in that direction; but on earth there was only one church, and it was finally inseparable from the sacramental, hierarchical institution. This church was, in the striking phrase of Origen, ‘the cosmos of the cosmos, because Christ has become its cosmos, he who is the primal light of the cosmos’ (pp. 159-160).

Pelikan was raised in the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod and was a Lutheran at the time this book first saw publication in 1971. In 1998, less than a decade before his death, he converted to Eastern Orthodoxy. I can hardly pass any sweeping judgments on the man’s attitudes toward the various Christian traditions, having read far too little of his work; but, from what I’ve encountered of his writings, he seems to have been preeminently fair to Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Protestantism alike. Perhaps this is why, even with his apparent conviction that Church unity was a universal concern of the early Church, he took his time in becoming Orthodox: he understood that the nature of the Church is far more complicated, historically and spiritually, than the polemicists of any side have often been willing to admit. Rather than hastily attach himself to another communion—even one that he may have felt from an early date to be more in line with the Tradition handed down to the Apostles—he seems to have been content to stay, at least for a time, where Christ was visible to him.

Christians have made a mess of the Church these past 2,000 years, and finding Christ in the midst of it all can at times be rather difficult. I would surmise from Pelikan’s long wait that his relationship with God—despite his erudition—was probably one of childlike trust.

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For the past few months, a friend of mine has been participating in the RCIA program at a local parish. I tagged along for the first meeting and decided to stick around; the leaders are providing solid, orthodox catechesis—a welcome change from what is, at least to my knowledge, standard fare in American parishes—and their lectures have given me a refresher course in basic Catholic theology. (Personally, I’m glad for the opportunity. Where faith is concerned, I often find myself getting lost in the details of doctrine and orthopraxy and forget the larger truths.)

Last night our discussion centered on the Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell. Obviously, we couldn’t spend a whole lot of time on any particular subject. Nevertheless, I was pleased with how the team handled a rather difficult topic.

Naturally, the conversation touched upon Purgatory and its place in salvation as well. Unlike the Last Things, Purgatory is not taken for granted as truth by most Protestants; RCIA usually has one or two curious products of the Reformation in attendance, so I was hardly surprised when the discussion of Purgatory, and its accompanying handout, took the form of an apologetic.


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4. Catholics, however, it is said, do much more than this; not only do they ask the saints and angels to pray for them, but also to give them this or that temporal or spiritual blessing, to help or defend them; in a word, to interfere actively in their behalf, as though they were themselves possessed of power, and could bestow gifts and blessings according to their own will independently of Almighty God. Such is the inference which a Protestant draws from the language of Catholic devotion; and he refuses to believe us, when we tell him that the true meaning of that language is, that we beg the saints to move Almighty God to give us the things we ask for. Yet holy Scripture, if he would but study it with more attention, would supply him with instances of the same use of language. Thus we read in 2 Kings ii. 9, 10, that “Elijah said unto Elisha, Ask what I shall do for thee, before I be taken away from thee. And Elisha said, I pray thee, let a double portion of thy spirit be upon me. And He said, Thou hast asked a hard thing; nevertheless, if thou see me when I am taken from thee, it shall be so unto thee; but if not, it shall not be so.” Elisha here asked what Elijah could not possibly give him, yet the latter promises that he shall have it on the fulfilment of a certain condition. Elisha asked a petition of Elijah which none but God could grant: so we too, in like manner, often call upon the saints to do what belongs only to the power of God. If Elisha’s words do not attribute omnipotence to Elijah, no more do our prayers ascribe omnipotence to the saints. Again, St. Paul tells Timothy, “In doing this, thou shalt both save thyself and them that hear thee” (1 Tim. iv. 16); yet this does not mean that Timothy could save himself or his people without the help of God’s grace. Persons often use the same language in the common affairs of life; as, for instance, they do not scruple to say to a physician whom they have called in to advise in some dangerous illness of a friend or relative, You are our only hope; or again, it is often said of some eminent politician, that in these difficult times he is the only hope of his country; yet in neither of these cases do we mean to exclude the idea of divine providence overruling all, without whom the best human aid would be utterly unavailing. Such an expression, therefore, as “thou art our only hope,” used of our Blessed Lady in the devotions of a Catholic, means this, Thou art our only hope of obtaining God’s help; for we have no confidence in ourselves, or our own worthiness and power to obtain that help.


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2. But this will appear still more clearly from the passages which will be quotes in answer to the second and most popular objection, namely, that even though the saints and angels may pray generally for all Christian people, for the whole estate of Christ’s Church upon earth, yet they know nothing of the wants of any one Christian in particular; they cannot, therefore, intercede for one person more than another; they are ignorant of what is going on amongst us, and cannot therefore hear the prayers which individuals may address to them. Now, first, as to the general fact that “the spirits of just men made perfect,” the saints in glory, have knowledge of some at least of this earth’s doings, we may appeal to the language of St. Paul, who speaks of them as forming a cloud of witnesses over our heads [Hebrews 12:1]; and if they are witnesses, and if we are to take courage from the thought that they are looking on at us, it must be because they really know and take an interest in what we are doing. “I charge thee,” says St. Paul, writing to his beloved son Timothy (i. 21), “before God and the Lord Jesus Christ, and the elect angels, that thou observe these things.” St. Paul calls the elect angels to witness the injunction he lays upon Timothy, just as he calls upon God and our blessed Saviour to witness it. What is the meaning of this, if they could know nothing either of the injunction or of the manner in which it was obeyed? Again, our Lord declares that there is joy in heaven, and in the presence of the angels of God, over a sinner doing penance; it is impossible therefore but that it must be known in heaven by the angels of God when a sinner is doing penance. Then, besides these general statements bearing upon the point before us, holy Scripture contains also particular instances of this knowledge. When Moses and Elias appeared at the transfiguration, they knew and spoke of the decease which our Lord should accomplish at Jerusalem (Luke ix. 31). When Samuel appeared to Saul, he knew what was passing at that time among the people of Israel, and what would take place the next day (1 Sam. xxviii. 16-19). Of, if these instances are objected to as being extraordinary and miraculous occurrences, from which we may not fairly draw any general conclusion as to the powers and privileges of departed souls, let us turn to the Book of Revelation, where surely, if any where in the Bible is given us an insight into heaven, and we are told both what it is like, and who are its inhabitants, and what is their occupation. First, then, we read in that book of mysteries (vi. 9-11) that “the souls of those that had been slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held, cried with a loud voice, saying, How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost Thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that swell on the earth?” These blessed martyrs then, though no longer upon the earth, yet knew what was happening there, and knew that their blood had not yet been avenged. By and bye we read about the four and twenty elders who have been already mentioned, that they know that “the nations are angry, and the wrath of God is come, and the time of the dead that they should be judged” (xi. 16-18). They know also that the devil is accusing their brethren before God, and a loud voice declares to them when he is cast down; and that “the brethren have overcome him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony;” and that they have been constant, even to martyrdom (xii. 10,11). So also it is known when Babylon is destroyed, and the saints, “the holy Apostles and Prophets,” are called upon “to rejoice over her, because God had avenged them on her” (xviii. 20). And so on, throughout the whole of that book, the saints and angels–the whole court of heaven–are always represented as looking on upon the affairs of this world, having knowledge of all their variations, taking a lively interest in them, so as to be filled at one time with indignation, at another with joy, according to the character of the several events which they witness.


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Devotion to saints and angels is a part of the Catholic religion, from which Protestants shrink with horror, and which they loudly denounce as superstitious and unscriptural. Now if they used this word “unscriptural” only in the sense of “not to be found in holy scripture,” it would scarcely fall within the scope of our present inquiry to say any thing at all about it; because all the world knows that this is not an argument which Catholics need care to dispute; for Catholics do not pretend to say that the whole system of their religious belief and practice is to be found in the written Word, but, on the contrary, that several portions of the divine revelation were never committed to writing at all, but were handed on from generation to generation by word of mouth, or, as it is technically called, by tradition. When Protestants, however, speak against any of our doctrines as being unscriptural, they generally mean something more than this; they mean not only that it is not to e found in holy Scripture, but that something else is to be found there, which goes against the doctrine in question, and contradicts it. And this is altogether a different thing, and far more important; for although we do not believe that every thing that is true is contained in holy Scripture, yet we do believe that every thing that is contained in holy Scripture is true; so that it is often necessary, if we would make any way in controversy with Protestants, that we should be ready to shew that on this or that particular subject which they may have selected for censure, there is no contradiction between the teaching of the Bible and the teaching of the Catholic Church.

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But Protestants will say perhaps that they also meditate, and that it is an easy thing to do so, especially for gentle and thoughtful minds, and at particular times when they are in a humour for it. This, however, is mere natural meditation; meditation as the Church would have it is a very different thing. To meditate when we are not in the humour, and upon a set subject, and to persevere in this regularly day by day, is no easy task. Now it is very plain that Protestants are never taught in private any such systematic practice, nor in the character of their public worship is there any thing calculated to call it forth; whereas we cannot open a Catholic prayer-book without finding, not one, but many kinds of devotion formed on the principle of meditation, and of a nature wholly unknown among Protestants. The Rosary, which is in use with all classes, is nothing but a continued meditation on the chief mysteries of our blessed Lord’s life, combined with vocal prayer. Again, there are other devotions, such as to the Holy Name of Jesus, to His Divine Infancy, to His Sacred Heart, to His Five Wounds, to His Precious Blood, which, when they do not offend, at least seem singular and startling to them, because they are not accustomed to any continued and detailed consideration of our Lord’s humiliation and passion; and partly, I must add, from a deeper cause, because they do not realize the great mystery of the Incarnation, God made man. They do not, in fact, know Jesus. Or, again, there are festivals in our calendar which must certainly sound strange to Protestants; such as those on the successive Fridays of Lent in honour of our Lord’s Prayer and Agony in the Garden, the Crown of Thorns, the Spear and Nails, and the Holy Winding-sheet. A Protestant looks upon these as childish; he sees no meaning in them. Yet he might see that the meaning is much love; that to one who loves, each point of the Passion of Christ is so dear, each hour of suffering so steeped in its own fulness, that his heart is not large enough to hold it all at once; but he lingers over each detail with renewed tenderness, and counts each drop that falls from the wounds of his suffering Lord, and dwells on each fresh circumstance of that exceeding agony, and finds in each enough to think upon and adore. If Jesus suffered all these things separately, and suffered them for us, shall we not meditate on them separately?


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