There are many aspects of Catholicism that distinguish it from other forms of Christianity: differences of dogma, style and understanding of worship, and how we translate our faith into action (as well as the fact that we believe we must do so). But I am not a theologian, though my mom would probably beg to differ (czesc mamusiu!). Therefore, in this mini-series, I will focus only on those aspects that present the biggest differences (papacy, Mary, Eucharist).
Why do I believe that the Pope holds an office that was instituted by Christ Himself?
Well, in John 21:17, Jesus addresses Peter (still called Simon) with this directive: “tend my sheep”. In Luke 22:32, Jesus tells Peter to “strengthen [his] brothers”, as one in a role of authority would do. And throughout the gospels, Peter is always listed first among the apostles. But I want to focus on my own sense of why I believe that the papacy is in Christ’s plan for His church, so for a more theological discussion of the papacy, see here.
I believe it makes sense that Christ would leave his followers a clear system by which future generations can come to know Him. This is in stark contrast to the notion of sola scriptura, which means “only Scripture” in Latin, and refers to the idea that Christian faith ought to be based only on what is contained in the Bible, and not on the tradition of the church. But Jesus didn't write the Bible; it was the early Church Fathers who, inspired by the Holy Spirit, recorded Jesus's life and teachings for us. The Bible is not a how-to book, written with self-explanatory language geared towards the masses, consistently made up of a single genre, or contextualized within a single and familiar world-view that is easily accessible to all readers.
When we read something, we automatically interpret the words on the page based on our prior knowledge of the subject matter, our knowledge of how language works, and the context of what is written. We do not live in a vacuum, and we do not read in a vacuum. There are as many interpretations of the Bible as there are readers. Not all of them can be correct. Therefore, it makes sense that Christ anticipated this conundrum and therefore organized a church tasked with the difficult job of biblical scholarship and translation of biblical truths into laymen’s terms.
In a democracy, we abide by the laws that have been put in place by those who have been entrusted with their institution and interpretation. Even when we believe that we know better than those in positions of authority, we don’t rise up in anarchy and declare independence every time we disagree with something being put forth by our government. So why do we act like this when it comes to religion?
Think about how many denominations there are. Every time a group of Christians disagrees with their pastor over something, there is a danger that they will splinter off and start their own church. How do they know that they are right and their church of origin is not?
I do believe that there are things that are right for one person but wrong for another person to do. For instance, some people are called to married life, while others are called to the priesthood or religious life. People are called to various ministries and if they resist and try to do something different, however note-worthy that other option may be, it is wrong for them to disobey God’s call.
But what is right and what is true are two different things. There are some things that are universally true, meaning they apply to everyone.
Given only a Bible, each Christian turns to Scripture in prayer, and essentially trusts their own interpretation of whatever verses come to them as the truth. With this system in place, some people will interpret an unborn baby worth protecting at all costs, while others will see her only as a potential baby (whatever that means), and therefore able to be disposed of if it becomes inconvenient to treat her as the human being she is. They may even point to the same Scriptures (for instance, Psalm 139:13, Isaiah 44:2, Jeremiah 1:5) to explain their polar views. Some people will point out that God creates us in the womb as a whole, while others will say that God creates our bodies first, and then inserts our soul (apparently at birth), which gives us human worth.
Both of these views cannot be correct. This is why I believe it is necessary to have a source of authority that is able to dedicate enough time, scholarship, and discernment to make definitive statements correctly interpreting these various verses so that we may know how to please God by doing what He would have us do. In this case, the Catholic church, under the guidance and leadership of the pope and the council of bishops, inspired by the Holy Spirit in the same way as the first apostles and disciples were inspired by Him at Pentecost, take the guesswork out of the seemingly contradictory ways of viewing Scripture. The bottom line is that the Bible’s message is NOT self-evident, so to think that it is sufficient to read one’s Bible without the input of the religious authority of the pope is folly.
But what’s the difference between deferring to the pope for the interpretation of a difficult scripture versus one’s pastor? Well, there are about as many biblical interpretations as there are pastors. And who gave them the authority to make such interpretations to begin with? The pope has the benefit of an unbroken line of apostolic succession, going all the way back to Christ’s original apostles. The RCC has been consistent about its teachings over the years, even when those teachings have been unpopular or difficult. Consistency to me sounds like the work of the Holy Spirit.
I recently heard a radio sermon on how Christians are not to consume any alcohol under any circumstances. The pastor cited various Scriptures (Luke 1:15, 7:33; 1 Corinthians 6:9-10; Habakkuk 2:15; Proverbs 23:30-31) to show how drinking alcoholic beverages, including wine, is an abomination before God, failing to mention how Jesus chose to perform His first miracle precisely by brining into being wine where there wasn’t any (John 2:1-11). He also failed to mention how Jesus used bread and wine at His last supper (Mark 14:23-24, Matthew 26:2-28, Luke 22:20), and asked His disciples to do likewise (1 Corinthians 11:25).
For these reasons, I believe that the papacy was instituted by Christ as a way of keeping His flock on the straight-and-narrow path, undisturbed by misinterpretations of Scripture. The pope is not perfect, of course, as he is only a human being. But his office is blessed with the grace of infallibility, that is, a guarantee that the Holy Spirit will guide and inspire whoever holds this office into all truth and righteousness. I don’t have to like the pope to respect his authority, and by so doing, I respect Christ’s decision to establish His church the way that He did, with a visible head of the pope in the papacy, begun with St. Peter.
You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.