What is the Catholic church in a nutshell?

As is usually the case, someone else has a clearer way of describing something than I can. Below is a quote about what the Catholic church is in 200 words or less by Jennifer Fulwiler, a convert to the Catholic faith from atheism. You can view the full interview on EWTN’s Journey Home program here – it’s a beautiful story.

“What if before Jesus ascended to heaven he founded a church and he instilled it with his own authority and promised to be with it to the end of the age. And what if – like he did with the writers of the bible – he took imperfect people, people who made mistakes, people who did wrong things, but he used them as tools to convey perfect truth, what if that church is still around today and you can encounter Christ through his living church? … and I considered that it has been saying the same thing for 2000 years as empire after empire fell away around it, won’t change what it’s teaching and won’t go away despite the fact that it is usually the most hated institution in any given time and place in history, I said ‘I see the divine hand at work here, I’ve seen something that humans cannot do on their own.'”

Belief in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist

Beliefs about the Eucharist are something that did not feature strongly in my story of becoming Catholic as they were something I was happy at the time to take on faith. Yet as I have contemplated it more over the past year, I have come to appreciate and rejoice in how central the Eucharist is to the life of the Church and its mission.

The Catholic belief is that the bread and wine consecrated by the priest at Mass truly become the body and blood of Jesus. The Gospel of John chapter 6 is crucial in understanding the scriptural basis of this belief. It’s a long chapter that begins with Jesus feeding a crowd by performing the well known miracle of loaves and fishes. Later in the chapter Jesus describes himself as “the bread that comes down from heaven” and then repeatedly tells his listeners that they must eat his flesh and drink his blood.

This is where an orthodox Protestant reading takes Jesus as speaking in metaphor, as for example he does with Nicodemus earlier in John’s gospel in describing the need to be born again. However when Jesus is questioned about his grotesque description, he doesn’t clarify that he is communicating a metaphor like he does with Nicodemus. Instead he intensifies his visceral language: “In all truth I tell you, if you do not eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Anyone who does eat my flesh and drink my blood has eternal life, and I shall raise that person up on the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives in me and I live in that person.” At this point, John tells us that many of his followers leave him. It’s hard to see why they would have left him if he were using merely symbolic language.

It is worth bearing in mind that belief about the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist was universal amongst Christians from the early church fathers right through to the protestant reformation.

It requires faith to see the consecrated host as Christ Himself, but are we not a faith that professes the reality of the resurrection, of healings that defy scientific explanation, and of divine regeneration of souls?

This video by Bishop Robert Barron provides a succinct overview of the Church’s teaching on the Eucharist. I love his explanation of the power of the divine word to effect reality, something we see continually throughout the gospels, including, I believe, when he says the words: “take and eat, this is my body”.

All scripture quotations are from the New Jerusalem Bible

To whom shall I have recourse in my difficulties?

In my most post on the need for a living voice, I began to unpack the difference between the Catholic and Protestant understanding of church authority, which was a key issue that led me to decide to become a Catholic.

In my account of deciding to become a Catholic, I spoke about the writings of St Francis de Sales as illuminating for me the Catholic and Protestant view on several key matters that were controversial during the protestant reformation (hence the posthumous title for these collected writings being The Catholic Controversy).Catholic Controversy

I include below a number of quotes from these writings that not only explain the Catholic view on questions of interpretive authority, church unity and the need for a visible head, but also the ramifications for better or worse of the protestant reformation on the beliefs of those sitting under the teaching of protestant reformers.

From Part I: Mission. Chapter 12
“If then the Church can err, 0 Calvin, 0 Luther, to whom shall I have recourse in my difficulties? To the Scripture, say they. But what shall I, poor man, do, for it is precisely about the Scripture that my difficulty lies. I am not in doubt whether I must believe the Scripture or not; for who knows not that it is the Word of Truth? What keeps me in anxiety is the understanding of this Scripture, is the conclusions to be drawn from it, which are innumerable and diverse and opposite on the same subject; and everybody takes his view, one this, another that, though out of all there is but one which is sound. Ah! who will give me to know the good among so many bad? who will tell me the real verity through so many specious and masked vanities. Everybody would embark on the ship of the Holy Spirit; there is but one, and only that one shall reach the port, all the rest are on their way to shipwreck. Ah! what danger am I in of erring! All shout out their claims with equal assurance and thus deceive the greater part, for all boast that theirs is the ship. Whoever says that our Master has not left us guides in so dangerous and difficult a way, says that he wishes us to perish.”

“The bark of the letter is neither truth nor falsehood, but according to the sense that we give it is it true or false. The truth consists in the sense, which is, as it were, the marrow. And therefore if the Church were guardian of the truth, the sense of the Scripture would have been entrusted to her care, and it would be necessary to seek it with her, and not in the brain of Luther or Calvin or any private person. Therefore she cannot err, ever having the sense of the Scriptures.”

From Part II, The Rule of Faith. Article 3, Chapter 4
“Let there be error everywhere throughout the world, yet you will see the same faith in Catholics. And if there be any difference of opinion, either it will not be in things belonging to the faith, or else, as soon as ever a General Council or the Roman See shall have determined it, you will see every one submit to their decision…On the contrary, gentlemen, your first ministers had no sooner got on their feet, they had no sooner begun to build a tower of doctrine and science which was visibly to reach the heavens, and to acquire them the great and magnificent reputation of reformers, than God, wishing to traverse this ambitious design, permitted amongst them such a diversity of language and belief, that they began to contradict one another so violently that all their undertaking became a miserable Babel and confusion. What contradictions has not Luther’s reformation produced! I should never end if I would put them all on this paper.”

“But the worst is, you are not able to come to an agreement: ” for where will you find a trusted arbitrator? You have no head upon earth to address yourselves to in your difficulties; you believe that the very Church can err herself and lead others into error: you would not put your soul into such unsafe hands; indeed, you hold her in small account. The Scripture cannot be your arbiter, for it is concerning the Scripture that you are in litigation, some of you being determined to have it understood in one way, some in another.”

“But if I would show you the great contradictions among those whom Beza acknowledges to be glorious reformers of the church, namely, Jerome of Prague, John Hus, Wycliffe, Luther, Bucer, Oecolampadius, Zwingli, Pomeranius and the rest, I should never come to an end.”

“All this division has as its foundation in the contempt which you have for a visible head on earth, because, not being bound as to the interpretation of God’s word by any superior authority, each one takes the side which seems good to him…but as for us, we all have the same canon of the Scriptures, one same head, one like rule for interpreting them, you have a diversity of canon, and in the understanding you have as many heads and rules as you are persons.”

The need for a living voice

In my account of why I became a Catholic I touched on a number of key considerations I needed to work through. Front and centre was the question of interpretive authority of the bible, and the stark contrast between the Catholic and Protestant take on this issue. If you are like me you probably inherited a stance on this issue and may not have had cause to give it any thought.

In the video below, Bishop Robert Barron succinctly describes the two views. He goes on to explain the Catholic approach which he summarizes in the words on John Henry Newman: “If God saw fit to reveal saving truth to the church, he would also see fit to give that church an authoritative voice”.

In this context, Barron uses the helpful analogy of the sports referee to explain the role of the Pope as one who can adjudicate where disagreements arise so that the game can continue.

Regardless of where you stand, it’s an informative and thought provoking eight minutes of viewing.

How and why I became Catholic

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As most converts to the Catholic faith will tell you, it wasn’t something I ever anticipated happening. Although in hindsight I can see there was plenty of Catholic input into forming my Christian faith thanks to my seven years at a Catholic primary school, my story of committing to Christ in my late teens primarily owes itself to the witness of a good high school friend and a personal crisis in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks that helped me to see how fragile life is and how much I needed to walk in step with my Creator (I go into more depth about this on my blog Meditations on an Emergency).

Over the next ten years my formation as a practising Christian adult took place at an inner city Anglican church in Sydney well known for its robust witness to Christ and ministry amongst university students, of which I was a major beneficiary during my years of study at the University of Sydney and my first years in the workforce.

This was followed by a move to a different part of Sydney for a new job, where again I was blessed to find another church community with a deep love for sharing the Gospel, combining charismatic worship with a deep reverence for scripture in the reformed theological tradition.

A big anniversary

It was after two and a half years there that a significant anniversary in my life, the tenth anniversary of my admission to hospital for a major mental breakdown, had me reflecting on my core beliefs. I think this is because my conception of God and the big questions around heaven, hell and salvation were major factors in that breakdown and there was some restlessness in me about the angle my current church had on some of these questions.

What followed was several months of wrestling with these core beliefs and for the first time investigating different Christian theological traditions. It didn’t take long for me to put the magnifying glass on the protestant reformation of the sixteenth century, something for which I had only a vague awareness despite the massive bearing that Martin Luther and John Calvin had each had on the teaching I had sat under as an adult.

My rule throughout this process of questioning was that whatever the bible teaches on these big topics was all that mattered. The challenge as I discovered was how unclear it seemed to be about who was right from amongst the many camps, all claiming to be backed by scripture.

Two major topics for me exemplify this dilemma. First was predestination, about which as an adult I had only ever been exposed to variations of the Calvinist view, which had certainly played heavily on my mind during my mental breakdown a decade earlier. For the first time I learnt about the contrasting Arminian take on predestination stemming from post reformation figure Jacobus Arminius and in many circles heavily influenced by John Wesley, and how fierce the Calvinist/Arminian debate had been over several centuries to the present day.

The second major topic for me concerned what scripture teaches about hell. This was a big one for me throughout the troubles of my past. For the first time I learned about the annihilationist view (also known as conditional immortality), which basically believes that hell is a temporary rather than eternal punishment for those who are condemned, after which time they cease to exist. Through citation of scripture by its proponents seeming to back up the argument, I was for a time completely won over by this view.

Curious about Catholicism

It was around this time that my then girlfriend (now wife) sent me a link to a YouTube video of the testimony of an evangelical pastor, Scott Hahn, who converted to Catholicism. As I began to listen I found myself thinking “why on earth would a pastor of all people become a Catholic?”. Up to that point I hadn’t even thought of the Catholic church’s beliefs as being worth learning about, though I did respect Catholics as indeed my girlfriend attended mass weekly and had a vibrant faith.

I was intrigued by Hahn’s account and curious about a number of things he spoke about. It led me to further investigation which included a great deal of reading, listening and watching a mixture of online and hard copy books, videos and podcasts that helped me understand what the Catholic church believes. I also found myself listening to testimonies of other people from a variety of protestant church backgrounds who had become Catholic.

Again and again a major turning point people spoke about was the question of authority. This was a burning issue for me too. A key tenet of the protestant reformation was Sola Sciptura, the belief that the bible alone was authoritative on matters of faith and morals. This was a direct challenge to the Catholic church which had always (and still does) claimed to have interpretive authority of scripture and a living voice, the successor of the chief apostle Peter, guarded and guided by the Holy Spirit (John 14:26), to adjudicate with the aid of the council of bishops when disputes arose. I learned that this was the process that brought about pronouncements on beliefs that the vast majority of Christians now take for granted such as the divinity of Christ, the doctrine of the Trinity, the bodily resurrection of Christ, declaring the canon of scripture and its sacredness, and the defense of these teachings down through the ages.

Questioning, probing

Okay, I thought, but surely Luther and those who came after him have shown that Catholic doctrine is clearly mistaken on certain points, thus demonstrating its claim to be guided infallibly by the Holy Spirit is bogus?

While I was considering this, I realised properly for the first time that the protestant movement had splintered from its earliest days into what is now literally thousands of denominations, primarily due to differences in interpretation of the bible that the founders of each new church/denomination considered important enough to break away from their existing protestant church, each believing the Holy Spirit was guiding them in the truth.

The tide then really started to turn as I read three books:

I’ll say a little about each one.

The Compendium is a summary of what the Catholic church believes and teaches, and is the short form of the full Catechism of the Catholic Church. Written In a Q&A format, it filled in a lot of the blanks in my knowledge about what Catholics believe and corrected a number of misconceptions I had held. Chief among them was on the question of a person’s justification before God, which was a central aspect of Luther’s protest in 1517. To my surprise, the Catholic belief has never been that a person can achieve their salvation by their works. Indeed in the 5th century the Catholic church denounced Pelagius who preached a works-based view of salvation. I even discovered that the Lutheran church and Catholic church made a joint declaration agreeing on the doctrine of justification in 1999. There is plenty to say about this topic, but suffice it to say that once I learned the facts, I found the justification question to be a non-issue for me.

John Henry Newman wrote Apologia Pro Vita Sua several years after he converted to the Catholic church in the mid-19th Century. Before his conversion he had been a leading voice in the Anglican church and a well respected member of Oxford academia and English society. Since in those days converting to the Catholic church was scandalous (and indeed very painful for Newman), he wrote the book to explain how the conversion came about. Being someone with everything to lose in worldly terms from such a conversion, I found Newman’s academically and historically rigorous examination of Anglicanism and Catholicism and the conclusion he came to thoroughly credible. He went on to become one of the great Catholic theologians of the 19th Century.

The Catholic Controversy is a collection of short essays written by French priest Francis de Sales in the late 16th century, roughly 80 years after the protestant reformation began. The essays were addressed to people of the Chablais region in France near Geneva, Switzerland, most of whom were converts to Calvinist Christianity. Such was the animosity in the region that he was forbidden to preach in public, and so resorted to distributing his essays as pamphlets under doors by night, explaining and defending what the Catholic church believes. Francis de Sales’ clarity about key issues such as the authority and legitimacy of the church, the unity of the Catholic faith, the importance of the sacraments and several other topics including free will and purgatory was an eye opener for me about the how, what and why of Catholic beliefs. Evidently this was also the case for a great many of the 70,000 people of the Chablais region who returned to the Catholic faith through his remarkable ministry.

A growing conviction

By the time I was about halfway through the above books, I felt a growing conviction that the Catholic church’s teaching on matters of faith and morals had the authority it claimed. I can clearly remember diving deep into the annals of Catholic records to see what they had to say about annihilationism, and discovered that it had been declared a heresy several hundred years ago. Consequently, I felt as a matter of conscience that I could no longer hold the annihilationist view about hell.

A surprising issue then came my way following another big decision I had made – to propose to my girlfriend who to my delight agreed to marry me. This issue was what the Catholic church teaches about marriage and sexuality. I say surprise because as a bible believing evangelical, I had thought my views were already in lock step on sexual matters based on what I knew about Catholic teaching on chastity before marriage, homosexuality and abortion.

Yet I was to discover that there was much more to the Catholic view that those preparing for marriage needed to consider. As one of three conditions for a marriage to be valid in the Catholic church, one must be open to having children. This in itself was new information to me, but there was more – the church considered contraception to be a sin! I discovered that basically all mainstream Christian denominations had held this view about contraception until it became unpopular last century in the western world. I also learned that a major focus of Pope John Paul 2’s pontificate was his Theology of the Body, a teaching on the sanctity of life and beauty of sexuality. Here again I couldn’t deny my growing conviction that to ignore the Catholic church’s teaching on these matters couldn’t be done in good conscience.

The two most important online sources for me as I worked through the remaining issues were Bishop Robert Barron’s Word On Fire ministries and EWTN’s Journey Home program. Along with a prolific amount of writing and podcasts engaging with modern culture and explaining the Catholic faith, Bishop Barron also had dozens of 5-10 minute YouTube videos where he canvassed an array of topics and you could find anything from a historical critique of the Council of Trent to a review of the latest blockbuster film. These videos helped me to see the vitality of the Catholic faith on live display while also providing answers on some of my big questions. I found Bishop Barron’s openness about the wrongs committed by church leaders and clergy of ages past and the more recent past – most notably the child sex abuse scandal – to be an important way of understanding the distinction between what the church as a whole professes and believes, and the behaviour of some which has betrayed and brought shame on the church.

The Journey Home is a TV program (also broadcast on YouTube) where people from a variety of faith backgrounds are interviewed about their conversion to the Catholic faith. This show was an excellent source for me in learning what was leading other people to become Catholic. Probably the most common background of guests on the show are former pastors and ministers, which was helpful for me given I was wrestling with the same theological issues as many of them had struggled through. One of the key things I learned from watching dozens of these hour long interviews (there are hundreds of them) was that it was an obedience to God that was the driving force behind the move to become Catholic. Particularly for pastors and ministers, embracing Catholicism meant having to give up their job and leading their church community, not to mention the strain or even breakage of many of their friendships and family relations. It’s not the kind of thing anyone in that position would do unless they were convinced of the truth of it. As with Newman’s autobiography, I found these accounts both moving and entirely credible.

Revisiting predestination

One of the most important remaining issues for me to work through was the Catholic church’s teaching on predestination, and it had been one I had been chipping away for several months before I made the final decision to become a Catholic. While to some people the topic is obscure and merely academic, for me it was very important ever since I first came across it soon after I began regularly attending church as an adult. Since it seemed to contradict what I had always assumed that Christianity teaches – that God loves everybody – it had a lot to do with the catastrophic mental breakdown that soon followed.

Rather than state definitively how predestination works, the Catholic church has set boundaries around what one can rightly say about the matter, while affirming the reality of both God’s sovereignty and man’s free will. This was an important consideration at the Council of Trent held in the mid-16th century, where the Catholic leadership reviewed and responded to the views of the protestant reformers. Both Martin Luther and John Calvin believed in “double predestination” which contends that God determines who will go to heaven and hell before they have lived. The Council of Trent repudiated any notion that God pre-determines anyone to condemnation: “If anyone says that it is not in the power of man to make his ways evil, but that God produces the evil as well as the good works, not only by permission, but also properly and of himself, so that the betrayal of Judas is no less his own proper work than the vocation of Paul, let him be anathema…. If anyone shall say that the grace of justification is attained by those only who are predestined unto life, but that all others, who are called, are called indeed, but do not receive grace, as if they are by divine power predestined to evil, let him be anathema.” Learning of this meant a lot to me, since it was unfortunately to the works of Luther and Calvin that I turned in my distress all of those years ago which made matters a whole lot worse for me.

From this point on, it was settled in my heart and mind that I was eager to be received into the church which took place on the feast of the Trinity in May of 2015.

Looking forward

I’m excited to be Catholic and believe that much can be done in our time to bring about greater understanding about Catholicism amongst Christians coming from different traditions. I take a lot of inspiration from three relationships I’ve been learning about from the past century which are helping to point the way forward for me: Pope John Paul II and Billy Graham; Hans Urs von Balthasar and Karl Barth; J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S Lewis. Each Catholic/Protestant pair were the finest in their field: the first in leadership and preaching, the second in theology, the third in storytelling. And each pair had a close friendship which took the other seriously and saw the importance of affirming what they held in common and working together for the common good of being a Christian witness in a world that needed it more than ever. It’s my hope that in some way my story and how I go about living my faith can contribute to this important dialogue and witness.

Image: Niagara Falls, from the American Side by Frederic Edwin Church (1867) courtesy Wikimedia Commons