Swimming the Tiber
Two tourists boarded a ship and sailed to a foreign land. The two tourists disembarked from the ship and stood on the shoreline of the land they had never seen before. Their eyes took in the landscape that was so different from their homeland. They walked the streets of the port city and observed the unique architecture of the buildings. They observed what seemed like odd customs of the citizens. They watched as the citizens, dressed in unusual clothing, were feasting on unrecognizable food and speaking indecipherable words to one another. Before the day was half over one tourist quickly walked back to the ship and declared that the place was too strange to explore. He ridiculed the customs of the citizens, declaring them bizarre. He criticized the architecture saying it was impossible to build like they build in this country. He turned his nose up when he described how unappetizing the food smelled. And he determined that normal citizens do not dress like the people of this land. He mocked the language the citizens spoke passing it off as mumbo jumbo. “Take me back to my home, the polyglot of this place makes no sense!” he told the captain of the ship.
The second tourist strolled back to the ship just before sunset and called from the dock to the ship’s captain. “I will not be boarding the ship today, I have some things I want to learn about this place. The landscape is inviting and I need to find a guide that will navigate it with me. The architecture is complex, I must find an architect and learn more about their blueprints. I do not understand the language, I need to find a denizen of this place to interpret the vernacular for me. I am wondering about the customs and why they do things the way they do, I must find a historian to help me learn about their culture. And their feasts are so interesting, I’m going to seek out a chef so that I may learn about their cuisine in the feasts.”
How you respond to what I desire to tell you about the Catholic Church really depends on what kind of tourist you are. Your journey through the Catholic Church will be more like a day trip than a real journey because I am an apprentice guide; a neophyte in the Catholic tradition of the Faith. But what I lack in familiarity I make up for in passion. Let’s begin our excursion by answering a few questions my husband and I had to ask ourselves the longer we served in Protestant ministry.
Why do you go to Church?
Perhaps you’ve been a member of your church since you were born and perhaps much of your family is a member of your church, you might even say it’s your family’s church so that is why you go to it. Perhaps you have found a church that fits your personality or generational style, you feel comfortable there, of the people that go there look at life through a similar lens and so that is why you go to it. Perhaps you go to church because you have children who need to grow up going to church. Perhaps the area of the world or country you live in has a church that appeals to your own cultural background. There are many reasons for going to church.
What do you do at Church?
What you do at church is heavily weighted by what kind of church you go to; therefore, there are thousands of practices and opinions on what you do at church. It is not necessary for you to list what you do at your church before we begin our tour of the Catholic Church, but it is helpful for you to be mindful of them as we enter the doors of the cathedral.
What is Church?
It may seem a bit prosaic to ask this question at the beginning of our tour of the Catholic Church, but it is one of the questions that preoccupied our own minds the longer we served in the Protestant movement. You really must have an answer if you are going to understand what we see, hear, and do when we enter the grand doors of our cathedral. Is your faith history rooted in a denominational church? Perhaps you attend a “Bible” church or a “Jesus only” church or non-denominational church with a sobriquet like, “Substance” or “Simple.” Is it a liberal church or a conservative church? Is it an Arminian church or a Calvinistic church? Is it a mainline church or a fundamental/evangelical church? How you answer these questions determines what you consider a church to be. Currently, there are thousands of Protestant denominations around the world so there are many thousands of ideas about what a church is.
What’s the difference? Church is Church, isn’t it?
Answering this question may take some time, but it is the most important question to answer before we enter the doors of the Catholic Church. There are voluminous writings on this very subject and they are written by scholarly theologians who have devoted their lives to studying Church history. It is prudent for me to remind you that I am a novice guide and you are on a day-trip so our pause here before entering through the doors will be brief. As you think of what the Church is, it will be helpful to think of the three things you need to build a brick house: bricks, mortar, and trowel. (We credit Mark Shea for this clear analogy of the Catholic Church.)
What is the Catholic Church?
Think of the Catholic Church as having a big enough pile of bricks to build a brick house. Catholic teaching says written Sacred Scripture is materially sufficient: all the bricks necessary to build its doctrines are there in Scripture. But there are also other necessary and no less important building materials besides Scripture that have been handed down from the apostles and the early Church Fathers. The other building material is stored in the unwritten (and eventually written) Sacred Tradition (this is the mortar that holds the bricks of the written Tradition together in the right order and position) and the Sacred Authority (Magisterium) or teaching authority of the Church (this is the trowel in the hand of the Master Builder). Taken together, these three things are formally sufficient for knowing the revealed truth of God. You can build a Church that the gates of hell will not prevail against when you have all three materials to build with–bricks, mortar, trowel–Sacred Scriptures, Sacred Tradition, Sacred Authority.
There are libraries of documents and literary works dedicated to all or some of the three-building materials of the Catholic Church, I cannot do the subject justice. You can refer to my reading list for recommendations on historical and academic writings on the subject. The ancient Church, the Church established by Jesus Christ through the apostles, passed on the faith of the New Covenant with God. They passed it on through oral and written tradition with the authority Christ had established in them. This is the monumental difference in how the Catholic Church has been built as opposed to the Protestant movement.
What is the Protestant Church?
The Protestant movement began with a protest against the authority of the Catholic Church and gradually turned into a movement of protest and innovation. In other words, there was no way that the universal (Catholic) Church established by Christ through his apostles would simply start over because of some dissenting voices. Another point needs to be made. If you want to understand what Protestants think of as church, and faith in God, then you need to know what the movement was founded on. Sola scriptura–scripture alone (bricks only) is a term used to describe how Protestants build their understanding of Christianity. Protestantism insists that only Scripture is authoritative for Christian faith and life. It denies the Catholic teaching (and historical reality) that Scripture is actually a written portion of a much wider sacred and authoritative Tradition, which includes other elements passed down orally and by patterns of behavior known as ritual or tradition. When an understanding of the Faith is based on bricks alone without the mortar and trowel of Sacred Tradition and Sacred Authority, serious consideration needs to be addressed. If Scripture were the only legitimate source of Christian belief and practice, the early Christians who lived before the New Testament was written and circulated could not have lived the Faith. We’ll leave that consideration for you to ponder.
Sola Scriptura (bricks alone) explains one aspect of why there are so many Protestant denominations. If someone or a group of somebodies interpret Scripture by using some handpicked bricks to shape their theology, there are other bricks that are, by necessity, left in the collection of bricks we refer to as Holy Scripture. That is the nature of innovation. The various Protestant denominations (read innovations) have taken the bricks they find truthful, fascinating, satisfying, consoling, and invented a new form of the church using their own ideas, methods, equipment, technology to attract people to their innovation. The list is endless because innovation is constantly changing according to each generation.
Early in the Reformation history, the rebellion against authority lived up to its eventual moniker, Protestant Movement. The early reformers of the 16th century would not recognize the movement today, we dare say they would roll over in their graves if they knew what their rebellion put into motion. Within the first fifty years or so the Reform movement was indeed moving by fracturing into splinters that fit the notions of some influential voices–Luther, Calvin, and King Henry VIII. And the splintering accelerated as history unfolded. Think of the Reformation this way: A parent has exercised parental leadership through guidance and authority for 18 years of a child’s life. The child’s existence is integrated into the identity of the family name. The necessary boundaries of discipline expand as that child matures in wisdom and understanding about her identity within the family and in the world. Some children reach the age of 18 and continue to mature in fits and starts into what it means to be a balanced human being in the family and the culture. Other children (read Luke 15:11-32) take the money and run, giving way to every drive and self-centered attraction and distraction possible. The deeper the rebellious spirit, the farther the rebellion takes a son or daughter down the path of dis-integration from their identity. Some prodigals never return. Has the parent forgotten that child? Has the parent disowned that child? No. But that child has lost some of her identity, her familial integrity has been compromised through her own choices.
So, where did the path lead for this Reformation’s child known as the Protestant Church? If you look at the Protestant Movement’s history like one looks at an electrical grid, you can easily become confused by the flow of the energy of the movement that the early Reformers started so let’s just look at one of those many examples of this dis-integrating by surveying what is known as the “Holiness Movement.” We will work our way back in history as we consider this movement. Out of this Protestant Movement, there are extreme innovations of the holiness movement known as “Pentecostal Movements” and there are milder innovations of the holiness movement known just as “Holiness Movements.” And from those movements (still bricks only) there are a host of denominations that innovate their entire theology with certain bricks picked by their leader(s) interpretation of the Scriptures. To further complicate the bricks-only “Holiness Movement” you can travel a few decades further into the past. There you will find another pile of bricks known as “The Great Revival Movement”. Those bricks, used by some of the “Baptist Movement” (but, not all) and some of the “Methodist Movement” (but, not all) were piled together until protests arose within those Movements.
Bear with me, travel back even further into the short history of Protestantism and you will discover John Wesley and Roger Williams among leaders of the aforementioned bricks-only movements. Those two leaders used bricks from the “Free Church Movement” that had discarded some of the bricks from the “Anglican Movement.” That movement was started in protest, by none other than the already noted King Henry the VIII, with a brick of his own making, against the Catholic Church. Was his innovation of the Catholic Church built with the mortar and the trowel of Sacred Tradition and Sacred Authority? No, he used his own authority (Sound familiar?). His Anglican Church (The Church of England) was cobbled together and rearranged because of rebellion against the Sacred Scriptures and Sacred Authority of the Church. The Catholic Church would not grant him a divorce from Queen Catherine of Aragon. He had fallen in lust with Anne Boleyn but Anne Boleyn would not give into his lust while he was married to Queen Catherine of Aragon, who happened to be a woman of devout faith in God and loyal to the authority of the Catholic Church. Heads rolled because of his contempt for The Catholic Church (pun intended)!
We still just have bricks except in the innovation of the Anglican church which began with specially fashioned bricks by former Catholic, King Henry the VIII who used his own kingly authority to innovate a church that would fit his need. Have you been able to keep track of the scriptures/bricks each of these subsequent factions kept or threw away from the Anglican Movement? Can you trace your denominational authority and tradition by naming each brick that has been kept and each one that has been tossed to support your denomination’s theology? Can you identify any mortar (Sacred Tradition) or trowel (Sacred Authority) that may have been used at some point to build your denomination from your bricks? How old is your denomination? How old is the manufactured mortar and trowel, if there is any?
During our examination of our denomination’s tenets over the years of ministry, we could never go deeper into history than the late 1960s. Like most denominations, our Protestant history was not more than 500 years old, relatively short and theologically sparse when compared to the weight of the Faith present in The Catholic Church. We asked ourselves: What does our denomination build its theology on? How does it stay intact without the mortar and trowel? A common answer in the Evangelical tradition is that the denomination is like the New Testament Church. But we began wondering how we could know what the New Testament Church was like or what it taught about faith and worship. Often enough, the answer was, “The Bible.” But who taught us that the Bible is the authoritative Word of God? Who decided what books would be included in the Bible? We realized that Paul had no New Testament when he wrote to the Thessalonian Christians, “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.”So what was holding the vast enterprise of the gospel of Christ in place? Some would answer that it was the Holy Spirit. Indeed it was! The line of biblical authority was held because the Spirit of God equipped The Church to discern and govern the Church that Christ promised would stand united in time and eternity.
Counting the Council of Jerusalem referred to in Acts 15 and Galatians 2, The Catholic Church has convened 22 Church Councils over the 2,000 years of her history. The purpose of nearly every council was to keep the brick house intact by using the trowel of the Church of Christ to respond to heresies. The councils did that by keeping the mortar pure and the trowel sharp. We could spend days talking about the heresies and the Church’s action against them, but one point will suffice. Christianity is born from the saving action of the Triune God. But the Christian doctrine of the Trinity is not laid out explicitly in Sacred Scripture. It was through controversies over how to best interpret difficult passages of scripture that the Catholic Church Councils formulated “how the mystery of the Blessed Trinity was revealed, how the Church articulates the doctrine of the Trinity, and how, by the divine missions of the Son and the Holy Spirit, God the Father fulfills the ‘plan of his loving goodness’ of creation, redemption, and sanctification.” (CCC No. 235). In other words, had Christ left us with a mandate to see scripture as the sole authority of the Christian life, we would have been lost from the beginning in controversy about the nature of the Lord himself.
As we began to understand that the Catholic Church is the Church of the early Christians, because it is the Church instituted at Christ’s New Covenant, our doubts transformed into secure belief. We were more and more attracted to The Roman Catholic Church’s worship. In observing the extreme difference between worship in the Catholic Church and the Protestant movement, we found the answers to the quandary about the ever-changing Protestant worship styles. It was time to reconcile how we had worshipped the LORD in the Protestant movement with what we now understood about worship in The Roman Catholic Church. To reconcile is to settle or resolve differences, and at least for us, we could no longer live with the incongruity in the Protestant movement’s methods of worship and biblically-ordered worship. Those were hard words to hear for our fellow Protestant Christians: hackles raised, words were weaponized, isolation and rejection came from expected and unexpected places in our relationships. And yet, we persevered!