Peter Kreeft wonders: What if Christ didn’t establish the Catholic Church? . . .
The fundamental reason for being Catholic is the historical fact that the Catholic Church was founded by Christ, and was God’s invention, not man’s — unless Christ, her founder, is not God, in which case not just Catholicism but Christianity is false.
To be a Christian is to believe that “Jesus Christ is Lord.” To acknowledge him as Lord is to obey his will. And he willed the Catholic (“universal”) Church for all his disciples, for all Christians. We are Catholics because we are Christians.
Many Protestants become Catholics for this reason: They read the Church Fathers (earliest Christian writers) and discover that Christ did establish, not a Protestant Church that later became Catholic, but the Catholic Church, parts of which later broke away and became Protestant.
Suppose Jesus had not established a single, visible church with authority to teach in his name. Suppose he had left it up to us. Suppose the Church was our invention instead of his, only human and not divine. Suppose we had to figure out the right doctrine of the Trinity, the two natures of Christ, the sacraments, Mary, and controversial moral issues like contraception, homosexuality and euthanasia. Who then could ever know with certainty the mind and will of God? How could there then be one Church? There would be 20,000 different churches, each teaching its own opinion.
Instead, we do have one Church, with divine authority. As the Father gave authority to Christ (Jn 5:22; Mt 28:18-20), Christ passed it on to his apostles (Lk 10:16), and they passed it on to the successors they appointed as bishops, the teaching authority (Magisterium) of the Church. “Authority” does not mean “power” but “right”—“author’s rights.” The Church has authority only because she is under authority, the authority of her Author and Lord. “No one can give himself the mandate and the mission to proclaim the Gospel. The one sent by the Lord does not speak and act on his own authority, but by virtue of Christ’s authority” (CCC 875).
The authority of the Church has been necessary, for example, for us to know the truth of the Trinity. This most distinctively Christian doctrine of all, the one that reveals the nature of God himself, the nature of ultimate reality, was revealed by God clearly only to the Church. It was not clearly revealed to his chosen people, the Jews. It is not clearly defined in the New Testament. God waited to reveal it to the Church.
This authority of the Church, then, is not arrogant but humble, both (a) in its origin, as received from Christ, under Christ; and (b) in its end, which is to serve, as Christ served (see Jn 16) — if necessary, to the point of martyrdom. Blessed Mother Teresa’s oft-quoted saying describes these two things: “God did not put me on earth to be successful, he put me here to be faithful.”
Peter Kreeft, a professor of philosophy at Boston College, is the best-selling author of over 75 books. This column is reprinted with permission from the book “Catholic Christianity: A Complete Catechism of Catholic Beliefs Based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church” (Ignatius Press, 2001).
Christ is himself the source of ministry in the Church. He instituted the Church. He gave her authority and mission, orientation and goal: “In order to shepherd the People of God and to increase its numbers without cease, Christ the Lord set up in his Church a variety of offices which aim at the good of the whole body. The holders of office, who are invested with a sacred power, are, in fact, dedicated to promoting the interests of their brethren, so that all who belong to the People of God … may attain to salvation.”
Catechism of the Catholic Church, #874