In trying to defend and explain Catholic teaching recently, I was asked why the Catholic Church should believe that it has a monopoly on the Truth. The person asking was a self-professed ‘None’, claiming to be neither Catholic nor any other denomination – just simply a Christian trying to figure out what Christ would want us to do. His biggest bone of contention was that he thought the Catholic Church to be exclusionary with its doctrinal laws and that Christ would want to include everybody. I agreed with my interlocutor wholeheartedly, unfortunately he had a hard time understanding that it is not the Catholic Church that excludes individuals, but rather the individual sinners that chose to exclude themselves from the teachings of Christ through the Catholic Church. This is when the question of the Catholic Church being the holder of God’s Truth was asked.
I knew that a simple answer of Christ building his Church on the rock of St. Peter and the subsequent genealogy of papal succession wouldn’t cut it as an answer. Nor would either Christ’s commissioning of St. Peter with the keys to heaven or the sending forth of the Apostles be sufficient. I’m pretty certain that the person asking the question already had the answer he wanted to hear in mind – that only a personal Christ known through the Bible could express the Truth, and not the College of Cardinals.
I was left scrambling for an answer coming from his own perspective to convince him. It was only 2 days later that I found an appropriate way to answer the question on the primacy of the Catholic Church while reading How to Listen When God is Speaking by Mitch Pacwa, S.J.
My line of argument had to start from common ground, a belief that we both held – that God, our Father, is the creator of heaven and earth and that Jesus Christ was his Son. Agreeing upon this we could then recognize the divine nature of Christ and his oneness with the Father and the Holy Spirit in the Blessed Trinity. Although the mystery of the Trinity is difficult to get one’s head around, there is nothing in this statement that any Christian would deny – even the staunchest anti-Catholic Protestant.
From here we need to ask ourselves: Whom did Christ come to teach? The answer being all of humanity. Jesus taught mainly through parables, using the language and symbols the people of his time and place could understand. These parables have been handed down to us through scripture to be read and applied to our contemporary lives. However, and this is important to the point of the Catholic Church having the ability to unpack the lessons of the parables for us, after teaching the parables to the crowds, Christ would then take the 12 Apostles aside and teach them how to understand the deeper meanings of the parables so as to be able to explain them to those who seek the Truth (Mt 13:16-23, 36-43 and Jn 13:17-20). From this we can acknowledge that although Christ is the undisputed source of the Truth, his apostles became his preferred source for the interpretation of the Truth for the lay people.
The question for us remains, however, of how this authority to interpret Christ’s teachings has been handed down throughout the ages in the Magisterium of the Catholic Church? To answer this we need to examine how Jesus wanted his teachings to be handed down and interpreted. To know this, we join Jesus and the Apostles at the table of the Last Supper where Christ promises them the guidance of the Holy Spirit:
“When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that will come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” (Jn 16:13-15)
This was reaffirmed for the Apostles when Christ appeared to them in the locked room after the resurrection:
Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (Jn 20:21-23)
It’s amazing that these same words are said to Catholic priests 2,000 years later when they are ordained as the Archbishop breaths on them.
This conveyance to the Apostles of knowledge and ability to understand and interpret Christ’s teachings is reiterated when he appears to them after the resurrection in Luke’s Gospel (Lk 24:45) as well as at Christ’s Ascension into heaven (Acts 1:8).
As we continue to read the Acts of the Apostles, we learn of the great deeds that were done in Christ’s name and how the Early Church developed in Jesus’ absence, handing down Christ’s teaching from one generation to another. We cannot begin to believe that these holy and righteous disciples, infused with the Holy Spirit, would have deviated from Christ’s intent. As Christ’s teachings were transmitted by the disciples from one generation to the next, they were guided, as Christ promised, by the Holy Spirit to form the doctrines of the One Holy and Apostolic Catholic Church of today. A Catholic Church that can trace the source of its teachings to the 12 men who, breathed on by the risen Christ, came to understand the scriptures so as to speak the Truth.
If we truly believe that Jesus Christ is the head of the Church on earth (as all Christians are called to believe), then we must also believe that the Apostles and their descendants – the Catholic Church – were called to carry out His will until the end of time.