Why be a Catholic?
by Edwin Jowitt
The fact that you are reading this probably means you already believe in God. If so you may be wondering what you should do about it. You may already have begun that journey. In that case, I hope you will be patient with me if I begin at the point of wondering.
We should find it strange if a dog, looked after and fed by its master or mistress, totally ignored him or her. If a dog had a mind and could reason things out it probably would be equally surprised if its master or mistress, though believing in God, totally ignored Him. This raises the question whether God, who created mankind and the universe, does look after His creation and those who live in it, as the master or mistress looks after the dog. The philosopher who believes in God can tell us why, having brought creation into being, He has to keep it in being for it to continue to exist. We can see from the complexities of creation that God must be a rational being. Why, as a rational being, would God keep in being a creation in which He has no interest? This would make no sense. We can see about us both good and evil. If God were evil would he permit good to exist? Why then, being good, does He permit evil to exist? We can only explain this by saying that evil is the absence of goodness where there should be goodness and that, having given us free will (our common sense and experience tells us we do have free will), He allows us to reject good where there should be goodness so that, in consequence, there is in place of what should be goodness what we regard as evil.
But God wants us to be good and He has provided us with the ability to judge between good and evil and have well formed consciences. If we look around us we can see we are all in need of reliable instruction and that it is not satisfactory that we should be left to our own devices. It isn’t enough that we should do our best according to our own light. That would mean that there are no objective standards of good and bad. That would be a recipe for chaos and unhappiness. Goodness brings about acceptable conditions in which happiness can exist. The child putting its hand in the boiling water, unaware the boiling water scalds, will still be scalded. Ignorance provides no protection. In the same way, there are objective standards of goodness which we need to know and follow to avoid evil consequences.
Common sense tells us that God loves us and wants us to be happy. It tells us also that conscience is not like a machine which operates in accordance with its design and has no free will. If a thing is wholly material it can only perform in accordance with its design. Free will – a faculty of our soul or spirit – is not material and we are more than the physical components which make up our bodies. Our consciences exist in our souls.
The use of our intellect can tell us a lot about morality and the nature of God. But the truth of the Christian faith cannot be proved by reason. We can show why it is not contrary to reason but faith is God’s gift to us. It should not surprise us that there are aspects of God which are beyond the reach of human reason and this is where faith has its place so that we can know more about Him than our reason, left to itself, would be able to tell us.
As Christians we believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God the Father and the Second Person in the Blessed Trinity, the Third Person being the Holy Spirit – three persons each possessing the one divine and infinite nature. The New Testament tells us of the life and activities of Jesus Christ and there can be no doubt that He was a historical person. We cannot know by our unaided reason that God is a Trinity, or many of the truths and doctrines of the Christian faith, including those about the sacraments and the nature of grace. This is why the Christian faith is called a revealed faith-the faith which is told to us and not worked out simply by the use of reason. If we look at the actions of the historical Jesus Christ for which we turn to the Gospels we know He founded a church and that it had the task teaching the faith to the end of time. He said to Peter, “You are the rock on which I will build my Church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” It is interesting to note before Peter became an apostle he was known as Simon and it was Christ who called him Peter, Kepha, in Aramaic. This was also the word for rock.
We can use reason to tell us certain things about the Church following from Jesus Christ’s words. He taught us about the second coming and the end of the world. Some of the Apostles and St Paul thought the time was close at hand but Christ said he didn’t know when it would be and that this was known only to the Father. What we can conclude is that Christ was teaching the faith which was to be passed on until the end of time, however long that might be. What was the mechanism by which this was to be accomplished? The answer comes from the fact that Jesus Christ founded a Church. Our reason tells us that it was an essential part of His mission to found a Church. He was not going to suffer crucifixion rise from the dead and ascend into heaven and leave us without providing the means of knowing the revealed faith, in order that it should be able to survive and help us to live our lives, and for it to be passed down through the generations. It was also essential, if we were to recognise the importance of the sacraments in our lives, that these should be made available to the faithful down through the generations. This is why we can say with confidence that it was an essential part of Jesus Christ mission to found a Church.
What are the characteristics which this Church needed to have? The revealed faith could only be passed on through a church which had Christ’s authority to teach that faith reliably and would be prevented from teaching false doctrine about the essentials of the faith and for us to be able to recognise this authority. We call this infallibility. Criticisms of the doctrine of infallibility are often based on the premise that a claim for infallibility is wider than is in fact claimed for it by the Church.
Is there an alternative which doesn’t need to call on infallibility? What about scripture? Before we can rely upon scripture as an acceptable alternative two questions have to be considered. The decision about which scriptural writings should be included in the Bible was made at a Council of the Church at Carthage in 397, by a Pope in 382 and only finally in 1546 at the Council of Trent. The first question, therefore, is how did the Church manage before the decisions of the Councils, especially since some of the scriptures were not written until a generation and more after the death of Christ? Before the Council at Carthage the Church relied on its traditional teaching handed down by the Apostles and the acceptance of approved scriptural writings as they were produced. (Approved of meaning that they did not contradict the tradition of faith but were consistent with it.) Over the centuries there had been a development of doctrine as more became understood of Christ’s teaching. This process did not come to an end with the Council of Trent. Common sense suggests that new insights can be gained over the passage of time which can be built on, not resulting in changing fundamental truths but bringing greater insight into their meaning.
Which were the scriptural writings to be included in the Canon of scripture and what gives these and not other scriptural writings their authority? Those scriptural writings which were in accord with the traditional teaching of the Church were included. Those which were not were rejected. But Scripture takes its authority from the pre – reformation Church and accepting the authority of scripture means accepting the authority of the pre – reformation Church on matters of doctrine. But to accept scripture as having become, after the two Councils referred to, the sole arbiter of orthodoxy would have required a conscious decision. There is no evidence that the council saw it as substituting a new basis for the authority of the Church’s teaching and so discarding the old orthodoxy. To do this would have been illogical and unnecessary and would have required a decision that recourse to that orthodoxy was now inappropriate. In making their decisions the Councils had recourse also to the authority of tradition which is something additional to scripture. Recourse to tradition is still alive today.
A further point of critical importance has also to be made. Since the Reformation there have been new Christian Churches formed in this country and in other lands. Initially there was what became the Anglican Church when it broke away from Rome and this was followed by other sects breaking away from the Anglican tradition and new denominations being formed without necessarily any breaking away from an existing denomination but attracting believers from other denominations.
Is this what God intended, divided Christendom with different sects placing not only different emphases on traditional beliefs but on some points adopting new conflicting beliefs and rejecting what had once been the common ground among Christians? It is clear this was not what God intended. It was clearly His will that we should all and always belong to the Church which He founded. At this point in our consideration we should remember Jesus’ prayer to the Father which clearly points to what is God’s will: “That they may be one as You Father in me and I in thee that they may be one in us.” Also, as pointed out above Christ prayed that the gates of hell should not prevail against His Church. He clearly intended that there should be one Church united in its belief. Why should there be more than one church when there is only one faith, the Christian faith? God’s will that there should be continuing unity of belief (and conflicting beliefs cannot all be true) could not be clearer. How is the would be believer to know to which denomination he should belong – because on some important points some denominations do have conflicting beliefs, first and foremost of these being in relation to the Real Presence in the sacrament of Holy Communion.
What did Christ do so that the Church He founded would always be recognisable? He put Peter at the head of the Church and gave him this injunction, “Feed my lambs, feed my sheep.” There can be no doubt that the Roman Catholic Church is the Church Christ founded. It has the apostolic succession to which ordinations can be traced to the early church but also the Pope, as head of the Church, can be readily identified. We are able to recognise after 2000 years that the Roman Catholic Church is the Church Jesus Christ founded.