The Origins of the Catholic Church’s Authority (Teaching Authority in the Catholic Church Episode 1)

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“Why does the Catholic Church have so many rules? And with over 2,000 years of councils, papal documents, and catechesis, does every Church teaching have the same amount of relevance today? These are a few questions I hope to answer throughout this series on Church teaching authority.”

By Will Deatherage, Executive Director


(Holds Catechism) Sigh. Why are there so many rules? No, really. Why does the Catholic Church have so many rules? And with over 2,000 years of councils, papal documents, and catechesis, does every Church teaching have the same amount of relevance today? These are a few questions I hope to answer throughout this series on Church teaching authority.

The aftermath of the Second Vatican Council has been filled with much discussion and debate surrounding the subject of the Church’s teaching authority. A lot of this discussion has come from dialogue with other Christian denominations, which have had difficulties accepting the Church’s hierarchy and, by extension, its teachings. So, perhaps it might be useful to begin this analysis of teaching authority with some common ground. The Bible!

In Matthew 16:18, Jesus tells His Apostles, “Upon this rock I will build my Church and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.” And at the end of Matthew, before His Ascension into Heaven, Christ’s final words to His disciples are “I am with you always, to the close of the age.’” Finally, in John 16:12-13, Jesus says “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 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 are to come.”

In these three passages, Christ essentially promises that He will always be with His Church. This unity between Christ and His Church is not, as Sullivan states, a source of pride that the Church is always right because God is always at Her side, rather it is a source of confidence that no matter what happens, no matter what messy historical hijinks befall the Church, that you can learn about in my ecumenical councils series, God will never abandon His people.

Now, when Christ promises to never leave His Church, the logical question arises regarding who is in His Church? And what would it mean, in theory, for Christ to leave His Church? Sullivan interprets Christ’s promise to mean that no matter what happens over the course of history, there will always be at least one person who exists in a state of grace, or connection to Christ. In summary, we say that the Church is indefectible as a community because Christ promises that He will be with His people, even if it’s a handful of them, until the end of time.

At this point, I’d like to restate that indefectible does not mean perfect. Indefectible refers to the assurance of God’s presence among His people; it does not mean they are a perfect people.

But the Church is not merely indefectible as a community guided by Christ. It is also indefectible in its Apostolicity. All Christians believe that the very first witnesses to the Incarnate Christ were the Apostles. Since these Apostles were blessed with a profound relationship with Christ and founded communities that ultimately compiled His teachings, we believe that the most authentic interpretations of the Word of God are traceable to those very first Christians. And, as we read about in Second Timothy, a huge concern of the first generation of Christians were spent on laying out a blueprint for how the accounts and teachings of Christ, entrusted to the Apostles, are to be preserved.

Many of the late New Testament authors wrote about distinguishing true teachers from false ones, and they mention ritual practices like the “laying on of hands” in which leaders called bishops would be appointed to not only preserve Christ’s teachings but lead their communities as well. This practice of laying on of hands is now recognized by Catholics as the Sacrament of Holy Orders. But this sacrament is only valid if it comes from a lineage that traces back to the Apostles; since we believe that Christ and the Holy Spirit would not let this Apostolic lineage cease, the Church is indefectible in its Apostolicity.

Speaking of leading communities, this brings us to a logical conclusion of an indefectible community endowed with leaders who are indefectibly connected to the Apostles. Earlier in this video, we read about how Matthew 16 assures the Church of its permanence against the gates of Hell. In that same passage, Jesus continues “What you [the Apostles] bind on Earth will be bound in Heaven, and what you loose on Earth will be loosed in Heaven.” A key part of the preservation of the Apostolic witness to Christ involves, yes, binding members to certain beliefs and, since Christ calls us to action, practices. A person can’t go around calling themselves a Christian if they don’t, for example, believe that Jesus is God. This practice of handing down teachings to future generations and binding community members to beliefs and practices actually comes from Judaism, in which leaders of the Jewish community had the duty to teach their scriptures and guide their members to abide by its laws. Thus, it is the job of the bishops, who are spiritual successors to the Apostles, to communicate Christ’s teachings to their respective generations and communities, as well as instruct them how they ought to behave. Thus, we say that the Church is indefectible in the truth it teaches, meaning its teachings on beliefs and actions cannot err.

An analogy that helps me put all this into perspective is the American Constitution’s Necessary and Proper Clause, which allows Congress to pass laws for the sake of protecting its almighty, “indefectible” Constitution, from which Congress draws its own authority. Thus, the Constitution not only gives Congress the duty of enforcing laws, but it gives Congress the duty to make more laws that are necessary and proper in protecting the Constitution and the people. “But Will!” You say. “Doesn’t the Church teach that the Word of God is infinitely mysterious and impossible to fully express in human words?” That’s right, voice that lives inside my head. That’s why before we go any further, we have to talk about the difference between sentences and propositions. “But Will!” You interject again. “I thought this was Clarifying Catholicism, not Enlightening English!” And to that I say I should really get some therapy to get rid of this annoying voice inside my head. Until next time, have a great day and God bless you!

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