This is an email from my friend Millie sent to the Witherspoon Fellows back in 2006 during one of our famous "discussions.." She's brilliant by the way.
Anyone in my class will tell you that I just can't resist this sort of debate, and hence, I offer my humble seven cents:
1) Just so no one delves deep into the annals of history to attempt to answer Matthias Caro's question, I'll go ahead and state it: At no point in history has the Catholic Church changed her official teachings. It simply hasn't happened. She has learned more, and been guided further and further into truth (the Kingdom of Heaven is like the mustard seed that grows into a tree that gives shelter – see Matthew 13), but she has not changed her teachings.
For, perhaps, my favorite example, bear with me as I sum up the story of one of my favorite popes, Vigilius.
Vigilius was a papal representative at Constantinople and, being very ambitious, was courted by the Empress Theodora to implement the Monophysite heresy. She promised to make Vigilius pope and give him much riches, and Vigilius, adhering to the heresy himself, agreed to do as she asked, in addition to reinstating a Monophysite bishop who had been removed from office due to his heresy. As antipope (claiming to rule while he imprisoned the actual pope), Vigilius wrote many letters in support of the Monophysite heresy. Eventually, the pope died, and much to the chagrin of the electoral college, he was duly elected pope himself. Once legitimately in office, Vigilius recanted his promise and wrote vehemently against the Monophysite heresy. He had been changed completely, and found himself unable to do what he had promised he would do: lead the Church into heresy.
The story accurately demonstrates what the Church really believes about infallibility: the overwhelming grace of our God prohibits the rightful leader of his Church from teaching error (note that Vigilius was not protected from promoting error until he was the legitimate pope). But it is that grace which is the focus. Infallibility is not about the man; it's about the office. It's about grace, not arrogance or the goodness of the man.
To me, this seems like a point the average Calvinist would appreciate, if not incorporate into his thinking: the grace of God is so powerful in certain circumstances that it prevents the believer from acting contrary to it. That is how much God loves us; that is how overwhelming his goodness is to his children: he keeps us, protects us, and plants us in a safe place. We can trust our Father, and we can trust his gifts, the greatest of which was his Son, who gave us the cross, the resurrection, and the Church.
No matter how many illegitimate children the pope has, no matter how many unjust wars he may or may not have sanctioned (and I strongly recommend reading good history on this subject -- the Spanish Inquisition, for example, was far less bloody and far more political than your average high-schooler is taught), no matter what heresy a certain pope promised to install, or seemed likely to sanction (i.e. Pope Paul VI's remarkable orthodoxy on the issue of birth control, against all exterior pressure), Jesus Christ himself promised that the Church would not fail.
See Matthew 16 and John 16. The gates of hell will not prevail against the Church; the Spirit of God will guide her into all truth.
All of Jesus' words were intentional. There are only three ways to regard what Jesus said of his beloved, the Church:
a) The Church has not always been correct in her teaching. She has taught heresy and error. Therefore, Jesus was lying when he said the gates of Hell would not prevail against her. They did.
b) The Early Church -- the supposed, ahistorical church mentioned in an earlier e-mail, the one "of Jesus and John the Baptist, before those Peter nuts sprang up in Rome " -- knew the truth. Once those Romish sorts got their hands on her, they led her into all sorts of error, from cannibalism to that Marian weirdness to all those darn statues and gold bricks and wars. It took good old Martin Luther and his sort to straighten her out, and thank goodness for their courage! If this is true, then again, Jesus' promise failed. The gates of Hell prevailed against the Church, at least for about 1100 years. (And I'd challenge anyone to maintain that the ridiculous abundance of Protestant denominations is an accurate portrait of hell not prevailing, and being led into all truth.)
c) The pope has the grace to make infallible statements. Jesus Christ led her into truth; he preserved her against all hell. His promises hold weight; he keeps them. We can trust the Church he instituted, as the Sacred Scriptures teach us he did: with authority, with the power to bind and loose, to cast out demons, to cast a shadow and heal the sick, to bring Sapphira to death, the power to forgive sins -- it's all in there. Jesus meant what he said, and he kept his promises.
2) Passages like the aforementioned are almost always ignored as the Protestant seeks to build his case against the Catholic Church. "Where's infallibility in the Bible?" he asks. I respond, "Where's the Bible in the Bible? And what are the Bible's claims about the Church?"
I'll make it simple: I Timothy 3.15 -- The Church is "the pillar and bulwark of truth."
What? Despite all the claims made by our Reformed brothers, the Bible doesn't tell us to look for it as the final source of truth? (Anyways, rhetorically, appealing to one's own authority doesn't exactly begin to build a watertight case. Note: the Church appeals to the authority of Jesus Christ, who in turn gave her authority. The Church does not say, "Listen to us; we're in charge." It says, "Listen to us; Jesus Christ gave us authority to loose and bind, and he guides us.") My own Bible tells me to look to the Church?
But whose Church? The Unity Church ? Martin Luther's? John Calvin's? Full Gospel Eden Road Free Will Missionary Baptist Alliance ? Those house churches cropping up all over the place, with the tongues and the prophecy and stuff?
And furthermore, whose Bible? Someone had to proclaim -- or, if you prefer, "discover" -- what the canon of Holy Scripture was. Do you want the one everyone used until the 1500s, the one still used by 1.5 billion Catholics and Orthodox? Or would you prefer Martin Luther's, which cut out the books of Revelation and James? The modern day evangelicals', which appears not to have those pesky passages in John, where Jesus tells his followers that unless they gnaw on his flesh and slurp his blood (literal translation there), they do not have life within them? And without those irritating stories in Acts, where even a cursory reading clearly demonstrates that Peter is given the most human authority in the early Church?
Mr. Freels, avoiding Rick Barry's legitimate question about how we know what is Scripture by throwing Plato's works into the heap does not begin to answer his challenge. Nor does suggesting that the early Christians individually worked out for themselves a reliable canon. Much confusion surrounded Scripture, and doctrine, and practice. We look to the Church Fathers for guidance on the interpretation of Scripture because they were there. The early Christians continued "In the Apostle's teaching, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers."
No fallible individual is able to determine for himself what accurately belongs in Scripture. Many attempt this; hence, too many Christians avoid the Eucharist, the anointing of the sick, and what the Bible clearly teaches about the authority of the apostles. Yes, you have the luxury of a reliable tradition in what you accept to be Sacred Scripture, but to begin to suggest that either a) the early Christians had the same luxury or b) they were somehow able to work it out amongst themselves is at best, ahistorical; at worst, it is ludicrous.
Whether the Canon was proclaimed or discovered (and I maintain that for the purposes of this discussion, they are one and the same), someone had to tell us what rightly belonged in Holy Scripture. That someone had to have authority, and had to be protected (if God does indeed protect his children) from including, say, the rather Buddhist-seeming Gospel of Thomas. Being and nothingness, indeed.
3) I digress. If you're still with me, thank you. There's really nothing I'm more passionate about than this subject.
We can see from point one that Jesus maintained that the Church would not be given over to the devil, and we can see from point two that the Bible confirms this, though the words of the Great Apostle (that is, Saint Paul).
(My favorite discussion regarding I Timothy 3.15 was with a Witherspoon alumnus, who told me that because the Bible only makes this claim once -- debatable; I think it makes this claim implicitly about fifty times -- it doesn't really count. Given the fact that Holy Scripture has a lot more to say about shellfish than sodomy, I'd question the integrity of this line of reasoning. And no, I won't tell you who it was.)
4) Given the assertions of Jesus Christ and the Bible, it seems that God intended for his children to have a safe place to reside, where they would not be led into lies and error. If Jesus really meant what he said, wouldn't he offer the Church the grace to fulfill his promise? (That seems to be Saint Paul ’s understanding of things, too.)
Americans are terrified of authority. We love to think that we act autonomously and that we can take care of our own salvation. However, without a God-given authority to discuss the issues of today, we are lost. Hence, the overwhelming acceptance of birth control ("The Bible doesn't say it's wrong, so let's get you on the Pill, honey!"), the willful ignorance of what Jesus says regarding remarriage (hint: it has to do with adultery), and the casual disregard of the Eucharist (which, I hasten to add, was the Last Act of our Lord before his crucifixion), it is hard to believe that we can shake ourselves free of our culture in order to find truth. We desperately need guidance and ought to be grateful that our God offers it, not just through Scripture, but through his Church. When you really read the Scriptures, you begin to discover that Jesus came to save his people, and he intended to do so through a Church.
Rejecting authority is not just a silly American ignorance; it is diabolical. We find it easy to say that Jesus is our authority, because he seems far away, and apparently has little to say about whether or not I use a diaphragm. But tell me some group of men is going to guide me, and my knickers are in a twist!
(Which is silly, because if I don't rely on authority, I am my own authority, and many painful, pre-Catholic years have taught me how well that worked.) I repeat myself: for me, for any reader, for any Christian to reject God-inspired human authority is a grave error, and history has demonstrated that it leads to much heartache and sin.
5) We have two choices: to disbelieve the promises of our Lord, or to believe them. We can approach humbly, and in awe, at the overwhelming grace of God, who has sustained his people and continued to maintain them in truth, despite centuries of intellectual dissention, transubstantiation versus consubstantion, and anti-popes.
Catholics disagreeing with one another about clerical dress and giving the Eucharist to Bill Clinton or John Kerry are still unified. Their arguments may not be. There may be tares among the wheat, or bad fish among the good catch, as our Lord calls them. They may be bad Catholics, or heretical ones, but ultimately, they still have to reckon with the fact that they are out of line with the Church. "There's no such thing as a pro-choice Catholic." As Matthias Caro so concisely pointed out, a fundamental unity -- in reality, not in some esoteric "We all believe in Jesus, so who cares?" realm -- remains, no matter what.
In this way, the authority of the Church acts as a safety net, reminding believers of what is true, and what matters, and what Jesus said, and what it means to be his follower.
6) As a former anti-Catholic who was grabbed, hard, by the simple truth of the matter at hand (as well as the truth about birth control, baptism, the Communion of Saints, and the Eucharist), I found in an honest reading of Holy Scripture -- and re-reading, and crying arguments, and anger, and a thousand other hissy fits -- that my Protestant education had been a sort of thin gruel, neatly ignoring the Creeds (one, holy, catholic, and apostolic? who does that sound like? --and, no, redefining "one" "holy" "catholic" and "apostolic" does not make for a legitimate confession of the creed-- one baptism for the remission of sins? the remission?), a great deal of the Bible, and history.
I would humbly urge my Protestant siblings and friends to examine history. Discover what Ignatius of Antioch (a disciple of Saint John ) has to say about the Eucharist. Find out how confused the early Christians were about Scripture, and how it would have been impossible for them to build their doctrine on it (given the proliferation of false Gospels and an abundance of heresy, not to mention the fact that the Epistles recommend against it – re-read 1 Timothy 3.15). Read about how every see besides Rome -- Jerusalem , Antioch , Alexandria , and Constantinople -- taught heresy for long periods of time. Consider the fruits of the Reformation: there are over 30,000 Protestant denominations, and new ones form almost daily. Is that the unity Jesus begs of his father in John 17? Think about Francis Schaffer alone saving Protestants from long believing in the gift of abortion, when the Church has always taught against it. What about the history of birth control, when one by one, major Christian denominations loosened their stance, until now no one has anything authoritative and concrete to say about it, besides the Catholic Church? What about divorce, remarriage, and uncertainty about doctrine? What about, I beg you to consider, the Eucharist? What did Jesus say about it? What did everyone believe, including Martin Luther (though he in a complicated, unorthodox way) until the 1500s?
I strongly recommend Stephen Ray's Crossing the Tiber, heavy on the footnotes but clear on the inevitable conclusions that history actually demonstrates.
7) So I can legitimately call this a response to the debate about the initial question of soteriology, I would point out that neither Saints Aquinas nor Augustine teach infallibly. Their arguments are plausible, and often correct, and certainly worth reading, but the Church maintains what she has always maintained: "Are we saved by works or by faith? Neither, you dolt. We're saved by grace." Separating faith and works creates a false dichotomy; hence: Saint James’ words on the subject.
No honest Christian can take credit for his own salvation, and no honest Christian can continue to believe that he bears no responsibility for it. God stretches out his arm across the chasm that separates him from his creation. He does so 100%. And we must respond 100%. True, only grace allows us to respond, but who am I to claim that what I Timothy 4.9-11 says isn't true? ("This is a faithful saying worthy of all acceptance. For to this end we both labor and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe.")
When I began to truly read the Holy Scriptures, my life was at a point of crisis. I remained there for three years, struggling over passages about baptism, about Jesus' descent into hell, over the pastoral epistles, over the book of Revelation. The only group of people I discovered who were actually dealing with the entirety of Scripture were the Catholics. There were no “Yeah, but” responses from the Catholic Church when I asked questions about the Bible. They believed it all. And they believed all of it at once.
Most Reformed folks I knew (and my life is still full of them) dealt well with particular passages, say, Romans 8. Yet there was a great blindness to the whole of the faith. Saint Paul 's words about predestination are short passages in long letters which are primarily focused on what it is to be good and faithful and to submit to Jesus Christ, the head of his body the Church, and to love our neighbors. I have often felt that Calvin and his followers are sitting in front of a tapestry, pulling out all the red threads, saying, "See? This one's red, too!" all the while ignoring the picture. For a human being trapped in time to attempt to comprehend the workings of God's mind is simply silly. And with all the assertions Reformed theology makes about the flawed reasoning of men and the absolute brokenness of our nature, it seems a little preposterous to suggest that these men could determine what is Scripture, let alone sum up the work of God in an acronym of five points.
That only the Catholics discussed the whole of Scripture was a bitter pill to swallow, particularly given my penchant for attempting to "rescue" Catholics from their papist, Marian idolatry (what I'd now call "sheep stealing" -- and the reason I'm not impressed with the obscene numbers of folks going to predominately Catholic countries to evangelize those poor, lost souls) and my own ego, but I have finally come. I approach the confessional humbly, knowing that it is not the priest who forgives my sins, but Jesus Christ through the office of the priest. I look to Pope Benedict for leadership (still with my fingers crossed in the hopes that the Holy Spirit won't fail!), knowing that what his office is about isn't really the power or authority of the Church, per se, but about the grace of God and the power and authority of Jesus Christ. And I receive the Eucharist with a timid heart, rejoicing in the fact that the whole Church -- past, present, and future, Militant, Penitent, and Triumphant, on earth, in Purgatory, and at the last supper so beautifully described in Revelation -- eats and drinks our Lord with me. What magnificence.
I am grateful to my Protestant father -- an Anglican rector -- who raised me on the Scriptures, to the Reformed University Fellowship, who challenged me to base my faith on the Bible -- and were horrified at what happened when I did! -- and for the lonely hours I have spent with the prophets major and minor, with Saints John, Peter, and Paul, and later, with a history so powerful and overwhelming I finally had to do what my Catholic husband did so beautifully: submit. Ultimately, I realized that his submission to authority was a thousand times more Christian than my arrogance was.
I rejoiced when I arrived at the Witherspoon Fellowship, realizing I could finally talk about all these things with my peers, and I lamented our disunity, and I confess my own long, repeated moments of unkindness and pride in dealing with the issues, but I am delighted, as always, to be able to listen and share my own journey to find truth.
Millie McGehee Jerome Dasher
(Yes, Jerome is my confirmation name. And yes, it's because he was the worthy translator of Scriptures and fleer of temptation, and it was nothing short of the Sacred Scriptures that led me into his Church.)