Circular Letter: Fall 1995
The Startling Doctrines of Jesus Christ
Jesus gave His Apostles a missionary mandate to preach and convert the whole world (Mt. 28,19); Mk, 16,15f). He sent them in the same power, as the Father had sent Him, in the power of the Holy Spirit (Jn 20,21). Therefore he could assure and guarantee them, that who ever would have listened to Him, will also listen to them (Cf. Jn 15,20), that whoever hears them, hears Jesus. Therefore, whoever should refuse to listen to them would be guilty of Judgment (Mk 16,16). And all of this was possible, because all power in heaven and earth had been given to Him, and He promised, “I am with you always till the end of the world” (Mt. 28,18-20).
In the last Circular we saw that Christ is always present to the Church because He is the very life of the Church, the Life of Christ which is His Mystical Body. We saw that the Church forms one Mystical Person together with Christ. In this present Circular we wish to apply this truth to the life and activity of the Church. Just as JESUS CHRIST lived His historical life in His own human nature 2000 years ago, so today HE continues to live this same life in His BODY, the Church, formed through the spiritual motherhood of Mary, being born again of water and the HOLY SPIRIT. The Church is one mystical person with CHRIST. Accordingly, the true Church — wherever it is to be found — will be identifiable, because the self-same person, JESUS CHRIST, Who acted in Palestine 2000 years ago, is acting now as the head of His BODY the Church. Robert Hugh Benson expresses this idea in this fashion:
We have present upon earth in the Catholic Church that same personality and energy as lived upon the earth 2000 years ago in the figure of JESUS CHRIST. And we have the same environment, namely, the human nature of the world, human ambitions, interests, virtues, vices, circumstances, strengths and weaknesses now as then. We should expect to find the same results now as then. So far as JESUS CHRIST was accepted or rejected by the world into which He came, so will HE be accepted or rejected now, and by the same kinds of people…
If, then, we find in the history of the Catholic Church the same psychological situations as those recorded in the gospels continually reproduced under similar circumstances — if we find, that is, Peters and Judases and Pilates swarming round the Church’s progress through the ages — if we find that the same comments are made, the same paradoxes generated, the same accusations leveled, the same criticisms, the same bursts of flame and thunder — if we find the lepers healed, the dead raised, the devils cast out and the same explanation offered of these phenomena by the incredulous — if we find the same amazing claims uttered to the world, and the same repudiations, demurrings, and acceptances of those claims — if, in short, we find in the Catholic Church, and in the Catholic Church only, the endless intricacies and phenomena recorded in the gospels reproduced on the stage of human history, the conclusion will be overwhelmingly that the same personality that produced those phenomena then is producing them now; and that the Catholic claim to possess JESUS CHRIST in a unique manner in her is not unwarranted.
Although we could demonstrate this truth with respect to the hidden and public life of our Lord, with respect to His passion and Resurrection, in this essay we wish to restrict ourselves to CHRIST’s doctrine. We will present 7 basic doctrines of our Lord as they appear in Scripture. Note that the evangelists not only point out the shocked surprise of our Lord’s hearers but go on to show how our Lord, while acknowledging their amazement, emphatically confirmed the same doctrine. How important these passages are for our proper understanding of CHRIST’s teaching. Just as Thomas’ doubts about the Resurrection reinforce our Faith in the Risen CHRIST, because he put his fingers in the nail wounds and his hand into CHRIST’s side, so too do these incidents of shocked amazement at Christ’s doctrine emphatically confirm their proper understanding.
These doctrines are preached in their integral totality by the Catholic Church. They still cause startled amazement and scandal among Christians. This is so true, that these 7 points may well constitute the principal accusations and complaints against the Catholic Church.
Doctrine 1: The Forgiveness of Sins
“Who can forgive sins, but GOD alone?” JESUS was preaching in Capharnaum to a large crowd that had gathered before the house; there was no room before the door. So it was that the friends of the paralytic lowered him from the roof before Jesus.
“And when JESUS saw their faith, HE said to the paralytic: ‘My son, your sins are forgiven.’ Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, ‘Why does this man speak thus? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but GOD alone?’ And immediately JESUS, perceiving in His spirit what they thus questioned within themselves, said to them, ‘Why do you question thus in your hearts? Which is easier to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your pallet and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’ — HE said to the paralytic — ‘I say to you, rise, take up your pallet and go home.’ And he rose, and immediately took up the pallet and went out before them all; so that they were all amazed and glorified GOD (Mk 2,5-12).
Now, if CHRIST is truly alive and acting in and through His Body, the Church, it is only natural that HE should continue to forgive sins today, as HE did then. Why should people believe in a forgiveness of sins through baptism, and not through a further means of forgiveness entrusted by Christ to His Apostles?
“‘As the FATHER has sent Me, even so I send you.’ And 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; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (Jn 20,20-23).
The same Lord who instituted Baptism, instituted this power of forgiveness in the power of the Holy Spirit and entrusted it to His Apostles. If the power of baptism is passed from the apostles on to their disciples, what argument is there to deny that the power of forgiveness was also passed on by the Apostles to their successors?
Doctrine 2: Grace is the True Life of the Soul
“How can a man be born again when he is old?” This is the incredulous question of Nicodemus and all those who question that JESUS CHRIST can confer upon us a true share in His own life. But JESUS repeats, insisting even more solemnly upon this doctrine: the context is baptism, the effect is a new and divine life: “Amen, Amen, I say to you, unless you are born again of water and the Spirit, you cannot enter the kingdom of GOD.” (Jn 2,5). Hence, those who are baptized are no longer dead through sin, but have risen with CHRIST; they have a new life of grace, CHRIST’s life, within them, for GOD is the GOD of the living and not of the dead. Historically, the reformers denied the reality of this life of grace within us.
Let us add a word about infant baptism here. Recall the man with the possessed son, who begged our Lord to help him. JESUS did not refuse, saying: “No, we must wait until the boy is of age, then he can ask for himself if he wishes to be freed of the power of Satan.” No, because of the father’s faith, albeit weak, – “I believe, help my unbelief!” – JESUS immediately expels the demon (cf. Mk 9,17-28). For the same kind of faith, JESUS also frees the daughter of the Canaanite woman from the vexing, evil spirit. JESUS admired her great faith, expressed in her humble reply – “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table” (Mt 15,27). Similarly, CHRIST also raised souls from the dead at the request of parents and relatives.
Is the believing Church less than these when she begs Jesus to free infants from the dominion of Satan and restore them through Baptism to a share in His life? Ii it possible to believe that CHRIST had more concern for the physical life and well-being of those children mentioned in Scripture, than He has for the Divine Life He desires for all children? At Eve’s request, Adam sinned and lost the life of grace for all men; at the New Eve’s request, CHRIST, the New Adam, confers life on the children of the Church. The free gift of grace abounds more plentifully than the fall (cf. Rom 5, 12-21).
Doctrine 3: The Eucharist
“How can this man give us His flesh to eat?!” This third cry of scandalized dismay arose from the ranks of our Lord’s own disciples (cf. Jn 6, 64-65). They grumbled saying, “This is a hard saying, who can listen to it?” (Jn 6,60) They think that JESUS is calling them to eat His very flesh! And what’s more: they are right! Our Lord emphatically confirms His meaning and their understanding: “Amen, amen I say to you: unless you eat the Flesh of the Son of Man and drink His Blood, you have no life in you… For My Flesh is food indeed, and My Blood is drink indeed” (Jn 6, 53.55). Many stopped following Him for this very reason, because they did understand CHRIST’s meaning, and chose not to believe. Moreover, not only does CHRIST let them go, He even asks the twelve if they also want to leave on account of this doctrine on the Eucharist. If Christ did not intend the Eucharist as His true Body and Blood, He would not have let them lose their faith in Him.
Doctrine 4: Spiritual Poverty is Greater than Wealth
“Who then can be saved?” This is the cry of consternation that escapes from the disciples themselves at hearing our Lord say, “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of GOD!” (Mt 19,26). “Who then can be saved!?” St. Matthew, the former publican, notes the firm gaze and solemn words of JESUS: “For men this is impossible, but with GOD all things are possible”(19,26).
The Church has not only confessed herself to this “option for the poor”, but has always considered those most blessed who accept voluntary poverty for the sake of the Kingdom of GOD. Fortunately, more and more Christian groups acknowledge CHRIST’s predilection for the poor. Still, we may not forget that a classical reformation doctrine on predestination canonized wealth as a sign of salvation, thereby justifying a system of ruthless individualism, even to the point of blessing usury, notwithstanding the biblical condemnation of this sin of avarice and injustice. This contributed greatly to the ruthlessness of the industrial revolution and the ‘creation’ of the third world economic subjugation.
Doctrine 5: The Indissolubility of Marriage
“What GOD has joined together, let no man put assunder!” Our Lord thus proclaimed the indissolubility of marriage. The disciples’ response is shocked surprise: “If that is how it stands with the married, it is better not to marry!” (Mt 19,10). Under the Old Law Moses had permitted divorce because of the hardness of men’s hearts. But now under the New Law of Grace in CHRIST divorce is forbidden. The original order of man and woman before GOD is restored.
Humanly speaking — as the consternation of the disciples testifies — fidelity in marriage is something difficult and great. Historically, the Reformation was scarcely in a position to resist the divisive forces in human nature that mistakenly cry out for divorce, since the Reformation itself was the ‘great divorce’ within Christendom. Who could humanly say ‘no’ to divorce in marriage, in the very moment of divorcing oneself from Christ’s Church?
Sin is, indeed, the cause of divorce. The sin of Adam, which brought death to all men, was itself the ‘divorce’ of mankind from GOD (cf. OT imagery of repudiation and reconciliation of Israel as the spouse of GOD). The old Mosaic Law, did not overcome this divorce, because it did not bring grace, but only disposed man for the promised reconciliation in Christ. Divorce, then, was an expression of man’s deeper alienation from GOD. Once, reconciled to GOD in CHRIST, man may no longer live a mystery of alienation from his neighbor, most especially from that one with whom he (she) has become one flesh! Matrimonial union is the mysterious image of CHRIST’s Union with His Bride, the Church, with whom He becomes one Body. Christ made matrimony a sacrament to signify this union and mystery.
The Catholic Church proclaims the sacred indissolubility of Marriage in fidelity to the doctrine of Christ. Any other position is either a return to the Old Law or a turning to the world.
Doctrine 6: Celibacy the Greater Good
“. . . It is better not to get married!” How surprised the disciples are to hear our Lord take them up their rhetorical exclamation literally. Yes, according to Christ, it is better not to get married, it is better to remain celibate! Jesus adds, “Not all men can receive this precept, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves so for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to receive this, let him receive it.” (Mt 19,11-12). It is evidently, a doctrine, a ‘precept’ for the strong, for those who wish to follow Christ, the virgin Lamb, perfectly for sake of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Who but the Catholic Church proclaims this doctrine unequivocally and fosters and honors those who accept this divine invitation? In this the Catholic Church adheres to our Lord and the doctrine of St. Paul (cf. 1 Cor 7,7.2638).
In Apoc. 14, 1-5, St. John teaches that the ideal priesthood is a celibate, virginal priesthood. The ‘virgins’, “who sing the new song,” and who “follow the Lamb wherever He goes” are men; the Greek word for ‘virgins’, (parthenoi), is in the masculine form here! They are identifiable as priests because they are wearing all the symbolic insignia of the priesthood, who enter the holy of holies with the Lamb.
Doctrine 7: The Magisterial Authority of Christ
“Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church… I give you the keys of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Mt 16,18-19) and, “He who hears you, hears Me!” (Lk 10,116). The Magisterium is the subject of this doctrine, the sure charism of truth, the authentic teaching office of the Church which together with Holy Scripture and Sacred Tradition are so intimately linked and joined together for our confirmation and instruction in the Faith, as to form one inseparable integral mystery (Cf. Vatican II, “Dei Verbum”, § 9).
The Catholic Church evidently does claim to possess such a solemn magisterium of truth embodied in a special way in the Holy Father as Christ’s Vicar on earth, whereas most Christian churches rely on “Sola Scriptura”, that is, “Scripture alone”. Truly, the single greatest objection and complaint against the Catholic Church by other Christians is this: “the Catholic Church is too authoritative.” But when we turn to Christ’s teaching in the Bible, we find that authoritativity and finality were the characteristics of His teaching which most impressed those who heard Him. At the same time, this sovereign authority which Christ exercised shocked and aggravated many of His hearers. The simple, common people heard Him gladly, and with astonishment “for He taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes and pharisees” (Mk 1,22: Mt 7,29).
How did our Lord teach? The manner of Christ is not argumentation but promulgation and declaration of the truth: “You have heard it said,… but I say to you…” In the final analysis, our Lord is condemned for giving authoritative witness to the Truth, to His own Identity and Mission as the Son of GOD. “We speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen; but you do not receive our testimony!” (Jn 3,11).
Truly, if CHRIST is the SON of GOD, the eternal WORD made Flesh, then He must teach and bear witness to the truth in an authoritative manner. And if the Church is His Body, if the Church is mystically one with Christ, then He will continue to act and speak in and through the Church even as He spoke through His Humanity in Judea and Galilee, that is, authoritatively proclaiming the Gospel of Salvation. Now in the modern world, “in the face of the universal idol of broadmindedness and tentative hesitation, and ‘modern thought’ and endless toleration, (there is only one Church which) dares still to condemn as well as to justify, to cast out the faithless as well as to gather in the weary and over-burdened, to be fiercely exclusive, as well as to be singularly inclusive.” That is to say, it cannot fail to impress the sincere reader of Scripture and history, that only the Catholic Church has ever dared to teach like Christ, indeed, has ever dared to claim that Christ today continues to teach in and through her. As St. Augustine expressed it, “I have read all the sages of the world, and not one of them dares to say, ‘Come to me.'”
All Christians Believe in an Infallible Magisterium
Even though non-Catholics take offense at the Infallible Magisterium of the Church, even though they energetically defend the doctrine of “Scripture Alone”, it remains true that they all covertly (most unwittingly) lay claim to an infallible magisterium of supernatural truth! It is extremely important for Catholics to understand this, because it not only facilitates greatly the defense of the Faith but also opens the door for others to enter back into the one fold of Christ.
Catholics and non-Catholics alike are surprised to hear that all Christians implicitly believe in an infallible magisterium. Hence, it is fitting that we demonstrate this truth. The doctrine, “Scripture Alone!”, as Professor Scott Hahn has cogently demonstrated, cannot be found in the Bible. “Sola Scriptura” is a non-Scriptural dogma upon which the whole foundation of Protestantism rests!
Even if ‘Scripture alone!’ were in the Bible, one would still need a divinely inspired magisterium to recognize which writings belong to the Bible, since the Bible itself does not present us with such a list. There were many other books back then claiming to be from the apostles. Just as “no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 12,3), so too is it impossible to supernaturally acknowledge Holy Scripture as the word of GOD except by the identifying light of the Holy Spirit. Whether explicit or implicit, this recourse to the SPIRIT of GOD is an absolutely necessary moment of extra-biblical magisterium. The disintegration of Christianity outside the Church into thousands of different sects proves that that is not the path to the unity of the Church under one shepherd.
From a consideration of the 7 doctrines discussed above we discover a further truth about the Catholic Magisterium. It teaches with the same simplicity and emphasis of JESUS the same doctrine that shocked his hearers 2000 years ago: about the forgiveness of sins; about eating His Body and drinking His Blood; about the indissolubility of marriage; about the beauty and goodness of celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom of GOD, etc. Far different are the mental gymnastics and accommodations to the spirit of the times which are appealed to in order to convince us that JESUS did not really mean what He said.
But Christ’s kingdom is not of this world. He continues to live and speak in His Body the Church. “No prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from GOD” (2 Pet 1,20). If we cannot know by ourselves alone, i.e., by Scripture alone, how are we to understand and have certitude of faith? “Brethren, you know that in the early days GOD make a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe” (Acts 15,7).
Respecting our Neighbor’s Sincerity of Faith
It should cause us great awe, joy and gratitude to belong to the Mystical Body of Christ in its Substantial fullness in the Catholic Church. At the same time, we do well to recognize and respect our fellow Christians in their personal sincerity in faith. They believe in God, they believe in our Lord Jesus Christ with genuine sincerity and devotion. Whatever material lack is to be found in their Creed is not due to their own personal initiative, but they are heirs of the historical wounds and divisions within Christianity. Let us join the Holy Father in praying for the speedy reunion of all Christians in the full splendor of Christ’s Gospel in the bosom of the Church.
Fr. William Wagner, ORC
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