(This concludes the 3-part article on the authority of the Catholic Church by convert to Catholicism Fr. Dwight Longenecker.)
It Is Visible . . .
As a Protestant I was taught that the Church was invisible. That is, it consisted of all people everywhere who believed in Jesus, and that the true members of the Church were known to God alone. This is true, but there is more to it than that. Invisibility and visibility make up the fifth paired set of characteristics that mark the truly authoritative church.
The Church is made up of all people everywhere who trust in Christ. However, this characteristic alone is not satisfactory because human beings locked in the visible plane of reality also demand that the Church be visible. Even those who believe only in the invisible church belong to a particular church which they attend every Sunday. Those who believe only in the invisible church must conclude that the church they go to doesn’t really matter.
. . . and Invisible
The Catholic system of authority recognizes both the invisible dimension of the Church and the visible. The Church is greater than what we can observe, but the church we observe is also greater than we think. The invisible Church subsists in the Catholic Church, and while you may not be able to identify the extent of the invisible Church, you can with certainty point to the Catholic Church and say, “There is the Body of Christ.”
A few small Protestant denominations claim that their visible church is the true church, but their claims are ludicrous because they have none of the other twelve traits of true authority. Because it has all these traits, only the Catholic Church can claim to be the living, historical embodiment of the Body of Christ on earth.
It is Both Human and Divine
Finally, for the church to speak with authority it must be both human and divine. An authority that speaks only with a divine voice lacks the authenticity that comes with human experience. So Islam and Mormonism, which are both based on a book supposedly dictated by angels, are unsatisfactory because their authority is supernaturally imposed on the human condition.
On the other hand, a religion that is purely a construct of the human condition is merely a system of good works, religious techniques, or good ideas. Christian Science or Unitarianism, for example, is developed from human understandings and natural goodness. As such, both lack a supernatural voice of authority.
The Judeo-Christian story, however, is both human and divine. The voice of authority is always expressed through human experience and human history. Divine inspiration in the Judeo-Christian tradition is God’s word spoken through human words. This incarnated form of authority finds its fulfillment in Jesus Christ, who hands on his totally incarnated authority to Peter and his successors.
Built upon the Rock
Some Churches may exercise some of the twelve traits, but only the Catholic Church is able to field all twelve as a foundation for decision-making. When the Catholic Church pronounces on any difficult question, the response is historical, but up to date. It is based on objective principles but applies to specific needs. The Church’s authority transcends space and time, but it is relevant to a particular place and time. The response will be intellectually profound, but expressed in a way that is simple enough for anyone to apply. Finally, it will express truths that are embedded in the human experience, but spring from divine inspiration.
This authority works infallibly through the active ministry of the whole Church. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that it is Christ who is infallible, and he grants a measure of his infallibility to his body, the Church. That infallibility is worked out through these twelve traits, but it is expressed most majestically and fully through Christ’s minister of infallibility: one person—the Rock on which the Church is built, Peter and his successors.
Personal Note: As a Catholic and a priest I know that the authority found in the Catholic Church is a solid rock of assurance that our faith, founded by Christ, is strong and unchanging. It is directly linked to the teaching office of the pope who is directly linked to every pope before him all the way back to the Divine Saviour Himself. Without this authority we’d be just another self-appointed, self-styled church making up our minds on what “we” will all believe based on a consensus and not on the truth. History has shown, however, that this does not work and quickly devolves into splintering, division and separation one from another. If there is one truth with one authority how come there are 40,000 different Christian denominations? The truth of Christ is immoveable and therefore needs to be grounded and rooted in that which Christ has established, his Church, built on the Apostles and sustained by the power, movement and promptings of the Holy Spirit. For the one truth that is Christ there can only be one authority and not many.
The Church already knows what she is going to say in every situation of the human agenda that is thrust upon the world because her teaching is already within her and is applied to every situation. The truth is not “out there” but within the heart of the teaching authority of the Church and the Spirit which guides her.
The need for authority is not only universal but personal. As Colin Urquhart said,
“If you accept the authority of Jesus in your life,
then you accept the authority of his words.”