The Contender

Robert De Niro’s Al Capone, in the movie The Untouchables, says of his battles with the tough new Treasury Department team that’s investigating him, “One more thing, you have an all out prize fight, you wait until the fight is over, one guy is left standing. And that’s how you know who won.” He’s right.

One of the ways in which the world could know that Israel was the chosen nation was that this tiny people, located in some highly-coveted, routinely-conquered land, perservered. They were hated, both for their prosperity and their exclusiveness: their stubborn refusal to give in to the ancient “multiculturalism” of worshipping other nations’ gods. While all of their neighbors went with the flow, so to speak, Israel was the prudish people who insisted that there was only One God, and that this God didn’t look kindly upon idolatry and polytheism. Despite the repeated failings of the Israelites themselves, the nation of Israel was a sign and a symbol to the world, intended, we’re told, not just for Israel’s sake, but for everyone’s. This is one of the questions which seems to confuse people: why choose a tiny, seemingly unimportant people as the chosen race? Why have a chosen race at all? The answer is simple. By choosing an unlikely candidate as your messenger, and having that messenger survive some pretty outrageous odds, it suggests both that the messenger is chosen by God, and more importantly, that the Message is true.

This didn’t stop under the New Covenant. God chose a ragtag band of Disciples who, prior to St. Paul, didn’t seem to have a trained theologian amongst them. From this band, Christ built His Church, and it was almost immediately transferred to Rome – St. Peter sends greetings from “Babylon,” a code word frequently used to describe Rome, as early as 1 Peter 5:13.

While a number of denominations claim to be spiritual heirs to the Gospel, the Catholic Church can demonstrate that She isn’t just the insititutional heir to the early Church, She’s the same Church. There has continually been an office of “Bishop of Rome,” with various other churches in communion with that see, since the time of Peter. I know that there is some debate amongst Christians over whether the early bishops of Rome were popes, and whether they possessed the same power that popes today possess, but that’s not really relevant to my argument today. My argument is simply that the Roman see, with various churches in communion with it, has existed longer than any government on Earth. That just as the nation of Israel saw the rise and fall of her giant foes, the Roman Catholic Church has seen the same.

She’s seen the fall of the Roman Empire, the fall of Genghis Khan and the Mongols, of a thousand nations. She was there for centuries before anyone had ever heard of a thing called “Islam,” and She watched Her pagan rivals die off, whether they be the Roman cults or Germanic paganism. She predates the existence of the English language, as well as languages like French, Spanish, Italian, and so forth, and She lived when Latin was very much a living language.

It’s not hard to envision an idea or a people surviving for two thousand years (or to use the most extreme Protestant history, 1500 years), but a single dynasty? My argument is that no merely human institution could have done so without the blessing of God. Indeed, no merely human institution has done so. Ever. In history. The Roman Emperors blended secular and religious power, so if all that it took to surive was control of the Roman Empire with a religious system propping it up, we should expect to have seen that. But we don’t. The Roman Empire lasted a few hundred years and collapsed. China has had a relatively stable nation for millenia, but has had some pretty violent, dramatic shifts in dynasty. None of their historical dynasties lasted for more than a few centuries before they collapsed and another group swept in.

But there’s no question of that occurring in the Catholic system. Certainly, there were (and are) political factions within the Church, there were popes who didn’t like previous popes, and there were pretenders to the papacy. There was, even, the so-called Babylonian Captivity period, where the Roman See was located in Avignon, France for decades (although it was made clear that this was a temporary arrangement, and there was no question of who was in charge of the churches in Rome). Plus, the Roman See, even when it had a military, had a small military. Many of the embarassing moments in Catholic history come from popes too cowardly to stand up to massive armies (which, by the way, is how the papacy briefly ended up in Avignon, anyways). So again, you have an institution – now a Church, rather than an ethnic group – with strong moral force, and a strong reliance upon God (peppered, of course, with massive human failings) that survives insurmountable odds.

The Church’s obituary has been written hundreds of times. She shouldn’t have survived Gnosticism, Roman Imperial persecution, the Vandals who sacked Rome, the fall of the Empire, the Mongol invaders, the Muslim invaders, the Reformation, the rise of Modernism, the Revolutionary period of the mid-19th century, the rise of Marxism, the rise of Darwinism and Social Darwinism, the rise of Communism, the rise of Nazism and Fascism, etc. In this past century alone, She was thought to be finished for Her “archaic” views against Aryan racial superiority and eugenics, against Modernism, against contraception, against abortion, against homosexuality and gay marriage. She’s just unstoppable. And yet She’s frequently run by, if I may be so blunt, dolts and cowards. Certainly, there have been some truly brilliant Catholic clerics, but there have also been some embarassingly bad ones. The Church’s failings would be enough to bring a company or a nation to its knees, something critics of the handling of the sex abuse scandal rightly note. But She just keeps ticking.

I don’t know what the future will look like, but I can say with 100% confidence, and with a lot of history to support me, that until the coming of Christ, the Catholic Church will exist on this Earth, and will keep proclaiming the same thing She ever proclaims. Seeing that She’s survived this long gives me great assurance that She is the Messenger chosen by God, and that the Message She proclaims is 100% authentic. Hate to spoil the prize fight, but the gates of Hell. Will. Never. Prevail.


  1. Dang it…now I have to close my door, turn up the Rocky soundtrack, and dance around in triumph!

    Alas, it is Friday. The triumph of the Church cannot be separated from the Triumph of the Cross. It’s beautiful, as you noted, that the Church has not survived as “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic” because of any real marks of worldly strength. She exists because God uses her weakness. Her history is an illustration of the parable of the mustard seed.

    I’m reminded of the old story about a Jewish merchant in the middle ages who goes to Rome on business. Upon returning home, he announces that he is going to become Catholic. When questioned why, he explained that what he saw shocked him. If he ran his business as poorly as the affairs of the Church were conducted, he would have to close in weeks. The fact that the Church is still around after so many centuries of such conduct must truly be a work of God Himself.

    Endurance through weakness…a nice Lenten meditation.

  2. I loved this comment, but I read it right before Mass, and that first image of you blaring Rocky while dancing was almost too much for me to keep from laughing at a few points. So thanks to you, I probably had the weirdest grin during some pretty unfunny readings today.

  3. I often think about this when people worry about declining vocations or scandals in the church, etc., or when I find myself worried.

  4. “And yet She’s frequently run by, if I may be so blunt, dolts and cowards.”

    Actually, She’s not really “run” in the conventional sense, is She? She is the collection of all of us (Militant, Suffering & Triumphant), and this “collective” is guided by the Holy Spirit. The “dolts and cowards” are actually the servants of the “collective,” not the Leader(s). While most of us are screw-ups at any given time and on any given day, as a group, we’re always right.

    The whole is far greater than the sum of its parts.

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