I. Why Does it Matter if the Catholic Church Has the Authority to Define Orthodoxy?
On Monday, Jon Anthony asked,
Ok, here’s what I don’t get, maybe I’m missing something:
Even granting that the Roman Catholic Church has the authority to define orthodoxy (merely for the sake of argument), why should you care what Christian Church you attend on Sunday? The authority in itself doesn’t strike me as enough. I mean shouldn’t Christian charity PREVENT a Protestant from defecting from the Christian community of his family (or at least Christian friends)? I mean, they still have acknowledge and worship the same Mediator to the same God, so it seems of little import which door they walk through on Sundays. And when this is weighed against the scandal that a defection from Protestantism to Catholicism normally makes, it seems clear what the Christian choice is; namely, staying put.
Great question. I think it’s too limited in scope to view the Catholic Church as just some sort of doctrinal police. We’re talking about the Church founded by Christ (I don’t think you can grant the authority to define orthodoxy without granting this second part). Christ expressed His desire to have everyone in this Church (John 17:20-23), and acknowledged the effect of His call to radical discipleship:
“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law — a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’” (Matthew 10:34-36).
When you understand the Church as the properly-formed Bride and Body of Christ, it makes sense. Similarly, if your kid ran away from home, you’d want them to come home, even if it meant that they left some great friends behind. Ideally, the friends will follow them back.
At the end of the day, Christ thought it important enough to found a Church (Mt. 16:17-19), rather than simply instructing believers to believe. And Paul declares schism a mortal sin. So we can’t simply declare Ecclessial Deism, that you just stay in whatever denomination you grew up in.
II. The Importance of the Eucharist
I’d like only to add to that the Catholic Church teaches that her sacraments “are efficacious signs of grace,” that partaking in the sacraments produces a real effect in the life of the believer. For example, the Catholic Church teaches that the Real Presence of Christ’s body and blood are present in the Eucharist. Because of this, “Holy Communion augments our union with Christ. The principal fruit of receiving the Eucharist in Holy Communion is an intimate union with Christ Jesus. Indeed, the Lord said: ‘He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.’ Life in Christ has its foundation in the Eucharistic banquet.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1391).
Any Christian should desire such gifts. But yet, most Protestant denominations do not even claim that the Real Presence of Christ’s body and blood are present when they partake in Holy Communion. And, moreover, the Catholic Church—whose authority, which I have already argued for at length, we are taking for granted here—denies that any Protestant denomination can effect a valid Eucharist. Therefore, the Real Presence in the Eucharist provides another compelling reason for joining the Catholic Church.
Nevertheless, I know that this doctrine can be a stumbling block to some Protestants. So in this post I am going to examine the reasons why the Catholic Church has taught that the body and blood of Christ are really present in the Eucharist. I will do this by showing that Christ, the Apostles, and the entirety of Christendom taught this doctrine for the entire 1500 years from Christ until the Protestant Reformation.
That’s a great point. If the Catholic Church is correct about what She says the Eucharist is (and if Jon’s giving Her the authority to define orthodoxy, surely he has to grant that She’s right on this), then it’s actual Communion with Jesus Christ Himself. It’s Heaven on Earth. No other form of union with Christ which we have (in prayer, participation in the life of the Church, or any other way) is as intimate as the Eucharistic Communion. And since neither Protestants nor Catholics think that Protestants can validly consecrate the Eucharist, the choice is no longer “Catholic” or “Protestants,” not really. Instead, it’s choosing “intimate union with Christ Jesus” or something else. That’s an easy choice, regardless of what that “something else” is.
I know a convert to Catholicism who believed in the Real Presence in the Eucharist before she believed a lot of other things. She’d read and debated Eucharistic theology, but when she went to Mass, she just knew — seeing the actual consecration of the Eucharist, the utter awe and silence in the Church as everyone fixated in rapt attention on a miracle, it was enough. After that, she said it was a “magnet” drawing her into the Church, which let her wade through all of her other objections on lesser issues (the usual stuff about prayers to Saints, the Liturgy, etc.).
This is also another thing that baffles Catholics about Protestantism. Protestants tend to make a big point out of justification. But we all agree that the saved walk by faith, and have both faith and good works. As C.S. Lewis wrote, “Regarding the debate about faith and works: It’s like asking which blade in a pair of scissors is most important.” As a Catholic, I’d say that as long as no one claims you can (a) work your way into Heaven, or (b) know that Christ is Lord yet refuse to serve Him, and be saved, we’re dealing with some minuscule differences that most non-theologians don’t really get. The debate doesn’t even seem to have any practical implications — both Catholics and Protestants believe in God, and serve Him. On the other hand, to reject the most inmate union with Christ possible over these minuscule differences is insanity. So for Catholics, the most important doctrine separating Catholics and Protestants is the Eucharist — nothing else comes close. If we’re wrong, we’re idolaters. But if we’re right, Protestants are shunning the most precious gift in the world, the ability to grasp the Pearl of Great Price, to partake of the Daily Bread, Come Down from Heaven, Himself.
III. Is the Church Right About the Eucharist?
Of course, this all relies upon the Church being right about the Eucharist. But that’s what Jon grants for the sake of argument. And Robert Ritchie spends the rest of his post proving the case from Scripture and the writings of the early Church. So, for example, he notes:
The Protestant early Church historian J.N.D. Kelly summarizes the answer, saying: “Eucharistic teaching, it should be understood at the outset, was in general unquestioningly realist, i.e., the consecrated bread and wine were taken to be, and were treated and designated as, the Savior’s body and blood.” (Early Christian Doctrines, 440).
You can find that quote here, by the way. So here are the basic arguments from the Catholic point of view:
- The most reasonable Scriptural interpretation of John 6 and the Last Supper discourses establishes the Eucharist. Protestants think Christ used two separate metaphors: that His Body was only figuratively Bread (even though He says otherwise in John 6:55) and that the Last Supper Bread was only figuratively His Body (even though He says otherwise in Matthew 26:26). Catholicism takes Christ at His word in both places, which avoids the exegetical gymnastics otherwise required. Other passages, from the references to our “Daily Bread” in Matthew 6:11 to the references to a Christian “altar” in Mt. 5:23-24 also make the most sense within a Catholic framework.
- The Eucharist alone accounts for all of the Old Testament prefigurements, such as: (a) the Manna, the “Bread of Angels” which came down from Heaven; (b) the “Blood of the Covenant” (Exodus 24:8, Hebrews 8:20) which is necessary for forgiveness of sins (Heb. 8:22); (c) the Passover Meal, which involved actually eaten the slain Lamb (Ex. 12:8-10), which obviously prefigured Christ (1 Corinthians 5:7, John 1:29) and the Last Supper (Luke 22:15); (d) the whole system of eating sacrificial offerings, generally; (e) the “memorial sacrifice,” in particular, which Jesus’ call to “remembrance” invoked; and (f) the bread and wine offered by Melchizedek (Gen. 14:18; Heb. 6:20).
- The Early Church, without question, believed in the Real Presence in the Eucharist, apparently without exception. I know of no early Christians who thought “the Eucharist is merely a symbol” outside of the Gnostics, who rejected it because they rejected the Incarnation.
- The Church has explicitly affirmed the Real Presence in the Eucharist.
So Scripture, Tradition and the Church point to a single conclusion.