One of the most important points to understand about Catholicism is that the truth of the Catholic Church flows from the truth of Jesus Christ. Her status is inexorably tied up with His. I’ve been reading John Allen’s book-length interviews with Archbishop Dolan, A People of Hope. I’m excited to do a full review of it soon (it’s a superb book), but I wanted to go ahead and highlight something that Abp. Dolan said, because I think it illustrates this point neatly:
Just as most people missed the divine in Jesus because of his humanity, so do most people miss Jesus in the Church because of our earthiness, because we are clumsy, we are sinful, we are awkward. But this is how Jesus continues to radiate his grace and mercy, through the Church. That’s the leap of faith today. I think Father Ron Rolheiser says it well: We want a king without the kingdom; we want a shepherd without the other sheep; we want a father, with us as the only child; we want a general without an army; we want to believe without belonging.
There are two points to make about this: first, that the success of the Church flows from the success of Christ; and second, that we need to change our thinking about salvation.
Consider the various claims that the New Testament makes about Jesus, or that He makes about Himself. For example, that He’s the Good Shepherd (John 10:14), the Messiah-King (John 1:49), the Bishop of Souls (1 Peter 2:25), and the Cornerstone of the Church (Ephesians 2:20).
These claims all tie the success of the Church with the success of Jesus Christ. If the flock is wiped out completely, you’ve got a bad shepherd. A good king doesn’t let his kingdom get destroyed, if he’s powerful enough to stop it. Likewise, a good bishop wouldn’t let all the souls under his watch be led astray. And a church that crumbled into apostasy within a few centuries of its founding is one built on sand, not solid rock, and particularly not the Cornerstone of Christ (Matthew 7:24-27).
This is perhaps the most important and misunderstood point in discussing all things Catholic. We tend to lose the forest for the trees in discussing theology and apologetics, particularly on Protestant-Catholic issues. For example, relying on Scripture alone, it’s possible for someone to conclude that works play a role in justification, or that they don’t. Scriptural support can be found for either proposition, and I’ve seen plenty of holy and intelligent Christians come out both ways.
But step back a second. On this point (or various other issues), the side claiming that the Catholic Church is wrong isn’t just arguing that the preponderance of the Scriptural evidence points in the other direction. He’s really claiming that everyone in the Church prior to Luther (for at least a few centuries, perhaps even all the way back to the Apostles) was led astray by the visible Church, and fed false doctrine: heresy. But as I said above, if the entire flock was led astray, that doesn’t just reflect poorly of the earthly shepherds, but of the Chief Shepherd in Heaven (1 Peter 5:4).
In other words, this isn’t just about a narrow doctrinal dispute, important though that may be. This is about whether we believe that Christ abandoned His Bride, permitting His Flock to wander en masse into heresy and apostasy, or whether He continued to protect Her, and continued to guide His Sheep. Concluding that the whole Church fell into Apostasy isn’t just an erroneous and dangerous claim to make about the Church, but about Jesus.
When we’re faced with a question of doctrine, our first inclination is generally to try and figure it out on our own: “what do I think Scripture says on this point?” But a much better route is to ask, “What does the Church teach?” And: “how could She be wrong?”
The second point I want to draw out is that Dolan’s comment exposes a deficiency in how we think about the Church. In the aftermath of the controversy over his claims that Mormonism is a cult, the Baptist pastor Dr. Robert Jeffress said that some Mormons could still be saved, since “no one goes to heaven in a group.” Jeffress gets it almost exactly backwards.
Rather, no gets to Heaven alone. We’re carried along by the Body of Christ. You can’t be saved without being connected to this Body, either formally (through Baptism and Confirmation), or at least spiritually. The early Christians were clear on this point: so, for that matter, were the early Reformers.
If you’re saved, you get to Heaven because of the work of too many Christians to name: those who fought and died to preserve the Gospel, those who spread the Gospel all over the world, those who introduced you to the Faith, those who nurtured your faith at church, and countless more.
Plus, as we grow towards God, we grow towards our neighbors, just as bicycle spokes get closer together as they draw nearer to the hub. A sheep that’s by the Shepherd is close to all of the other sheep. It’s only the lost sheep that finds itself alone .
Even if you lived your entire life in complete physical isolation, this would still be true. Perhaps you lived out your whole life on a desert island somewhere, with no access to a Bible or a Catechism or a priest, and came to know God simply through the use of reason. Even in that case, your faith would be strengthened by the prayers of the faithful around the world, without you even knowing it. When St. Paul asks that “requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone” (1 Tim. 2:1), including world leaders (1 Tim. 2:2), it’s because he understands how powerful prayer is. What’s more, while you may be physically alone, you’re you’re “surrounded by … a great cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1) with the Saints in Heaven. They help lead us Home.
Finally, our own salvation is for our own good, but also the good of those around us. As we become more saintly, we draw others closer to Christ, just as we were drawn closer by the prayers and holy example of those who went before us.
Now, of course, it’s certainly true that there’s an individual aspect to salvation. We can’t simply expect to be saved because we come from a devout family, or attend a holy church. But we need to stop imagining that salvation is just between “me and Jesus.”
As Americans, our default approach is to treat church membership the way we choose membership in a political party, or a club, or a school. We figure out what we believe, and what we’re wanting, and then we find a church that agrees with us. In other words, we choose our favorite flavor, or our favorite brand.
Even once we’ve joined, we view that church as little more than a support structure for what we’ve already got, not as a particularly important part of our pilgrimage towards Heaven. Those around us are of little more important than our classmates at school – they might have a helpful bit of knowledge from time to time, but our success or failure is rather independent of their own.
Hopefully, this post shows why I think that approach is all wrong. Christ doesn’t leave us as ecclesial consumers to choose our favorite flavor of Christianity. He establishes Himself as the eternal Shepherd, guiding and guarding the Flock. If we find ourselves going in a separate direction from the flock, we’re going in a separate direction from the Shepherd.
Elizabeth Erazo was recently asked, “Do you agree with every single Catholic doctrine?” Her answer was one of the best I’ve seen, particularly given that she’s not Catholic (yet):
Well, that’s hard to say, since I don’t know every single Catholic doctrine. I am reading slowly through the Catechism, but I’ve come to realize it’s not necessary to dissect every doctrine to see if I agree.You see, really all that matter is this: is the Catholic Church the One True Church that Christ established? If the answer is yes, then it doesn’t matter two hoots whether I agree with what they say or not, I just need to have faith that Christ is still guiding His flock, and submit to the authority of the Church.