Where Can We Find the Church?

Austin asked,

Even if we are to listen to the Church that Christ established as the rock of doctrine, how are we supposed to know what church this is? Perhaps in antiquity it was clear that Rome was that church. But now it surely isn’t.

The evidence for this is nowhere clearer than in the most devoted of Catholics. These people–like Rama P. Coomaraswamy, Gerry Matatics, and many others–claim that Rome is no longer this Church. They argue forcefully that Rome has contradicted herself and therfore cannot be the one true Church. (See the “syllogisms” towards the end here http://bit.ly/hBCACO) 

The one true Church must be somewhere else. And you never see Catholics who think that Rome never fell into heresy refuting these folks (at least I’ve tried and haven’t found any). The loyalists seem to just think that it could never happen, so even if all the evidence is stacked against Rome, Rome must be right. So Catholics are as much at war with their fellow Catholics than they are with Protestants. No one really knows where Christian authority resides or even if there is such an authority. Perhaps it is with an evangelical free church. So there seems no reason for Protestants to consider Catholicism.

I responded to his question initially in the comments section I linked to above.  But there was much more to say.  First, it’s simple to refute the sedevacantists and other radical traditionalists who reject the Magisterium.  By their own lights, they’re committing the exact same sin that they say condemned the Protestant reformers.  It isn’t as if they think someone besides Benedict is pope. It’s that they have to deny the papacy itself to persevere in their heresies.  They’ve arrogated to themselves the authority to declare who is and isn’t a true Catholic, and have the audacity (even as laymen) to serve as judge and jury in condemning the pope in absentia.  If you’re interested, I understand that Pat Madrid has a good take-down of their claims in More Catholic Than the Pope?  But for most Catholics, it’s so strange to claim that the pope can’t change the Roman Rite that he heads, that it’s almost too strange to know where to begin answering. That said, if you’ve got a specific accusation that one of them raised, I’d be happy to answer it.

Moving on to the crux of the issue, I’d like to supplement my earlier response with evidence from a few of the early Church Fathers to my last comment. We know from Scripture and other historical documents that Peter moved the seat of the Church to Rome (1 Peter 5:13, e.g.), and we know that there were mechanisms in the Church from the very beginning to fill the office of those who had died (Acts 1:12-26).  So Scripture suggests that we should see replacements for Peter.  These men were not Apostles, of course (Acts 1:21-22), but they were bishops, “episcopos.”  If this is true, we should expect to see a lot of references in the early Church to the special status of Rome, and the authority of the bishop of Rome as a final authority in particular.

And we do.  For example, Ignatius of Antioch, a student of the last living Apostle, referred to the Church of Rome as the presiding Church — that is, the church in charge. Read footnote 228 and 229 here to see a Protestant scholar try and wiggle out of the fact that Ignatius claims that this church “presides from Rome” and “presides in love.”  He said this sometime around 107 – 110 A.D., on his way to martyrdom.

Then you have folks like Irenaeus who also made a list of all the popes, from Peter onwards to prove Apostolic Succession.  It wasn’t hard, as Irenaeus was writing in 180 A.D. (literally, he wrote so early that the word “Trinity” wasn’t invented yet). It’s remarkable, though, since Irenaeus was bishop of Lyons, France, that he didn’t choose Lyons as the place to show Apostolic succession. (If you’re interested, Catholic Enyclopedia has a good entry on Church Fathers who drew up lists of popes, but even their list of lists is incomplete.).  But Irenaeus explained why he chose Rome, since  “it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its preeminent authority.

Flash forward to the 300s, and you see Optatus of Milevis say: “You cannot then deny that you do know that upon Peter first in the City of Rome was bestowed the Episcopal Cathedra, on which sat Peter, the Head of all the Apostles (for which reason he was called Cephas), that, in this one Cathedra, unity should be preserved by all, lest the other Apostles might claim—-each for himself—-separate Cathedras, so that he who should set up a second Cathedra against the unique Cathedra would already be a schismatic and a sinner.”  A “Cathedra” is a “seat of authority,” a reference to Matthew 23:1-2, and the basis for the term “ex cathedra.” Optatus also compiled a list of popes.  This same Optatus was one of the North African Fathers praised by St. Augustine a generation later.

Augustine himself condemns Julian the Apostate for refusing to obey Pope Innocent, the bishop of Rome, the city “in which our Lord willed to crown the chief (primus) of His apostles with a glorious martyrdom.” In other words, Innocent is the successor of Peter as head of the Church . Calling the Roman church the Apostolic See, Augustine declares that compared to the other (non-pope) Church Fathers he’s quoted, Innocent is “etsi posterior tempore, prior loco“: after them in time, but superior to them in rank.

In other words, if you can determine who the Bishop of Rome is, you could find where the Catholic Church is.  Christ set up His Church through Peter, Peter had successors who likewise occupied the place of primacy within the Church, and it is your duty and obligation as a Christian to ensure that you believe what this Church teaches.

In contrast to the clear testimony of the Fathers, folks like Luther, Calvin, Matatics and Coomaraswamy refuse(d) to submit. All of them say that the Bishop of Rome is a heretic, because he disagrees with them. The absurdity of such a position is self-evident.  It turns these men, and their personal interpretation of Scripture and Tradition, above that of the visible Church.  They, and they alone, determine whether the Church Christ established is right or wrong. Obviously, they’ve turned Matthew 18:17-18 on its head (the Church judges us, not vice versa), and disregarded Matthew 16:17-19 and the lot.

Today, though there are numerous squabbling denominations, there is only one Church who claims as Her present head the successor of Peter, in the Cathedra of Rome.  And with an unbroken line of 2000 years of Christians proclaiming that this is what you look for to find the Church, the answer to the question is easy.

In Christ,


P.S. I should add that of course the answer is easy.  Christ did not create the visible Church to make it hard to find  He says to Her: “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden” (Matthew 5:14). Then He prophesied that the Church would be like the mustard seed, which goes from very tiny to becoming the largest of all the plants (Mt. 13:32).  Of the Christian “plants,” we know who’s largest, and we know which Church is set upon a hill (literally, in fact: Mons Vaticanus), and cannot be hidden.


  1. “They argue forcefully that Rome has contradicted herself and therfore cannot be the one true Church.”

    Did the OP give an example of any contradiction?

  2. No. Austin linked to a page written by Matatics, in which he attempts to defend his sedevacantism. Matatics argues:

    Syllogism #1: No true bishop, no true pope;

    Syllogism #2: No true orthodoxy, no true pope; and

    Syllogism #3: No true Church, no true pope

    All of which contain false minor premises. As to (1), changing the rite of ordination doesn’t render the rite invalid. Different forms of the rite of ordination have been used throughout Church history, and the pope, as Patriarch of the West and head of the Roman Rite, is an authority capable of validly altering the form of the rite.

    As to (2), Ratzinger’s not a heretic. But besides this, Canon 188.4 never gave the regular layman the ability to decide for himself whether a certain cleric was sufficiently orthodox or fit to hold office. They’re taking a single point of 1917 canon law (no longer in effect) to try and put themselves above the Magisterium.

    What Canon 188.4 actually said was that a cleric who “publicly defected from the Catholic faith” automatically lost his spot in the Church. If you publicly disclaim the Catholic Church, you can’t remain a Catholic cleric… obviously. The same is true in the US of those holding public office and US citizenship. IF you formally denounce your citizenship, you can’t remain in Congress.

    That doesn’t mean that Joe layman / citizen can just declare the Church not “Catholic enough,” or the Congress not “American enough” and then ignore everything the Church or Congress says. That interpretation of the canon is facially absurd, and contrary to everything we know about the role of the Magisterium.

    Finally, for (3), it requires first proving that the visible Catholic Church isn’t the real Catholic Church. Clearly, he hasn’t, and can’t do this. He can only show that his view disagrees with the Church’s view of Tradition. That proves him wrong, not the Church.

  3. 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.

  4. Jon,

    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.

    So that’s sort of the grand vision. In addition, there are genuine doctrinal differences between Catholicism and every Protestant church. Christ defines Himself, in part, as “the Truth” (John 14:6), so we can’t throw out truth for the sake of a false communion, comfort, or even a genuine and loving desire to avoid hurting our co-religionists. [I pray that God makes certain exceptions, like for Sophie Scholl, but I’m not God, and can’t say].

    If there was a Protestant community which was in full agreement on doctrine with the Catholic Church, the Church would likely bend over backwards to avoid ripping the community apart — as we see Her doing now with the Anglican Ordinariate. That’s an attempt to let the ‘Anglicans who agree with Catholicism’ keep all of the great things that they have (certain Anglican liturgical traditions, the communities of believers, etc.) while rejoining their rightful place in the Body of Christ.

    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.

    I’ve seen first-hand how hard this can be, so please don’t read this as disregarding your very real concern. My point is that when we truly love Christ as Truth Incarnate, and believe Him when He says He’s creating a single Church, and praying that we’ll stay in it, I think our love and obedience to Christ simply trumps all of the hardships that cross might cause.


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