The great Catholic communicator and popular theologian Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen once said that “There are not over a hundred people in the United States who hate the Catholic Church. There are millions, however, who hate what they wrongly believe to be the Catholic Church, which is of course, quite a different thing.”
The same applies to people all over the world. If Roman Catholics genuinely believed all that they are condemned for believing they would indeed deserve to be dismissed. Problem is, even many Catholics have very little idea of authentic Catholic belief, let alone committed or casual opponents of the faith. In that Catholic belief covers so many areas this chapter will have to be exceedingly selective. Then again, critics are even more so.
Catholicism is Christianity. Protestants, or at least genuine Protestants, argue that they found the ship of the Church covered with barnacles and weeds and gave it a good scrubbing and cleaning between the 15th and 17th century, revealing the original and authentic Christian faith. Wycliffe, Tyndale, Huss, Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and the rest of the reformers got out their metaphorical soap and water and restored the Church to its biblical, first-century form and shape. No papacy, no Vatican, no saints and feast days, no obsession with the Virgin Mary and a reliance on the Bible alone and a conviction that men and women are saved by faith alone.
There is no room here for an account of the Protestant Reformation, the rise of nationalism, the advent of the printing press, the emergence of capitalism or a discussion of what Martin Luther in particular really wanted when he first began to question the Church. What we can say with confidence is that there are some inherent problems in the Protestant approach. If the Bible is the final word of God and the only guide to salvation and life, why are there tens of thousands of competing Protestant denominations and why are so many of them mutually exclusive? They all believe in the Bible and read it as believing and good followers of Christ. Yet some argue for the baptism of babies, others for the baptism of adults; some ordain women, others don’t; some allow the consumption of alcohol, others don’t; some believe that the Eucharist is the body of Christ, others that it is partly His body, others that it is deeply symbolic, others still that it is merely a gesture. Some Protestant churches believe that only a specific early 17th-century translation of the Bible is acceptable, others think they’re wrong. Some allow divorce and even homosexuality, others not. And so on. Yet all claim the Bible as their inerrant, infallible guide.
The ecclesial sense of life in Christ is the fundamental point of departure between Catholicism and Protestantism, particularly in its evangelical form, and between Catholicism and Protestantism’s bastard offspring, which is postmodern secularism. To put it bluntly, knowledge of Jesus is available to all people but to know Christ is only available to Christians in communion with the Church. To live in Christ is to live in a Church, to live in THE Church, because that is how Christ in His Spirit gives Himself to us. Jesus might be one’s personal Lord and Saviour, but the result tends to be a Jesus who looks suspiciously like oneself. This leads the Roman Catholic Church to have a very different approach to Scripture.
Catholics of course know and acknowledge that the Bible is the word of God. They also know and acknowledge, however, that Jesus Christ did not leave us a Bible but left us a Pope and a teaching office, the Magisterium. Through the Pope and the teaching authority of the Church, the truth of the Bible is guided and guarded through the ages. Interpretation is not left to individuals but to those given the authority and the ability to interpret by Jesus Christ while He was on Earth present here among us. In the New Testament the names Simon, Peter or Cephas are mentioned almost 200 times, while the names of all of the other apostles combined are mentioned fewer than 140. Peter is mentioned first in the list of apostles by Matthew to single him out as the most prominent one of the 12. Throughout the New Testament he is considered the leader of Christ’s followers, and St. Paul would later spend 15 days with him as a preparation for his own journeys of conversion.
But the most important event for Peter, and for us, was when Christ took him and the other apostles on a journey to, well, change his name. The place chosen was several days from the central ministry of Christ and His followers, far off in the northern tip of the country. Known in modern Israel as Banias and in the Bible as Caesarea Philippi, this area was remote, out of the way and also supremely pertinent and important. It’s a beautiful spot with a natural forest, a waterfall and luscious rock formations. It was also considered one of the religious wonders of the ancient world and a pilgrimage site for ancient pagans. It had been used for animal and perhaps human sacrifice and King Herod had built a temple to Caesar Augustus on top of the huge rock that still dominates the area. At the base of the rock was a deep, dark hole considered to be bottomless and known as the gates of hell. It was before the pagan temple, before the gates of hell, before the place of sacrifice and ignorance that Christ, speaking in Aramaic, gives Simon or Peter the name Kepha or Rock, being Petra in Greek or Peter in English.
The exchange is deeply moving. Jesus asks His friends who people say He is. They reply that all sorts of ideas are circulating. That He is John the Baptist, that He is Elijah, Jeremiah or one of the other prophets. This is all very flattering but entirely wrong. Jesus is the Messiah, but none of them say this because, while they love and revere Him, they do not recognize the Messiah promised by God in the Old Testament in this man they can see and hear. Christ accepts their reply and then turns to Simon Peter: “But what about you. Who do you say I am?”
Simon Peter does not hesitate. He has heard all of the arguments, listened to the legalistic objections to Jesus and the explanations even from followers as to why He cannot be the chosen one. “You are the Anointed One. You are the Messiah. You are the Son of the Living God!” Then, from Jesus, “You are greatly blessed, Simon, Jonah’s son, for this was not revealed to you through human means. This was revealed to you personally by my Father in heaven. You have heard all the human reasons why I am not good enough to be the Messiah, and you have rejected them all. Thus my Father has found your soul open to receiving the truth from Him, and it is this you have just proclaimed.” Jesus continues, “And so I now tell you that you are the Rock. On this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hell will not overcome it!” And then, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of Heaven; whatever you bind on Earth will be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on Earth will be loosed in heaven.”
Reprinted with permission. Michael Coren can be booked for speeches via his website, www.michaelcoren.com