6. Why Catholic?: A Crash-Course in Church History

Once a person decides to believe in Jesus, you would think the search would be over, right? Boom! Congratulations. You’re a Christian. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. A lot of people believe in Jesus. It’s practically fashionable to believe in Jesus. And maybe because of this, He’s propped up to support everything from gay rights to immigration policy. And He’s often propped up for contradictory things. Christopher Hitchens, the late famous journalist and atheist, complained once that when debating Christians, he always had to do the extra work of trying to figure out what kind of Christian he was even talking to because, inevitably, he would take a shot at a belief that would apply to one type of Christian but not another – so varied are the teachings from church to church.

So, unfortunately, you have a lot of options once you come to Christ. And, yes, you could water down what you believe as a Christian until those options fade away. You could hold just a nugget of teachings as “essential” to Christianity and let yourself and others disagree on a whole host of other issues, but still call each other “Christians.” But even that is getting harder and harder to do without leaving someone out or turning the faith into a free-for-all. For example, Catholics venerate saints and are fine with statues of Christ and the saints in churches. A lot of Protestants think that’s absolutely unacceptable. Catholics and Protestants believe in the Trinity – that God is one God but in three persons. This wouldn’t work well with classic Unitarianism which believes there is no Trinity but still believe in Jesus. Catholics and some Protestant groups believe getting saved is a matter of both believing in Jesus and also living a holy life. Most Protestants would probably have serious problems with that – or not, depending on how you word it. It gets very, very confusing. So why, in the vast constellation of Christian groups, would I choose Catholicism? How do you go about even picking one group?

Well, reading the Bible is a fantastic start. If Christians of nearly every stripe believe in one thing, it’s that the Bible is the Word of God. Catholics have a few more books in their Bible than Protestants, but by and large, they are the same. The problem isn’t so much the Bible itself as how different Christian groups interpret it and also whether or not they accept teachings that aren’t explicitly mentioned in the Bible (like Catholics and the Orthodox) or don’t (like nearly every other group).

For the most part, though, it’s once all these different groups start digging into the Bible that the difficulties and disagreements between them all begin to emerge. One example comes from the story about Jesus’ famous “Last Supper” with the disciples before He was crucified (which is where every Christian group gets their inspiration for Communion or the Eucharist on Sundays). He says plainly, as He breaks the bread and offers the wine, “This is my body… this is my blood” – instituting the practice of communion. Catholics take that literally – as in, he literally meant that, despite the fact that the bread still looked like bread and the wine still looked like wine, when the priest prays over it, it actually becomes, in it’s essence, His body and His blood. Every week, the priest lifts up what looks like a little wafer and repeats those same words Jesus said. Many Protestants on the other hand believe He meant it symbolically. They still have that special time on Sundays when they may say those same words and pass around crackers and wine (or juice) to remember Christ’s death on the Cross, but it doesn’t have the same meaning for them. This may seem minor, but when you think about it, Catholics are basically saying the bread and wine on Sundays becomes God, and Protestants think it’s just a piece of bread and drink. Not quite so minor.

The frustrating thing is that these groups have been arguing for centuries with not much of a budge by either in the other’s direction. That’s discouraging, to be sure. And some atheists have made the point that the simple fact that there are so many interpretations indicates that Christianity isn’t true. But that is a mistake. If I didn’t know who my mother was, and a million women claimed to be my mother, that would not indicate that I have no mother at all. Nor does it mean that trying to find my mother is a worthless pursuit. If you agree with me in what I say in the last few posts in this “Why Catholic?” series, then Jesus is real. And if He is real, then He is worth finding – even if the search takes our whole lives.

So after saying all of that, let me explain my answer to the question, “Why specifically be Catholic?” And I need to start, unfortunately, with a crash-course in church history. Now, if you already have a general sense of church history and the Bible, don’t worry about reading the rest of this. If you don’t, you might want to because in the next post, I’ll be explaining why I felt Catholicism was the way to go, but I’ll be using a lot of terms and ideas that might get you lost if you haven’t gone over this. I hate getting so into the weeds about this because I feel like, at this point in the post, I’ve already lost a lot of readers, but it can’t be helped. This is the third or fourth attempt at trying to write one post about this, and I’ve caved to the fact that it has to be two. *sigh* I’m a nerd and love this stuff, but I can sympathize with those who’d like a short, concise post and not a tome.

That being said, the Jewish/Christian God, if nothing else, is someone who is involved. You can’t read the Bible and think otherwise. He’s always stepping in, trying to develop a relationship with individuals and groups, always answering prayer, getting angry when people don’t respond the way He made them to, and scandalously loving his people and lavishing on them gift after gift – you know, like a parent. The Bible calling Christians “children of God” has a lot to do with this kind of relationship God keeps trying to have with people.

And so we see God in the pages of Scripture from the very beginning, with Adam and Eve the first humans, wanting an open, honest, loving relationship with them. This involves obedience on their part, but it also involves His care for them. He creates a world where they can flourish and live an abundant life. And the obedience required of them is as much for their sakes as for His.

Before the first book about Jesus, the Bible largely covers God’s dealings with Israel – the Jews. And for the most part, it’s a tale of tragedy. The history described is cyclical: God saves and prospers Israel —> Israel turns away and disobeys God —> God punishes Israel —-> Israel repents and turns back to God in obedience —> God saves and prospers Israel —-> and so on. It seems like there is no end to Israel’s return to disobedience over and over again. And it seems like there is no end to God’s forgiveness of them. They get caught in heresy after heresy, and God keeps pulling them back to himself. There is never a generation where there isn’t some prophet or some group of Israelites calling everyone back to obedience and fidelity to God.

Jesus showing up on the scene is something new, though. Jesus comes as a Savior for Israel, like God is. But it’s not just Israel He comes to save. It’s the whole world. He doesn’t just want to bring Israel back to obedience and fidelity to God. He comes to bring everybody in the world back to obedience and fidelity to God. And He does this in a mysterious way by dying on the Cross for the sins of the world – for the forgiveness of the world. That may sound wild to us, but this act had a lot of resonance for Jewish Christians at the time because they already had – before Christ – hundreds of years of worship at a Temple where lambs were sacrificed on a regular basis as part of the ritual to get their sins forgiven. Jesus Christ dying on a Cross for their sin had a direct connection for them to the spotless lamb dying once a year for the sin of the people in their Temple worship. In fact, John the Baptist called Jesus the “lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).

When Jesus rose from the dead and went back to Heaven, He left His disciples the task of spreading the good news that the whole world could be reconciled to God – forgiven of their sins. This didn’t just mean people and God could be cool with each other now. The Bible teaches that it was because of sin that death entered into the world, and all sorts of other curses. For people to be reconciled completely to God meant those bad effects of sin would begin to unravel. And so, Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life; the one who believes in me, even if he dies, will live.” Just as Jesus rose back from the dead three days after He was crucified, so Christians believe they will rise again as well.

The disciples did just what Jesus told them to do: they spread the good news. They started churches in major cities all over the Roman Empire. And those churches, in turn, sent out missionaries of their own to spread the good news, and so on. By the time you get to 300 or 400 AD, half the Roman Empire self-identifies as “Christian.” But a problem arises – both during the time of those original disciples, and also for the next 2000 years right up to today. People in different areas of the world begin to teach in churches things that aren’t actually Christian. This isn’t because they have bad motives, per se. But when you get an organization that large, it’s easy for things to get muddled. One question, for example, that arose early on was about whether people who believed in Jesus had to be at least culturally Jewish – like, get circumcised and only eat certain foods – or not before they joined the church. The original disciples in their leadership positions gathered together in Jerusalem to sort out the issue. They eventually did, making the point that their decree on the issue was not just their opinion, but also God’s opinion of how to do things. And, by and large, the church needed to fall in line.

This was a pattern that surfaced for the next 2000 years right up to today. Some issue would be dividing the church (was Jesus really God? was He really a man? should pictures of saints and depictions of Jesus be allowed in churches?) and the leadership of the church would come together and sort the issue out, trusting that God was guiding their debating and decisions. They would then tell all the other churches what to do, and by and large, for the first 1000 years, the decision would end the debate. The Holy Spirit of God had spoken (or so they believed).

But a wrench got thrown into the process at around 1000 AD. The Western side of the church, centered in Rome, claimed a preeminent place in the church. Rome considered itself the final decider of what was heresy and what was not. And no one could contradict her once she made her decision. The Eastern side of the church granted that Rome had a special place, but as kind of an older brother among brothers. She was maybe the most important church, but decisions had to made together.

There is more to the story, but suffice it to say, the East and West split. The West became what we know now to be the Catholic church. The East became an assortment of churches in communion with each other known as the Orthodox churches. And the two have been divided ever since. That being said, their theology – how they thought about God and how they lived the Christian life – largely stayed the same. A lot of issues Catholics have with Protestants, for example, simply aren’t issues between them and the Orthodox. One Catholic Pope I think, I forget who, said that the East and West are like the two lungs of the church, which is what makes their split such a tragedy. Anyway, Rome went on to deal with heresies the same way it had been done for the last 1000 years. The Orthodox, however, as far as I know (any Orthodox Christians can correct me on this) have not had a council since.

Fast forward 500 years. The Catholic church was getting wealthy, opulent, and corrupt. Responding to this, Protestants rose up calling the church leadership to the carpet for it. But even more so, they began questioning doctrine and teachings that even the Orthodox believed in as well. And you have the birth of a movement called the Reformation which brought us Protestants. Protestants were what their name implies: they “protested” against the Catholic Church. But also, they largely were a “back to the Bible” movement. In their attempt to purify the church or, failing that, to split from Catholics and be true churches themselves, they decided do define their entire belief system and way of being Christians around the Bible only. You’ll hear them describe this as “sola scriptura.” And that is the bedrock reason they split so starkly from Catholics. Out of the Protestant movement came all sorts of denominations in later generations like Baptists, Lutherans, Methodists, Anglicans, Wesleyans, Reformed (following Calvin largely), etc. Naively, I think, those who split from the Catholic Church thought that, since they all read the same Bible, they would all eventually agree with each other in their beliefs. This didn’t happen, though. Quite the contrary. Over the following hundreds of years, groups would split from other groups.*

Today, the landscape is dotted with all these different groups – Catholics, Orthodox, and various Protestant groups. And it can be daunting to try and figure out who to join with.

At this point, however, you might ask a questions: why can’t I just be a Christian without joining a church? Someone might feel closer to Jesus walking through a forest on a given Sunday than sitting through a boring sermon. I get that. The problem is that trying to be a Christian on your own is probably the single most dangerous thing you can do for your spiritual life. For Catholics, it’s practically damning. Going to Mass on Sunday is obligatory. And you at least need a priest to be absolved of mortal sin. But even for someone who is not Catholic and has come to Jesus for the first time, it’s still incredibly dangerous. It’s hard enough for the person who has been a faithful church-going Christian for decades to let Jesus correct him and change him. It’s hard enough for theologians, when they are studying the Bible, to not read into it their own prejudices. You will have hardly any chance of following Jesus in the way He wants you to apart from a group of believers helping you along the way. Don’t fool yourself. Bishops and pastors have slipped into heresy – into fashioning their idea of Jesus into their own images. It’s very easy to form our spirituality and religion around what makes us comfortable, in which case we fashion an idea of God that isn’t real and then worship it.

In the next post, I’ll try to get at why, in light of this landscape, I can’t be anything but Catholic.

*It wasn’t always because of differences in beliefs, though. and when someone says, “There are 30,000 different groups among Protestants”, that may be true, but a whole lot of those groups might feel comfortable going to another group’s church service and even agree with each other’s beliefs

Much of what I write here is the fruit of trying to remember details about church history I haven’t studied for a few years now. If I have made a mistake in what I’ve said, feel free to let me know. 

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One thought on “6. Why Catholic?: A Crash-Course in Church History

  1. You have set yourself an impossible task but I admire you determination and thus far the overview is agreeable to me. I start in the Garden in trying to make sense of existence (starting with the Bible as you recommend). We were made in the image and likeness of God but with limitations which we found restrictive of our free will. Rebellion prove disastrous but it seemed like a good idea at the time. Even though I was not party to it, I inherited its negative consequences ( I am not immortal) and I too found the constraints an unwarranted imposition. This proved to be another disaster but God was not unaware of my plight and in a specific instance in October 1985, showed that he loved me. Since then and because of grace I have been able to make sense of the economy of Salvation (John 3:16). Without divine grace I would still be in the dark and likely not be alive.
    I look forward to the rest of the story. Declan

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