The Church as our Mother
When, as a priest, I meet different people, some of them say that they are not going to Church but still believe in God. They add, almost as an apology, that one can pray to Him in nature, for example while taking a walk in a forest. This opinion is quite common these days, and these people try to excuse themselves from going to Church by this or similar arguments. They claim that one does not necessarily need the Church as such and can do very well without it. (We are speaking here of the meaning and purpose of the Church as the institution of salvation!)
Or the people whose thinking is everything but properly oriented towards the Church, express their criticism by saying that the Catholic Church is, anyway, just an invention of popes and bishops of later centuries. At first there was, according to them, a primitive Christianity free from real dogmas as binding articles of belief, besides the one that Jesus Christ was the “Son of God” and “Messiah” (without being concerned about what these terms mean). Things were more or less “easy going” and one was not so much excited about problems in the teaching. And only later, in the following centuries, were dogmas defined and hierarchical structures established, which had not existed before.
In the same school of thought the idea prevails, that there is no specially-ordained priesthood. In primitive Christianity everything was much like in a commune—no one had any special rights or a higher teaching authority. That’s why they think that we can and even must stand against all those (supposed) inventions of popes, bishops and priests. All are “the people of God” and therefore have the right to decide in each and every matter. Protestantism certainly added to this spirit, by destroying everything which was known as “Church” in the 16th century. They also said that there is no ordained priesthood and proclaimed, in a quite populist manner, the so-called common priesthood of all the faithful.
That is why “reformers” like Luther, Zwingli and Calvin have such a high popularity with many faithful and even “dignitaries” of the Conciliar Church, so much so that one would think they are to be honored as doctors of the Church. Is it just by accident that these modernists labor against the tradition of the Catholic Church, sanctified over the centuries, questioning and relativizing nearly everything that is known as Catholic dogma, in order to throw it into the junkyard of history? But such a lack of dogma or certainty in the teaching of faith was supposedly the ideal of primitive Christianity, of the primitive community.
But is all that true? Can one really think that the Church with her hierarchical structure, the ordained priesthood and the clear and unmistakable articles of faith was an invention of the Catholic clergy in order to strengthen their power in this manner and to bring the people under their dominion, as they want to tell us nowadays?
Well, let us consider the historical situation and theological reason which brought the about the Apostolic Council, the first council of Christianity. In the Acts of the Apostle we read that the apostles did not only address the Jews with the Gospel of Christ, but also different Gentiles, a term which then meant all non-Jewish nations. They did this especially since before His ascension Jesus gave them the task specifically to make “disciples of all nations” (see Mt, 28:19). “But some came down from Judea and began to teach the brethren, saying, 'Unless you be circumcised after the manner of Moses, you cannot be saved.' And when no little objection was made against them by Paul and Barnabas, they decided that Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them should go up to the apostles and presbyters at Jerusalem about this question” (Acts, 15:1-2).
It is very interesting in this last sentence, that both parties, each of them having their own thoughts on certain questions of faith, shared the opinion to bring their theological discussion to the apostles at Jerusalem. This means that the apostles had a recognized authority in matters of faith which was far beyond the authority of the disciples or the faithful.
“So they, sent on their way by the church, passed through Phoenicia and Samaria, relating the conversion of the Gentiles, and they caused great rejoicing among all the brethren. On arriving at Jerusalem they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the presbyters, and they proclaimed all that God had done with them. But some, of the Pharisees' sect, who had accepted the faith, got up and said, 'They must be circumcised by and also told to observe the Law of Moses'” (Acts, 15:3-6).
Again, only the apostles and presbyters made up the proper body of the council. Only this circle therefore had the authority to participate actively in the making of decisions. Shortly before the Apostolic Council we read in the Acts of the Apostles that Paul and Barnabas, who made missionary journeys to many places and provinces, that “When they had appointed presbyters for them in each church, with prayer and fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed” (Acts, 14:22). It follows that these “presbyters” were those men who received a sacramental ordination by which they could take charge of the episcopal office in their respective communities.
Paul and Barnabas had themselves been prepared in this manner for their missionary journey: “Then, having fasted and prayed and laid their hands upon them, they let them go” (Acts, 13:3). Already in the time of the apostles it was only possible to take charge of special missionary tasks by being selected from the faithful and made capable by sacramental ordination. The practice of ordinations thus goes back to the apostles themselves. Only they and the especially ordained “presbyters” (We can easily recognize Bishops here.) could perform the specific ordinations.
And only the apostles and such “presbyters” could take an active part in this council. Christianity, therefore, already had a clear hierarchical structure in the time of the apostles as well as a clergy, to which one belonged by force of a special, sacramental ordination. The differentiation between clergy and laity was given already at the very beginning of the existence of the Church.
“So the apostles and the presbyters had a meeting to look into this matter. And after a long debate, Peter got up and said to them 'Brethren, you know that in early days God made choice among us, that through my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us'” (Acts, 15:6-8). Peter also explained that the Gentile converts to Christianity must not be judaized by submitting them to circumcision and the Mosaic law. Then the whole meeting quieted down and listened while Barnabas and Paul told of the great signs and wonders that God had done among the Gentiles through them” (Acts, 15:12). Then followed a speech by James, referring to the prophet Amos: “Therefore, my judgment is not to disquiet those who from among the Gentiles are turning to the Lord; but to send them written instructions to abstain from anything that has been contaminated by idols and from immorality and from anything strangled and from blood” (Acts, 15:19ff).
“Then the apostles and the presbyters with the whole church decided to select representatives and to send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. These were Judas, surnamed Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brethren” (Acts, 15:22). Again, men were selected to send them to Paul and Barnabas for their missionary work in Antioch, who themselves had been selected and had received the laying of the hands. It can be presumed from the quote cited that Silas and Barsabbas had received the laying of the hands as well.
And when we see the “whole church” mentioned in the text above it does not mean in any way that laypeople, who do not have any especially ordained priesthood, took part in the priestly or episcopal ordinations. We rather have to understand it in the sense of them being happy about the selection of Judas Basabbas and Silas, who were most likely known to many of the faithful. Even a bishop today in the traditional rite of ordination of deacons and priests asks the faithful present if they have any just reasons against the ordination of the candidates.
“They (Paul, Barnabas, Judas Barsabbas and Silas) were bearers of the following letter: ‘The brethren who are apostles and presbyters send greeting to the brethren of Gentile origin in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia. As we have heard that some of our number have disturbed you with their teaching, unsettling your minds, persons to whom we had given no instruction....” (Acts, 15:23ff). It is interesting to see that the “apostles and presbyters” were not only conscious of their very special position inside the primitive Church, but did speak as such to the other members of the Church. They also talk about “instruction” being necessary, not only for doing something particular, but for preaching in general.
All this becomes even more clear by the following: “'We have decided, being assembled together, to select representatives and send them to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, men who have pledged their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves also by word of mouth will give you the same message. For the Holy Spirit and we have decided to lay no further burden upon you but this indispensable one, that you abstain from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from immorality; keep yourselves from these things, and you will get on well. Farewell’” (Acts, 15:25-29).
The participants of the Apostolic Council told the others officially about their own decision. This sounds very much like a solemn pronouncement of an article of faith by the magisterium of the Church. And especially in the following sentence we can see by whose authority they proclaimed their decision: “For the Holy Spirit and we have decided.” The participants in the council claimed nothing less than that the Holy Ghost spoke to them on how to decide and what to pronounce to the faithful. They did not just decide in the name of the Holy Ghost in this specific case, but put their office in the Church, to which they were called by Christ, fundamentally in connection with the working of the Holy Ghost for the good of the whole of Christianity.
What happened in the end? After the ascension of Jesus and the beginning of the missionary work of the apostles there was a concrete question which waited for an answer. The apostles obviously did not hear an utterance out of the mouth of Jesus, which could be said to be a direct and precise answer to this question which came to pass in the course of history. Even in the Gospel we cannot find a direct word of Jesus, stating whether or not the Gentile Christians had to accept the Mosaic law (and circumcision) before their baptism.
Faced by the question of what to do, the apostles and presbyters (bishops) came together to discuss this matter (in a council). In the end they made a decision in a particular matter of faith (dogma), by claiming the special power given to them by Christ (as apostles or by the power given to them through ordination by the apostles or presbyters) in which they made a logical conclusion from what they heard from Jesus. From now on their decision was binding upon all Christians (infallibility) – it was universally accepted and not doubted.
The fathers of the council were conscious of the fact that they did not formulate a new truth which is in contradiction with the words and deeds of Jesus. No, the fathers of that time just took the received teaching of Christ and applied it to the new historical situation and theological question.
It was, so to say, just the logical continuation or development of the fundamental principles of the teaching of Christ, which did not receive any falsification in this manner. As a plant grows from a seed and each branch from a tree, without both being changed in their nature as something different or even contradictory, in the very same way the new knowledge of doctrine is genuinely the same as the old deposit of faith in Christendom.
But it was something new in as much as it needed the official establishment of a council in order to answer the questions which were so much pressing at that specific time. Still, they only followed their duty to teach all creatures the Gospel of Jesus Christ (see Mt, 28:19ff), which was their office through the “selection” by the apostles and presbyters.
Of course they could have just left it as it was. But then no decision could have been made… and Christianity would have been brought into a chaos in doctrine as well as religious praxis. This was prevented by the fathers of the council employing the spiritual power given to them by Jesus Christ.
We can recognize the deep reason and enormous importance of the magisterium of the Church in this historical example, since Jesus Christ, the divine Redeemer teaches himself through his apostles and the (rightful) bishops in His Church and guides them through all time by the Holy Ghost (“For the Holy Spirit and we have decided.”) The magisterial decisions of the Church hierarchy seem like the divine hand in the history of mankind by which the faithful have external guidance as well as corresponding religious instructions in each new question or specific situation. The solemn words of Jesus apply very much in this area: “And behold, I am with you all days, even unto the consummation of the world” (Mt, 28:20).
We clearly see that any assertion that the Church is not identical with primitive Christianity in her hierarchical structure or her internal constitution is without basis in reality. The passages of the Acts of the Apostles also contradict the popular, but nevertheless false, theories that in early Christianity there was no especially ordained priesthood and no definition of dogma.
The Catholic Church is the institution of salvation founded by Jesus Christ which remains in her essential marks (unity, holiness, catholicity, apostolicity) identical to the Church Christ founded. She never has to re-invent herself in some manner! On the contrary, Protestantism in all its forms, as well as the official Conciliar Church did have a fateful break with sanctified tradition; wherefore, they present merely human institutions and must be seen as such.
Fr. Eugen Rissling