For many Hillsdale students, faith is central to our identity. It can be a source of fierce loyalty and occasional conflict. But aggression is the last thing we want surrounding the topic of religion, and as Christians, dialogue about theology ought to be conducted with charity and humility, especially when pointing out differences between Catholic and non-Catholic Christianity.
Perhaps the most distinguishing characteristic of the Catholic Church is papal authority. Unique among the Christian denominations, the Catholic Church claims its single human leader has authority derived from Christ himself and is infallible when defining doctrine in matters of faith and morals. This teaching is founded in Peter’s preeminence among the apostles, evidence of which is found in Matthew 16, where Christ calls Peter the rock upon which he will build his church, gives him the keys to the kingdom of heaven, and grants him the power of binding and loosing. It is true that Jesus later gives the power to bind and loose to all of the apostles, but Peter is the only one whom he renames and gives the symbolic power of the keys, referencing the role of steward found in Isaiah 22:22. Some cite the difference between “Petra” and “petros” as indicative that Jesus’ rock of ecclesiastical foundation was distinct from Peter the apostle, but this difference does not exist in the Aramaic language, which Jesus would have spoken.
The primacy to which Christ appointed Peter passed to his successors, the future bishops of Rome. This teaching can be defended in Scripture, but it is perhaps more effectively demonstrated by the writings of influential early Christians. Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, wrote in AD 251, “If someone does not hold fast to this unity of Peter, can he imagine that he still holds the faith? If he desert the chair of Peter upon whom the Church was built, can he still be confident that he is in the Church?”
A century later, St. Augustine wrote, “Number the bishops from the very see of Peter, and observe the succession of every father in that order: it is the rock against which the proud gates of hell prevail not.”
The unity of doctrine found in the Catholic church may be the most eloquent point in support of Catholicism. Since the Bible says the gates of hell will never prevail against Christ’s church, the church must maintain unified, sound doctrine. The diverse range of beliefs among the Protestant denominations calls into question which church, exactly, is the true one. Papal authority is arguably the central topic to any discussion of Catholicism, as many of the Catholic teachings hinge on papal authority, and if true, it lends a far greater weight to the rest of Catholic teaching.
After papal primacy, the true presence of Jesus in the Eucharist through transubstantiation is perhaps the next most distinctively Catholic teaching. Catholics believe that Jesus is physically present in the sacrament of communion, and that the appearance of bread and wine is just that — an outward appearance. In John 6, Jesus says, “Except you eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, you shall not have life in you…For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed.” Christ meant this literally: When some of his followers refused to accept this extreme teaching and departed, Jesus turned to the twelve and, instead of clarifying that he what he said was a metaphor, Christ simply asked if they planned to leave as well. In the last supper, Jesus proclaims, “This is my body” and “this is my blood” (Matt. 26, 28). Both of these verses are free of the language of similitude which marks Christ’s parables, which, combined with the disciples’ reaction in John 6, suggests that Jesus meant this literally.
Finally, prayer to Mary and the saints represents possibly the most misunderstood teaching of the Catholic church. Contrary to popular opinion, Catholics do not worship Mary and the saints or offer them the homage due to God alone. In fact, in Catholic theology, there are dedicated Latin words used to distinguish between the worship given to God (latria) and the honor and respect given to the saints (dulia) and Mary (hyperdulia). Prayer to the saints is not offered to ask their independent help, but simply to request their prayers to God on our behalf. Just as I might ask a friend to pray that I do my best on an exam, I can ask past Christians — particularly those who exhibited heroic virtue in their lives and are considered role models — to pray to God, adding their prayers to mine. Revelation 5:8 describes saints in heaven offering to God the prayers of the faithful on earth: “The four living creatures, and the four and twenty ancients fell down before the Lamb, having every one of them harps, and golden vials full of odors, which are the prayers of God’s people.” This demonstrates that those in heaven are aware of our prayers and petitions and can offer them to God on our behalf.
The beauty and tradition found in the Roman Catholic Church are worth consideration from serious Christians. But this dialogue should continue — the exchange of theological ideas and truths is necessary as we grow together in Christ.
Josh Brown is a senior studying the liberal arts.