St. Anthony’s Catholic Church/Wikimedia

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.