To the extent that Protestantism denies this possibility altogether, and leaves the task of discovering true Christian doctrine, Tradition, and Church squarely and ultimately on the shoulders of the individual, I think it must be opposed as both nonsensical and unbiblical as well.
This is not merely a philosophical proposition. The Bible clearly (I think) teaches about both an authoritative Church and a Tradition. The fathers assumed this, and that was their ultimate appeal against the heretics, who invariably relied on their private judgment in the “non-ecclesiastical” sense that Newman wrote about, and sola Scriptura. For the Fathers, what had “always been believed” was the determinant of orthodoxy. God had the power to preserve apostolic doctrine inviolate and to protect the true church from error.
It requires faith to believe this, and that is what a Catholic does: we have faith that this Church can exist and that it can be identified and located. We don’t say this rests on our own individual choice. It is already there; like “stumbling upon” the Pacific Ocean or Mt. Everest. We don’t determine whether the thing exists or not. And we must believe it is what it claims to be by faith, absolutely. Why should that surprise anyone except a person who thinks that Christianity is determined purely by arbitrary choice and rationalism without faith?
That is no longer simply philosophy or subjective preference, as if Christianity were reduced to Philosophy 0101 (where someone might prefer Kierkegaaard to Kant) or the selection of a flavor of ice cream. If we are to be biblical, the Bible refers often to a “passed-down tradition.” It is Out There. It exists. Newman would say that one can find this and submit themselves to it, by God’s grace (not human reason, though it is not inconsistent with the latter, nor with any biblical teaching).
We make the choice to be Catholic, but we don’t say that the choice was mere reasoning. It was led by God’s grace and necessary aid, just as salvation must be so originated. No one denies that Christians choose whether or not to follow God and become a disciple of Jesus. But that very choice was made possible only by God’s grace; otherwise it couldn’t have occurred at all, given the Fall (and the contrary view is the heresy of Pelagianism). Likewise, this is what we believe about the choice of the Catholic Church as the one founded by Christ, which we believe can be traced back to apostolic times in unbroken historical succession. This does not entirely exclude other Christians from the fold; not at all — but that’s another discussion and I can’t get into that at the moment.
Apart from this faith aspect, the Catholic (especially apologists such as myself) claims that our view of ecclesiology and theology is backed up by both history and the Bible, as well as reason. I would argue (among many other things) the fact that the Bible teaches one true Church, as evidenced by the early Protestant internal divisions. In the early days, they still believed that each school was the one, and the true Church in some sense. There was a visible structure (e.g., Calvin’s Geneva, or the Lutheran princes, who took over from the bishops). They believed in one church and one truth, however they may have defined it.
We arrive at truth by many different means. Belief in God is that way: it is experiential, moral, imaginative, philosophical (if someone is of that bent of mind), allegorical, etc. I became a committed evangelical Christian back in 1977 largely because of what is called the “moral argument,” which is not rationality per se but an internal sense of what is right and wrong, and that Christianity embodied those values.
God even used movies and music to bring me to Him back when I was a thoroughly secular pagan in the 70s (somewhat like C.S. Lewis, who came to Christianity through the route of mythology, Wagnerian music, and the like). Selection of a church should be a matter of faith and prayer and all the usual reasoning involved, just as conversion to Jesus Himself is, since the Church, if it exists, is a supernatural entity, even though fallible and sinful men and women are in it.
Likewise, in choosing a church or denomination. All you can do is pray, study the issues, read all the sides you care to read, talk to people, look at the history of the various groups, study early Church history, study the Bible through and through and choose what you think is the closest to the biblical Church, as revealed in the Bible (and — if you value Church history and a visible Church as a continuation of the Incarnation, so to speak — what has existed in fact for 2000 years). It still takes God’s grace, just as conversion does.
Pope John Paul II’s Apostolic Constitution Fidei Depositum, written in 1992, states:
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, which I approved 25 June last and the publication of which I today order by virtue of my Apostolic Authority, is a statement of the Church’s faith and of catholic doctrine, attested to or illumined by Sacred Scripture, the Apostolic Tradition and the Church’s Magisterium. I declare it to be a sure norm for teaching the faith and thus a valid and legitimate instrument for ecclesial communion. May it serve the renewal to which the Holy Spirit ceaselessly calls the Church of God, the Body of Christ, on her pilgrimage to the undiminished light of the Kingdom!
The approval and publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church represent a service which the Successor of Peter wishes to offer to the Holy Catholic Church, to all the particular Churches in peace and communion with the Apostolic See: the service, that is, of supporting and confirming the faith of all the Lord Jesus’ disciples (cf. Lk 22:32 as well as of strengthening the bonds of unity in the same apostolic faith. Therefore, I ask all the Church’s Pastors and the Christian faithful to receive this catechism in a spirit of communion and to use it assiduously in fulfilling their mission of proclaiming the faith and calling people to the Gospel life. This catechism is given to them that it may be a sure and authentic reference text for teaching catholic doctrine and particularly for preparing local catechisms. It is also offered to all the faithful who wish to deepen their knowledge of the unfathomable riches of salvation (cf. Eph 3:8). It is meant to support ecumenical efforts that are moved by the holy desire for the unity of all Christians, showing carefully the content and wondrous harmony of the catholic faith. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, lastly, is offered to every individual who asks us to give an account of the hope that is in us (cf. 1 Pt 3:15) and who wants to know what the Catholic Church believes.
That’s more than sufficient to show anyone what the Church teaches. The pope said so. This is how our authority structure works.
And what is the particular brand of Protestantism that is superior to our system? It’s easy to take swipes at the Big Red Barn of Catholicism. But the question is: what is the better alternative? Then when we see how Protestants try to resolve authority problems, it gets truly self-defeating and absurd. That’s not true of Catholicism. It’s not philosophically airtight, but very few things are, so big wow. That’s a big yawner. But (I contend) all forms of Protestant ecclesiology break down and become self-defeating, the more they are scrutinized.
I maintain that the Protestant position is ultimately self-defeating and unworkable, I’ve argued this many times in many different ways. Note the following:
1) Catholics believe x about authority.
2) Protestants believe y about authority.
3) x and y are not consistent with each other at all points.
4) x and y, in fact, contradict each other in various ways.
5) Therefore, the one holding x must necessarily believe that y is unreasonable at those points in which it contradicts x.
6) And likewise, the one holding y must necessarily believe that x is unreasonable at those points in which it contradicts y.
7) Thus, assuming x is true, y is unreasonable where it contradicts x.
8 ) And, assuming y is true, x is unreasonable where it contradicts y.
I go further than this, to make other points:
1) Protestants massively contradict each other.
2) Contradictions entail at least one position being false, untrue, erroneous, or both positions being so. But they can’t both be true.
3) Therefore, where this occurs in Protestantism, someone is promulgating falsehood.
4) Falsehood is not of or from God.
5) Therefore, systems that freely allow (indeed, literally encourage) contradictions and thus falsehood to flourish are not furthering the cause of truth in religion or the biblical worldview that there is one solitary Christian truth and tradition.
Protestant principles of authority are not only unreasonable because they contradict ours, but because they contradict the Bible, and themselves, at various points, and become viciously self-defeating.
We aren’t making the individual the final arbiter of true doctrine, as Protestants do. To posit and believe by faith in an infallible Church makes perfect sense, because Christians already believe in an inspired Scripture, and that Scripture has much indication of an infallible Church. That is self-consistent. But to fall back on a mere non-infallible individual believer, who supposedly will figure all this stuff out, or else have to operate in a sort of limbo or agnostic or uncertain state in their Christian life, is not only absurd and perfectly implausible in the abstract, but chaotic in actual practice, as history has amply shown.
The fact remains that there is no chaos with regard to Catholic doctrine, for those willing to accept what the Church has clearly proclaimed; whereas there is plenty within Protestantism. The “infallibility regress” game can be and will be played, but it falls flat every time, when properly scrutinized (which is very laborious and time-consuming, as this reply proves. Disproving error is always a lot harder than assertion of error).
(abridged from two papers, dated 5-22-03 and 10-7-08)