Why a Pope? What’s This Catholic Business Anyway?

Why a Pope? What’s This Catholic Business Anyway? February 13, 2013

In answer to some questions folks might have as we’re all focused on Rome, an exchange I had with my friend George Weigel on the publication of his new book, Evangelical Catholicism:

LOPEZ: “In a cultural environment where all authority is suspect and the notion of divine authority is thought to be a psychological hangover from the postmodern world,” you write, “the claim that the divine authority is transmitted in an unbroken chain of apostolic succession through the bishops of the Church in communion with the Bishop of Rome seems literally incredible.” And yet, you continue “that is what the Catholic Church believes, and that is what Evangelical Catholicism must proclaim, explain, and live.” You’re a serious person; serious people listen to you. They even let you on NBC. How can you claim such a thing? How can you believe that? What makes you so sure the Catholic Church is true?

WEIGEL: The key question is, as always, “Who do you say that I am?” as Jesus put it to the disciples when they were strolling through Caesarea Philippi. If I embrace Jesus as what he says he is — the way, the truth, and the life — then it seems reasonable to think that Jesus would have wished his followers, the Church, to be preserved in that truth. Catholics have always believed that that truth is preserved by the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church through the “apostolic succession”: the bishops in union with the Bishop of Rome, who “succeed” the apostles, the original witnesses to Jesus, the Risen Lord, as Christ’s witnesses in the world, and as the authoritative teachers of the Church.

Americans accept that nine unelected lawyers wearing strange black costumes and sitting on a dais in a faux-temple make authoritative judgments about the meaning of the U.S. Constitution. Some people think that tenured Ivy League faculty members and Hollywood starlets make authoritative judgments. Is it any stranger for me to believe that the Church’s bishops, heirs of a tradition that is 2,000 years old, can and do make authoritative judgments?

I’m also a student of history and theology, and my work in those disciplines has demonstrated to my satisfaction that, while the process by which the Church, through its authoritative teachers, makes up its mind as to what’s “in” and what’s “out” — what’s truly Catholic and what isn’t — is often complicated and messy, it has proven itself over time. And that, I think, is an indicator that the Holy Spirit is at work in the process.

Finally, I see what has happened to Christian communities that have lost any sense of a teaching authority anchored in, and responsible to, Scripture and the Church’s settled tradition: They crumble in the face of a hostile culture, or they simply become expressions of the culture rather than the Gospel. That’s a cautionary tale, and, at least along the via negativa, it’s another argument for the Catholic Church’s understanding of itself as guided by authoritative teachers in the apostolic succession.

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