How do we know the teachings of the Catholic Church are the teachings of Jesus?
In April’s column we addressed the claim that Catholics are not permitted to think for themselves. As noted then, oftentimes the real issue underlying this objection is the view that the teachings of the Church are not the teachings of Jesus. In other words, the person who makes this objection often does not believe the teachings of the Catholic Church are the teachings of Jesus Christ. Let’s see how we can respond to this challenge.
At the end of St. Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus commanded the apostles to proclaim his teachings to the entire world. In other words, the followers of Jesus—led by the apostles and their successors, who are the bishops—were tasked with the duty and responsibility of passing on his saving teachings to all peoples for all time.
There is a problem here, however: what is the guarantee that, as generations passed, the teachings which Jesus’ followers taught and passed on would actually be his teachings?
The Catholic Church looks to the same Gospel, Matthew, for the answer. In Matthew 16, Jesus proclaims it is on Peter that he will build his Church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against that Church. It is to the first part of these verses that we look for the origins of the pope’s role in the Church, but it is in the later part of the passage that we look for the origins of the Church’s infallibility, her ability to teach without error. Let’s look at this more closely.
Jesus says the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church. Since the very beginning of Christianity this has been understood to mean Jesus is guaranteeing the Church will not teach error, that the Church will always faithfully hand on Jesus’ own teachings. Why is this so? Because if the Church were able to teach error, in some little way the gates of hell would prevail against the Church.
Jesus’ statement that the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church means, then, the Church will never teach error, that it is impossible for the Church to do so. And Jesus fulfills this guarantee not by the brilliance of popes or bishops, but rather by the power of his own Holy Spirit. That is, it is by the power of God himself, by the power of the Holy Spirit, that the Church is protected and prevented from teaching error.
There are other places in Scripture which confirm this reality. St. Paul, for instance, refers to the Church as the pillar and foundation of truth (1 Timothy 3:15). In John’s Gospel, Jesus repeatedly tells the apostles at the Last Supper that the Holy Spirit will guide them in all truth (e.g. John 14:15ff, 15:26ff and 16:12ff).
Consider how the faith originally spread: by the preaching of the apostles and other disciples. But how were people to know that apostolic preaching was authentic, that is, that it really was what Jesus himself taught?
There were certainly indicators like miracles which confirmed their teachings, but ultimately, they pointed to the power of the Holy Spirit as guarantor of the faith of the Church as the faith given to us by Jesus.
Time and time again in the early centuries of Christianity, we see Christians exhorted to remain with the Church, to not separate themselves from the Church, or more specifically from the bishops. As early as the first century, we read St. Ignatius of Antioch reminding Christians not to separate themselves from the bishop, and only a few decades later, St. Irenaeus of Lyons writing that it is in the Church where one finds the truth. Or perhaps most strongly, we read St. Augustine a couple centuries later saying he “would not believe the Gospels unless the authority of the Catholic Church moved me to.”
Again, this is all pointing to what we heard from Jesus himself: it is by the power of his Spirit that this happens. Our belief that the teachings of the Catholic Church are the teachings of Jesus Christ rests ultimately upon our confidence in Jesus himself and his promise regarding the Church.
If we believe Jesus and trust in his words, we can be certain that the teachings of the Catholic Church are his own teachings, and we can accept and follow them with confidence.
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Chris Burgwald holds a doctorate in theology and is the director of discipleship formation for the Diocese of Sioux Falls.