The Continuity of the Catholic Church
The subject of the continuity of Christianity is now, and for years has been, one of great interest to me. From the earliest days of perplexed thinking about my religious status, while yet a student in college, I began to inquire among the churches of my acquaintance about their continuity with the origin and source of Christianity. That my inquiries finally led me to the Catholic faith is another but a parallel story.
I have been prompted to put into writing some of my observations by two wholly contradictory facts. The one is that so many modern Christians of non-Catholic denominations attach little or no importance to the subject; seemingly, they are not interested in it. I should like to point out to them that the subject is of vital importance, in that continuity is the measure of validity. In other words, any church of today which claims to be of Christ must be able to trace its origin back to Him. It must have had continuous and physical contact with Him; it must be the unbroken link between that contact and the world at each new moment of time.
The other fact is the explicit denial of unbroken Christianity. This is the point of view of the Mormon denominations (Latter-day Saints), of origin in the 19th century. They recognise that continuity was to have been a characteristic of the Church, but insist that it was fatally lost when, sometime in the early centuries, the original church came to an inglorious end. They declare that there was no church from that time until the restoration in the last century. I should like to point out to them that any break in the succession of the church organisation or in the teaching of the Gospel would have been and has proved to be impossible.
If in the following pages it appears that I give disproportionate attention to the second of these two groups, there is a natural reason for my doing so. My life as a priest, of nearly forty years now, has been spent in Utah, in the center and stronghold of Mormonism, where I have been reminded continually about Mormon doctrines and Mormon practices. It is inevitable, therefore that in writing about the continuity of the Catholic Church I should reply to the Mormon arguments which are directed against that same continuity. Not that these come to me in the daily and friendly contacts with the Mormon people, many of whom are excellent neighbors, but rather that they come from the official or perhaps the self-appointed spokesmen of the Mormon Church. It seems that these speakers and writers cannot resist the temptation to censure the Catholic Church. Evidently they believe it their duty to do so, a duty to their own Church. Here let me make my own position very clear. I am not in the least interested in any Mormon doctrine, except in so far as it is unfavorable to the Catholic Church. Then, to the best of my ability, I shall reply.
Any inquiry about Christianity should begin, like all similar inquiries, with the plan and purpose of its Founder. What did He intend? What did He provide for? It seems only reasonable, in as much as He established a religion for all men of all time, that He must have made adequate provision that when He started would persevere. This is human reasoning, I recognise; it is not historical proof. But surely it is good reasoning. And as for proof, there will be sufficient in the pages that follow.
The continuity of the Church means, for one thing, institutional continuity, a continuous organisation, linking in physical contact the officials of each generation with those of the preceding one and back finally to the Apostles themselves. It means, furthermore, the unchanged Gospel as taught in the beginning by the Apostles. Because the traditional claims of the Catholic Church are challenged in both respects, it is necessary for me to consider both.
With the subject, "The Continuity of the Catholic Church", I defend a thesis which is purely constructive, not destructive; positive, not negative. Neither now nor at any other time do I propose to criticise the doctrines or practices or officials of any other church or religion. I try to always obey the rule honoured by my Church everywhere throughout the world, the rule followed for over nineteen centuries, that of preaching the Catholic religion only.
In stating this intention, however, I am fully aware that every affirmation I make touches some point of controversy. It cannot be otherwise. Every doctrine of the Catholic Church has been denied by some group of persons at some stage in the Church’s long history. If I should say, by way of illustration, that the Catholic Church had good reason to change the day of worship from Saturday to Sunday, immediately I am contradicted by at least one Christian denomination which teaches otherwise.
So it is that no matter how closely I limit my attention to the Catholic religion, my every statement will show disapproval of something else. Somewhere in the Christian world someone can interpret each of my affirmations as a rejection of one of his beliefs. Implicit in every Catholic doctrine is a denial of its opposite.
As a matter of course my right to defend the Catholic Church should not be questioned. If, in these pages, I undertake the Church’s claim of continuity, I do so precisely because it has been so frequently challenged and denied. That the subject is important cannot be doubted. If the Catholic Church has been continuous from the time of our Lord to the present, she has an irrefutable claim to being the one Church which He established. If, to the contrary, she has not been continuous, two very embarrassing questions command attention. First, when did the original Church come to an end? Second, when did the present Catholic Church come into being?
The sources from which I draw material are the Sacred Scriptures and history. In these it is clearly demonstrated that the person known as our Lord and savior, Jesus Christ, established the Christian religion; for this fact, no proof need be offered here. What is necessary to note is that Christianity is both visible and invisible, both physical and spiritual, both body and soul. Man himself, for whom Christianity was ordained, is a composite of body and soul; most reasonably, therefore, the religion which he needs must be a composite of body and soul.
Here is another illustration of what I mentioned a moment ago, and I digress to call attention to it. There are Christians, how many I do not know, who deny that our Lord established a visible church. They believe that what He gave the world was a spiritual Gospel only, along with His exemplary way of life. According to them, the organisation is merely a human creation and is subject, therefore to human changes from time to time. In my judgement this opinion does not deserve an explicit refutation; it will be sufficiently dealt with in the data which I present relative to other subjects.
My thesis is stated very simply: The Church which our Lord established is continuous from Him to the present day and will be continuous until the end of the world. This means, first of all, that the body of the Church, the organisation, has lived every day during the past nineteen centuries and will continue to live every day until the end of the world. It means, furthermore, that the soul of the Church, her doctrines, her ideals, her means of grace, and her supernatural protection, have remained constant, that they have not changed and never will change.
Except where otherwise mentioned, quotations from the Scriptures are taken from the King James version.
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