The Continuity of the Catholic Church
The organisation of the Church, as already noted, resembles a board of directors, one of whom is chairman or president. When the chairman dies, the office does not die with him. It remains to be filled by the other directors, most of whom continue to live. They may act quickly or they may procrastinate. They may agree among themselves or disagree. They may split into factions; they may indulge in quarrels. They may lose prestige and influence. But the one and all-important fact is that the organisation continues to exist. In time a new chairman is chosen, at which moment he acquires all the authority belonging to the office.
This tells the story of the succession of Popes. The death of a Pope does not mean the death of all other bishops throughout the world. They remain, and in them the Church organisation continues to live. Suppose that three years time is wasted before a new Pope is elected, as occurred once. What about it? True enough, the Church does not function as well as it should. But the further truth is that the Church still lives; the office of the Papacy still remains. In time it is filled, whereupon the new Pope enjoys all the authority belonging to the office.
A similar difficulty is imagined in the unfortunate rivalry which existed on one occasion, the rivalry for the Papacy among three claimants. The critics wish to know which one of the claimants was the rightful Pope. And if the answer is not convincing, they declare that the succession of Popes was broken. Perhaps, they point out, the transfer to the eventual successor was made by an official who was not truly the Pope. If so, they continue, everything that followed in the later succession was nullified by the mistake.
The criticism is based on the same premise as noted above, namely, that each Pope must choose his successor and must personally turn over to him the authority of the office, a premise which is false. In the case of the three rival claimants, other bishops remained at their posts throughout the world, continuing to perform the duties of their office. Not for a moment did the Church cease to exist. Not for a moment did the office of the Pope disappear. It remained, although contested. Eventually it was filled, the contest being ended, whereupon the new Pope acquired all the duties and prerogatives pertaining to it.
The inescapable fact is that the Catholic Church has lived in every generation since the day of her origin. In spite of persecutions and local defeats, in spite of human frailty, in spite of difficulties which would have wrecked anything but a divinely founded institution, the Church has continued to live. Opponents may protest, they may disregard history and logic, but the stubborn fact remains clear as the noonday sun. The Catholic Church has not ceased to exist even for one moment of time from the beginning of Christianity to the present day. It will not cease until God in His wisdom calls an end to human existence; not until the end of the world.
This degree of survival and continuity has been recognised by many persons throughout history. One Protestant historian, Lord Thomas Macauley commenting on the Catholic Church, noted the following:
"She saw the commencement of all the governments and of all the ecclesiastical establishments that now exist in the world; and we feel no assurance that she is not destined to see the end of them all. She was great before the Saxon had set foot in Britain, before the Frank had crossed the Rhine, when Grecian eloquence still flourished in Antioch, when idols were still worshipped in the temple in Mecca. And she may still exist in undiminished vigor when some traveller from New Zealand shall in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London bridge to sketch the ruins of St. Paul's."
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