The Continuity of the Catholic Church
The method used by the Church in defining her doctrines is somewhat similar to that used by the Supreme Court of the United States. When confronted with a problem about the constitutionality of a law, the Justices examine not merely the Constitution itself and the various influences which contributed to its formation, but also the decisions of former courts, those by which the Constitution has been previously interpreted. They make every effort to reach a decision which is in line with what has gone before. They do not make new laws; rather, they try to preserve the laws as they were intended to be understood. They add clarifying statements as needed, making the laws more understandable and making them applicable to the problems of the moment, but that is all.
As I said, the method used by the Church is somewhat similar. It is not exactly and completely so, however, in as much as the Court can reverse itself; in as much, furthermore, as the Court cannot call in for guidance the infallible wisdom of the Holy Spirit. The similarity to be noted is that the Church, whenever called upon to make a declaration about the Gospel of Christ, looks into her own past record to learn what has been handed down from the Apostles and Christ. From this record she learns the precedents which she is bound to respect and follow.
Let it be noted that the Church, when considering a clarified definition of a doctrine, does not ask: Would the proposed definition be favorably received by our people? Would it silence criticism? Would it add to the prestige and influence of the Church? Would it attract favour from non-Catholics? Would it assure support from civil rulers? Would it serve to relax persecutions of the Church and her faithful? None of these. With complete confidence in the deposit of truth left in the beginning, the officials of the Church ask but one question: What is in that deposit? They trace back through the Tradition which has come to them; what they find there determines their decision. Now I ask: Does it not seem that this method, in and by itself, is a recommendation of constancy? Is there any other method which could so perfectly preserve the Gospel and the soul of Christianity?
A good illustration of the method used by the Church is given in the Council of Nicea, 325 A.D. The occasion was that under the leadership of Arius a heresy had developed in which the divinity of our Lord was qualified and limited. Arius asserted that our Lord was not co-equal with the Father. The heresy, being attractive, lured many Christians away from the true fold, finally becoming so widespread and destructive as to compel attention by the Church. At the council of Nicea, the bishops asked and answered one question: What have we received from the Apostles? They examined both the Scriptures and the testimony of the Fathers in the preceding three centuries. Then, under the protection of the Holy Spirit which had been promised them, they declared officially that our Lord was truly God as well as truly man.
Note well that the bishops at Nicea had added nothing to the doctrines of the Church, nothing beyond explicit statements. There was nothing new in their definition of doctrines beyond assurance that the doctrines were not new. It has been the same with every definition of doctrine from that time to the present. In 381 A.D. the bishops, meeting in Constantinople, asked and answered the question: What do we believe and teach about the Holy Spirit? What doctrine has been handed down to us from the Apostles? They answered by declaring that the Holy Spirit, equally with the Father and the Son, is truly God.
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