The Continuity of the Catholic Church
Because much criticism is directed to the unworthy lives of a few popes, it is necessary to give attention to that subject, although by itself it is wholly irrelevant. The complaint is that at times the Papacy has been occupied by weak and sinful men, the conclusion being drawn that their unworthiness inflicted irreparable damage upon the Church. That a few popes, as rare exceptions to the general rule, caused scandal by their misconduct is regrettably true; five or perhaps six can be so accused. But what follows? Harm was done to the Church, without doubt. Discipline among the lower clergy was relaxed. Abuses crept into Church management. Moral conditions in Christian communities declined. Urgently needed reforms were postponed. All that is bad enough, but it proves nothing against the continuity of the Church.
The question is: Did the evil conduct of a few popes put an end to the Church? It seems ridiculous even to pose the question, and yet it may serve one good purpose. Its very absurdity throws light on the criticism. I propose this test: Let the critics select any one of the weak popes they wish; let them make as much as possible out of his misconduct. Then let him ask if the Church disappeared when this Pope passed away. The answer is obvious.
Let us inquire, however, if the influence of these unworthy popes did not destroy the soul of the Church. Did not their evil ways affect doctrines? Did they not change and corrupt the Gospel? Here we touch a most extraordinary phenomenon, one which would have been impossible if the Church were merely human. It is one from which the Catholic faithful can take renewed assurance of the infallibility of their Church.
The fact is that not one of the unworthy popes taught doctrines different from those taught by the most saintly Popes. Not one of them attempted to change one article of Christian faith. Not one of them can be accused of corrupting the Gospel. How explain this extraordinary fact? Only in supernatural terms; only by recalling that the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth, has been with the Church at all times to protect against teaching error. Without this divine and supernatural protection, the leadership of unworthy officials certainly would have left its baneful and permanent mark upon the doctrines of the Church. But there has been no such mark. This fact alone distinguishes the Church from merely human institutions.
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