The Continuity of the Catholic Church
There is one final observation which I am tempted to make, even though it may not be pertinent to my thesis. I say "may not," rather than "is not," because the point is not to be pressed. I merely suggest that the never-ending opposition to the Church, in and by itself, may be additional proof for the continuity of the Church. Let me explain.
Have you ever stopped to think that most of the opposition to our Lord, when he lived among men nineteen hundred years ago, came from persons who were God-fearing and devoutly religious? There were a few others, of course, those who do not deserve these adjectives of praise, but they were the exception. Here is a fact, therefore, which cannot help challenge our attention. That the divine Lord, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, should arouse enmity from persons of good intentions is something worth thinking about. Opposition from the forces of evil was and is always to be expected. But how explain the opposition from the others?
From the pages of the New Testament, wherein the nature of the opposition to our Lord is clearly recorded, I select a few incidents as typical. Limited time does not permit even a mention of all the points of conflict, but the few I have chosen will suffice for my purpose.
As a first illustration, consider the incident where a paralytic was carried into the presence of our Lord, with the hope that he could by miraculously cured of his ailment. You recall that our Lord startled His hearers by saying to the sick man: "Son, thy sins are forgiven thee." Do you recall the reaction of the bystanders? Some of them immediately protested. "Why does this man speak thus?" they asked. "He blasphemes. Who can forgive sins, but God only?"
For a second illustration take the extraordinary promise of our Lord that He would give Himself to His followers as food and drink. "I am the bread of life," He said: "...and the Bread that I will give is My flesh for the life of the world." Upon hearing this some of the bystanders protested. "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" they asked. Our Lord replied by emphasising what He had said. He promised to leave Himself among His followers, to be really and truly present under the appearance of bread and wine. He commanded that His followers were to receive Him in Communion.
Once more there was a protest, this time from disciples. "This is a hard saying," they murmured. "Who can listen to it?" Then when our Lord once more repeated His statement to show beyond any doubt that He was speaking literally about His Real Presence, "many of His disciples," and I quote now from the Biblical narrative, "many of His disciples turned back and no longer went about with Him." For a last illustration I bring together two similar incidents in which our Lord testified about Himself. On one occasion, when speaking about Abraham, He made this statement: "...before Abraham was made, I am." His use of the present verb, "I am," when referring to past time was an unmistakable indication that He had existed from all eternity and, therefore, that He was divine. On another occasion He was asked to identify Himself. Was He really the Christ, the Son of God? As truth demanded, He replied in the affirmative, thereby giving further testimony to His divinity.
How was His testimony received? Passing over the Apostles and disciples who remained faithful, what about the others? They turned against Him. When He said, "before Abraham was, I am," His hearers threatened violence. When he declared that He was Son of God, His hearers demanded that He be arraigned before Pilate.
I ask you now to notice how the nature of the opposition had changed by the time our Lord was brought into the Roman court. It was no longer mere complaints about doctrines. A new grievance had to be found, one which would impress Pilate. Remember, Pilate was reluctant to condemn Christ. He could find no guilt in Him and, therefore, wished to set Him free. What was it, then, that made Him change his mind? It was the accusation that our Lord was in politics. Was He not from the royal family? Had He not been acclaimed as a King? Was He not, therefore, an enemy of Caesar and a menace to the unity of the Roman Empire?
We may well ask where, at this moment, were those good folk who had rebuked our Lord for presuming to forgive sins. Where were those who deserted Him because He promised His Real Presence? Where were those who condemned Him for asserting His divinity? A few of them, very probably, carried away by the frenzy of the crowd, were demanding that our Lord be crucified. The others were silent; no word from them. By force of their own unfortunate decisions, they had been lined up on the wrong side. Their plea in favor of our Lord, which all good persons should have made and which Pilate waited for, was never heard.
Perhaps we disclose here the crowning tragedy of Good Friday. Over and above the enmity of evil men, over and above the condemnation by Pilate, was the rebuke of our Lord by those persons who wished to be good and honorable. No wonder the earth quaked in protest, that rocks were rent, and the tombs were opened; no wonder that the curtain of the temple was torn in two; no wonder that there was darkness over the whole land. No wonder, too, that our Lord had said, while dying on the cross, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."
The parallels between this former opposition to our Lord and the present opposition to the Church are too close and too striking to be accidental. Think back in your own experience, about the criticisms of the Catholic Church you have heard, and you will note how closely they imitate the criticisms of our Lord. To illustrate: What criticism of the Church is more persistent than that which pertains to the confessional? After the example of our Lord, and depending upon the authority given in His own explicit words, the Church asserts that the priest in the confessional is the agent of God to hear confessions and to grant absolution. It would seem that this ministry of mercy would be welcomed and held up for the highest commendation. Yet, as you know, the church has been and is roundly rebuked for this ministry. Inasmuch as I once joined in this rebuke, in the days before I became Catholic, I can hardly doubt that it is often comes from honest persons.
It is similar with the Sacrament of the Eucharist. The Church teaches, and has always taught, that she is commanded to repeat the Last Supper; and that as she does so, as the priest pronounces over the elements of bread and wine the words used and commanded by our Lord, He comes really and truly present on the altar. There He is to be worshipped as truly as He was worshipped by His followers nineteen centuries ago; He is to be received in Communion as truly as He was received by the Apostles at the Last Supper.
Here, again, is a most marvelous blessing and privilege for mankind. Should it not be a strong magnet attracting to the Church? Yet, as you know full well, the Eucharist has been and is the object of sharp protest and censure. It is condemned by critics of the Church as a "hard saying," precisely as was our Lord's first mention of the subject.
Finally, there is the explicit claim of the Church to have divine attributes, a claim which is asserted in many different ways. Among them none seems to provoke more criticism than the claim of infallibility in teaching. The Church teaches and has always taught, that by virtue of the presence of the Holy Ghost which was promised by our Lord, she is protected against falsely or incorrectly teaching the Gospel. The Church explains most clearly that her infallibility is not due to human wisdom or scholarship but is a gift of divine protection.
Here, once more, is a most singular blessing for mankind, the feeling of security about the truths of religion. Yet this very doctrine of infallibility is the occasion for more censure. "How can the Church be infallible?" it is asked. Is not the claim ridiculous? And in the very fact of making it, is not the Church shown to be a false teacher? Precisely as our Lord was rebuked for claiming to be divine, so the Church is rebuked for claiming to possess a divine attribute.
This opposition to the Church has continued down the centuries. It is one thing to read in history books about the persecutions of the early Church and her people by the Roman Emperors. It is quite another thing, and more painfully realistic, to read current reports about similar persecutions in China and in the countries of Eastern Europe. That fellow Christians are being tortured and murdered in our own day is something startling and nearly unbelievable; it is news for which we are not well prepared. And yet, now that we pause to reflect for a moment, there should be no surprise. There has always been hostility toward the Church; there always will be.
Even in our country, with all its commendable fair play in most other respects, the Catholic Church, more than any other churches, has been the object of abuse and discrimination. Not that the others have always escaped; I am quite well aware that at times censure and ridicule have been directed against some of them. But that sort of thing has proved to be temporary only; within a generation or two it passes and is forgotten.
A good illustration is seen in the experience of my neighbors, the Mormons. One hundred or even seventy five years ago they were generally disliked throughout the country; they were subjected to many indignities. By now all this has changed. The Mormons have won for themselves a respected place in the American scene; they have been accepted by their fellow citizens. Similar observations can be made about the members of other churches that have been notably unpopular.
In this respect the experience of the Catholic Church is unique. To be sure, the public expressions against her differ from time to time; the intensity of dislike varies. Opposition to the Church is now more dignified than it was formerly and more sophisticated. No longer are Catholics insulted by such groups as the Know Nothing Party or the A.P.A.; most of the time we are not bothered too much by the Ku Klux Klan. Certainly, too, there is no recurrence of physical violence, such as the destruction of property or the taking of life. In contrast with fellow Christians in other countries, we Catholics of the United States have very much for which to be thankful. Nevertheless, as we are not allowed to forget, there continues to be a singular opposition to our Church. Catholics who are tempted to complain about all this should recall a few statements made by our Lord, statements addressed to His followers of all generations. "If any man will come after me," He said, "let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me." Also this: "Then shall they deliver you up to be afflicted and shall kill you: ...and ye shall be hated of all nations for my name's sake." And this: "For they will deliver you up to the councils, and they will scourge you...And ye shall be brought before governors and kings for my sake..." In the light of these and similar forecasts we must remind ourselves, we Catholics, that just as we take pride and assurance in our Lord's promises that our Church can never be destroyed and can never teach error, so we must expect to be the heirs of His further promises that we shall be persecuted for His name's sake. We must accept the fact that at every moment of time somewhere in the world our Church is carrying the cross of persecution and that at every moment our fellow Catholics somewhere are dying for the faith. There is no end.
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