What is truth? The infamous hand-washer never waited for the answer. When I asked and waited, the answer became a matter of conscience.
Long before I’d heard of John Henry Newman, I wanted to know if the Catholic faith is true. Then the question became, How to know whether the Catholic faith is true. The long search led to this nineteenth-century priest and scholar. Cardinal Newman helped me understand how the uniquely Catholic doctrines are part and parcel of the faith once-delivered.
The heresy hunter
I already knew the ancient church put down heresies. What I didn’t know is that the ancient church was very Catholic-looking. Also, the list of ancient heresies was much longer than I’d known. Saint Irenaeus, the great second-century Bishop of Lyon and heresy-hunter, was among the early Church Fathers who helped me see the Catholic Church for what it is. Saint Ireneaus is the patron saint of my parish church: Cathedral-Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Mobile, Alabama. (The French settled my hometown in 1702, and my parish is the oldest religious community in the state of Alabama.). Saint Ireneaus, famously fighting the Gnostics in Against Heresies, contends for the preeminent authority of the Church in Rome and the succession of bishops; and against unauthorized meetings. Against Heresies (Book III, Chapter 3).
The long list of defeated, ancient heresies raises a question: if the Catholic Church were apostate (as I supposed, according to our Protestant traditions), what basis did we have to believe the Catholic Church was right, and those heresies were wrong? If the Catholic Church was doctrinally wrong in 1517, what reason do we have to believe She was orthodox in circa 117, in 317 or in 517? Maybe the truth lay in one of those ancient heresies. Upon what authority do we begin our analysis with Luther or Calvin? While I’ve never been inclined toward Gnosticism or Marcionism, logically speaking, if Rome were apostate, what reason did we have to dismiss the ancient heresies that Rome condemned?
What about that gates-of-hell promise?
If the Catholic Church were apostate by the fourth century, what confidence do we have in the New Testament Canon? An index of Sacred Scripture never fell from heaven. We either silently trust the Tradition and Magisterium of the Catholic Church, or we go back to square one. I’ve yet to meet a Protestant who researched the many, many competing, seemingly-inspired letters that floated around the ancient churches, independently deciding on the 27 books in the New Testament. And if the Catholic Church were not apostate in the fourth century, why were all my Protestant traditions so radically different than the ancient church?
By what authority did we pick and choose?
What about the doctrines of the Trinity and the nature of Christ? Why did we as Protestants so readily receive Rome’s articulation of the Three-in-One Godhead? Or the hypostatic union of Christ’s Divine and human natures, never once questioning the doctrine of the God-Man who saves us? Why did we so readily accept the verdict of the Catholic Church in the Council of Chalcedon in 451? What rule or standard allowed us to say Amen to the Catholic Church’s pronouncements about the Canon, the Trinity and the God-Man, but reject Her teaching on the Eucharist, baptism and Purgatory? The ancient heresies helped prod the Catholic Church in defining doctrines we as Protestants took for granted. By what standard did we accept from Rome’s right hand, but reject from Her left?
Cardinal Newman saw a similar problem in Anglicanism. Upon what basis did the Church of England accept the Eucharist from Rome, but deny the papacy and Purgatory? There seemed to be hypocrisy in accepting some and rejecting other Catholic doctrines. Is that not the hallmark of every heresy? Taking substantial truth, then rejecting, restating and negating other parts?
Everbody wears glasses
Everybody wears glasses, only some people don’t know it. I realized my decades of serious Bible study took place wearing Protestant glasses (with a strong, narrow prescription). I did not merely believe the Bible. Rather, I believed a certain sixteenth-century interpretation of the Bible. I would have said my faith is built on the Bible-alone. But that’s not quite true. It was built on certain anti-Catholic denials and negations that became popular in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Who, if anyone, picks up the Bible and reads with virgin eyes? Don’t we all receive one tradition or another. By what authority did I hold my tradition? Was it true, or only partly true? No one in my Protestant world would have ever said it was infallibly true. The very nature of the many Protestant systems require an admission that they might be wrong. Not only that, but we disagreed with each other, and our sister denominations, over the interpretation of Scripture. The Bible-alone as final authority assumes as true sixteenth-century novelties. It assumes (without proof) the Church for over a thousand years (nobody can really say when!) lost the real Faith somehow. It requires rejection of authority. It depends upon an avoidance of history.
Pillar and foundation of the truth
As a Protestant, I was convinced we rightly interpreted Scripture. This conviction existed while ignoring many, major denominational differences and contradictions. That was the chink in Protestantism’s armor. Also, Protestantism’s fractional, ever-splitting nature, flowing from the absence of authority, softened up my defenses. I was open to taking another look in Rome’s direction. By the summer of 2017, my studies revealed that the Catholic Church interprets Scripture in a way that makes sense. That may not seem a big deal. But it’s huge. It was monumental to a serious Protestant who believed the Catholic Church was apostate.
The Catholic Church preceded Protestantism. That means the burden of proof is on Protestants to prove apostasy. If Rome can show its faithfulness to the Scriptures, even a plausible interpretation, then there’s not enough evidence to convict. I found the Catholic Church’s articulation of the faith more than plausible. It more than merely made sense. It was faithful to the whole of Scripture. I say that not as one sitting in judgment of each doctrine but as one who, knowing the Scriptures, sees the key fit perfectly into the lock. I cannot explain the inner workings of a lock, but I’ve opened a hundred doors with a hundred keys. You know when the key fits. Plus, the Catholic Church fit within the context of 2,000 years of history. Protestantism had been a square peg that wouldn’t fit into the round hole of history. Had I found what was I Timothy 3:15’s pillar and foundation of the truth?
Who is your pope?
I had several choices: receive the faith handed down by the Catholic Church for twenty centuries; or, set myself up as final arbiter and interpreter of Sacred Scripture. Everyone will have a Pope; and everyone a Teaching Magisterium. The only question is who will it be. Everyone receives a Tradition. The only question is which one. Would I be my own Pope? Would the Luther-Calvin-Knox Consortium be my Magisterium? Would I relinquish that responsibility to my local Protestant pastor? Any Protestant-choice entailed private judgment that separated itself from over fourteen centuries that preceded it.
Differing weights and measures?
Again, Cardinal Newman discovered hypocrisy in Anglicanism. He criticized their application of the rule employed to determine what Christianity is: “Christianity is what has been held always, everywhere, and by all”. Newman, J. H. C. (1994). Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, An (Notre Dame Series in the Great Books) [Kindle iOS version]. Retrieved from Amazon.com at 10 / 346. By that rule one hoped to “have a precise and satisfactory reason why we should make much of the earlier centuries, yet pay no regard to the later, why we should admit some doctrines and not others, why we refuse the Creed of Pius IV and accept the Thirty-nine Articles.” (11 / 442). A good Anglican might take that middle road, “neither discarding the Fathers nor acknowledging the Pope.” (11 / 448).
Cardinal Newman found the rule useful for defeating (non-Anglican) Protestantism; and useful for striking at the Catholic Church too. However, the rule was a two-edged sword, cutting the hand wielding it: “It admits of being interpreted in one of two ways: if it be narrowed for the purpose of disproving the catholicity of the Creed of Pope Pius, it becomes also an objection to the Athanasian; and if it be relaxed to admit the doctrines retained by the English Church, it no longer excludes certain doctrines of Rome which that Church denies. It cannot at once condemn St. Thomas and St. Bernard, and defend St. Athanasius and St. Gregory Nazianzen.” (11 / 451).
Purgatory is one of those uniquely Catholic doctrines. What if a plausible doctrine of Purgatory really flows from Scripture? What if the doctrine can be found in the first four centuries of the Church? Had my own strand of Protestantism thrown the baby out with the bathwater? Cardinal Newman found a near consensus of the first four ages of the Church for “some notion of suffering, or disadvantage, or punishment after this life, in the case of the faithful departed, or other vague forms of the doctrine of Purgatory”. . . . It is, as far as words go, the confession of St. Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, St. Perpetua, St. Cyprian, Origen, Lactantius, St. Hilary; St. Cyril of Jerusalem, St. Ambrose, St. Basil, St. Gregory of Nazianzus, and of Nyssa, St. Chrysostom, St. Jerome, St. Paulinus, and St. Augustine.” (21 / 570-72).
Saint Augustine is inconvenient here. He is that Church Father loved by Protestants. Our Reformed tradition was accustomed to quoting Saint Augustine concerning doctrines of grace. Never once, however, did our Sunday bulletin quote the Bishop of Hippo concerning Purgatory (or the Eucharist or the Church, etc). Were we following that hypocritical standard, picking and choosing what we happen to agree with? Further, considering “the two doctrines more distinctly,—the doctrine that between death and judgment there is a time or state of punishment; we find, on the one hand, several, such as Tertullian, St. Perpetua, St. Cyril, St. Hilary, St. Jerome, St. Gregory Nyssen, as far as their words go, definitely declaring a doctrine of Purgatory”. (21 / 576-78). As Cardinal Neman dug deep into history, he discovered the Roman Catholic Church to be the ancient church of Jesus Christ. He found his own Anglican communion to be in schism.
The glove fits
I started to see that the Catholic Church fit within history, hand in glove. Protestantism did not. I started to see the Catholic Church’s teaching (from its own mouth, not that of anti-Catholic preachers) as faithful to the Scriptures. Gravitating toward Rome, I did not have a peaceful easy feeling. But as frightening as it seemed, I had little choice. Closing my eyes and humming was not a valid option. Clinging to Protestantism’s a-historical narrative is not intellectually honest.
By God’s grace, unlike Pontius Pilate, himself face-to-face with The Truth, and asking “What is truth?”, I did not walk away without an answer. When I saw the Catholic Church is the Body of Christ on earth, I had to say Yes. I could have looked away. I could have said No. But it was a matter of conscience.