Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Early Church I-3: Being Called Catholic

Before you read this, have you read sections 1 and 2?

They may be found here:
Section 1: Prologue and History
Section 2: Organization of the Early Church
Section 4: The Origins of the Pope in Rome, Lessons

(Part II is now out! Since this is part I, I'll just link to II-1. If you're interested and enjoy this series, please see the next parts.)

Part I-3: Why “Catholic”?

We must now place ourselves at this pivotal point in history. The last of the Apostles has died, the Church is flowering in various pockets around the Empire, and many men and women of different cultures heard of Christ and are coming to Him and His Church. The men who were given authority by the Apostles are in their first, second, or third generation depending on the area. Persecutions came in periodic and violent waves which aim to strike fear into those who hold to the teachings of the Church. Priests and bishops are targeted to scatter the flock.

One can not understand the importance of the use of name “catholic” unless he also understand the primacy of Peter and the papacy. The papacy is perhaps one of the greatest stumbling block among Christians—how could one man claim to be above all others? —what so important about what Rome thinks? —why should my local concerns be any concern of the Pope? Many other questions, doubts, and derision are hurled in Rome's direction. While I couldn't possibly quell every single difficulty, I can present to you how the bishop of Rome was regarded by the early Church.
Whoever wishes to study their faith or grow in it would do well to study St. Peter.

We have already seen that the bishop to the early Christian (for the most part) was a sign of authority. While we have only seen a few authors in this matter, it is important to note that the institution of bishop, priest, and deacon has persisted for nearly our whole history. Bishops could not necessarily use force or a standing army to enact their will at this time. They relied on the consent of their people to their ministry, which many gave them. Bishops, we will recall, were men selected by the people and tested by the previous leaders to be men of virtue and the Spirit. Bishops were not respected merely for their office but because they were worthy of respect.

In the Acts of the Apostles some communities had argued whether or not Gentiles must become follow the Mosaic covenant before they enter into a covenant with Christ in baptism. Paul and Barnabas, well respected as they were, could not resolve the matter (cf. Acts 15:2). They decided that they would go to Jerusalem to the Apostles and presbyters there. The disagreement continued, and “after much debate, Peter got up and [addressed them]” (15:7). Peter pronounced definitively the action the counsel should take. James bolstered this decision by assent and the rest of those gathered agreed to the new proposal. They claimed that “it is the decision of the holy Spirit and of us not to place on you any burden beyond [what is required]” (15:28).

This passage establishes a number of things in our history and should be reviewed carefully. We notice that a problem was presented to the early Church and from there, when it could not be resolved locally, it was brought to the universal Church—that is to say, its focal point was the gathering of the Apostles. In this gathering a great deal of debate took place, but it was Peter who spoke first—a biblical sign of importance when among a group. When Peter spoke all fell silent, which itself is a sign of assent with what had been spoken. All those present acted in harmony with Peter and the Church then sent each bishop and his priests to their local communities to deliver the decision to all member of the faith.
Learned men of faith, the Apostles and presbyters, gathered together to discuss a policy and rule that would be shared among all churches.

It should be said briefly that Peter is essential to this discussion, for some may ask “why is Peter so important?” There are two passages that establish his importance, and both passages are Christ speaking to Peter. The first is when Christ foretells Peter's denial. Christ confides in him that he and the Apostles would be scattered. Christ prayed personally for Peter's faith that it would not fail. Christ says that “once you have turned back, you must strengthen your brothers” (Lk 22:32). Peter turned away, but as Christ foretold he turned back. Peter, likewise, strengthened his brothers by his example. He was the first to speak for all at Pentecost, and in the post-resurrection narratives, whenever a group and Peter are gathered Peter usually speaks first and often for the group. The second is clearly the most famous, and should be taken in conjunction with all Peter does in Acts along with the Apostles. Christ first blesses Peter and then says “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church” (Mt 16:18). The authors of Scripture had a preference for Peter because Christ had a special mission and preference for Peter. His primacy was evident in Scripture and it was evident by early Christian authors.

Among these early authors an interesting pattern confronts us. When Peter is mentioned, usually Paul is not far behind. Both were considered to be the greatest disciples because each one spoke with power and authority. Both traveled extensively and both were martyred for the faith after enduring many trials. Both performed miracles, raised someone from the dead, and performed many great works. Ignatius of Antioch says “Not like Peter and Paul do I issue orders to you. They were Apostles, I am a convict; they were free[.]” (Letter to the Romans, sec. 4). Ignatius in another letter, however, says “[Christ] came to Peter and Peter's companions [i.e., the Apostles]” (Letter to the Smyrneans, sec. 3). 

Paul, a great and mighty Apostle in his own right, realized he was not a member of the Twelve. He knew that the Holy Spirit was with him and he acted rightly. All the same, for his own assurance and as an example to all the faithful, he “went up in accord with a revelation, and [he] presented to them [the leaders in Jerusalem] the gospel [he] preached to the Gentiles—but privately to those of repute—so that I might not be running, or have run, in vain” (Gal 2:2).

Paul's judgment was correct, and he even rebuked Peter's conduct, yet he still sought him and the other Apostles in Jerusalem to confirm that his actions were in accord with the whole Church. Paul, in his greatness, submitted himself to the council of the whole Church. As I have just recounted, that council in Jerusalem is where Paul and the Apostles discussed and gave each other council and where Peter had pronounced the final decision by all as binding.

The first time that Catholic is ever mentioned in the history of our Church as a unique title is in conjunction with the office of bishop. We have seen that the office of bishop was one of authority—this is made known by Paul in his various letters. While presbyters, or priests, were present to give counsel to the bishop and Apostles, it was the Apostles who held the final say. As we have seen tradition was also tied up with the bishop. Catholic is united to the office of bishop just as Tradition is.

I have gone over Peter in order to convey a truth of the Catholic Church, namely that when many are gathered in council there must be one who is able to speak definitively and with authority about matters important to all. When all were gathered into one place, such as the council of Jerusalem, it was Peter who spoke with authority. This was true before the Holy Spirit came upon them (cf. Acts 1:15ff) and after (Acts 2: 14-47, esp. vv. 38-41).

When the Apostles, most notably Paul and those whom he wrote to, were in their own territories and churches they were the local authority. This is seen most simply in Paul's letter to Philemon, who is a “co-worker” of Paul (i.e., a bishop) and is addressed to the “church at your house.” Paul pleads with him to act accordingly, but Philemon is the authority in his local church (See also Acts 14:23).

This is where “catholic” enters the scene. It was first used by Ignatius of Antioch around 105-108 AD. As I mentioned above, the bishop was crucial to the life and unity of as well as those whom he appointed to the tasks of that local area. St. Ignatius writes definitively: “ You must all follow the lead of the bishop, [just] as Jesus Christ followed that of the Father; follow the presbytery as you would the Apostles; … Let no one do anything touching the Church, apart from the bishop. Let that celebration of the Eucharist be considered valid which is held under the bishop or anyone to whom he has committed it. Where the bishop appears, there let the people be, just as where Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not permitted without authorization from the bishop either to baptize or to hold agape [i.e., Eucharist]; but whatever he approves is pleasing to God" (Letter to the Smyrneans, sec. 8).

Catholic” is tied up with many things: the Eucharist, what we believe about Jesus Christ, various doctrines, but the term is used most directly with living in concord with one another and living in concord with the bishop. In many cases, being Catholic is most difficult because we have to trust in a humanity that is lead by the Spirit. This does not mean humanity will never err, but it does mean that we trust in the special grace given to the Apostles by Christ and in turn those Apostles to their successors. Christ entrusted His Church, both His bride and His Body, to human beings. Humanity while weak and limited is that same humanity Christ died for. Christ entrusted His mission to all who are baptized, but he entrusted the care of His Church to those shepherds that He Himself had chosen. The shepherds were the bishops, for the name itself means “guardian” and “overseer.”


Finally, we shall see how this culminated in the establishment of Peter in Rome.