In a recent article in The Federalist regarding the current sex abuse scandal rocking the Catholic Church, Dr. Korey Maas, a Lutheran and professor of history at Hillsdale College, asks, “Is there any church abuse too far for the Catholic faithful?” The answer, quite simply, is no. Elsewhere, Maas presses, “What abuses, both physical and spiritual, might the [Catholic] hierarchy not commit, cover up, or even reward in the confident belief that the faithful can never depart without endangering or even forfeiting their salvation?” The answer to this question—amazing as it may sound to non-Catholics—is similar: none. There is no limit to the evils the Catholic hierarchy could commit that would warrant faithful Catholics leaving their Church for some other religious institution. I could simply leave it at that, though I would imagine many readers will demand explanation of this assertion, and a more thorough response to Maas’s other critiques of my earlier article in The Federalist.
Two Essentially Different Paradigms
There is an essential paradigmatic divide between myself and Maas that explains both Catholic indefatigability regarding their defense of the Church, and Protestant incredulity towards what many Protestants perceive as stubborn, head-in-the-sand intransigence. For Catholics, the Church Christ founded is a visible unity. The bishop, who claims to possess an office with apostolic origins, as well as all those Christians in communion with him, is one manifestation of this unity. Baptism, the sacrament given to all Catholics, which serves as the door into the Christian life, and the sacrament of the Eucharist, which is performed by priests who bear the authority of the bishop, are other examples of this same tangible, visible unity.
This is not a new idea. St. Ignatius of Antioch, writing in the first decade of the second century, emphasizes the office of the bishop and the sacrament of the Eucharist as essential components of visible Christian unity. In his Letter to the Trallians, St. Ignatius writes: “…You submit to the bishop as you would to Jesus Christ… It is necessary, therefore,—and such is your practice,—that you do nothing without the bishop…. Without these [the bishop and priests], it cannot be called a Church.” In his Letter to the Smyrnaeans, he writes, “Let no one do anything of concern to the Church without the bishop…. Let that be considered a valid Eucharist which is celebrated by the bishop, or by one whom he appoints.”
For Catholics, there is no Church apart from the visible unity of the episcopal office, since this is the institution Christ established. Without the bishop there can be no Eucharist, which is the very heart of Catholic life. To depart from these would be to create a schism in the Church Christ founded. And there is simply no sin by members of the Church that justifies the additional sin of schism. Indeed, we should rather be more willing to die than to commit any sin, including the sin of schism. A friend of mine, a theology Ph.D. student, puts it well when he writes: “There is nothing that any man can do by his sins to invalidate something established by Jesus Christ. The Church belongs to Christ, not to the hierarchy.”
This perspective is contrary to the paradigm of those, such as Maas, with an ecclesiology in which the Church is not essentially visible. For most Protestants, following Luther and Calvin, no such essential and visible ecclesiological unity exists—the invisible church encompassing the true believers is what really counts. Indeed, Luther rejected the apostolic authority of the bishops of the Church as illegitimate. This is why Protestants for five centuries have had no fundamental problem with breaking away from their communities and forming new ones. When the Church isn’t considered as a visible unity, such ruptures can be justified for any number of reasons—theological disagreements, the immorality of ecclesial leadership, or even personality differences.
What if the Catholic Church Changes Its Teaching?
Yet, Dr. Maas counters, what if the Church no longer defends religious truth? If Rome changes her teachings, won’t she forfeit the claim to maintaining the same religious truth of the last 2,000 years? Maas brings up as examples the “reversals of ‘the constant teaching of the Church’” such as subjection to the pope being necessary for salvation, the morality of capital punishment, and the ban on communion for the divorced and remarried. I can’t comprehensively address the three examples offered by Maas in this article as they are topics better suited for theological journals than a popular website. I’ll briefly address them here, and point interested readers to more extensive resources available elsewhere.
First, Maas claims that the Church has changed its position on the requirement for subjection to the pope in order to be saved. Some Church documents from the Medieval era declare that such subjection is necessary; the Second Vatican Council (the 1960s) and Catholic Catechism (1994) teach that various non-Roman churches and ecclesial communities possess the “means of salvation, whose power derives from the fullness of grace and truth that Christ has entrusted to the Catholic Church.” Maas accuses Catholic attempts to reconcile these two teachings as employing “an esotericism beyond the ken of all but the most ardent apologists.”
Yet the degree to which an argument may be esoteric is entirely unrelated to its veracity. Biblical scholars make esoteric arguments to harmonize what often appear to be contradictions in Holy Scripture. One would be hard-pressed to find an academic discipline—math, physics, biology, or philosophy—that doesn’t employ esoteric ideas, even on basic topics. Do we complain when aeronautical engineers offer complicated explanations for how a jet airplane works? Some things simply require sophisticated argumentation and nuance that seem esoteric. So it is with understanding how Catholics understand Protestants—interested readers might want to consider such articles as this or this to evaluate arguments on this particular theological subject.
Maas then references the recent change to a paragraph in the Catechism of the Catholic Church regarding the death penalty. Plenty of Catholic theologians and apologists have addressed this issue in a more than satisfactory manner, noting the continuity on capital punishment between Pope Francis and his two immediate predecessors, Benedict XVI and John Paul II. As for Maas’s comment on the debate in the Church over whether or not divorced and remarried Catholics can receive communion, no definitive, universal change has been decreed, so there is little point in trying to defend some hypothetical future scenario.
The Religion of God and Jesus Has Always Been “Changing”
We should also keep in mind that Christianity, along with all biblical religion, has always experienced change. In the New Testament, Jesus tells the disciples that under the law of Moses they were permitted to divorce, now they are not (Luke 16:18). His Sermon on the Mount seems to abrogate much of the Mosaic law. Jesus institutes new sacraments that his followers are mandated to perform—baptism and the Eucharist among them. Over the years, Church councils have declared doctrines like the Trinity, a word that appears nowhere in the Bible.
All of these were changes, and some of them certainly appeared to flatly contradict what came before. Indeed, many disciples of Jesus found his teachings difficult to accept and no longer followed him (John 6:66). Surely Maas would agree we shouldn’t reject biblical religion because some things at first appear to us contradictory, nor abandon Christ or the Apostles because they seem to contradict each other or what preceded them. To be a disciple of Christ is to struggle with reconciling all of his teachings into a coherent whole. If Christ truly founded the Catholic Church, we should expect its teachings to likewise require prayerful, thoughtful contemplation that tests our intellectual resources.
Some Final Remarks
Maas engages in a lot of argument by suggestion. These have rhetorical effect, but they are ultimately empty of any real value. The worst of these is at the end of his piece, where Maas suggests that for Catholics to unequivocally defend remaining in the Church regardless of any scandal makes them “culpable for perpetuating the mindset partly responsible for the scandal once again roiling the church.” Maas is effectively accusing Catholics like myself as enablers of the Catholic sexual abuse scandal! Yet Catholics are not defending the members of the Church hierarchy as inviolable, but the office they hold. Moreover, if we employ this same line of reasoning, all who unequivocally believe in the authority of the Bible would be partly responsible when anyone twists Scripture to defend evil—slavery, colonialism, racism, abuse of women, etc.
Maas also accuses me of “foregoing a plain reading of those authors in favor of esoteric exegesis” of Catholic writers like George Weigel and Robert P. George (there he goes again with “esoteric”!). Yet Robert George, writing about me on Facebook, thanked me for my “excellent article,” for “defending” his writing, and for “read[ing] carefully” his thought.
Ultimately, however, all that needs to be said is what I argued in the first paragraph. Namely, that the Catholic Church’s identity cannot be destroyed by those at her helm. The Church is not first theirs, just as it is not first ours. The Church is first Christ’s. If one believes this, one will never leave it, no matter what the failures of its leadership. If the Church is who she claims to be, namely, the institution created by Christ, which he promised to preserve, then there is simply no justification for leaving. This is as true now as it was during the Reformation, which was another period of gross misbehavior and incompetence on behalf of the hierarchy. As then, what the Church needs now is not for her members to flee, but to stay, pray, and rebuild.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is “Professor Luther at the Leipzig Debate.” Artist unknown.