One issue which I thought about often before becoming Catholic is authority. This is one of these issues like Mary and the saints or confession which polarises people either for or against the Catholic church.
When I began to investigate the Catholic faith, I found many blog articles on authority, from both Catholic and Protestant viewpoints. I’ve read complex articles by Protestants explaining how their own particular church traces its apostolic authority back to Jesus and the apostles.
I’m not going to get into arguments about which church has the best pedigree. To be honest, I don’t know much about theology or church history and a lot of these arguments go over my head. I also feel very uncomfortable about arguing along the lines of ‘we have authority and you don’t.’ More and more, I feel that this blog should be about building bridges rather than digging chasms.
A year or so before I began thinking about becoming Catholic, something happened related to church authority which really shook me to my core. However, I haven’t told the story until now, because it involved other people. Because it isn’t just my story, I can only tell the bare bones.
The bare bones of a story
Someone close to me was in hospital fighting a difficult illness. A lady, also known to me, paid a visited and delivered a religious message laying the blame for the illness on events in the past.
I believe the lady really thought that her message could ‘fix’ what she saw as the cause of the illness. However, her words caused the sick person distress and anxiety. Within a week, their condition had deteriorated to the extent that they had to be moved to a different ward. Although they eventually recovered, the road back was slow and difficult, and it was a long time before I stopped wondering, ‘What if this hadn’t happened …?’
It turned out that the lady had taken the message to the hospital with the approval and perhaps even the encouragement of her church. It also turned out that this church was an independent, recently-formed organisation.
Although I wasn’t one of the main players in this story, I was deeply affected because someone I loved had become sicker. I confided in an Episcopalian priest (the Anglican church in Scotland). Her reaction was not quite what I expected. She shared my anger over the incident. However, most of her anger was directed, not at the lady who visited the hospital, but at the church which had sent her.
The Episcopalian priest saw the problem as one of authority. She thought that the church had acted very irresponsibly by encouraging someone to share a frightening message with a sick and vulnerable person.
This incident went through my mind when I began thinking about becoming Catholic. Who gave authority to come up with this message, send someone with it, start the church in the first place? By a strange coincidence, I had known one of the people who started the church.
My mind got stuck in a loop of questions. On the one hand, I had Father K telling me about apostolic succession: Jesus laid hands on his disciples and gave authority to them, they in turn laid hands on others and passed authority on to the next generation of disciples, and so on, all the way to the present day.
On the other hand, I knew that the number of different Protestant denominations had reached thousands and counting. I was brought up in a church which had branched off many times, becoming thinner and weaker with each break. Some of the things we believed seemed eccentric and out-dated to people in mainstream churches.
In Scotland, and in the Highlands in particular, people tend to break away and form new churches rather than staying, talking to each other and trying to heal their divisions. Was this Christian?
I remember thinking about the church which sent the message to the sick person, and the strange coincidence that I knew one of the people who started it. What was to stop me starting my own branch of Christianity? The thought made me giddy, but the answer was nothing but time and energy if I remained Protestant and unaffiliated to any denomination, and well, an awful lot, if I became Catholic.
Which way to go?
I became confused and distressed thinking about authority. I couldn’t return to the church of my childhood, where there had been undue emphasis on God’s judgement rather than God’s love. If I didn’t go there, which of the plethora of Protestant churches should I try next?
The incident at the hospital was frightening, not because anyone had intended evil. Quite the opposite. The church believed that they were doing good. However, the effect was harmful. It is possible to take parts of the Bible out of context, giving too much emphasis to one thing rather than another, and come up with dangerous messages.
Safer with authority
As I investigated Catholicism, it was a relief to learn about the Magisterium of the Catholic church, authority and teaching based on the Bible as well as church tradition handed down from the church fathers. Teaching can evolve from what’s gone before, but no-one, not even the Pope, can make a total break and ignore 2000 years of tradition.
Some people might prefer to be totally free to make their own interpretation of the Scripture. Catholics are also encouraged to practice Lectura Divina (reading the Scriptures and asking the Holy Spirit for guidance). However, as someone who couldn’t read the Bible for many years without encountering an angry, unforgiving God on every page, I found it reassuring to enter a church with a central authority and body of teaching.
Part of the reason I became Catholic was that I felt safer, like a child who prefers rules and limits to being left alone to do my own thing.
I realise that it’s not only the Catholic church which has a system of authority and teaching. This was clearly an important issue for my Episcopalian friend when I shared this story with her.
In the end, I’m glad I can’t just start my own church, even if I wanted to!