“The Church is justified, not because her children do not sin, but because they do.”

A few thoughts on accepting the authority of the Church, regardless of its sinful members, as a means of coming to terms with the right place of Holy Scripture and Marian doctrine.

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Recently I added my two cents to a blog post where the poster posted part of a letter he had received from a Protestant reader of the poster’s books. This Protestant was struggling with the poster’s arguments for the Immaculate Conception (the Mother of Christ being born without sin) and the Assumption (the bodily taking up of the Virgin Mary into Heaven at the end of her earthly life). The Protestant, interestingly, is married to a Catholic and claims that he and his wife share most all orthodox Christian beliefs, but he cannot find clear scriptural teaching on either of these two Marian doctrines. I think I know his struggle, and I felt compelled to write the following:

Whether this is the issue for the reader or not, the question of Church authority played a big part in my dealing with Catholic teaching about Mary, and whether I would accept that teaching or not. So this is more of a personal response.

Having been in Protestantland for a few decades, and only just recently come into the Church, I can say I feel the reader’s pain. And the “show me where in the Bible” response just makes so much sense. But then I wrestled with the issue of authority and the Church won (I’m deeply happy to say). However, the Church “winning” is not to set the Church against the scriptures, rather it is to finally place the scriptures in their proper place, neither above nor below, but as part of the Church. And, though it is my responsibility to use the rationality God gave me as I seek the Truth, it is not my place to decide doctrine apart from the Church established by Christ and animated by the Spirit.

I’ve come to the conclusion that the best approach is to have an “I trust the Church, where else am I to go” attitude. This is not a blind, turn-off-my-brain approach, for it is also scriptural. Rather, it is about following Christ; it is about avoiding the “I refuse to believe unless I see it with my own eyes” attitude and, instead, to carefully and prayerfully trust. But that’s the issue isn’t it? The Church is full of sinners, has many troubling parts of its history (past and present), that to trust the Church seems like something only a fool would do – at least to someone on the outside looking in. I’ve been there.

Mistrusting the Church often arises from a “you shall know them by their fruits” perspective, and to some this clearly damns the Church. It takes a lot for a Protestant to accept the authority of Christ propagated through His Church, through the bishops and popes, and through all that sinful detritus that seems to clog the works. I find myself clinging to the words of Chesterton: “The Church is justified, not because her children do not sin, but because they do.” If we cannot accept that, then we will not accept the Church as the authority, binding and loosing, preserving and carrying forward the gospel as handed down and developed from the beginning.

But the authority of the Church is one of the great gifts of salvation history given to us. It is, in fact, a great relief. And if the Church has such authority then one should bow the knee to Christ by accepting what the Church declares as true in morals and doctrine – including its teaching on the Blessed Mother. Call me a fool, but I praise God for the Magisterium.

3 Comments

Filed under Authority, Catholic Church, Dogma, Protestantism, Theology, Tradition

3 responses to ““The Church is justified, not because her children do not sin, but because they do.”

  1. Cam

    The problem with your reply is that your friend could agree completely with it (as I tend to) and still not be able to figure out how you arrive, from Church authority as you have spelled it out here, to the truth of these Marian dogmas, especially the assumption of Mary (as I can’t either).

    It’s for the simple fact not all doctrines are of the same kind. The dogma of the real presence of the Eucharist and that of the assumption of Mary are two very different claims. One is a claim to some kind of spiritual and metaphysical transformation going on during the consecration of the elements during the Sacrament of the Mass. The other is a historical claim about something that happened to a person a couple thousand years ago. It makes sense to me that the Church – having the authority Catholics agree it has – would get to pronounce the final judgment on the first, but certainly not on the second, the first being a theological claim and the second being a historical one. Either Mary was assumed into heaven some time after Christ’s death and resurrection (and perhaps her own death: the Church isn’t even sure on this detail) or she was not. The problem is that there is no (legitimate) historical evidence to corroborate this claim. The Scriptures and the early Church Fathers are conspicuously silent. And that seems very curious if a momentous event like this did, in fact, happen. While there is no way to “find out” if transubstantiation is really occurring during the celebration of the Eucharist, the same is certainly not true of Mary’s assumption. Like the bodily resurrection and ascension of Christ (which are also historical dogmas), the assumption of Mary is something the early Church would either have witnessed or would have attested to (most likely with no insignificant amount of theological reflection). Yet we have nothing of the sort in our historical documents. The Church may have the authority to bind and loose, but this doesn’t include the ability to change what happened in the past. Even God can’t do that.

    • Cam, thanks for your thoughtful response.

      I think I understand what you are saying. And I would agree, especially if the Church were claiming something historical that was contrary to either known facts, or was clearly fanciful. The issue with your position is, I believe, in seeing the Assumption as primarily an historical claim. Certainly there are some historical elements – Mary lived at a certain time and place and if she was assumed into Heaven, then that would be an event that falls onto the timeline of history. But the claim of the Church is neither primarily or essentially historical; it is a theological claim having to do with Mary’s role in salvation history. There are many good sources that argue for the Catholic position based on historical concerns, such as no Marian relics or cities claiming to be the location of her death, as we find with so many other saints; and naturally many of these are arguments from omission. But the doctrine of the Assumption is primarily about Mary being who she is and not so much about what happened at a particular time and place, even though that is part of the claim (in a very general sense, though). Looking at the whole picture, as it were, it doesn’t take much to say, “well if what Catholics say about Mary is true in terms of her status in the Church, her role in salvation history, her place among the disciple and saints, her continuing activity in the body of Christ, etc., etc., then the Assumption becomes a rather natural extension of all that.” And the historical claims implied by the doctrine then become easier to accept given the normative expectations of historical evidence.

      My point regarding the doctrine of the Assumption and Church authority has to do with whether, given all the other reasons a Protestant might leave Protestantland and enter the Catholic Church, would/should this doctrine then forestall crossing the threshold? In other words, would one go through the entire laundry list of Protestant objections, and through much wrestling one by one accept the Catholic positions, including the claims of authority, only to come to a hard stop at the Assumption. In my case, going through that laundry list made my accepting of this particular doctrine a non-issue, even when for a while I still could not claim to fully understand it. In short, as I state in the post above, I accept the authority of the Church, not blindly, not naively, but reasonable and rationally. Thus, I am not claiming that my accepting of Church authority then, and perhaps magically, solved this doctrine for me. Rather, it produced a level of trust that let me sort through enough doctrines, work through enough issues, and come to a clear understanding of enough Catholic claims that I could say “yes” to the Church and enter, knowing that I still was on a journey towards continued growth and understanding. I found I was finally willing to give myself the same leeway in terms of doctrinal understanding for Catholicism that I had always granted myself as a Protestant. I realized I could no longer say that it was okay for me to accept Protestantism knowing I could spend my life coming to incremental doctrinal clarity, while demanding that all Catholic doctrines be perfectly understood before I walked through her doors. It became a matter of personal integrity in light of profound claims to truth and the standards I set for myself.

      There are two final things. It is easy to set Protestantism and Catholicism side by side and do a compare and contrast of their respective claims. But the truth is, one is not ultimately argued into one camp or the other. Rather one is called, and that calling may sometimes produce years of searching and wrangling with doctrinal issues, but ultimately it is about coming to Christ. I’ve come to believe passionately that in the Catholic Church I find the fullest relationship with Christ, and my belief is bolstered by my study of Catholic doctrine, but my journey to the Church began with a call after more than 40 years as a Protestant, and not an argument, followed by several years of study and searching, and a lot of praying. In that sense, the role one’s conscience plays is critical. Thus, I have come to believe that, while an outright falsehood would turn me away (or give me serous pause), a merely difficult or mysterious doctrinal claim would and should be accepted on trust. I can accept the Assumption because the Church teaches it as true, and I see no conflict with the fundamental claims of the Gospel. And the more I study it in light of the rest of Catholic doctrine, the more it makes sense.

      More than this, I have come to see the differences between Protestantism and Catholicism, having been inside one for a long time, and now inside the other, I realize they are like two different countries, cultures, societies, with different languages, worldviews, and presuppositions that color everything they do and say. They share many of the same vocabulary, but frequently use the words in very different ways. Their gestures are different. Their reasons for gathering are different. Their architecture is different. The differences between a Mass and an evangelical church service are profound. Even their goals are different. Thus there is a lot of confusion between the two, and conversation is difficult. All this is to say that a list of Catholic doctrines not only is rather difficult for a Protestant to understand, but can really only be appreciated from inside the Church. The more I move forward as a Catholic, the more the rich tapestry of Catholicism makes sense. My motto is: once a Catholic, eventually a Catholic. Given this, it is natural to expect a Protestant to struggle with the doctrine of the Assumption, and not because he will see it primarily as an historical claim, but because it is a mysterious extension of the richness of the totality of Marian doctrine and veneration – a tapestry largely unknown to Protestants, and fraught with many surface elements Protestants reject out of hand.

      Therefore I agree with you that someone could completely agree and not be able to figure out how I arrived. That should come as no surprise. And that is why I say the authority of the Church is one of the great gifts of salvation history given to us. And why I also claim it is a great relief, for it helped pave the way for me to listen to and accept the calling of the Holy Spirit.

  2. Cam

    Tucker,

    The move from Church authority to the Marian dogmas makes complete sense to me. The problem is that I am moving in the opposite direction. I am trying to substantiate RC Church authority by verifying her dogmas. So when I start trying to make sense of the Assumption (or, even worse, the Immaculate Conception) as a clue to trusting the doctrine of the Magisterium, it all falls apart rather quickly.

    A large part of it has to do with the reasons themselves. At least you tried to give some kind of historical clues towards accepting the Assumption. Arguments from omission you called them, like the relics argument. I find them doubtful because they are either ad hoc or (more charitably) no more plausible than some alternative explanation that doesn’t point towards the assumption. And if you throw in the biblical evidence (or, more accurately, lack thereof) for the extremely high view of Mary leading to the ratification of these dogmas, the whole thing looks very improbable indeed.

    I do understand that the Church’s reasons for adopting these Marion dogmas are not primarily historical, but theological. But that doesn’t change my point that the dogma of the Assumption, as a dogma, is a statement of historical fact. If it isn’t a statement of historical fact, then it is either false or meaningless. So I don’t see how it can be divorced from history and lumped into purely soteriological or ecclesiological categories.

    But this is exactly what Catholic apologists do. And what’s even more strange is that they will argue for the real presence in the Eucharist (which, to me *is* purely a matter of authoritative Church teaching) on the basis of historical evidence in pointing to its early attestation. “Look,” they say, “look at the veritable consensus of the early Church Fathers on the real presence in the Eucharist. This doctrine has been with us from the very beginning and was no medieval invention.” But when the Protestant inquirer replies, “oh, and is it the same with the doctrines of Mary?” the apologist shrugs his shoulders and turns to allegorical interpretations of Scripture concerning the ark of the covenant and to eloquent theological ruminations about the Theotokos. There will be sheepish claims about early “pious traditions” concerning Mary circulating in the early church, but, again, with no substantial evidence to back it up. The most honest among you will admit that this doctrine receives no mention from the early Fathers and first began to take hold with St. John of Damascus in c. 700AD.

    This kind of about-face on these two dogmas is confusing for it seems the former (the real presence) is acceptable as a purely authoritative teaching whereas the latter (the assumption) should have the early attestation that the former has if it is to stand up as a historical claim.

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