Clergy members can trace their ordination to one of the 12 Apostles
by Graham Osborne
Photo Caption: Christ washes his disciples’ feet in this Giotti painting from 1305. Graham Osborne writes the Catholic Church is “apostolic” and traces its roots all the way back to Peter, to whom Jesus said: “upon this rock I will build my church.” (wikiart.org)
Some critics of the Catholic Church contend the Church “apostasized,” or turned away, from the true Christian faith somewhere in the first four centuries of Christianity. The reasons are varied, but usually focus on a perceived departure from key teachings Jesus left us.
I’ve read several of these “great apostasy” claims and all of them sadden me. They try desperately to find fault with Catholic doctrine, but are themselves invariably filled with poor research, misrepresentations, error, and sometimes outright lies.
Some claim Catholic doctrine includes worship of Mary, but this is absolutely false. We highly honour her, but worship? No.
Others claim the Pope couldn’t possibly be “infallible,” since he is human and susceptible to sin. But they misunderstand this teaching. Infallibility is a gift of the Holy Spirit that protects the Pope from teaching doctrinal error in faith and morals. It does not preserve him from personal sin.
Still others claim salvation is by “faith alone,” insisting the Catholic Church teaches salvation is achieved by our “works.” But the Church actually teaches salvation comes by the grace of God, through faith and good works. They somehow miss verses like James 2:24, which clearly teaches “a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.”
We could go on, but apart from answering every doctrinal challenge to the Church individually, how can we lay these claims quickly to rest?
For more than 2,000 years the Catholic Church has never once contradicted itself in its infallibly defined doctrines on faith and morals. This doctrinal consistency is exactly what one would expect if Jesus divinely instituted the Catholic Church, as it claims.
Such constancy of doctrine is unheard of in other religious organizations. Consider the thousands of doctrinal/denominational divisions we have seen in Protestantism in just 500 years.
Additionally, it is simply an unarguable fact of history the original church Jesus founded is the Catholic Church. Every Catholic Pope, bishop, priest and deacon can trace his ordination in a valid, unbroken line right back to one of the Apostles.
Yet, the question still remains: did this church at some point apostasize?
Let’s first turn to Jesus. His words leave no room for doubt. In Mt 7:24-25, Jesus gives the parable of the wise builder who built his house on rock, and whose house would never fall, no matter the storms that would come.
Now fast-forward a few chapters to Mt 16:16-19, where Jesus says, “You are Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven.”
Now recall that St. Paul calls the church “the household of God” (1 Tim 3:15). Putting this all together, we have Jesus, the wisest of builders, building his house, his church, on rock, and promising the gates of hell would not prevail against it. How could this church possibly fall with a promise like that?
St. Paul then makes the powerful statement that the church is “the pillar and foundation of truth” (1 Tim 3:15). Again, how could such a church fall away from the truth, as some contend? Such an event would directly contradict Scripture.
In Luke 10:16, Jesus stunningly tells the Apostles “he who hears you hears Me,” and he will be with them “always, until the end of the age” [Mt 28:20]. At the Last Supper, Jesus further promises, “the Father … will give you another advocate to be with you always, the spirit of truth … he will guide you into all the truth” (Jn 14:14-17).
Again, the emphasis is on truth, but now guarded by the Holy Spirit and combined with a promise Jesus and the Holy Spirit will never leave them.
Also recall Jesus makes these promises to the Apostles. In Eph 2:20 (and Rev 21:14), it is made clear the Apostles are the foundation of the Church – “the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles.” This is powerful confirmation of the perpetual, divine assurance Jesus gives to his apostolic Church – the Catholic Church.
Let us look briefly at the writings of the early Church. What again rings out clearly is the Church Jesus founded is “Apostolic”– that its popes, bishops, priests and deacons have succeeded in an unbroken line right from the Apostles. And according to these early church fathers, this “apostolicity” is a hallmark of the true Church.
For example, in 110 AD, St. Ignatius, the martyred Bishop of Antioch and disciple of St. John the Apostle, would write, apart from bishops, priests and deacons, “There is nothing that can be called a Church”!
This is a stunner if you attend a church without validly ordained bishops and priests – which is essentially all Christian denominations apart from the Catholic Church and her divided Eastern Orthodox members.
In 250 AD the great St. Cyprian, the martyred Bishop of Carthage, would summarize our question perfectly: “It is on him [Peter] that he [Jesus] builds the church. If a man … deserts the Chair of Peter upon whom the church was built, has he still confidence that he is in the church?”