Why am I here? Who made me? What must I believe? All these can be answered if only you will open yourself to God’s grace and the Church he established.
THE STRUCTURE OF THE CHURCH
Jesus chose the apostles to be the earthly leaders of the Church. He gave them his own authority to teach and to govern—not as dictators, but as loving pastors and fathers. That is why Catholics call their spiritual leaders “father.” In doing so we follow Paul’s example: “I became your father in Jesus Christ through the gospel” (1 Cor. 4:15).
The apostles, fulfilling Jesus’ will, ordained bishops, priests, and deacons and thus handed on their apostolic ministry to them—the fullest degree of ordination to the bishops, lesser degrees to the priests and deacons.
The Pope and Bishops (CCC 880–883)
Jesus gave Peter special authority among the apostles (John 21:15–17) and signified this by changing his name from Simon to Peter, which means “rock” (John 1:42). He said Peter was to be the rock on which he would build his Church (Matt. 16:18).
In Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke, Simon’s new name was Kepha (which means a massive rock). Later this name was translated into Greek as Petros (John 1:42) and into English as Peter. Christ gave Peter alone the “keys of the kingdom” (Matt. 16:19) and promised that Peter’s decisions would be binding in heaven. He also gave similar power to the other apostles (Matt. 18:18), but only Peter was given the keys, symbols of his authority to rule the Church on earth in Jesus’ absence.
Christ, the Good Shepherd, called Peter to be the chief shepherd of his Church (John 21:15–17). He gave Peter the task of strengthening the other apostles in their faith, ensuring that they taught only what was true (Luke 22:31–32). Peter led the Church in proclaiming the gospel and making decisions (Acts 2:1– 41, 15:7–12).
Early Christian writings tell us that Peter’s successors, the bishops of Rome (who from the earliest times have been called by the affectionate title of “pope,” which means “papa”), continued to exercise Peter’s ministry in the Church.
The pope is the successor to Peter as bishop of Rome. The world’s other bishops are successors to the apostles in general.
HOW GOD SPEAKS TO US
As from the first, God speaks to his Church through the Bible and through sacred Tradition. To make sure we understand him, he guides the Church’s teaching authority—the magisterium—so it always interprets the Bible and Tradition accurately. This is the gift of infallibility.
Like the three legs on a stool, the Bible, Tradition, and the magisterium are all necessary for the stability of the Church and to guarantee sound doctrine.
Sacred Tradition (CCC 75–83)
Sacred Tradition should not be confused with mere traditions of men, which are more commonly called customs or disciplines. Jesus sometimes condemned customs or disciplines, but only if they were contrary to God’s commands (Mark 7:8). He never condemned sacred Tradition, and he didn’t even condemn all human tradition.
Sacred Tradition and the Bible are not different or competing revelations. They are two ways that the Church hands on the gospel. Apostolic teachings such as the Trinity, infant baptism, the inerrancy of the Bible, purgatory, and Mary’s perpetual virginity have been most clearly taught through Tradition, although they are also implicitly present in (and not contrary to) the Bible. The Bible itself tells us to hold fast to Tradition, whether it comes to us in written or oral form (2 Thess. 2:15, 1 Cor. 11:2).
Sacred Tradition should not be confused with customs and disciplines, such as the rosary, priestly celibacy, and not eating meat on Fridays in Lent. These are good and helpful things, but they are not doctrines. Sacred Tradition preserves doctrines first taught by Jesus to the apostles and later passed down to us through the apostles’ successors, the bishops.
Scripture (CCC 101–141)
Scripture, by which we mean the Old and New Testaments, was inspired by God (2 Tim. 3:16). The Holy Spirit guided the biblical authors to write what he wanted them to write. Since God is the principal author of the Bible, and since God is truth itself (John 14:6) and cannot teach anything untrue, the Bible is free from all error in everything it asserts to be true.
Some Christians claim, “The Bible is all I need,” but this notion is not taught in the Bible itself. In fact, the Bible teaches the contrary idea (2 Pet. 1:20–21, 3:15–16). The “Bible alone” theory was not believed by anyone in the early Church.
It is new, having arisen only in the 1500s during the Protestant Reformation. The theory is a “tradition of men” that nullifies the Word of God, distorts the true role of the Bible, and undermines the authority of the Church Jesus established (Mark 7:1–8).
Although popular with many “Bible Christian” churches, the “Bible alone” theory simply does not work in practice. Historical experience disproves it. Each year we see additional splintering among “Bible-believing” religions.
Today there are tens of thousands of competing denominations, each insisting its interpretation of the Bible is the correct one. The resulting divisions have caused untold confusion among millions of sincere but misled Christians.
Just open up the Yellow Pages of your telephone book and see how many different denominations are listed, each claiming to go by the “Bible alone,” but no two of them agreeing on exactly what the Bible means.
We know this for sure: The Holy Spirit cannot be the author of this confusion (1 Cor. 14:33). God cannot lead people to contradictory beliefs because his truth is one. The conclusion? The “Bible alone” theory must be false.
The Magisterium (CCC 85–87, 888–892)
Together the pope and the bishops form the teaching authority of the Church, which is called the magisterium (from the Latin for “teacher”). The magisterium, guided and protected from error by the Holy Spirit, gives us certainty in matters of doctrine. The Church is the custodian of the Bible and faithfully and accurately proclaims its message, a task which God has empowered it to do.
Keep in mind that the Church came before the New Testament, not the New Testament before the Church. Divinely-inspired members of the Church wrote the books of the New Testament, just as divinely-inspired writers had written the Old Testament, and the Church is guided by the Holy Spirit to guard and interpret the entire Bible, both Old and New Testaments.
Such an official interpreter is absolutely necessary if we are to understand the Bible properly. (We all know what the Constitution says, but we still need a Supreme Court to interpret what it means.)
The magisterium is infallible when it teaches officially because Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit to guide the apostles and their successors “into all truth” (John 16:12–13).