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The Protestant principle and the Catholic authority principle

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | May 03, 2023

The Methodists are facing a crisis in which more than 2,400 local churches have disaffiliated from the “United Methodist Church” to form the new “Global Methodist Church” in response to radical changes in teaching on human sexuality. See our story: United Methodist bishops meet, look to pivot after 2,400+ churches disaffiliate. I am sure that to Methodist leaders it matters very much if, when, or how the United Methodist “bishops” solve this problem. But for Catholics, it illustrates once again the fractionalization characteristic of all forms of Protestantism.

To a lesser extent this same fractionalization exists in the territorial Orthodox Churches (which are at least real Churches in the Catholic sense of the term, in possession of the ministry of the successors of the Apostles). This fractionalization has been forcefully demonstrated most recently by the politicization of the Orthodox churches in the Russian attack on Ukraine. But Protestantism has always been characterized by the principle of “separatism”, in which each group of people which chooses to adhere to a different interpretation of Christianity separates from an existing body (ultimately from Catholicism itself) to form its own “denomination”. The fracturing has increased in intensity once again in recent decades as older Protestant churches have changed their “understanding” of human nature, especially regarding sexuality. Some Anglican communities have rejoined the Catholic Church. More commonly, the various Protestant church groups have either fractured or disappeared.

In Catholic circles

Similar splitting has occurred in the Catholic Church over the centuries. After all, Protestantism itself began when various groups of Catholics rebelled against Church authority and created the separatist principle in the sixteenth century. One look at inept leadership and confusion in the Catholic Church today will demonstrate how much can be said in favor of the various sides in such disputes, but while a fractured “Protest” (Protestantism) does not cease to be a protest, it does cease to be Catholic as soon as it is cut off from the teaching authority and sacramental substance established in the Church by Jesus Christ.

The universal problem in all other religions, churches and sects is the lack of what Catholics call an authority principle. Unique among all religions, Catholicism claims both a Divine founder and a divinely established locus of authority within the Church itself. When you really think about it, this authority principle is essential to any religious claim of Divine authority. Without a Divinely established authority principle, any religious group is self-evidently just a group of more or less like-minded people attempting to carry on a more or less amorphous spiritual tradition. Quite apart from inevitable differences of interpretation among the various people who claim to be part of a particular religious tradition, human cultures as a whole are constantly changing and evolving over time, with different sorts of perceptions rising and declining with shifting interests, insights and historical circumstances.

A purely human religious and even philosophical grasp and expression of the truth changes over time, which means that any religion which claims to be based on a Divine Revelation must have a way of ensuring that new ideas are used to enhance our understanding of what has been revealed rather than to alter what has been revealed. This is not always clear to those “on the ground”, and to those who do not really accept Divine Revelation it hardly matters. Indeed, for religions that claim no Divine origin, this does not really present any sort of fundamental problem; such religions can continue to roll their own insights or imaginings about God and his ways with us.

But for any religion that claims to be revealed, this is a very serious difficulty. Moreover, it really ought to make a difference to everyone whether they believe in just a bunch of human ideas about God that various people have tinkered with over time, or whether they believe in specific truths on God’s own authority, that is, because God Himself has explicitly revealed them.

You may not believe the claims of the Catholic Church, but the Catholic Church is unique among all the religions of the world in claiming both that its teachings have been revealed by God (amid publicly witnessed signs and wonders which could only be of Divine origin) and that the Church carries within it a Divinely revealed and Divinely established authority by which disputes over this Revelation can be settled. These two claims are so important that it is a wonder that anyone would accept a religion that did not make them. In Catholicism, the second claim is called the “authority principle”.

This essay was triggered by the news of the recent fracturing of the Methodists. But consider: While such fracturing cannot be avoided where willful human persons are involved, the key factor is that either a religion claims to have a Divinely established way of infallibly settling such disagreements or it does not. It is simply common sense, in examining the various spiritual possibilities open to us in the world, to look seriously for a possibility that includes within it such an authority principle. By the process of elimination, the intelligent seeker has no choice but to come to Catholicism and evaluate its claims simply because it is the only contender that checks this essential box.

Catholicism as the last chance

Again and again, in the conversion stories of those who have become Catholic as adults, we find that the seekers began with the assumption that the least likely correct destination was Rome. And yet when they had exhausted every other possibility, they found that Catholicism was the only religion that actually made sense. Even with a contemporary leadership that seems to try to blend more easily into the world than it should, the claims of Rome stand out as both outlandish and hubristic. How, the whole world asks, can any church make such outrageous claims for itself? (This despite the fact that the various human powers make such claims for themselves all the time.)

It is no wonder then that so many converts have found in Catholicism their “last ditch” effort. When we examine things more carefully, this is exactly how we would expect those influenced by the world, the flesh and the devil (and who is not?) to regard any legitimate Divine claim. Such claims strike us today as sheer effrontery—a religion which is not content with vague mushy feelings but insists that we grow into union with absolute Goodness. Worse still, if this insistence is justified, it also means war against the world, the flesh and the devil. Is it any wonder that everything from our lazy bodies to the powers of this world and the principalities of hell conspire magnificently to prevent us from seeing the obvious?

And yet for those who humble themselves to make the search with an open mind, the discovery of the Catholic Church becomes always, in the end, precisely a matter of admitting the obvious. Yes, admitting: I use that word advisedly.

The claims of the Catholic Church are, of course, often effectively undermined by her members. This is an inescapable if distressing feature of a Church for sinners—a Church for those who need a Church. Too many Catholics find ways to ignore what the Church teaches, find justifications for seeking to change her teachings, find excuses to pretend that the Church now accepts and honors the latest insights of the dominant culture. Yet, despite all that, and even when the Church is humanly speaking at her worst and most confused, there remains a huge gulf between what the Church officially teaches against all odds and the piddling compromises her members may make on the pretense of reading new truths in the signs of the times.

Speaking of which, Christ said that those without Faith “cannot interpret the signs of the times”, and that “an evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of Jonah” (Mt 16:3-4)—Christ’s death and resurrection. At the same time, those with open hearts can see His veracity in the miraculous signs Christ performed—and will find such signs repeated throughout history in His Church, which rigorously tests them for authenticity in both the canonization process for saints and the approval process for various alleged miraculous appearances of Christ and His Blessed Mother. No other religion possesses such a treasury of carefully authenticated “signs”, for those who actually do have eyes to see and ears to hear—for those, I mean, who have not shrouded their personal autonomy in denial.

On a bad day…

Even on a bad day, the Catholic Church looms over the world as an unassailable supernatural presence. Even when her leaders give the impression of Christ in very distressing disguise, she remains the one annoying presence in this world which, despite wishy-washy members, never quite bends herself to either the will of tyrants or the spirit of the times. Methodists (and all other sects) may come and go, but they will always define themselves in a futile differentiation from that Church which, though she is always wounded like Christ, remains not only fully alive but indestructible.

Even when Catholics are frustrated with Church leadership, they remember the brilliant observation of Hilaire Belloc:

The Catholic Church is an institution I am bound to hold divine—but for unbelievers a proof of its divinity might be found in the fact that no merely human institution conducted with such knavish imbecility would have lasted a fortnight.

The very ineptitude of her human leaders for now more than 2,000 years is a kind of negative proof of the Divine character of the one Church that still teaches, in the twenty-first century after Christ, what she taught in the eleventh century and indeed in the first century. The world has been insisting that she change through all these centuries, attempting to reshape her in some new way with each passing one of them. And amid all these pressures, the world might well complain that the more the Catholic Church changes, the more she remains the same.

Finally it is precisely her saints who are the most luminously consistent of all. But that’s what is really so off-putting about Catholicism, is it not? If you take Catholicism seriously, it is not about preserving the “old man” anymore. It is no longer about our personal preferences and our pet ideas. Nor is it a matter of a quick whitewash for the “elect”. And it is definitely not about picking and choosing what we will believe, or what we will tolerate. It is about embracing day by day the sacrificial fidelity required to be assimilated into the Body of Christ, and to be welcome at the wedding feast of the Lamb.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: ILM - May. 23, 2023 3:38 PM ET USA

    Coming from a community full of fallen away Catholics, both family and not, makes me think that this article needs to be written over and over and submitted to many different venues in hopes that it will reach many people. It nails why be Catholic, and if people see it over and over, it just might reach them one of those times. Thank you, Dr Mirus!

  • Posted by: charles.pullin6847 - May. 05, 2023 6:11 PM ET USA

    Count me among those adult converts who were left with no other option after a genuine search. Married to a non practicing Catholic for many years, I searched, almost desperately, for an answer other than Rome. At the time, I could not articulate the “authority principle.” But it was there waiting for me to notice. The other “draw” of Catholicism was the audacity of many of its claims. The transubstantiation. Arguably, on its face, ridiculous. Yet, here I am Lord. May we be always audacious!

  • Posted by: grateful1 - May. 05, 2023 6:09 PM ET USA

    Insightful and much needed piece, Jeff. Reminds me of Chesterton's point that “The Catholic Church is the only thing that frees a man from the degrading slavery of being a child of his age.”

  • Posted by: jxsteinke1207 - May. 04, 2023 5:41 PM ET USA

    No comments on this inspiring article!!!! Jeffrey this is excellent. I will bookmark it to read again and again. We always need to be reminded why the Church has endured for 2000 years…..that’s 2000 years folks!! We seem to miss that