All Catholics Should Major in Double E
And I don’t mean electrical engineering. Rather, the “Double E” I speak of is the episcopacy and the Eucharist, which, when understood in concert, represent two essential hinges of Catholic apologetics. The better equipped Catholics are to explain the role of the episcopacy and the Eucharist in Catholic ecclesiology, the more effective they will be in communicating to non-Catholics what is truly unique and intellectually compelling about the Church.
The “Double E” apologetic presented an indomitable force when I was a Calvinist seminarian contemplating the difference between Reformed and Catholic theologies. Any Protestant who spends enough time reading the New Testament starts to realize that ecclesiology is important. Jesus incontestably founded a Church (cf. Mt. 16:18). That Church had an easily recognizable leadership — namely, the Apostles and other leaders designated by the Apostles (cf. Acts 2:42-43, 15:1-35). And that Church was visible, composed of both sincere believers and those in varying degrees of unbelief or disobedience — this is apparent given Jesus’ comments about the wheat and the tares (cf. Mt. 13:24-30), St. John’s statement about some Christians leaving the Church because “they were not of us” (1 Jn. 2:19), and St. Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth, in which he reprimands some members for egregiously immoral behavior that, one would think, if gone unrepented, would disqualify them from salvation.
As a Calvinist, I realized that a person who identifies as a follower of Christ should be part of something that constitutes the visible Church. But which one? Every denomination or independent ecclesial body claims to represent faithfully Christ’s teaching and mission. Even when groups of Protestants come together and recognize some manner of “mere Christianity,” they necessarily exclude others based on any number of criteria: beliefs about the nature of the Bible, the nature of Christ, how one is saved, etc. No principle exists, apart from Holy Scripture, to evaluate competing claims. Yet anyone who surveys contemporary Christianity, or Christian history, knows that there are many competing, conflicting interpretations of the Bible. And the Bible is incapable of arbitrating between these interpretations — you can’t ask it to tell you more than what’s written in its pages.
Catholicism, however, offers a coherent alternative paradigm: the first “E,” the episcopacy. As Pope St. John Paul II observed, the Church is a structured society. Beyond what I’ve outlined above, the New Testament also tells us that Christ intended the Church to be hierarchical, and He granted the Apostles unparalleled authority to represent Him among His followers and to the world. We see this in how the Acts of the Apostles discusses the greatest controversy of the post-Resurrection Church: the status of Gentile converts to Christianity. At a council in Jerusalem, recorded in Acts 15, “the apostles and the elders” convened to discuss the controversy. St. Peter, the chief Apostle, offered his opinion, which was then endorsed by St. James, who, early Christian tradition tells us, was the first bishop of Jerusalem. Moreover, the corpus of letters contained in the New Testament points to the Apostles as principles of unity, forming and guiding the practices and teachings of the early Church. There is ample biblical and historical evidence that the Apostles handed down this authority to designated successors (cf. Acts 1:21-26; 1 Tim. 1:6, 4:14, 5:22).
Moreover, the earliest extra-biblical Christian sources we have, the letters of St. Clement of Rome and St. Ignatius of Antioch, explicitly attest to the pre-eminent ecclesial authority of the bishop as a principle of unity vis-à-vis apostolic succession. Clement, in a letter to the rebellious church in Corinth, written before the end of the first century, reprimands the faithful for unseating their bishops, who were installed by God. And he further exhorts the Corinthians that in obeying him, another bishop possessing divine authority, they are obeying God. Ignatius likewise in all seven of his extant letters — written only a decade or two after the last letter of the New Testament — teaches Christians across the Mediterranean world that bishops possess divine authority that serves to unify the Church. To take but one example, in his Letter to the Ephesians, he writes, “Let us be careful, then, if we would be submissive to God, not to oppose the bishop…. It is clear, then, that we must look upon the bishop as the Lord himself.”
Thus, the Catholic Church, unlike Protestantism, possesses a principle of unity, the office of bishop, that can be traced to the Apostles themselves. Indeed, there is a remarkable amount of historical evidence regarding episcopal seats across the ancient world. This episcopal unity is derived from Christ Himself, the “principle and source of cohesion,” who preserves and builds His Church through the power of the Holy Spirit, as John Paul II noted. The unity that flows from apostolic succession in the episcopal office serves as a sort of guardrail as the Church has expanded throughout the world and taken on diverse shapes while evangelizing different peoples and cultures. St. Paul’s declaration that “there is neither Jew nor Greek…for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28), and Christ’s calling of believers “from every tribe and tongue, people and nation” (Rev. 7:9), are, in one sense, fenced in by Catholics’ submission to, and reverence for, the apostolic office.
Yet it is impossible not to have noticed the implosion of the episcopacy in the U.S. and the broader world. In June national media reported on the extravagant spending and alleged sexual misconduct of Bishop Michael Bransfield of Wheeling-Charleston, West Virginia. Also in June, Bishop Thomas J. Tobin of Providence, Rhode Island, offered a criticism of LGBTQ Pride Month events — a criticism he rescinded after a predictable backlash, despite extensive Catholic teaching explicating the immorality of homosexual acts and transgenderism. Before that, we witnessed many controversies surrounding now-laicized Theodore Cardinal McCarrick, as well as the resignation of Donald Cardinal Wuerl, both former archbishops of Washington, D.C. One website has identified 102 bishops worldwide who have been credibly accused of sexual wrongdoing in recent decades. Of course, this doesn’t mean all are guilty, but those who are have done plenty to undermine the credibility of their brother bishops and the office of the episcopacy itself.
Do the sins of bishops negate the principle of unity found in their episcopal seat? No, though such transgressions certainly cause scandal. The unity of the episcopacy does not stem from the personal morality of those who temporarily hold the office but from the objective authority given to bishops by Christ and transmitted to them by their predecessors. For Christ to establish a Church, the authority or survival of which depended on the morality of her leaders, would be to doom that Church to failure, precisely because man remains sinful. Even after St. Peter’s climactic reconciliation with Christ at the Sea of Tiberias (cf. Jn. 21), Peter still made errors that negatively impacted the faithful (cf. Gal. 2:11-21). We know that St. Paul and St. Barnabas, who both possessed apostolic authority, had a contentious fight (cf. Acts 15:36-41). Indeed, any student of ecclesial history knows that there have been bishops in every generation who have failed to honor the obligations of their office. And yet, as Christ promised, the Gates of Hell have not prevailed against His Church.
The apostolic office is not only hierarchal; it is also ministerial. Throughout the New Testament, we see Christ designating authority to His Apostles to minister to the people, including performing healings, baptisms, and other rites. One surefire way to determine which of these ecclesial rites the early Church deemed most important is to pinpoint which ones are found in all four Gospels. Sure enough, each Gospel relates the story of the Last Supper, in which Christ commands His inner circle to perform this sacred meal “in memory of me,” for the welfare of the broader Church (cf. Mt. 26:17-30; Mk. 14:12-26; Lk. 22:7-39; Jn. 13:1-17:26). Not surprisingly, we also see ample reference to the celebration of the Eucharist — the other “E” — in the post-Resurrection Church (cf. Acts 2:42-43, 20:7; 1 Cor. 10:17, 11:26).
Christ, mediated through the Apostles and their successors, offers the people of God grace through prayer and the sacraments, especially the Eucharist. Indeed, as prayer binds the diverse members of the Church by uniting divergent voices into a common offering to God, so it reaches its climax in the Eucharist, the greatest prayer and the height of Catholic worship. The Eucharist is the principle means through which Catholics receive grace, commune with Christ, and are strengthened to exemplify the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity. This is, in part, why all Catholics are expected to participate in the Mass: It is a public expression of union with Christ and with the hierarchical Church He founded and sustains in time. Moreover, only those who bear the apostolic mark of Christ through the sacrament of Holy Orders can offer the Eucharist, a practice that conforms to the apostolic character of the rite as described in the New Testament. Even a cursory study of two millennia of Church history will prove to any interested reader that the Church has always considered the Eucharist to be central to the faith.
Rightly, the traditions of the Catholic Church consistently place the Eucharist, “the source and summit of the Christian life,” as Lumen Gentium calls it, at center stage. It is offered at every Mass, almost every day of the year (Good Friday and Holy Saturday excluded). The Eucharist is placed in a tabernacle within the sanctuary of local parishes so that Catholics can always find Jesus physically present and proximately close to them. Many churches have separate chapels for perpetual adoration so the faithful can always, regardless of day or time, pray before Christ. There is also special exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, perhaps most famously on the Feast of Corpus Christi, during which a public procession of Catholics walks alongside the sacrament. The spiritual health of individual parishes can often be gauged by their degree of reverence toward the Eucharist.
The episcopacy and the Eucharist are vital, central components of the Christian faith, and Catholicism possesses both. What of the Eastern Orthodox and Anglicans, both of whom make claims to apostolic authority, and both of whom offer the Eucharist as a principal rite in their liturgical worship? Those valid bishops not in communion with the Bishop of Rome, the foremost principle of unity in the Church, have caused or suffered a wound that can only be healed by reuniting with Rome. The word valid must be highlighted because Anglican bishops, unlike the Orthodox, do not maintain valid Holy Orders. This is because the Anglican Church no longer enjoyed valid ordinations once it broke from Rome and willfully intended to perform a rite no longer in ecclesial or theological conformity with that of the Catholic Church.
Protestantism, as I argued in my review of Roman but Not Catholic: What Remains at Stake 500 Years after the Reformation by Kenneth J. Collins and Jerry L. Walls (Jul.-Aug. 2018; see also Collins’s and Walls’s letters to the editor and my reply, Nov. 2018), is inherently subjective and divisive. There is no agreed-upon means to resolve debates or determine what constitutes orthodox Christianity. In a word, there is no principle of unity in Protestantism. Catholicism, in contrast, presents a paradigm with a very clear principle of unity, the episcopacy, which has both Scripture and Church history on its side. Yet presenting this idea to Protestant interlocutors is often not sufficient, perhaps because it requires some logical unpacking and is somewhat abstract.
This is where the Eucharist comes in. The Eucharist is Christ, present in the world, given to the faithful for their salvation and spiritual well-being. The Eucharist is tangible, accessible, and the principal means of grace in the life of the Christian. It is a principle of unity that unites all faithful Catholics in the worship of Christ. And it flows directly from the other principle, the episcopacy. The Eucharist without the episcopacy is invalid. The episcopacy without the Eucharist is more or less useless. The two are mutually reinforcing. Indeed, if those bishops who’ve failed the Church had had a higher regard for and devotion to the Eucharist, perhaps the crisis now befalling the Body of Christ could have been avoided. Regardless, the sins of the hierarchy cannot fundamentally undo the authority and spiritual power of the Church because both derive directly from Christ Himself.
As long as the Church is led by bishops whose authority derives directly from Christ, her unity, manifested so clearly in the Eucharist, which is Christ, will persevere. And if Catholics can major in “Double E” apologetics, no ecclesial crisis will be able to confound our coherent, compelling communication of the truths of the Catholic faith.
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