by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
In last week’s column, I addressed the misinformation that was so prevalent in the secular media regarding last summer’s statement by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) entitled: “Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine of the Church.”
I noted how the document had referenced and reiterated the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, clearly acknowledging that in Protestant communities and Orthodox churches, there are “numerous elements of sanctification and of truth.” The council taught that the Lord has used Protestant communities and Orthodox churches to bring many to holiness and salvation.
Moreover, the council acknowledged that God could grant salvation to individuals, who through no fault of their own, have not known Jesus but who sincerely strive to do God’s will with their lives.
I concluded last week’s column with the question: Does it make any difference to what church or faith community one belongs? How often have I heard the partial truth: “All religions are just different paths leading to the same God.” If so, is there any reason to attempt to evangelize Buddhists, Hindus, Moslems or Jews, much less to seek to share our Catholic faith with other Christians?
Consider this analogy: If your next-door neighbors were surviving on water and dried tree roots, would you feel any obligation to offer them the opportunity for a fuller, richer diet? So as not to insult them by suggesting their diet was incomplete, would you fail to offer them the opportunity for a diet rich in vitamins, nutrients and protein, affording them the opportunity for a longer and healthier life? Would you deprive them of the energy and strength that comes from a balanced diet? Would you not want to offer them the opportunity of enjoying the full range of taste sensations that their present menu simply could not provide?
It is not only a good thing for us to offer others the gift of our Catholic faith, but we have an obligation to share with others the abundant life made possible through the sacraments, the teaching, and the traditions of the Catholic Church. Moreover, while it is possible that non-Christians through God’s providence may come to salvation without knowing Jesus, we know for certain that they will be given the gift of eternal life through the waters of baptism. We are assured that those who believe in Jesus and gratefully respond to his love by following his teaching, experience abundant life in this world and are destined for eternal life.
How can we fail to do our best to offer our brothers and sisters what we know to be the most secure and best path to salvation? Would we fail to attempt to rescue someone adrift in the ocean in a lifeboat because it was possible they might survive and reach shore without our assistance?
Even for those who are baptized Christians and share faith in Jesus, how can we fail to do our best to offer them the fullness of our Catholic faith? While always manifesting the utmost respect for our non-Catholic Christian brothers and sisters, we have an obligation to strive to offer them a chance for a fuller life that is only possible through the grace of the sacramental life of the church. How can we fail to offer them the opportunity for the Eucharist? How can we be content not to afford them the chance to “receive the living bread that came down from heaven”?
What an incredible gift is the Eucharist! What a source of strength and power it provides those who receive it worthily! How can we rest knowing that millions of Christians are deprived of this source of spiritual nourishment and power?
Jesus did not found many churches. He founded a church. The disunity within the Christian community today contradicts the expressed prayer of Jesus in the Gospel: “So that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me” (Jn 17: 21). The fragmentation of Christians actually impedes the mission entrusted to the church by Jesus: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28: 19).
For there to be meaningful unity within the church, there has to be a teaching authority. This authority is linked to its apostolic character, one of the essential marks of the church of Jesus. This apostolic authority rests with the Holy Father and the bishops who are the direct spiritual descendants of Peter and the other apostles.
Without this apostolic authority in the church, we would not have the New Testament. Jesus did not hand his disciples copies of the Gospels. The New Testament was written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit by members of the early church. It was the Catholic Church that determined which of the early Christian writings were to be included in the New Testament.
Without a clear teaching authority within the church, we see how disunity multiplies with literally thousands of distinct Christian communities being formed since the Reformation. Without a clear teaching authority, some communities, who began by invoking the Bible alone as their authority, embrace very non-biblical doctrines — denying or questioning such fundamental truths as the Trinity or the physical Resurrection of Jesus.
Similarly, some of these Christian communities lose their moral compass defending such things as homosexual marriage, nonmarital heterosexual activity, abortion, or euthanasia.
One of the principal reasons that the Protestant communities emerged was the scandalous behavior of some Catholics. When we partake of the Eucharist, we receive a responsibility to live in a manner consistent with the One whom we carry within us. Our Catholic faith should give us neither a sense of superiority nor complacency, but should fill us with a humble gratitude and genuine desire to share the gift of the church with others.
Many former Protestant ministers have read their way into the Catholic Church by their study of church history. However, most non-Catholics will never have the opportunity to make such a study. What is most likely to open others to the beauty and truth of our Catholic faith is not theological arguments, but Catholics living their faith with integrity and with an eager willingness to share with others the source of our joy and our power to love.
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