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When discussing religion, it's sad when people say things like "the only thing that matters is that we all believe in the same God" or "one Christian religion is just as good as another" or "let's just agree to disagree." Why are these comments bothersome? Well, they all demonstrate a scandal of Christianity: There are so many Christian religions to choose from that people have become indifferent to the whole idea of thinking about which church is the right one.
But we Catholics can honestly — and should assertively — say, "Jesus founded one Christian religion, and that religion is the Catholic Church!" The ecumenical movement of the '70s did far more damage than good. We squandered a perfect opportunity to gather millions of converts to Jesus' Church because leaders of the movement were terrified about the idea of offending non-Catholics. In reality, we should have demonstrated to people the things we have in common with their Christian religions, then led them to the reality of the Church founded by Christ.
There are a number of proofs that the Catholic Church was founded by Christ. The first one I always point to is history. Saint John Henry Newman, arguably the greatest Christian apologist of the 19th century, was a member of the Oxford Movement — a vehemently anti-Catholic organization in England. Fellow members tasked the young Anglican scholar with writing a history of Christianity. On the day his new Christian history was rolling off the printing press, Newman was being received into the Catholic Church. When asked what caused him to turn from his vehement anti-Catholicism to the point that he actually became a Catholic, his response was quite simple: "To know history is to be Catholic." Why? Because history alone proves that the Catholic Church was founded by Jesus Christ. (By the way, it was also Cdl. Newman who said the greatest tragedy in the Church is an ignorant laity. That's just food for thought.)
That Jesus founded the Catholic Church can also be proven from Sacred Scripture. The establishment of the Church came in the very act where Jesus made St. Peter the first pope:
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, "Who do men say that the Son of Man is?" And they said, "Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets." He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?" Simon Peter replied, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." And Jesus answered him, "Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in Heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of Heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in Heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in Heaven" (Matthew 16: 13–19).
This passage is pregnant with implications! Indeed, so much is said in these few words that we can't possibly cover it all in the limited space here. We will, however, spend a lot of time covering this passage thoroughly in later installments of this column. For now, though, let's deal with the elephant in the room.
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Anti-Catholic Protestants who believe in sola scriptura (that all divine truth comes from the Bible alone) love to bring up the fact that the word Catholic is nowhere in the Bible. That is most certainly true, but it's a paper-tiger argument. After all, neither "Trinity" nor "Bible" are anywhere in Sacred Scripture, yet all Christians believe in the Bible and the Trinity.
The earliest known use of the word "Catholic" in reference to the Church comes from St. Ignatius of Antioch in the year A.D. 107. Writing to the other "churches" (called dioceses today) while on his way to martyrdom, St. Ignatius wrote: "Where the bishop is, there let the multitude of believers be; even as where Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church" (Letter to the Smyrnaeans viii, 2). Notice that St. Ignatius didn't write of the Catholic Church as if he were giving it a new name, but rather as though the name had long been in use. It's reasonably safe to assume, then, that the Church was probably called "Catholic" during the latter part of the first century. Indeed, it's likely that St. John the Apostle knew the Church by the name of Catholic, since he died around A.D. 100.
What's the significance of the word Catholic? It comes from the Greek word katholikos, which means "universal." The Catholic Church is most certainly universal; that is, for all men of all times in all places. Saint Ignatius' letter represents the earliest recorded use of "Catholic" to refer to the Church, but it most certainly isn't the only one. The Martyrdom of Polycarp (A.D. 155) mentions the "Catholic Church" in three passages. Tertullian (A.D. 200) uses the word katholikos when he refers to the Catholic Church. Saint Augustine (A.D. 340) uses the same word as a synonym for the Church 240 times in his writings.
Now, as mentioned earlier, the evidences for the Catholic Church being founded by Christ are far too many to cover in this brief article — space simply won't allow for all of it. We will, however, cover this topic in its entirety during the next several installments and in later installments after getting in some other basics.
Got questions? Contact me at Joe@CantankerousCatholic.com.