THE CATHOLIC CHURCH ON MATTERS OF FAITH & MORALS
Catholics believe that the Church is to be governed on earth by the pope and the bishops of the world in union with him. And they believe that this is the will of Jesus Christ, rooted in the teaching of Sacred Scripture. Non-Catholics, obviously, reject this idea—otherwise they’d be Catholic! Some of them believe that the Church should be governed democratically; others think it should be cared for by a group of elders elected by the local congregation; while still others will say that "God’s Word alone" should rule the Church. (Now, I warn you, that last one sounds very nice; the problem is God’s Word needs an authoritative interpreter, otherwise it will eventually be misinterpreted in some way. And that can have tragic consequences.)
Well, if someone ever challenges you on this, and asks you why you follow the pope and the bishops in union with him, one of the biblical texts you can (and should) bring the person to is the one we heard in today’s first reading, taken from Acts 1. This is the story of the choosing of Matthias—the man who replaced Judas as the twelfth apostle.
It’s the first example of what we call "apostolic succession." Apostolic succession basically means that every bishop in the Catholic Church today can trace back his ordination to one of the 12 apostles of Jesus Christ. Matthias, for example, was ordained by Peter and the other 10. He later ordained other bishops—and on and on it goes until you get to the ordained leaders of the Church today. Furthermore, we believe that every bishop holds an "office"—an office that is willed by Christ himself. And that’s precisely what the apostles believed. That fact is clear from the details of this story. Notice that Peter tells the other apostles that a replacement must be chosen for Judas because he occupied an office, and the office was now vacant. And so Peter quotes the Book of Psalms where it specifically says, "May another take his office." He quotes God’s Word, indicating that this is God’s will.
When a bishop in the Church today dies—or retires—or is moved to another diocese—the Holy Father, in effect, says the same thing Peter said: "May another take his office." And someone always does.
Notice, too, that Peter holds a primacy among the other apostles in this scene (and throughout the New Testament). It was understood that Peter had a special charism—a special gift—to guide and govern the entire Church. Not surprisingly, Catholics today believe the very same thing about his successor, the pope. It’s all very biblical.
Notice furthermore that the Church, under Peter’s authority, sets the qualifications a man must meet in order to hold this office. Peter says, "It is necessary that one of the men who accompanied us the whole time the Lord Jesus came and went among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day on which he was taken up from us, become a witness with us to his resurrection." Now I know of nowhere in the New Testament where Jesus said that explicitly. Jesus never said, "Here are the qualifications your successors must have: A, B, and C." Obviously those in the early Church understood that Peter and the other apostles had a God-given power (with certain restrictions) to decide what qualities were necessary in their successors.
Catholics also believe that today. Catholics believe that the pope and the bishops in union with him have this same authority. (By the way, if you want to know what the prerequisites for holding the office of bishop in the Church today are, all you need to do is look it up in the Code of Canon Law.)
Now notice there’s a human and a divine element in the making of the choice. I think this is very important. Two men are nominated. That, of course, is a normal, human activity—people are nominated for various offices all the time. But then prayer is offered. God’s intervention is sought, so that the ultimate decision will be HIS! Peter’s prayer says it all, "You, Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which one of these two you have chosen to take [Judas’ place]." The apostles then draw lots, so that God’s choice will be revealed.
Please notice: the decision was not made by popular vote. The Church was not—nor has it ever been—a democracy. And it never will be.
So there it is—your short apologetics lesson for the day.
I hope it’s helped you to realize that even though we do have a lot to apologize for as individual Catholics (because we are sinners), when it comes to the official teaching of the Church on matters of faith and morals, we have absolutely NOTHING to apologize for—because it’s the truth.
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