What are the basics of Catholic belief and practice?

What are the basics of Catholic belief and practice?

Lucy Tucker

Apologetics is the true marriage of faith and reason. It is, along with theology, a way to love the Lord with our whole mind as well our whole heart. Theology is faith seeking understanding, and apologetics is faith giving reasons.

After seven years of teaching the Catholic faith at the high school level to students from assorted Christian backgrounds, and having read numerous books on apologetics, I have come to the conviction that there is an essential Catholic apologetic.

This essential Catholic apologetic begins where the basic Christian apologetic, for the Resurrection of Christ, leaves off. To be a Christian is to acknowledge that Jesus is Lord, but to be a Catholic is to acknowledge that the Catholic Church is Jesus' Church. And this is where the crucial apologetic work needs to be done, tirelessly, in season and out.

It is crucial work because Catholic identity is shaky for many Catholics precisely because they do not understand the full import of the Church, and it is crucial because divisions between Christians remain a scandal and those divisions are based fundamentally on a lack of understanding of the Church.

The standard way to defend the establishment of the Church is to go through the three major Petrine passages in the Gospels of Matthew (16:13-19), Luke (22:31-32), and John (21:15-17). These passages clearly demonstrate Jesus' intention to found one Church, on Peter the Rock.

What I am calling the essential Catholic apologetic takes another approach, using a different set of passages from Sacred Scripture. This approach directly challenges our separated brothers and sisters, and cafeteria Catholic friends, on their belief in the divinity of Christ.

For as Catholics we contend that full acceptance and understanding of the fact that Jesus is God the Son must lead to acknowledgment of the Catholic Church as the true Church, established by Jesus, and infallible in her teaching in faith and morals. To maintain that Jesus is Lord, but his Church is either a fallible human institution, or an invisible entity made up of 'true believers' with no visible, hierarchical structure, betrays an unwitting diminution of Jesus' divine Sonship.

Refusing to move from Christ's divinity to the Catholic Church's historical reality and infallibility in faith and morals fundamentally undercuts the reality of Jesus' divinity.

Our common starting point is the basic kerygma: Jesus is Lord. But what does that assertion mean? Catholics contend that it means that Jesus has what it takes, namely, divine power, to safeguard the Church he clearly intended to establish. But safeguard the Church from what and for what?


From the New Testament we find that Jesus gave special and highly significant emphasis to the word 'truth'. He tells Pilate that he has come to bear witness to the truth (John 18:37), and he tells his disciples that they will know the truth and the truth will set them free (John 8:32). On the night of his betrayal he tells his disciples that he will send them the Spirit of Truth who will teach them 'all things', remind them of all Jesus has told them (John 14:26), and guide them 'into all the truth' (John 16:13).

Note that little word 'all' repeated three times. And then, in his prayer to his Father, he asks that his disciples be sanctified (made holy), and consecrated (set apart), in the truth. Not in goodness or virtue or love, but in the truth.

The truth matters so much to Jesus that he calls himself the Truth. In his meeting with the Samaritan woman, he says that his Father seeks 'true worshippers' who will worship him 'in Spirit and in truth' (John 4:23-24). Not only that, but he calls the Devil, the Father not of sin or of wickedness, but of lies. To drive the point home Jesus says that Satan 'has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him' (John 8:44).

So if the truth is as important as Jesus says it is, and the enemy is not some amateur liar but the very Father of lies, then the battle-lines are clearly drawn, and the only question remaining is: does Jesus have what it takes to protect his Church from this enemy?

Scripture gives us two images of the Church that are especially pertinent here. Whether we see the Church as the Bride of Christ (Eph 5:25, Rev. 21:2) or as the sheepfold, and Jesus as the Bridegroom (Mt 9:15) or the Good Shepherd (John 10:11) his role as Protector is paramount. His defence of his Bride and flock is not abstract or theoretical; it is intensely personal, because the Father of lies is a real and deadly enemy, whose chief weapon is falsehood. Jesus takes this threat to his Church personally. And in his prayer to the Father on the night of his betrayal, right after asking that his disciples be 'kept from the evil one', that is, protected from the Father of lies, he gives the means by which this protection will be instituted: they are to be sanctified in the truth.

So Jesus tells us who the enemy is, and what he as Bridegroom will do to safeguard his Bride; what he as the Good Shepherd will do to preserve his flock: he will send the Holy Spirit of Truth, the One who sanctifies us in the truth. Nowhere does Jesus promise us a Church without sinners - on the contrary, as he teaches us in the parables of the Net and the Wheat and Tares. (This is why to leave the Church due to moral scandal, of which there is always more than enough, is a profound mistake).

Holy Spirit

But Jesus most emphatically does promise a Church without lies, guided by the Spirit of Truth. St Paul must have understood our Lord well, since he refers to the Church as the 'pillar and foundation of the truth' (1 Tim 3:15). Where could he have gathered such a notion except from the One who promised to send the Holy Spirit of Truth?

In sum, to accept the divinity of Christ is to accept his divine capacity to personally defend, protect, and preserve his Church from the enemy. If he cannot do that, then he may be a shepherd, but certainly not a divine one; a bridegroom, but only human. If he cannot keep his flock safe from falsehood, then that means the Father of lies wins and Jesus, whoever he is, is not the Lord.

The essential Catholic apologetic says that because Christ is the Divine Bridegroom and the Divine Good Shepherd, the Catholic Church is exactly what she claims to be: infallible in matters of faith and morals, because she is who Sacred Scripture tells us she is: Christ's beloved Bride, his cherished flock. If the Church is not infallible, Jesus is not God, and the Holy Spirit is not the Spirit of truth.

The essential Catholic apologetic also insists on the connection between Jesus' Lordship and history. Jesus, as Lord, is the Lord of history. This title is not unknown to Protestants, but how they understand it is a puzzle. For if Jesus is the Lord of history, there are some pretty significant ramifications when it comes to the Church and her sanctification in the truth.

Jesus promised to be with his Church until the end (Matt 28:20) and so his divine shepherding takes place in time, as history unfolds. The Father of lies is and will be a constant threat until the end, until Jesus returns in glory. Now how can Jesus be the Lord of history if the Church did not have the truth about the role of the papacy until the Orthodox schism? How can Jesus be the Lord of history if the Church did not have the truth until Luther? If the Church has not been under the constant vigilant guidance of the Holy Spirit of Truth since day one, then Jesus is not the Lord of history, and if he is not the Lord of history, he is not the Lord.

Although Jesus did say he came to bring not peace, but the sword of division, we know that the division he speaks of refers not to the Church, but to the separation between the Church and the world. Jesus makes clear that being sanctified in the truth is to be one, as the Father and he are one. Truth and unity go together: there will be one flock and one shepherd (John 10:16).

Lies and disunity also go together. St Paul remarked on the connection between false teaching and disunity at the very beginning of the Church: 'I hear that there are divisions among you; and I partly believe it, for there must be factions among you that those who are genuine among you may be recognised' (1 Cor 11:18-19).

Who are these 'genuine' ones? They are the ones in possession of the truth (in this particular case, the truth about the correct celebration of the Eucharist). And how may we recognise them? They are those who obey the teaching of the Apostles, chief of whom is Peter, and their successors, the bishops, chief of whom is the pope. And why do they freely give their obedience? Because Jesus is God the Son and he really did what he said he would do: establish his Church on Peter the Rock, and send the Holy Spirit of Truth to lead the Church into the fullness of truth and preserve her from the Father of lies. If the sheep can't tell who is teaching the truth, the flock is lost.

Jesus' divinity

You can't be just a little bit pregnant. And if you are the Church really established by Jesus who is really Lord, you can't have just a bit of the truth. If Jesus is Lord, meaning really and truly divine, then everything else follows: the infallibility of the Church, the inerrancy of Scripture, the ex opere operato reality of the sacraments, the papacy, the dogmas concerning the Blessed Virgin Mary, 'all the truth'. And since Jesus is the Lord of history, all this truth has come in time, step by step, as the Holy Spirit of Truth has led the Church into the fullness of truth. So the Church established by Jesus cannot go 'off the tracks' of the truth, not with the Holy Spirit as its guide, not ever.

It is one thing to reject the divinity of Jesus, a truth available only to faith. It is another thing entirely to accept the divinity of Jesus and reject his one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. The person who baulks at or refuses the step from Jesus' Lordship to the historical reality and infallibility of his Church, needs to go back, reread the New Testament, and consider what it really concretely means that Jesus is Lord, that the enemy is the Father of lies, and that the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Truth. Catholics believe that it means that Jesus, at every moment, has always had what it takes to protect his Bride, from her beginning at Pentecost until her Lord returns in glory.

This is the introductory article for what will be a series of articles on different aspects of the Catholic faith, aimed particularly at younger readers (see editorial).

The author of the article, Mrs Lucy Tucker, became a Catholic in 1992 and teaches religion at a New York high school. She is a past Vice President and senior speaker with the Catholic Evidence Guild in New York.

Her article first appeared in the 'Homiletic & Pastoral Review' and is reprinted with permission.

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