Thursday, September 21, 2006

Hierarchy of the Catholic Church

The Catholic Church is organized and structured in a way which allows it to be most effective in the world in which we live. This is no surprise, considering the fact that it was established by Jesus Christ and is maintained by the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. The organization allows unity among believers, while at the same time enabling anyone to avail of personal help. The model is based on a unified vision of creating a force of good in the world. Just like the saying, "United we stand, divided we fall". Any great organization, company, or group in the world makes use of a hierarchy and structure. The Catholic Church's hierarchy is apparant and visible. Certain groups and organizations which do not have an explicit hierarchy actually possess an implicit or invisible hierarchy. Although the structure of the Catholic Church has allowed it to be a force of good in the world, many remain skeptical or uncertain about it. In this brief essay, I will outline the structure of the Catholic, explain its function, explain what it does and what it does not do, and why it is good and necessary.

The Catholic Church is by far the oldest organization on Earth, having existed for almost 2000 years. Since its establishment by Christ, the Church has faced many challenges, and hostilities towards it. Right from the beginning, Jesus Christ knew there would be those who would set themselves against the Catholic Church, so he built his church on a man, namely, Peter, whose name means rock. Jesus said, Peter, you are the rock upon which I will build my church. After this point, whenever there was a dispute in the Christian community, the people would go to the Apostles, and the final say would be with Peter. Apostolic authority has worked very well throughout the centuries. The authority of the Apostles is conferred by the holy spirit, and through succession, the bishops of today retain that power.

The pope of today is the successor of a long line of popes going all the way back to Peter. It is very important to understand the role of the pope. One of the pope's titles is the Servant of the Servants of God. This title in no way suggests any form of domination over others, but rather a role of pastor and caretaker. The role of the pope is to guide people in the ways of truth and light. Some possess the misconception that the pope "makes up rules". This is a false statement, for no pope has ever invented a rule. All teachings which come from the pope address specific questions of today, using the wisdom of the ages, wisdom which ultimately stems from the teachings of Christ. Bishops then take these messages and spread them to their congregation as well. Bishops may find it necessary to address regional issues which the pope did not specifically mention, because they did not have a worldwide importance.

A friend of mine once objected to a hierarchy, present in a religious organization because she felt it is a hindrance to the "natural evolution" of religion. I would object to this statement in several ways. First of all, anyone is eligible to become a leader within the Church, man or woman. Secondly, the purpose of the Church's hierarchy is not to be an exclusive source for theology or belief. Thirdly, many decisions about religious activities are left up to individuals. Fourthly, I would say that all religious organizations have a form of hierarchy, whether formal or informal, visible or invisible. And finally, I would say the Church is a universal entity, available and created for everyone. It is not a personal tool to be used however one wishes, but rather a system of beliefs and morals shared by a group, and as such requires unity, which is achieved through a hierarchy. I will elaborate on these issues.

The first point is that anyone is eligible to become a leader in the Church. First, it is important to realize what is meant by leader. It is not meant as a temporal leader, or someone who governs such as a president, or premier, but rather a spiritual guide. As a spiritual guide, an individual is responsible for being a pastor to the people, in other words, a shepherd. They are there to take care of the spiritual needs of the people. Priests, for example, devote themselves entire for the sake of others. They are available 24 hours per day to give support and guidance. If someone is ill, they are there to comfort them, if someone dies, the priest is there to comfort the family. The role of the priest is also the administration of the sacrements, which bring people closer to God. Any man can become a priest, given he is not married, for marriage is another path which one can freely choose. A priest forgoes his biological fatherhood, to become a spiritual father to many. It is crucial to understand that this is the primary purpose of clergy and others in leadership positions, a pastoral role. Bishops also take on this role, however, they also concern themselves with ecclesiastical matters. These matter pertain to the proper performance and organization of many things. I will discuss this role more closely later.

Women, too, very much take part in the life of the Church. Throughout the centuries, women have devoted their lives to religious orders, and live as nuns. These nuns have done immeasurable good in the world. In fact, until recently most teachers and nurses were in fact nuns, who had devoted themselves to caring for the sick and educating people. They were answering the question of Jesus of when you saw someone sick, did you help them, etc. Women also form integral parts of the Church and are often decision-makers. There have been many women theologians and saints as well who have helped increase our understanding of many religious and theological issues. There are a certain group of saints called Doctors of the Church. This title is given very rarely and currently, of the thousands of saints declared, only 33 are called Doctors of the Church. Three of these individuals are women, one of whom is St. Thérèse of Lisieux. She died at the age of 24, and contributed greatly to the Church. The leadership of the Church is certainly not confined to an exclusive group, but rather is open to any with the proper disposition.

The next point I would like to make is that the growth of a religion is in no way hindered by there being a hierarchy, in fact, I would argue the opposite is true. The Catholic faith has grown in its understanding of many issues throughout the centuries. It has grown with the help of writings and teachings of saints and theologians throughout history. Most of our understandings of faith and morals comes not from popes, but from saints from around the world, in every circumstance and position. Some of our most important contributors to the faith include St. Augustin, St. Thomas Aquinas, and the Gospel Writers, none of whom were popes. St. Thomas Aquinas for example, was not even a bishop or a priest.

Thirdly, many issues or morality are not strictly defined by the Catholic Church, but are left up to the individual to decide. We believe God created man, and Adam and Eve were the first two people, however, we are free to theorize as to exactly how this came about. Basically, there are certain tenets of our faith, which are necessary to claim membership, but various areas contain freedom in our own personal interpretation.

My next point is that all religions have a form of hierarchy, whether visible or invisible, whether formally defined or informally defined. People in religions are not free to simply invent their own philosophies or thoughts, especially if they are in contrast to the official teaching of that religion. Religions all have teachers and leaders, again, whether or not they are formally defined. Take Hinduism for example. There are certain beliefs which are fundamental to Hinduism, and without believing them, a person would not belong to the mainstream group of Hindus. A Hindu, for example, could not claim that God does not exist and have their teachings accepted by other Hindus. Also, gurus within the Hindu religion are often sought out as leaders and their thoughts and words are followed by great numbers of people. These gurus are not rejected or just considered to have one opinion among many equal opinions, but rather this person is seen as very wise and good to listen to. People will follow their teachings, even if they themselves to not fully understand or even accept them yet. This is the same with priests, bishops and popes. They act as spiritual guides, which are present in every religion.

My final point on this issue is to state the purpose of having a shared set of beliefs and why uniformity on certain issues is crucial. The Catholic Church is not a buffet from which each individual picks his or her favorite parts and discards the rest. Also, to use a similar analogy, the Catholic Church does not give a list of possible options, from which you make your own creations. The Catholic Church is, from its very name, a universal church, not a personal tool. It was created by Jesus Christ as a set of beliefs from which people live their lives. We must accept the pleasing as well as the difficult teachings in order to follow this religion. As a universal religion, a religion of community, a system of beliefs shared by all believers, it is not fitting that it be a personal religion of one's choosing. As Christians, we walk together, sharing in a vision, focused on a mission, to bring the words of redemption.

The unity of the Catholic Church has led to developments which have become hallmarks of the Western world, to fields including medicine, astronomy, geometry, literature, and almost every other field. They created a world which values charitable works, helping each other, and feeding the hungry, unlike any other group the world has ever seen. These developments have been possible because of the unity and hierarchy of the Catholic Church.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Christian Denominations

Many people these days speak of there being many denominations within Christianity. This opinion represents a lack of information concerning the true nature of Christianity, the true nature which Jesus Christ founded nearly 2,000 years ago. In this short essay, I will explain some of the fundamental truths about Christianity and I will hopefully clear up many of the misconceptions surrounding this area.

Before his death and resurrection, Jesus spoke often of the church he would establish on Earth. He spoke about how this Church would look. It would be visible and universal. And so it was. The name Peter means "rock", and we know that Jesus said, it is upon this rock that I build my church. Peter's name used to be Simon bar Jonah. Jesus changed that when he named him Peter. This was to make completely clear the fact that Jesus would build his church upon Peter. Throughout the Bible, especially in the acts of the apostles after this point, Peter is always mentioned first among the apostles. It is also quite clear that Peter always has the final say in all matters of faith and morals. His role in the early church is exactly the same role as today's Pope. This point is crucial in understanding how Christianity is meant to be organized.

Much of the practices of the church have been handed down through the Apostles and orginally from Jesus himself. Not everything was written in the Bible concerning our beliefs. Consider for a moment the nature of the Church during its first decades and centuries before the canon of the Bible was authoritatively established. Matters of faith could not be referred to the Bible as we know it today, because it simply did not exist. The method to discern truth used then is the same as it is now, and rests on the authority of the church and its leaders or Magisterium. Magisterium comes from the Latin word meaning to teach. The church fulfills the role of teacher of the faithful. This is clearly evidenced in the Acts of the Apostles, because disputes are always brought to the apostles.

A note must be made here. Nothing in Sacred Tradition can or will ever contradict what is in the Bible, nor vice verse. It can, however, elaborate on what is said in the Bible or give teachings which, although not in the Bible, work in harmony with it. This is very necessary, especially in today's age, which is much different from the age in which the Bible was written. We face many social issues today which simply did not exist in those times.

The authority of the Pope is something that went without question for around 1500 years. That is when the reformation occurred. This is a very sad time for the church, for it marks the time when many left the Church and splinter it into many groups. Of course, at first, there were only three or four new churches, however, the bad genes which these churches had, its children would acquire as well. The children of course are the dozens of churches which splintered from these original three or four splinter groups. Needless to say, the next generation would be even more numerous, until today when there are thousands of splinter churches, each with its own doctrines and philosophies. As is clearly evident, the system established by Christ, which has a leader, and a Magisterium, is the only effective system.

To conclude, the idea of denominations is actually a false one. There is only one true church on Earth, established by Jesus Christ himself, and that is the Roman Catholic Church. Any other organization that calls itself a church is a man-made organization, and each one has a different set of values and beliefs.

Note: Some may be wondering why the church is called the Roman Catholic Church. It is called Roman, because Rome is where the Pope resides, and it is the home of Christianity. It is where Peter established the church and where he died (by being crucified upside-down). The Church is called Catholic because catholic is a word meaning universal. The earliest Christian writing attest to the practice of referring to the Church Christ established as universal. This was done in order to distinguish the Church from Judaism, for Jews believed they were a chosen people and that only they were chosen. Jesus Christ came to preach that everyone is called to follow him and his teachings and to become Christian, and that rather than being exclusive, the Church is universal, in other words, open to all.