LOPEZ: “In a cultural environment where all authority is suspect and the notion of divine authority is thought to be a psychological hangover from the postmodern world,” you write, “the claim that the divine authority is transmitted in an unbroken chain of apostolic succession through the bishops of the Church in communion with the Bishop of Rome seems literally incredible.” And yet, you continue “that is what the Catholic Church believes, and that is what Evangelical Catholicism must proclaim, explain, and live.” You’re a serious person; serious people listen to you. They even let you on NBC. How can you claim such a thing? How can you believe that? What makes you so sure the Catholic Church is true?
WEIGEL: The key question is, as always, “Who do you say that I am?” as Jesus put it to the disciples when they were strolling through Caesarea Philippi. If I embrace Jesus as what he says he is — the way, the truth, and the life — then it seems reasonable to think that Jesus would have wished his followers, the Church, to be preserved in that truth. Catholics have always believed that that truth is preserved by the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church through the “apostolic succession”: the bishops in union with the Bishop of Rome, who “succeed” the apostles, the original witnesses to Jesus, the Risen Lord, as Christ’s witnesses in the world, and as the authoritative teachers of the Church.
Americans accept that nine unelected lawyers wearing strange black costumes and sitting on a dais in a faux-temple make authoritative judgments about the meaning of the U.S. Constitution. Some people think that tenured Ivy League faculty members and Hollywood starlets make authoritative judgments. Is it any stranger for me to believe that the Church’s bishops, heirs of a tradition that is 2,000 years old, can and do make authoritative judgments?
I’m also a student of history and theology, and my work in those disciplines has demonstrated to my satisfaction that, while the process by which the Church, through its authoritative teachers, makes up its mind as to what’s “in” and what’s “out” — what’s truly Catholic and what isn’t — is often complicated and messy, it has proven itself over time. And that, I think, is an indicator that the Holy Spirit is at work in the process.
Finally, I see what has happened to Christian communities that have lost any sense of a teaching authority anchored in, and responsible to, Scripture and the Church’s settled tradition: They crumble in the face of a hostile culture, or they simply become expressions of the culture rather than the Gospel. That’s a cautionary tale, and, at least along the via negativa, it’s another argument for the Catholic Church’s understanding of itself as guided by authoritative teachers in the apostolic succession.
LOPEZ: Why would any rational faithful person accept a priest as a middleman? Why can’t I go to God directly? Why are the sacraments so important?
WEIGEL: In the Catholic understanding of these things, a priest isn’t a middleman in the way a car salesman is the middle man between you and the vehicle you want to acquire. The Catholic priest is an icon of the eternal priesthood of Jesus Christ: a flawed icon, often, but an icon nonetheless. As icons, in eastern Christian theology, are not merely representational, but “make present” the reality they display, Catholic priests “make present” the priesthood of Jesus Christ. It’s Christ who baptizes, Christ who hears confessions and forgives sins, Christ who makes himself really present under the forms of bread and wine so that his people can feed on him and be more closely bound to him — Christ, working through the Church’s ordained priests.
You can, of course, go to God direct, any time, all the time. “Practicing the presence” is an old spiritual discipline. You can also “go to God” daily — as evangelical Catholics should do — in the Bible. But if you are “going to God” in the fellowship of the Catholic Church, you also do that through the sacraments that Christ himself left the Church as a privileged means to “go to” him, and through him to the Holy Trinity of Father, Son, and Spirit. The sacraments are the contact point, the border, between the Church in this world and the Church that already lives in glory, in the light and love of the Trinity. In fact, “border” isn’t quite the right word, for it’s more like a membrane than a border: It’s permeable. In the sacraments of the Church, we live “in the Kingdom” in a special way; we live in anticipation of what will be when God finally gets what God intended all along, which is the salvation of the world and of history, described by the visionary St. John as the wedding feast of the lamb in the new Jerusalem.