Why I Am a Catholic, by Father John B Harney, CSP

In giving some reasons for my deep-set conviction that the Catholic is the one only true Church of Jesus Christ, I must take certain truths for granted. One cannot in a short space examine and prove all those principles and beliefs that culminate in the Catholic faith. Nor is there need of such labor now. All Christian people admit and hold as true all that I take as granted—the necessity of religion—the fact of a divine revelation to men—the truth of pure and undefiled Christianity—the reliability of the Sacred Scriptures, and the validity of sound reasoning. My question, therefore, narrows down to this: Why am I a Catholic and not a Protestant?

To answer this question, I will go straight to the heart of the differences between Catholicity and Protestantism. I will state some of their conflicting fundamental principles, and will then examine those principles with you in the light of reason and in the light of Holy Scripture. Minor differences will be set aside for the present; because of their almost interminable variety, their secondary importance, and the impossibility of solving them definitely until the right method of deciding such issues has been clearly established.

Fundamental Principles as Shown by Reason and Scripture

The most vital and important question one who would be a follower of Jesus Christ can ask himself is this: “What are the means that Christ provided for the spread of His gospel? What plans did He devise; what agencies did He establish that men and women might always be able to know clearly and with certainty the gospel that He preached and wants them to believe?” In answering that question, Protestantism and Catholicity part company. They go indeed, a certain distance side by side; both of them revering and treasuring as the imperishable Word of God our Holy Scriptures; holding them to be sound and reliable, insisting upon the acceptance and preservation of every doctrine they teach. That is the very limit of the mutual agreement in this fundamental matter between Protestantism and Catholicity. Protestantism tells me that the Bible is the sole authority in matters of religion; that absolutely nothing is to be insisted upon as a matter of Christian faith unless it can be proved by the Bible alone. When I make inquiry of Protestantism as to the ways and means whereby we men may glean from the Scriptures the truth they contain, I am told that it is by our own personal reading, study and interpretation of the Scriptures, joined with honest prayer to God, the Holy Spirit cf Truth, for enlightenment. It assures me that I am under my obligation whatsoever to submit the findings of my intellect in these matters to the judgment, or to the decision of any group of men or any institution on the face of the earth. God has given me the right to decide these things for myself. A God-given right, it is unalienable—it must not be given up. “Did not Christ establish a supreme court,” I ask Protestantism, “for the deciding of religious disputes and the settling of difficult points of Christian doctrine and practice?” and Protestantism, the latest sects together with the oldest, the weakest in unison with the strongest, assures me that He did not set up on earth any tribunal, any court, other than the Bible itself for the settlement of these questions and the solving of these problems. Catholicity, on the other hand, tells me that though the Bible is a good and holy book, to be revered and to be treasured, even at the cost of my life-blood, yet it is not the sole authority in matters of religion. Some things are to be believed, to be held firmly as matters of Christian faith, that are not clearly demonstrable from its testimony. More especially does it tell me that neither I nor any other man has the right of private judgment as to the meaning of the Scriptures, in opposition to the teaching of the Church that Jesus Christ established — that while I may read, and study, and think, and form judgments, I must always be willing to submit my own opinions about the Bible to revision and correction at the hand of that Church which Christ set up on a rock as the “pillar and ground of the truth/’ to preserve, to champion, to explain His written word, and to preach His gospel to all the nations of the world even to the end of time.

Here we have undoubtedly the most serious and far-reaching difference between the Catholic Church and all her Christian opponents. If, in her answer to this question, Protestantism has gone wrong, the error is fatal to her claims. She is but a blind guide, whom I must not follow.

The Verdict of Reason Is Against the Protestant Doctrines that the Bible Alone Suffices; and that Private Interpretation Is Our Way to Truth

Our Lord Himself, as we all know, preached His gospel only within the narrow limits of a small state and for only a few short years. It was, however, His will that what He taught should be made known to all the nations of the earth, through all ages until the consummation of time. Neither time nor space were to raise effectual barriers between His revelation and the souls of men.

The same obligations were to be laid on the men of the twentieth century as on the men of the first; and the same judgment was in store for them if they refused to believe, that awaited the unbeliever who would not take the word of Christ or of His Apostles. Our Lord Jesus Christ then, as all Christian bodies admit, before His departure from the world, planned wisely for the spread of His gospel. He saw in spirit the nations of the world, those that are dead and buried and well-nigh forgotten, those that now fill the earth with their pomp and their power, those that shall rise up upon the ruins of present-existing States; He saw and knew them all. Their history in every detail was present to His ailseeing Eye—the Eye of the Mind of God. More than that: He knew the life-story, down to the minutest detail, of each and every individual in that mighty throng. He knew; He kept in mind; He weighed exactly their natural gifts and their advantages, as well as their trials and the hindrances that stood in their way. He loved them all, for they were all children of His heavenly Father. He wanted them all to be brought to a knowledge of the truth. It was His intention to provide a way and a means whereby they all might come to know clearly and with certainty what He wanted them to believe and what He wanted them to make the rule of their lives. “What means will He provide?” I ask, and Protestantism, to which I look for a reply, tells me again: “He will give the Bible, and the Bible alone.”

Now I turn to my reason and I ask it to tell me what it thinks the true reply to that question. My reason, taking account, as intelligent men must, of the facts of human history and daily life, assures me that whatever the worth of the Bible, however good and holy a book, it is not, nor could it have beer , the means provided by One Who is All Good and \11 Wise as the sole means for instructing that vast multitude in the truths of the gospel. It says to me: Here in this multitude are millions upon millions, who lived before the art of printing was known; in whose days upon earth, books were few and costly, who were all their days utterly unable to read. Jesus Christ, the Wise and Good, had them in mind as well as those who could read and were more favored. He was furnishing a means whereby they, as well as others, might come to know the saving truth of the Gospel. A book which they are unable to read, surely cannot be that means.

So, too, is it, my reason says, with those other multitudes, who though they had a better education yet were little better off so far as the Bible was concerned, since they lived before men knew what works were the inspired Word of God, and what works should be set down on a lower level, as of purely human composition. Some of them, thousands of them, lived before a single word of the New Testament was written; and yet they lived after the death of Jesus Christ, and they were under obligation to hear and to receive His Word. The Bible not yet written! Not yet identified! The written Word of God surely could not have been the means which He provided for their instruction.

Come with me to more modern times, says my reason. Here in the world, if you will but look around it with an open eye, you will find millions upon millions who are so hard pressed in the daily struggle of life that they have little or no time to spend in serious study. When the day’s work is done they are fatigued, and are in no condition to take up a task that calls for close, careful thought. Other men too there are who lack the necessary ability and education to get at the meaning of the Bible by themselves. As all men know and admit the Bible is a book very hard to understand ; a book that “the unlearned and unstable wrest to their own destruction.” Surely Christ, Who was wise and good, Who wanted to appoint a safe, sure means whereby His children might come to know the truth, would never have given to them as the sole teacher of His saving gospel a book that is extremely difficult to understand. My reason, on these many grounds, sets itself squarely against the answer that Protestantism gives to my first inquiry as to how Jesus Christ provided for the spread of His gospel. It tells me, in brief, that Christ never intended to make the Bible the sole, nor even the chief means, for the instruction of those multitudes who lived before the Bible was put together, before a single word of the New Testament was written, before the art of printing was known; that He never made it the means of gaining eternal life for those who were unable to read or who lacked time, education, or ability to read and understand. And since these groups make up today, as they have always made up, the vast bulk of humanity, the Bible which is incapable of setting the Gospel before them in its fullness, was not the means that the Good and Wise Provider, Jesus Christ, left in His stead, to teach men the saving truths of the Gospel.

I go a little further and bid my reason tell me whether or not Jesus Christ established here a supreme court for the settlement of religious difficulties and the solving of religious problems. My reason, without hesitation, makes reply that Jesus Christ was at the very least as wise as the founders of the American government. They gave to our country the written Constitution, which states as clearly and plainly as human language can, the fundamental principles upon which our government rests. They wished that these principles of government might always be understood and acted on. Now when they gave us the Constitution and the fundamental laws they did not give to each and every individual citizen the right to decide for himself what those laws and that Constitution might mean. They knew full well what would be the result of any such grant—that we would have almost as many interpretations of the law as there would be interpreters. In consequence of that knowledge the founders of the American government established a Supreme Court to which in the long run all questions involving interpretation of the law and of the Constitution were to be referred. They did not set it up as a figurehead; but they gave it authority; they made it supreme. Every citizen of the United States, low or high, the plain citizen or the President in the White House, must submit to its decisions no matter how he would have interpreted the law had it been left to him to decide. Now Jesus Christ, our common sense tells us, putting things at the very lowest, was at least as wise as those men. He provided against anarchy and dissension in His earthly kingdom as effectively as they provided against it in the United States. He did more. If they had been able to give their Supreme Court infallibility, they would have bestowed that prerogative upon it, for deep down in their inmost heart was the desire that those fundamental principles upon which our government rests, might never be misunderstood, but might always be clearly grasped and accurately set forth by the Supreme Court. If they could have guarded that court against the danger of falling into error in interpreting our law, they would have given it that power. Jesus Christ was able to do for His supreme court, my reason tells me, what they could not do for theirs. It was within His power to make His court infallible, and since in His inmost Heart there was the desire and the determination that the gospel which He preached should be maintained and preserved, in all its purity, absolutely free from error, He saw to it that this court which He set up could not go astray. This, my reason tells me, apart from all explicit teaching of Scripture on the point, starting only with what all Christianity proclaims—the goodness, the wisdom and the power of Him Who founded the Christian Church and made His gospel the law of life. In giving this assurance, as in its earlier answers to my questions, reason goes dead against the basic principles of Protestantism, and, therefore, I cannot be a Protestant.

I turn then to the Catholic teaching on all these points, and I find that it is precisely what my reason has had to say; and that the method which it ascribes to Christ is one well fitted to bring all men to the clear and certain knowledge of His gospel. It tells me that Our Lord sent living teachers out with power and authority to preach. They can teach all men. Though a man be unable to read, if he has ears to hear and a brain to understand, a living teacher can set the Gospel before him; though he be uneducated or dull, and unable to grasp the truth as first presented, a living teacher can put the doctrine in other words, can explain and illustrate it, and so by dint of many efforts, can make it clear and drive it home. The Catholic Church, moreover, teaches me that Christ did set up a supreme court in His earthly kingdom; and that He keeps this court from error by the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit of Truth. Since these are the answers my reason gives, and I must needs be guided by reason in my choice of a Church, I accept Catholicity as the right, true form of Christianity.

The Bible for Catholicity Against Protestantism

The testimony of the Bible, by which many men would have me shape my beliefs and conduct, is likewise against Protestantism and in favor of Catholicism. When I asked what means Christ had chosen for the spread of His gospel, Protestantism replied: “The Bible and nothing but the Bible.” That holy book records something very different. “Calling together the twelve Apostles, He gave them power and authority . . . And He sent them to preach the Kingdom of God” (Luke 9:1). “And Jesus coming, spoke to them, saying: ‘All power is given to Me in heaven and on earth. Going, therefore, teach ye all nations . . . teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you'” (Matt, 18:19). “The things that thou hast heard of me by many witnesses, the same commend to faithful men, who shall be fit to teach others” (2 Timothy 2:2)

When I asked the Protestant how men were to find out the meaning of the Bible, he told me that each and every man had from God the right to interpret the Scriptures for himself, and could in that manner learn its true teaching.

Holy Writ does not agree with him. It tells me that “no prophecy of Scripture is of private interpretation” (2 Peter 1:20). It tells me that in St. Paul’s epistles are many things “hard to be understood, which the unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other Scriptures, to their own destruction” (2 Peter 3:16). It tells me that I am to receive the words of Christ’s teachers unless I wish to be damned (Mark 16:16). When I asked him if Christ had established any supreme court on earth to whose decisions His children were obliged to listen, the Protestant told me, “No!” The Bible contradicts him flatly, tells me that Our Lord did appoint men to teach with authority, that His teachers are to be in the world to the end; that I must hear their words unless I would be judged more severely than Sodom and Gomorrha (Matthew 10:15); that to despise them is to despise Him and His Father (Luke 10:16). All these answers of Holy Scripture agree perfectly with those of the Catholic Church, and, therefore, I am a Catholic, for that Church alone stands the test of reason and of Scripture. Protestantism in its initial step, in its fundamental principles is against them both. I must reject it.

Again I Am a Catholic Because I Want the Church Christ Built, not Those Built by Men

I do not care for any church that owes its existence to men. Men do not know enough about God or human souls to do a work like that. They know only what God reveals of Himself; nay, not even that, for they see the things of God only as through a glass, after a dark manner. Nor do they know much more of the human heart; its winding, twisting, crooked ways are a labyrinth they cannot penetrate. God alone can give us a sound and true religion. He alone can build a church which will at once safeguard His rights, and at the same time go down into every nook and corner of human nature, rousing, developing and bringing to full religious maturity our varied faculties. When I seek a religion and a church, I want His, and none other. That Jesus Christ, our incarnate God, built a Church during His life on earth, nineteen hundred years ago, there can be not the slightest doubt. He chose certain men to be His Apostles, gave them authority, sent them to teach in His name, and made the rejection of their words an extremely serious offense against Himself. Their office and commission was not to die with them. They were to choose successors, who, in turn, were to have the power of sending out other men to carry on the good work. The Church which Jesus Christ thus established, for whose propagation He thus provided, whose permanence He guaranteed, is the Church I want. Within it I will be safe when the rain falls, and the floods come, when the winds blow and beat upon it, for it is built upon a rock.

But, some men say to me upon the instant, that old Church is a ruin; it has gone to pieces; it was so corrupted by the sins of its own children, especially by the sins of those in high places, that it is no longer a fit dwelling place for the children of God. I look at the man who speaks in that fashion with astonishment, and I ask him: “Did Jesus Christ fail?” “Has His work been undone?” “Have His promises been neutralized and defeated by the weakness and the malice of men?” “Have they so honeycombed with corruption the Church that He built that it is no longer safe, no longer fit for His children to live within its walls?” If that has happened then I beg of you, talk to me no more of churches. I will make my way as best I can through life to God, without a church, if the Church that He established has come to naught. If Christ has failed, no mere man can succeed.

But has His Church failed? I find in the world today a Church which alone of existing ecclesiastical establishments, undoubtedly and admittedly goes back to the days of Christ. She attributes all the glorious victories of her long career and all her present strength to His protection. Her history bears out her claim. She is an institution such as men could not construct, she is one worthy of God. Kingdoms and empires have been founded since she came into the world. For their sound up-building the wisest of men have worked and planned; every human resource, every earthly power has been consecrated to their development; brave men have fought and died to perpetuate them, and yet they are gone. Rarely have the powers of this world fought her battles. Rather they have been arrayed against her, they have assailed her, and yet she lives, strong and vigorous. With nothing but the Cross of Christ in their hands, His gospel on their lips, and confidence in Him in their hearts, her missionaries have walked the burning sands of Africa and climbed the frozen hills of northern lands bringing unto Him the nations that are His inheritance. The fight of years, the ravages of time, the despoiling hands of men have alike failed to weaken or destroy her. With an energy born of God she has surmounted every barrier raised by nature or men, blending into one compact body millions from every race under the sun, despite the fact that they were in other things most dissimilar and hostile. To see a work like that accomplished so triumphantly in the face of such odds and enmity, is to see, not the results of a clever human policy, but the manifestation of a power nothing short of God’s omnipotence. The history of the Catholic Church is a standing proof that Christ’s Church has not failed.

Against every assertion, open or covert, that His Church has failed, I set His promise: “Upon this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” In the light of this promise, I see clearly that the Catholic Church, which alone goes back through the centuries to the days of Christ, alone has a right to my allegiance, and Protestantism has no valid excuse to offer in justification of its existence. It is practically built on the assertion that Christ did not keep His promises.

“But,” some one will say to me, “you surely must admit that there have been a great number of very bad men in your Church, even in its high places, filling the most important and sacred offices. Surely then there was reason for a reformation in the sixteenth century.” Let us, for the sake of avoiding useless argument (not because truth compels it) and in hope of getting more effectually at the fearful mistake on which all Protestantism is grounded, grant that all the wild statements ever made by prejudiced historians about sixteenth century corruption are true. Even in such a case there would be no reason for the invention of Protestantism. Reform would be needed and justified—a boon, no matter what it cost in the shape of human treasure, suffering or blood. All this is true, but it does not pave the way for Protestantism which is a very different thing from reform. Let us do just a bit of thinking and see if what I say may be not evident.

We have heard a great deal about corruption in our political life, in high places and in low. Votes have been bought and sold; repeaters have cast ballots for dead men, and sometimes for men that never lived; election officials have made dishonest counts; policemen have squeezed their sin-grimed gain, the price of body and soul, out of harlots5 hands, and for bribes they have been blind to flagrant violations of the law, and have let criminals ply their trade; town and city officials, county officials, state officials of every kind and degree from the petty and obscure to the powerful and prominent, have misused their offices and violated their civic duties to enrich themselves in all manner of grafting, dishonest ways, at the expense of the community. So high has the tide of corruption risen that it has touched the highest legislative councils in state and nation; has invaded a governor’s office; and, it is said, has even besmirched the courts of law.

Reform is needed. How bring it about? Shall we destroy our Constitution and form of government? Shall we do away with all civil authority? Shall we let each and every citizen decide for himself what his civic rights and duties are, and act accordingly? Nonsense, you say. That may be the method of the anarchist; it does not appeal to sane men. Our Constitution and form of government may not be perfect; but they are good, and in their main outlines are as near perfection as human wisdom has been able to go. We must have civil authority in nation, state, county, city and town; we must have governors, legislators, mayors, judges and other guardians of the public peace. To reform means to clean house, not to tear it down. We who are good citizens must unearth corruption; hunt the dishonest out of office and put trustworthy men in their place.

This, you will doubtless tell me, is common sense; and the right way to solve the problem of corruption in the state.

Reformation in the Church then must needs run along the same general lines. We have granted, not as a matter of indubitable historical truth, but for the sake of getting to bed-rock common sense without delay, that the priesthood of the early sixteenth century was very far from reaching the standard of personal excellence demanded by that holy calling. Reformation was sorely needed. How bring it about? By removing unworthy priests from their places? No! said Protestantism, we’ll do away with the offices they hold, and the authority connected therewith! We’ll overthrow the government, and devise another that will have no authority, no right to enforce its teaching, no power to make laws. We will not try to reform the men who have done wrong; we will not try to put good, reliable men into their places; we will simply upset the established order of things, though it has prevailed for 1,500 years; though it has carried the name and gospel of Christ around the globe; though it was instituted by Christ Himself. We will reject all the teachings of the Church which imply authority on her part, or in her priests. We will reject every teaching which they have turned to their own advantage. The sacrifice of the Mass must go, though from the days of Christ it has been the central feature of Christian worship. Purgatory and prayer for the dead must go, though they are reasonable teachings; though all the great fathers of the early Church, and the martyrs of old believed them. The forgiveness of sins through the priests of the Church must go, though Cyprian, Jerome, Augustine, Chrysostom, Athanasius, yes, all the early Church asserted that God had given that power to men. All these beliefs must go with a host of others, because they ascribe power and authority to the priesthood or because they are teachings that have been misused.

Reformation? No! revolution! anarchy! and so far as men could effect it, a destruction of the very institutions, and Church of Christ. If this be the way to set about the correction of abuses, one will have to say that a mother should destroy her every jar of jam, and make the whole family go without that delicious food, to cure her boy of his tendency to help himself out of due time, and that a man should tear down his splendid mansion because some of his servants had failed to keep the windows clean or had left finger marks on the wall and muddy foot tracks on the stairway.

If I cannot say these things and hope to have my intelligence respected, then neither can I say that the casting aside of Christ’s gifts and the destruction of Christ’s works is the way to bring about reform in the Church of God. We must leave the Church’s constitution alone; that is the work of Jesus Christ. We must not disregard its fundamental principles and laws; they are the outward manifestations of the will of Christ and of the Father. We must not deny its doctrines; they are guaranteed by the Holy Spirit of Truth. We must not reject its institutions; they are the gifts of Christ, and the agencies whereby salvation is brought home to men. Constitution, laws, doctrines and institutions must be let alone, when we seek reformation. They are of Christ. Our efforts at reformation must be confined to the abuses that have crept into the Church. They are of men.

The Catholic view of the sins which are committed even by those who hold positions of authority, trust and honor in the Church, is sensible and in perfect accord with the prophecies of Our Lord that scandals should come. Christ did not build His Church on the shifting sands of humanity; but upon a rock whose stability He guaranteed, and effects. He foresaw all the human frailty and sin of His representatives. He compared His Church to a net which drew forth from the sea good fish and bad; and to a field in which both wheat and cockle should grow together until the harvest. In the full light of that keen, sure, vast knowledge, He deliberately promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against His Church. In that promise we trust. How can any believer in Christ do otherwise? Is it not a proud, insulting, lying thing for men to say in either thought, word or deed that, through the sins of the Catholic priesthood and people, the Church Christ built had been so undermined as to be uninhabitable; so weakened that it must of necessity be torn down and another of entirely different plan and principles erected in its stead? Unless you are willing to make these assertions, unless you are willing to tell Christ to His face that His Church has failed despite His promises, you must admit that Protestantism is fundamentally and essentially a mistake. Call it an honest mistake, one made in good faith, if you will. It is for all that a sad, grievous error, and you who love Christ must free your soul from its trammeling, deadly influence. You must enter into the holy Church that He has built to be your refuge and home.

The old Protestant creeds are crumbling. Some men are trying to revise them in the vain hope of prolonging their now feeble breath of life, but most men care nothing at all about them; they have long since ceased to believe them. As Dr. Briggs affirms: “The greatest movement now going on in the world is the Catholic reaction; it is too great a movement to be guided or controlled by any leadership. God’s Holy Spirit is breaking the way for the revival, the re-Catholicization and the reunion of Christendom in holy love.”

Yes! He is breaking the way quietly, and with the slowness of Divine patience, showing the Protestant world that its departure from His Church was a sad error; making it clear that in His Church alone is there certainty and peace. The homeward march has begun. Thousands entering the doors from which their fathers blindly rushed so long ago, have found the Church a thing of strength and grandeur, so compactly knit together that there is on every hand evidence that a Divine architect and builder designed and put together its mighty walls. Multitudes as yet have not turned towards it. They are indeed deserting the wrecked and ruinous churches built by their fathers or else trying to save them by substituting new for old and worthless timbers. They have not grasped the truth that it is not for man to devise religions, churches or creeds. God grant they may soon see their folly, and lifting up their eyes behold afar in shining majesty, the Church of the living God; the Church that fears no storm because iv if built on a rock; the Church that alone can give peait security, salvation.

– from the booklet Why I Am A Catholic by Father John B Harney, CSP, published by the Paulist Press