Make No Mistake: The Fathers of the Church Were Catholic

Sometimes, Protestants want to use the Church Fathers as their own.

Italian (Emilian) – School, “St. Jerome in Penitence,” 17th century
Italian (Emilian) – School, “St. Jerome in Penitence,” 17th century (photo: Public Domain)

Some readers know that I am not a “cradle Catholic.” Check out my conversion story on The Journey Home. Perhaps because of this, I had never heard, specifically, of the Early Church Fathers. Yes, I had heard of Augustine and Jerome, perhaps the most famous of the early writers of the Church, but not names such as Clement, Ignatius of Antioch, Irenaeus, and several others. 

Cardinal John Henry Newman famously remarked, “To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.” The beatified English Cardinal is set to be canonized Oct. 13, 2019, and as this date is approaching, I’ve been considering his famous words. There’s a lot of truth to those words — my adventures in the Christian Faith being a solid example of their demand for conversion.

But, such as it is, not everyone deep in Church history ceases to be Protestant. It’s as if rather than being open to the faith of the Church Fathers, some Protestants wish to use their words to ratify or endorse their own beliefs. That’s confirmation bias.

Regardless, it makes sense: in order to show that a given denomination is the correct one, finding a common thread of the relevant beliefs in history is critical. It’s also logical: the apostles certainly understood Christ’s teaching. If that’s the case, then the bishops and other Christians who knew them must have inherited that same faith. Ergo, it’s better to show that Luther and the other reformers weren’t making changes so much as they were continuing the established beliefs of the early Church. Meaning, of course, that if they can find Protestant ideas in the writings of the most influential of the Fathers, they have an advantage. Even better if they can find statements that contradict Catholic teaching.

With that said, it’s not difficult to find polemicists using quotes from Augustine, Cyril of Jerusalem, and a handful of others to defend their beliefs.

Making another argument, the Protestant polemicist cites Jerome in arguing the true meaning of the four marks of the Church:

“The Church does not consist in walls, but in the truths of her teachings. The Church is there where there is true faith. As a matter of fact, fifteen and twenty years ago, all the church buildings belonged to heretics, for heretics twenty years ago were in possession of them; but the true Church was there where the true faith was” (The Homilies of St. Jerome: Vol. 1, “On the Psalms”, Homily 46).

I absolutely love this quote because it’s spot-on and it’s true. Unfortunately, it’s also just imprecise enough to have its meaning twisted.

What the Protestant apologist wants this to say is that the visible hierarchy (the “apostolic” mark) of the Church is irrelevant to the teachings and truths carried from generation to generation by the faithful. As clever as that seems, it’s not what the quote says, and it’s is disagreement with several points of Sacred Scripture:

  • The Apostles were given the authority to “bind and loose” (Matthew 16:18, 18:18).
  • Jesus affirmatively said, “He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me, and he who rejects me rejects him who sent me” (Luke 10:16).
  • Christ gave the Apostles the power an authority to forgive and retain sins (John 20:21).
  • Jesus commanded Peter to “Tend [his] sheep” (John 21:17).
  • The decisions and observances reached by the apostles and elders were circulated by Paul and Titus (Acts 16).
  • Apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers were each equipped for the service of the Church (Ephesians 4:11).
  • In 2 Corinthians 13:10, Paul confirms that authority has been granted to him.

There are numerous others to point to but the Bible is clear: the Church of the Bible was an apostolic Church, meaning that the author to administer the teachings and ministries of the Church were given to the apostles and their successors. It’s safe to concur, then, that the church successors of the apostles was also an apostolic Church. One of our assurances of this the Apostles Creed, which specifies the apostolicity of the church as the fourth mark—particularly supportive since the Creed is exampled in the writings of Tertullian and Irenaeus in the second century.

The quote from Jerome does not knock the visible hierarchy of the Church. The overpowering topic in the statement is about the literal and visible walls of any given Church—the places of meeting and worship— vice its visible hierarchy! Jerome is on point—of course those are not the Church itself! His statement can be summed up like this: “Where there is the truth, there is the Church.”

Being unbiased about the early Church may prove difficult, but from the words of the future saint, Cardinal John Henry Newman, “Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt.”