The Church Says ‘Yes’ When God Says ‘Yes’ — and ‘No’ When He Says ‘No’

“In order to preserve the Church in the purity of the faith handed on by the apostles, Christ who is the Truth willed to confer on her a share in his own infallibility.” (CCC 889)

Pope Pius IX (center, seated on throne) convenes the First Vatican Council on Dec. 8, 1869.
Pope Pius IX (center, seated on throne) convenes the First Vatican Council on Dec. 8, 1869. (photo: Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., LC-DIG-pga-03306)

Growing up Muslim, I knew that there were some differences between the Catholic Church and Protestant denominations. Most of those differences I knew of were those that I had learned about in school — obviously not amounting to all that much. 

I knew that Catholics were led by the pope (who wore an odd-looking hat), and that Martin Luther had ushered in the Protestant Reformation when he’d protested the Church’s hierarchy. 

I’d heard that the Anglican Church started because of Henry VIII’s infatuation with Anne Boleyn, and Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons was assigned reading while I was in high school (it was one of the assigned readings which I actually bothered to read).

I understood that street preachers tended to be Protestant, and that Catholics called their white-collared priests “Father.” I’d noticed that the church buildings of younger denominations tended to be more plainly adorned. And I noticed that if a pal of mine ever bordered on delinquency at regular school, I knew that his parents could threaten him with Catholic school.

That pretty much sums up what I knew.

I figured that the Catholic Church was simply the largest among several Christian denominations, all of which were equally wrong for believing that Jesus was the Son of God. I had no idea that I myself would eventually believe in the divinity of Christ, a truth I had been taught to deny.

In June 2007 I was baptized at a non-denominational church. It didn’t matter to me at the time whether I was baptized in a Catholic or Protestant church, so long as it was Christian. The minimal research I had done beforehand on Google revealed that joining the Catholic Church meant having to go through something they called RCIA, which looked to be rather time-consuming. Times Square Church, on the other hand, only asked that I take a single course on a Saturday afternoon a few weeks prior to the date of my baptism. It was a really easy choice for me to make.

I hardly knew what I was getting myself into on the evening of my baptism, but my enthusiasm to learn more about the Christian faith didn’t drown away in those baptismal waters. That a few of my new Evangelical friends didn’t even consider Catholics to be Christians (something that can sound pretty ridiculous to a Muslim) only piqued my curiosity. 

One of the things I very quickly learned to appreciate about the Catholic Church was the uniformity of her teachings. If an individual Catholic happened to disagree with the Church’s teaching on abortion, he couldn’t just easily hop on over to another parish that was more “reasonable.” I knew even then that it was the authority of the magisterium, which a fair number of my Evangelical friends were so highly critical of, that stubbornly guarded and unified the Church’s common-sense teaching on this issue for all Catholics throughout the world.

There are, of course, many admirable Protestant pastors who vehemently oppose abortion. Very many of our Evangelical brothers and sisters know that abortion is evil, that future generations will look upon us with utter disgust over this as we do over slavery today. But Protestant denominations don’t answer to that highly-structured magisterium led by the Holy Father, that this safeguard is uniquely Catholic. It’s no coincidence that Protestant denominations are far more vulnerable to fracturing over contentious political issues. The Episcopal church was already fracturing when I became a Christian. The United Methodists have fractured in recent months over the issue of same-sex marriage.

What began as one split from the Church in 1517 has been splitting within itself in the centuries since, thus creating ever more denominations. Is it the logical end for this to keep on going until each person becomes his own lonesome denomination?

Today, if a person feels that his denomination’s teaching about marriage, family or sexuality is too “archaic” for his own personal tastes (regardless of what sola scriptura would teach), then he has the option to just hop on over to one of the recently-split churches that embraces the more avant-garde teaching. But does the world cease to be round just because enough of us “feel” like it’s flat?

“I don’t need a church to tell me I’m wrong when I know I’m wrong,” said G.K. Chesterton. “I need a church to tell me I’m wrong when I think I’m right.”

The apologetic writings of G.K. Chesterton did much to help me realize that this safeguarding which the magisterium is doing for us today is nothing new at all. Since the Church’s birth it has become one of history’s running gags for the world to tell her “you need to get up to speed” only for her to shrug her shoulders and reply “no.” Eventually, it’s the world’s fashionable and fleeting notions that get worn out, much like bell-bottoms did. 

The Church has a 2,000-year history of acting as our mother, warning us not to go out wearing bell-bottoms, because she knows that no matter how many people are wearing them now, they still look pretty stupid. Whether the Church will survive or not isn’t a question any longer. How much damage will a fashion do during its trending years? That’s a very real question.

The aim of the Church has never been to teach what’s “right” according to fashionable notions of a single given era, but to pass on what’s right for all times from one generation to the next. With her eyes fixed on eternity, the Church has always been far ahead of the times, and is routinely accused of being behind the times. 

Today, it’s the Church’s role to teach the truth about the traditional family (as modeled by the Holy Family), because there’s never going to be a suitable alternative to it. That the magisterium still commands respect for its consistency today, 2,000 years and 266 popes later, is no small matter.

This recognition helped to persuade me to go ahead with that thing called RCIA, which was considerably more time-consuming than an afternoon class. The upside was that I had a much better understanding of what I was getting myself into when I was confirmed in the Catholic Church.

I’ve now been a Catholic for nine years. Obviously, I’m more familiar today with the differences between the Catholic Church and the Protestant denominations than I was back when I was a Muslim. 

I must say that I was quite a bit surprised on March 15 when I heard the news that the Vatican had replied “negative” to a question over whether the Church would bless same-sex marriages. I was in a car, listening to the radio, when it was announced. My immediate response was to tilt my head, lower my brows, and wonder, “How’s that even news to anyone?” 

I’m familiar enough with Catholic teaching on the sacraments to know that redefining any of them isn’t a discussion that’ll be seriously engaged in. I’m familiar enough with the history of the Church to understand that what the magisterium does today is what it has been doing for a very long time, and I’m very proud of them for it.

And yet somehow, it apparently was news to many disappointed people that the Church keeps on doing what she’s done for 2,000 years. Why do so many millions of people have difficulty understanding that there were reasons for that “negative” reply that have nothing to do with some sort of unchristian malice?

Secular states across the West have shown us that they’re willing to change the legal status of same-sex marriage if enough people shout, “Love is love.” But the Church is well aware that she has no authority to redefine the status of any sacrament, no matter how many people will get upset by it, because the sacraments were instituted by Our Lord. That’s really all there is to it.

The eternal Church will continue doing a thousand years from now what it had done a thousand years ago. If this is “unfashionable” to many, then there are churches for them that do bend to the beliefs that are “up to speed.” But I, for one, preferred the Church that stubbornly refuses to change, because the Truth doesn’t change. 

The “negative” was a reminder for me of why I became a Catholic.