The Simple Rule of Faith When Seeking the True Church of Jesus Christ

I have often been approached by simple ordinary folk who believe from even a surface reading of the New Testament that Christ did found a Church but are troubled and baffled by the obvious divisions among Christians — all claiming to know what Christianity was all about. It did not take a rocket scientist to realize that every Protestant group (now over 36,000 in number) could not have been founded by Christ and taught by the Apostles who formed the first Christian communities. They were over 1500 years too late on the historical scene to pretend to have been founded by Christ and to know his mind concerning the mysterious truths he came to reveal.

Moreover, no Protestant community even claimed to be exclusively the one and only visible Church tracing its origins to Christ and the Apostles. However, some Protestants, prejudiced against the Catholic Church by centuries of anti-Catholic polemics, sought to find an anchor in ancient Christian belief and practice. They thought that the venerable Eastern Orthodox Churches could be their refuge in a time of apostasy affecting millions of Christians. They accepted the claim of the 14 autocephalous (independent) Churches of the Byzantine tradition to have retained the orthodoxy of the Church of the first millennium (before the Great Schism with Rome).

Similarly, certain Catholics who were disenchanted by the liturgical and doctrinal disorders in the Catholic Church became attracted to Eastern Orthodoxy by Orthodox websites which claimed that their communion of patriarchs and bishops was identical with the faith of the first thousand years. With the “Great Schism of 1054” it was they who remained the “One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church” after the Pope and Catholics became heretical with their addition of the Filioque clause to the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (381 A.D.) and introducing many other alleged heterodox innovations in doctrine and practice.

It would be possible for anyone to examine each doctrine in dispute between Catholics and Orthodox and discover that the Catholic position is well founded in both Scripture and the Tradition of the Church as manifested in the writings of the Fathers and the seven ecumenical Councils. Catholic writers have demonstrated this for centuries with great learning in examining the irrational and tragic nature of the Graeco-Slav Schism which tore millions of Orthodox from the visible Unity of the Church founded on Peter the Rock. But as one Orthodox correspondent wrote me:

I am in agony in trying to decide which is the true Church — Catholic or Orthodox? I am not a scholar to try and weigh and try to unravel all the conflicting arguments used by Catholics and Orthodox polemicists over centuries. I do not know Greek, Latin, and Syriac; I know nothing about ecumenical Councils and the disputes of bishops concerning them. I cannot be expected to resolve the disagreements among scholars regarding the history of the Schism and who is to be blamed for it. Can you help?

Yes, there must be and there is an Easy Way to find the visible Church Christ founded for the salvation of all.

The route of scholarship is not the only way to find the True Church which is the “One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church” confessed in the Creed of 381 A.D. which both Catholics and Orthodox profess, and which Our Lord himself declared to be a “City on top of the mountain” which can be viewed by all seekers of truth troubled by the scandalous divisions among Christians. That Easy Way provides both the erudite scholar and the plain ordinary person with absolute certitude that it is the Catholic Church which is the one and only Church Christ established.

It solves the burning question that the Orthodox find themselves unable to answer: “Where is the true Church when patriarchs and bishops divide on questions of faith and morals?” That is the same burning question that needed to be answered when major heresies and schisms broke out, such as the Arians in the fourth century, the Nestorians and the Monophysites in the fifth century, the Monothelites in the sixth, the Iconoclasts in the seventh, and the Byzantine Greek Schism led by the see of Constantinople from the eleventh to fifteenth centuries — this last schism continuing to our own day.

Note that all these breakaways from the true Church were by patriarchs and bishops and their theologians (often able dialecticians) who argued that both Scripture and Tradition justified their heresy and schism. The same burning question now troubles many Orthodox who find that their patriarchs and bishops have broken communion with each other as the result of the schism occurring between the patriarchs of Constantinople and Moscow. Which party then is to be considered the true Church? How can the ordinary Orthodox person resolve that baffling problem?

To return to the question posed by my Orthodox correspondent, what then is the Rule of Faith that provides the Easy Way for both learned and unlearned to find the True Church amid the chaos of conflicting claims between Catholics and various schismatics? It is the Rule of Faith provided by Christ himself who established a visible Church with a visible head in the person of Peter and his successors, the Bishops of Rome.

What must strike any observer examining the 14 autocephalous (independent) national/ethnic Churches is that they are acephalous, i.e., headless: they lack a visible head graced with a supreme authority by Christ, the Invisible Head of the Church, to teach and govern the earthly Church. That the Lord of the Church established Peter as the visible head and leader of the Apostles chosen to govern his Mystical Body on earth is clearly set forth in the famous Petrine texts in the Gospels: Matt. 16:18–19; Lk. 22:31–33; Jn. 21:15–17. There we read Christ declaring Peter alone to be the Rock of the entire Church; the Bearer of the Keys of the Kingdom (the Keys being the very symbol of supreme authority); the Confirmer of his brethren; and commissioned as the Chief Pastor to feed all the lambs and sheep of Christ’s one flock.

As Christ’s Church was destined to last till the end of the world and be invincible against the Gates of Hell (the promise of indefectibility in faith and morals), its visible governing structure of Peter and the Apostles was seen to continue with Peter’s successors, the Bishops of Rome, and the Catholic bishops united to him whom the Apostles consecrated to the episcopate. That is the overwhelming historical testimony of the Church’s history from its very beginning. The unbroken succession of the Bishops of Rome, from Peter to Linus to Clement to Damasus to Celestine to Leo the Great to Gelasius to Hadrian I to Agatho to Nicholas the Great to Leo IX to Francis, witnesses to their undeniable affirmation of possessing a supremacy of universal authority and jurisdiction over all the Churches of East and West making up the Catholic Communion.

This Petrine magisterium, together with the bishops united to their head, was the structure of government essential to the nature of the Church as the “Catholica” (St. Augustine’s expression for Christ’s one visible Church spread throughout the world and marked by its Catholic unity). Catholics were those in visible communion with the Pope. The true Church was identified as the ecclesiastical body where Peter’s successor served by divine institution (“de jure divino”) as the visible head of the Church and the center of its faith and communion. This was the common belief of the faithful during the first millennium and was early summarized in St. Ambrose’s pithy axiom: “Ubi Petrus, ibi Ecclesia” — “Where Peter is, there is the Church.” The verdict of antiquity was clear: the True Church was where the Pope stood as the Rock of the Church amid the disarray and disunity of opposing patriarchs and bishops, and the bewildering proliferation of fractious communities and sects.

In other words, there is an Easy Way for the plain ordinary man or woman (as well as the scholar baffled by complex historical and theological difficulties) to find the true Church and have religious certitude concerning Christ’s teachings on faith and morals. The Rule of Faith was to follow the successor of Peter as the visible head of the Church commissioned by Christ to safeguard the visible Unity of the Catholic Church, and following up with anathemas or definitive rejection of the pretensions of heretical and schismatic dissenters. Whatever crisis of faith afflicts the Catholic Church spread throughout the world, the Pope remains a visible sign of that unique Catholic unity which can never be destroyed or completely obscured. Of divine institution, the papacy is the Rock against which the gates of Hell cannot prevail, and provides the Easy Way for seekers of truth to identify the True Church amid the cacophony of voices calling for adherence.

Evident in the first millennium and in our own day is the unerring Rule of Faith calculated to give rest to souls seeking the revealed truths of Christ:

Where the successor of Peter is, there is Christ’s one and only Church.

James Likoudis About James Likoudis

James Likoudis, recent recipient of an honorary doctoral degree from the Sacred Heart Major Seminary (2020) is a Catholic writer and apologist. He is author of 4 books dealing with Eastern Orthodoxy: Ending the Byzantine Greek Schism, The Divine Primacy of the Bishop of Rome and Modern Eastern Orthodoxy, Eastern Orthodoxy and the See of Rome, and Heralds of a Catholic Russia. His The Pope, the Council, and the Mass (coauthored with the late Kenneth Whitehead) remains a classic study of the doctrinal integrity of the Novus Ordo.

Comments

  1. Avatar Fr. Scott Bailey, C.Ss.R. says:

    Thank you for this explanation. It’s well written and easy to follow. I do have a question: How do we teach “Ubi Petrus, ibi Ecclesia” given that bishops and priests often preach and teach what is contrary to the Faith? How can we, in our preaching, show this to be a true statement when within the highest ranks of the hierarchy unity of Faith is lacking?

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