Subject: Authority of the Church
Date: Mon, 6 Apr 98 17:31:57 EDT
From: Joshua Kramer

Father Bloom,

I just found your website today and I enjoy it very much. I am a Catholic student at Rutgers University in New Jersey and I am trying to learn more about my faith and where my place is in the Church. I think your website makes a lot of good points and I have learned quite a bit from it.

I do have a question and I thought maybe you could help me out with it. I read your articles about birth control, women priests, others. I think you made a lot of good points. The thing that I am working on is the issue of whether an individual Catholic person is bound to follow the teachings of the Church in this matter or not. I remember there was an analogy made in one of the articles on the web page that said something like, "If a person's beliefs are not reflected by the Catholic Church, then that person can just go to another Church (e.g. the Anglican Church)". Personally, I believe that there is something special about the Catholic Church. It is the only Church that was founded by Jesus Christ, and I think he had a reason for doing so. So I do not plan on joining the Anglican Church anytime soon. :)

At the same time, I do not believe that this means that everything that the Church teaches or says or asks people to do is necessarily perfect. I don't want to trash the image of the Church (which is the job of our non-Catholic friends!), but over the years there have been times when the Church has been on the wrong side of things. For example, there were the Crusades, the Inquisitions, the burning of heretics, and the selling of indulgences. Also, there have been doctrinal points over the years which were not the same as what we believe today. Even in the Baltimore Catechism (which was not published that long ago) the impression that any Protestant who commits a mortal sin will go to hell since he cannot go to Confession since he is not part of the Church. This teaching was substantially repeated even by popes, until it was finally corrected around the time of Vatican II. From what I understand, it seems to me that in many instances over the years it has been perfectly legitimate to disagree with the teachings of the Church, and it seems to me that in many cases it would be legitimate to remain in the Catholic Church even though I may disagree with some of the doctrines that it teaches. At the same time I wonder, given the examples I listed above, how are we to know whether we should follow the Church or not on any given matter? If there is a teaching of the Church that an individual disagrees with, must that individual leave the Church? And how is the issue of, say, birth control, different than the issue of selling indulgences?

I am not necessarily saying that I am for using birth control. The point that I am mainly interested in is how do we know whether we should follow the Church or not. I am not writing this to try to put you "on the spot" - I am sincerely seeking the truth. At least, I would like to think I am. ;) Any insight that you have would be greatly appreciated. Thank you very much for your time.

God bless,

Joshua Kramer


Dear Joshua,

Thanks for your letter. Always enjoy hearing from university students. Very good questions and I will try to answer them as best I can after Holy Week. I assume it would be OK to post the question and response on my website as a way of helping others who wonder about similiar dilemnas. Meanwhile, I would like to underscore what seems to me the most important part of your letter:

I believe that there is something special about
the Catholic Church. It is the only
Church that was founded by Jesus Christ, and
I think he had a reason for doing so.

From that starting point the specific issues you raised can be faced, not that they have simple answers.

Have a great Holy Week.

What's your major?

God bless,

Fr. Phil Bloom

Joshua Kramer wrote:


Hi Father Bloom,

Thanks a lot for your quick reply! I appreciate the fact that you will take the time to answer my question, especially considering the fact that I am probably about 3,000 miles away. :) Definitely you can post the question and reply to your web page as well. I know I have definitely benefitted by reading the questions that others have posed.

As for myself, I am a first-year Computer Science Graduate Student. I received my undergraduate degree in Computer Engineering but now I'm doing something a little different. Hopefully I'll have my Masters Degree by next May but that's a long way away so I'm trying not to think about it much. :)

Thanks again for your time. Have a great Holy Week.

God bless,



Dear Josh,

Sorry I am so slow in responding. Over five weeks have passed since Easter. Part of the slowness is that I wanted to give a careful answer: the question of authority is foundational. It underlies what I wrote in most of the articles on this website, especially the controversial ones like birth control, abortion, women priests, etc.

I looked in Catholic Answers for articles on the various questions you raise. The problem was not scarcity, but overabundance. When I typed just the word "authority" into their search engine, it brought up 64 files!

One of those files which might be most helpful as a starting place is the one asking Can Dogma Develop? It clarifies why we believe that "public revelation ended with the death of the last Apostle," yet some expressions have deepened. For example, St. Paul never used the word Trinity but he would have understood it as an exact statement of his teaching. (The same could be said about the teaching that Jesus is homoousion--same substance or one in being with the Father.)

One approach to this question is the Hierarchy of Truths*. The Church teaches that some doctrines are more important than others. For example the Trinity and the Incarnation are more central than, say, the Virgin Birth of Jesus. Still this does not mean that one can therefore deny the less important teachings. Hierarchy means an intimate connection. St. Paul uses the image of the human body to describe that sense of hierarchy. The eye might be more important than the foot but you cannot attack one without damaging the other. "When one member suffers, the entire body suffers with it."

That also happens when a person brushes aside a less central teaching like the meaning of fecundity in marriage. Or even the one you refer to about "no salvation outside the Catholic Church." As you note, it is not asserted quite so commonly today, but it is still one of the teachings we must struggle with. I use the word "struggle" because sometimes doctrines which at first strike us as unreasonable or even odious are sometimes the ones we most need to study and reflect on.

I sometimes have people get angry with me for talking about difficult teachings, e.g. on abortion or in vitro fertilization. They have even threatened going to another parish where they would not hear such things. I ask them to resist the temptation of going where we feel the most comfortable. How many of us would stick with our family if we took that approach?

The fourth commandment "Honor Your Father and Mother" has a lot for us to consider in this area. I like the saying of St. Cyprian: "No one can have God in Heaven as his Father unless he also has the Church on earth as his Mother." About the issues of the Church's past sins (Inquisition, simony, etc.) the pope has said a lot and will have more to say before the new millenium. It's tricky because some people want to throw that human sinfulness in our face as a proof that we have no divine mandate and guarantees.

I've written enough. I'd like to give you a chance to talk. Are you in the middle of exams?

God bless,

Fr. Phil Bloom

P.S. I would not say someone should leave "If a person's beliefs are not reflected by the Catholic Church." The problem here is that we can tend to look at the Church as if it were a political party. For example one can be a Democrat if they agree with most of the platform (and then work to change the planks they don't believe in). The Church is something very different. As I say above, more like a family. Only one belief is required: that she was founded by Jesus himself. Everything else follows from that. It's one thing not to grasp all the implications (who does?) and to actually dissent. To those who reject church authority by dissenting I repeat my challenge:

Why don't they just join the Anglicans?
After all, if I went into a McDonalds
and told the waitress I wanted deep fried chicken
with lots of spices, she would simply tell me,
"Sir that is not on our menu, but there is a KFC
right across the street."

We are so influenced by our consumer society we can look at the church like a department store where we pick and choose. To those who have the "cafeteria mentality," I point out there are plenty of options. No one is forced to be Catholic. For that reason in my Mission statment, I quoted to Pope John Paul II, "The Church proposes; she imposes nothing."

*The mutual connections between dogmas, and their coherence, can be found in the whole of the Revelation of the mystery of Christ. "In Catholic doctrine there exists an order or hierarchy of truths, since they vary in their relation to the foundation of the Christian faith." (Catechism # 90, quoting Vatican II document UR 11)