In the previous post in this series, we looked at ecumenism and how the Catholic Church views other Christian denominations. Hopefully in the future we can all get a long a little better if we aren't scared of each other. Now we will briefly take a look at the Church's view of its formation, its structure, and governance.
The first thing you will need to know about the Catholic Church is that it does indeed view itself as the one true Church, instituted by Christ, with Peter as his Vicar.
Most Protestant/Non-Catholic groups believe in an "invisible" Church made up of believers but with no definitive teaching authority or universally governing documents. If you are a believer in Christ then you are in the Church, along with all the other members of all the other denominations (except maybe Mormons, JWs, Catholic, and Orthodox.) The Bible is the sole rule for the faith. Everything else is pretty much up for grabs, which is a lot.
Catholics (and Orthodox to a different degree) believe that Christ came here to form a united Church with a visible hierarchy to define and protect its beliefs. However we do in part agree that it is the believers which make up the Church, not the buildings and property.
Handpicked seeds bear good fruit.
Christ, whom Christians of nearly all denominations believe had two natures - both human and divine - called certain people to follow him. Indeed, he calls all of mankind to follow him but there are those whom he picked in a special way. Tradition and Sacred Scripture have called these men "apostles", which literally means those who are sent. Being sent intrinsically implies that someone is personally giving you a mission. This is exactly what we see Christ, who is almighty God, giving to Peter and the Apostles. We'll talk specifically about Peter as the Pope another time.
Catholics believe and use a combination of Sacred Tradition and Scripture to back up their belief that Christ gave the Apostles (specifically) his power to forgive sin, baptize, preside at the Lord's Supper, and more. They were given the authority to continue the Church until Christ's return and safeguard the faith which he promised never to abandon. The faith has been preserved through their office of ministry. Bishops are their successors, which means that the bishop in your local diocese can trace his lineage back 2000 years to the time of the apostles.
Fraternity lineages mirror the Church
If you are familiar with college fraternities then it is quite easy to understand. Every fraternity member has a big brother. You cannot be in a fraternity unless you are a founder and NOT have a big brother. To start a new chapter of a fraternity there is a process by which one chapter will teach eventually bring in the other. There is no split, but succession. It is the same as being a child with no parent. It is impossible. This is how the Church is identifies itself throughout history. It is commonly called "Apostolic Succession". Both the Catholic and Orthodox faiths have it.
On the Teaching Authority
The Catholic Church's authority can be viewed like this - protect and/or clarify. It does not hold the ability to change Christian teachings or make up new ones. It cannot proclaim that which it does not have the authority to. The ability to do this is commonly called the "Magesterium" of the Church. Catholics believe the Pope, united with the Bishops, is protected by the Holy Spirit from proclaiming error in matters of faith and morals. The Pope cannot define scientific theories, proclaim definitively that Mars is made of cheddar, or teach officially that Mary had 6 children.
Examples of teaching authority would be defining the inerrancy of Scripture and that committing abortion is objectively evil. The faithful have the obligation to assent to this authority since it was given by Christ, who is almighty God.
Discipline vs. Doctrine
Things like priestly celibacy are not doctrines, but disciplines instituted to benefit the faithful. Disciplines can be changed, doctrine and dogma cannot. This is an important distinction to make. Many point to various disciplines to prove the Church changes its teachings. However the Church has the right to decide what disciplines are appropriate for its time.
I still strongly encourage everyone to read Pius XII's Mystical Body of Christ which will give an infinitely better description than I can here in this tiny space. It is long but packed with scripture references. It is really a treasure.
Learn more here:
Church and the Papacy (from Catholic Answers)
Next in the Series:
The Bible and its Authority.
Prime Minister Simon Peter