A Universal Apology Point Ten: IGNORANCE OF THE FATHERS


I am recounting the several reasons I have for accepting that the Catholic Church is what she says she is. I had become convinced that any denomination with no continuity to the historical church could not be the eternal Church.

At this point in my investigations, I ran into a very odd and unexpected problem. The people to whom I turned to help me in this search—and I freely confess that I merely mean average amateurs like myself, not professors of theology—knew nothing about the history of the matter.

Aside from St Augustine, none of them even knew the names of the Fathers of the Church.  When I asked them about Arius and Photius, no one knew who I was talking about. They knew the Nicene Creed, but apparently they thought Luther or Calvin had written it. They had never heard of the council of Nicaea, or regarded it as insignificant. They did not know what the Ecumenical Councils were. They had no idea where the Bible came from or when it had been canonized.

At least one faithful Christian scorned me for having any concern with the history of the Church. I thought this a paradox, for that faithful Christian was a member of a sect whose entire claim was a specific claim of historical fact, namely that the Church once possessed, and then lost, the exact teachings of this sect.

Another faithful Christian told me specifically not to read the Early Church Fathers, on the somewhat elliptical reasoning that, since the Fathers knew the Apostles personally, or knew their immediate disciples, they had nothing but misleading opinions about the scriptures those Apostles entrusted to them: whereas men living over a thousand five hundred years afterward, across the gap of lost records and the oblivion of history, speaking another language and from an entirely alien cultural milieu, could grasp the subtle nuances and shades of meaning of the Apostolic writings in a fashion the immediate disciples of the Apostles, who read the words in their native tongue and spoke to the authors face to face, could not.

For most Protestants and Post-Protestants I read or met, the period of time between the visions of St John during his exile on Patmos, and the moment Luther nailed his thesis to the doors of the Wittenberg Church, was simply a long, blank emptiness where nothing of any concern to the faithful Christian had happened.

One or two of them might make passing reference to St Augustine or St Thomas Aquinas, but it was always with a hesitation of suspicion, and without the honorific of calling them a saint. None of them made any reference to Ireneus, Tertullian, or Athanasius, or Chrysostom. None of them seemed to know where the doctrine of the Trinity came from, or the doctrine of the Incarnation.

They did not know the Orthodox Church existed at all, or the Nestorians, or the Syriac or the Cypriot or the Coptics, or anyone aside from the Roman Catholics. It was like walking into a strange alternate world where Christianity had never existed outside Western Europe, as if Eastern Europe, Western India, the Middle East and Northern Africa had never been part of Christendom, but always been part of the Soviet Empire or the Ottoman.

When the news is full of stories about the current genocide of Christians living in the Middle East, who have dwelt there since the Second Century, my Protestant friends have and odd and blank reaction, as if wondering how the flock of the Archbishop of Canterbury or viewers of Pat Robertson could have wandered so far into the Outremere?

Now let me be clear—I am not claiming that alert and diligent scholars do not exist among Protestants, nor would I dare invite the divine lightningbolt by claiming that Catholics do a good job of catechizing their catechumens, or even a non-atrocious or non-negligent job.

I am claiming however that historicity is natural to Catholics by the nature of their Catholicism, that is, by the nature of their extraordinary claim to be the one, true, holy, apostolic and universal church reaching back to AD 33; whereas ahistoricity is natural to Protestants by the nature of their claim to be rebelling against an apostate Church and returning to a cleaner and clearer form of primitive Church. But the nature of the claim, everything between the fall of the primitive church and the restoration of the reformer was an era of darkness and deception.

I am claiming that it is possible to be a well-read, diligent, faithful and well-instructed Lutheran or Baptist or Christian Scientist without having read a single word of the Patristic Writings, or Augustine, or Thomas Aquinas, without knowing who St Francis of Assisi was, or St Benedict or St Dominic or St Ignatius of Loyola. You do not need to know the name of a single martyr to be a good Methodist.

You can be a perfectly well instructed Protestant who has never heard of a single saint aside from Saint Patrick and Saint Valentine and Saint Nicholas, and you may be aware of a city named after Saint Louis and a dog named after Saint Bernard. You can learn everything you ever need to learn about Lutheranism by reading Luther.

But if you are a Catholic, and the only thing you ever read was the Bible and the Baltimore Catechism, I am claiming you are not well-read, diligent, faithful and well-instructed in your faith. I am claiming you cannot learn everything you ever need to learn about Catholicism without being more catholic in your reading. If you cannot name a single saint nor martyr, or have not named yourself at confirmation after one of them, you are not experiencing the fullness of the Catholic faith.

I am not saying Catholics are better read than Protestants. My experience is the opposite: the people who know the least about the Catholic faith are usually Catholics.

I am saying that the nature of an orthodox Church differs from the nature of a heterodox denomination, which is basically a church-flavored prayer group or theological movement. Orthodoxy concerns itself with Christ first, then all the saints and martyrs. Heterodoxy concerns itself with Christ first, then with its founder and his thoughts and writings, whoever that founder happens to be.