20,000 Leagues Under the Holy See? Why Multi-Denominationalism Doesn’t Work

We’ve all heard it before: As long as you believe in Jesus, it doesn’t matter which church you belong to. This commonly-held sentiment makes us feel good, as if we were being friendly and welcoming. It demonstrates a striving for unity, but it is a unity accomplished at the price of truth. Actually, it’s not a real unity at all, and it is not ever accomplished; it is only declared.

Even Martin Luther lamented all the divisions within Christianity during his own lifetime. He, the original Protestant breakaway, did not agree with subsequent breakaways, and they did not agree with each other, either. The idea that there could be “20,000 leagues” under the Holy See, or under a “wholly unseen” authority, which is the banner for all Christians, was and is untenable.

Even though some will be offended by the statement, we should all be Catholic. This is not to be taken in the same way as saying we should all drive blue cars. That is merely an opinion, and a narrow-minded one at that, as it only takes into account one’s own preferences. The religious question, on the other hand, is much different. It is not, “What does John (or Bob or Mike or Joanne or any other human being) want us to do regarding God?” It is, “What does God want us to do regarding God?

Imagine you’re God. (A challenging thought for some, yet a familiar fantasy for others.) You’ve revealed in Old Testament times the ten basic rules for everyone to follow. Keep holy the Sabbath, honor your parents, don’t lie, etc…

Then in New Testament times you come to earth to fulfill all that has been previously revealed. You do this as you walk and talk among your own creatures as one of them. You teach disciples and commission them to teach others, and this process is supposed to continue through the ages. You tell your inner circle to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and behold, I am with you all days, even unto to the consummation of the world. (Matthew 28:19-20).”

Very clear directions, right? Then why, if you came to complete and clarify revelation, is there so much confusion about the matter? Why are there thousands of divergent groups claiming to be followers of Christ? Should there not be one group and one group only, united under one authority with continuity of doctrine and worship? Isn’t that what is plainly stated in John 17:20-22 with the words “Yet not for these [disciples] only do I pray, but for those also who through their word are to believe in me, that all may be one, even as thou, Father, [are] in me and I in thee, that they also may be one in us, that the world may believe that thou has sent me…”

In Let There Be No Divisions Among You: Why All Christians Should be Catholic, Father John MacLaughlin asks another important question: If God is indifferent as to how we receive His New Testament revelation, as so many self-identified Christians believe, then why can’t we be indifferent to His Old Testament revelation? Put another way, if anyone can start his own church and write his own catechism, why can’t anyone proffer his own interpretation of—or even his own version of—the Ten Commandments?

Sadly, people do both today, but when Father MacLauglin asked the question in the 19th century, he could answer as he did on page 165 of his book: “I assume that no one who pretends to be a Christian will hold that men are free…to choose the contradictories of the Commandments. On what grounds, then, can it be affirmed that they are free to choose…the contradictories of His {New Testament] doctrines?”

Even today this is still a good question to ponder. Why no liberty with older, general teachings, yet limitless liberty with newer, more specific ones? Probably most ecclesiastical indifferentists would still recognize the prohibition against stealing, while having no problem with everyone in their family going to separate churches holding contradictory views on baptism, the necessity of good works, church structure and authority, and so forth.

Father MacLaughlin explains on page 92 that indifferentism may appear fair to a superficial glance, but upon serious analysis, it quickly dissolves. He said:

It would have us believe that God spoke with the view of revealing something and…yet he revealed nothing definite; that He made known some doctrine, and at the same time gave men leave to give that doctrine any meaning they pleased; that He proclaimed some statement as true, and left men perfectly free to believe it was false; that He made a revelation and, while making it, did not care in the least in what sense men received it, or whether they received it at all…

How strikingly true is his assessment? If the exercise above about imagining oneself as God was too awkward, imagine a man who wanted to reveal something very important that will have an immense effect, not only on the lives of others, but on the afterlives of others. What on earth (or anywhere else) could we say about this revealing person if He did not care how this teaching was taken and felt completely comfortable with contradictory interpretations of it? Self-defeating? Conflicted? Schizophrenic?

Most self-identifying Christians would not accept religious indifferentism (the idea that it matters not whether you’re Jewish, Hindu, Christian, Zoroastrian, etc.) so why would any accept ecclesiastical indifferentism? If it does matter whether you’re a Christian, does it not also matter whether you believe and live out all that Christ teaches?

Ecclesiastical indifferentism says that you can have half of Christ, or a tenth of Christ, or possibly you must have all of Christ, but He is whatever you want Him to be, just as He is whatever anyone else wants Him to be. This is nonsense. A far more reasonable paradigm is that Christ taught doctrines that we are obliged to believe and live out, and that those doctrines are safeguarded in the One Church He started and maintains today—the Catholic Church.

Anyone who has read Catholicism and Fundamentalism by Karl Keating, Scripture Alone? by Joel Peters, or Where We Got the Bible by Father Henry Graham will see that those who believe in the idea of “20,000 Leagues Under the Holy See”—or something similar—will find themselves drowning in error. Far better is being safe in the barque of St. Peter, where the waves of error cannot harm souls, and where one is guided securely to Heaven.

Trent Beattie is the author of the new book Fit for Heaven, published by Dynamic Catholic. He also wrote Scruples and Sainthood and chose the mediations for St. Alphonsus Liguori for Every Day and Finding True Happiness. He is best-known for his sports interviews with the National Catholic Register, and has also written for Catholic Digest, Inside the Vatican, Columbia (of the Knights of Columbus), The Latin Mass magazine, and Catholic Men’s Quarterly. Trent lives in Seattle, Washington.