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Becoming Catholic #29—Where is the True Church? St. Augustine, Part 1: Against the Fundamental Epistle of Manichaeus

The “Becoming Catholic” series presents the biblical, philosophical, and historical evidence for why Eternal Christendom Founder, Joshua Charles, became and remains Catholic. The series table of contents is here.

Carlo Cignani, St. Augustine (1628)

Throughout the writings of the Church Fathers, one is overwhelmed by the ubiquitous references to the Catholic Church. This is one of the many reasons protestant and other non-Catholic readers who read the Church Fathers end up Catholic. After all, if the one true Church established by Christ was, and has always been identified century after century to be the Catholic Church, then that is where they want to be.

In this mini-series, Where is the True Church?, we will cover specific works of various Church Fathers where those who are open to considering Catholic claims can see for themselves how the Church Fathers described the one true Church.

This first installment will cover St. Augustine’s Against the Fundamental Epistle of Manichaeus, written in AD 397. In it, St. Augustine writes against the Manichaean heresy, and specifically one of Manichaeus’ more important writings. Therein, he is quite clear about what he considers the one true Church, and its various characteristics (Ch. 4, §5):

For in the Catholic Church, not to speak of the purest wisdom, to the knowledge of which a few spiritual men attain in this life…not to speak of this wisdom, which you do not believe to be in the Catholic Church, there are many other things which most justly keep me in her bosom.

The consent of peoples and nations keeps me in the Church.

So does her authority, inaugurated by miracles, nourished by hope, enlarged by love, established by age.

The succession of priests keeps me, beginning from the very seat of the Apostle Peter, to whom the Lord, after His resurrection, gave it in charge to feed His sheep, down to the present episcopate.

And so, lastly, does the name itself of Catholic, which, not without reason, amid so many heresies, the Church has thus retained; so that, though all heretics wish to be called Catholics, yet when a stranger asks where the Catholic Church meets, no heretic will venture to point to his own chapel or house.

Such then in number and importance are the precious ties belonging to the Christian name which keep a believer in the Catholic Church, as it is right they should, though from the slowness of our understanding, or the small attainment of our life, the truth may not yet fully disclose itself.

But with you, where there is none of these things to attract or keep me, the promise of truth is the only thing that comes into play. Now if the truth is so clearly proved as to leave no possibility of doubt, it must be set before all the things that keep me in the Catholic Church; but if there is only a promise without any fulfillment, no one shall move me from the faith which binds my mind with ties so many and so strong to the Christian religion.

St. Augustine even declares that his belief in the gospel depended upon the authority of the Catholic Church (Ch. 5, §6):

For my part, I should not believe the gospel except as moved by the authority of the Catholic Church. So when those on whose authority I have consented to believe in the gospel tell me not to believe in Manichaeus, how can I but consent? Take your choice.

He goes on to say that he could not believe Manichaeus’ claims about the gospel because “it was at the command of the Catholics that I believed the gospel.” St. Augustine does not believe in the Manichaean heresy, he says, because the Catholic Church commands him not to. The Manicheans were attempting to “weaken my regard for the authority of the Catholics who bid me not to believe you,” but this St. Augustine would not do.

To believe Manichaeus, he claims, would be to weaken his belief not only in the Catholic Church, but the gospel itself, for it was not the authority of Manichaeus that gave the gospel to the world, but that of the Catholic Church.

It would also destroy his belief in Scripture, which he also accepted on the basis of Catholic authority, “for you [Manichaeans] quote to me that Scripture which I had believed on the authority of those liars [Catholics].” Citing the book of Acts, specifically, St. Augustine speaks of it as a “book I must needs believe if I believe the gospel, since both writings [the Gospels, and the book of Acts] alike Catholic authority commends to me.”

The One True Church According to St. Augustine

Thus, according to St. Augustine in this work, Against the Fundamental Epistle of Manichaeus, the one true Church:

  • Is the Catholic Church;
  • Began in the first century with the help of various miracles;
  • Consists of multiple peoples and nations;
  • Is established by its preeminent age;
  • Consists of a succession of priests beginning from the seat of St. Peter in Rome to the present day, which itself was directly established by Christ (citing John 21:15-17);
  • Possesses the very name “Catholic Church,” which is acknowledged even by heretical groups who sometimes wish to ascribe it to themselves, but never do so in reference to their own congregations when anyone asks them, “Where is the Catholic Church?”;
  • Is the only Church to which every believer should belong;
  • Possesses authority to teach the Gospel, which St. Augustine says was sufficient so as to commend the Gospel and the Scriptures to him for belief;
  • Is acknowledged and called the “Catholic Church” from age to age even amidst the rise and fall of so many heresies;
  • Has the authority to identify heretics who should not be believed, and whose teaching contradicts the Gospel which it alone has the authority to promulgate to the world.

There is only one “denomination” that today makes the same exact claims to being the one true Church as St. Augustine, and is likewise known by its members and the outside world by the same name: the Catholic Church.

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