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March 28, 2020

Father Fancies (1): The Very Real *Need* for Fathers in the Faith

Let’s face it. One of your main reasons for thinking seriously about converting to Catholicism is the historical fact of the Church Fathers, especially how the things they say about religion are often so very different from what so many Protestants say.

There’s just something about fathers, isn’t there? Fathers can be good or they can be bad. Smart or not-so-smart. Strong or weak. Ambitious or indifferent. Worldly-wise or impractical. Godly or godless. And so on. Regardless, there really is just something about fathers that most people find difficult to downplay, let alone ignore. After all, it was fathers who brought us into the world, so don’t we owe them more than we could ever repay?

And if we owe our earthly fathers, how much more might we owe our spiritual Fathers in the Faith? If it came down to disagreement between us and them, shouldn’t we give them the benefit of the doubt and change ourselves to match? They were here first, after all, and so would have to have a lot more experience of truth than we do. How arrogant, right, for a child to presume to know more than his father!

After the last Apostle, John, died near the end of the 1st century, the still diaper-wearing Christian Church needed competent leaders to carry it forward. And indeed, we see in the New Testament. particularly from Paul’s writings, that the Apostles did work hard to raise up a new generation of godly, sober-minded pastors to take up their mantle when they were gone. Those of the immediately post-Apostolic generation of leaders whose work has come down to us in writing are often called “the Apostolic Fathers,” and includes such worthy names as Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp of Smyrna, and the authors of the Didache and Shepherd of Hermas. Men such as these guided the Church well through the last part of the 1st century and just past the middle of the 2nd. They truly do deserve the appellation “Fathers,” since they generated some of the key ideas that have profoundly animated Christian thinkers ever since.

As you consider converting, leaving your current faith behind and embracing something radically different, it is quite likely that you’re bothered by the fact that most Protestants seem to know nothing about the early, post-Apostolic days of the Church, and probably mostly blow off the very idea of “Fathers in the Faith” as just one more “tradition of men that makes the Word of God of none effect.”

Such an attitude rightly seems flippant to you. Doesn’t Scripture tell us to Honor our fathers and mothers, that our days may be long upon the earth? Doesn’t Proverbs tell us to Hear, O sons, a father’s instruction, and be attentive that you may gain insight (4:1)? And also, Listen to your father who gave you life, and do not despise your mother when she is old. (23:22)? Doesn’t Jesus say that only those who are like little children can enter the Kingdom of God (Mt. 19:14)?

Surely just as it is not only unwise, but also unbiblical, for Christians to treat their earthly fathers with disdain, to willfully refuse to heed their advice, it must be dangerous to fail to follow our spiritual Fathers! And since most Protestant groups have little to no knowledge of, let alone little to no care about, what the Fathers of the Church had to say about Christianity, that is reason enough to begin moving away from such places and towards a place where the Fathers are revered and heeded!

The argument seems airtight. That’s why you’ve likely sought for material from the Church Fathers and run across a wide array of sources excerpting their writings – perhaps even ones that conveniently arrange numerous sayings of theirs under headings that already tell you the meaning of the quotes before you even read them. From such sources you have likely been astonished to find out that so many of the early Christians (say, within the first 300 years or so after Christ) advocated episcopal government, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the primacy of the Bishop of Rome over other churches, baptismal regeneration, praying to departed Saints, the need for special teachers to explain the Bible so it won’t be misused to generate heresy, and so on.

How, you keep wondering, could so many who “had the teachings of the Apostles ringing in their ears,” have gotten so many important things so wrong that Martin Luther had to come along many centuries later and sweep the errors away so the plain and simple truth of the Bible could once again be seen by every ignorant plowboy? It seems so much more likely, doesn’t it, that Fathers got it right and the later children got it wrong. And how can you honor your Fathers by willfully remaining so very far away from the most basic, early form of Christianity practiced by them? The real wonder is that you haven’t already converted and are now here reading this little essay!

In the next part, I’ll start making the argument that your basic instinct to honor the Church Fathers is entirely correct, but that the way I’ve outlined the issues above is far too simplistic to be useful in making such a radical, life-altering move as converting to Roman Catholicism. For the major problem with how Rome views fathers in general, and the Fathers in particular, is that it’s at best only a half-truth, and so unable to actually fill that void you feel as someone not currently “connected” in any significant way to the deep and wide patrimony of our Faith.