We have before us a task of tedious simplicity, but its enormity it may crush us: Ten million square pegs meet ten million round pegs, mixed in a heap and scattered across the floor. There are also two slots of appropriate shape. If we keep the pace of one-and-a-half seconds to find and place each in the right spot we will spend the better part of a year in this monotony. We will spend another two weeks eating, four weeks sleeping, twelve weeks working.
(If we take Sunday off, we add another seven-and-a-half weeks to our ambitious schedule.)
Scripture is vastly more complex. Rather than two shapes, there are at least a distinct hundred, and more subtly there are perhaps a thousand more. Left as a pile of stuff, we have no pre-ordained slots. We must figure out where what goes, how, why. Given these wrinkles, we cannot keep such brisk pace, even if we were tireless creatures of self-discipline trained to live in single-minded pursuit of scripture.
It does not take long to wonder: We are limited principally not by the millions of items and unknown several categories but also by our three score and ten. If in 30 generations someone eventually finds the truth, what of the earlier 29 generations? Will they suffer not knowing God, though this is His clear and constant will?
No, comes the answer — even if we’re only a million pegs in, should we find a new peg that just doesn’t fit in our schema we do not start over. Our answer, more likely than not, is to shove just a little harder. With luck, it’ll slide right in. Without, forget it existed and be spared even that. Above all, put off starting over as long as possible. We are often not so humble as to deny ourselves results in this lifetime; this way we explain modern Protestantism’s bazaar of the bizarre, a light shining unflatteringly on this volatile mystery of doctrinal novelty.
Most damningly: Not everyone is capable of sorting well, which, to translate the metaphor, is as Koine scholarship. Just as those who are capable of continence should accept this and those who are not should marry, those awarded the particular gift of the spirit which is wisdom should preach while those who are not should listen. Beyond capability, what about the time it takes? Some authority is clearly necessary even on a practical level.
To be Catholic is to believe that to this end God, anointing personally the first chief sorter, provides a series of sorters do the hard work of listening to God, inerrant in a limited way by virtue of a particular, peculiar grace. While we should take part in this if we can, if we cannot we can still keep the faith that God keeps the faith, through the ordained bishops and particularly the successors of Peter. Continuity, universality and authority — what else does a Christianity dedicated to spreading the Good News need? Given that God’s miracles only rarely bind a Thomas to truth, how could Christianity succeed without these uniquely Catholic foundations? Imagine what harm an Anarchism of Many Popes does to evangelization, what scandal it wrecks among non-Christians.
God ensured not just some unbroken line of apostles for authoritative teaching, but an unbreakable line of nature Petrine. Catholics, we see, are the radicals who believe God’s providence provided a gift that even we cannot break. To wit, God inspired specific authors to speak authoritatively and innerantly, prophets and apostles, and in the New Testament He appointed men whose authority was clear to the early Christians. Is it really so far-fetched to consider that He inspires one reader at a time whose authority we recognize?