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 | By Dr. Dan Osborn

If Sherlock Holmes were Catholic

The Case of the Golden Chain

As a teen, I loved Sherlock Holmes. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novels showed the detective making brilliant deductions as he moved from one piece of evidence to the next alongside his friend, Dr. Watson. And even if the famous line never actually appeared in Doyle’s novels, a quote attributed to Holmes is now part of our popular culture: “Elementary, my dear Watson!”

But what if Holmes were Catholic and decided to examine the works of the New Testament? I imagine he would follow a precious chain of evidence and ask questions that lead to some elementary – and critically important – conclusions. Let’s call this exercise, “The Case of the Golden Chain.”

A Crucial Chain of “Why?” Questions

1. The Christian Bible concludes with the section called “the New Testament.” But these writings did not exist while Jesus walked the earth and, as far as we know, he never foretold their existence. Therefore, on what basis – and on whose authority – should we believe that these sacred writings (and not other early works like the gnostic “Gospel of Thomas”) are truly inspired by God? In other words, why believe that the 27 works of the New Testament constitute, along with the Old Testament, the infallible word of God?

2. The determination of the biblical canon – the list of texts accepted as divinely inspired – is actually based on the authority of the Catholic Church. By 383 AD, under Pope St. Damasus I, the Church had established the biblical canon, including the 27 New Testament works still used by Christians today. When Pope Damasus commissioned St. Jerome to translate the Bible into Latin around that time (an edition called “the Vulgate”), Jerome translated the same 27 New Testament works we have in our Bibles today. But why accept the authority of the Church?

3. Because the Catholic Church is on the receiving end of some amazing promises of Jesus Christ, who gave authority to Church leaders to teach, sanctify and govern in his name. Jesus said to Peter and the other apostles, the first bishops in Church history: "He who hears you, hears me.” (Lk. 10:16) He also gave special authority to St. Peter, history’s first Bishop of Rome and therefore the first pope: “I tell you, you are Peter (‘Kepha’ in the Aramaic language Jesus used), and on this rock (Kepha) I will build my church, and the powers of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Mt. 16:17-19) But why believe in these promises of Christ?

4. Because Jesus is God, the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity. He is All-powerful and All-knowing and All-loving. Being divine, Jesus can neither deceive nor be deceived. But why believe that Jesus is God?

5. Because he said so: “I and the Father are one.” (Jn. 10:30) “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” (Jn. 8:58) Remember, “I am who am” is the mysterious name that God revealed when Moses asked his name. (See Ex. 3:14)

Furthermore, Jesus did things only God can do. He conquered death by his own divine power. This is the core truth of the Good News that Christians celebrate: “Christ is risen from the dead!” And during his ministry, Jesus did something that only God can do – forgive sins. (Forgiving sins is a divine act that Jesus continues to carry out today through the ministry of bishops and priests in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.)

Notice the reaction when Jesus forgives a lame man’s sins: “Unable to get near Jesus because of the crowd, they opened up the roof above him. After they had broken through, they let down the mat on which the paralytic was lying. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Child, your sins are forgiven.’ Now some of the scribes were sitting there asking themselves, ‘Why does this man speak that way? He is blaspheming. Who but God alone can forgive sins?’” (Mk. 2:4-7)

If we accept the accuracy of the Gospel passages in which Jesus claims to be God, only three possibilities exist, as C.S. Lewis has brilliantly pointed out:

a) Jesus is Lord: He is telling the truth and we must therefore devote our lives to know, love, worship and serve him, or...

b) Jesus is a Liar: He is not telling the truth and therefore is arguably the most evil deceiver in history, or…

c) Jesus is a Lunatic: He is insane, like the poor souls who believe they are Napoleon Bonaparte.

Some life-changing conclusions

The first logical conclusion that Sherlock Holmes might draw from the fact that Jesus can only be “Lord, Liar or Lunatic” is this: Jesus cannot be merely a great moral figure or one of history’s great spiritual masters, such as Buddha or Confucius. If Jesus is truly Lord, as he claimed, then he should be at the center of our lives. If a Liar or Lunatic, then we should stay as far away from him as possible.

The second logical conclusion: If Jesus is truly Lord (that is, God) and if, in founding his Church on Peter, Jesus promised that the “gates of Hell would not prevail against her” (Mt. 16:18); and if he granted his own authority to Peter and the apostles: “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Mt. 16:19); and if he entrusted to Peter (and his papal successors) “the keys to the kingdom of heaven”; then it is essential to welcome into our lives both the authority of Jesus and the authority of the Church he founded.

In modern times, unfortunately, authority is often viewed in a negative light rather than as a gift. We are right to be upset when we see an abuse of authority, and Jesus himself warns against those with authority “lording it over” other people. But the authentic exercise of authority –especially Christian authority – is a gift, as we can infer from one of the Latin roots of “authority,” augere, which means “to foster growth.”

One final conclusion that we might draw from “The Case of the Golden Chain”: Even without realizing it, every Christian who accepts the 27 works of the New Testament as the inspired word of God is, in a certain sense, giving a tip of the hat to the authority of the Catholic Church which established the biblical canon. Let’s pray that this elementary truth can perhaps open a door to greater unity among all Christians.

Dr. Dan Osborn is the Diocesan Theologian and Coordinator of Permanent Diaconate Formation & Ministry for the Diocese of Saginaw.