Sunday, September 21, 2014

Scientific Discoveries: an Invitation to "Even Greater Admiration"

ESO/INAF-VST/OmegaCAM, OmegaCen/Astro-WISE/Kapteyn Institute; via Wikimedia Commons; used w/o permission.This universe has been around for about 13,798,000,000 years, give or take 37,000,000. That's the current best estimate, from 2013.

It's big, too. The photo shows part of the Hercules Cluster of galaxies. Light from that bunch of galaxies traveled for about 500,000,000 years before reaching us.

What we see is the Hercules Cluster as it was around the middle of the Cambrian here, roughly when the first trilobite showed up.

Taking the universe 'as is' makes sense: for me, anyway. I would much rather learn more about this wonder-filled creation, than insist that the Almighty is limited to what folks knew a few centuries back.

Truth Cannot Contradict Truth

Since I believe that God made the universe and the things of faith, I must also believe that honest research cannot contradict faith. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 159)
"...God can not deny himself, nor can truth ever contradict truth...."
(Dei Filius, Vatican Council I, 248 (1870) (quoted in Catechism, 159))
Faith and reason, religion and science, get along fine: or should. (Catechism, 39, 159, 286)
"The question about the origins of the world and of man has been the object of many scientific studies which have splendidly enriched our knowledge of the age and dimensions of the cosmos, the development of life-forms and the appearance of man. These discoveries invite us to even greater admiration for the greatness of the Creator, prompting us to give him thanks for all his works and for the understanding and wisdom he gives to scholars and researchers"
(Catechism, 283) [emphasis mine]
Wondering how things began and where we're headed is part of being human. Learning about God's universe is what we're supposed to do. (Catechism, 282-289, 2293)

Sometimes we get surprised by what we learn. That's happened quite a bit in the last few centuries.

Living With Change

"Nothing endures but change."
(Heraclitus, Greek philosopher, 540 BC - 480 BC)
Two dozen centuries later, change is still very much a part of this creation. God made a universe that is being created: which is good, and which is moving toward perfection:
"Creation has its own goodness and proper perfection, but it did not spring forth complete from the hands of the Creator. The universe was created 'in a state of journeying' (in statu viae) toward an ultimate perfection yet to be attained, to which God has destined it. We call 'divine providence' the dispositions by which God guides his creation toward this perfection:
"By his providence God protects and governs all things which he has made, 'reaching mightily from one end of the earth to the other, and ordering all things well.' For 'all are open and laid bare to his eyes,' even those things which are yet to come into existence through the free action of creatures.161"
(Catechism of the Catholic Church, 302)
I figure we've got a choice: accept the idea that we live in a changing creation; or not.

On the whole, I think it's prudent to accept reality.

Continental Drift and Personal Preference

(From NASA, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
("Plate motion based on Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite data from NASA JPL. The vectors show direction and magnitude of motion."

A year or so back, I read a science textbook written with 'religious' people in mind. It was excruciatingly careful about explaining that continental drift was just a theory: and hadn't been 'proven.'

I sympathize with the authors, who probably wanted to provide adequate educational materials while not offending folks who don't want this creation to be particularly big or old.

Not liking the idea that continents move isn't limited to painfully pious folks. About four decades back, I had a geography/geology professor who loathed and despised continental drift. That attitude helped me decide on a major in history, and that's another topic.

King Cnut and the Limits of Executive Authority

The last I heard, we're still not sure about exactly what forces have been moving continents around, forming new ocean floors along mid-ocean ridges, and recycling old crust along subduction arcs.

That continents move, carried along on tectonic plates: by now, that's an observed phenomenon.

A person might prefer that Earth's crust stay put: but that preference has as much effect on reality as King Cnut's ordering the tide to stop.

Thanks in part to improved technology, like the satellite-based Global Positioning System, we're still getting surprises: like when a city in South America jumped westward by roughly 10 feet. That was a big earthquake. (Apathetic Lemming of the North (March 10, 2010))

About Cnut and the limits of executive authority, my guess is that his command was intended as a reality check for over-enthusiastic courtiers.

Psalms 115 and the Universe

As Psalms 115:3 says, "...whatever God wills is done." The Almighty could have created a timeless universe: complete, perfect, and unchanging: or one that was only a few thousand years old.

That's not what happened, though.

This universe apparently cooled for about 379,000 years before electrons and protons could combine, forming neutral hydrogen. That's when our universe became transparent, over 13,000,000,000 years ago.

I'd be impressed by God's power if the universe was only a few millennia old, and a few thousand miles across. As it is: I'm really impressed.
"4 Indeed, before you the whole universe is as a grain from a balance, or a drop of morning dew come down upon the earth.

"But you have mercy on all, because you can do all things; and you overlook the sins of men that they may repent.

"For you love all things that are and loathe nothing that you have made; for what you hated, you would not have fashioned.

"And how could a thing remain, unless you willed it; or be preserved, had it not been called forth by you? "
(Wisdom 11:22-25)
The universe is big and old — but God is infinite and eternal, almighty and ineffable: beyond our power to describe or understand. (Catechism, 202, 230)

God is also very much in charge, and has something more than this universe in mind.
"Where can I hide from your spirit? From your presence, where can I flee?"
(Psalms 139:7)

"3 Raise your eyes to the heavens, and look at the earth below; Though the heavens grow thin like smoke, the earth wears out like a garment and its inhabitants die like flies, My salvation shall remain forever and my justice shall never be dismayed."
(Isaiah 51:6)

"and: 'At the beginning, O Lord, you established the earth, and the heavens are the works of your hands.

"They will perish, but you remain; and they will all grow old like a garment.

"You will roll them up like a cloak, and like a garment they will be changed. But you are the same, and your years will have no end.' "
(Hebrews 1:10-12)

"Then the sky was divided 13 like a torn scroll curling up, and every mountain and island was moved from its place."
(Revelation 6:14)
And that's yet another topic.

Somewhat-related posts:
More about King Cnut:

Friday, September 19, 2014

African Wildlife: During the Cretaceous

Scientists are are learning more about Africa's wildlife: as it was some 100,000,000 years ago.
  1. Swimming Spinosaurs of the Sahara
  2. Rukwatitan Bisepultus: Newly-Discovered Sauropod Species
  3. Filling the Gaps in Africa's Sauropod Story
Maybe you've seen that "are you satisfied?" cartoon chap, Mr. Squibbs, in another 'A Catholic Citizen in America' post. If so, feel free to skip straight to my take on dinosaurs in the news.

If you're wondering what "tampering with things man was not supposed to know" and dinosaurs have to do with my faith — the short answer is that I'm Catholic, so using my brain is okay.

Despite what some tightly-wound folks seem to believe, science and Christianity, faith and reason, get along fine. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 159)

I suspect part of problem some have with science is how big the universe is — and how years it's been since life began here on Earth.

Living in an Old and Changing World

French naturalist, mathematician, and cosmologist, Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, had his "Les époques de la nature" published in 1778. He said that Earth was about 75,000 years old.

Leclerc got his age for Earth by measuring how fast iron cooled in his laboratory. — unlike a British Calvinist, who had pegged the time of creation at 4004 BC based on his study of the Old Testament.

The Sorbonne condemned Leclerc's ideas, and he issued a retraction.

Physicist William Thomson, using similar methods in 1862, calculated an age of Earth at somewhere between 20,000,000 and 400,000,000 years. That was pretty good work, considering that scientists didn't know about heat from radioactive decay, and effects of convection currents in Earth's mantle yet.

Since I'm a Catholic, I must believe that God created, and is creating, a good and ordered physical world: one that is changing, in a state of journeying toward an ultimate perfection. (Catechism, 282-308)

Studying of this astonishing creation honestly and methodically cannot interfere with faith, because "the things of the world and the things of faith derive from the same God." (Catechism, 159)

I must also take the Bible, Sacred Scripture, very seriously: metaphors and all.

Poetry, Genesis, and the Universe

The idea that Sacred Scripture includes poetry doesn't bother me:
"Poetry makes use of metaphors to produce a representation, for it is natural to man to be pleased with representations. But sacred doctrine makes use of metaphors as both necessary and useful. "
("Summa Theologica," First Part, The nature and extent of sacred doctrine, Whether Holy Scripture should use metaphors?; St. Thomas Aquinas (1265–1274))
Recognizing that Sacred Scripture isn't a science textbook keeps me from trying to believe that both Genesis creation accounts are literally, word-for-word, true: from the viewpoint of a poetically-challenged contemporary Westerner.

It also lets me focus on why the Bible is important, and what I'm supposed to do with it:
"In order to reveal himself to men, in the condescension of his goodness God speaks to them in human words: 'Indeed the words of God, expressed in the words of men, are in every way like human language, just as the Word of the eternal Father, when he took on himself the flesh of human weakness, became like men.'63"

"God is the author of Sacred Scripture. 'The divinely revealed realities, which are contained and presented in the text of Sacred Scripture, have been written down under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.'69...."

"The Church 'forcefully and specifically exhorts all the Christian faithful. . . to learn the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ, by frequent reading of the divine Scriptures. Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.112"
(Catechism, 101, 105, 133)
Being Catholic, I accept God as the source of true happiness. I don't expect full satisfaction from wealth, fame, art, technology, science, or any human achievement. The idea is that we should have God at the top of our priorities. (Catechism, 1723, 2112-2114)

But there's no problem with human achievements, as long as we don't idolize them. (Catechism, 2113)

Science and technology, studying this creation and developing new tools with that knowledge, is part of being human: and a vital part of our job as stewards of this world. (Catechism, 373, 2292-2296, 2402)

As I've said before, I like knowing that Earth and the universe are almost unimaginably immense and old. But even if I didn't — God's God, I'm not, and my preferences won't make much difference.

Now, a quick look at Earth during some of the dinosaurs' days. These next two maps may help show why scientists are so interested in Africa and South America during the Early Cretaceous. Or maybe not.

Hello, South Atlantic: Goodby, Gondwana

(From Ron Blakey, NAU Geology; via Wikimedia Commons; used w/o permission.)
(Earth in the Jurassic period, about 150,000,000 years ago.)

(From Ron Blakey, NAU Geology; via Wikimedia Commons; used w/o permission.)
(Earth during the Cretaceous period, about 90,000,000 years back, after African and South America split apart.)

Before a rift valley started growing into today's South Atlantic during the Cretaceous, about 130,000,000 years back. South America and Africa were part of Gondwana. That's our name for Earth's southern continent from around the end of the Ediacaran period to the early Jurassic.

After South American and Africa separated, plants and animals that had been spread across the now-divided continent developed into increasingly-distinct species.

Hannibal, Columbus, and the Mid-Atlantic Ridge

Geologically speaking, not much has changed since we started keeping written records about 8,000 years ago. The Alps are pretty much where Hannibal found them, and the Mediterranean still connects to the Atlantic Ocean at its west end.

Turns out, the Americas are about 522 inches, just shy of 44 feet, further apart than they were when Columbus first sailed the Atlantic.

The Atlantic is getting wider by an average of 2.5 centimeters each year, as magma rises along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, forming new seafloor.

An inch a year is pretty slow by human standards. Small wonder that nobody noticed the movement until the 20th century.

Then, starting around the 1950s, geologists used new technologies to study seafloors and Earth's interior — discovering that ocean floors form along mid-ocean ridges and sink back along subduction zones like the Marianas Trench, taking continents along for a ride.

More about Earth's shifting surface:

1. Swimming Spinosaurs of the Sahara

(From National Geographic/David E. Bonadonna, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
("Spinosaurus is thought to be the largest known carnivore and would have feasted on huge fish and sharks"
(BBC News))
"Spinosaurus fossil: 'Giant swimming dinosaur' unearthed"
Rebecca Morelle, BBC News (September 11, 2014)

"A giant fossil, unearthed in the Sahara desert, has given scientists an unprecedented look at the largest-known carnivorous dinosaur: Spinosaurus

"The 95-million-year-old remains confirm a long-held theory: that this is the first-known swimming dinosaur.

"Scientists say the beast had flat, paddle-like feet and nostrils on top of its crocodilian head that would allow it to submerge with ease....

"...Lead author Nizar Ibrahim, a palaeontologist from the University of Chicago, said: "It is a really bizarre dinosaur - there's no real blueprint for it.

" 'It has a long neck, a long trunk, a long tail, a 7ft (2m) sail on its back and a snout like a crocodile.

" 'And when we look at the body proportions, the animal was clearly not as agile on land as other dinosaurs were, so I think it spent a substantial amount of time in the water.'..."
Spinosaurs had long "neural spines," extensions of the critter's backbone: which may have supported a sail like Dimetrodon's: or maybe a hump.

Ernst Stromer, the German paleontologist who described the 'Egyptian' fossils, said the spines might have a fatty hump like Megacerops and Bison latifrons.

Dr. Nizar Ibrahim's team had nearly a century's worth of accumulated paleontological techniques at their disposal. They say that "...surface striations and bone microstructure suggest that the dorsal 'sail' may have been enveloped in skin that functioned primarily for display on land and in water:" which is likely enough. ("Semiaquatic adaptations in a giant predatory dinosaur," (September 11, 2014))

Eventually, we may find a fossilized Spinusaur with at least some of the soft tissue preserved: or find other evidence of what those spines supported.

Kem Kem Clues

(From Nizar Ibrahim, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
("The dinosaur has a number of anatomical features that suggest it was semi-aquatic"
(BBC News))
"...While other ancient creatures, such as the plesiosaur and mosasaur, lived in the water, they are marine reptiles rather than dinosaurs, making Spinosaurus the only-known semi-aquatic dinosaur.

"Spinosaurus aegyptiacus remains were first discovered about 100 years ago in Egypt, and were moved to a museum in Munich, Germany.

"However, they were destroyed during World War II, when an Allied bomb hit the building.

"A few drawings of the fossil survived, but since then only fragments of Spinosaurus bones have been found.

"The new fossil, though, which was extracted from the Kem Kem fossil beds in eastern Morocco by a private collector, has provided scientists with a more detailed look at the dinosaur.

" 'For the very first time, we can piece together the information we have from the drawings of the old skeleton, the fragments of bones, and now this new fossil, and reconstruct this dinosaur, said Dr Ibrahim..."
(Rebecca Morelle, BBC News)
Spinosaurus may have been the largest carnivorous dinosaur ever. Nizar Ibrahim's team says the animal was more than 15 meters, or 50 feet, from nose to tail.

They also say the Kem Kem fossils show that the dinosaur was semi-aquatic:
"...Dr Ibrahim explained: 'The one thing we noticed was that the proportions were really bizarre. The hind limbs were shorter than in other predatory dinosaurs, the foot claws were quite wide and the feet almost paddle shaped.

" 'We thought: "Wow - this looks looks like adaptations for a life mainly spent in water." '..."
(Rebecca Morelle, BBC News)
Another clue about the Spinosaur's habits is its snout. Its interlocking cone-shaped teeth look like today's fish-eating crocodiles. Plus, the critter's bones were very dense: a feature we see in today's penguins and sea cows.

Spinosaur Specimens

Spinosaurus fossils from the Bahariya Formation in Egypt weren't the only specimens.

The ones described in this article seem to be the same ones found in 1996, in Morocco's Kem Kem Beds. They're with the Canadian Museum of Nature.

Spinosaurus fossils from Algeria and described in 1998 are in the Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle, the national museum of natural history of France. Others, found in Tunis, weren't shipped overseas: and are in the Office National des Mines, Tunis.

A Spinosaur snout wound up in the Museo di Storia Naturale di Milano, Italy. Aside from that, scientists have about a half-dozen or so 'tentative' bits and pieces of Spinosaur fossils.


2. Rukwatitan Bisepultus: Newly-Discovered Sauropod Species

(From Mark Witton, University of Portsmouth; via Science World Report; used w/o permission.)
("New Species of Titanosaurian Dinosaur Discovered in Tanzania"
(Science World Report))
"Fossils of New Species of Titanosaurian Dinosaur Discovered in Tanzania"
Science World Report (September 9, 2014)

"A team of international paleontologists has unearthed what may be the new species of titanosaurian that thrived in Tanzaia.

"In a latest finding, paleontologists at the Ohio University presented to the world a new species of titanosaurian. This new species belongs to the group of large-bodied sauropods that existed during the last period of dinosaur-age in Tanzania. Many fossils of titanosaurian have been retrieved from all over the world, especially South America, and a few from Africa.

"The newly-retrieved fossilized species dubbed Rukwatitan bisepultus was initially noticed embedded in a cliff wall located in the Rukwa Rift Basin in southwestern Tanzania. Further excavation produced the species' vertebrae, ribs, limbs and pelvic bones.

"The researchers studied the unique features of the fossil in comparison to other sauropods using CT scans...."
Studying Rukwatitan bisepultus will help scientists understand how the African Titanosaur is related the South American species and how it is different. That won't make anyone's teeth whiter and brighter, or let you predict which team will win the next World Series: but I'm fascinated by this sort of thing.

Your experience may vary.

About the name Titanosaur: Richard Lydekker first described the genus in 1877. Then other scientists either said he was right, or that he didn't have enough data to call it a genus. That discussion was going on at least until 2003.

I think it's a cool name, and figure that paleontologists aren't through learning more about Earth's past — not even close.

We've learned a great deal in the 137 years since 1877, though.

3. Filling the Gaps in Africa's Sauropod Story

(From Eric Gorscak, Ohio University, used w/o permission.)
("This image shows the pieces of the skeleton recovered of Rukwatitan bisepultus within a silhouette of the animal. The bar equals 1 meter."
(Ohio University))
"Giant Dinosaur Could Fill Fossil 'Black Hole'"
Laura Geggel, LiveScience (September 8, 2014)

"A giant dinosaur found in Tanzania once lived during a lush, green period when flowering plants flourished, about 100 million years ago, paleontologists report. The new dino species is a rare find in sub-Saharan Africa, where far fewer dinosaur fossils are discovered than in South America, the researchers said.

"Paleontologists discovered the massive fossil in 2007 during fieldwork in the Rukwa Rift Basin in southwestern Tanzania.

"Political instability in certain parts of Africa can prevent dinosaur digs, but fossils in this part of the world are also elusive for geological reasons. As the continents drifted apart, Africa did not move as much as the other continents did, leaving its fossils buried instead of pushed up by plate tectonics, said Patrick O'Connor, a professor of anatomy at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, and one of the researchers on the new study. [See photos of the dinosaur dig in Tanzania]

"Africa also had fewer ideal areas where sediment could quickly bury a creature and begin the fossilization process. Politics and geology, 'those two things together account for why we don't know so much about continental Africa as we do about other parts of the world,' O'Connor said...."
I wondered about Africa having "fewer ideal areas" for fossil formation. That may be true, but Wikipedia's List of African dinosaurs says paleontologists have found quite a few dinosaurs from the Triassic, Early Jurassic and Late Jurassic.

The Middle Jurassic, 176,000,000 to 161,000,000 years ago, not so much. Apparently the only African dinosaur known for this period is Chebsaurus, a sauropod that lived in what's now Algeria.

Cretaceous fossils have mostly been found in the northern part of Africa. The Early Cretaceous is when the South Atlantic formed, separating Africa and South America.

Paleontologists are understandably curious about how different species developed after that happened.

Buried Twice, Excavated Once, and Nitpicking

"...About 100 million years ago, the dinosaur likely died on a muddy floodplain. Mudstone eventually covered its body, but shortly after, a river running through the plain cut away at the mudstone, exposing part of the skeleton and encasing it in sandstone...."
(Laura Geggel, LiveScience)
Maybe this is nitpicking, but I don't think the dinosaur got covered by mudstone.

Mudstone is what you sometimes get when mud or clay turn to stone. Compressed mudstone sometimes becomes shale, and that's another topic. It sounds like this Rukwatitan bisepultus got covered by mud, which turned to mudstone: you get the idea.

One more maybe-interesting detail, about the folks who helped dig this dino out —

Ohio University's Office of Research Communications says that "professional excavators and coal miners" helped paleontologists recover the dinosaur's fossilized bones from a cliff in southwestern Tanzania. (September 8, 2014)

We've learned a great deal since the days of Athanasius Kircher and Nicolas Steno, and that's yet another topic. (July 15, 2014)

Still more of my take on the last half-billion years:

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Gamaliel and the Centurion

Between spending my teens in the '60s and stubbornness worthy of a mule, my attitude toward "authority" had been less than fawning.

Happily, I married a woman with a very low tolerance for nonsense. She pointed out that I had no problem with authority. It was pompous nitwits who claim authority that set my teeth on edge. (December 2, 2012; March 30, 2011)

That helped explain why I became a Catholic, and that's another topic.

The Centurion

One of my favorite folks in the Bible shows up in Matthew, a little after the Sermon on the Mount. He refused something Jesus offered — and was commended by my Lord:
"4 When he entered Capernaum, 5 a centurion approached him and appealed to him,

"saying, 'Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, suffering dreadfully.'

"He said to him, 'I will come and cure him.'

"The centurion said in reply, 6 'Lord, I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof; only say the word and my servant will be healed.

"For I too am a person subject to authority, with soldiers subject to me. And I say to one, "Go," and he goes; and to another, "Come here," and he comes; and to my slave, "Do this," and he does it.'

"When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him, 'Amen, I say to you, in no one in Israel 7 have I found such faith."...
(Matthew 8:5-10)
These days, someone in the centurion's position might have said, 'I understand chain of command:' which isn't blindly following orders, and that's yet another topic. (March 12, 2012)

Or maybe not so much. I can't remember a time when I didn't recognize my Lord as the Son of God: although my understanding of faith has grown a great deal over the decades.


Another of my favorite folks is Saul's mentor, Gamaliel:
"6 But a Pharisee in the Sanhedrin named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, respected by all the people, stood up, ordered the men to be put outside for a short time,

"and said to them, 'Fellow Israelites, be careful what you are about to do to these men....

"...So now I tell you, have nothing to do with these men, and let them go. For if this endeavor or this activity is of human origin, it will destroy itself.

"But if it comes from God, you will not be able to destroy them; you may even find yourselves fighting against God.' They were persuaded by him."
(Acts 5:34-35, 38-39)
This teacher of the law had the good sense to realize that God is large and in charge: and that "activity ... of human origin" self-destructs if it violates natural law.1

The Eastern Orthodox Church recognizes Gamaliel as a Saint, and that's yet again another topic.2

Kingdoms, Dynasties - - -

Studying history, I focused on what happened before about 476 AD. From my point of view, that's when Western civilization's 'reset' button got punched.

Since we're still working on the post-Roman iteration — we don't know how it'll turn out yet. I'm cautiously optimistic, and that's still another topic.

One of my professors said that nations or kingdoms don't last more than about two centuries. Remember: this was the late '60s and early '70s. I now see the cultural and legal upheavals as the start of long-overdue reforms. Some didn't go as well as I'd hoped, but many did. (February 9, 2014)

There's a little truth to the 'two centuries' claim: human institutions don't last forever.

Making a quick spot check in Europe's history, I see that the Obodrite realm lasted 35 years, from about 1090 to 1125 or 1093 to 1128 — or thereabouts. By one reckoning, the House of Habsburg lasted 760 years, from around 1020 to 1780.  Maybe 200 years is an average, maybe not.

Come to think of it, the Spanish branch of the Hapsburgs started around 1516, and married close relatives until earning oblivion in 1700: almost exactly two centuries. (December 13, 2013)

On the other hand, some civilizations of the ancient world were remarkably durable.

Egypt under the pharaohs lasted from about 3000 BC to 30 BC, when it became a Roman province. That's remarkable, but over that three-millennia span dynasties rose and fell, and there were at least two major interruptions.

I'm a bit more impressed by Rome: as a Republic from 509 to 27 BC, and an Empire from 27 BC to 476 AD in the west, 330 to 1453 in the east.

Rome's constitution and laws changed over those thousand years: but there was, I think, more continuity than we see in ancient Egypt. Roman law in the Imperial period arguably laid foundations for today's international law, and that's more topics.

- - - and the Catholic Church

After two millennia, and more than a dozen centuries into the current iteration of Western civilization, the bark of Peter has had 264 senior officers on deck.

Some of our Popes, including two from the 20th century, are canonized Saints.

Others were anything but.

Benedict IX, for example, was elected Pope three times — was kicked out of the position twice, and sold the papacy once. That was roughly a thousand years back. The Church hit another rough patch from about 1316 to 1447.

Oddly enough, knowing about Popes who were — ethically challenged? — helped convince me that my Lord's authority had been passed from Peter to Linus, and so on to Benedict XVI and now Francis.

I also knew that the Catholic Church had endured, with an unbroken transfer of authority, for nearly two thousand years: despite the fall of Rome, the occasional knave like Benedict IX, and the Black Death.

Human institutions don't last that long. Not with that sort of continuity.

"...Until the End of Time..."

I'm impressed by folks like that centurion, Gamaliel, and the criminal who said " 'Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.' "

Somehow they knew, or suspected, that this Nazarene was from God.

Nearly two thousand years later, we've had good Popes, bad ones, and some who were good men but inept administrators. We've had folks who said they were the Pope, but weren't.

But the Catholic Church is still here.

I could assume that the Church was incredibly lucky — or accept what my Lord said to Simon Peter in Matthew 16:18.

Applying Occam's razor, I decided that what the Catholic Church had been saying from the start was the most likely explanation. We've had help.

We're guided by Sacred Scripture, Tradition (with a capital "T"), and the Magisterium. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 75-95)

Our Tradition is the apostolic teaching authority, a "living transmission, accomplished in the Holy Spirit."3 (Catechism, 77-79)

For two milllenia we have persevered: through the rise and fall of kingdoms, empires, and civilizations; despite Manichaeism, Benedict IX (we've up to Benedict XVI now), and paparazzi. I expect 'more of the same' until my Lord returns: no matter how long "soon" is.
"Jesus said to him in reply, 'Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood 12 has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.

"And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, 13 and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.

"I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. 14 Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.' "
(Matthew 16:17-19)

"11 Then Jesus approached and said to them, 'All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me.

"Go, therefore, 12 and 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. 13 And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.' "
(Matthew 28:18-20)

"And so the apostolic preaching, which is expressed in a special way in the inspired books, was to be preserved by an unending succession of preachers until the end of time...."
("Dei Verbum," 8)
Part of my take on our first two millennia:

1 Natural law: unchanging ethical principles woven into the universe, truth present in the core of each of us, and perceptible through reason. How we apply these principles varies from one era to another, and depending on local circumstances. (1954-1960)

2 More than you may want to know about Gamaliel:
3 Tradition with a capital "T" is not the same as trying to live in the 1950s:
" 'In order that the full and living Gospel might always be preserved in the Church the apostles left bishops as their successors. They gave them their own position of teaching authority.'35 Indeed, 'the apostolic preaching, which is expressed in a special way in the inspired books, was to be preserved in a continuous line of succession until the end of time.'36

"This living transmission, accomplished in the Holy Spirit, is called Tradition, since it is distinct from Sacred Scripture, though closely connected to it. Through Tradition, 'the Church, in her doctrine, life and worship, perpetuates and transmits to every generation all that she herself is, all that she believes.'37 'The sayings of the holy Fathers are a witness to the life-giving presence of this Tradition, showing how its riches are poured out in the practice and life of the Church, in her belief and her prayer.'38

"The Father's self-communication made through his Word in the Holy Spirit, remains present and active in the Church: 'God, who spoke in the past, continues to converse with the Spouse of his beloved Son. And the Holy Spirit, through whom the living voice of the Gospel rings out in the Church - and through her in the world - leads believers to the full truth, and makes the Word of Christ dwell in them in all its richness.'39"
(Catechism, 77-79)

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