Posts Tagged ‘Christian Tradition’

Sources of Authority in the Catholic Church

Dear Reader,

Recently, in dialogue with a friend, I have been revisiting the claims made by the Roman Catholic Church. I say “revisiting” because I was raised Catholic. I left the RC Church in college when I came to faith. I do not consider that I was saved before this time though to my recollection I always accepted the Church’s teaching on who God is and on the death and resurrection of Christ. I did not understand until that point what was necessary for salvation nor did I have saving faith. As I said in my earlier post on the (alleged) primacy of Peter, I found in the Catholic Church Law but not Grace. This may not be everyone’s experience but it was mine.

While I considered myself a fairly educated (ex-) Catholic, I am discovering that there is much I did not know or at least did not fully understand. While there was no Catholic school in my area, I attended Sunday School consistently all through my childhood. In fact, my mother was in charge of the program so I was at church a lot both on Sundays and other days. We knew every priest that came through town, had them over to dinner, etc. I even had a stuffed walrus named after the bishop (Walter). Nonetheless I have found in my study that there are things that I was never clearly taught, particularly about today’s topic: Authority in the Catholic Church.

I am focusing on this topic specifically because it has been central to my talks with my friend. And I think that for any of us trying to converse with Catholics or those considering Catholicism it is helpful to understand what common ground we have and what we don’t have. Plus I think there are a lot of misconceptions among Protestants about this topic.

Whereas Protestants adhere to the principle of sola Scripturataking the Bible alone as their supreme source of authority*, Roman Catholics rely on three strands: Scripture, Tradition and the authority of the church hierarchy known as the Magisterium.

Tradition (big “T”) stands alongside Scripture in the Catholic Church:

“Therefore Christ the Lord in whom the full revelation of the supreme God is brought to completion (see Cor. 1:20; 3:13; 4:6), commissioned the Apostles to preach to all men that Gospel which is the source of all saving truth and moral teaching, and to impart to them heavenly gifts. . . This commission was faithfully fulfilled by the Apostles who, by their oral preaching, by example, and by observances handed on what they had received from the lips of Christ, from living with Him, and from what He did, or what they had learned through the prompting of the Holy Spirit. The commission was fulfilled, too, by those Apostles and apostolic men who under the inspiration of the same Holy Spirit committed the message of salvation to writing.

But in order to keep the Gospel forever whole and alive within the Church, the Apostles left bishops as their successors, “handing over” to them “the authority to teach in their own place.” This sacred tradition, therefore, and Sacred Scripture of both the Old and New Testaments are like a mirror in which the pilgrim Church on earth looks at God . . .” [From Pope Paul VI in Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation: Dei Verbum chapter 2 (November 18, 1965)]

This Tradition seems to be a finite body of knowledge since we are told in the same document that there will be no more public revelations (which I assume means the door is still open for private revelations along the lines of “You, John, should go to India”):

The Christian dispensation, therefore, as the new and definitive covenant, will never pass away and we now await no further new public revelation before the glorious manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ .” (Dei Verbum, chapter 1)

But, while there is no new revelation, there is more for the Apostles and their successors to communicate as their understanding of revelation grows:

This tradition which comes from the Apostles develop (sic) in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. For there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down. This happens through the contemplation and study made by believers, who treasure these things in their hearts (see Luke, 2:19, 51) through a penetrating understanding of the spiritual realities which they experience, and through the preaching of those who have received through Episcopal succession the sure gift of truth. For as the centuries succeed one another, the Church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth until the words of God reach their complete fulfillment in her.” (Dei Verbum, chapter 2)

Thus the Catholic church holds Scripture and Tradition side by side and the two cannot contradict each other:

Hence there exists a close connection and communication between sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture. For both of them, flowing from the same divine wellspring, in a certain way merge into a unity and tend toward the same end.” (Dei Verbum, chapter 2)

Nonetheless, there is still a preeminence given to the written revelation:

[The Church] has always maintained [the Scriptures], and continues to do so, together with sacred tradition, as the supreme rule of faith, since, as inspired by God and committed once and for all to writing, they impart the word of God Himself without change, and make the voice of the Holy Spirit resound in the words of the prophets and Apostles. Therefore, like the Christian religion itself, all the preaching of the Church must be nourished and regulated by Sacred Scripture.” (Dei Verbum chapter 6)

It is interesting to me that the reason given for the Scriptures’ preeminence here is that, being written, they are “without change.” Does that mean that Tradition is changeable? It doesn’t sound to me like it should be so, given that Tradition, like the Scriptures, where handed down to the first generation of Apostles by Christ himself and that revelation is said to be complete. Nonetheless, this quote seems to imply that the unchangeableness of the written Wotd is what makes it unique.

There is one sense in which Scripture is subject to Tradition; it is Tradition which tells us what Scripture is:

“120 It was by the apostolic Tradition that the Church discerned which writings are to be included in the list of the sacred books.”(Catechism of the Catholic Church 120)

But to these two, the Roman Catholic Church also adds a third strand of authority – that of its human teachers through the ages, known as the Magisterium. For it is only those who stand in the Apostolic succession, we are told, who are able to interpret either Scripture or Tradition:

But the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed.” (Dei Verbum, chapter 2)

And again from The Catechism of the Catholic Church:

85 “The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone. Its authority in this matter is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ.” This means that the task of interpretation has been entrusted to the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome.

86 “Yet this Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it. At the divine command and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it listens to this devotedly, guards it with dedication and expounds it faithfully. All that it proposes for belief as being divinely revealed is drawn from this single deposit of faith.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 85-86)

These then are the three sources of authority in the Roman Catholic Church: the content transmitted from Jesus to his Apostles, some of which has been since written down and, with the Old Testament, become the Bible, and some of which has remained oral and been handed down through the centuries from generation to generation of church leaders and which is still their exclusive possession except as they choose to reveal it to the Church and the authority to rightly  interpret both of these which again was given by Christ to the Apostles and handed down through the generations.

How then do we talk to our Catholic friends? Do we have any common ground on which to operate? Well, yes and no. In theory we do have the Bible, the written Word of God. We both hold it to be true and unchangeable. Though Catholics also hold to Tradition (big “T” again), the two cannot contradict one another and Scripture is on some level preeminent. On the other hand, the Catholic Church says that Scripture cannot rightly be interpreted except by the leaders of the church, that is, its bishops (local priests do not have this authority). So you may come to your friend with some text you think supports your position only to have them say, “Well, but the Church says that’s not what it means.”  This makes dialogue difficult since the person in front of you is likely not a bishop and therefore does not have, according to their Church, the ability to rightly interpret what is before them. On the other other hand, most Catholics are not very clear on what their Church teaches and may not be aware that they are not allowed to do any of their own interpreting.

Before I close, I want to do a little myth-busting of some common misconceptions Protestants have about the Catholic Church:

Myth: Catholics are discouraged from reading the Bible for themselves.

Truth: In this day and age, the Catholic Church encourages all its members to read the Bible in their own languages:

Hence “access to Sacred Scripture ought to be open wide to the Christian faithful . . . 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.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 131, 133)

Myth: Catholics consider the Pope infallible.

Truth: Papal infallibility applies in only certain circumstances. On one hand, not everything a pope says is infallible. On the other, infallibility also applies in a few other circumstances. I’ve tried for this post to rely as much as possible on documents released by the Catholic Church itself so as to let it speak in its own words. However, the most helpful thing I’ve found for my own understanding of infallibility is the Wikipedia article  “Magisterium” and particularly the chart which is included about midway through it under the heading “Levels” (I can’t seem to add a link right now). What this chart shows, and the article explains, is that there are three scenarios in which infallibility applies, some other scenarios in which infallibility does not apply but authority is still present, and lastly some in which authority is not present and the ordinary Catholic is free to disagree.

Infallibility applies when:

  • The Pope speaks ex cathedra — that is, when he speaks with the full authority of his office — on matter of matters of faith and morals. I think of this ex cathedra bit as like a mantle he puts on; when he assumes it, he puts on the maximum authority of his office. Popes do this very rarely, and I believe it was John Paul II who said he would never do so.
  • When bishops define doctrine at general councils. This cannot be done without the consent of the Pope. This is when there is a big gathering of bishops in one place and they all agree on some matter of doctrine. Some of the earliest church councils come to mind — like Nicaea in 325 AD –as well as relatively recent ones like the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. You may have heard news stories of the current Pope meeting with world bishops (again, my linking feature is failing me; sorry about that). I am honestly not sure if they had made decisions at these meetings if they would qualify or not.
  • When bishops, though not gathered together, all teach something. Again the Pope must also be in union with them on this. In other words, anything that is universally taught by bishops (of which the Pope is one) is considered infallible.

If something is infallible, then Catholics must accept it as such. There are lesser matters which are not considered infallible but which Catholics are expected to freely submit to as they submit to the authority of their leaders. In this category we have anything else the Pope says and anything that the bishops say “in communion with the Pope.” I suppose that means that the bishops must say it first and the Pope then goes along with it since everything the Pope says is authoritative anyway. If your local priest says something which does not fall into one of these categories or some Catholic theologian who you might be listening to or reading the works of, you are free to dissent.

Last burning question because I know you will ask: What sorts of things qualify as infallible? There is no definitive list. The canonization of saints qualifies (i.e. when they are made saints) and there are some other things which are agreed upon as infallible like the Immaculate conception of Mary (that she was conceived without original sin; that’s a whole nother post). But, as I said, there is no definitive list, part of the problem being that the whole doctrine of infallibility was not conclusively defined and widely accepted within the Catholic Church until the 19th century.

This post has been in many ways preparatory to another one I’d like to write comparing the sources of authority in the three big branches of Christianity: Roman Catholicism, Protestantism and the Orthodox Churches. So if you like this sort of thing, you are in luck — more to come soon.


*God also reveals Himself through His creation but this revelation is non-specific and not sufficient unto salvation. In addition, it should be noted that Protestants rely on tradition (little “t”) in many ways but hold to the Bible as the “only infallible rule for faith and life” (as the vows of church membership in my denomination, the RPCNA, phrase it). “Only” here modifies “infallible” meaning that there may be other good guides in faith and life but that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the only guides which are infallible and therefore are the standard by which all others must be judged.