RP: It is the Protestant churches that have preserved the true faith in its fundamentals and so are true churches. The Roman Catholic Church has fallen into grave error and apostatized, and so it is no longer an orthodox church.
RC: On what basis do you make that claim?
RP: On the basis of Scripture. The Bible is God's Word. It tells us what the true faith is. Rome has deviated from the true faith as defined in Scripture. For example, Roman Catholics teach that Mary was sinless, but the Bible teaches that "all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23).
RC: The Catholic Church disagrees with your interpretation of Scripture in this area. St. Paul does teach that all have sinned, but he is not discussing the question of the unique characteristics of the Virgin Mary in his letter, so he does not mention that she is an exception. In the Catholic view, Mary was just as doomed to be a sinner as everyone else since the Fall of Adam, but God, through the sacrifice and merits of Christ and by the power of his grace, preserved her from falling into sin. So she is saved by Christ from sin just as much as any of us, but in a different way.
RP: Your interpretation of Romans 3:23 is wrong, for the verse plainly says that "all have sinned," not just "most have sinned."
RC: Including Jesus?
RP: Of course not! He is obviously the one exception! The Bible elsewhere teaches that Christ was sinless (Hebrews 4:15, for example), but it nowhere teaches that Mary was sinless. That's just an unbiblical tradition the Roman Catholic Church added onto the Scripture. But we're not supposed to add to Scripture (Deuteronomy 4:2, etc.).
RC: Your argument is fundamentally question-begging, for it is based on the assumption that you have the authority to interpret the Scriptures on your own against the Tradition of the Catholic Church. But the Catholic view is that Scripture is not meant to be interpreted by private individuals, but in the context of the infallible and authoritative Tradition of the Catholic Church preserved and developed by the bishops of the Church over the centuries through the infallible guidance of the Holy Spirit. The Catholic view is that the Bible is the Word of God, but the Word of God has also been handed down by Tradition (orally, through the Church's liturgy, through the teaching of the pastors of the Church, etc.), and the supreme authority appointed by God to interpret and apply his Word is the Magisterium of the Catholic Church. Your argument that the Catholic Church is unbiblical is based on the assumption (which you have not proven) that the right way to read and interpret the Bible is the Sola Scripture method of Protestantism rather than the Catholic way, and therefore your argument is question-begging. If it turns out that the Sola Scriptura method of interpreting the Bible is incorrect, that it is not the way God intended the Scriptures to be interpreted, then that method is likely to lead you to incorrect conclusions. So you can't reasonably rely on that method without first proving it to be the correct method.
RP: But the Bible teaches Sola Scriptura, so we have proof of it! For example, 2 Timothy 3:16-17 says this: "All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works." Also, one of Jesus's main arguments against the Pharisees was that they added their man-made traditions to the Word of God (Mark 7:1-13). He showed, therefore, that we should reject man-made traditions and adhere only to the Word of God.
RC: But your arguments from these passages are question-begging, because you are assuming that your interpretation of them as teaching Sola Scriptura is correct, when the Catholic Church's interpretation of them disagrees with yours. You are assuming without proof that you have the authority to interpret the Scriptures on your own in opposition to the Tradition of the Catholic Church. In other words, you are assuming Sola Scriptura in order to prove Sola Scriptura, which is to fundamentally beg the question.
RP: But these passages are so plain that it is obvious that they teach Sola Scriptura. So the Catholic Church must be wrong if it interprets them differently. That's another problem with the Roman Catholic view. You hold that Scripture is too hard to understand, so you just rely on your Church to tell you what it means; while we Protestants believe that the Bible is plain enough for anyone to understand--at least in its major teachings.
RC: I'll grant that there are some things in Scripture stated so plainly that it would be impossible to understand them in more than one way. But the issues on which we and other Christians disagree are not usually so obvious. Take the biblical arguments for Sola Scriptura you've just been making. 2 Timothy 3:16-17 doesn't plainly teach Sola Scriptura. What does St. Paul actually say? He says that Scripture is inspired by God. He says that it is useful for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction, to help people do the good works God has called them to. Catholics accept all of this. Scripture is indeed profitable to teach us how to live righteously and to teach us true doctrine. It is true that if we follow Scripture, it will lead us into all good works. Scripture contains the seed of all true doctrine. All Catholic doctrine is derived from Scripture, from its principles. It is either taught explicitly in Scripture, or it is implied in what Scripture teaches--provided Scripture is interpreted correctly, in the context of the infallible Tradition of the Catholic Church. So we Catholics accept everything that St. Paul teaches here. It is true we interpret what he is saying in some ways differently from how you Protestants tend to interpret it, as you see in his words an affirmation of Sola Scriptura. But although you may think that idea is somehow implied in what he says, we read the same passage and see no such implication. So which one of us is right? Are we going to go with the private, admittedly fallible interpretation of Protestants, or are we going to follow the infallible Tradition of the Catholic Church? These verses of St. Paul, by themselves, without adding any agreed-upon rule of interpretation, do not solve this conflict between us. You can only use St. Paul here against us if you bring in the unproven assumptions that Sola Scriptura rather than the Catholic method is the right way to interpret the Scriptures and that your interpretation of these verses over ours is the correct one.
Let's look also at your argument from Jesus's conversation with the Pharisees about the traditions of men. Does Jesus teach Sola Scriptura there in any plain way? No. He does teach that the Pharisees had added man-made traditions to the Word of God, and that this was a bad thing to do. So we can infer from this that we shouldn't do anything like that, and that this is a danger we should watch out for. But Catholics don't believe that we are adding man-made traditions to the Word of God. By teaching Catholic Tradition, we are not teaching man-made traditions but divine Tradition. Does Jesus anywhere say there is no such thing as divine Tradition, or that Tradition in any sense should never be put together with the written form of the Word of God? No. You can try to infer that idea, but it is not plainly there. The Catholic view is not ruled out; it is not even addressed. In 2 Thessalonians 2:15, St. Paul says, "Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle." There is an example of the idea of tradition used in a positive way. St. Paul says, "Follow what you have been taught, both what is written and what has been handed down in other ways." So clearly not all unwritten tradition is always bad. Sometimes it is authoritative and reliable just like that which is written. And if you want to say, "But you're misinterpreting St. Paul there!", my response is that I don't think I am, but I am not interested in getting into endless interpretation wars, because that is a distinctly Protestant thing to do. The Catholic way is to defer to the authority of the Church in such matters. You have given me no reason to assume your Protestant methodology here.
While we're at it, let's look at your biblical argument regarding the sinlessness of Mary as well. Nowhere does St. Paul or anybody else in Scripture say that Mary committed sins. Paul says that "all have sinned," but this is clearly not meant to be an exhaustive literal statement in the strictest sense because we both agree that Christ is exempted, even though St. Paul doesn't say so in the passage. St. Paul is making a general comment about the fallenness of humanity and its need for salvation. The issue of whether there might be any unique person out there who is saved from sin in a different way is simply beyond his purview in the passage. Similarly, Paul makes the general comment elsewhere that "the wages of sin is death," but any reader of the Bible knows that some people--like Elijah--didn't die like everyone else. They were exempted in a unique way. There is nothing in what St. Paul says that would preclude the possibility that, if he was asked specifically, he would have agreed that Mary was sinless: "What is that? Did Mary, the mother of Christ, commit sins personally? Oh, well, no, I guess she did not. I didn't bring that up here because I was focused on a different issue." Granted that there is nothing in St. Paul's text to indicate that Mary was a unique exception, but his statement does not plainly take the opposite view either. (Similarly, Matthew 27:44 says that "The thieves also, which were crucified with him, cast the same in his teeth." That is, they also persecuted Christ. If this is all we had, we might assume that both robbers did this. But we learn from Luke 23:39-43 that Matthew has condensed and simplified his account, for one of the two robbers didn't persecute Christ--quite the opposite.) So how do we know what to say on this point? Do we follow the typical Protestant inference that Mary is not a unique case here, or do we go the Catholic way and follow the infallible and authoritative teaching of the Catholic Church? You simply assume that we should use Protestant methods to interpret and draw inferences from Scripture, but you do not show that this is the right way to go about using the Bible over against the alternative Catholic way, and so your arguments are fundamentally question-begging.
And how do you even know that the books of the Bible you make use of are supposed to be in the Bible at all and so are authoritative? The Bible itself does not come with a table of contents. You can only know which books belong in the Bible by some source outside of the books of the Bible themselves. What source is that? If you don't trust God's infallible guidance of the Tradition of the Church in this area, all you can do is go back to the historical records and do the best job you can with your fallible judgment trying to figure out which books are supposed to be in the canon. Some of those books might have more evidence than others, but if you only trust the Bible as infallibly authoritative and not the Church's Tradition, then how can you know the Church didn't get mixed up and include some books that shouldn't be there and leave out some that should? Take a book like Jude, for instance. It's canonicity was disputed in the early centuries of the Church. How do you know the Church eventually got it right when she decided that it truly belonged in the canon? Martin Luther, after all, wasn't so sure.
RP: OK, I understand your argument here. But I don't see how you aren't in the same boat. If I am begging the question by assuming a Protestant method of reading and applying the Bible, how are you Roman Catholics not begging the question just as much by assuming your Catholic ideas about how to do these things?
RC: The answer to that is that the Catholic view is the historic view of the Christian Church founded by Christ, while to hold Sola Scriptura we would have to break from the historic Church. We both agree that Christianity is the true religion. We both agree that Christ founded a Church. We both agree that Christ commanded us to maintain unity with the Church he established (1 Corinthians 1:10-13, etc.) and to obey the shepherds of that Church (Hebrews 13:17, etc.). We both agree that the apostles and those sent by them appointed the earliest elders/shepherds over the early churches. It follows from all of this that it would be schismatic and sinful if we were to disobey the shepherds of Christ's Church or disrupt the unity of that Church without good reason.
The early Church of the patristic era did not hold to Sola Scriptura, but to the Catholic idea that Scripture is to be interpreted in accordance with the infallible Tradition of the Church. For example, listen to St. Basil of Caesaria:
66. Of the beliefs and practices whether generally accepted or publicly enjoined which are preserved in the Church some we possess derived from written teaching; others we have received delivered to us "in a mystery" by the tradition of the apostles; and both of these in relation to true religion have the same force. And these no one will gainsay—no one, at all events, who is even moderately versed in the institutions of the Church. For were we to attempt to reject such customs as have no written authority, on the ground that the importance they possess is small, we should unintentionally injure the Gospel in its very vitals; or, rather, should make our public definition a mere phrase and nothing more. For instance, to take the first and most general example, who is thence who has taught us in writing to sign with the sign of the cross those who have trusted in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ? What writing has taught us to turn to the East at the prayer? Which of the saints has left us in writing the words of the invocation at the displaying of the bread of the Eucharist and the cup of blessing? For we are not, as is well known, content with what the apostle or the Gospel has recorded, but both in preface and conclusion we add other words as being of great importance to the validity of the ministry, and these we derive from unwritten teaching. Moreover we bless the water of baptism and the oil of the chrism, and besides this the catechumen who is being baptized. On what written authority do we do this? Is not our authority silent and mystical tradition? Nay, by what written word is the anointing of oil itself taught? And whence comes the custom of baptizing thrice? And as to the other customs of baptism from what Scripture do we derive the renunciation of Satan and his angels? Does not this come from that unpublished and secret teaching which our fathers guarded in a silence out of the reach of curious meddling and inquisitive investigation? (Chapter 27, On the Holy Spirit--from the New Advent website, embedded links removed)
Or listen to St. Vincent of Lerins:
But here some one perhaps will ask, Since the canon of Scripture is complete, and sufficient of itself for everything, and more than sufficient, what need is there to join with it the authority of the Church's interpretation? For this reason—because, owing to the depth of Holy Scripture, all do not accept it in one and the same sense, but one understands its words in one way, another in another; so that it seems to be capable of as many interpretations as there are interpreters. For Novatian expounds it one way, Sabellius another, Donatus another, Arius, Eunomius, Macedonius, another, Photinus, Apollinaris, Priscillian, another, Iovinian, Pelagius, Celestius, another, lastly, Nestorius another. Therefore, it is very necessary, on account of so great intricacies of such various error, that the rule for the right understanding of the prophets and apostles should be framed in accordance with the standard of Ecclesiastical and Catholic interpretation. (St. Vincent of Lerins, Commonitory, Chapter 2--from the New Advent website, embedded links removed)
Protestants surely know what St. Vincent is talking about here! Having abandoned the "standard of Ecclesiastical and Catholic interpretation," they have ended up with a legacy of endless divisions arising from endless differences in biblical interpretation.
Anglican scholar J. N. D. Kelly sums up the early Church's view on these matters very well in in his book Early Christian Doctrines, particularly in the chapter on "Scripture and Tradition." Here is his conclusion:
It should be unnecessary to accumulate further evidence. Throughout the whole period Scripture and tradition ranked as complementary authorities, media different in form but coincident in content. To inquire which counted as superior or more ultimate is to pose the question in misleading terms. If Scripture was abundantly sufficient in principle, tradition was recognized as the surest clue to its interpretation, for in tradition the Church retained, as a legacy from the apostles which was embedded in all the organs of her institutional life, an unerring grasp of the real purport and meaning of the revelation to which Scripture and tradition alike bore witness. (J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines [San Francisco: Harper & Row, 5th ed., 1978], 47-48)
Thus in the end the Christian must, like Timothy, ‘guard the deposit’, i.e., the revelation enshrined in its completeness in Holy Scripture and correctly interpreted in the Church’s unerring tradition. (Ibid., 50-51)
(For more evidence for the views of the Fathers on these points, see here, here, here, and here, for starters.)
RP: But I have heard that the early Church believed in Sola Scriptura.
RC: Then you've heard wrong. Protestants have certainly made that argument, but it can't really be supported by the evidence. But interpreting the Fathers can sometimes be complex--much like interpreting the Scriptures. We also have to take into account the fact that, in the Catholic view (and even in the Protestant view), although the giving of public revelation has been completed, yet the Church progressively develops in her understanding, articulation, and application of revelation over time as she is guided by the Holy Spirit. (See, for example, St. Vincent of Lerins's discussion of this principle in Chapter 23 of his Commonitory.) The substance of the doctrine of the Trinity, for example, was certainly taught in the early Church from the beginning, but it was not explicitly defined in an official formula by the entire Church until the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. For another example, it took time for the Church to officially and definitively delineate the limits of the biblical canon. Similarly, the Fathers were not facing an opposing view that strongly asserted a developed concept of Sola Scriptura during the time of the early Church, so they did not formulate a formal response to it, even though what they taught clearly excludes it.
But let's say, for the sake of argument, that the early Church was unclear on this point, and that some Fathers taught Sola Scriptura. It is still the case that, just as with other doctrines like the Trinity, the contents of the canon, the two natures of Christ, the necessity of grace for all good works, etc., the Church eventually came to the conclusion that Sola Scriptura is wrong and the Catholic idea of an infallible Tradition and an infallible Church to infallibly gather, preserve, unpack, interpret, and apply the infallible Scriptures over the ages is correct, for it is the Catholic Church and not the Protestant churches that have grown organically and empirically out of the patristic Church. The patristic Church evolved into the Catholic Church, not into the Protestant churches. Protestantism had to break from the established Tradition of the existing Church and its unity in order to establish their own churches and their own Sola Scriptura doctrine. This means that it is the Protestant position that has the burden of proof, for the default lies with the Catholic Church and the Catholic viewpoint. If Protestants can prove that their distinctive doctrines are correct and that the Catholic Church has erred, so be it--they win. But if they cannot prove this, then they broke with the existing Catholic Church for no good reason, with no substantial justification, and so were and are schismatic. Our default lies with the unity and continuity of the Church that Christ founded. Since we are commanded by Christ to maintain obedience and unity within his Church, we must continue to do so unless we can prove that the Church has gone off the rails. If we abandon the Church Christ himself founded to start our own new denominations and traditions without just cause, we are acting arbitrarily and so irrationally and schismatically. In the absence of any good, conclusive reason to go our own way, our duty is clearly to trust the Church Christ founded and remain within her and follow her teachings.
And therein lies the fundamental problem with Protestantism. Protestants claim to be a reform movement, bringing the Church back to its foundations in the name of Christ. But Protestants cannot prove their distinctive positions over against the Catholic Tradition without question-begging, because all their positions rest on the unproven assumption of Sola Scriptura. They cannot prove that doctrine from Scripture without already assuming it by interpreting Scripture according to it. They cannot prove that the Church ever embraced as her official doctrine Sola Scriptura, for at best (already granting more than the records warrant) the evidence from the Fathers is inconclusive. The historic Church never embraced Sola Scriptura or rejected the Catholic position, and over time it organically grew into today's Catholic Church rather than in a Protestant direction. They certainly cannot prove from reason that Sola Scriptura is the way God must have done things. So they are left with no basis for their affirmation of Sola Scriptura or all the theological positions they have come to on its foundation. They are therefore in the position of having abandoned the Church organically and empirically descended from Christ and the apostles, disrupted its unity, and defied its authority, for no good reason--putting their own trust arbitrarily and without cause in their own theological opinions over against the established teachings of the historic Church--and have thereby merited justly the label of "schismatic." The true Church is therefore not to be found with the Protestants, but with the Catholic Church that Christ founded. (Though I should add that this does not mean that Protestants aren't true Christians or that they are completely separated from Christ's Church, as the Catholic Church has made clear.)
RP: OK, I see the case that you have made. But one more question: Why the Catholic Church, and not the Orthodox Church? Are not both of them organically and empirically descended from the historic Church, and yet they disagree with each other?
RC: Good question. Fortunately, I just had a conversation with an Eastern Orthodox individual the other day in which that question was thoroughly addressed, so I will refer you to that conversation.