Friday, June 24, 2016

Some Email Responses Dealing with Scripture and Tradition, Sola Scriptura, Vatican II, the Salvation of Non-Catholics, and Changeable Vs. Unchangeable Rules

Below is a recent email correspondence in which a number of interesting issues are discussed.

__________ I wanted to throw a couple of questions your way that have been on my mind regarding arguments people tend to make against Catholicism.

1) Regarding Sola Scriptura. As I read more arguments against the Catholic view from an SS side, I feel like one thing I notice is that SS folks tend to paint the Catholic view in a way that doesn't seem accurate. They always seem to think that the Catholic view of Tradition as having equal authority means that the church can sort of come up with whatever doctrines it wants, and that these things can even clearly contradict Scripture (many will use the immaculate conception as something that they say clearly contradicts Romans 3:23, for example). The picture of Catholic teaching that this leaves (and that picture I had in my mind for a while) was that there was no sort of check on the church, and that it was anyone's guess as to what crazy new doctrine they may come up with down the road.

However, as I have gotten more familiar with Catholic teaching, the gist I am getting is that this picture really isn't accurate. I'm getting the impression that while Tradition does hold equal authority with Scripture, Scripture is truly at the center. Tradition seems to be there still in service of Scripture. It's primary function is teaching, interpreting, upholding and fleshing out the implications of Scripture, rather than something that just stands independently of it. Would you say this is an accurate representation of true Catholic teaching?

Yes, that is accurate.  The Catholic view (see here) is that the Word of God--that is, the revelation of God--has been handed down in two forms: Scripture and Tradition.  Scripture is the Word of God infallibly communicated in writing.  Tradition is the same Word of God infallibly handed down through the preaching, teaching, liturgy, etc., of the Church.  (See Irenaeus's Against HeresiesBook III, Chapter 4, for a good description of this.)  They have mostly the same content.  That is, Tradition contains everything that Scripture contains.  They're the same revelation.  Tradition does provide some context that sheds light on Scripture, however.  The quote I gave from Basil of Caesaria in my dialogue with the Protestant discusses this.  For example, Scripture talks about baptism, but doesn't discuss the question of whether infants should be baptized.  The Church's liturgical tradition reveals that they should be.  So we should observe the Scripture in the context of the Tradition of the Church.  The Tradition of the Church also contains what the Church has learned through the ages, not from new public revelation, but from the Holy Spirit guiding the Church in its continual, progressive unpacking, understanding, and application of the revelation already given (resulting in such things as the articulation of the doctrine of the Trinity at the Council of Nicaea, etc.).  So, other than some context filling in some gaps in terms of practical application, for the most part, the revelation is entirely contained in Scripture, and the Church's job is to teach the Scripture.  So the Church's doctrine is derived from Scripture.  (By the way, this is why Protestants can sometimes make it sound like some of the Fathers believed in SS.  The Fathers speak very highly of Scripture, describe it as sufficient, talk about the Church deriving its doctrine from it, etc.  All this can sound very SS to a Protestant, but then the Fathers go on to talk about how Scripture must be interpreted and applied in the context of the infallible Tradition of the Church passed down through apostolic succession, and the whole SS thing falls apart.)

So the Church's doctrine cannot contradict Scripture.  It can, however, contradict certain (false) interpretations of Scripture.  If a Protestant is applying SS, he might come to some interpretation that seems likely to him and then decide that Catholicism has deviated from Scripture because it has deviated from his interpretation of it (as with the Immaculate Conception issue, and many others).  So it has to be remembered that in the Catholic view, Scripture is not meant to be interpreted by private individuals coming to their own conclusions.  This does not mean that there is no theoretical possibility of trying to find some contradiction between Catholic teaching and Scripture.  If Scripture speaks so plainly about something that only one reading is possible, and if Catholic teaching contradicted that, then that would be a problem.  But, in fact, what I have found is that that never happens, but all the alleged contradictions are connected to less-than-certain Protestant interpretations.

2) A lot of Protestants like to talk about the Catholic church making big shifts at Vatican II, and they do this in a way that implies that the church was kind of acknowledging a lot of wrong and fault in pre-Vatican II times. I don't get the idea that Catholics would view it entirely that way though. What would a Catholic understanding of what happened at Vatican II be? For example, why the insistence on Latin prior to that time, and then suddenly shifting and saying that the vernacular is ok? 

Vatican II was like any other ecumenical council, in that it helped to advance the Church's development of its understanding and articulation of doctrine.  Ecumenical councils usually are responding to some prevailing error or issue, and their formulations are shaped by that.  In the case of Vatican II, the issue was the need of the Church to relate its teachings to new cultural situations and ideas current in the modern world (particularly modern western thought and culture as that has spread around the world).  There were issues that needed more direct or formal or definitive addressing.  The Church wanted to adopt, in many ways, a new tone to fit the changing situation.  (For example, no longer could the Church assume a fundamentally Christian west in somewhat conscious submission to or rebellion against the Catholic Church.  We now live in a very post-Christian culture, so the Church needed to adapt its presentation of its teaching to this new situation.)

The Church has not always done everything perfectly, and it has never claimed to have done so.  So many councils in history have made reforms to fix problems, Vatican II being no exception.  But the council did not alter defined Catholic teaching, but was in continuity with it.  Some have tried to interpret the council as breaking radically with the pre-council Church, but the Church has rejected that characterization.  Pope Benedict XVI talked about this explicitly in this message, where he attacks what he calls a "hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture" in understanding the council.

Two areas where some people allege a break with Vatican II are the areas of religious freedom and salvation outside the Catholic Church.  Studying both of these areas sheds light on how the Church has developed its teaching and the articulation of that teaching in modern times in continuity with and not rupture with the past.  This article addresses religious liberty and this article addresses salvation outside the Church.  Take the latter issue:  The Church has always taught that salvation comes through Christ and his Church, and so to be separate from these is to be separate from salvation.  The Church has frequently warned people of the dire consequences of rejecting Christ and his Church, that this amounts to a rejection of salvation.  In, say, the Middle Ages and the early modern period, it made sense to emphasize the warning side of things, because the general level of understanding was higher overall.  But today, much confusion reigns, and a lot of people have not willfully rejected the Catholic Church but are caught up to varying degrees in the mass of confusion that exists all around us.  As this situation developed, the Church saw more and more a need to emphasize that its warnings were not intended to suggest that people who are not Catholics through no fault of their own are necessarily going to be damned.  As an example, take Pope Pius IX's message "On the Promotion of False Doctrines" in 1863.  In that message, Pope Pius IX says this:

7. Here, too, our beloved sons and venerable brothers, it is again necessary to mention and censure a very grave error entrapping some Catholics who believe that it is possible to arrive at eternal salvation although living in error and alienated from the true faith and Catholic unity. Such belief is certainly opposed to Catholic teaching. There are, of course, those who are struggling with invincible ignorance about our most holy religion. Sincerely observing the natural law and its precepts inscribed by God on all hearts and ready to obey God, they live honest lives and are able to attain eternal life by the efficacious virtue of divine light and grace. Because God knows, searches and clearly understands the minds, hearts, thoughts, and nature of all, his supreme kindness and clemency do not permit anyone at all who is not guilty of deliberate sin to suffer eternal punishments.

8. Also well known is the Catholic teaching that no one can be saved outside the Catholic Church. Eternal salvation cannot be obtained by those who oppose the authority and statements of the same Church and are stubbornly separated from the unity of the Church and also from the successor of Peter, the Roman Pontiff, to whom "the custody of the vineyard has been committed by the Savior."[4] The words of Christ are clear enough: "If he refuses to listen even to the Church, let him be to you a Gentile and a tax collector;"[5] "He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you, rejects me, and he who rejects me, rejects him who sent me;"[6] "He who does not believe will be condemned;"[7] "He who does not believe is already condemned;"[8] "He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters."[9] The Apostle Paul says that such persons are "perverted and self-condemned;"[10] the Prince of the Apostles calls them "false teachers . . . who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master. . . bringing upon themselves swift destruction."[11]

Notice that this message was delivered back in 1863, about 100 years before Vatican II.  At Vatican II, the Church gave even stronger dogmatic affirmation of these same ideas.  But people who are not familiar with the history here, who have the idea that the Church said all non-Catholics whatsoever in any circumstances must be damned before Vatican II, are easily persuaded that the Church reversed her official teaching on this matter at Vatican II.  There has indeed been a change of tone and emphasis, reflecting changing circumstances, but not a reversal of doctrine.  (Notice how the way the Catholic Church handles this differs from Protestants.  When Protestant churches confront changing circumstances in the culture, usually what happens is that some go along with those changes but overcompensate, becoming too liberal, while others try to maintain their conservative position by refusing to acknowledge any changes--the result being a church split where we end up with two churches [or more!], one church which is too liberal and submissive to whatever the modern fads are and one church that is too reactionary and unable to adapt to changing and complex circumstances. . . .)

To understand where the Church can change and where she cannot, it is helpful to recognize distinctions between matters of faith and matters of conditional practice.  The Trinity is a matter of faith.  So is the doctrine of the papacy.  But what languages are allowed in the Mass is not a matter of divine faith.  The Church never claimed that there is some divine precept that states that masses must be in Latin.  The Church never even required all masses to be in Latin.  There have always been Eastern churches who used Greek, Syriac, etc.  The Church did have a rule limiting much of the western-rite Mass to Latin, for various reasons.  Eventually, the Church decided that that no longer made sense in changing circumstances.  But this was always regarded as a prudential rule, and so a rule subject to change if change is warranted.  There are lots of rules like that, not just in the Catholic Church but in any church.  I just posted something on Facebook this morning about the Church's response to Henry VIII which gives another good example of this in terms of some marriage rules.

That's it for now! :)

Hope that helps!

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