Monday, June 14, 2021

A Catholic and an Agnostic Debate the Ethicality of Homosexual Acts

 In my high school apologetics class (in a Catholic school), I have students write a paper on the topic, "Can homosexual acts be ethical?"  I role-play several fictional characters in the class, including a Catholic (George Stewart) and an Agnostic (Robert Merryweather).  Students have to write their paper to either George or Robert, depending on which one answers the question the opposite way they do (George answers no and Robert answers yes).  Whoever they write to then writes back and responds to their arguments, and a dialogue ensues, which continues over four drafts.

I value this paper very highly because of the skills I think it is well-suited to build.  Here is something I say about that in a document explaining the paper:

By engaging in the dialogue with their interlocutor (the person they're writing to), they are enabled to have a conversation which will require them to learn better to recognize their own assumptions and their interlocutor's assumptions.  "What do I really think?  Why do I think what I think?  How have I arrived at my conclusions?  What assumptions or beliefs do I have that I may not even have previously noticed on a conscious level?  Do I really have a good basis for my opinions and convictions?  Why does my interlocutor think the way he does?  Why does he come to the conclusions he does?  Why do I not arrive at those same conclusions?  Where do we diverge in our beliefs in such a way that we are led to these different conclusions?  What merit is there in my interlocutor's point of view?  Does he have good arguments?  If so, why don't I agree with him?  If I don't find his arguments finally convincing, where do I think his reasoning goes wrong?"  And so on.

By practicing and getting better at these skills, students will learn to better understand themselves and others, to recognize why people think differently about various subjects, to understand why different people do different things, to be better able to examine questions about what is really true and to come to reasonable and warranted conclusions, to have good reasons for their beliefs and to recognize better what those reasons are, to be more empathetic with others who think differently while at the same time being able to hold on to what they really think to be true, and to more effectively dialogue with people they disagree with.  This leads to an "iron sharpening iron" sort of situation where everyone is able more effectively to reach truth, and it also leads to a more peaceful and compassionate society where people are able better to interact with and live alongside those they disagree with.

And why this topic in particular?
I picked it because it is a controversial topic in our culture today.  I picked it because it is a topic upon which most people have pretty strong opinions, and which is important to a lot of people.  I picked it because it is a topic where a particular point of view has, very recently, become very entrenched and dominant in our culture, and the alternative point of view has come to be seen more and more as obviously wrong, outrageous, and even evil.  I picked it because it is an area where the Catholic point of view is at odds, in some ways, with the dominant point of view in our surrounding culture.  All of these things make this topic an ideal one for the practice of a dialogue designed to really challenge students to grow in the skills of self-awareness, other-awareness, the questioning of assumptions, and effective dialogue, especially in a Catholic school setting.  High school seniors are at a point in life, typically, where they are learning to think for themselves and form their own opinions and identity relative to the culture of their upbringing as well as the surrounding culture.  Teenagers raised Catholic are in a fascinating position, as they are heirs of a culture that, while it agrees with the broader, surrounding culture in many areas, yet is out of step with that culture in some crucial and important areas.  This creates a serious tension, as these teenagers often experience a strong pull in opposite directions.  Serious and critical engagement on a topic like this can be ideal as a practice ground for learning to think critically about the conflicting points of view they are trying to navigate through.  And non-Catholic students, similarly, gain much by exploring and dialoguing about this subject.
Below, I have posted the initial paper the students read outlining George's and Robert's positions which starts the dialogue.  Enjoy!

Robert Merryweather’s Answer to the Question 

I’ve been asked to comment upon the question, “Can it be ethical to engage in homosexual acts?”  My answer to that question is yes, it can be ethical. 

Foundation 

My views on homosexuality are, of course, rooted in my broader worldview assumptions. I am an agnostic. I believe that, at this time, we humans do not possess knowledge of anything beyond the natural, empirical world that we inhabit and experience with our senses. I do not assert that such knowledge could never be had in principle. I won't even assert dogmatically that absolutely no one at all has such knowledge now, but I claim that if anyone does have such knowledge, it does not seem to be generally available to us. So perhaps I should say that there seems to be no publicly verifiable knowledge available to the human race at present of anything beyond the natural world. Of course, unlike George, as an agnostic I do not have “official documents” I can refer you to to find out more about agnosticism. Agnosticism is a substantial view regarding what we know and what we don't know, and it greatly affects how we view the world we live in, but in a sense it is a much more “negative” worldview than George's—not “negative” in the sense of “bad” but rather in the sense that it is more an affirmation of what we don't know than a list of things we do know. This makes it much easier to define. If you want to see more descriptions and definitions of agnosticism, I would recommend the Wikipedia article on “Agnosticism” as a good basic overview, as well as Bertrand Russel's essay What is an Agnostic? 

Of course, not everyone agrees with me about agnosticism, and many non-agnostic holders of other worldviews have claimed that their worldview can indeed be known to be true and have presented arguments attempting to show this. If I wish to avoid begging the question, then, in my claims regarding homosexuality which are rooted in my agnosticism—and I do!—I must do something to respond to these arguments. George and I have written up a debate document (found on Google Classroom) in which we have argued for our respective worldviews. I will not repeat my arguments here, but simply refer you to those documents. 

It may be that there is more to reality than the natural, empirical world, but if there is, we don't know about it. No doubt there is much about the natural, empirical world even that we don't know. But in constructing a system of ethics and deciding how practically to live our lives, we cannot build on what we don't know but only on what we do know. If someone suggests that we ought to follow the commands of the Christian God just in case Christianity might turn out to be true, well, what if Islam, or Hinduism, or for that matter the ancient Aztec or Norse religion turns out to be true? We will simply have dug ourselves into a deeper hole, perhaps, by trying to be Christian. Of course, the religions overlap to a great extent in terms of practical advice, but then in most of the areas of overlap—such as prohibitions against murder, theft, etc.—one can reach the same conclusions on naturalistic grounds as well and so one doesn't need to know anything about the supernatural to establish such things. When we go beyond these basic ethical principles, however, and begin to get into more specific practical commands and prohibitions of the various religions, we find that the religions differ greatly. Is it a sin to eat pork? Christianity says yes, Islam and Judaism say no, etc. Also, there are times when the historic religions of the world mostly agree on certain particular principles, but that agreement seems to be rooted more in custom and prejudice than rational consideration. Homosexuality is, I think, one of those cases. Many religions have been against it in human history, but I don't think they can show that they have had good reasons to be against it (barring belief in the supernatural claims of the religions). If human antiquity nearly agrees on something, that should give us pause and make us consider the matter carefully, but it should not determine the matter for us if the position seems to be without or contrary to reason. After all, there are many things—slavery, for instance, or lack of religious freedom, or belief in magical cures for diseases—which have been nearly unanimously thought to be OK by most human cultures in history which we now reject as irrational and not conducive to human thriving. Homosexuality has been objected to by many historic religions, but that doesn't prove they had (or have) a good reason to be against it.  And not all cultures have been against it.  In fact, it has been widely practiced in various forms throughout the world’s cultures (the Wikipedia article on “Homosexuality” documents some of this).  Research has shown that it is even present sometimes in the non-human animal world! 

At any rate, we can only work with what we have, and all we have, agnostics claim, is what we know of the natural, empirical world. This includes our knowledge of the external, physical world as well as our knowledge of our own inner thoughts, desires, etc. George's Catholic worldview claims that there is an “objective moral law” rooted in the will of God. We were created by God and belong to him, and therefore there is a purpose for which we were made and to which we have a duty to conform. But I see no basis to claim the existence of any such “objective moral law.” What I do see is that we all have desires. We all want to be happy. There are certain things that are more conducive to making us happy, other things less conducive. Since we all want to be happy, we will want to live in such a way as to be as happy as we can be. It is out of this fact, I believe, that ethics arises. Ethics, in my view, is the art of recognizing both our desires and the relevant facts of the universe in order to find a way to live that brings about happiness and contentment. I would argue that the sorts of motivations that are natural to us include motives of self-interest, by which we seek our own personal happiness and well-being, and also motivations which embrace a concern for others—such as love, empathy, sympathy, compassion. As beings who have evolved in a social context, we are not only naturally concerned for ourselves, but we are also naturally concerned for other beings around us who we can see are like us in their capacity to experience pleasure and pain. Therefore, I would argue that, ordinarily, the best way to live the happiest life we can is to live in a way that balances self-interest with other-focused motivations. We don't want to be too selfish, and on the other hand we don't want to live as slaves to the desires of others to the point of our own misery. I could go further on this point, but instead I will refer you to an excellent little essay by Fred Edwords, The Human Basis of Laws and Ethics, which I think has argued for these points in a very compelling way. Here's another good one from Ronald Lindsay. 

Homosexual Acts Can Be Ethical 

It can be ethical to engage in homosexual acts.  Why?  Because it makes the people who engage in them happy.  Of course, I’m speaking generally.  It would not make everyone in the world happy to engage in homosexual acts at any time, in any circumstances, etc.  Probably the large majority of the world’s population has no desire to engage in homosexual acts and would find no pleasure in doing so, and would probably find the practice very undesirable.  And even those who are inclined towards homosexuality would, of course, need to use prudence in terms of how, when, with whom, etc., to engage in homosexual acts.  So, as with any human activity, there are a lot of prudential questions to answer in terms of the specifics of when and how homosexual acts should be engaged in.  All I’m saying is that homosexual activity, like heterosexual activity, is not off the map in terms of ethical activities some humans might reasonably choose to engage in. 

Why would homosexual activity be unethical?  Some might argue that it is unethical because it spreads disease.  But homosexual activity does not in itself, inherently, spread disease.  Sure, there are imprudent ways in which one might engage in homosexual activity that might spread disease, just as is the case with heterosexual activity.  Random and unthinking promiscuity—whether heterosexual or homosexual—runs a high risk for disease, both for oneself and for one’s sexual partners.  Perhaps certain forms of homosexual activity might be prone to the spread of disease or to other physical harm.  But this is all irrelevant to the real point here.  I like the way the original question is framed.  The question is not, “Is it ethical at any time and in any way to engage in homosexual acts?”, but “Can it be ethical to engage in homosexual acts?”  My answer is yes, it can be ethical, if done reasonably and prudently. 

Some might argue that homosexual activity is unethical because it can cause psychological harm, or harm to families (such as when a person leaves his/her spouse to get involved in a homosexual relationship).  Well, yes, again, of course there are ways of engaging in homosexual acts that can cause psychological harm, or can harm families.  If Bob is strongly convinced that homosexual activity is wrong, or dangerous, or whatever, and he engages in it anyway, he may experience great psychological discomfort.  Again, I am not saying that everyone in any situation ought to engage in homosexual activity.  Bob might want to abstain, at least until perhaps someday he has a change in his beliefs about homosexuality.  And if a person leaves a spouse or some other committed relationship to form a homosexual relationship, this can cause harm to the former spouse or partner.  But, again, this is irrelevant to the point of the original question.  We’re talking here about questions of adultery and other questions extraneous to the pure question of the ethicalness of homosexual acts per se.  Sexuality is a big deal in human life and society.  One’s sexual behavior can have a great impact on oneself and others.  So, again, one must proceed prudently, as well as compassionately, when one is considering engaging in some specific sexual act.  All of this has to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.  It’s exactly the same with heterosexual activity. 

Some might argue that homosexuality used to be considered a psychological disorder.  This is true.  But this is no longer the case.  The basic medical consensus today is that the earlier designation of homosexuality as a mental disorder was based on lack of data, stereotypes, false cultural assumptions, etc.  The Wikipedia article on homosexuality discusses this here.  Based on our current level of scientific and medical knowledge, there is simply no reason to classify homosexuality as a mental or psychological disorder. 

Another popular objection is that homosexuality is “unnatural”.  Sexuality, so the argument goes, is obviously designed with reference to procreation.  It is obviously designed as an act that is to take place between a male and a female.  To take it out of that context, then, is to misuse it by using it “unnaturally”. 

Of course, there is truth in this objection.  It is obvious that sexuality is something that has been “designed” by evolution for the primary function of allowing males and females to procreate.  Who could deny this?  It’s one of the most obvious facts of the biological world.  But it is also completely irrelevant to this discussion.  This objection seems to take the idea of “nature” and give it quasi-personal properties, as if “nature” were some kind of god who creates things for some purpose and has ownership over them, demanding that they be used in certain ways.  It’s as if the objector is picturing nature as looking down (from somewhere) and saying, “Hey you!  Don’t you go using sexuality outside of male-female relationships and for purposes other than procreation!  That’s not what I made it for!”  But this is to endow “nature” with something like religious qualities.  From a scientific standpoint, “nature” is nothing more than the processes by which things in the natural world function.  So far as the scientific evidence goes, there is no reason to believe that any person designed sexuality or any other aspect of the natural world.  Sexuality, like living systems in general, evolved over millions of years by means of random mutations and natural selection.  Organisms reproduce and make copies of themselves.  These copies make their own copies, and so on.  Sometimes the copies aren’t exactly the same as the versions they came from.  Sometimes the differences hurt the survival of the copy, sometimes they help.  “Natural selection” simply refers to the fact that some organisms survive better than others.  In the evolutionary history of life, sexuality probably developed because the mixing of DNA from multiple parents increased diversity in the offspring, and diversity helps a species survive and thrive.  There is no actual design, no intentional purpose, in this process of evolution.  So far as our scientific knowledge goes, sexuality was not created by any person for any specific purpose.  It is not owned by some god, who gets to dictate by some objective moral law how it is to be used.  As I said earlier, ethics is not rooted in some objective moral law of God, but in our own human desires as we navigate the realities of the world around us, trying to be happy.  So it is completely irrelevant to the ethicalness of an action whether that action is “natural” or “unnatural” in the senses under consideration.  All that matters is whether it promotes happiness.  And, of course, homosexual activity, engaged in rationally and prudently in the proper circumstances, does promote happiness.  So the fact that it is “unnatural” does not at all make it unethical. 

The “It’s unnatural” argument seems to me to be a bit question-begging as well, in that the users of this argument don’t actually seem to believe their own argument.  They merely use it to support a position they’ve already reached on other grounds.  Why do I say that?  Because they use the argument selectively.  Sexuality is not the only thing we humans have taken out of its original or primary context to make different uses of.  We do this all the time with the things we find in the world.  Is it “natural” to cut down a tree and build a house out of it?  Surely the original and primary role of a tree is to live and grow as a tree.  But we cut it down and use the wood to build all sorts of things.  Is it “natural” to shave a sheep and use its wool to make clothes?  Is it “natural” to cook food?  Is it “natural” to build canals, or irrigate fields?  Is it natural to build machines so that humans can fly through the air to distant places, or even to go into space and walk on the moon?  After all, as the old saying goes, “If man were meant to fly, he’d have been born with wings!”  I don’t see any way in which all of these things can be declared to be “natural” that will preclude homosexuality from being declared “natural” as well.  If I can cut down a tree and use its wood to build a house, why can’t I take the sexual act and make use of it in a homosexual relationship for enjoyment, to create bonding in a relationship that brings joy or security, etc.?  If the latter is unnatural, so is the former.  If we say the former is natural because it is natural for humans to use their brains to find new uses for things that had a different original use, then isn’t that exactly what those who engage in homosexual acts are doing with sexuality? 

Some might argue that homosexuality is a choice rather than a condition people are born with.  But this does not seem to be true.  (Again, see the Wikipedia article for a helpful discussion and some resources on this.)  But, even more importantly, I think it is irrelevant.  What if it were true that homosexuality was a choice rather than having any deeper inherent roots in biology, etc.?  Why would that make it unethical?  Do I have to prove that an inclination to some activity is rooted in my genes or my basic biology in order for it to be ethical for me to engage in that activity?  Do I have to prove that I am hard-wired to play video games in order to justify playing them?  Do I have to prove that I have some kind of gene for world travel in order to justify enjoying traveling around the world?  Do I have to prove that I have a built-in genetic basis to be attracted to brunettes before I can be justified in marrying a brunette?  In all of these things, is it not enough to say that I have chosen to do these things because they make me happy?  So why would it be otherwise with homosexual activity? 

Some might argue that homosexual acts are contrary to the law of God.  Well, prove to me that that is the case, and we’ll see where it takes us.  But, for now, I’m an agnostic, so this argument doesn’t have much weight with me.  If religion is something that is unprovable, then it should be a personal matter.  If you choose to practice a religion that is opposed to homosexuality, more power to you.  But you can’t judge others on the basis of your religion as if that religion constituted some objective norm for the whole human race.  That would be contrary to reason. 

I think I’ve pretty much established my case to my satisfaction, so I’ll draw this essay to a close. 

 

George Stewart’s Answer to the Question 

“Can it be ethical to engage in homosexual acts?”  No, I don’t think it can be. 

Foundation 

I am a Catholic, and so I hold to the Catholic worldview. The Catholic worldview is described in great detail in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and in a more condensed form in the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It is summarized in the Nicene Creed. The Wikipedia article on the Catholic Church is also helpful. We believe that there are two fundamental sources of knowledge-- reason (which refers to what God has made known to us by means of our senses and reasoning ability) and revelation (which refers to what God has made known through special messages and messengers, culminating in Jesus Christ and the revelation he has entrusted to his Church). The Catholic Church, being the church founded by Jesus Christ, has been entrusted with God's revelation and is the authoritative interpreter of it. This revelation has been preserved and expounded by the Church in two forms—in Scripture (the revelation of God written and infallible) and in Tradition (the revelation of God handed down infallibly through preaching and practice, with the interpretation of that revelation the Church is led into through the infallible guidance of the Holy Spirit). Two documents of the Second Vatican Council, Dei Verbum (especially Chapter II) and Lumen Gentium (especially #25) describe this in greater detail. 

Since my answer to the question is rooted in the assumption of the truth of the Catholic worldview, it is my responsibility, to avoid begging the question, to make a case for the truth of that worldview. I will not attempt to do so here, however, as I have already done this in the  debate document Robert and I have written up and which you can find on Google Classroom. I will simply refer you to that document. 

God, being the Supreme Being and the author of all creation, is the ultimate moral authority of the universe. God's viewpoint defines reality, and therefore his views of good and bad are the foundation of an objective moral law which binds all of reality. He is also, for the same reason, necessarily the supreme judge. He will ensure that good is ultimately rewarded with good, and that bad is ultimately rewarded with bad (because he loves the one and hates the other), even though, in his wisdom, he does not always bring full judgment immediately. (See the debate document for more on these points. See also the Catechism's discussion of the moral law.)  The moral law of God can be to some degree known to reason, but it is also communicated to us through his special revelation.  The Church is the authoritative interpreter of God’s revelation, including the moral law. 

Homosexual Acts Cannot Be Ethical 

Homosexual acts cannot be ethical because they are contrary to the moral law of God.  God created the human race.  He created us male and female.  He created human males and females to join with each other in a special covenant called marriage, in order to support each other and to create a household for the procreation and upbringing of children.  Sexuality was designed by God to be a means of bonding between spouses and an expression of their love, as well as for the purpose of procreation.  It is contrary to the moral law of God to take sexuality out of that context and to turn it into something fundamentally different.  From this foundation arises moral prohibitions on various forms of illicit sexual activity—such as pre-marital sex, masturbation, adultery, prostitution, artificial contraception, and homosexual activity.  These illicit forms of sexual activity are gravely immoral because sexuality is a very special and sacred thing, seeing that it is the God-appointed means for the creation of new human life and is an important aspect of human love and relationships. 

The Catechism of the Catholic Church addresses these issues primarily here and here.  Here is the Catechism’s direct teaching on homosexuality:

 

2357 Homosexuality refers to relations between men or between women who experience an exclusive or predominant sexual attraction toward persons of the same sex. It has taken a great variety of forms through the centuries and in different cultures. Its psychological genesis remains largely unexplained. Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that "homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered." They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved. 

 

2358 The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God's will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord's Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition. 

 

2359 Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.  (CCC #2357-2359, footnotes removed)

 

We need to make a distinction between objective sin and subjective guilt.  The Catholic faith teaches that homosexual acts are objectively sinful, but that does not imply that every person who engages in such acts has the same level of guilt.  The subjective moral state of a person involves more than merely the objective gravity of the sin.  It involves the level of knowledge and awareness a person has, the extent of the consent of their will, the level of difficulty involved in avoiding the sin, and many other factors.  It is relatively easy (in some cases) to judge the objective wrongness of an act, but judging the subjective guilt of a person is often immensely more complex.  In fact, usually we do not have enough knowledge, and nor is it our place, to attempt such a subjective judgment.  So when I claim here that homosexual acts are unethical, I am referring only to the objective immorality of the act.  I am not making any judgment whatsoever regarding the subjective guilt of any particular person engaging in such acts. 

Having now made my fundamental case, I’ll spend the rest of my time responding to objections and making clarifications. 

Responses to Objections 

“Isn’t your view inconsistent?  You consider infertile couples to have a valid marriage and to be able to engage in sexual acts.  Why is OK for them but not for gays and lesbians, seeing that in both cases there is an impossibility of procreation?” 

The difference is that in the case of an infertile couple, there is no intentional act of divorcing sexuality from openness to procreation.  The failure of the sexual act to result in procreation is accidental and unintended.  There is no attempt to deliberately remove sexuality out of its proper context and function.  Sexuality is still being used properly, with an openness to its fundamental purposes.  With homosexual acts, however, there is such a deliberate attempt to misuse sexuality.  The sexual act is being intentionally removed from its God-ordained context and put into a fundamentally different context.  To use an analogy, one might compare a person unintentionally being born with only one arm vs. a situation where a person has only one arm because he has intentionally severed it.  So there is no inconsistency in the Catholic position at this point. 

“Don’t you Catholics approve of the practice of NFP, where couples make use of natural feminine cycles in order to avoid pregnancy?  Why is this OK, considering that it is a deliberate attempt to separate sexual acts from procreation?” 

The Catholic teaching is that it is immoral to divorce the sexual act from its natural tendency towards procreation.  This is why the Church opposes artificial contraception.  But NFP is a fundamentally different thing.  There are natural periods of fertility and infertility built into the female sexual cycle.  It is not contrary to the law of God to use prudence in order to regulate births.  There should be a recognition that children are ordinarily a natural blessing in a marriage, and there should be an inclination to allow procreation to occur, all other things being equal.  However, there can be licit reasons to avoid pregnancy—lack of ability or resources to raise children, health concerns, circumstances that require a smaller family size, and other things.  It is also licit to make use of the natural cycles of fertility in order to regulate births.  Couples are, in general, free to abstain from sexual relations for various reasons, for various lengths of time—it can be a good form of penance, for example.  If couples choose to make use of “sexual fasting” during times of fertility in order to regulate births, this is perfectly acceptable according to the moral law of God.  This is not to divorce sexuality from its natural tendency to procreation, or to take sexuality out of its proper context, but it is consistent with the God-ordained purpose and functions of sexuality. 

It might be asked why God allows couples to engage in “sexual fasting” and to space births, but he does not allow them to use contraceptives or other means to divorce the sexual act from procreation.  We have already pointed out the difference between these two things.  But the question is, why does God allow the one and not the other?  Ultimately, if we pursue many of these sorts of questions, we end up eventually at the brute fact of what God has created and commanded.  We know from reason and from revelation that God has designed the human race a certain way and has designed sexuality to function in a certain way.  While reason can take us some part of the way in seeing the reasons for aspects of God’s design, reason cannot give us all the answers.  Why did God make humans with two arms rather than three?  Why do we not reproduce by means of asexual reproduction instead of sexual reproduction?  Why is grass green rather than blue?  Things are the way they are because that is how God made them.  If we have good reason to believe that God has indeed made them that way, our lack of knowing why in some particular case is not an argument against the truth of the fact. 

“Your view is contrary to science.  Modern medical science has shown that homosexuality is not a disorder, but is a natural condition for some people.  Some people are, as they say, ‘born that way.’” 

We could debate whether or not homosexuality could or should be classified as some kind of physiological or psychological "disorder".  But it's not important, because the Catholic position is not dependent on this issue.  There are aspects of human life that are completely "natural", in the sense that they are a normal part of human nature as it currently exists, and yet are still "disordered" in a deeper, metaphysical sense.  Take death, for example.  What could be more natural than death?  Obviously, it is not a disorder when people die.  It is the normal, universal experience of all (or almost all, if you take a Catholic point of view) human beings.  But yet at a deeper metaphysical level, one that takes into account not only the empirical sciences but the fundamental divine purpose and design of human beings, death is a terrible disorder.  Humans were not created originally to die.  Death entered the human race as a result of the Fall.  It is now a "natural" thing, but, at the deepest level, it is fundamentally unnatural.  The Fall not only brought death, but it led to a widespread disordering of human nature.  We are now subject to all kinds of disadvantages and corruptions we would not have been subject to before the Fall.  Catholic theology talks about "concupiscence"--the disordered desires of fallen human beings.  These are the desires that lead us into sin.  These desires are, on the biological level, quite normal, but they are anything but normal when we are talking about the original design and purpose of human beings.  We Catholics would put homosexuality into this category.  Whether or not it should be classified as a "disorder" in the sense intended by the modern scientific and psychological community, it is an expression of concupiscence.  Now please note that concupiscence in itself is not personal sin.  One is not responsible for one's disordered desires.  One can only be morally responsible for what is under the control of one's will.  It is choosing to act on a disordered desire and to therefore do something ethically wrong that involves personal sin and guilt.  So being homosexual, in the sense of having homosexual inclinations, is not a personal sin.  But acting on those inclinations and engaging in sexual activity outside of heterosexual marriage is a sin, at least objectively speaking.

So I do not see any basis for the claim that the Catholic view of sexuality is contrary to anything we know from the natural sciences.  The natural sciences can determine lots of things about human sexuality, but it is not within the domain of the natural, empirical sciences to determine more fundamental metaphysical and philosophical truths about human nature and the divine design of that nature, or to determine which actions are ethical and which are not.  These are philosophical questions that transcend the natural sciences and can only be answered within the domains of philosophy and theology.
 

“But if homosexuality--and other forms of non-traditional sexual inclinations--are built into human nature, at least as it currently exists (in what you call a "fallen" state), then isn't it unethical for the Catholic Church to condemn such sexual activity?  The Church is asking for the impossible!  It's asking for people to suppress or even to throw away who they really are.  It is unjust to ask this of anybody.  And it's harmful.  The LGBTQ+ community tends to have a high rate of suicide, precisely, at least in part, because of these kinds of inhuman demands.  You can't ask people to reject their real selves.” 

I think this is perhaps the most important objection against my position.  I understand the very real concerns it is expressing, and my first response is compassion.  We should certainly not underestimate how hard it is to live according to some of the Church's teachings.  And we should never underestimate the pain of those who do experience real disrespect, hatred, and bullying for being who they are.  We should help and love and support such people, and all people.  We do such a terrible job of understanding, loving, and respecting those who are different from us!  No doubt a substantial portion of the backlash the Church is experiencing from the LGBTQ+ community is justly deserved, as Catholics, and most others as well, have failed to live up to the love and respect required by the humanity of those who have struggled with things that have put them at odds with the larger society.

However, I cannot agree with the objector that Church teaching is unjust in this area.  In a sense, our entire human civilization is built upon the foundation of denial.  We are all fallen creatures.  Our desires are continually driving us to do things we know in our reason we ought not to do.  That's one reason life is so hard.  We must be constantly restraining ourselves from doing what we want, making ourselves do what we don't want to do, and in general going against and disciplining our human inclinations.  Different people struggle more with different things, whether because of their peculiar circumstances, their peculiar personality and psychological make-up, their particular physiology, or whatever.  It is notoriously difficult to get the mastery over our impulses and desires and to bring them into conformity with right reason.  That is precisely what ethics is all about.

Ethics asks hard things of all of us.  Sometimes it asks particularly hard things of some.  It calls some to be martyrs.  What could be more unnatural than allowing oneself to be killed, when simply saying a few words or performing a few external actions (denying the faith, burning some incense to the emperor) could preserve one's life?  I just watched A Man for All Seasons the other day, a movie about the life of Thomas More, who allowed himself to be beheaded simply because he would not agree to King Henry VIII being head of the Church of England and to his marriage to Anne Boleyn.  So many people tried so hard to get him to capitulate.  "All you have to do is just sign this piece of paper, no big deal."  But he allowed his head to get chopped off rather than do it.  I can't imagine what that was like, nor, I'm pretty sure, could anyone else who has not been in that situation.

Sometimes people have been called to endure torture, or long, cruel imprisonments, or other horrors, in order to preserve their ethical integrity.  Alcoholics have to go through a hard and painful process to avoid capitulating to their addiction to drink.  Some people are naturally belligerent, or get angry easily, or lack compassion, and they have to work hard to correct for these biases that would lead them into unjust actions.  Some married people find themselves attracted to another person, and they have to work hard to suppress their desires, which would lead them to do something that would harm their spouses and their children.

The challenge to "do the right thing" is surely the biggest and hardest challenge human beings face in this life.  The Church—or, to be more accurate, God—calls on those inclined towards homosexual acts, and other forms of unethical sexual expression, to live in a way contrary to their natural tendencies.  We mustn't underestimate how hard this can be.  And yet I see no objective reason to conclude that this is something a good God would not ask of his creatures.  God is the chief good.  All other goods shrivel into nothing in comparison to him, or they resolve into him.  Being with him forever is an infinite treasure that is worth all the hardship this life can bring on us and far more.  God has allowed evil to exist in this universe, not because he likes evil or because he cannot stop it, but because he knows that allowing it will lead to a greater good.  He has allowed sin and death, and all that follow them, to enter into this world.  He has allowed his creatures to suffer.  But he is not only all-powerful, but all-good and all-benevolent.  He knows that the way of suffering is ultimately the way of eternal life and happiness.  He blazed that path himself before us.  In order to open the path to heaven for us, Christ himself, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, lived a human life, endured human hardships, and suffered and died.  Then he rose from the dead and ascended into heaven.  He calls us to follow him, both into his death and into his resurrection.  This is what we are all called to, though it takes different forms for different people.  For those inclined to homosexuality, part of this calling may involve a hard and painful struggle against what seems so good and natural.  It may lead to a lifestyle which can be very difficult and lonely.  But it is worth it.  God is worth it.  It will pay off in the end.  All God asks of any of us is that we choose to follow him.  We may not always do it very well, but he keeps offering us his grace.  We simply have to choose to keep getting up and trying to go forward, knowing that he is with us and that it is worth it.  And, of course, there are consolations along the way, but these will take different forms with different people.

People with an inclination to homosexuality are not called to deny who they truly are.  They are called, like all of us, to discipline their passions and their actions in order to learn how to better become who they were truly created to be.  And they will succeed in the end if they keep choosing to go forward.  And even along the way, for many of them, there may be ways to make life go more smoothly.  All of us, as their brothers and sisters, should strive to help them along their journey, to help them make that journey successfully and to help make the journey itself as smooth as possible.
 

“But how can you know it is right to ask LGBTQ+ people to live according to these difficult Catholic standards?” 

Well, it all comes down to the question of truth, doesn't it?  Is Catholicism true or not?  If it is, then the teachings of the Church are not just human teachings, but they come from God himself, our Creator, the one who knows and understands everything, who is all-good and benevolent, and who is the source of the objective moral law.  So if Catholicism is true, if we want to get reality right and live our lives appropriately and successfully, we have to look at things from the Catholic point of view and live according to that.  On the other hand, if Catholicism is not true, then it is not from God.  Its teachings are merely the teachings of some human beings, and so there is no reason why we should take them as normative for us. 

Well, I think I’ve gone on long enough.  I’ve made my basic case.  Let the dialogue begin!

For more, see here.

ADDENDUM 6/14/21:  I recently read an article encouraging people in the Church to get over simply condemning as unethical homosexual sexual relationships and instead focus attention on creatively thinking about how those with same-sex attraction might go forward positively in their life in the Church, particularly how those who cannot find fulfillment by entering into heterosexual marriage might develop other kinds of relationships.  Thinking creatively and positively about these things seems to be a very worthy and much-needed endeavor.  I also listened recently to a podcast from Jesuitical in which Catholic author Eve Tushnet was interviewed.  She spoke about how same-sex attraction need not be seen as purely a negative thing--a difficulty to bear up under--but also as something put into one's life by God that can lead to positive blessings.  This is true of all things in our lives, for all aspects of life are under the providence of God, and even those things that we do not want serve a purpose in our lives and can be a means of our growth and an aid to our service and living out of our callings in the world.  If this is true with every other aspect of life, why not with same-sex attraction as well?  Some very worthwhile things to think about here.

Protestant vs. Catholic Debate

In my high school apologetics class (in a Catholic school), one of the things I do is have a dialogue and debate in class between two fictional characters—a Catholic (George Stewart) and a Presbyterian (Norman McTavish)—over a Protestant (Sola Scriptura) vs. a Catholic (Scripture/Tradition/Magisterium) epistemology, both of whom try to convince students of their position.  Both of my characters have written up cases for their position as well, which I have posted below. Enjoy!


Norman McTavish

I am a Protestant.  More particularly, I am a Presbyterian.  Our theology is summed up in the Westminster Confession of Faith (here is the version from my particular denomination, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church). 

George Stewart and I have far more that we agree upon than we disagree over.  We both advocate historic Christianity, in terms of central, core doctrines like the existence of God, the Trinity, the Fall of man, the Incarnation of Christ, etc.  However, we do have some areas of significant disagreement which I would like to address. 

Sola Scriptura 

One of our most fundamental areas of disagreement is in the area of epistemology—that is, in how we gain knowledge.  Particularly, our disagreement has to do with the question of the sources of divine revelation and the proper way to interpret divine revelation.  George’s Catholic view holds that there is a three-legged stool of Scripture, Tradition, and Magisterium, and that all three are protected from error by the Holy Spirit.  Scripture refers to the Bible, the Old and New Testaments.  This is the revelation of God written down in inspired writings.  Tradition refers to the revelation of God as it has been passed down and expounded upon in other ways—in the teaching, preaching, practice, and worship of the Church—over the centuries.  The Magisterium is the teaching office and authority of the Church, consisting of the college of bishops in union with the Pope (it can refer to the teaching of all the bishops together along with the Pope, or the teaching of the Pope as he represents all the bishops as the head bishop of the Church).  Since these three legs of the three-legged stool are held to be protected from error by the Holy Spirit, and they all come stamped with the authority of Christ himself, they are all to be accepted together as parts of a package deal.  They must be read in light of each other and no leg can be pitted in opposition against any of the other legs.  In practice, this means that Scripture will be interpreted in the light of the Tradition of the Church, and the authorized version and interpretation of Tradition is that of the Magisterium of the Church. 

By contrast, as a Protestant, I hold to the doctrine of Sola Scriptura.  Basically, this doctrine teaches that God’s revelation is found with ultimate authority and with infallibility only in Scripture.  Of course, the content of that revelation can be communicated in different ways, such as through the teaching, preaching, practice, and worship of the Church—what Catholics call Tradition—but we Protestants maintain that Tradition is not infallible.  It is not protected from error the way Scripture is.  This is because the Church is not infallible in her teaching.  Certainly, God guides the Church and helps her understand the Scripture.  Certainly, the Church’s history and Tradition are extremely helpful to us as we seek to understand, interpret, and apply the Scripture.  Tradition, history, learned scholarship, and many other things are extremely useful guides to us as we attempt to interpret and apply Scripture, and we ignore them at our peril, but they are not infallible.  We can learn a lot from them, and we must have great deference towards them, but we must not put the kind of implicit trust in them that we put in the Scriptures.  In practice, this means that when, after diligent study, prayer, and listening to the counsel of others (especially those well-versed in the relevant scholarship and the great historic teachers and teachings of the faith through the centuries), it is apparent to us that Scripture disagrees with any other opinion—no matter how old or respected that opinion might be—we must follow Scripture. 

The Westminster Confession of Faith defines Sola Scriptura well in Chapter 1, particularly in section 6 and section 10: 


VI. The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit or traditions of men. Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word: and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed.

 

X. The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture. 


So why do I believe in Sola Scriptura?  I think it’s best to start with history. 

A Brief Look at History 

Christianity is a revelation from God.  Although it is consistent with reason, and some of its teachings can be learned from reason, yet it surpasses reason, in that it contains many teachings that cannot be attained to by reason alone.  The only ordinary way we can have access to this revelation in its entirety is to receive it as it is handed down to us in history.  God gave this revelation over a long period of time, culminating in the teaching passed on to the world through Christ and his apostles.  The apostles transmitted this teaching to the people of God (the early Christian Church), and they appointed elders/bishops to safeguard that teaching after they were gone.  This historic Christian Church continued to pass this teaching down through time, until we reach our own day.  So we have received the revelation of God that is the Christian religion through a process of historical succession. 

If we want to know what this revelation says, then, we must look at what history has handed down to us.  We must look at the historical record as we have access to it.  And we can be confident that a careful look at that historical record will lead us to a correct understanding of God’s revelation, for if God has given us a revelation, it follows that he wants us to actually be able to know what it says.  The only way we can do that is if we can trust the historical record to communicate and transmit that revelation to us accurately.  If we have reason to believe that Christianity is indeed a divine revelation, then, we have reason to believe that God has protected the historical transmission of that revelation so that we can have access to it in an accurate and reliable way. 

So what do we see when we look at the historical record of the transmission of Christianity from its beginnings down to our own day?  There are different streams in the Christian tradition as we go back to the earliest records.  There is a mainstream, “catholic” tradition (as it called itself); and there are streams that were labeled “heretical” by the mainstream tradition.  The mainstream, catholic group held to the traditional Christian doctrines we associate with Christianity today, and which I would argue (as George has in his debate with Robert Merryweather) that we have good reason to believe to be true.  The heretical groups frequently disagreed with the catholic tradition on some of these doctrines.  The catholic group was, by far, the largest and best-established group historically.  They could trace themselves back to the apostles in a well-established line.  The heretical groups were divided into many sects and did not possess the same sort of historical pedigree as the catholic group did, and also their doctrines were frequently out of accord with the mainstream Christian tradition (and with reason).  For example, the heretic Marcion, in the second century A.D., didn’t like the Jewish elements in Christianity, and so he accepted only the New Testament, and only portions of it--namely, the “less Jewish” portions.  He accepted the letters of Paul, part of the Gospel of Luke (with the more “Jewish” portions excised), etc.  His position clearly is based on an alteration of an earlier tradition.  Many of the Gnostic heretical sects produced gospels that were not known by the Christian churches of the time, and which were frequently full of esoteric philosophy and metaphysics that were markedly different from the Jewish atmosphere of the traditional canonical New Testament (and, of course, the Old Testament).  Early catholic Fathers like Irenaeus (writing towards the end of the 2nd century, only a hundred years after the time of the apostles) well argued that, if we want the authentic teachings of Christ, it makes sense to receive the teachings that he handed down to his own hand-picked apostles, and which those apostles handed on to their own hand-picked bishops/elders, in a clear line of succession to the present day (that is, to the time of Irenaeus).  It makes no sense to receive as authoritative teachings and alleged Scriptural writings that other sects produced out of nowhere, with no historical pedigree, un-heard-of in the earlier Christian tradition. 

In conclusion, then, since the catholic tradition holds the best historical pedigree, as far as we can tell, and its doctrines are the doctrines of historic Christianity (which has the mark of divine revelation, as George well established in his debate with Robert Merryweather), while many of the teachings of the heretical sects are not, it makes sense to assume that the catholic tradition maintained the most reliable passing-down of the teaching of Jesus and the apostles. 

So what did the historic Church have to say about where the revelation of God is to be found?  The catholic church, and most of the heretical groups I mentioned above, accepted that God has provided revelation to his people in the form of authoritative Scriptures.  Such an idea was already established, of course, in the Judaism that preceded the Christian era, and the vast majority of Christians accepted the Jewish Scriptures (the Old Testament) as the Word of God (though there was some dispute over the status of some books, primarily what has come to be known as the Apocrypha, that were included in the famous Greek Septuagint translation of the Jewish Scriptures).  Very early on, there is evidence that Christians had another body of literature that was on par with the Jewish Scriptures, a body of literature that would later be called the “New Testament.”  Both catholics and heretics tended to accept such a body of literature.  Since the catholic tradition holds the best historical pedigree, it makes sense to view their ideas about which books constitute the canonical Scriptures as far more reliable than the canons put forward by various heretical sects, especially when we consider in addition that most of the canonical books accepted by the catholic tradition were accepted by many of the heretical sects as well, but not vice versa.  There was dispute in the catholic tradition about the authority of some of the traditional books, but these disputes were temporary and were eventually resolved into a pretty much universal consensus.  Thus, historical investigation, combined with a reasonable confidence that God has preserved his revelation to us so that we can know what it is, leads us to look to the traditional catholic canon as delineating the books we should look to as the true Scriptures.  There are no other writings that we have good reason to accept besides the traditional canonical books which we have come to think of as “the Bible.”  The Gnostic gospels, for instance, are of doubtful historical pedigree, being accepted only by certain relatively small sects and universally rejected by the catholic tradition.  There were some books, such as the Shepherd of Hermas, which were looked at in an authoritative manner by some in the catholic tradition, but only by limited groups and only temporarily.  Any claimed work of Scripture coming from within the Christian tradition in more recent times, such as the revelations of Joseph Smith (the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints), do not have any clear evidence supporting their being divine revelations, and usually they have internal evidence against them, as they contradict the canonical Scriptures as well as reason.  Smith’s revelations, for example, teach that God was once a man, and that God did not create the basic elements of the universe.  This teaching is clearly out of accord with the Bible as well as with the sort of sound reasoning George exhibited in his earlier debate.  The mainstream, catholic tradition has never claimed to produce any further Scripture.  Therefore, it makes sense to accept the traditional Bible as the only Scripture we have from God. 

(Let me just briefly illustrate what I’ve said above with regard to one book of the Bible, the Book of Jude.  How do we know this book belongs in the canon of Scripture?  We didn't make that decision; it was made long before we were born.  This decision was made by the leaders of the early Christian Church.  How do we know they got it right?  We can go back and look at their reasons and try to see if we think they made a good choice.  But this will only take us so far, unless we are also willing to trust in God's providential guidance of the preservation of his Word through history.  Even if, through historical investigation, we can show that the Book of Jude is probably a very early book, very likely written close to the times of the apostles, even if we can show that it has doctrine that agrees with the rest of the Bible, etc., how do we really know that it belongs in the Bible?  There are lots of good books that no one thinks belong in the Bible.  How do we know that Jude was not written very early, perhaps during the times of the apostles, perhaps even by Jude himself, but that God did not intend it to be inspired Scripture?  Perhaps the Church really liked the book, and very quickly it became common belief that it is one of those books that should be in the canon.  [Actually, the entire Church did not agree that the Book of Jude should be in the Bible until a few hundred years after the time of the apostles—it was always a well-respected book, and many thought it belonged in the Bible, but this was disputed among the churches in the earliest days of the Church.]  How can we go back and figure out, by purely historical research, whether or not Jude should be in the Bible?  We can't.  The only way we can know that it's supposed to be there is by trusting that God guided the Church to make the right decision.  We must trust God's providential handing down of his Word through history.  We all recognize that it would be foolish and sinful to throw the Book of Jude out of the Bible simply because we can't provide our own independent proof that it should be there.  We would be arbitrarily altering the faith as it has been handed down to us.  We have no more ability to decide by ourselves that Jude should not be in the Bible than we have to decide that it should be there.  Either choice, made solely on our own independent judgment, would be arbitrary and without reason.  Therefore, since in order to follow God's Word we must know what it is, the reasonable thing is for us to trust that God has handed down his faith to us in the way he wanted us to receive it.  Our job is to receive it humbly and live by it, not to arbitrarily alter it.) 

Thus far, I think George would agree with my analysis.  Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestants can all agree with everything I’ve been saying above in this section.  We all agree that the historical record (which we have reason to believe has been guided and protected by the providence of God) points to the catholic tradition as the true custodian of the faith as Jesus handed it down to his apostles, and that the catholic tradition has always pointed to the Bible as an authoritative locus of the divine revelation.  But now we come to a point of divergence, for Catholics and Orthodox claim that, in addition to the Bible, we have an infallible Tradition as an additional locus of divine revelation, and that we have an infallible Church Magisterium to interpret God’s revelation for us.  Protestants, on the other hand, claim that only Scripture is infallible. 

So what does the historical record have to say that could help us resolve this dispute?  Well, when we look back to the tradition of the early Church, we find that while the early Christians were quite clear on Scripture as the locus of divine revelation, they were not clear in their support of anything else claiming to function as such a locus, nor of anything outside of Scripture constituting an infallible interpreter of divine revelation.  In short, the position of the Fathers, overall, is closer to the Protestant position than to the Catholic or the Orthodox position.  I’ll grant that the early Fathers were not as clear on Sola Scriptura as Protestants later would be, but that is the direction they pointed in.  Let me provide a few examples to illustrate this. 

Cyril of Jerusalem was the Bishop of the Church of Jerusalem in the mid-300s.  In the context of his catechetical lectures which he would use to teach those who were preparing to be baptized into the Christian Church, he had this to say about the uniqueness of Scripture:

 

For concerning the divine and holy mysteries of the Faith, not even a casual statement must be delivered without the Holy Scriptures; nor must we be drawn aside by mere plausibility and artifices of speech. Even to me, who tell you these things, give not absolute credence, unless thou receive the proof of the things which I announce from the Divine Scriptures. For this salvation which we believe depends not on ingenious reasoning, but on demonstration of the Holy Scriptures.  (Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, Lecture 4, section 17, translated by Edwin Hamilton Gifford.  From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 7.  Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace.  [Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1894.]  Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/310104.htm>.)

 

“Don’t believe anything,” says Cyril, “unless it can shown to you from Scripture!  Scripture alone is the foundation of our faith!”  It doesn’t get much clearer than that. 

One of the greatest Christian teachers of all time was Augustine of Hippo, a bishop from North Africa who lived in the 4th and 5th centuries.  Here is what he had to say about the uniqueness of the Scriptures:

 

But who can fail to be aware that the sacred canon of Scripture, both of the Old and New Testament, is confined within its own limits, and that it stands so absolutely in a superior position to all later letters of the bishops, that about it we can hold no manner of doubt or disputation whether what is confessedly contained in it is right and true; but that all the letters of bishops which have been written, or are being written, since the closing of the canon, are liable to be refuted if there be anything contained in them which strays from the truth, either by the discourse of some one who happens to be wiser in the matter than themselves, or by the weightier authority and more learned experience of other bishops, by the authority of Councils; and further, that the Councils themselves, which are held in the several districts and provinces, must yield, beyond all possibility of doubt, to the authority of plenary Councils which are formed for the whole Christian world; and that even of the plenary Councils, the earlier are often corrected by those which follow them, when, by some actual experiment, things are brought to light which were before concealed, and that is known which previously lay hid, and this without any whirlwind of sacrilegious pride, without any puffing of the neck through arrogance, without any strife of envious hatred, simply with holy humility, catholic peace, and Christian charity?  (On Baptism, Against the Donatists, Book 2, Chapter 3ca. AD 400)

 

Here is the great Bishop Augustine telling us plainly that Scripture alone is infallible and is the ultimate rule of our faith.  Nothing said later by bishops or church councils has that same degree of infallible authority.  Everyone can be wrong but the Scriptures.  Therefore, in them alone we find the sure locus of divine revelation.  Augustine’s words would later be echoed by none other than Martin Luther, as the latter explained to his persecutors in the Roman Catholic Church why he must stick with Scripture alone even against the teachings of popes and councils:

 

Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason - I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other - my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen. (Retrieved from http://www.luther.de/en/worms.html)

 

In such a short piece as this, I can’t provide a whole lot more evidence without it becoming overwhelming, but let me refer you to a couple of articles (here and here) by Protestant apologist William Webster which lay out a lot more evidence for what I’m saying here. 

Catholics claim that the Pope, as the Successor of St. Peter, has been in particular granted infallible authority from God to expound God’s revelation.  In the Catholic view, the Pope has the same authority by himself that all the bishops (including him) have put together.  But this view cannot be sustained from Church history any more than the Catholic view of Tradition and Magisterial authority in general can.  It does seem that the Roman bishops began fairly early to make extravagant claims about their own authority, but they are frequently challenged by others in the early Church with regard to these claims.  In the 3rd century, the great bishop Cyprian of Carthage famously disagreed with Pope Stephen over whether the baptism of heretics was valid.  A century earlier, when Pope Victor tried to excommunicate all the churches of Asia over a disagreement regarding the date of Easter, he was rebuked by other bishops, including the great Irenaeus.  Bishops and church councils often disagreed with or refused to go along with the decrees and commands of the bishops of Rome.  At the Council of Chalcedon in 451, the council famously passed a canon making Constantinople the second highest church after the Church of Rome over the protests of Leo, Bishop of Rome.  At the Third Council of Constantinople (680-681), Pope Honorius was actually excommunicated by the council for teaching heresy!  So much for the supreme authority and infallibility of the Pope!  Again, in a short piece such as this, I can only barely touch on the evidence, but see another article from William Webster well documenting the early Church’s view of papal power and authority.  In the early Church, the Bishops of Rome were very well-respected and the Church of Rome had a high place, but the universal Church never accepted the doctrine of the supremacy and infallibility of the Pope that modern Roman Catholics believe in. 

Another important testimony against the Roman view of papal power and authority comes from the Eastern Orthodox churches.  Papal power grew very strong in the Western part of the Church over the centuries of the First Millennium, but it was not accepted in the same way in the Eastern part of the Church, and the Easterners eventually broke with Rome over their refusal to accept Rome’s increasingly-aggressive claims of universal jurisdiction over the whole Church.  The Eastern Orthodox also, historically, have objected to a number of Roman innovations in doctrine.  As her power grew, the Roman bishops tried more and more to alter the faith according to their desires and beliefs, but the Easterners resisted this.  This document, to provide one example, is a letter from the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, written in 1895 in response to a letter from Pope Leo XIII calling the Eastern Orthodox churches to unify with Rome by submitting to papal authority.  In it, we find a typical list of doctrinal innovations of the Roman church objected to by the Easterns, including such things as adding words to the historic Nicene Creed, changing the traditional forms of celebrating the Lord’s Supper, withholding the cup from the laity during communion (I’ll come back to this one a little later), and teaching new doctrines such as purgatory and the Immaculate Conception. 

Historical Contradictions 

Another argument against the infallibility of the Roman Catholic Church arises from the observation that the Roman church has contradicted herself in her teachings many times throughout her history.  I’ll content myself with two examples for the present—religious freedom and the salvation of non-Catholics.  If the Church has contradicted herself in her own teachings over the years, she has shown herself not to be an infallibly reliable interpreter of the divine revelation, as she claims herself to be.  Rather, since contradictory claims exclude each other and thus cannot all be true, it must be that she has taught error and led her people astray at various times in her history.  And Protestants, therefore, were right to refuse to accept her supposedly infallible authority over the proper interpretation of Scripture. 

The Roman Catholic Church has contradicted herself over the centuries with regard to religious liberty.  I will content myself to illustrate this by means of two quotations, one from the encyclical Quanta Cura, written in 1864 by Pope Pius IX, and the other from Dignitatis Humanae, a document from the Second Vatican Council published in 1965:

 

From which totally false idea of social government they do not fear to foster that erroneous opinion, most fatal in its effects on the Catholic Church and the salvation of souls, called by Our Predecessor, Gregory XVI, an “insanity,” viz., that “liberty of conscience and worship is each man’s personal right, which ought to be legally proclaimed and asserted in every rightly constituted society; and that a right resides in the citizens to an absolute liberty, which should be restrained by no authority whether ecclesiastical or civil, whereby they may be able openly and publicly to manifest and declare any of their ideas whatever, either by word of mouth, by the press, or in any other way.”  (Quanta Cura, footnote removed)

 

This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.

 

The council further declares that the right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person as this dignity is known through the revealed word of God and by reason itself. This right of the human person to religious freedom is to be recognized in the constitutional law whereby society is governed and thus it is to become a civil right.  (Dignitatis Humanae, footnote removed)

 

As you can see, what 19th century (and earlier) Popes called an “insanity”, an “erroneous opinion,” “most fatal in its effects on the Catholic Church and the salvation of souls”, has by the 20th century, become a “right”, founded in the “very dignity of the human person.”  In the 19th century, it was an “insanity” that liberty of conscience “ought to be legally proclaimed and asserted in every rightly constituted society,” but in the 20th century, “religious freedom is to be recognized in the constitutional law whereby society is governed and thus it is to become a civil right.”  Pretty much the exact opposite in every way! 

The Roman Catholic Church has also contradicted herself with regard to whether or not non-Catholics can be saved.  I will illustrate this by quoting from two Ecumenical councils—the Council of Florence in the 15th century, and the Second Vatican Council (Lumen Gentium) in the 20th century.

 

[The Roman Church] firmly believes, professes and preaches that all those who are outside the catholic church, not only pagans but also Jews or heretics and schismatics, cannot share in eternal life and will go into the everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels, unless they are joined to the catholic church before the end of their lives; that the unity of the ecclesiastical body is of such importance that only for those who abide in it do the church's sacraments contribute to salvation and do fasts, almsgiving and other works of piety and practices of the Christian militia produce eternal rewards; and that nobody can be saved, no matter how much he has given away in alms and even if he has shed his blood in the name of Christ, unless he has persevered in the bosom and the unity of the catholic church.  (Council of Florence)

 

Finally, those who have not yet received the Gospel are related in various ways to the people of God. In the first place we must recall the people to whom the testament and the promises were given and from whom Christ was born according to the flesh. On account of their fathers this people remains most dear to God, for God does not repent of the gifts He makes nor of the calls He issues. But the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator. In the first place amongst these there are the Muslims, who, professing to hold the faith of Abraham, along with us adore the one and merciful God, who on the last day will judge mankind. Nor is God far distant from those who in shadows and images seek the unknown God, for it is He who gives to all men life and breath and all things, and as Saviour wills that all men be saved. Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience. Nor does Divine Providence deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life. Whatever good or truth is found amongst them is looked upon by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel. She knows that it is given by Him who enlightens all men so that they may finally have life. But often men, deceived by the Evil One, have become vain in their reasonings and have exchanged the truth of God for a lie, serving the creature rather than the Creator. Or some there are who, living and dying in this world without God, are exposed to final despair. Wherefore to promote the glory of God and procure the salvation of all of these, and mindful of the command of the Lord, "Preach the Gospel to every creature", the Church fosters the missions with care and attention.  (Vatican II, footnotes removed)

 

So in the 15th century, you can’t be saved unless you are joined to the Roman Catholic Church before you die and remain in her; but in the 20th century, non-Catholics and even non-Christians, and even atheists (“those who . . . have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God”), can be saved!  Pretty important point of doctrine for the Church to have misled her people on at one time or another! 

Scriptural Evidence 

When we look at the Bible itself, we find that it gives no support to the claims and teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.  The Bible is very clear that Scripture is the locus of divine revelation, and is fully sufficient for all our doctrinal needs.

 

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.  (2 Timothy 2:16-17)

 

But the Bible never points to any other infallible locus of divine revelation.  In sharp contrast to Roman Catholic teaching, it warns us away from the idea of “tradition” as an additional locus of divine revelation.

 

Then came together unto him the Pharisees, and certain of the scribes, which came from Jerusalem. And when they saw some of his disciples eat bread with defiled, that is to say, with unwashen, hands, they found fault. For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, except they wash their hands oft, eat not, holding the tradition of the elders. And when they come from the market, except they wash, they eat not. And many other things there be, which they have received to hold, as the washing of cups, and pots, brasen vessels, and of tables. Then the Pharisees and scribes asked him, “Why walk not thy disciples according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashen hands?” He answered and said unto them, “Well hath Esaias prophesied of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. Howbeit in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.’ For laying aside the commandment of God, ye hold the tradition of men, as the washing of pots and cups: and many other such like things ye do.” And he said unto them, “Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition. For Moses said, ‘Honour thy father and thy mother’; and, ‘Whoso curseth father or mother, let him die the death’: But ye say, ‘If a man shall say to his father or mother, “It is Corban”, that is to say, a gift, “by whatsoever thou mightest be profited by me”; he shall be free.’ And ye suffer him no more to do ought for his father or his mother; making the word of God of none effect through your tradition, which ye have delivered: and many such like things do ye.”  (Mark 7:1-13)

 

The official teachers of the people of God in Old Testament times were clearly not infallible, since we see that they could err.  The most dramatic example of their error is their rejection of Jesus as the Messiah.  And there is no evidence that the official teachers of the people of God in New Testament or Christian times will be infallible either.  In fact, the apostles warn of errors being taught by some of the elders of the church (3 John 9-10; Acts 20:29-31).  Even the apostles themselves can be in error.  Paul had to rebuke Peter at one point for allowing his actions to speak against the inclusion of the Gentiles in the people of God (Galatians 2:11-14). 

In short, there is no evidence in Scripture for the existence of any locus of revelation or infallible authority outside of Scripture.  This fits with what we saw from Church history as well. 

Not only this, but Roman Catholic doctrine contradicts the Bible in many places.  For example, in the institution of the Lord’s Supper, we find Jesus saying to his disciples regarding the cup containing the wine representing his blood, “Drink ye all of it” (Matthew 26:27).  And every time the Lord’s Supper is mentioned in Scripture the cup is included alongside the bread (such as in 1 Corinthians 10:16).  In John 6, in a passage Catholics rightly recognize as alluding to the practice of communion, Jesus says this:

 

Then Jesus said unto them, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him.”  (John 6:53-56)

 

And yet the Roman Catholic Church withheld the cup from the laity for hundreds of years, from sometime in the high Middle Ages until after the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.  Even now, the cup is sometimes withheld from the laity, in clear contradiction to the commands of Christ recorded in Scripture.  It might be said with equal force what Jesus said to the Pharisees:  “Howbeit in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.  For laying aside the commandment of God, ye hold the tradition of men. . . .  Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition!” 

Another example is Catholic teaching regarding the sinlessness of Mary.  The Bible clearly teaches that “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).  “For there is not a just man upon earth, that doeth good, and sinneth not” (Ecclesiastes 7:20).  “There is none righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3:10).  And yet the Roman church teaches that Mary was without sin.  Again, “Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition!” 

The Bible forbids images of God to be made and used in worship.  “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.  Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them” (Exodus 20:4-5).  “Take ye therefore good heed unto yourselves; for ye saw no manner of similitude on the day that the Lord spake unto you in Horeb out of the midst of the fire:  Lest ye corrupt yourselves, and make you a graven image, the similitude of any figure, the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any beast that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged fowl that flieth in the air, the likeness of any thing that creepeth on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the waters beneath the earth” (Deuteronomy 4:15-18).  And yet Roman Catholic churches are full of images of God. 

The Roman Catholic Church teaches that we are justified by our own righteousness (albeit a righteousness we attain to with the help of God’s grace).  But Scripture teaches that we are justified not by our own righteousness but by the righteousness of Christ alone imputed to us, or credited to our account.

 

For what saith the scripture? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness.” Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt. But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness. Even as David also describeth the blessedness of the man, unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works, saying, “Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin.”  (Romans 4:3-8)

 

I could go on and on.  The Roman church has added many doctrines that are not found in Scripture, such as the doctrine of purgatory, the doctrine of the intercession of the saints and praying to saints, the papacy, indulgences, and many other things, “teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.”  (Protestants have historically had great difficulties with all of these doctrines.  I won’t go into those difficulties here, but I will refer you here and here to a couple more articles by William Webster which well address many of the issues.) 

In conclusion, then, I submit that the evidence from Church history and from Scripture support the Protestant position over against the Roman Catholic position.  As I said at the start, there is a great deal Protestants and Catholics agree on.  But where we diverge, it is the Protestant view which has the 
support of the evidence. 


George Stewart

I am a Catholic.  A handy compendium of the teachings of the Catholic Church can be found in the authoritative Catechism of the Catholic Church. 

I agree with Norman that Protestants (especially historic, mainstream Protestants like Norman) and Catholics have a great deal in common.  I would say we share the same fundamental worldview overall, and our teachings overlap extensively.  But I also agree that there are significant differences, and I agree that one of the biggest areas of divergence is in our epistemology.  I think that Norman has well summarized the Catholic view of the three-legged stool of Scripture, Tradition, and Magisterium, as well as the contrasting Protestant doctrine of Sola Scriptura.  I would like to defend the Catholic position. 

The Catholic Church as the Custodian of the Divine Revelation 

I agree with Norman’s fundamental approach to investigating the epistemological claims of Catholicism vs. Protestantism.  Christianity is indeed a historical revelation, and we receive it as it is passed down to us through history.  Therefore, if we are to find the authentic version of Christianity, we must look at the historical record of Christian history with confidence that God has preserved his revelation in that record so that we can find it. 

I also agree with Norman that the historical record points us to the Catholic Church and to the Catholic tradition of the early Church Fathers as the authentic successor to Christ and his apostles.  As Norman has well observed, the Catholic tradition has by far the best historical pedigree.  We must look, then, to the Catholic Church as the authorized custodian of the revelation of God in the early days of Christianity.  Norman observed how the Catholic Church was able to trace its historical succession from the apostles, whereas competing sects, like the Gnostics, sprang out of nowhere with no historical pedigree.  Norman mentioned the great Church Father St. Irenaeus of Lyons of the 2nd century and his famous arguments in this regard.  I would like to augment Norman’s argument at this point by providing an extended quotation from St. Irenaeus.  Around the year 180, less than one hundred years after the death of the Apostle John, Irenaeus, bishop of the Church of Lyons in Gaul (now France), wrote a document entitled Against Heresies in which he combatted a group of heretics known as the Gnostics.  These Gnostics were various teachers who arose at the end of the first century and during the second century and tried to subvert the teaching of the Church by claiming to have new knowledge, secretly given to them by the apostles but not known to the churches the apostles founded.  Irenaeus combatted these Gnostics by pointing to the teachings given publicly to the Church by the apostles.  He pointed out the absurdity of accepting these later claims of secret teachings.  Why should we trust some new teacher who rises up and tries to sell us doctrine before unheard-of, unsupported by any evidence, when we have the teaching of the apostles already handed down to their successors in the very churches they founded?  Here are the words of Irenaeus himself:

           

It is within the power of all, therefore, in every Church, who may wish to see the truth, to contemplate clearly the tradition of the apostles manifested throughout the whole world; and we are in a position to reckon up those who were by the apostles instituted bishops in the Churches, and [to demonstrate] the succession of these men to our own times; those who neither taught nor knew of anything like what these [heretics] rave about. For if the apostles had known hidden mysteries, which they were in the habit of imparting to "the perfect" apart and privily from the rest, they would have delivered them especially to those to whom they were also committing the Churches themselves. For they were desirous that these men should be very perfect and blameless in all things, whom also they were leaving behind as their successors, delivering up their own place of government to these men; which men, if they discharged their functions honestly, would be a great boon [to the Church], but if they should fall away, the direst calamity.

Since, however, it would be very tedious, in such a volume as this, to reckon up the successions of all the Churches, we do put to confusion all those who, in whatever manner, whether by an evil self-pleasing, by vainglory, or by blindness and perverse opinion, assemble in unauthorized meetings; [we do this, I say,] by indicating that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its pre-eminent authority, that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the apostolical tradition has been preserved continuously by those [faithful men] who exist everywhere.

The blessed apostles, then, having founded and built up the Church, committed into the hands of Linus the office of the episcopate. Of this Linus, Paul makes mention in the Epistles to Timothy. To him succeeded Anacletus; and after him, in the third place from the apostles, Clement was allotted the bishopric. This man, as he had seen the blessed apostles, and had been conversant with them, might be said to have the preaching of the apostles still echoing [in his ears], and their traditions before his eyes. Nor was he alone [in this], for there were many still remaining who had received instructions from the apostles. In the time of this Clement, no small dissension having occurred among the brethren at Corinth, the Church in Rome despatched a most powerful letter to the Corinthians, exhorting them to peace, renewing their faith, and declaring the tradition which it had lately received from the apostles, proclaiming the one God, omnipotent, the Maker of heaven and earth, the Creator of man, who brought on the deluge, and called Abraham, who led the people from the land of Egypt, spake with Moses, set forth the law, sent the prophets, and who has prepared fire for the devil and his angels. From this document, whosoever chooses to do so, may learn that He, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, was preached by the Churches, and may also understand the apostolical tradition of the Church, since this Epistle is of older date than these men who are now propagating falsehood, and who conjure into existence another god beyond the Creator and the Maker of all existing things. To this Clement there succeeded Evaristus. Alexander followed Evaristus; then, sixth from the apostles, Sixtus was appointed; after him, Telesphorus, who was gloriously martyred; then Hyginus; after him, Pius; then after him, Anicetus. Soter having succeeded Anicetus, Eleutherius does now, in the twelfth place from the apostles, hold the inheritance of the episcopate. In this order, and by this succession, the ecclesiastical tradition from the apostles, and the preaching of the truth, have come down to us. And this is most abundant proof that there is one and the same vivifying faith, which has been preserved in the Church from the apostles until now, and handed down in truth.

But Polycarp also was not only instructed by apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also, by apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna, whom I also saw in my early youth, for he tarried [on earth] a very long time, and, when a very old man, gloriously and most nobly suffering martyrdom, departed this life, having always taught the things which he had learned from the apostles, and which the Church has handed down, and which alone are true. To these things all the Asiatic Churches testify, as do also those men who have succeeded Polycarp down to the present time,--a man who was of much greater weight, and a more stedfast witness of truth, than Valentinus, and Marcion, and the rest of the heretics. He it was who, coming to Rome in the time of Anicetus caused many to turn away from the aforesaid heretics to the Church of God, proclaiming that he had received this one and sole truth from the apostles,--that, namely, which is handed down by the Church. There are also those who heard from him that John, the disciple of the Lord, going to bathe at Ephesus, and perceiving Cerinthus within, rushed out of the bath-house without bathing, exclaiming, "Let us fly, lest even the bath-house fall down, because Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth, is within." And Polycarp himself replied to Marcion, who met him on one occasion, and said, "Dost thou know me?" "I do know thee, the first-born of Satan." Such was the horror which the apostles and their disciples had against holding even verbal communication with any corrupters of the truth; as Paul also says, "A man that is an heretic, after the first and second admonition, reject; knowing that he that is such is subverted, and sinneth, being condemned of himself." There is also a very powerful Epistle of Polycarp written to the Philippians, from which those who choose to do so, and are anxious about their salvation, can learn the character of his faith, and the preaching of the truth. Then, again, the Church in Ephesus, founded by Paul, and having John remaining among them permanently until the times of Trajan, is a true witness of the tradition of the apostles.  (St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book III, Chapter 3, taken from the plain text version at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library [
https://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01] but also found on the New Advent website at http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0103.htm.)

 

St. Irenaeus, here, articulates what would later be called the doctrine of "apostolic succession"--that the Church's authority is rooted in the organic succession of bishops from the apostles.  This is still the claim of the Catholic Church today.  It is a powerful claim.  Just as Irenaeus argued in response to the Gnostics, so ever since then it has continued to be true that any group which claims to represent the authentic teaching of Christianity but which wishes to establish this in opposition to the teachings of the Catholic Church has the burden of proof to show why we should abandon the very Church handed down from Christ and his apostles themselves in order to follow them. 

(Note also Irenaeus's appeal to the Church of Rome in particular, founded by Peter and Paul, as having "pre-eminent authority".  "It is a matter of necessity," he says, "that every Church should agree with this Church."  So our touchstone for unity and orthodoxy is the apostolic succession of the bishops in general, and this touchstone is made even more tangible by the special succession of the bishops of Rome, who, in a special way, function as guarantors of unity and orthodoxy for the entire Church.  But I’ll come back to this later.) 

Sola Scriptura or Three-Legged Stool? 

So Norman and I agree that we must look to the history of Christianity to determine where the locus of divine revelation is to be found and to learn how we are to interpret and apply that revelation.  We agree that the historical record indicates that Jesus handed on his authority and his teaching to his apostles, who handed it on to the bishops of the Catholic Church, and that therefore the Catholic Church is the authoritative custodian of the divine revelation.  So what has the Catholic Church handed down to us?  Has she handed down Catholicism or Protestantism? 

I agree with Norman that the early Catholic Church—and the Catholic Church ever since—taught that Scripture—consisting of the Old and New Testaments—is the locus of divine revelation.  It is the inspired and infallible Word of God.  But, as Norman indicates, at this point there is a divergence between our positions.  Norman tries to make a historical case that the early Catholic Church held to, or at least pointed to, Sola Scriptura—the doctrine that Scripture alone is infallible and there is no infallible Tradition or infallible Church.  To someone not-so-well-versed in Church history, he makes some arguments that might sound persuasive.  But his arguments fundamentally misrepresent the evidence we have from the early Church.  With regard to the early Church’s view of Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium, he provides quotations that show well the enthusiasm the early Fathers had for Scripture.  They did indeed accept Scripture as the inspired, infallible Word of God.  But he represents the Fathers as, at best, unclear in their support for the infallible reliability of Tradition and the Magisterium.  Yet this is a false representation, for the Fathers were very clear in their support for these things.  They were just as clear in their support for Tradition and the Magisterium as they were in their support for Scripture.  In a moment, I’ll provide some quotations to illustrate this.  But first, I want to make an important point. 

Even if we were to grant that the early Church Fathers were, at best, unclear with regard to Sola Scriptura, as Norman claims, this would not justify Norman’s conclusion that Sola Scriptura is actually true.  Norman points out that the only way we can know what the locus of divine revelation is is to follow the historical passing-down of the faith in the providence of God, and that the historical evidence points to the Catholic Church and her Tradition (at least in the days of the early Church) as what we must follow to receive what God has passed down.  We cannot arbitrarily break from the continuity of the faith as it has been handed down within the Tradition and communion of the Catholic Church.  He illustrated this point well with regard to the Book of Jude.  We cannot go back and purely independently figure out if Jude should be in the Bible.  We have to trust what the Church and her Tradition have handed down.  But here’s the thing:  We can’t go back and independently establish Sola Scriptura either, for there is no clear basis in the Scriptural or the historical evidence to determine that Sola Scriptura is true (as I will illustrate by further argumentation below).  So if the early Church was unclear about Sola Scriptura, then, if we had lived at that time, we would have had no basis to conclusively affirm Sola Scriptura.  We would have had no choice but to wait for the Church to decide for or against it, just as had to happen with the canonicity of the Book of Jude as well.  Norman’s view basically amounts to this:  We must trust the Tradition of the Catholic Church in order to find out whether or not Sola Scriptura is true.  Note that Norman, then, says we start with basically the Catholic epistemology of the three-legged stool—Scripture, Tradition, and Magisterium—at the beginning, for we must look to the Church and her Tradition just as much as to Scripture as our highest authority.  Eventually, if the Church were to decide in favor of Sola Scriptura, we would then have a basis to accept it and start acting like a Protestant—being ready, in principle, if necessary, to pit Scripture against the rest of the Church’s teaching and Tradition.  But at that time before the Church sided with Sola Scriptura, we would have had no basis to know for sure whether or not it was true.  We could not simply conclude, as Norman erroneously does, that Sola Scriptura is true merely on the grounds that the early Church was unclear or unsure about it—in other words, that she had not yet settled the question.  So Norman’s conclusion that Sola Scriptura is true, even granting his own view that the early Church was unclear about it, is unwarranted. 

But it gets worse for Norman, for even he must and would grant that the Church, at least eventually, sided not with Sola Scriptura but against it, for certainly by the time of the Protestant Reformation (and, of course, much earlier) she had clearly rejected Sola Scriptura and embraced the three-legged stool idea.  At the very least, when the Protestants proposed the idea of Sola Scriptura, the Catholic Church emphatically and definitively rejected it.  So, again, even if the earlier Church was unclear on Sola Scriptura, the later Church clearly rejected it, so this should be the position Christians should adopt, just as we should accept the Book of Jude as being in the Scriptural canon because the Church eventually universally and conclusively accepted it even though, in the earliest centuries, as a whole she had been unsure about it. 

So Sola Scriptura loses to the Catholic epistemology even if the early Church was unclear about it.  But, in fact, the early Church was not unclear about it.  She never hovered between the three-legged stool idea and Sola Scriptura.  So far as we can tell from the evidence, she always embraced the three-legged stool view.  Let me illustrate this with some quotations. 

The first is from the great Church Father St. Basil of Caesaria (4th century), speaking of the importance of the unwritten Tradition of the Church:

 

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?  (St. Basil, On the Holy Spirit, section 66. Translated by Blomfield Jackson, from Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 8, edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace [Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1895], revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. Retrieved from the New Advent website [embedded links removed] at http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3203.htm at 2:46 PM on 2/19/18.)

 

The second quotation is from St. Vincent of Lerins, another Father from the 5th century, who articulates why we must interpret Scripture not against but always in accordance with the official interpretations of the Church:

 

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, section 5. Translated by C.A. Heurtley, from Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 11, edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace [Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1894], revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. Retrieved from the New Advent website [embedded links removed] at http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3506.htm at 2:53 PM on 2/19/18.)

 

So according to these Fathers—and they are representative of what we find in general among all the Fathers of the Catholic Church in these early days and throughout Church history—we do not look to Scripture alone as our locus of divine revelation, nor do we consider Scripture alone to be infallible.  Scripture, Tradition, and the Church’s teaching authority function as a three-legged stool.  They are a package deal, and we cannot pit one against the others.  This, of course, is the Catholic view, and it completely contradicts Sola Scriptura. 

Norman provided some quotations from a few Fathers which he alleged to be teaching Sola Scriptura.  Particularly, he quoted St. Cyril of Jerusalem and St. Augustine of Hippo.  But his use of these quotations is misleading.  If you read the quotations carefully, you’ll see that, while they certainly give Scripture high praise and a high position of authority in the Church, they fall short of teaching Sola Scriptura.  I’ll grant that, without any further context, these quotations could be read in a way that supports Sola Scriptura.  But they don’t actually teach that doctrine.  St. Cyril’s quotation makes it clear that Scripture is the locus of divine revelation and the foundation of the faith.  He points out that Scripture is the fount from which the Church derives her doctrines.  He points out that he himself is not infallible, and he exhorts his hearers to check what he is saying against the Scriptures rather than to just trust him as if he were an infallible oracle.  And all of this is quite true.  Catholics do not disagree with any of it.  But he does not say that Scripture is to be read and interpreted apart from the authoritative interpretations of the Church and her Magisterium.  Although he affirms that Scripture is the fount of the doctrines of the Church, he does not say that there is not important information handed down in the Church’s Tradition that is necessary to properly understand and interpret what the Scriptures are saying.  He simply doesn’t address these questions at all in the quotation Norman has provided.  Norman has read Protestant ideas into what Cyril has said, but Cyril himself falls short of teaching them.  But if we read more of Cyril’s writings, we will find that he looks to the Church’s Tradition as authoritative along with the Scripture.  For example, listen to how he puts forward the importance of the name “Catholic” for recognizing the true Church in this quote from another place in the same book:

 

But since the word Ecclesia is applied to different things (as also it is written of the multitude in the theatre of the Ephesians, And when he had thus spoken, he dismissed the Assembly), and since one might properly and truly say that there is a Church of evil doers, I mean the meetings of the heretics, the Marcionists and Manichees, and the rest, for this cause the Faith has securely delivered to thee now the Article, "And in one Holy Catholic Church;" that thou mayest avoid their wretched meetings, and ever abide with the Holy Church Catholic in which thou wast regenerated. And if ever thou art sojourning in cities, inquire not simply where the Lord's House is (for the other sects of the profane also attempt to call their own dens houses of the Lord), nor merely where the Church is, but where is the Catholic Church. For this is the peculiar name of this Holy Church, the mother of us all, which is the spouse of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Only-begotten Son of God (for it is written, As Christ also loved the Church and gave Himself for it, and all the rest,) and is a figure and copy of Jerusalem which is above, which is free, and the mother of us all; which before was barren, but now has many children.  (St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures 18:26, taken from the plain text version at the website of the Christian Classics Ethereal Library [https://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf207], but also found on the New Advent website at http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3101.htm)

 

Cyril teaches here that if his hearers want to be sure that they are worshiping with a true church rather than a false one, they should look not just for the word “church” but for the name “Catholic”.  This, he says, is the proper name of the true Church.  And how do we know this?  Because “the Faith has securely delivered to thee now the Article, ‘And in one Holy Catholic Church.’”  Where has the Faith securely delivered this?  It is a quotation from the creed of the Church (the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, or some other related early creed).  The creeds of the Church, which are a part of the Church’s Tradition outside of Scripture, are authoritative and foundational for recognizing a true Church from a false one.  This does not sound like Sola Scriptura.  (And, by the way, this is why I capitalize the name “Catholic”.  It is the proper name for the true Church and has been such since nearly the beginning of the Church.) 

Norman has also distorted the teaching of St. Augustine.  He provided a quotation from St. Augustine which he alleged to teach Sola Scriptura.  But, again, if we look at that quotation, we can see that, while there is high praise and a high place of authority for Scripture, Augustine falls short of teaching Sola Scriptura.  He points out that Scripture is infallible, but that the later writings of bishops are not.  That is true.  Catholics do not hold that individual bishops in general are infallible.  Augustine also points out that church councils are not infallible.  That is true.  Local and regional councils can err and often have erred.  Even plenary councils (that is, councils representing the whole Church) can and have erred.  (They cannot err when all the bishops together, including the Bishop of Rome, teach a doctrine in a definitive way, but they can make mistakes when they are teaching non-definitively or provisionally, in light of some current level of knowledge that might change in the future.)  In contrast to these, Scripture has a unique infallibility.  But Augustine does not say that there is no infallible Tradition possessed by the Church.  He does not say that a truly ecumenical council, truly representing the whole Church as she exercises the highest capacity of her teaching office, can err.  I grant that Augustine’s words in the above quotation could be taken to imply these things.  But I deny that his words clearly or necessarily imply these things.  Sola Scriptura is simply not there in his words.  Norman has read it into those words.  And if we look at other things Augustine has said, it becomes abundantly clear that St. Augustine was no believer in Sola Scriptura.  I will give you a few snippets to illustrate this:

 

"The apostles," indeed, "gave no injunctions on the point;" but the custom, which is opposed to Cyprian, may be supposed to have had its origin in apostolic tradition, just as there are many things which are observed by the whole Church, and therefore are fairly held to have been enjoined by the apostles, which yet are not mentioned in their writings.  (On Baptism, Against the Donatists, Book 5, Chapter 23ca. AD 400)

 

As to those other things which we hold on the authority, not of Scripture, but of tradition, and which are observed throughout the whole world, it may be understood that they are held as approved and instituted either by the apostles themselves, or by plenary Councils, whose authority in the Church is most useful, e.g. the annual commemoration, by special solemnities, of the Lord's passion, resurrection, and ascension, and of the descent of the Holy Spirit from heaven, and whatever else is in like manner observed by the whole Church wherever it has been established.  (Letter to Januarius, AD 400) 

 

To be sure, although on this matter, we cannot quote a clear example taken from the canonical Scriptures, at any rate, on this question, we are following the true thought of Scriptures when we observe what has appeared good to the universal Church which the authority of these same Scriptures recommends to you; thus, since Holy Scripture cannot be mistaken, anyone fearing to be misled by the obscurity of this question has only to consult on this same subject this very Church which the Holy Scriptures point out without ambiguity.  (Against Cresconius, found here, taken from Robert B. Eno, Teaching Authority in the Early Church [Wilmington: Michael Glazier, 1984], p. 134)

 

On the question of baptism, then, I think that I have argued at sufficient length; and since this is a most manifest schism which is called by the name of the Donatists, it only remains that on the subject of baptism we should believe with pious faith what the universal Church maintains, apart from the sacrilege of schism. And yet, if within the Church different men still held different opinions on the point, without meanwhile violating peace, then till some one clear and simple decree should have been passed by an universal Council, it would have been right for the charity which seeks for unity to throw a veil over the error of human infirmity, as it is written "For charity shall cover the multitude of sins." . . .  There are great proofs of this existing on the part of the blessed martyr Cyprian, in his letters . . .  For at that time, before the consent of the whole Church had declared authoritatively, by the decree of a plenary Council, what practice should be followed in this matter, it seemed to him, in common with about eighty of his fellow bishops of the African churches, that every man who had been baptized outside the communion of the Catholic Church should, on joining the Church, be baptized anew. . . .  For when a bishop of so important a Church, himself a man of so great merit and virtue, endowed with such excellence of heart and power of eloquence, entertained an opinion about baptism different from that which was to be confirmed by a more diligent searching into the truth; though many of his colleagues held what was not yet made manifest by authority, but was sanctioned by the past custom of the Church, and afterwards embraced by the whole Catholic world; yet under these circumstances he did not sever himself, by refusal of communion, from the others who thought differently, and indeed never ceased to urge on the others that they should "forbear one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace."  (On Baptism, Against the Donatists, Book 1, Chapter 18, AD 400)

 

In these quotations, we see St. Augustine teaching the authoritative reliability of the Church herself and her Tradition, against the Protestant idea of Sola Scriptura.  Before I finish with Augustine, though, I would like to add one more quotation.  In this selection, St. Augustine is writing to (and against) the Manichaeans, a heretical sect which he himself had been a part of before he joined the Catholic Church.  Listen carefully to his argument:

 

Let us see then what Manichæus teaches me; and particularly let us examine that treatise which he calls the Fundamental Epistle, in which almost all that you believe is contained. For in that unhappy time when we read it we were in your opinion enlightened. The epistle begins thus:--"Manichæus, an apostle of Jesus Christ, by the providence of God the Father. These are wholesome words from the perennial and living fountain." Now, if you please, patiently give heed to my inquiry. I do not believe Manichæus to be an apostle of Christ. Do not, I beg of you, be enraged and begin to curse. For you know that it is my rule to believe none of your statements without consideration. Therefore I ask, who is this Manichæus? You will reply, An apostle of Christ. I do not believe it. Now you are at a loss what to say or do; for you promised to give knowledge of the truth, and here you are forcing me to believe what I have no knowledge of. Perhaps you will read the gospel to me, and will attempt to find there a testimony to Manichæus. But should you meet with a person not yet believing the gospel, how would you reply to him were he to say, I do not believe? For my part, I should not believe the gospel except as moved by the authority of the Catholic Church. So when those on whose authority I have consented to believe in the gospel tell me not to believe in Manichæus, how can I but consent? Take your choice. If you say, Believe the Catholics: their advice to me is to put no faith in you; so that, believing them, I am precluded from believing you;--If you say, Do not believe the Catholics: you cannot fairly use the gospel in bringing me to faith in Manichæus; for it was at the command of the Catholics that I believed the gospel;--Again, if you say, You were right in believing the Catholics when they praised the gospel, but wrong in believing their vituperation of Manichæus: do you think me such a fool as to believe or not to believe as you like or dislike, without any reason? It is therefore fairer and safer by far for me, having in one instance put faith in the Catholics, not to go over to you, till, instead of bidding me believe, you make me understand something in the clearest and most open manner. To convince me, then, you must put aside the gospel. If you keep to the gospel, I will keep to those who commanded me to believe the gospel; and, in obedience to them, I will not believe you at all. But if haply you should succeed in finding in the gospel an incontrovertible testimony to the apostleship of Manichæus, you will weaken my regard for the authority of the Catholics who bid me not to believe you; and the effect of that will be, that I shall no longer be able to believe the gospel either, for it was through the Catholics that I got my faith in it; and so, whatever you bring from the gospel will no longer have any weight with me. Wherefore, if no clear proof of the apostleship of Manichæus is found in the gospel, I will believe the Catholics rather than you. But if you read thence some passage clearly in favor of Manichæus, I will believe neither them nor you: not them, for they lied to me about you; nor you, for you quote to me that Scripture which I had believed on the authority of those liars. But far be it that I should not believe the gospel; for believing it, I find no way of believing you too. For the names of the apostles, as there recorded, do not include the name of Manichæus. And who the successor of Christ's betrayer was we read in the Acts of the Apostles; which book I must needs believe if I believe the gospel, since both writings alike Catholic authority commends to me. The same book contains the well-known narrative of the calling and apostleship of Paul. Read me now, if you can, in the gospel where Manichæus is called an apostle, or in any other book in which I have professed to believe. Will you read the passage where the Lord promised the Holy Spirit as a Paraclete, to the apostles? Concerning which passage, behold how many and how great are the things that restrain and deter me from believing in Manichæus. (St. Augustine, Against the Epistle of Manichæus Called Fundamental, Chapter 5, text from here)

 

The argument goes basically like this:  "You claim that the books of the gospels support Manichaeus (the prophet of Manicheanism). But the Catholic Church rejects Manichaeus. If I accept that the gospels support Manichaeus, I will no longer have any basis to believe in the gospels, because my reason for believing those books to be divine is because the Catholic Church teaches me so. But that same Catholic Church teaches me that you are wrong. So if I believe the Catholic Church about the gospels, I will have to also believe that you are wrong. But if I believe you are right because the gospels support you, then I lose my reason for believing the gospels, for I can no longer trust the Catholic Church, which is the authority behind why I believe in the gospels."

What Augustine is saying is that the only way we know that the gospel books are from God is because this is taught by the Catholic Church.  If we trust the Catholic Church on that point, logically we have to trust them on all other points as well.  So if the Catholic Church tells us that the Manichean heresy is wrong, we have to believe that.  If the Manichean heresy is not wrong, then the Catholic Church is wrong, and so we would have no basis to believe the gospel books to be from God.  For Augustine, our trust in the gospels is part and parcel of our confidence that the Tradition of the Catholic Church in general is divinely guided and so authoritative and reliable.  It is therefore inconsistent to accept that Tradition regarding the status of the gospels but to reject other things that Tradition teaches.  So much for Sola Scriptura!
 

Norman, like many Protestant apologists, argues his case from the Church Fathers by making selective use of quotations in which the Fathers praise the Scriptures or give them a high place, reading into these quotations Protestant ideas which are not actually there, while not providing adequate context to see all the positive things the Fathers have to say about Tradition and Magisterial authority.  Once we’ve got a clearer and more complete picture of what the Fathers actually held and taught, we can see that the consensus picture from the early Church is thoroughly Catholic and not Protestant at all.  Of course, as Norman said, it is impossible to do full justice to all of the evidence in such a short piece as this.  So I’ll refer you to some additional sources.  Here is a short piece and here is a longer one.  I’ll end this section with a couple of quotations from one of the great modern scholars of Church history, well-respected by all sides, the great Protestant (Anglican) scholar J. N. D. Kelly, as he sums up the evidence from the period of the Church Fathers:

 

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)

 

The Papacy in the Early Church 

Norman argued that the early Church did not hold a Catholic view of papal authority and infallibility.  His arguments here function by a similar method to his historical arguments for Sola Scriptura.  He makes some references and mentions some events from Church history, but puts them forward in an incomplete and misleading way.  The more one knows Church history, the more one sees how universal and strong was the early Church’s belief in papal supremacy and infallibility.  I’ll provide a few illustrations to show this. 

But, first of all, it must be noted that even if the early Church was unclear about the papacy, this would not warrant Norman’s conclusion that the Catholic view of the papacy is false.  This is very much like the question of Sola Scriptura we looked at earlier.  We have to look to the Tradition of the Church to determine how we should view the papacy, just as we had to for the canonicity of the Book of Jude and for Sola Scriptura.  If the early Church was unclear about the papacy, if we had lived at that time, we would have had to have waited to see what the Church would eventually decide.  We could not simply decide against the papacy on our own authority, for that would have been an arbitrary decision based on nothing.  So, if we want to reject the papacy, unless there is conclusive and non-question-begging evidence against it from some source—Scripture, history, or whatever—we will have to show that the Church eventually rejected it.  But we can’t show that.  The Catholic Church, at least eventually, clearly accepted it, since we see that she accepts it today (and did at the time of the Reformation, obviously, and much earlier).  And if we look at groups that separated from the Roman Catholic Church at some point, like the Eastern Orthodox (or Protestants), we find that they did not have any non-question-begging basis for their own position or their separation.  Their break from the Catholic Church, therefore, was unwarranted and arbitrary, and so they should not be followed in it.  (I’ve already been proving that above with regard to Protestants, and I will continue to do so below.  I will also discuss Eastern Orthodoxy below.)  So, even granting that the early Church did not clearly support the papacy, we will not have a basis to reject it but will have to accept it, unless we will depart arbitrarily from what God has handed down. 

But, in fact, I don’t think the early Church was all that unclear on the doctrine of the papacy.  The evidence points to the conclusion that this doctrine was well-established very early in the history of the Church.  Let me illustrate this with some quotations. 

The great Church Father St. Jerome, writing in the year 393, articulated the central importance of Peter among the apostles as a remedy for schism:

 

[T]he Church was founded upon Peter: although elsewhere the same is attributed to all the Apostles, and they all receive the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and the strength of the Church depends upon them all alike, yet one among the twelve is chosen so that when a head has been appointed, there may be no occasion for schism.  (St. Jerome, Against Jovinianus [Book I], section 26. Translated by W.H. Fremantle, G. Lewis and W.G. Martley, from Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 6, edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace [Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1893], revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. Retrieved from the New Advent website at http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/30091.htm at 10:55 PM on 2/19/18.)

 

When there were rival contenders for the position of Patriarch of Antioch, St. Jerome wrote to Rome to find a resolution to the conflict, at least with regard to the position he himself should take.  His comments regarding the authority of the Bishop of Rome are very revealing.  He is writing in the year 376 or 377.

 

Yet, though your greatness terrifies me, your kindness attracts me. From the priest I demand the safe-keeping of the victim, from the shepherd the protection due to the sheep. Away with all that is overweening; let the state of Roman majesty withdraw. My words are spoken to the successor of the fisherman, to the disciple of the cross. As I follow no leader save Christ, so I communicate with none but your blessedness, that is with the chair of Peter. For this, I know, is the rock on which the church is built! This is the house where alone the paschal lamb can be rightly eaten. This is the ark of Noah, and he who is not found in it shall perish when the flood prevails.  (St. Jerome, Letter 15, section 2. Translated by W.H. Fremantle, G. Lewis and W.G. Martley, from Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 6, edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace [Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1893], revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. Retrieved from the New Advent website [added biblical references and hyperlinks removed] at http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3001015.htm at 11:01 PM on 2/19/18.)

 

Since Norman made the claim that the Eastern Fathers in particular did not hold as high a view of the papacy, let me quote St. Maximus the Confessor, one of the greatest of the Eastern Church Fathers, revered as a saint and as a theologian by both Catholics and Orthodox to this day, who had some interesting things to say about the Church of Rome, writing in the 7th century:

 

All the ends of the inhabited world, and those who anywhere on earth confess the Lord with a pure and orthodox faith, look directly to the most holy Church of the Romans and her confession and faith as to a sun of eternal light, receiving from her the radiant beam of the patristic and holy doctrines, just as the holy six synods, inspired and sacred, purely and with all devotion set them forth, uttering most clearly the symbol of faith. For, from the time of the descent to us of the incarnate Word of God, all the Churches of the Christians everywhere have held and possess this most great Church as the sole base and foundation, since, according to the very promise of the Saviour, it will never be overpowered by the gates of hell, but rather has the keys of the orthodox faith and confession in him, and to those who approach it with reverence it opens the genuine and unique piety, but shuts and stops every heretical mouth that speaks utter wickedness.  (St. Maximus the Confessor, taken from Andrew Louth, "The Ecclesiology of St. Maximos the Confessor," published in the International Journal for the Study of the Christian Church, Vol. 4, No. 2, July 2004, p. 116.)

 

Between the years of 484 and 519, the Church of Rome (along with the rest of the Western churches) were out of communion with the Eastern churches during what was later called the “Acacian schism.”  The short of it is that the Eastern churches had signed on to a formula that compromised a clear commitment to the earlier-affirmed Council of Chalcedon.  Rome, in defense of Chalcedon, therefore broke communion with those churches until the issue could be resolved.  The issue was finally resolved as the Eastern churches (led by the Byzantine Emperor Justin I) eventually rejected the ambiguous formula, reaffirmed Chalcedon, and returned to communion with Rome and the West.  But Rome would not receive the Eastern churches back into communion until they signed a statement Pope Hormisdas had written up for that purpose.  The Eastern churches signed the statement and thus returned to communion with Rome.  Here is the pertinent portion of the statement they signed:

 

     The first condition of salvation is to keep the norm of the true faith and in no way to deviate from the established doctrine of the Fathers.  For it is impossible that the words of our Lord Jesus Christ who said, "Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church" (Matt. 16:18), should not be verified.  And their truth has been proved by the course of history, for in the Apostolic See the Catholic religion has always been kept unsullied.  From this hope and faith we by no means desire to be separated and, following the doctrine of the Fathers, we declare anathema all heresies . . .

     Following, as we have said before, the Apostolic See in all things and proclaiming all its decisions, we endorse and approve all the letters which Pope St. Leo wrote concerning the Christian religion.  And so I hope I may deserve to be associated with you in the one communion which the Apostolic See proclaims, in which the whole, true, and perfect security of the Christian religion resides.  I promise that from now on those who are separated from the communion of the Catholic Church, that is, who are not in agreement with the Apostolic See, will not have their names read during the sacred mysteries.  But if I attempt even the least deviation from my profession, I admit that, according to my own declaration, I am an accomplice to those whom I have condemned.  I have signed this my profession with my own hand and have directed it to you, Hormisdas, the holy and venerable pope of Rome.  (Jesuit Fathers of St. Mary's College, St. Mary's, Kansas, The Church Teaches: Documents of the Church in English Translation, tr. John F. Clarkson, et al. [Tan, 2009].)

 

It is very interesting that although there was some haggling by some Eastern leaders over aspects of the formula that was agreed upon, not a single soul (so far as we have any record of) voiced the least hint of disagreement regarding the claims in the statement about the authority and centrality of “the Apostolic See” (a common name used in both East and West in the early Church for the See of Rome).  Nor was the formula protested against or rescinded for centuries afterwards.  It was again signed by the Eastern and Western Fathers in the year 869 at the Fourth Council of Constantinople.  For those who do not know the history of early Church views of the papacy, the fact that the Eastern Churches could sign such a statement without protest multiple times probably seems very surprising, but those who are more familiar with this history know that a high view of the papacy was common in both East and West throughout the days of the early Church and that this formula of Pope Hormisdas did not spring out of nowhere. 

Of course, the study of views of the papacy in the early Church is vast.  For those who wish to go further, here, here, and here are a few more resources. 

Norman referred to some incidents in the early Church where there was conflict between Popes and others.  Since he only alluded to these briefly, I will give a very brief response.  In the 2nd century, Pope Victor excommunicated the churches of Asia for refusing to accept the Church’s decree on the date of Easter.  Norman mentions that several bishops argued with him about this, including St. Irenaeus.  That is true.  They advised and exhorted him not to do it.  Interestingly, however, we have no record of anyone saying he did not have the authority to do it.  So there is no challenge here to the Catholic doctrine of papal authority or infallibility.  In fact, the incident supports the Catholic claim.  We can see that Victor, the Bishop of Rome, believed himself to have authority over the churches of Asia, including the power to excommunicate them.  We don’t see anyone arguing against that claim or disputing it.  Indeed, the fact that the bishops feel a need to exhort him not to do it suggests rather that they accepted that he had the authority.  They did not refute his authority, but argued with him as to how he should best use that authority.  (We should note that the Catholic Church teaches that while Popes are protected by the Holy Spirit so that their teaching will not lead the Church into error, they are not protected from falling into personal sin, acting foolishly, making imprudent decisions, etc., nor is it against Catholic teaching for other people, especially brother bishops, to respectfully call the Pope out for such behavior if the occasion calls for it.) 

In the third century, St. Cyprian of Carthage and some others disputed with Pope St. Stephen about the validity of baptism by heretics.  In the Catholic view, this dispute should probably never have taken place.  Indeed, eventually the whole Church came to agree with Pope Stephen, and Cyprian’s position was seen as a blot on his otherwise saintly career (see Augustine discussing this in one of my quotations from him above).  We can see from elsewhere in Cyprian’s writings that he had a very high view of papal authority, but it seems that his zeal in this case led him to act inconsistently with his general attitude.  Is this a problem for the Catholic view?  No, not unless it is Catholic teaching that Catholics never act inconsistently with Catholic teaching.  But, of course, there is no such teaching.  Church history is replete with lay Catholics, bishops, and even saints at times acting wrongly, including disobeying papal authority.  There are plenty of Catholics today who chafe against certain teachings of Pope Francis.  The fact that such things happen does not disprove Catholic claims regarding the papacy. 

Norman mentions that the Council of Chalcedon passed a decree concerning the Church of Constantinople that Pope Leo disagreed with.  What he doesn’t mention is that this decree is deferred by the council for Pope Leo’s confirmation, that the Patriarch of Constantinople basically apologizes to the Pope about the matter in a later letter, and several other nuances of the incident.  (All of these incidents, by the way, are discussed in this very helpful book in great detail, with primary source quotations, if you want to look into them further.)  Again, it is quite true that sometimes in Church history people in the Church act out of accord with the Pope’s wishes.  But this proves nothing to the point and certainly does not provide any serious evidence for the Protestant position. 

Norman mentions that the Third Council of Constantinople excommunicated Pope Honorius for heresy.  This is a fascinating incident, and I will refer you here for a detailed look at it, and you will see how far short it comes from disproving Catholic claims.  It seems to me that the closer one examines the alleged evidence from Church history for Protestant or other anti-Catholic views, the more one comes to appreciate how rich the evidence for the Catholic claims is throughout that very history. 

Eastern Orthodoxy 

Norman alleges that the history and tradition of Eastern Orthodoxy provides some significant ammunition against the Catholic position.  He claims that the Eastern Fathers did not hold a high view of the papacy.  In refutation of that, I would point to what I have already quoted above from St. Maximus the Confessor and from the Formula of Hormisdas, and the other resources I have linked to, and I would refer you to this collection of sayings from Eastern Fathers regarding the papacy. 

It is interesting that ever since the Eastern Orthodox broke off from the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages, they have never been able to replace the essential role played by the Chair of St. Peter in the authority and epistemology of the Church.  The Church has always taught that St. Peter and his successors in the bishops of Rome have the headship of the Church and the keys of the kingdom in a unique way in order to guarantee the unity and orthodoxy of the Church.  Just as the universal episcopate (the whole body of bishops) provides the authoritative voice of doctrine for the whole Church, so the Bishops of Rome function as a voice of authority when there is dissention among bishops.  The Bishop of Rome functions as a sure guide to know where to go in doctrinal disputes and divisions.  Since the Eastern Orthodox cut themselves off from Rome, they have never been able to replace this function, and the result is that they have no clear answer as to how one should resolve divisions and disputes in the Church.  They believe in the infallibility of Scripture, Tradition, and the Church, but they do not have any official or universal view on how to access the infallibility of Tradition or of the Church.  I’ll let one of the great Eastern Orthodox bishops of modern times, Bishop Kallistos Ware, describe this problem himself:

 

    But councils of bishops can err and be deceived.  How then can one be certain that a particular gathering is truly an Ecumenical Council and therefore that its decrees are infallible?  Many councils have considered themselves ecumenical and have claimed to speak in the name of the whole Church, and yet the Church has rejected them as heretical: Ephesus in 449, for example, or the Iconoclast Council of Hieria in 754, or Florence in 1438-9.  Yet these councils seem in no way different in outward appearance from the Ecumenical Councils.  What, then, is the criterion for determining whether a council is ecumenical?
     This is a more difficult question to answer than might at first appear, and though it has been much discussed by Orthodox during the past hundred years, it cannot be said that the solutions suggested are entirely satisfactory.  All Orthodox know which are the seven councils that their Church accepts as ecumenical, but precisely what it is that makes a council ecumenical is not so clear.  There are, so it must be admitted, certain points in the Orthodox theology of councils which remain obscure and which call for further thinking on the part of theologians.  (Bishop Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Church [London: Penguin Books, 1997], pp. 251-252).

 

The Orthodox sometimes argue against the Catholic Church by pointing out areas where Catholic doctrine has changed since the earlier days of the Church.  Now, if they could show a clear contradiction between the definitive teachings of the Church in earlier times and the definitive teachings of the Church in later times, this would be a powerful argument.  But it is not enough to simply show that Church teachings have grown or developed over time.  It is part of the Catholic faith that doctrine develops.  In Christ, and through his teaching and the teaching of his apostles, the revelation of God has been brought to completion.  The Church has received from her beginning the fullness of the Word which God has desired to reveal.  However, we are creatures of time and space, and God's interaction with us takes the form of a story.  The Church possesses the fullness of the divine revelation, but her recognition, gathering, preserving, understanding, interpreting, and applying of divine revelation takes place, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit who "guides her into all truth," over her entire history.  Thus, the Tradition of the Church grows, not by things being added from without, but by an unpacking from within, as the Church grows in her understanding and application of divine revelation and all its implications over time in light of the new circumstances she faces in her experience--external events, new cultural situations, heresies, newly-encountered philosophical ideas, dialogue with the world, etc.  The Church's growth is analogous in many ways to the growth of individuals as we gain wisdom to understand the nuances of things through our experience gained as we go through life.  St. Vincent of Lerins, from whom I quoted earlier, provides the classic description from the early Church of this process of doctrinal development.  Note (in the quotation below) the two things he emphasizes:  The Church's doctrine grows through time, analogous to the growth of an embryo into an adult, but that growth is a logical growth--not mere arbitrary mutation, like a cancer, but a flowering into maturity of what was there at least in seed form from the beginning.  There can be great growth in recognizing nuances, in seeing patterns and implications previously unnoticed, in articulating the specificities and depths of what God has revealed, and all of this can greatly alter in some ways the "shape and form" of the Church's doctrine, but there cannot be contradiction.  The Church's later doctrine will not turn around and attack what she had previously established, or the divine revelation that is at the foundation of all her teaching.

The growth of religion in the soul must be analogous to the growth of the body, which, though in process of years it is developed and attains its full size, yet remains still the same. There is a wide difference between the flower of youth and the maturity of age; yet they who were once young are still the same now that they have become old, insomuch that though the stature and outward form of the individual are changed, yet his nature is one and the same, his person is one and the same. An infant's limbs are small, a young man's large, yet the infant and the young man are the same. Men when full grown have the same number of joints that they had when children; and if there be any to which maturer age has given birth these were already present in embryo, so that nothing new is produced in them when old which was not already latent in them when children. This, then, is undoubtedly the true and legitimate rule of progress, this the established and most beautiful order of growth, that mature age ever develops in the man those parts and forms which the wisdom of the Creator had already framed beforehand in the infant. Whereas, if the human form were changed into some shape belonging to another kind, or at any rate, if the number of its limbs were increased or diminished, the result would be that the whole body would become either a wreck or a monster, or, at the least, would be impaired and enfeebled. 

 

In like manner, it behooves Christian doctrine to follow the same laws of progress, so as to be consolidated by years, enlarged by time, refined by age, and yet, withal, to continue uncorrupt and unadulterate, complete and perfect in all the measurement of its parts, and, so to speak, in all its proper members and senses, admitting no change, no waste of its distinctive property, no variation in its limits. 

 

For example: Our forefathers in the old time sowed wheat in the Church's field. It would be most unmeet and iniquitous if we, their descendants, instead of the genuine truth of grain, should reap the counterfeit error of tares. This rather should be the result—there should be no discrepancy between the first and the last. From doctrine which was sown as wheat, we should reap, in the increase, doctrine of the same kind— wheat also; so that when in process of time any of the original seed is developed, and now flourishes under cultivation, no change may ensue in the character of the plant. There may supervene shape, form, variation in outward appearance, but the nature of each kind must remain the same. God forbid that those rose-beds of Catholic interpretation should be converted into thorns and thistles. God forbid that in that spiritual paradise from plants of cinnamon and balsam, darnel and wolfsbane should of a sudden shoot forth.  (St. Vincent of Lerins, Ibid., section 55)

 

Some Eastern theologians suggest that we might judge the truth or falsity of doctrines by means of comparing modern doctrines to those held by the earlier, unified Church.  Some of them then argue that Catholics fail this test, because the Catholic Church has changed practices that the early Church kept and has added doctrines not believed by the early Church--such as the use of unleavened bread in the Eucharist, or the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.  But this argument is question-begging, since it ignores the fact of doctrinal development.  Everyone must acknowledge that the Church has changed over the centuries.  She doesn't do everything today exactly as she did it in the first centuries of the Church.  Her doctrine has progressed, so that she is more aware of certain things today than she was in the past.  To justify a claim of inconsistency between the modern Catholic Church and the earlier Catholic Church it is necessary to do more than simply point out changes or differences; one must show that those differences are contradictions or illegitimate mutations and not legitimate examples of growth or adaptation or doctrinal development.  And since it is the Tradition of the Church, divinely-guided by the Holy Spirit, which must be the ultimate judge of which developments are legitimate and which are not (unless, of course, an unavoidable contradiction can be proved to reason), this poses a serious problem for the Eastern argument, since, again, they have no way of knowing how to determine what the Tradition of the Church is saying.  We must conclude, then, that the modern Eastern Orthodox position, where it diverges from that of Rome, is arbitrary and unwarranted, having no adequate grounding in the Tradition of the historic Church or in any other evidence. 

For more on Eastern Orthodoxy, see here and here. 

Alleged Historical Contradictions 

Norman claims that the Catholic Church has contradicted herself in her teaching over the centuries.  He mentions two specific examples—religious liberty, and the salvation of non-Catholics.  He provides quotations that he says illustrate the contradictions clearly.  But a more careful look at these documents can, I think, clear up the alleged contradictions fairly quickly. 

The 19th century encyclical Quanta Cura objects to a certain idea of “liberty of conscience”.  Here, specifically, is the idea it objects to:

 

[L]iberty of conscience and worship is each man’s personal right, which ought to be legally proclaimed and asserted in every rightly constituted society; and that a right resides in the citizens to an absolute liberty, which should be restrained by no authority whether ecclesiastical or civil, whereby they may be able openly and publicly to manifest and declare any of their ideas whatever, either by word of mouth, by the press, or in any other way.

 

So what is this idea?  That people have a right to an absolute liberty, restrained by no authority, to openly and publicly declare any of their ideas whatsoever, in any way.  Pope Pius IX, in this document, rejects this idea as false.  Norman claims that the Second Vatican Council, in Dignitatis Humanae, a century later, contradicted this document by affirming this idea of liberty of conscience.  But did they?  Here’s the idea Vatican II affirmed:

 

This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.

 

Is this the same idea as the one rejected in Quanta Cura?  I don’t think so.  There is a superficial similarity, but I think the two ideas are fundamentally different.  Quanta Cura rejected the idea of an “absolute” liberty to preach whatever one likes.  Dignitatis Humanae did not affirm such an absolute liberty, but a liberty of religious freedom “within due limits”.  So I don’t see a contradiction here.  We could put the teaching of both these documents together harmoniously in this way:  “People have a right to religious freedom within due limits, but not an absolute liberty to say and do whatever they like.”  So it appears the alleged contradiction is an illusion that fades away when one looks a little closer.  But I do grant that this is a complicated subject.  For those who would like to explore it further, here is another resource.  Also see here and here for some historical articles that look at this subject from a historical point of view. 

What about the alleged contradiction regarding the salvation of non-Catholics?  Again, I think we have a tempest in a teapot, as they say.  The Council of Florence said that no one can be saved outside of the Catholic Church.  Vatican II said that non-Catholics can be saved.  Is this a contradiction?  Only if we assume that the only way to be in the Catholic Church is to be fully, visibly, and formally a part of the external structure of the Church.  But why assume that?  This is not the Catholic view now, and it never has been.  Here is how the Catechism of the Catholic Church addresses this:

 

846 How are we to understand this affirmation [that outside the Church there is no salvation], often repeated by the Church Fathers? Re-formulated positively, it means that all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body:

 

Basing itself on Scripture and Tradition, the Council teaches that the Church, a pilgrim now on earth, is necessary for salvation: the one Christ is the mediator and the way of salvation; he is present to us in his body which is the Church. He himself explicitly asserted the necessity of faith and Baptism, and thereby affirmed at the same time the necessity of the Church which men enter through Baptism as through a door. Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it or to remain in it.

 

847 This affirmation is not aimed at those who, through no fault of their own, do not know Christ and his Church:

 

Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience - those too may achieve eternal salvation.

 

848 "Although in ways known to himself God can lead those who, through no fault of their own, are ignorant of the Gospel, to that faith without which it is impossible to please him, the Church still has the obligation and also the sacred right to evangelize all men."  (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #846-848, footnotes removed)

 

The statement in the Council of Florence, and similar statements, are intended to emphasize the necessity of Christ and the Church for salvation.  One cannot reject Christ or the Church and be saved, for salvation comes only through Christ and his Church.  But there are people who are not outwardly and formally members of the visible Catholic Church not because they have rejected her, but because they do not know about her or are unable to enter her for some other non-malicious reason.  Such people, if they are seeking God by his grace, are implicitly connected to Christ and to his Church by their desire to follow the truth and they receive saving grace through Christ and his Church.  So there is no contradiction here.  For more on this subject, see, again, the two history articles I linked to just above, found here and here.  And here is a very helpful article on this subject from the Shameless Popery blog. 

Biblical Arguments 

Norman attempts to argue for Sola Scriptura and the Protestant position from Scripture.  Before we even get to specifics, I want to say that my fundamental answer to Norman’s biblical arguments is that they are question-begging.  Begging the question is a fallacy where one simply assumes something that needs to be proved in order to establish an argument.  I say that Norman’s Scriptural arguments are question-begging because he is using the Bible in a Protestant sort of way.  That is, Norman is interpreting Scripture using Sola Scriptura as a method.  But he cannot do this, for Sola Scriptura is precisely what he is supposed to be proving.  It is illicit for Norman to use Sola Scriptura to interpret Scripture in order to make Scriptural arguments intending to prove Sola Scriptura.  Catholics, of course, don’t believe that Sola Scriptura is the right method to use in interpreting Scripture.  We believe that Scripture is rightly interpreted only in light of the Church’s authoritative Tradition under the guidance of her Magisterium.  So unless Norman can make a biblical argument so plain that it must be accepted no matter what interpretive framework is used to interpret it, he’s not going to be able to establish his position.  Let’s take a look briefly at what he’s come up with. 

Norman argues that there is no biblical evidence for an infallible Tradition and an infallible Church.  I don’t agree, but I will grant that I don’t think a conclusive argument could be made for the Catholic point of view on these points merely from the Bible alone, without any infallible interpretive framework.  But that’s not a problem from the Catholic point of view.  Catholics don’t believe that all doctrine must be proved solely from Scripture without the use of an infallible interpretive framework.  So this observation doesn’t help establish Norman’s position. 

Norman cites 2 Timothy 3:16-17:

 

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.

 

Does this passage say that Scripture alone is infallible?  Does it say that Church Tradition is not infallible, or that the bishops of the Church are not infallible?  Does it say that Scripture is rightly used by being interpreted by individuals even sometimes in contradiction to the interpretations of the bishops of the Church or against the Tradition of the Church?  No, it doesn't say any of these things.  It simply says that Scripture is inspired and is from God, and that it is useful if we want to be able to do all that God commands us to do.  Both Catholics and Protestants agree with this.  This passage doesn't teach Sola Scriptura.  Rather, Protestants have to read this into the text. 

Norman appeals to Jesus’s controversy with the Pharisees in Mark 7, where Jesus reprimands the Pharisees for following their own man-made traditions in preference to the commands of God.  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.  One 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 one want to say, "But you're misinterpreting St. Paul there!", well, I say it is you who are misinterpreting the Scriptures on this subject.  Again, I will grant that there is probably no way to decide between us merely on the basis of these kinds of biblical arguments alone, without an infallible interpreter.  But it is question-begging for Protestants to simply assume that we have no such interpreter and proceed to interpret these passages by themselves without one. 

Norman points out that the leaders of the people of God at the time of Christ erred in rejecting the Messiah.  He seems to infer from this that, perhaps, there was no infallibility granted to the leaders of the people of God in Old Testament times, and that there would be no authority granted to the leaders of the people of God in New Testament times either.  But these are unwarranted leaps.  Perhaps God gave infallible reliability to the leaders of the people before Christ came, but once Christ came and clearly established his identity, by not submitting to him those leaders lost this infallibility.  And even if we were to grant that the Old Testament leaders had no infallible authority, it would not follow from this that the official teachers of the Christian Church in Christian times would have no infallible authority.  (After all, Jesus’s parable of the tenants—Matthew 21:33-46—seems to imply that the Church would be kept from failing in ways Old Testament Israel was not.)  There is simply insufficient evidence here to warrant Norman’s specific conclusions.  [Ed. See this article for more on the question of Sola Scriptura in Old Testament times.]

Norman alleges several cases where he claims Scripture contradicts the teachings of the Catholic Church.  He mentions the withholding of the cup from laity at communion, the sinlessness of Mary, images of God in the Church, and the doctrine of justification.  But I submit, again, that all of his arguments here are question-begging, because he has reached his interpretive conclusions by means of using Sola Scriptura, which is a distinctly Protestant way of using the Bible.  Let’s look very briefly at the examples of contradictions he alleges. 

Jesus tells all the apostles to drink of the cup at the Last Supper, and in John 6 he tells the people that they must eat his flesh and drink his blood.  Is this contrary to Catholic teaching, which holds that the laity are not required, and can sometimes be forbidden, to drink of the cup?  No, it isn’t.  There are interpretations that are consistent with Catholic teaching.  At the Last Supper, Jesus was speaking to his apostles when he told them all to drink of it.  He wasn’t speaking to every Christian.  In John 6, Jesus is simply pointing out that all people are called to receive salvation by feeding on Christ in the Eucharist.  He mentions both body and blood because both of these are always involved at every Eucharist.  The priest always receives both.  But that doesn’t necessarily mean that all Christians must always receive both by means of eating and drinking.  Perhaps Christians, by receiving at least one element, are participating in the whole.  Just as one does not have to eat every kind of food at a potluck supper in order to say that one has participated fully in the meal.  So which interpretation here is correct, Norman’s or mine?  Norman can make inferences, but the fact is that the Bible simply does not clearly address our question here or give us a clear answer.  Norman is going to infer as best he can using Sola Scriptura, and I am going to follow the interpretive guidance given by the Church’s Tradition and Magisterium.  Which way is correct?  It depends on whether Protestantism or Catholicism is true.  It is therefore question-begging for Norman to simply assume a Protestant method of answering this question in order to establish his argument intending to prove Protestantism.  It is just as illicit as if I were to cite the official Catholic interpretation on this point in order to prove Catholicism. 

What about the sinlessness of Mary?  The Bible says that all have sinned.  But is this statement meant to include Mary, or to say that everyone is subject to sin in exactly the same way?  What about Jesus?  Did he sin?  Norman would agree with me that he did not.  Well, what has become of the argument from the “all” in “all have sinned”?  “Jesus is an exception, of course!”  But the verses Norman quoted don’t mention him as an exception.  “Other passages of Scripture shed light on these verses by telling us that Jesus never sinned.”  Granted.  And I would say that Catholic Tradition sheds further light on these verses by telling us that Mary never sinned as well.  (Of course, Mary was saved from sin by her Son Jesus just as much as everyone else is.  It’s just that she was saved in an extraordinary way.  Whereas most of us are rescued by God’s grace from sin after we’ve fallen into it, Mary was preserved by grace from ever falling into it in the first place.  So Jesus is Mary’s Savior in an extraordinary way.)  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.  Again, Norman’s argument is question-begging.  Using Sola Scriptura, a Protestant method of interpreting Scripture, he answers a specific question the text of Scripture doesn’t address by reading into it what isn’t actually there, and then he uses his inference as an argument against the Catholic faith. 

If we were to use Norman’s method of proving contradictions between Scripture and Catholic teaching in other areas, we could prove contradictions between different passages of Scripture as well.  For example, in John 1:19-23, John the Baptist denies that he is the Elijah who was prophesied to come.  But in Matthew 17:10-13, Jesus says that John the Baptist was in fact the Elijah who was to come.  Is this a contradiction?  On the surface, it sounds like one.  But there is an easy solution.  John the Baptist was not literally Elijah, but he was the one to come in the spirit and power of Elijah as prophesied by Malachi 4:5-6.  So a contradiction cannot be proved here.  Norman would agree with me.  But then I would make the same kind of argument with regard to many attempts to prove contradictions between Scripture and Catholic teaching.  Again, on the surface, “all have sinned” sounds like it contradicts the doctrine of the sinlessness of Mary.  But it need not be understood as a contradiction, and one will only take it that way if one is already convinced that one need not understand Scripture and Catholic Tradition in harmony with each other. 

The same sorts of things could be said in response to the other alleged contradictions Norman brings up, so I’m not going to go into them any further, seeing that this document is long enough already.  (With regard to Protestant concerns about justification, penance, purgatory, indulgences, etc., I’ll refer you here, here, and here for more.) 

In conclusion, then, I submit that the evidence from Church history and from Scripture, and all the available evidence in general, supports the Catholic point of view rather than the Protestant point of view.

For more, see here and here.  On the question of the doctrine of justification, see here.