Monday, September 20, 2010

Who's Really In Charge

I have often heard evangelicals level the charge that Catholics do not really ultimately follow the Word of God. According to Catholic belief, the Church's Magisterium - the bishops led by the Pope - has the final authority in the Church to interpret the Word of God. Some evangelicals say that because the Magisterium gets to interpret the Word of God, the Magisterium is the one who is really in charge.

But such evangelicals forget that interpretation is always a part of the process of understanding the Word of God. Someone has to interpret, and if, according to their own reasoning, whoever makes the final interpretation has the real authority, let us see who has the ultimate authority for evangelicals.

I think most evangelicals are just following their pastors, and I think most of us can agree on that. Most evangelicals are unable to do the research necessary to even have a relatively informed opinion about whether what their pastor is teaching is accurately based on the Word of God. Now, they usually like their pastor, they trust him/her, they know that he/she is more educated than they are, and they are willing to listen to him/her. In fact, that's one of the main reasons they're going to church in the first place - to learn. So although evangelical pastors don't have absolute, never-to-be-revoked authority like the Catholic Church claims, in the very least many pastors have an incredibly great amount of influence over their congregants. The church pastors are the ones who are doing the interpreting and are therefore, by the reasoning used against Catholics, the ones who are really in charge. The argument that evangelicals sometimes use against Catholics comes right back at most of them.

Some of the more educated and passionate evangelicals out there will object. They pray over Scripture daily, vigorously study it, and think - perhaps rightly - that they have a decent handle on what Scripture teaches. They are certainly not just following their pastors, they check everything out for themselves.

But is such a position really better? For who then is making the final interpretation for such people? Themselves. They may consult pastors, theologians, books, study aids - but at the end of the day, they make their own final judgment. In fact, many such evangelicals take pride in the fact that they are not slaves to any church authorities, hierarchies, or pastors - that they are their own authority. Again, applying the reasoning used against Catholics, this means that these evangelicals are really just following themselves, not the Word of God.

But we have forgotten something: the Holy Spirit! Yes, evangelicals might say that they are not following themselves because they have the Holy Spirit and follow Him.

And that is exactly what the Catholic Church says about its Magisterium! Such evangelicals use the same reasoning to justify themselves as the Catholic Church does, except that the Church is even better: it provides a reason why we should trust the the Magisterium to follow the Holy Spirit accurately - its apostolic authority and succession from Jesus himself, and a history that shows continuity in teaching over a 2000 year period. Individual evangelicals have neither justification. In fact, the innumerable and widely divergent interpretations among individual Christians who are supposedly being led by the same Holy Spirit seems to undeniably point to the fact that unordained individuals attempting to follow the promptings of the Holy Spirit in matters of belief are extremely inaccurate. So in all those cases that evangelicals are not following God (since God cannot contradict himself), they are following someone else, most likely simply themselves.

In the end, the evangelical charge that the Magisterium is really the one in charge of Catholics comes back to bite evangelicals. We are left with the fact that, whether you are a Catholic or an evangelical, someone will be interpreting the Word of God. Both claim guidance by the Holy Spirit. The Catholic Church's Magisterium has reasons to backup its claim to being guided by the Holy Spirit, and thus be keeping God in charge. Evangelicals provide no added reason and experience proves they are untrustworthy, leaving the only conclusion that evangelicals are the ones who are perhaps not ultimately following God, but that someone else is really in charge.


  1. That's a really interesting post, but I have trouble with one small bit of it: "a history that shows continuity in teaching over a 2000 year period."

    Now I'm not sure what you mean by that and my interpretation here could be completely wrong, but if you meant that the Church's teachings haven't changed, well that's not entirely true. For instance, look at the way the teaching on abortion went back and forth several times through the centuries before arriving at today's stance that life begins at conception: (an essay from Catholic University)

    Not to say I don't agree with your reasoning here about who's really in charge, but I think the main difference is that Catholics let other people discern God's will, while Evangelicals try to figure it out on their own. Whether or not anybody is just ascribing their own will to God is another matter.

  2. On May 31 1906, King Alfonso XIII married Princess Victoria Eugenie of Battenberg (“Ena”) in the Royal Monastery of San Geronimo in Madrid. Ena, a granddaugher of Queen Victoria and niece of King Edward VII, had scandalized some of her family by becoming a Catholic before the marriage. When one of them asked her how she could possibly acknowledge the Pope as head of the Church. Ena replied, “If Uncle Eddie can be head of a Church, why can’t the Pope?”

  3. The church never changed its mind on abortion -- that's misleading at best. Given different understandings of biology and anthropology through the ages, different canonical approaches and sanctions were applied at various times. In brief see here:

    See also A Love for Life: Christianity's Consistent Protection of the Unborn.

    I actually think things like warfare, torture and the execution of heretics are more difficult cases, and thus better arenas in which to try and make your point.

  4. Carla -

    Church teaching doesn't change in essence. It only 'changes' in the way we describe it. Doctrine develops. Infallibility is a negative guarantee. When this term pertains to doctrine, it means that the doctrine is free from error. It does not mean that the doctrine is unable to be improved upon, or that a new word can be used to more precisely define the doctrine.

    As to your example of abortion, I would consider the source. It says pretty clearly that it is from Catholics for a Free Choice which has a particular agenda. This article is one of the most misleading articles I have ever come across. The Church's teaching on abortion has never changed. The only thing that has been disagreed upon during the course of debate is when the ensoulment of an embryo occurs, and the Church has never defined when that happens.

    Footnote 19 from the CDF's Declaration on Procured abortion is absolutely clear that the moment of ensoulment is irrelevant to the debate. You can find that document here:

  5. Here is footnote 19 in full from the document I linked earlier:

    "19. This declaration expressly leaves aside the question of the moment when the spiritual soul is infused. There is not a unanimous tradition on this point and authors are as yet in disagreement. For some it dates from the first instant; for others it could not at least precede nidation. It is not within the competence of science to decide between these views, because the existence of an immortal soul is not a question in its field. It is a philosophical problem from which our moral affirmation remains independent for two reasons: (1) supposing a belated animation, there is still nothing less than a human life, preparing for and calling for a soul in which the nature received from parents is completed, (2) on the other hand, it suffices that this presence of the soul be probable (and one can never prove the contrary) in order that the taking of life involve accepting the risk of killing a man, not only waiting for, but already in possession of his soul."

  6. Just realized upon checking back that my comment left at 9:16 should read, "It does not mean that the doctrine is unable to be improved upon, or that a new word *can't* be used to more precisely define the doctrine."

    The purpose,obviously, is to show that theologians come up with new ways to describe the mysteries, such as transubstantiation, homoousios, etc. Using the word transubstantiation didn't change the doctrine of the Eucharist. It made the doctrine more precise.

  7. "I think the main difference is that Catholics let other people discern God's will, while Evangelicals try to figure it out on their own."

    Acts 15 is a good example of the Church's hierarchy assembling to make an important decision which all Christians were expected to accept. You can tell from the Chapter that there was disagreement about not what Scripture (in this case the Old Testament) said, but what it meant, i.e., how it was to be interpreted. It's also clear that the decision-making process did not involve individual Christians, who had no role in making this decision. Rather, it was decided by the Church's visible, institutional hierarchy.

    Peter, Paul and James would have been flabbergasted at the notion that each Christian would have "tried to figure it out on their own."

  8. Hi Brantly and Krista! I haven't heard from you in awhile, but I'm glad you have a blog up to keep us posted. You've got a lot going on!

    I've got a question that I've been meaning to run by a specific kind of Catholic for awhile- the kind of Catholic who swam the Tiber from a non-ancient tradition to a more ancient one that better exemplifies what Christianity was like during the neighborhood of the patristic era. Coincidentally, you guys fit the bill. And coincidentally, the most recent post on your blog is such that it's pretty well on topic.

    The question is: Why the West instead of the East? This post is about who's really in charge. What makes Catholicism a better option than Eastern Orthodoxy? Specifically, I'm looking for the modern-to-ancient kinds of comparisons that drew you to Catholicism instead of Evangelicalism- and, presumably, instead of Eastern Orthodoxy.

    I'm still Evangelical, and I plan on staying that way. The primary reason for that plan is my belief that no group of people can make a legitimate claim to the title "One True Church." My number one reason for declining to join either Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy (if someone were to ask for it) sounds something like "I don't have to. But your church says I do, so that's a problem."

    If I did decide to join one of those ancient traditions, however, I am currently of the opinion that the Eastern resume has several specific items in its work history that make it look a bit more impressive than the West. Of course, I may not be as familiar with the stronger points of the West as I need to be. I was hoping you guys could help me with that.

    And if you're up for it, maybe you could interact with some of the things that (to some) make the East look like a better representation of early church history than the West. I know I'm interested to see how it stands up to a little bit of criticism and a little bit of critical thinking.

    Briefly, two of the things on the proverbial resumes that I would want to point out are the atonement theory and the absence of any kind of Reformation in the East, whereas the West went through two kinds of Reformations. And then there's one other thing that requires a story to set it up.

    What do you think? Can you help me out with these items?

  9. Mike C,

    I'm not Brantly or Krista, but I'm curious, why must you put the East and West in opposition to each other as if they are competing traditions? Even before the split there were different traditions developing and nobody in Christendom seemed to mind. Furthermore, there are many 'differences' between Roman Rite Catholics and Eastern Rite Catholics who are still in communion with Rome.

    Recently I had the privilege to hear an Eastern Rite catholic Priest speak about the differing traditions. He said, imagine 12 Tribes looking up at a mountain from different angles. A single tribe cannot grasp the entire mountain by itself, and each tribe can see different aspects of the mountain that other tribes cannot. Thus it is with the various rites of the Church. Each Rite has a slightly different perspective and this is demonstrated by a legitimate difference in theological terminology and worship.

    I just don't see why West and East has to be put in opposition for representing the Early Church. The fact is, East and West are both representative of the early church.

  10. zeeehjee,

    The reason for putting the East and West in opposition to each other has very little to do with the creation of a Venn diagram, comparing teachings and practices, and concluding that "one of these things is not like the other." If that was what I had done, I probably would have concluded that the Jesuits and Dominicans are more directly opposed to one another than the CC is to the EOC.

    There is a reason for it, though, and it has to do with the identity and purpose that each church claims for itself. They claim these things in ways that are mutually exclusive, and this finds no comparison within 12 tribes of any typical nation or among the 16 rites of Catholicism.

    Each church claims the identity of Christ's One True Church, which is not to say they believe no one else can be a Christian. That's because the stated purpose of each church is such that they and they alone (or "she alone," if that's the appropriate pronoun for a church) can fulfill the task of being the institution by and through which people can "be saved" (Protestant terminology) or "attain eternal reward, even eternal life." For the Catholic, this means a non-Catholic can obtain these things only insofar as they are obtained through the Catholic Church. The same claim is made by the EOC. That's the mutually exclusivity I keep talking about.

    At most, these things can be true of just one church. At least, it may be true of zero churches. (That's what I'm going with). When you compare the 16 rites of Catholicism, none of them make mutually exclusive claims in this manner. They may make different (or, if you like, non-identical) truth-statements with unique vocabulary, but you don't see multiple rites making mutually exclusive identity-related claims about themselves.

    You said you don't see why West and East have to be in opposition for representing the Early Church. I actually have an answer for that. Did you know that this past week was devoted to Catholic-Orthodox dialogue on that sort of thing? Here's a couple of links.

    From what I can gather- mostly based on what the Pope said- a lack of agreement on the identity and function of popes through the first millennium is one of (if not the single) most divisive issues between the two churches. Let me break it down for you.

    Popes had a certain way of operating in the first millennium. If you ask an Orthodox Christian, they'll tell you the modern Catholic Pope doesn't operate that way anymore. They operate in a "non-identical" manner that has "developed" significantly. That's what Orthodox Christians say, and it's just about the only thing Pope Benedict XVI has been hearing over the course of this past week.

    If you're wondering what it's going to take for the CC and EOC to reunite, these are the terms (which I encourage you to look at in more detail- find out what was spelled out by the Eastern Orthodox representatives when speaking to the Pope). The current Pope has to admit that popes used to do things differently, and he's willing to go back to the way it was in the first millennium. If that happens, the EOC is back on board.

    This is how they put it on (the first link).

    "The Holy Father reminded his audience that the ecumenical discussions are centering particularly on the role of the Pope during the first millennium of Christian history. Both Pope Benedict and Pope John Paul II have expressed a willingness to consider returning to the form of the papacy during that first millennium, if doing so would serve the cause of unity."

    I hope that's of interest to you.

  11. Hey Mike C,

    You seem to know us! We know a lot of people named Mike, and the C isn't rining a specific bell.

    These are great questions, and would require a thoughtful response much more than I would be capable of giving in a comment. I will just offer a few thoughts.

    Yes, zeeehjee said, the West and East aren't in opposition as much as you might think. There is a much greater difference between Catholics/Orthodox and Protestants than between Catholics and Orthodox. The late Pope John II said that the East and the West were like 2 lungs of the Church. They were different in their ways of thinking, had their own strengths, and were both needed for the life of the Church.

    While there are many points of difference between the Orthodox churches and the Catholic Church, as far as I understand, one of the biggest is exactly what authority the Pope has. Both agree, as far as I understand, that the bishop of Rome has a kind of primacy. But what powers that means practically, there is dispute. There has been a lot of effort in recent years on both sides to find a way to recommune with each other, with a lot of focus on how that worked in the 1st millenium (when they were in communion with each other). From what I know from the process, it doesn't seem like it would be improbable for an agreement to be worked out in our lifetimes, but we'll see.

    Why I went with the Catholic Church is because I think the Pope really does have the power he claims. I think the Church's interpretations of classic Pope texts (e.g. Mt 16) make sense. Also, I think that the power of the Pope is there in the early church. While the understanding of the papacy certainly developed over time, as has all Christian doctrines, I think the Catholic papacy is there in the early church (Irenaeus' Against Heresies, 3.3 is a great example).

    Anyways, this is just some thoughts.

  12. Excellent post. Easily the best one you've had so far. This is the main reason I left the Protestant church as well.

    It's been a while since I read your blog, I've been without Internet all summer, but you nailed this one. The only disagreement I have Is, why do the catholic bishops and pope have a better interpretation? Sure, they're more unified and they have all that history, but with all the corruption and sex scandals lately, why should we trust them? They seem to be going in the wrong direction as well.

    Again, great post.

  13. Evan - Are you saying we should judge a Church's interpretation of scripture by the actions of the Church's members - even actions that directly contradict their 'official' interpretations of scripture?

  14. That's precisely what I am saying.

    Mt 12:33 (nkj) "Either make the tree good, and his fruit good; or else make the tree corrupt and his fruit corrupt: for the tree is known by his fruit."

    I do realize that I just indulged in the cherry picking a verse and interpreting it for my own ends that brantly criticized in this post. I would be genuinely interested in the church's official interpretation of that verse and its parallel in Luke.

    But, from both a biblical and a secular standpoint, I think the church is hardly in a position to dictate what is right and wrong to the rest of us.

  15. Hey Evan,

    Yeah, long time no comment. I hope you had a great summer.
    "why do the catholic bishops and pope have a better interpretation?"
    Great question. It all comes down to apostolic authority and succession, which I've written other posts about as well. Jesus gave authority to his apostles who have passed it on to others all the way down to the present day. Now, what if a priest or a bishop sins badly? Doesn't that disqualify their authority? I think I'll write a post about this some time, but here's a brief answer.

    This very question was the subject of a major controversy in the 4th-5th centuries. The Donatists were a group of Christians in North Africa which claimed that a bishop's sins disqualified him of his authority and made him lose his ability to perform sacraments, etc.
    Augustine, who was now a bishop in North Africa (Hippo), was a major opponent of the Donatists. He held the traditional understanding that the office of bishop/priest and their ability to perform sacraments was dependent on God and his grace, not on the person. The Church upheld it's traditional teaching and sided with Augustine and the Donatists are considered a heretical group.

    God continues to use the office of bishop held by a person whether or not they sin or err in other areas. Even if a Pope is an especially unrepentent sinful person, the Holy Spirit will not allow him to err in so far as his teaching office is concerned. The sacraments of a priest are still valid.

    This is how the Church has always understood itself. Sin and scandal has always rocked the Church (we even see this in the New Testament). Sadly, it is nothing new. But the Church is greater than the sins of any one person.

  16. Okay, I'll buy that. Would there, in your mind, ever be a point to draw the line? If there was a scandal widespread enough, or at a high enough level, where you could say "I can no longer morally follow the teachings of these people?

    P.s. Augustine wasn't the Donatist's bishop was he? Seems like a potential conflict of interest... :)

  17. Hey Evan,

    No, The Church is guided by the Holy Spirit. I am following the teachings of God, as communicated through the Church. The Church is the Church, it was established by Christ, and it can never stop being the Church. The condition of it being the Church is something that it IS, not something that it deserves or earns. Otherwise, the Church probably would've lost its place as the Church a long long time ago.

  18. The "scandels" that have been rocking the Church in modern times indeed ballle me - partly because I believe I could easily have been a "victum" if the prevelance was as widespread as contnepory media reports. In the 1940's (surely this aberation existed among priest then too?) I was an alter boy who often trekked over 2 miles on freezling blistery mornings as early as 6 o'clock to serve at an early "Low Mass". Frequently it was only me, Father, and 6 or 7 parishoners in the pews of a dark and cold santurary. Never, and I think my memory serves me well, did this priest or his assistant ever make an untoward advance upon me. But today, I have the impresson the opposite was (is) widespread. It seems that these otherwise celebite men were, every moment of their lives, demanded to be without sin. I believe that in my relligeous "education" I learned that priests alos availed themselves of the Sacrament of Penance - and had to reconcile their actions with their God - the same God I talked in my layman way to.

    It seems to me that to base your own "direction" in seeking Christ should be founded upon concern over the sins of men against their God - when that perview is His alone - provides one only with an excuse.

    If the "faith" you finally chose can demonstrate an environment consisting of men - all without sin - then I would encourage you to embrace it.

  19. Good job! A picture is worth a thousand words.

  20. Abortion was banned from the earliest time, but according to the progress of science at various times, when the beginning of life was was debated. But abortion has been banned in all forms and at any stage at all times in the history of the Church.

    Aquinas did say an unborn baby receives a soul 40 or 80 days after conception, depending on gender. But he also said abortion is a violation of natural law and is always wrong, no matter when a soul may be infused into the developing child's body.

    The 40/80-day view is based on the writings of Aristotle, who said a child becomes human at "formation," the point at which it first "has a human form"--that is, when it looks human. He said this was 40 days for boys and 80 days for girls. Probably this distinction was based on the point at which genitals could be observed on miscarried children. Keep in mind that fetal embryology was then a restricted science; all observations could be made only by the naked eye, the microscope being in the distant future.

    Aquinas accepted the idea of formation, which he said occurs when a child receives a soul. But since abortion violates natural law whether or not the child has a soul, Aquinas taught that abortion is always gravely wrong.

    We have to know the difference between doctrine, dogma, and discipline, to know what teachings of the church can and cannot be changed and why this is so. Here's a good explanation:

  21. Pope Gregory VI [1045-6] said, "He is not a murderer who brings about abortion before the soul is in the body." Gregory XIII [1572-85]said it was not homicide to kill an embryo of less than 40 days since it wasn't yet human. But, Sixtus V in his Bull of 1588 made all abortions for any reason a mortal sin. His successor, Gregory XIV reversed that decree. St. Alphonsus de Liguori denied that the sould was infused at conception and allowed for flexibility espeically if the mother's life is at risk. Then 1869 Pius IX settled the matter that all abortions were wrong.