"Let unity, the greatest good of all goods, be your preoccupation." - St. Ignatius of Antioch (Letter to St. Polycarp)

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Tu quoque, Catholic convert

I received a good question in the combox of a prior post on sola scriptura, and the matter is important enough, I think, to warrant a post of its own.

As I pointed out in that prior post, one of the problems with sola scriptura is that the individual becomes the de facto interpretive authority, and then defines and locates "the Church" as those who agree with his own interpretation of Scripture. And this obviously leads to a multiplication of sect upon sect, as history shows.

But the objection to this argument is that the person who moves from Protestantism to Catholicism does the very same thing, essentially creates "Church" in his own image by reading the Bible and deciding that the doctrine of the Catholic Church most closely matches what the Bible teaches. So, the objection is a form of the tu quoque (i.e. you too) objection. Below I have pasted my combox response to that objection (with a few changes).

I receive this objection quite frequently. I discussed it briefly in my post titled "The alternative to painting a magisterial target around our interpretive arrow".

The gist of the objection is that in becoming Catholic I'm doing the same thing, i.e. interpreting the Bible and locating those persons who share my interpretation, and then placing myself under their authority.

But there is a very important difference. What is problematic in the Protestant approach is not that the individual uses his own intellect and will in making decisions about the identity and nature of the Church. We can't but use our own intellect and will in making decisions. Individualism is not equivalent to individual agency. So, that's not the issue.

The issue is the criterion by which we decide what is the true Church. The approach in the Protestant case (because in Protestantism "apostolic succession", insofar as the term is used, is thought to refer fundamentally to the doctrine of the Apostles) is to interpret Scripture, while typically assuming sola scriptura, and work out what one thinks was the Apostles' doctrine, and then find a present-day community of persons who shares that doctrine, call them "the Church", and then join "the Church". That very same sort of approach can, though rarely, I think, lead persons to the Catholic Church.

But if a person becomes a Catholic only because he sees that the Catholic Church shares his own interpretation of Scripture, he is not truly a Catholic at heart; he's still a Protestant at heart. One does not rightly become a Catholic on the grounds that one happens to believe (at present) all that the Church teaches; one rightly becomes a Catholic by believing (as an act of faith) all that the Church teaches (even if not fully understanding), on the ground of the sacramental authority of the Magisterium of the Catholic Church. When we are received into the Catholic Church, we say before the bishop, "I believe and profess all that the holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God." We aren't saying that we just happen to believe Catholic doctrines, i.e. we are not merely reporting our present mental state vis-à-vis Catholic doctrine. We are making a confession of faith, an act of the will whereby we are submitting to the sacramental authority of the Church regarding what it is that she "believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God" on the ground of her sacramental magisterial authority in succession from the Apostles whom Christ Himself appointed and sent.

That is why those persons who decide to wait until they agree with all Catholic doctrines before becoming Catholic are thinking like a Protestant. They're not understanding the act of faith that one makes in becoming Catholic. They are still in the mindset of 'submitting' to church authority on matters of doctrine only when they agree (or mostly agree), or picking a "church" based on whether it teaches what they already believe. They are not recognizing the sacramental authority of the Catholic Church and the difference that sort of authority makes. They are treating the Catholic Church as if it were another denomination, a Protestant "ecclesial community", without Holy Orders from the Apostles. That approach is a form of rationalism, not fides quaerens intellectum (faith seeking understanding). "Faith seeking understanding" is possible only where submission is required, but strictly speaking, submission is not required wherever the identity and nature of the Church is determined and defined by one's own interpretation of Scripture.

So what exactly is the relevant difference between the Protestant picking out a Protestant denomination that fits his own interpretation of Scripture, and the Protestant adult who becomes Catholic for the right reason? In the former case, the individual works out a set of doctrines from Scripture, and then seeks out those persons who are presently teaching according to that set of doctrines, and joins their community and submits to them. In the latter case, by contrast, the individual finds in history those whom the Apostles appointed and authorized, observes what they say about the basis of the transmission of Magisterial authority, and then traces that line of successive authorizations down through history to the present day to a living Magisterium, and then submits to what this present-day Magisterium is teaching. In both cases the individual inquirer is using his intellect and will. But in the former case he is using his own determination of *doctrine* from his interpretation of Scripture to define and locate "the Church", but in the latter case he is using the *succession of sacramental authority* from the Apostles to locate the Church and then let the Church tell him what is and is not orthodox doctrine.


Eric Telfer said...

I would also add that many times people who interpret Scripture privately are not squarely dealing with the issue of who canonized Scripture, or by what authority they did so. Nor are they dealing with the oral, sacramental and liturgical tradition that existed *before* the Bible existed in its canonized form. Nor are they dealing with many of the disputes that existed prior to the Bible, and the resultant Church decisions on those disputes, most of which Evangelicals take for granted as true. Nor are they thinking about all that the Catholic Church did to foster and build up Christianity prior to the Bible, i.e., Rome was essentially Christianized prior to the Bible. And even after the Bible was canonized, it was nearly another 1,0000 years before the printing press, and so the Catholic Church was fostering the Gospel message for all of those years.

These are extra-biblical matters, but those who insist on sola scriptura are insulating themselves from these extra-biblical matters by trying to convince themselves that the *entire* truth is in the Bible and that the Bible itself is the final and only authority on matters of faith and morals. They get into the Bible but never look to its history. They love it so much, but do not adequately turn to the history of it. They will bet their lives on it, but reject the Church that canonized it. They get in it, but never get out. They make it a rule not to. In doing so, they cannot see the forrest for the trees, to some extent.

For in fact the Bible does not speak to the canonization of the Bible. It does not speak to its own Table of Contents. Nor does it, by itself, completely resolve many of these interpretational disputes. But the Church that canonized it did and does. Further, that Church is pointed to in the Bible as the pillar and bullwark of truth. And so we have a visible, authoritative, historical Church which existed for nearly 400 years before the canonized Bible that settled all sorts of disputes about Christ and other theological matters prior to the canonized Bible, and that canonized the Bible.

In other words, if we start and stop *within* the Bible, we are following the Protestant rule. But if we start with the Bible, and then ask about the history of the Bible we land squarely into the history of the Catholic Church, the formal authoritative cause of the Bible. And once we realize that the Catholic Church had the authority to canonize the Bible, we can then see that it has the authority to help us to interpret the Bible and that we ought to really interpret the Bible in light of that living, authoritative and visible Church that existed before the Bible and canonized the Bible. To realize that the Catholic Church existed prior to the Bible and canonized the Bible, and then to think that one can interpret the Bible while rejecting the authority of the the canonizer of the Bible is quite a notion. But that is part of what is going on, strange as it is.


Eric Telfer said...

If I may, allow me to say a bit more.

We could start a church of our own and it could agree with the Catholic Church on every detail. It could even have the same liturgy, on the surface. But it would never have the authority of the Catholic Church and it would never have the history of the Catholic Church as it has moved through nearly 2000 years of time. It would not have, for example, been the canonizer of the Bible, as the Catholic Church was. Those two things- the authority and the real history- cannot be granted to any church I might start, even if I agreed with every Catholic doctrine because of my Bible studies. That is why, in part, one cannot just study the Bible and focus only on the doctrinal disputes. Such a focus always leaves the fact that we are not, when we come to the Catholic Church, making our own church, but having to deal with one that is already there. Moreover, we are having to deal with one that canonized the Bible and that existed before the Bible. The Catholic Church forces one to deal with more than the Bible because it was before the canonized Bible. All other churches, as far as I can tell, came into existence after the Bible was canonized- long after. And so trying to decide whether to agree with them or not on matters within Scripture is one thing, whereas with the Catholic Church we have to deal with extra-scriptural matters too. And it is precisely in dealing with those matters that one can come to realize what one is dealing with, i.e., the canonizer of the Bible. In realizing this, one sees that the interpretational disputes are secondary, though I happen to think that the systematic theology offered by the Catholic Church is the most consistent [with Scripture] of any that I have seen. But with the Catholic Church, it is not just about Bible interpretation for the matter does not start and stop with the Bible. It is also a matter of the history of the Bible and the history before the Bible. If we disagree with the Catholic Church we are not just disagreeing with any other group of interpreters, as is the case with other ecclesial groups. Rather, we are disagreeing with the authoritative institution that canonized the Bible. And so, again, dealing with the Catholic Church on these matters is different. Eventually we have to do with the Church's authority and real historical presence. No church that I can create will ever have these things, regardless of doctrinal agreement.