Francis’s papacy has sparked a fierce debate about the ability of the Magisterium to authoritatively interpret Tradition. Sadly, arguments about this matter typically end in a deadlock with the papal critics.
Those of us who support Pope Francis often quote from the Catechism which teaches that “the task of interpreting the Word of God authentically has been entrusted solely to the Magisterium of the Church, that is, to the Pope and to the bishops in communion with him” (CCC 100, emphasis in quotations in this article are mine).
In other words, the Magisterium does not contradict Tradition. Rather, it authoritatively interprets it.
Typically, the critic will assert that it is “obvious” or “self-evident” that a disputed teaching of the Magisterium contradicts Tradition. The critic “knows” this because they used their “God-given intellect”. This terminology bears remarkable similarities to that of other types of dissenters from Church teaching — as well as (if we remove the “God-given”) the New Atheist movement.
Such papal critics argue that we do not need bishops and popes to tell us what Catholic doctrine is. Their view is that one can simply know what Catholic doctrine is, apart from (or even against) the teaching authority of the bishops and pope. They argue that Catholics who accept the magisterial authority of Pope Francis and assent to his official teachings implicitly believe that Tradition does not have “existence in itself.”
Thus the deadlock. Francis critics will say that the pope contradicted Tradition, whereas his supporters will say that he has only contradicted the critic’s personal interpretation of Tradition. Hence, the unresolved disagreement.
This seemingly endless argument between supporters of the pope’s magisterial authority and defenders of the papal critics’ understanding of Tradition shows no signs of abating as views and assumptions become increasingly entrenched.
Today, I will attempt to break this deadlock by appealing to another precedent: Scripture.
Let us again review the Catechism on this matter. The Catechism says that “the task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted … to the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter” (CCC 85). This is the Magisterium.
Put succinctly, the Magisterium is the authoritative interpreter of the Word of God. The Church teaches that the Word of God has “two distinct modes of transmission”: Scripture and Tradition. As the Council fathers wrote in Dei Verbum:
“There exists a close connection and communication between sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture. For both of them, flowing from the same divine wellspring, in a certain way merge into a unity and tend toward the same end” (DV 9).
Of course, there are many Christians today who strongly insist that Scripture “clearly” contradicts many Catholic doctrines, such as the veneration of Mary, saints, or statues. They will argue that the Catholic Church twists itself into pretzels trying to justify these teaching, because a “plain reading” of Scripture says the complete opposite.
Protestants who make these assertions hold that Scripture is “perspicuous” or “sufficient.” For example, one famous expression of this idea says that “those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them” (Westminster Confession of Faith 1.7). In other words, authoritative interpreters of Scripture are not needed.
The Catholic Church disagrees. The Church holds that Scripture does indeed need an authoritative interpreter (see CCC 85 once again). The Catechism also teaches that to “interpret Scripture correctly, the reader must be attentive to what the human authors truly wanted to affirm, and to what God wanted to reveal to us by their words” (CCC 109).
The Catechism goes on to say that “the reader must take into account the conditions of their time and culture, the literary genres in use at that time, and the modes of feeling, speaking and narrating then current” (CCC 110).
In other words, what many Protestants might describe as “twisting oneself into a pretzel” actually leads to a more accurate interpretation of Scripture, because it takes into account certain contingent variables that influenced the sacred writers. This is why, for example, reading Catholic responses to iconoclasm will give us a broader and more informed perspective on the Old Testament prohibition of carving images. We can actually discover the real reason why idolatry is wrong, and that idolatry can exist in relation to other things besides statues.
Doing so is not about finding farfetched explanations or justifications for the Catholic view, but about deepening our understanding of an issue or question. Rather than contradicting reason, theological insights that consider historical and literary contexts and cultural conditions are much richer and more intellectually edifying than simplistic, and literal interpretations of Scripture.
The same is true regarding interpretation of Catholic Tradition and historical magisterial pronouncements when they do not account for “the conditions of their time and culture, the literary genres used, and the modes of feeling, speaking, and narrating.” This also applies to interpretations of Tradition that do not take into account nuance, such as the distinction between Tradition and traditions, or between doctrine and discipline, or between different degrees of magisterial authority.
The Catechism goes on to explain that there is another principle for the correct interpretation of Scripture that is equally important:
“Read the Scripture within ‘the living Tradition of the whole Church.’ According to a saying of the Fathers, Sacred Scripture is written principally in the Church’s heart rather than in documents and records, for the Church carries in her Tradition the living memorial of God’s Word, and it is the Holy Spirit who gives her the spiritual interpretation of the Scripture (“. . . according to the spiritual meaning which the Spirit grants to the Church”)” (CCC 113).
This does not mean that Scripture does not “exist in itself,” but it does not exist in isolation. This point was superbly conveyed in an article by apologist Dave Armstrong:
“It’s not that Scripture is so unclear and esoteric that it is an utter mystery and an undecipherable ‘code’ that only Holy Mother Church can break, and that no individual can possibly understand. Rather, the Church is required to speak authoritatively as to what Holy Scripture teaches, just as it spoke authoritatively with regard to what books were to be included in Scripture. Holy Scripture remains inherently what it is: God’s inspired, infallible written revelation.
Tradition in the Bible (particularly for St. Paul) is not an individualistic thing, kept by each person as an esoteric ‘secret,’ as the gnostic heretics would have it. No, it is obviously a corporately held entity. It is held in common by the Church, as the collectivity of Christians.”
Papal critics will not find any problem with this statement. They are not Protestants (typically they will abhor Protestantism). Therefore, they do not subscribe to the principle of perspicuity of Scripture.
But these same papal critics will turn around and ascribe to Tradition what they deny to Scripture. Yet Tradition flows from the same source as Scripture. Tradition is a mode of transmission of the Word of God, just like Scripture. And both have the same authoritative interpreter: the Magisterium.
If both Scripture and Tradition flow from the same source and require authoritative interpretation from the Magisterium, this would seem to place the papal critic in a conundrum:
If they accept that Scripture is not perspicuous, it logically follows that Tradition cannot be perspicuous. Both Scripture and Tradition require the authentic interpretation of the Magisterium.
But because they believe they can determine when the Magisterium’s official interpretations of doctrine contradict Tradition, this suggests that they understand Tradition to be clear and sufficient (i.e. perspicuous). But then why isn’t Scripture perspicuous?
I can only foresee three possible ways out of this conundrum:
1. They can accept the Protestant teaching of perspicuity of Scripture
2. They can attempt to explain why Tradition is clear, sufficient, and perspicuous, yet Scripture (the other mode of transmission of the Word of God) is not.
I do not think a papal critic would be satisfied with proposition 1. As for proposition 2, consistency would require the papal critic to substantiate this position by using Tradition itself, without relying on theological arguments or non-authoritative quotes.
Also, since the critic’s argument is supposedly based on reason, this explanation cannot simply be that this is so, but why it is so.
Of course, there is a third way to solve the dilemma, which I wholeheartedly recommend:
3. They can admit that the alleged contradictions between Magisterium and Tradition are only what they perceive as contradictions between the Magisterium and their personal interpretation of Tradition.
No one is privy to an authentic understanding of Catholic Tradition apart from the rest of the Church. I would invite any critic who refuses this third proposition—perhaps due to the belief that “contradictions” between the Magisterium and Tradition are “obvious”—to also consider the many “obvious contradictions” between the Magisterium and a plain reading of Scripture. Hopefully the critic might then come to realize that Tradition—which does indeed exist in itself—does not, and cannot, exist in isolation.