“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. Moreover, in the Catholic Church itself, all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all. For that is truly and in the strictest sense Catholic, which, as the name itself and the reason of the thing declare, comprehends all universally.” – St Vincent of Lérins (d. c.445), Commonitory; 2, 5-6.
“One of the most dangerous ideas of the Protestant Reformation is that Scripture is somehow self-interpreting. According to this view, Scripture is so clear that we don’t need an infallible Catholic Church. The idea originates with Luther, but Protestants often believe it’s something taught by Scripture itself. Professor John Gerstner (1914-1996) argued in favor of this view against Catholicism by saying:
First, Rome denies that the Bible is a self-interpreting revelation. The Bible declares itself to be self-explanatory. This is called the doctrine of the perspicuity of the Scriptures (the see-through-ableness of the Scripture). It may be understood in its own light. What is obscure in one passage will be clearer in another. What is incomplete here is completed there. What is a figure in one place is a commentary in another.
The claim that the Bible is “self-interpreting revelation” is not only unbiblical, but incoherent, like saying “the book reads itself.” Someone interprets the Bible. He may do that infallibly or fallibly, well or poorly, but the text doesn’t interpret itself.
We see this in action within Scripture. Jesus tells the parable of the wheat and the weeds (Matt. 13:24-30). At St. Peter’s request, he then explains the parable’s meaning (vv. 36-43). The parable didn’t explain itself: Jesus explained it. Likewise, on the road to Emmaus, Jesus walks with two of his disciples and, “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). St. Luke doesn’t say Scripture interpreted itself to the disciples. Jesus interpreted it.
Likewise, St. Philip was led by the Holy Spirit to an Ethiopian eunuch. “So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ And he said, ‘How can I, unless some one guides me?’ And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him” (Acts 8:30-31). Notably, the man didn’t reply, “Of course I understand it! The book of Isaiah is self-interpreting.” Instead, someone (this time, Philip) explained its meaning.
This is the role of the Church, but it’s also the role of the theologian and the preacher. St. Paul tells St. Timothy to “attend to the public reading of scripture, to preaching, to teaching” (1 Tim. 4:11). That is, he’s called to read Scripture and then to explain what it means, just as Jesus did in the synagogue (Luke 4:16-22).
So where does the Bible ever “declare itself to be self-explanatory,” or promise that “what is a figure in one place is a commentary in another”? Gerstner offers no citation for the simple reason that none exists. Even the idea that “what is obscure in one passage will be clearer in another” is question-begging, since Christians don’t agree about which passages are clear and which are obscure. As the Calvinist historian Alister McGrath explains:
Luther and Zwingli were unable to agree on the meaning of such phrases as “this is my body” (which Luther interpreted literally and Zwingli metaphorically) and “at the right hand of God” (which—with apparent inconsistency on both sides—Luther interpreted metaphorically and Zwingli literally). The exegetical optimism of the early Reformation may be regarded as foundering on this rock: Scripture, it seemed, was far from easy to interpret.
In response to the Catholic observation that Scripture needs interpretation, Gerstner says:
If the Bible must be interpreted by the Church in order to render its meaning certain, then the interpretation of the Church will have to be interpreted by another authority to make its meaning certain, and then there will need to be an interpreter of the interpreter, and so on ad infinitum.
If this were true, it would mean that no one could ever explain anything. That is, Gerstner isn’t so much arguing against Catholicism as he is arguing against communication and knowledge of the truth in general. If his argument were true, it would prove agnosticism, not Protestantism.
It’s also logically unsound. Certain passages of the Bible admit of multiple interpretations: they could mean A or B. If the Church clarifies, “It means A and not B,” that clarification doesn’t necessitate some further clarification—the argument simply doesn’t follow. If the Ethiopian needs Philip to explain Isaiah, it doesn’t follow that he must also need someone else to explain Philip, and so on ad infinitum.
But Gerstner gives his whole argument away immediately after this:
Our various Protestant church courts actually provide authoritative interpretations on most points when such decisions are necessary. But there is a difference between authoritative and infallible decisions. Compare, for example, the necessity for an authoritative interpretation of the Constitution. A Supreme Court performs that task. Yet what American believes the Supreme Court is infallible? Still, its decisions prevail as a matter of necessity. . . .
The Protestant church has provided for authority so that decisions can be rendered when necessary, but has avoided the error of investing this authority with infallibility. The Protestant church, not being infallible, can err, has erred, will err. There is one error, however, which it has not made and that is the greatest of them all—the error of thinking it cannot err.
So Gerstner actually recognizes the need for the Church to provide authoritative interpretations “when necessary.” The difference is simply that Protestant churches’ decisions can’t be trusted, because we don’t know if they’re erroneous, and they can err, have erred, and will err.
This is a remarkable concession for a few reasons. First, if Scripture is as clear and self-interpreting as Gerstner is claiming, why aren’t the Protestant teachings clear? How is it that there’s more than one Protestant denomination, and why isn’t each denomination sure that its own interpretation of Scripture is the right one? In one and the same argument, Gerstner is arguing that Scripture is so clear that there’s no need for an infallible Church to interpret it, but also that it’s so unclear that Protestants can’t escape from continually erring in interpreting it, and that the greatest error possible is thinking that we cannot err in our interpretation.
Second, the stakes here are higher than with the Supreme Court. The Constitution isn’t divinely inspired; Scripture is. If a denomination gets its “authoritative interpretation” wrong, it’s forcing its members to either go into schism or accept heresy, both of which are condemned in the New Testament. But since the “various Protestant church courts actually provide authoritative interpretations” that contradict one another and cannot be trusted as free from error, that’s precisely what Protestantism has to offer.
The fact that well-meaning and well read Protestants disagree with one another on the meaning of biblical passages should suffice to prove that Scripture isn’t self-interpreting. The fact that God gave us Scripture “to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 3:15) should make Protestants care enough to find a Church capable of reliably interpreting what Scripture means without the constant danger that they might be endorsing heresy.”
-cf Dr. Bryan Cross, PhD, was raised in the Pentecostal tradition, then became Reformed shortly after completing his bachelor’s degree in cellular and molecular biology at the University of Michigan. He then received an M.Div. from Covenant Theological Seminary. In 2003 he and his wife and two daughters became Anglican. On October 8, 2006, he and his family were received into full communion with the Catholic Church. He has previously taught at Saint Louis University, Lindenwood University, and Kenrick-Glennon Seminary. He is presently an assistant professor of philosophy at Mount Mercy University. His personal blog is “Principium Unitatis.”
“Steven’s first argument for why Protestants should remain Protestant begins with the claim that the “Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches associate themselves with particular teachers in a way that goes contrary to Christ’s teaching.” (2′) To defend this claim he refers (3′) to Matthew 23:8-10, where Christ says, “But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father — the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah.”
After describing how Christ’s words applied to the Scribes and Pharisees (5′ – 9′), Steven then claims that while the Catholic Church agrees that “in the truest and ultimate sense” that there is only one teacher, namely, Christ, in practice the Catholic Church contradicts this by prioritizing “tradition to Scripture.” (9′) He adds that the Catholic Church “set[s] up teachers alongside Christ, contrary to what Christ says to His disciple.”(9′) Here he is referring to the Magisterium, namely, the Pope and the bishops in communion with him.1 Steven then claims that Catholics put bishops “alongside Christ rather than under Him as His students.” (10′-11′) He claims that the Catholic church puts forward “certain students as though they were just as reliable as the Teacher Himself, namely the holy fathers and the Magisterium of the Church when speaking under certain conditions.” (12′)
In order to explain the flaw in Steven’s argument, I need to say something first about the Catholic understanding of the relation between Scripture and sacred tradition. In the Catholic tradition we rightly approach Scripture in the Church and through sacred tradition. That is because in the Catholic tradition, Scripture belongs to the Church, and comes to us through the Church, and through the shepherds Christ has established in His Church. This relation between Scripture and the Church is illustrated by the fact that the Church determined which books belong to the canon of Scripture and which do not. Although scholars can and do study Scripture as if it is not sacred, and outside of its ecclesial context, nevertheless, as a sacred text it belongs properly to the divinely established community who received it, namely, the Church, and is understood rightly according to the tradition handed down within that community. This is a very different paradigm from the Protestant paradigm regarding the interpretation of Scripture. See, for example, my essay “The Tradition and the Lexicon.”
This paradigm difference can be seen in Tertullian’s statement that “heretics ought not to be allowed to challenge an appeal to the Scriptures, since we, without the Scriptures, prove that they have nothing to do with the Scriptures.”2 Hence as I wrote in my dialogue with Michael Horton in 2010:
Tertullian here shows that those who are not in communion with the Apostolic Churches have no right to appeal to Scripture to defend their positions, because the Scriptures belong to the bishops to whom the Apostolic writings were entrusted by the Apostles. Since the Scriptures belong to the bishops, those not in communion with those bishops in the universal Church have no right to challenge what the bishops say that the Scriptures teach. The sacred books do not belong to them, but to the bishops to whom the Apostles entrusted them. Since the Scriptures belongs to the bishops and have been entrusted to them, they have the right and authority to determine its authentic and authoritative interpretation.
In the Catholic tradition heresy is not determined by interpreting Scripture apart from Scripture and sacred tradition, and then measuring candidate doctrines against one’s interpretation of Scripture. Rather, before we even get to the interpretation of Scripture, we have to consider to whom Scripture belongs, who has the authority to determine how it is to be interpreted, and by what rule or tradition it is to be interpreted.
Now consider Steven’s argument. Steven is making use of a notion from the Protestant tradition, according to which Scripture is not to be understood through what Catholics understand as sacred tradition, to arrive at an interpretation of Matthew 23:8-10. In Steven’s interpretation of Matthew 23:8-10, based on this Protestant notion, to be a student of Christ entails not having Magisterial authority, and not having what the Catholic Church refers to as the gift of infallibility, since those two qualities would place certain students of Christ “on the same level as the Teacher.” (13′) On the basis of this notion from the Protestant tradition regarding how to approach and interpret Scripture, Steven infers that what Jesus said in Matthew 23 in criticism of the way the Scribes and Pharisees used their traditions, applies also to how the Magisterium of the Catholic Church treats sacred tradition, which, according to the Catholic Church was received orally from the Apostles and preserved in the liturgies and the writings of the Church Fathers. In this way Steven treats his interpretation of Matthew 23:8-10 as the authoritative standard by which to determine that the Catholic Church contradicts Christ, and that therefore Protestants should remain Protestant.
But Steven has not shown that Matthew 23:8-10 contradicts Catholic doctrine; he has only shown that his interpretation of Matthew 23:8-10 contradicts Catholic doctrine. The Catholic Church, and I as a Catholic, assent by faith to the authority and truth of Matthew 23:8-10, but not to Steven’s interpretation of Matthew 23:8-10. By presupposing the Protestant tradition in his hidden premise, i.e. that Scripture is not to be understood through sacred tradition, Steven’s argument presupposes the point in question between Protestants and the Catholic Church, namely, it presupposes the truth of Protestantism and the falsehood of Catholicism. His argument concludes that Catholicism is false, on the basis of an assumed premise that Protestantism is true, and that is circular reasoning. What leads him to make this mistake is not ignorance of logic, but the faulty assumption that his Protestant approach to Scripture is theologically neutral when in fact it is theologically loaded.
Later in his video Steven addresses one objection to his argument:
“Now the Orthodox and the Roman Catholic will say Christ has given authority to the teachers of the church to define dogma and to establish the limits of the faith against heretical opinion. It’s as if they were to say the teacher has given certain students the authority definitively to establish certain teachings as unquestionable. But this point has to be qualified. After all the scribes and pharisees could have claimed the same thing for themselves in response to Christ’s criticisms. It is true that the Church has the calling and the authority to define its faith but it doesn’t follow that every purported exercise of that authority is valid or true.” (16′)
Steven is correct that we should avoid credulity. But he implies here that the only way to avoid credulity is to disbelieve claims to Magisterial authority. And that conclusion does not follow from the obligation to avoid credulity. The motives of credibility give us reason to believe that God has given divine authority to the Apostles and their successors. In this way we (Catholics) are neither in a condition of credulity, since we have motives of credibility, nor rationalists, since by faith we obey God by obeying our divinely appointed leaders and submitting to them. (cf. Hebrews 13:17)
Regarding the Catholic understanding of Matthew 16:19 and 18:18, where Jesus says “whatever you bind on earth shall be should be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven,” Steven says:
“but I respond that what Christ says applies to Peter and to the Apostles since He was talking to them but not necessarily to those who come after them.” (17′)
Here again Steven is using the Protestant approach to Scripture (i.e. apart from sacred tradition), to interpret it as he thinks best, and then using that interpretation to oppose Catholic teaching regarding the authority of bishops and the Magisterium. Since he does not find in Scripture a clear prescription for apostolic succession and the continuation in the episcopal successors of the Apostles of the binding and loosing authority Christ gave to the Apostles, he concludes that the episcopal successors of the Apostles do not necessarily have this this binding and loosing authority. But in the Catholic tradition, part of what belongs to sacred tradition, through which we come to Scripture, is the insight that this authority does remain in the Church through the successors of the Apostles.3 So here too Steven’s argument is built on a hidden premise, namely, that Scripture is not to be understood through the sacred tradition. And for this reason, just as above, his argument presupposes the very point in question between Protestants and the Catholic Church.
Steven claims that the only appropriate way for the Apostles to bind and loose was by seeing what God had already bound or loosed in a public manner. (19′-20′) He gives some examples of cases where God had manifest His will, and St. Peter made ecclesial decisions based on some public and obvious manifestation of God’s will. Steven then claims that the Magisterium in later centuries did not follow this pattern. I’m going to respond to this argument under Part II below, because in Part II he goes into more detail concerning this argument.
Steven next appeals in support of his thesis to three excerpts; one from Origen, one from St. Augustine, and one from St. Cyril. First he quotes Origen:
If there be anyone indeed who can discover something better and who can establish his assertions by clearer proofs from holy Scriptures let his opinion be received in preference to mine. (23′)
Then he quotes St. Augustine:
For the reasonings of any men whatsoever, even though they be Catholics and of high reputation, are not to be treated by us in the same way as the canonical Scriptures are treated. We are at liberty without doing any violence to the respect which these men deserve to condemn and reject anything in their writings if perchance we shall find that they have entertained opinions differing from that which others or we ourselves have by the divine help discovered to be the truth. I deal thus with the writings of others and I wish my intelligent readers to deal thus with mine. (23′ – 24′)
And lastly he quotes St. Cyril of Jerusalem:
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. (24′)
Origen is here speaking in his capacity as theologian. And what he says is the correct attitude of the theologian as theologian. Origen is not denying that what has been laid down definitively in the Church by an ecumenical council can later be rejected or contradicted. Nothing he says here entails that the Catholic Church goes against Christ’s teaching, either in its teaching about the authority of the Magisterium, in its doctrine of infallibility, or in its teaching on the relation of Scripture to sacred tradition. In short, since the quotation from Origen is fully compatible with Catholic doctrine, it is not evidence that the Catholic Church goes against the teaching of Christ.
And St. Augustine too is speaking here in his capacity as a theologian; he is making no claim here, in the quotation Steven cites, against the authority of a plenary council to give a definitive decision regarding a question, or against the authority of sacred tradition. Elsewhere he appeals to the authority of the tradition distinct from Scripture.4 He appeals to the authority of the Church when speaking of the interpretation of Scripture (On Christian Doctrine 3.2). And he appeals to the authority of the apostolic tradition regarding the baptism of infants. (The Literal Interpretation of Genesis, 10, 23:39; and On Baptism 4,24,32.) So again, because what St. Augustine says here is fully compatible with Catholic teaching, it does not show that Catholic teaching goes against the teaching of Christ.
As for St. Cyril, his statement is fully compatible with Catholic doctrine, because St. Cyril is affirming, as the Catholic Church does, that the content of our faith is located in the divine Scriptures; he is not denying the authority of a plenary council to definitively decide a question regarding the faith, or denying the existence and authority of sacred tradition. His exposition of the liturgy (Lecture 23) illustrates the authority of sacred tradition. He explicitly says “But in learning the Faith and in professing it, acquire and keep that only, which is now delivered to thee by the Church, and which has been built up strongly out of all the Scriptures.” (Lecture 5) If the Scriptures were the only source of faith, then there would be no appeal to the Church when determining what does or does not belong to the faith.
Steven comes back to Origen, and quotes him again:
The holy Apostles in preaching the faith of Christ delivered themselves with the utmost clearness on certain points which they believed to be necessary to everyone, even to those who seemed somewhat dull in the investigation of divine knowledge. … The things that the Apostles did not make clear were left for the investigation of later generations. (26′)
From this quotation Steven concludes:
Thus Origen takes the explicit and clear teaching of the Apostles to be the absolute guide for all Christian theology while everything else is a matter of continual investigation and correction as he mentioned in the passage that I quoted earlier. (26′)
The problem here is that Steven’s [sola scriptura] conclusion does not follow from Origen’s statement. To see that, observe that Origen’s statement can be true and all Catholic doctrine can be true, without any contradiction. Moreover, notice what Origen says elsewhere.
The teaching of the Church has indeed been handed down through an order of succession from the Apostles, and remains in the Churches even to the present time. That alone is to be believed as the truth, which is in no way at variance with ecclesiastical and apostolic tradition.” (On First Principles, I.2)
Origen affirms the authority of ecclesiastical and apostolic tradition, preserved through apostolic succession. So he is not claiming that tradition is not authoritative or that Scripture should be approached apart from that tradition. Hence here too Origen’s statement is fully compatible with Catholic teaching, and therefore does not show that Catholic teaching contradicts Christ’s teaching.
Next Steven tells a just-so story to explain the emergence of Catholic magisterial authority:
It seems to me that if you have a group of people who, (1) place tremendous emphasis on the unity of the group, and (2), who center the identity of their group of their community around an ambiguous and debatable topic which can produce multiple perspectives, it seems to me that with these two conditions in place you can find something like this traditionalist structure emerge. Differences in opinion compromise the evident unity of the group and people become identified with the opinions that distinguish them. But the problems of debate cannot be definitively resolved or established to everyone’s satisfaction. So self-identifying authoritative voices emerge whose word must on at least some occasions be unquestionable so that the matter is settled and the unity of the group is preserved. A procedure then is devised which will purportedly lead to the truth so long as it is followed correctly. In other words I am suggesting that the Scribes’ and Pharisees’ traditionalism is a social phenomenon that could in principle emerge anywhere as long as the conditions are right. But Christ identifies its weak point. People can confuse opinions for the things themselves, binding themselves to false ideas simply because of the purported authority of the persons propagating them, and in this way they place themselves on a harmful trajectory. The only way out of this spiral is for someone to come along and to say no, this tradition is bad and it has no authority unless what it says is true and an idea is not true because the tradition says it but rather because it is adequate to its object. But of course the traditionalist can’t hear this because in his mind the truth is too tightly bound up with the tradition and its procedures. (27′ – 29′)
Here Steven is by implicature using this sociological speculation about how authority structures arise to explain the development of Catholic ecclesial authority. This presupposes that Christ did not authorize the Apostles and instruct them to authorize successors. So here too Steven’s argument presupposes the falsehood of the Catholic position. The problem with just-so stories is that they are just-so stories. They persuade only by way of suggestion, and only if the hearer knows of no contrary evidence to the just-so story. But there is lots of evidence in the Church Fathers that ecclesial hierarchy was present from the beginning of the Church.5 Likewise, implying that Catholics “can’t hear” the truth because in our minds the truth is “too tightly bound up with the tradition and its procedures” again begs the question, by presupposing the falsehood of Catholicism.
Finally, Steven compares (by implication) the hierarchy of the Catholic Church to government bureaucracies in France and Romania. (29′ – 33′) He gives an example of a government bureaucracy getting itself into a situation requiring it to deny reality. He then claims, without any argumentation, that this is what has happened in the Catholic Church regarding doctrines like transubstantiation, Catholic teaching on Scripture and tradition, the veneration of images, Mary, and justification. I need say no more here because Steven has not here demonstrated his claim that these Catholic doctrines are not true. He has only claimed that the Church’s defining of these doctrines is like a state bureaucracy claiming that a living person is dead. And this claim presupposes the very point in question between Protestants and Catholics.”
“Steven opens his second video by summarizing his second argument:
Now my second argument for remaining a Protestant is that the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches are sectarian. And what I mean by sectarian is this: I mean that in order to welcome someone into their fellowship they demand that a person assent to the truth of doctrines which are highly contentious and not obviously supported by any properly authoritative sources. (1′)
To illustrate his claim he picks three dogmas: the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, the dogma of the Assumption, and the dogma defined at the Second Council of Nicea concerning the veneration of sacred images. (2′) He writes:
My argument is rather that such doctrines are highly contentious and not at all clearly supported by the most authoritative sources, and because they are not reasonably clear it is sectarian to set them up as conditions of fellowship with the Church. Scripture does not explicitly teach that Mary was conceived without original sin nor that she was assumed body and soul into heaven neither does Scripture teach that it is obligatory to venerate icons of Christ and of the saints. (5′)
He grants that these doctrines follow a trajectory set “in certain quarters.” (6′ – 7′) But he argues that these doctrines are neither clearly taught in Scripture, nor were they universally held. And therefore to make assent to them a condition of fellowship is sectarian, and thus a justification for remaining Protestant. Here, to support his point regarding the veneration of sacred images he quotes Origen regarding the practice among Christians of scorning “idols and all images.” (7′ – 8′) These three doctrines are sectarian, according to Steven, because “highly contentious and disputable points of view which cannot be established on the basis of the most authoritative sources are being put forth as non-negotiable conditions of fellowship.” (9′ – 10′) Steven then gives an uncharitable interpretation of the reasons why the Church has proposed these doctrines as dogma, saying:
Now what I think is happening is that a particular church or community of churchmen prefers its own ideas convictions and opinions so much to those of others that it is willing to exclude them from its fellowship unless they agree.” (10′)
This is an example of the bulverism fallacy, but Steven’s argument does not depend on this bulverism. He next says:
The church or community of church men in question takes itself as the standard of truth as though the mere fact that it has come to believe something is a proof that it is right. (10′)
Here Steven’s argument begs the question. His argument presupposes that the only reason the Magisterium of the Catholic Church believes these three dogmas to be true is that it has come to believe them. But in the Catholic tradition, the Magisterium has been given the promises of Christ regarding divine guidance into all truth. Steven’s argument here presupposes that the Magisterium did not receive this divine promise, among others. And in this way his argument presupposes the very point he is attempting to show, namely, that Catholicism is false.
Steven’s argument begs the question again in his following criticism of the Catholic Church:
And this can be seen in Ineffabilis Deus which says “The Catholic Church directed by the Holy Spirit of God is the pillar and base of truth.” Now note well this is not merely a citation of the words of Paul from I Timothy 3:15. It is an identification of a particular Church, namely the Church of Rome and those associated with it, as the Church. (10′)
First, Pope Pius IX is not equating the particular Church at Rome with the Catholic Church. The particular Church at Rome is a particular Church within the Catholic Church. But in Catholic doctrine schism is defined in relation to the bishop of this particular Church.6 Second, Steven’s criticism of Pope Pius’s claim to speak for the Catholic Church presupposes that the papal office is not what the Catholic Church teaches it is, and thus that Catholicism is false. So here too Steven’s argument presupposes the very point in question.
Next Steven says:
And instead of measuring its statements against the things themselves and coming to a moderate conclusion about the truth of what it says, the Roman Church takes the truth of its thoughts for granted and declares its belief an infallible dogma and a condition for fellowship. Now to my mind this is sectarian behavior. It is putting oneself forward as the criterion of truth in a matter in which one appears to have no special access to the reality of the matter.” (11′)
Notice that last line “one appears to have no special access to the reality of the matter.” Here’s the dilemma for Steven’s argument. If Steven’s claim remains at the mere phenomenological, the conclusion of his argument does not follow. If to him it does not appear that the Church at Rome has no special access to the reality of the matter, that leaves open the possibility that it does have special access to the reality of the matter, and he has not demonstrated that the teaching of the Catholic Church goes against the teaching of Christ. But on the other horn of the dilemma, if Steven claims that the Church at Rome has no special access to the apostolic deposit, or no certain charism of truth, then his argument presupposes the point in question between Protestants and the Catholic Church. Either way, his argument fails.
Regarding the Second Council of Nicea, Steven next says:
But the Council then descends into sectarianism when it continues by saying the following: “This promise, however, He made not only to them but also to us who, thanks to them, have come to believe in his name.” Now notice once more this us does not refer to all Christians but rather to these persons who have gathered at the Council and perhaps also to those who agree with them. Thus the bishops gathered at the Council take for granted without adequate reason that they are the inheritors of the original promise of divine guidance to the early Church. (12′)
Steven’s argument presupposes the very point in question when he claims that the bishops at the Council “take for granted without adequate reason that they are the inheritors of the original promise of divine guidance to the early Church.” If the bishops are what the Catholic Church teaches about bishops, and this teaching and authority have been handed down to them from the Apostles, then the bishops do have an “adequate reason” to believe that they are the inheritors of the original promise. My point here is not to establish the authority of the bishops, but only to show that Steven’s argument presupposes the very point in question, namely, that the Catholic Church is false.
Next Steven claims the following:
Of course an unwritten tradition is a word that comes from nowhere in particular and can be traced back to no one with certainty. Who can know if an unwritten tradition is genuinely apostolic?(13′)
His claim that an unwritten tradition is a “word that comes from nowhere” is not a theologically neutral claim. It presupposes the falsehood of the Catholic Church, for which there is an unwritten tradition that comes to us from the Apostles. So here too Steven presupposes the point in question. As for his question, this is not a question that baffled the early Church. St. Augustine, for example, in multiple places identifies traditions that were not clear in Scripture (e.g. infant baptism) but were universally practiced as originating from the Apostles.7
Steven next writes:
That is the attitude of a sectarian. He takes himself as the measure of truth and excludes all those who refuse to agree with him rather than putting himself on the same level as those with whom he might disagree and submitting together with them to the truth of things such as they seem.” (13′ – 14′)
Again, for reasons that by now should be obvious, Steven’s argument presupposes the very point in question. If Christ did give ecclesial authority to His Apostles, and they in turn gave this authority to their episcopal successors, and not to the laity, then when the bishops think, speak, and act as though they have this authority, this is not at all sectarian. These are rather acts of faith in Christ and obedience to Him.
Steven summarizes his argument for Part II:
So this is my argument. The Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches are sectarian because they impose as a condition for fellowship assent to highly contentious and debatable ideas that cannot be clearly established on the basis of the most authoritative sources. That is sectarian behavior. It is an unconditional and relentless privileging of one’s own perspective in some matter of dispute rather than simply submitting to the truth and admitting ambiguities where they where they exist. (14′)
In response, first, two of the criteria Steven is using here to determine whether the Catholic Church is sectarian are “contentious” and “debatable.” Although I could, I’m not going to argue that since the notion that these two qualities are among the criteria for determining what is “sectarian” is itself contentious and debatable, Steven’s argument is self-refuting. Rather, I’m simply going to point out again that the notion that these two qualities are among the criteria for “sectarian” is not theologically neutral, but presuppose the point in question.8 A careful study of the Arian controversy shows that for many years it was contentious and debatable. The same is true of Marcionism, Novatianism, Montanism, as well as the Donatist schism, and many others. If ‘contentious’ and ‘debatable’ were the criteria for sectarianism, there would be no schisms, only branches. But that’s not my fundamental point. The fundamental point is that Steven’s argument in Part II presupposes the very point in question by presupposing loaded (i.e. non-neutral) criteria for determining what is and is not sectarian.
Second, Steven here presupposes that the bishops’ perspective in matters of faith and morals is no more authoritative than that of any other Christian. That’s an implicit premise in his charge that the Catholic bishops are unjustifiably privileging their own perspective. But that implicit premise presupposes the very point in question between Protestants and the Catholic Church, and so Steven’s argument is question-begging.
Next Steven says:
Let me say that I agree that the Apostles and the leaders of the Church that come after them were given the authority to bind and loose but it does not follow that this authority is always exercised properly. (15′)
Steven is arguing that infallibility does not follow merely from the authority to bind and loose. But if on the one hand he is claiming implicitly that the Church did not receive the gift of infallibility, he is presupposing the point in question.9 If on the other hand he is simply claiming that sometimes bishops do not exercise their authority properly, then from this premise it does not follow that the Catholic Church is sectarian, since this weaker claim is fully compatible with the truth of Catholic doctrine.
Steven next says:
So let’s take as an example. Christ promises Peter that whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth will have been loosed in heaven. That is Matthew chapter 16 verse 19. Now from this perfect passive construction being used here we can discern that the binding and loosing in heaven come before the binding and losing on earth. (16′)
Here Steven is again using a Protestant approach to Scripture, according to which its meaning is determined entirely by exegesis, and not by sacred tradition. In the Catholic tradition, however, the mood and voice of these verbs does not entail that prior to the binding or loosing of something on earth, God will have already bound and loosed it in heaven. That’s because in the Catholic tradition exegesis by itself underdetermines interpretation, and Scripture must be interpreted in light of sacred tradition. My point is that Steven’s argument is here too presupposing the point in question, namely, the falsehood of Catholicism in his argument for the falsehood of Catholicism.
Now Steven comes back to the point he made in Part I, and which I mentioned above but to which I did not yet respond. Here Steven uses the examples of Sts. Peter and Paul making decisions on the basis of God having made a prior, clear and public manifestation of His will, to argue that the Magisterium can rightly make authoritative decisions only on the same basis. (16′ – 20′) That conclusion does not follow from the premise. Even if Steven’s premise is true regarding these decisions Sts. Peter and Paul made, it could still be true that the Apostles had (and the Magisterium has) the authority to make decisions without a public divine manifestation of God’s will. Here too Steven is using his own interpretation of Scripture, apart from sacred tradition, to argue against Catholic teaching concerning Magisterial authority. And that presupposes the very point in question.
Then Steven claims that “nothing like this was happening in the three cases he is considering (i.e. the two Marian dogmas, and the teaching of Second Nicea on the veneration of icons). (20′) That is, for these three dogmas, he claims that there was no prior, clear and public manifestation of God’s will, that could be verified by other Christians. But this claim that to be legitimate, Magisterial decisions must be able to be independently verified by other Christians presupposes the very point in question. Yes there is a sensus fidelium, but as Pope Benedict XVI explained, it is not “a form of ecclesial public opinion, and it would be unthinkable to refer to it to challenge the teachings of the Magisterium, since the ‘sensus fidei’ cannot truly develop in a believer other than to the extent to which he participates fully in the life of the Church, and it therefore necessitates responsible adhesion to her Magisterium.”10 As I mentioned above, Steven grants that these doctrines follow a trajectory set “in certain quarters.” (6′ – 7′) But Steven treats the development of a tradition, and what in the Catholic tradition is understood as development of doctrine, as something only arbitrary in its starting point and in its development. The Magisterium, however, recognizes and affirms authentic developments.11 And this is part of the paradigm difference between Protestants and the Catholic Church, in relation to what I’ve referred to as ecclesial deism, since believing that the Holy Spirit is the ‘soul’ of the Church leads us to expect development of doctrine, and further illumination and defining of the deposit. So by denying that the Magisterium has the divine gift by which to recognize and affirm authentic development of doctrine, Steven’s argument presupposes the point in question.
As for the development in relation to the three dogmas Steven has chosen for examples, the earlier Catholic opposition to images was never universal, never a moral consensus, and was never defined. Nor was it based on iconoclastic principle but rather on the prevalence of the pagan culture of idolatry. As that changed toward theism in the Roman empire, and as the two natures of Christ were defined at Chalcedon, the veneration of sacred images came to be seen as an affirmation of the Incarnation and its implications, in opposition to Arianism. Regarding the developments that led to the Church defining the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, I have briefly discussed here. And I discussed here the developments that led to the Church defining the dogma of the Assumption.
Finally Steven writes:
But I say that it is sectarian to put them forth as conditions of fellowship. To do that would be a matter of taking one’s own tradition one’s own perspective as if it were uniquely identical to the tradition of the Apostles without adequate argument than evidence. (21′)
Here too Steven’s argument presupposes that the Catholic Magisterium is not composed of the successors of the Apostles, and has not faithfully handed down the Apostolic deposit, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. In short, here too Steven’s argument presupposes the point in question. As for his claim that the Catholic Church is sectarian because its contentious and debatable teachings are not “clearly supported by the most authoritative sources,” this criterion presupposes that Magisterial teaching must be “clearly supported” by Scripture. But that criteria is not itself part of the sacred tradition. The material sufficiency of Scripture is part of the tradition, but that is not the same thing as “clearly supported by Scripture.” So here too Steven’s argument presupposes the point in question.
In my opinion, Protestants often do not recognize that their arguments against the Catholic Church presupposes the very point in question because the difference between Protestantism and Catholicism is a paradigmatic difference, such that the paradigmatic nature of the difference often remains invisible.12 In the Catholic tradition, faith is not itself established by reason or evidence accessible to reason. If I could see for myself the truth of the faith, my act of belief would not be an act of faith. Hence in the Catholic tradition an essential part of the act of faith is believing Christ by believing the successors of those whom He chose and authorized to speak in His name. Through these successors we receive also the content of faith. In the Protestant paradigm, by contrast, the personal and communal is downstream of the hermeneutical, as Neal Judisch and I argued elsewhere. I hope and pray that my response here will be helpful to Steven and also serve in the task of Protestant-Catholic reconciliation.
All you Holy Saints of God, pray for us.
Solemnity of All Saints, 2021.
Catechism of the Catholic Church, 100.
Liber de praescriptione haereticorum, 37.
St. Augustine writes, “if you acknowledge the supreme authority of Scripture, you should recognize that authority which from the time of Christ Himself, though the ministry of His apostles, and through a regular succession of bishops in the seats of the apostles, has been preserved to our own day throughout the whole world, with a reputation known to all.” (Reply to Faustus the Manichean, 33:9)
“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….” St. Augustine, Epistle to Januarius, 54:1.
See our “The Bishops of History and the Catholic Faith: A Reply To Brandon Addison.”
Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2089.
Cf. Letter to Januarius 54.1.1. On Baptism 2.7.1 and 5.23.31.
I have addressed the charge of sectarianism in 2011 in “Ecclesial Unity and Outdoing Christ: A Dilemma for the Ecumenicism of Non-Return.”
See B.C. Butler’s The Church and Infallibility (Sheed and Ward, 1954) and Bishop Vincent Ferrer Gasser’s The Gift of Infallibility (Ignatius Press, 1986).
Vatican Information Service, December 7, 2012.
See comments #29 and #31 under “The Commonitory of St. Vincent of Lérins.”
I attempted to illustrate one aspect of the paradigmatic difference in “Imputations and Paradigms: A Reply to Nick Batzig.”
“In popular myth, Christopher Columbus is the symbol of European greed and genocidal imperialism. In reality, he was a dedicated Christian concerned first and foremost with serving God and his fellow man.
Peering into the future, Columbus (1451-1506) could not have anticipated the ingratitude and outright contempt shown by modern man toward his discovery and exploration of the New World. Few see him as he really was: a devout Catholic concerned for the eternal salvation of the indigenous peoples he encountered. Rather, it has become fashionable to slander him as deliberately genocidal, a symbol of European imperialism , a bringer of destruction, enslavement, and death to the happy and prosperous people of the Americas .
In the United States, the vitriol directed against Columbus produces annual protests every Columbus Day. Some want to abolish it as a federal holiday, and several cities already refuse to acknowledge it and celebrate instead “Indigenous Peoples Day” .
This movement to brand Columbus a genocidal maniac and erase all memory of his extraordinary accomplishments stems from a false myth about the man and his times.
The so-called Age of Discovery was ushered in by Prince Henry the Navigator (1394-1460) of Portugal. Prince Henry and his sailors inaugurated the great age of explorers finding new lands and creating shipping lanes for the import and export of goods, including consumables never before seen in Europe. Their efforts also created an intense competition among the sailing nations of Europe, each striving to outdo the others in finding new and more efficient trade routes. It was into this world of innovation, exploration, and economic competition that Christopher Columbus was born.
A native of the Italian city-state of Genoa, Columbus became a sailor at the age of fourteen. He learned the nautical trade sailing on Genoese merchant vessels and became an accomplished navigator. On a long-distance voyage past Iceland in February 1477, Columbus learned about the strong east-flowing Atlantic currents and believed that a journey across the ocean could be made because the currents would be able to bring a ship home . So Columbus formulated a plan to seek the east by going west. He knew that such an ambitious undertaking required royal backing, and in May of 1486, he secured a royal audience with King Fernando and Queen Isabel of Spain, who in time granted everything Columbus needed for the voyage.
On August 3, 1492, Columbus embarked from Spain with ninety men on three ships: the Niña, Pinta, and Santa Maria . After thirty-three days at sea, Columbus’s flotilla spotted land (the Bahamas), which he claimed in the name of the Spanish monarchs. Columbus’s modern-day detractors view that as a sign of imperial conquest. It was not—it was simply a sign to other European nations that they could not establish trading posts on the Spanish possession .
On this first voyage, Columbus also reached the islands of Cuba and Hispaniola. He stayed four months in the New World and arrived home to fanfare on March 15, 1493. Unfortunately, the Santa Maria ran aground on Hispaniola so was forced to leave forty-two men behind, ordered to treat the indigenous people well and especially to respect the women . But as Columbus discovered on his second voyage, that order was not heeded.
Columbus made four voyages to the New World, and each brought its own discoveries and adventures. His second voyage included many crewmen from his first, but also some new faces such as Ponce de León, who later won fame as an explorer himself. On this second voyage, Columbus and his men encountered the fierce tribe of the Caribs, who were cannibals, practiced sodomy, and castrated captured boys from neighboring tribes. Columbus recognized the Caribs’ captives as members of the peaceful tribe he met on his first voyage, so he rescued and returned them to their homes . This voyage included stops in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
-human sacrifice, Codex Magliabecchiano
-cannibalism, Codex Magliabecchiano
The third voyage was the most difficult for Columbus, as he was arrested on charges of mismanagement of the Spanish trading enterprise in the New World and sent back to Spain in chains (though later exonerated). Columbus’s fourth and final voyage took place in 1502-1504, with his son Fernando among the crew. The crossing of the Atlantic was the fastest ever: sixteen days. The expedition visited Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica, and was marooned for a time on Jamaica.
Most accounts of Columbus’s voyages mistake his motives by focusing narrowly on economic or political factors. But in fact, his primary motive was to find enough gold to finance a crusade to retake Jerusalem from the Muslims, as evidenced by a letter he wrote in December 1492 to King Fernando and Queen Isabel, encouraging them to “spend all the profits of this my enterprise on the conquest of Jerusalem” . In this, he believed he was fulfilling conditions for the Second Coming of Christ. Near the end of his life, he even compiled a book about the connection between the liberation of Jerusalem and the Second Coming .
Columbus considered himself a “Christ-bearer” like his namesake, St. Christopher . When he first arrived on Hispaniola, his first words to the natives were, “The monarchs of Castile have sent us not to subjugate you but to teach you the true religion” . In a 1502 letter to Pope Alexander VI (r. 1492-1503), Columbus asked the pontiff to send missionaries to the indigenous peoples of the New World so they could accept Christ. And in his will, Columbus proved his belief in the importance of evangelization by establishing a fund to finance missionary efforts to the lands he discovered .
Contrary to the popular myth, Columbus treated the native peoples with great respect and friendship. He was impressed by their “generosity, intelligence, and ingenuity” . He recorded in his diary that “in the world there are no better people or a better land. They love their neighbors as themselves, and they have the sweetest speech in the world and [they are] gentle and always laughing” . Columbus demanded that his men exchange gifts with the natives they encountered and not just take what they wanted by force. He enforced this policy rigorously: on his third voyage in August 1500, he hanged men who disobeyed him by harming the native people .
Columbus never intended the enslavement of the peoples of the New World. In fact, he considered the Indians who worked in the Spanish settlement in Hispaniola as employees of the crown . In further proof that Columbus did not plan to rely on slave labor, he asked the crown to send him Spanish miners to mine for gold . Indeed, no doubt influenced by Columbus, the Spanish monarchs in their instructions to Spanish settlers mandated that the Indians be treated “very well and lovingly” and demanded that no harm should come to them .
Columbus passed to his eternal reward on May 20, 1506.
 Carol Delaney, Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem (New York: Free Press, 2011), xii.
 See http://www.transformcolumbusday.org/.
 Marilia Brocchetto and Emanuella Grinberg, “Quest to Change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day Sails Ahead,” CNN.com, October 10, 2016, accessed April 7, 2017, http://www.cnn.com/2016/10/09/us/columbus-day-indigenous-peoples-day/.
 The sailors of Columbus’s day did not believe the earth was flat, as is commonly believed, but were afraid about the ability to get home after sailing across the ocean.
 Columbus demanded a patent of nobility, a coat of arms, the titles of Admiral of the Ocean Sea and Viceroy and Governor of all discovered lands, plus 10 percent of the revenue from all trade from any claimed territory. Isabel agreed to these terms and both parties signed the Capitulations of Santa Fe on April 17, 1492. See Delaney, Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem, 68.
 See Delaney, Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem, 92.
 Ibid., 109.
 Ibid., 130.
 Ibid., vii.
 The book was titled Libro de las Profecías or the Book of Prophecies.
 Delaney, Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem, 83.
 Daniel-Rops, The Catholic Reformation, vol. 2, 27.
 Ibid., 159.
 Ibid., 97.
 Columbus, Diario, 281. Quoted in Delaney, Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem, 107. Columbus was a literate man, which was rare for the day. He recorded his observations of the New World in his diary and ship’s log, at a time when keeping logs was not standard practice.
 See Delaney, Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem, 181.
 Ibid., 142.
 Ibid., 153.
 See Samuel Eliot Morison, trans. and ed., Journals and Other Documents on the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, vol. 1 (New York: Heritage Press, 1963), 204. Quoted in Delaney, Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem, 125-126.
“Prior to European contact, journals, letters, and reports prove the New World was not an “egalitarian society” as author, Howard Zinn, claims.
Instead, sources reveal slavery, genocide, sexual exploitation, trafficking, polygamy, violence, sacrifice, and even cannibalism were part of the culture.
Indigenous Slave Trade
According to reports, “wherever European conquistadors set foot in the American tropics, they found evidence of indigenous warfare, war captives, and captive slaves.”[i]
Christopher Columbus recorded in his journal that he “Saw some with marks of wounds on their bodies, and made signs to ask what it was, and they me to understand that people from other adjacent islands came with the intention of seizing them, and that they defended themselves. I believed, and still believe, that they come here from the mainland to take them prisoners.” [ii[
Upon Christopher Columbus’ arrival to the New World, he befriended the Taino tribes and became awar of their horrific experiences with Carib tribes, a barbaric people.
The Taino people warned Columbus of “extremely ferocious…eaters of human flesh who “visit all the native islands, and rob and plunder whatever they can.””[iii]
Reports reveal that the Carib people preferred to eat infants and adult males. Dr. Diego Chanca, a medical expert who traveled with Columbus reported, “When the Caribbees take any boys prisoners, they remove their genitalia, fatten the boys until they grow to manhood and then, when they wish to make a great feast, they kill and eat the young men, for they say the flesh of boys and women is not good to eat.”[iv]
Indigenous Sex Trafficking
Eye witnesses reveal that, “In their wars upon the inhabitants of the neighboring islands, native peoples capture as many of the women as they can, especially those who are young and handsome, and keep them as body sex slaves, eating the children produced, only raising the children they have with women from their own tribe.”[v]
According to contemporary sources, “Dr. Chanca described that the Caribs enslaved so many women that, “in fifty houses we entered no man was found, but all were women.”[vi]
The culture Columbus stumbled upon was one that depended on sex labor, subjugation, and cannibalism of offspring.”
[i] Fernando Sanos-Granero, “Vital Enemies: Slavery, Predation, and the Amerindian Political Economy of Life (Austin University of Texas Press, 2009)
[ii] Columbus, The Journal, 38.
[iii] Nicolo Syllacio, “Syllacio’s Letter to Duke of Milan, 13 December 1494” in Journals and Other Documents on the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, edited by Samuel Eliot Morrison (New York: The Heritage Press, 1963), 237.
[iv] Diego Chanca, “Letters of Dr. Diego Alvarez Chanca”, Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections (Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1907), Vol 48, 442.
[vi] Chanca, “Letter of Dr. Diego Alvarez Chanca”, 442
“Some Protestants argue for justification by faith alone by appealing to 2 Corinthians 5:21, which says, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Protestant pastor John MacArthur even calls this verse the “heart of the gospel” when it comes to belief in sola fide, or justification by faith alone.
On the face of it, this doesn’t sound like it has much to do with us needing only to make an act of faith in Jesus in order to be saved. But Protestant apologists like MacArthur will say our salvation comes not from anything we do, but from the simple recognition that Jesus has already done everything that is necessary to rid us from sin. Through an act of faith, God “swaps” our sins for Christ’s righteousness, and that is why we can spend eternity with him. Jesus doesn’t literally become a sinner, but he is literally punished for our sins because now he has them.
When the Father sees the Son on the cross, he sees our sins and pours out his wrath upon the Son. But when the swap happens and God looks at us, he doesn’t see our sins anymore; he just sees Christ’s righteousness. Think of it as a theological Freaky Friday.
What’s important to remember is that our own righteousness hasn’t changed. Instead, God has covered our sins with Christ’s righteousness. Martin Luther is believed to have compared this to how dung heaps in the countryside would be covered with pure white snow. The dung heap remains, but it is no longer seen.
But this is not how 2 Corinthians 5:21 was traditionally understood throughout Church history.
Several Church fathers said this verse was an allusion to coming in the likeness of sinful flesh, or just the Incarnation in general, and has nothing to do with imputation of sin. St. Augustine said, “Therefore having no sin of his own; nevertheless, on account of the likeness of sinful flesh in which he came, he was called sin, that he might be sacrificed to wash away sin.” Even John Calvin used this verse in this way. When he was defending the importance of Christ’s humanity in the atonement, he wrote the following:
Although Christ could neither purify our souls by his own blood, nor appease the Father by his sacrifice, nor acquit us from the charge of guilt, nor, in short, perform the office of priest, unless he had been very God, because no human ability was equal to such a burden, it is however certain, that he performed all these things in his human nature. . . . Righteousness was manifested to us in his flesh. . . . He places the fountain of righteousness entirely in the incarnation of Christ[:] “He has made him to be sin for us who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.”
The point is not that Christ has become our sins, but that Christ has offered himself for humanity by taking on a human body. This corresponds to Romans 8:3, which says, “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh.”
Another interpretation of 2 Corinthians 5:21 is that “made him to be sin” means “made him to be a sin offering.” The Greek word for sin in this passage can also mean “sin offering,” or what is sacrificed to take away sin. Another place where we find it is Hebrews 10:6, which quotes Psalm 40, which refers to sacrifices. It literally says in Greek: “Burnt offering and for sin you have not delighted in,” so most translators render “sin” in this passage “sin offering” because that makes the most sense of the context.
It’s reasonable to conclude that the same is true of 2 Corinthians 5:21 because Paul makes it clear Christ himself is a paschal sacrifice. He says in 1 Corinthians 5:7, “Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our paschal lamb, has been sacrificed.”
So, to summarize, 2 Corinthians 5:21 does not refute the Catholic understanding of Christ’s atoning death. Moreover, it’s perfectly compatible with the Catholic view of Christ offering himself as a sacrifice that pays the debt incurred by all the sins ever committed. It is then up to each individual to freely choose to allow God to apply the effects of that sacrifice to his soul. This includes being baptized and being initially saved, and then living a life of obedience to God and not throwing away the value of Christ’s sacrifice. That’s why Hebrews 10:26-27 says, “For if we sin deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful prospect of judgment.”
We should take heart that Christ doesn’t just legally expunge our sinful deeds from a ledger, but transforms us as we receive his righteousness. 2 Corinthians 5:17 even says, “Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come.”
-by Allison Low, Allison Tobola Low is a lifelong Catholic, passionate for sharing Christ and the Catholic faith with others. She works full time as a physician in Tyler, Texas, and also received a Master’s degree in Theology from the Augustine Institute in Denver, CO. Allison finds time to teach and share the Catholic faith every opportunity she can find, including being a catechist for Adult Faith Formation and RCIA at her local parish. Allison enjoys giving talks in parishes on a variety of faith-related topics and is also a regional leader for St. Paul Street Evangelization. Her website is www.pillarandfoundation.com where you can find short simple Catholic videos she creates (that are especially for children/young adults).
“Discussing theology with our Protestant brothers and sisters is often interesting, but it can also be quite frustrating.
For instance, many Protestants, particularly those from the Reformed traditions, passionately and firmly hold to the doctrine of penal substitution. This doctrine holds that, on the cross, Jesus was taking the place of all of mankind and was punished by God the Father. In so doing He endured the wrath and punishment we deserve because of our sins.
Reformed vs. Catholic Theology
Of course, as Catholics, while we hold that Jesus’ death was a sacrifice, we do agree that it was substitutionary. But we firmly reject the idea of penal substitution. Since Jesus is God and God is perfect, how can God punish God? And assuming Jesus could somehow separate Himself from God, why would God punish a holy and pure being for our sins? Such an idea is entirely incompatible with our understanding of God.
In dialogue with Protestant friends, I have found that the essential elements in their belief in penal substitution seem to be that due to God’s wrath and perfect justice, Jesus had to be punished in order for us to be forgiven – there was no other option. But this doctrine is based on misunderstandings of the Incarnation, God’s “wrath,” and God’s perfect justice.
Why have you forsaken me?
When Jesus is on the cross, he cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (Matthew 27:46). Those holding the doctrine of penal substitution, claim this shows that God the Father abandoned Jesus on the cross and the relationship between God the Father and God the Son was severed. Additionally, quoting 2 Corinthians 5:21, they believe Jesus literally took on our sins. Referencing Romans 1:18, they say that God’s wrath was poured out onto Jesus. So at this moment on the cross, Jesus is taking our place and enduring the punishment we deserve for our sins.
But if we examine our understanding of the Trinity and of the Incarnation, we can see that this view of penal substitution is incompatible with these doctrines.
In Light of the Trinity and the Incarnation
First of all, God has revealed that He is a Triune God. The three Divine Persons of the Trinity are God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Each Divine Person is distinct but not separate. Each divine person fully possesses the divine nature with the only difference being the relationship of the Persons. In the Godhead, these three Persons have no beginning and no end, and they are in eternal communion with each other.
In the Incarnation, God the Son, the Second Divine Person, while still fully possessing a divine nature, united himself to a human nature. This hypostatic union is real and not merely accidental. The two natures in Christ are distinct without commingling and Jesus’ divinity remained unchanged. Jesus was not simply a man with the indwelling of God but was both true God and true man.
Both Human and Divine
Therefore, when Jesus walked the shore of Galilee, spoke to the Apostles and was scourged at the pillar, it was God the Son who did these things. These experiences were possible because of his human nature. And when Jesus gave sight to the blind, calmed the storms and raised the dead, it was God the Son who did these things, because while having a human nature, He was still God the Son who fully possessed the divine nature. And when Jesus died on the cross, the Second Divine Person suffered in the flesh and was crucified in the flesh.
So the Passion was endured by God the Son on account of the human nature He assumed while His divine nature remained unchanged. (See Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, III, 46, a. 12.)
With the doctrine of penal substitution, however, it is held that God the Father ruptured His relationship with God the Son on the cross in order to punish Jesus. But this element of the doctrine is contrary to the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Trinity. If it were possible for God the Son to be separated from God the Father, even for a moment, then he would not and could not be God.
Did Jesus literally take on our sins?
When we acknowledge that Jesus is God the Son, we also must reject any interpretation of Scripture that suggests that Jesus literally took all our sins onto himself. We can confidently do this because of the nature of sin.
Simply put, sin is an offense against God. When we sin, we damage our relationship with God to varying degrees. By committing grave sins, we completely sever our relationship with God. We are no longer in communion with God.
If Jesus literally took on all our mortal sins, we would have a situation where Jesus would be at enmity with God. But, as already pointed out, this is not possible because Jesus is God the Son.
Acknowledging what we know about the Triune God, the Incarnation, and sin, we must then examine Scriptures in their entirety along with all the revealed doctrines. Looking at Scriptures in their entirety requires us to reject any interpretations suggesting God the Son in any way lost communion with God the Father or was at enmity with the Father.
How is God’s wrath satisfied?
Protestants will often ask, however, if Catholics do not hold that God the Father poured out the wrath we deserve onto Jesus, then how is God’s wrath satisfied? They will also point to numerous texts in the New Testament referring to God’s wrath, such as John 3:36; Romans 1:18 and 12:19; and Ephesians 5:6. But the key to understanding is in properly interpreting what Scripture is teaching us.
Anger (wrath) is a passion within human beings. God, however, is immutable and impassible. He does not have feelings as we know them. Nor does He experience passions. God also does not have a temper. And our sins do not provoke revenge in God. God is infinitely perfect, merciful, loving and just in all he does, so we must see what we call His anger in light of this truth.
Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa Theologiae, tells us that at times Scripture speaks of things in reference to God metaphorically. This is seen particularly when certain human passions are predicated of the Godhead. Aquinas says:
Hence a thing that is in us a sign of some passion, is signified metaphorically in God under the name of that passion. Thus with us it is usual for an angry man to punish, so that punishment becomes an expression of anger. Therefore, punishment itself is signified by the word anger, when anger is attributed to God.
In order to help us better understand God, Scripture uses metaphors, but we must take care to not hold that God can change, or that our actions cause emotions or passions to flare up in God.
Punishment as an expression of Wrath
Even though God does not experience the passion of anger, we say that we experience the consequences of sin as expressions of His “wrath.” But this must be understood metaphorically. When we sin, we rebel against God and turn away from him. God allows us to endure the consequences in this life and in the next. Those consequences include disorder, disharmony, pain, suffering and physical death. But these consequences/punishments are not the result of God actively willing torments. Rather, because of His love for us, God has given us a free will to make choices. If we choose to separate ourselves from Him who is Goodness itself and Love itself, then the inevitable outcome will be that we deprive ourselves of His goodness and love.
Another way of understanding “God’s wrath” is to recognize that our disobedience and rebellion do not causes any change in God by nature of who He is. Rather, we are changed by sin. If we reject God’s love and rebel, our hearts are hardened. Lacking God’s love, one will be tormented by the thought of God’s judgment and, as a result, will experience “God’s wrath.” But in both scenarios, what has changed is not God but us.
The final point to keep in mind in regard to God’s nature is related to His perfect justice. Those holding to the doctrine of penal substitution believe that since the consequences of our sins are suffering, death and the pains of hell, justice requires Jesus to take our place and experiences these consequences for salvation to be possible.
But as posited earlier, how can God punish Jesus Christ who is completely innocent? It is also impossible to hold that God the Son could literally become a sinner in enmity with God. And it is at odds with justice that Jesus, perfectly pure, holy and innocent, would have to be tortured and crucified as punishment for what He did not do.
Christ’s Sacrificial Offering of Love
Jesus’ entire life was one of love, obedience and self-emptying (Philippians 2:8). He accepted his death on the cross freely, willing laying down his life for each one of us in love. Because of the Incarnation, God the Son performs a human act – one of freely offering Himself and sacrificing His life. He does this in our place. And being God, his offering is one of infinite value. This act of humility, obedience and love was pleasing to God. And Christ’s sacrifice was of infinite merit for us.
As Aquinas writes:
. . . by suffering out of love and obedience, Christ gave more to God than was required to compensate for the offense of the whole human race. First of all, because of the exceeding charity from which he suffered; secondly, on account of the dignity of his life which he laid down in atonement, for it was the life of one who was God and man; thirdly, on account of the extent of the Passion and the greatness of the grief endured…And therefore, Christ’s Passion was not only a sufficient but a superabundant atonement for the sins of the human race…” (Summa, III, 48, a. 2).
-by Dr. Bryan Cross, PhD, was raised in the Pentecostal tradition, then became Reformed shortly after completing his bachelor’s degree in cellular and molecular biology at the University of Michigan. He then received an M.Div. from Covenant Theological Seminary. In 2003 he and his wife and two daughters became Anglican. On October 8, 2006, he and his family were received into full communion with the Catholic Church. He has previously taught at Saint Louis University, Lindenwood University, and Kenrick-Glennon Seminary. He is presently an assistant professor of philosophy at Mount Mercy University. His personal blog is “Principium Unitatis.”
“The Reformed conception of the Atonement is that in Christ’s Passion and death, God the Father poured out all of His wrath for the sins of the elect, on Christ the Son. In Christ’s Passion and death, Christ bore the punishment of the Father’s wrath that the elect deserved for their sins. In the Reformed conception, this is what it means to bear the curse, to bear the Father’s wrath for sin. In Reformed thought, at Christ’s Passion and death, God the Father transferred all the sins (past, present, and future) of all the elect onto His Son. Then God the Father hated, cursed and damned His Son, who was evil in the Father’s sight on account of all the sins of the elect being concentrated in the Son. (R.C. Sproul says that the 56th minute of his talk here.) In doing so, God the Father punished Christ for all the sins of the elect of all time. Because the sins of the elect are now paid for, through Christ’s having already been punished for them, the elect can never be punished for any sin they might ever commit, because every sin they might ever commit has already been punished. For that reason Reformed theology is required to maintain that Christ died only for the elect. Otherwise, if Christ died for everyone, this would entail universal salvation, since it would entail that all the sins of all people, have already been punished, and therefore cannot be punished again.
The Catholic conception of Christ’s Passion and Atonement is that Christ offered Himself up in self-sacrificial love to the Father, obedient even unto death, for the sins of all men. In His human will He offered to God a sacrifice of love that was more pleasing to the Father than the combined sins of all men of all time are displeasing to Him, and thus made satisfaction for our sins. The Father was never angry with Christ. Nor did the Father pour out His wrath on the Son. The Passion is Christ’s greatest act of love, the greatest revelation of the heart of God, and the glory of Christ.(1) So when Christ was on the cross, God the Father was not pouring out His wrath on His Son; in Christ’s act of self-sacrifice in loving obedience to the Father, Christ was most lovable in the eyes of the Father. Rather, in Christ’s Passion we humans poured out our enmity with God on Christ, by what we did to Him in His body and soul. And He freely chose to let us do all this to Him. Deeper still, even our present sins contributed to His suffering, because He, in solidarity with us, grieved over all the sins of the world, not just the sins of the elect. Hence, St. Francis of Assisi said, “Nor did demons crucify Him; it is you who have crucified Him and crucify Him still, when you delight in your vices and sins.”(2) The Passion is a revelation of the love of God, not the wrath of God. The fundamental difference can be depicted simply in the following drawing(3):
One problem with the Reformed conception is that it would either make the Father guilty of the greatest evil of all time (pouring out the punishment for all sin on an innocent man, knowing that he is innocent), or if Christ were truly guilty and deserved all that punishment, then His suffering would be of no benefit to us.
A second problem with the Reformed conception is the following dilemma. If God the Father was pouring out His wrath on the Second Person of the Trinity, then God was divided against Himself, God the Father hating His own Word. God could hate the Son only if the Son were another being, that is, if polytheism or Arianism were true. But if God loved the Son, then it must be another person (besides the Son) whom God was hating during Christ’s Passion. And hence that entails Nestorianism, i.e. that Christ was two persons, one divine and the other human. He loved the divine Son but hated the human Jesus. Hence the Reformed conception conflicts with the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. The Father and the Son cannot be at odds. If Christ loves men, then so does the Father. Or, if the Father has wrath for men, then so does Christ. And, if the Father has wrath for the Son, then the Son must have no less wrath for Himself.
St. Thomas Aquinas says:
Christ as God delivered Himself up to death by the same will and action as that by which the Father delivered Him up; but as man He gave Himself up by a will inspired of the Father. Consequently there is no contrariety in the Father delivering Him up and in Christ delivering Himself up. (4)
There St. Thomas explains that there is no contrariety between the Father and the Son during Christ’s Passion, no loss of love from the Father to the Son or the Son to the Father. The Father wholly and entirely loved His Son during the entire Passion. By one and the same divine will and action, the Father allowed the Son to be crucified and the Son allowed Himself to be crucified.(5)
One question, from the Reformed point of view, is: How then were our sins paid for, if Christ was not punished by the Father? Christ made atonement for the sins of all men by offering to God a sacrifice of love that was more pleasing to the Father than the combined sins of all men of all time are displeasing to Him. Hence through the cross Christ merited grace for the salvation of all men. Those who refuse His grace do not do so because Christ did not die for them or did not win sufficient grace for them on the cross, but because of their own free choice.
A second question, from the Reformed point of view, is this: St. Paul tells us, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us–for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.”(6) How should we understand the curse, if God the Father is not pouring out His wrath on His Son? St. Augustine explains clearly in his reply to Faustus, that what it means that Christ was cursed is that Christ suffered death.(7) Christ took our sin in the sense that He willingly bore its consequence, namely, death, because death is the consequence of sin and its curse. Death is not natural. But Christ took the likeness of sinful man in that He subjected Himself to death, even death on a cross for our sake.
A third question, from the Reformed point of view, is this: How then should we understand Isaiah 53? What does it mean that:
Surely he hath borne our infirmities and carried our sorrows: and we have thought him as it were a leper, and as one struck by God and afflicted. But he was wounded for our iniquities, he was bruised for our sins: the chastisement of our peace was upon him, and by his bruises we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray, every one hath turned aside into his own way: and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all. .. And the Lord was pleased to bruise him in infirmity: if he shall lay down his life for sin, he shall see a long-lived seed, and the will of the Lord shall be prosperous in his hand. Because his soul hath laboured, he shall see and be filled: by his knowledge shall this my just servant justify many, and he shall bear their iniquities. (Isaiah 53;4-6, 10-11)
This means that Christ carried in His body the sufferings that sin has brought into the world, and that Christ suffered in His soul over all the sins of the world, and their offense against God. He bore our iniquities not in the sense that God punished Him for what we did, but in the sense that He grieved over them all, in solidarity with us. That is what it means that the Lord laid on Him the iniquity of us all. He suffered the consequences of sin (i.e. suffering, grief, death), by entering into solidarity with us, entering into our fallen world, and allowing Himself to suffer in it with us, for us, even by our hands.(8)
This is why Christ retained His five wounds in His resurrected body. And this is why Catholics show Christ on the cross, in the crucifix, because this is Christ’s glory. We, with St. Paul, glory in Christ crucified. (1 Cor 1:23-24) [↩]
CCC 598 [↩]
Of course in the Reformed system Christ also self-sacrificially loves the Father. But what effects propitiation in the Reformed system is the complete pouring out of God’s wrath upon the Son. In Catholic doctrine, by contrast, God does not pour out His wrath for our sins onto His Son, and what effects propitiation is Christ’s positive gift of love to the Father. Hence the illustration depicts what effects propitiation in the respective theological systems. It is not intended to be an exhaustive illustration of all that is going on during Christ’s Passion. [↩]
See ST III Q.47 a.3 ad 2 [↩]
For a fuller explanation of what Christ did for us through His Passion, according to St Thomas Aquinas, see “Aquinas and Trent 6.” [↩]
Gal 3:13 [↩]
Contra Faustus, XIV. [↩]
For additional reading on the Catholic understanding of the atonement see Philippe De La Trinitaté’s What is Redemption?, and Jean Rivière’s The Doctrine of the Atonement Volume 1 and Volume 2. [↩]
-by Rev Brian Harrison, OS, the Rev. Brian W. Harrison, O.S., M.A., S.T.D., a priest of the Society of the Oblates of Wisdom, is a retired Associate Professor of Theology of the Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico in Ponce, P.R. In 1997 he gained his doctorate in Systematic Theology, summa cum laude, from the Pontifical Athenæum of the Holy Cross in Rome. Since 2007 Fr. Harrison has been scholar-in-residence at the Oblates of Wisdom Study Center in St. Louis, Missouri, is well-known as a speaker and writer. He is the author of three books and over 130 articles in Catholic books, magazines and journals in the U.S.A., Australia, Britain, France, Spain and Puerto Rico. He is also parochial vicar of the parish of Saint Joseph the Worker in the city of Ponce, and a ‘Defender of the Bond’ for the island’s marriage tribunals.
He was born in Australia and, after being raised as a Presbyterian, converted to the Catholic faith in 1972. In 1979 he began studies for the priesthood in the major seminary of Sydney, and after completing his Licentiate in Theology at Rome’s Angelicum university was ordained as a priest in Saint Peter’s Basilica in 1985 by His Holiness Pope John Paul II. In 1997 he gained his doctorate in Systematic Theology, summa cum laude, from the Pontifical Athenæum of the Holy Cross in Rome.
Fr. Harrison, who has lived in Puerto Rico since 1989, is well-known as a speaker and writer. He is the author of two books and over 120 articles in Catholic magazines and journals in the U.S.A., Australia, Britain, France, Spain and Puerto Rico. His special interest in theological and liturgical matters, in keeping with the charism of the Oblates of Wisdom, is upholding a ‘hermeneutic of continuity’ between the teachings of Vatican Council II and the bi-millennial heritage of Catholic Tradition.
It is now fifty years since Pope St. Paul VI, in the apostolic constitution Missale Romanum (April 3, 1969), promulgated the revised Roman-rite Missal in response to Vatican II’s Sacrosanctum Concilium (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy). And although the Holy Eucharist is meant to be our central sacramental bond of unity and love, it has in this half-century become—tragically—the occasion of serious confusion and dissension.
I respect and, in fact, share, the concern of tradition-conscious Catholics about certain features of the liturgical reform, but in this article I’d like to issue a call for fairness and moderation in the expression of such concerns. The unity of the Church surely requires this.
Fair to call them “dissident”
Some traditionalists, while celebrating and attending the classical Latin Roman-rite Mass (dubbed the “Extraordinary Form” by Pope Benedict XVI) whenever possible, refrain from attacking the post-conciliar Novus Ordo rite (the “Ordinary Form”) as bad and unacceptable in itself. Others, however, do precisely that. I think it fair to call them “dissident” traditionalists, because they openly dissent from certain official positions of the post-Vatican II Church on liturgy and doctrine.
Their flagship organization is undoubtedly the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX), but they find a strident voice in many publications and websites, and some of these hold views that are outright sedevacantist (the belief that there have been no true popes since Vatican II). Their central claim is that the Novus Ordo Mass, even if valid in itself, reeks so strongly of Protestantism and modernism as to be downright illegitimate—simply unacceptable for Catholic worship.
In their utter loathing for what the Church now prescribes as the normative way of celebrating our most sacred act of worship, dissidents claim it expresses a different, non-Catholic religion so that it’s objectively immoral—forbidden by God!—to celebrate or attend Ordinary Form Masses.
And, yes, they really do go that far. The OnePeterFive.com website recently ran an article including this peremptory summons: “Laity: If you still belong to a Novus Ordo parish, it’s time to leave. . . . Nothing supersedes man’s duty to render God that worship proper to His Majesty, and the Novus Ordo just ain’t it.” And in the FAQ (frequently asked questions) section of the official SSPX website, we read (accessed Jan. 1, 2019):
“The Novus Ordo Missae assumes. . . heterodox elements alongside the Catholic ones to form a liturgy for a modernist religion which would marry the Church and the world, Catholicism and Protestantism, light and darkness. . . . [This] render[s] it a danger to our faith, and, as such, evil. . . . Even when said with piety and respect for the liturgical rules, . . . [the Novus Ordo] is impregnated with the spirit of Protestantism. It bears within it a poison harmful to the faith.”
Then, to the question, “Are we obliged in conscience to attend the Novus Ordo Missae?”, the website not only answers no but asserts that Catholics have no objective right to attend it for Sunday worship:
“If the Novus Ordo Missae is not truly Catholic, then it cannot oblige for one’s Sunday obligation. Many Catholics who do assist at it are unaware of its all-pervasive degree of serious innovation and are exempt from guilt. However, any Catholic who is aware of its harm does not have the right to participate. He could only then assist at it by a mere physical presence without positively taking part in it, and then only for major family reasons (weddings, funerals, etc.).”
Since the last sentence here expresses the stringent conditions laid down by pre-conciliar church legislation for attendance at non-Catholic services, the message the SSPX is sending is all too clear: the Novus Ordo Mass, as such, is to be regarded as a non-Catholic form of worship. That would leave hundreds of millions of the faithful without access to any legitimate Mass, because in most of Latin America, Asia, and Africa, traditional Latin Masses are very few and far between. Has Christ, then, abandoned all these brethren, leaving them with nothing more than an impious simulacrum of genuine Catholic worship?
So why do these dissidents reject the new rite so totally and implacably? They insist it’s quintessentially a matter of doctrine, not merely of aesthetic preference for the old rites. Fr. Anthony Cekada sums up their common position at the beginning of his book, Work of Human Hands: A Theological Critique of the Mass of Paul VI. The book’s “principal thesis,” he tells us, is that the new rite
“(a) destroys Catholic doctrine in the minds of the faithful, and in particular, Catholic doctrine concerning the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the priesthood, and the Real Presence; and (b) permits or prescribes grave irreverence (p. 7, italics in original).”
The space available in this article will allow me to consider only (and far from exhaustively) the first and more fundamental of these objections. As regards (b), I will simply register my view that a couple of newly permitted (i.e., optional) liturgical practices—Communion in the hand and the sign of peace just before Communion—are indeed open to abuse and can become the occasion of irreverence. However, they are not in themselves irreverent. Much less can I find anything gravely irreverent “prescribed” (i.e., obligatory) in the text of the new Roman Missal or its accompanying General Instruction.
Let’s turn to dissidents’ doctrinal objections to the Novus Ordo. First and foremost is the charge that it undermines faith in the sacrificial character of the Mass. According to the SSPX website, the new missal is marked by “the almost complete deletion of references to sacrifice.” And the OnePeterFive article cited above even makes the incredible assertion that in the Novus Ordo “the Catholic Mass has been stripped of prayers expressing Catholic doctrine.”
It’s true that some sacrifice-expressing prayers added during medieval times have been dropped from the Offertory; but far from “almost complete[ly] deleti[ng]” such prayers, every Novus Ordo Mass expresses the doctrine of eucharistic sacrifice at least five times:
The priest’s secret offertory prayer, praying that our sacrifice will be pleasing to God.
His invitation to the people, “Pray, brethren, that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God the Almighty Father.”
The people’s response, “May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands, for the praise and glory . . .”
In the Roman Canon and each of the new eucharistic prayers, the sacrificial character of the Mass is clearly expressed in the texts following the consecration.
The very words of consecration of the bread in the Novus Ordo actually restore an explicit expression of the sacrificial purpose of what is being done: “This is my body, which will be given up for you.” The words italicized here (or equivalent expressions) were found in a number of ancient liturgies but are absent from the Tridentine formula.
On top of all that, there is a sixth expression of this doctrine in many Masses, found in the offertory prayer over the gifts.
It should also be noted that all the above texts except the first are pronounced out loud in the language of the people. Indeed, in the case of the third text, the people pronounce it themselves. So, it seems likely that the doctrine of eucharistic sacrifice, far from being “destroy[ed] . . . in the minds of the people,” is actually impressed in their minds more clearly by the Novus Ordo prayers than was the case in pre-conciliar days, when every single one of the prayers expressing this doctrine was pronounced silently, in Latin, by the priest alone.
Why the erosion of belief?
How about worshippers’ belief in the priesthood and Real Presence, which Fr. Cekada also claims the Novus Ordo “destroys”? It’s true that the role of the priest celebrant in some secondary rubrics is no longer distinguished so sharply from that of the laity as it was in the traditional rite, but it seems to me obvious that his unique and irreplaceable prominence in the celebration of Mass remains clear and unmistakable to all participants in the Pauline liturgy (see sidebar, below).
Yes, surveys do consistently show a marked decline in Catholic belief in this doctrine since Vatican II, and to a limited extent this may have been a side effect of official changes such as the elimination, in the interests of “noble simplicity,” of some liturgical signs of reverence that “reform-of-the-reformers” such as myself would like to see restored. But the lion’s share of blame for this deplorable weakening of faith surely rests with more direct and obvious causes: heterodox theology taught in seminaries, the resulting bad (or nonexistent) preaching and catechesis about eucharistic doctrine, the sharp decline in Mass attendance, widespread liturgical disobedience (often called “creativity”), and sloppy, irreverent celebrations.
Also, the preposterous claim that the Pauline Mass is “stripped of prayers expressing Catholic doctrine” ignores all the changing (“proper”) feasts and prayers in the new missal. In fact, all Catholic doctrines distinguishing Catholic from Protestant belief that were in the old Missal are also in the new one (see sidebar, far below).
A number of other talking-points continue to do the rounds of hardline traditionalist media outlets as supposed evidence of the Novus Ordo’s heterodox and illegitimate character. Most of them are not as telling as their purveyors suppose them to be. Let’s look at a few.
Exhibit 1: The “Ottaviani Intervention”
In September 1969, Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, retired prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, signed a letter to Pope Paul VI presenting a short critical study of Paul’s recently promulgated rite of Mass. This could be considered the Bible of dissident traditionalism. The main author of the study was the Dominican theologian M. L. Guérard des Lauriers, who shortly afterward lapsed into schism as a founding father of sedevacantism.
Soon Ottaviani’s intervention, another French priest, Fr. Gerard Lafond, published a facsimile of a signed letter dated February 17, 1970, that he’d received from Ottaviani, in which the cardinal said his previous hesitations about the new Mass had now been “put to rest” by explanations coming from Fr. Lafond and Paul VI himself. More often than not, dissidents don’t mention this retraction, which undermines their appeal to the authority and prestige of the longtime head of the Holy Office. Some of them suggest that Ottaviani’s trusted secretary, Msgr. Gilberto Agustoni, fabricated this letter and deceived the near-blind cardinal into signing it.
This of course implausibly assumes not only that Agustoni was corrupt but that he would have risked his career by publishing an outright lie. Ottaviani lived on for years, receiving visitors and retaining all his faculties other than vision. He would quickly have learned that his letter retracting his intervention was published in the widely read Documentation Catholique and would surely have publicly denounced it as a forgery, if indeed it was. His permanent silence, therefore, is eloquent.
Exhibit 2: Pope Paul VI’s ‘heretical’ instruction
Well, this Protestant-friendly, ecumenically flavored text was heretical (if that’s the right word for error by omission) only in what it left out of its description of the Mass, not by what it actually affirmed or denied. And not all traditionalists who point accusing fingers at this defective instruction are candid enough to acknowledge that at least it was very short-lived.
Pope Paul, on scrutinizing this introduction more attentively, quickly withdrew it and replaced it in the 1970 Missal by a new “premium” that not only unambiguously reaffirms the Tridentine doctrines of eucharistic sacrifice, the Real Presence, and the ordained priesthood but emphasizes that these doctrines are consistently shown forth in the actual texts and rubrics of the new Missal. (See especially articles 2, 3, and 4 in the “Introduction to the General Instruction” at the beginning of the current Roman Missal)
Exhibit 3: Jean Guitton’s testimony
This French philosopher stated in a 1993 radio interview with a Lutheran pastor, “I can only repeat that Paul VI did all that he could to bring the Catholic Mass away from the tradition of the Council of Trent towards the Protestant Lord’s Supper.” But Guitton’s off-the-cuff, anecdotal, secondhand testimony scarcely counts as an authoritative and adequate guide to the mind of Paul VI, especially when we take into account the pontiff’s emphatic reassertion of the doctrinal “tradition of the Council Trent” (see previous paragraph) as well as his many formal teachings on these matters, especially his splendid 1965 eucharistic encyclical, Mysterium Fidei.
A more balanced appraisal of St. Paul VI’s intentions would, I think, conclude that while he indeed wanted a liturgical reform that would help smooth the way back to Catholic unity for Protestants by adopting some of their doctrinally unobjectionable liturgical practices—e.g., using the vernacular and adding more Scripture readings—he insisted on retaining strict fidelity to the Church’s dogmatic teaching in both texts and rubrics of the revised Missal.
The extent to which these ecumenically oriented reforms have succeeded or failed in promoting genuine unity among Christians is of course a very different question.
Exhibit 4: The six Protestant advisers
In view of what has just been said, the ecumenical input of some non-Catholic liturgists to the reform in the 1960s is not too surprising; but even though the prudence of having them there seems debatable, these gentlemen had no voting rights on the Vatican liturgical Consilium that was revising the Roman Missal, and nobody can point to any feature of the resulting Novus Ordo that was not already promoted independently by its Catholic authors.
Exhibit 5: Max Thurian
Traditionalist hardliners love to cite this Protestant theologian (one of the six just mentioned) who was prominent in the ecumenical Taizé community. OnePeterFive quotes him as making the following comment soon after Paul VI promulgated the Novus Ordo: “It is now theologically possible for Protestants to use the same Mass as Catholics” (bold type in original). Such traditionalists take this to vindicate “out of the horse’s mouth” their own claim that the Novus Ordo expresses Protestant rather than integrally Catholic doctrine.
But they never point out that Thurian was by no means a typical Protestant and certainly didn’t speak for Protestants in general. Just as not all professing Catholics adhere faithfully to Catholic doctrine, not all Protestants adhere to the doctrines of Luther and Calvin.
Thurian and quite a few ecumenically minded Protestants these days entertain ideas that approximate the Catholic doctrine of eucharistic sacrifice (and for this they are roundly denounced as traitors to the Reformation by traditional Protestants).
The relevant takeaway here is that no Protestant who takes seriously the thoroughly Catholic texts of the post-Vatican II Missal and who adheres to the classic Reformation rejection of the doctrines they express could possibly feel comfortable in “us[ing] the same Mass as Catholics.”
Harmful to Catholic unity
Let’s sum up. I’m pleading here that Catholics who prefer the ancient Latin rite (I myself celebrate it on weekdays) respect the wise provision of popes St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
In their documents restoring its use in the Church, these popes insist, in the interests of Church unity, that those celebrating and attending the Extraordinary Form must also acknowledge the doctrinal correctness and legitimacy of the Ordinary Form.
Unfortunately, the SSPX does not comply with that condition; nor does the OnePeterFive article cited, which even endorses the calumny that our post-conciliar rite of Holy Mass is “barely recognizable as a Catholic rite” and says, “It’s debatable whether this form of worship can even be called ‘Catholic’ in any meaningful sense.”
Dr. Peter Kwasniewski’s rhetoric, in another OnePeterFive post, is similarly disdainful. After scornfully branding the new rite “a shell, a simulacrum, a substitute,” he says, “[E]ven at its best, the Novus Ordo . . . is still a starvation diet compared with the riches in the preconciliar liturgical tradition. God can sanctify prisoners in jail fed on stale crusts and standing water, but this is not the manner in which He would sanctify most of us.”
It’s sad to see this skilled writer using his eloquence in a passionate effort to arouse contempt for our approved ordinary form of worship in Catholic hearts and minds.
Please, dear brethren! These intemperate excoriations of the Novus Ordo are manifestly harmful to Catholic unity and can even lead in a schismatic direction. Please God, the next half-century will see our inevitable disagreements carried out more in the tranquil spirit of the Holy Thursday liturgy: Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.
Sidebar 1: What of the Eucharist?
What of the Real Presence? Consider:
The priest’s required bow to the bread and chalice prior to their consecration, which is then marked by his genuflections and elevations of the host and chalice
The recommended bell-ringing and incensation for each consecration; the priest’s dramatic presentation of the host and chalice to the people proclaiming the Baptist’s immortal words, “Behold the Lamb of God . . . ”
The required kneeling of ministers and congregation for the consecration
The solemn eucharistic processions on Holy Thursday evening and Corpus Christi (a holy day of obligation that specifically honors the reality of Lord’s Body and Blood in the Eucharist)
The highly recommended services of eucharistic adoration and benediction outside of Mass
All these features of the Pauline liturgy demonstrate the falsity of the charge that it “destroys” the faith of Catholics in transubstantiation and the Real Presence.
Sidebar 2: Doctrines in the New Mass
In the current Missal we find clearly expressed not only the sacrificial character of the Mass but also:
The primacy of Peter and his successors (praying for the pope in every Mass, feasts of the Chair of Peter on Feb. 22 and Sts. Peter and Paul on June 29)
All the privileges of Our Blessed Lady (Immaculate Conception, Assumption, divine maternity, and her perpetual virginity proclaimed at the beginning of most Masses)
Our devotion to the other saints (with scores of their feast days celebrated throughout the year)
Transubstantiation (see above)
Prayers for the dead implying purgatory (briefly in every Eucharistic Prayer and more abundantly in funeral Masses and the Masses for All Souls Day (Nov. 2nd).
(I went to Anglican pre-school. No harm. No foul. This was 1970, though.)
-by Michael E. Daniel, a convert from Anglicanism, is schoolmaster at an independent school in Melbourne, Australia, where he lives with his wife, Helen, and baby daughter, Lydia.
“I was born in the late 1960s and raised in the Anglican (Episcopalian) Church, being a member of the Sunday school and later the Church choir. Soon after I joined the choir I developed an interest in both Christianity and history. In addition to Bible story books, we had some old British history readers at home, and I devoured these. My favorite period of history was that of the Tudor monarchs, and this brought me into touch with the Reformation. These histories presented the standard Protestant apologetic, anti-Catholic line, and for the first time I became aware of the differences between Catholics and Protestants.
My preparation for confirmation at age eleven was the first systematic catechesis Christian doctrine and ethics I received. Two of the lessons stand out in my mind. The first was on the “one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church.” The Anglican church, it was explained, was a branch of the Catholic Church, since it accepted the three creeds (Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian), had the two sacraments (baptism and Eucharist), and retained the threefold order of ministry—bishops, priests, and deacons.
The other lesson was on the Eucharist, which we studied as we went through the Anglican catechism in the Book of Common Prayer. The vicar told us that although the elements still remained bread and wine, the faithful received Christ spiritually and grew in relationship with him. Transubstantiation was denied. I accepted this, but I remember feeling not entirely comfortable with it. Did not Christ say, “This is my body …This is my blood”? The explanation that this was symbolic language was not convincing.
Secondary education at an Anglican grammar school meant taking a course called Divinity. Here I first encountered theological liberalism. One of the masters, for example, questioned the Virgin Birth, suggesting Christ was probably the son of a Roman soldier. The liberal masters probably felt they were making Christianity reasonable to the modern mind, saving it from fundamentalism. Instead, it had the opposite effect: My classmates seemed to become even more contemptuous of Christian beliefs.
The religion preached by the school chaplain, an evangelical Anglican clergyman, was more traditional. His preaching and lessons included standard anti-Catholic rhetoric. So convinced was I that Rome was wrong that I remember being impressed with his concept of the “unity of Protestantism”: although there were many Protestant churches, the differences between them were slight; they were right on the essentials, namely, “the Bible alone” and “justification by faith alone.”
This instruction complemented what I was encountering in my evangelical Anglican youth group. The leaders reinforced my belief in “the Bible alone” as the rule of faith, for without this rule, Christians could invent any beliefs as the Catholics had done. They also emphasized “faith alone,” but, as I studied Scripture, that concept never gelled completely, since passages from James didn’t fit the matrix.
Sometime when I was in form five, a school friend who had become interested in Anglo-Catholicism took me to high mass at a leading Anglo-Catholic church. Anglo-Catholics are those members of the Anglican/Episcopalian church whose devotional life and beliefs are similar in many respects to Catholics. For example, they celebrate the Eucharist as if it were the Mass, with vestments, incense, and elevation of the host; they have devotions to Mary, benediction, confession et cetera. I was awestruck by the beauty, reverence, and transcendence of the liturgy.
Around the same time a new leader joined the youth group who was particularly anti-Catholic. He claimed Catholics were not even Christian and had to be rescued from Catholicism. Ironically, my Anglican father had chosen a practicing Catholic as my godfather. He had a good understanding of the Catholic faith and was able to answer my questions. I assumed Catholics were wrong, but all I knew about them was what Protestants had told me and what I had read in Protestant literature. Why not allow Catholics to speak for themselves? Their literature should not be too hard to disprove. What a shock I was in for.
Sneaking into a Catholic church, hoping I would not be seen, I purchased a few inexpensive pamphlets that were eye-openers. Catholics could actually present reasoned and intelligent arguments to defend their beliefs, and their arguments based on Scripture were just as compelling, if not more so, than Protestantism. I went back, got more pamphlets, and read them eagerly. Many of the ideas I encountered I discussed with my godfather, and his explanations underscored how logical and reasonable Catholic teaching seemed to be.
I gradually came to accept on an intellectual level most of the Church’s teachings, since they could be proven by Scripture. I was impressed by historical arguments, particularly by analyses of the writings of Church Fathers that supported Catholic teaching (to the detriment of Protestant interpretations). I realized that Catholics, contrary to what some Protestant literature stated, did not believe they could work their way to heaven or earn their salvation. This heresy, called Pelagianism, was condemned by Augustine and the Council of Trent. Both Catholics and Protestants believe that we are saved by grace alone; the differences were primarily in the relationship between faith and works (actions).
Justification by faith alone did not stand up to a comprehensive analysis of Scripture. It had been taught by no one before Luther, who added the word alone to Romans 1: 17, which should read, “The just shall live by faith.” Indeed, as has been pointed out in this magazine many times, the only time the phrase “by faith alone” appears in the Bible, it opposes the Protestant doctrine: “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24, emphasis added).
The other important difference was that Catholics believe that grace is imparted rather than imputed-that is, the sinner is made righteous rather than merely being declared righteous. For Luther, man always remains sinful; when he was saved, Christ, as it were, covered the sinner with his cloak to make him appear righteous. Not only is the Catholic vision of salvation more merciful, it also explains the underpinning for beliefs such as purgatory, since most people die with imperfections on their soul that need to be purged before they stand before God, since nothing unclean or defiled can stand before the throne of God.
One text that kept coming back to me was Christ’s promise that the Holy Spirit would lead his disciples into all truth (cf. John 14:26). I wanted to find Christian truth, but where was it to be found? At the Last Supper, Christ prayed to the Father that his disciples should be one. Protestantism, through its insistence on the Bible alone as the rule of faith and private interpretation, in the belief that scriptural truths are self-obvious, had resulted in disunity. How could one logically talk about the unity of Protestantism when there are myriads of denominations, each of which claims it has the correct interpretation of the Bible?
Some Protestants attempt to argue that the Church, the Body of Christ, is an invisible entity, congregations being mere gatherings of like-minded believers. However, behind the New Testament writings was the presumption that the Church was a visible structure that had the power to teach. The visible nature of the Church and necessity of membership became increasingly clearer as I read early Christian writings.
As I accepted Catholic teachings, my devotional life changed. I began to receive Communion on the tongue (to the horror of the school chaplain) and go to confession. The impact of the rosary on my faith development cannot be underestimated. The hardest doctrines to accept were the Marian ones. I did not pray the glorious mysteries of the Assumption and the Coronation until I reflected on Revelation 12:1: “And a great portent appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.” If Mary is in heaven, I reasoned, then how did she get there unless she was assumed? Similarly, what woman other than a queen wears a crown?
As an Anglo-Catholic, I believed in the “branch theory,” which holds that the Catholic Church comprises three main branches: Rome, Canterbury, and Byzantium. The issue of women’s ordination, which the Anglican church was confronting, was a catalyst for me to re-examine the Anglican church’s claims. It was a departure from the constant practice of Christendom. Christ, at the Last Supper, had ordained only men.
Anglicans are by no means united on this issue. Although the Episcopal church prides itself on being inclusive, embracing a range of opinions and views, this impacts its unity severely. The situation could emerge in which one Anglican diocese had women priests when a neighboring one refused to recognize the validity of the orders of women priests. Furthermore, by ordaining women without the permission and agreement of the other two branches of the “Catholic Church,” the Anglican church was undermining its claim to be a branch of the one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church.
At the end of secondary education I joined an Anglo-Catholic parish. Inspired by my love of history and interest in the ancient world, I enrolled in Latin and ancient history at university. In my second year, I studied late Roman history and this, together with other private reading, raised the historical faith issues, particularly through my encounter with the Church Fathers.
On virtually every issue they confirmed the Catholic beliefs that I held as an Anglo-Catholic, particularly regarding the Eucharist, the Mass, purgatory, the intercession of saints, et cetera. For example, when writing to the Smyrneans, Ignatius of Antioch stated that Docetists, a group of heretics who denied the Incarnation, refused to receive the Eucharist because they failed to recognize it as the body of Christ. The formal definition of transubstantiation, a definition rejected by the Anglican Church, was reflected in Ignatius’s teaching. So who was right: Ignatius-a younger contemporary of the apostles who wrote well before the formulation of the canon of Scripture-or the Anglican Church?
As an Anglo-Catholic I held beliefs that were a contradiction to those of my Evangelical past and the contents of the Book of Common Prayer and the Thirty-Nine Articles, which, together with the three creeds, are the doctrinal standards of Anglicanism. For example, Article XXXI states, “Wherefore the sacrifices of Masses, in which it was commonly said that the priest did offer Christ for the quick and the dead, to have remission of pain or guilt, were blasphemous fables and dangerous deceits.” Or Article XXII: “The Romish doctrine concerning Purgatory, Pardon, Worshiping and Adoration, as well of Images as of Reliques, and also the invocation of Saints, is a fond thing vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.” Article XXVIII forbids elevation of the elements at the consecration, procession, and benediction with the Blessed Sacrament-standard practices in my Anglo-Catholic parish!
At some stage while still an Anglican I had ditched sola scriptura or “the Bible alone” theory, since nowhere in the Bible does it state that the Bible is the only rule of faith. Similarly, the Bible grew out of the Church, whose members wrote the books of the New Testament and who compiled it. The canon of the New Testament started to take shape only in the second half of the second century and reached its final form at the end of the fourth. By this stage the Church clearly taught Catholic doctrines on a range of issues, such as the Real Presence, purgatory, and the Mass as a sacrifice. I f the Church was wrong on these issues, what guarantee was there that it had not erred in the formulation of the canon of Scripture?
My study of history and in discussions with legal student friends highlighted the necessity for any legal text to have an interpreter. St Peter’s second epistle itself contained warnings about misinterpreting Scripture and difficulties with interpreting some of Paul’s sayings. (cf. 2 Peter 3:15-16). Who was to be Scripture’s interpreter? Private judgement had produced a plethora of Protestant sects, and the Anglican Church could not arrive at a consistent position on issues such as women’s ordination.
But what powers did various churches have to settle doctrinal disputes that threatened their stability? How were Christ’s promises to be with his Church through all ages to be fulfilled? The Protestant churches simply splintered. By contrast, with Church councils and particularly with papal infallibility, the Catholic Church contained what could be called an emergency executive power. Reading early Church history, it became more and more apparent that the bishop of Rome enjoyed a special status. Irenaeus, writing at the end of the second century stated of the see of Rome, “For it is a matter of necessity that every church should agree with this church, on account of its preeminent authority.”
I read further only to realize that the concept of development of doctrine was consistent with the definition of the hypostatic union (the belief that Christ is one person with two natures, a human nature and a divine nature) at the Council of Chalcedon, which employed Greek philosophical ideas to underpin the definition. If Anglicans accepted development of doctrine up to A.D. 451 and the first four Church Councils, why not accept further development of doctrine and more Church councils? How would one expect the Church settle further doctrinal disputes?
Furthermore, in reading about Chalcedon, my attention was drawn to the role of Leo I at this council. In his famous Tome of Leo in 449 AD he stated correct belief concerning the person of Christ and his two natures. The Council fathers voted to accept the definition he offered with the accolade, “Peter has spoken through Leo.” The realization then dawned on me: If the Church accepted the leadership and role of the pope and accepted that Peter’s office and prerogatives were passed down to his successors, and if the Anglican church and other Protestant bodies accept the first four Councils, then why do they not accept the papacy?
After years of study, prayer, and reading I came to know, without any doubt, that the Catholic Church was the church founded by Christ. It alone could claim continuity with the upper room at Pentecost. I sought out a priest for instruction and three months later was received into the Church.”
God determines our identity. We respond in grace and free will; either correctly or incorrectly, either in good or evil, either in obedience or disobedience, as God defines them and us. We do not decide. God does. THY WILL be done. Thy Kingdom come, on earth, as it is in heaven.
“Philosophically there is much attention to the concept of identity. In sacred scripture the same is the case. What constitutes our identity?
In the philosophy that examines “being” or ontology, our identity is rooted in our “whatness.” What you are, determined who you are. This whatness is not merely your essence, but it’s tied intrinsically to your “why-ness” that is a pre-determined purpose that is imposed upon you by your existence. To some this seems oppressive, to others it’s a matter of discovery and humility. In this category one does not determine their own purpose. Psychologically that would be absurd since one is drawing from their nature to determine a preferential purpose, thus at least latently basing their existential self first in their own nature. This is where the notion of dignity stems from, and since it is rooted in our being, personal choices do not dissolve this dignity, nor do states of development.
The second type of identity is sometimes called “moral character.” This, while of itself springs from our nature, nonetheless does carry with it existential notions of self-creation. Here, we are not creating “being” or “what/why we are” but “how” we are. For the Christian, this is what, in part, determines our our salvation, in conjunction with or without our cooperation with grace. We are responsible here for our moral character, and sometimes this is how people identity.
Today, sexual relativism defines identity around sexual attractions, or affective states. The primary focus is not on one’s ontology as a human (male or female), but rather the sexual inclinations and affective-guided self concept. Sexual attraction is often conflated with the tautology “love is love.” Love is not initially defined as to will the good of the other here, otherwise further phrases such as “you don’t choose who you love” would not accompany the movement. This is about desire, since in disinterested friendships love can be chosen and should be as such.
Since Christ, our identity has been rooted in His choice to adopt us as His children, not in one’s sexual disposition, or affective desires in any particular regard, including pleasure, wealth, money or power. In baptism the Church teaches that one is changed “ontologically.” Thus the identity in whatness and whyness has also changed. God extends this call to be changed by His love, which transcends mere sexual desires, but pertains to a concern primarily for the good of the other.
Knowing these distinctions is important as it will help people navigate chronic shame, and be rooted in not something ultimately hedonistic or defined primarily by affective desires, but rather rooted in the Creator Who defines us by the relationship He freely and universally extends to all, that some may be saved.”
“Different Protestants have different definitions of sola scriptura, but at its core, every definition makes Scripture a Christian’s highest authority. In doing so, it leaves no room for a divinely appointed Magisterium or Church that can authoritatively declare what Christians are obliged or forbidden to believe. This is evident in things like the 1978 Chicago Statement on Inerrancy, a popular statement among conservative Evangelicals, which says, “We deny that Church creeds, councils, or declarations have authority greater than scripture or equal to the authority of the Bible.”
But in practice, it is the authority of a person’s interpretation of the Bible that becomes the highest authority. This leads to what Catholic apologist Patrick Madrid called “a blueprint for anarchy.”
You get people like Matthew Vines, who earnestly contends that the Bible is divinely inspired and, when properly interpreted, does not condemn modern same-sex relationships. Or you get people like Brandan Robertson, who reject fundamental tenets of Christianity by saying Jesus committed the sin of racism when speaking to the Syrophoenician woman. And this isn’t just Robertson, either, as there are denominations like Christadelphians who believe that Jesus had a “sin nature.”
At this point, a Protestant could say: no matter how clearly you state things, you’re always going to have unsaved people twisting Scripture and misinterpreting it. When it comes to the claim that Jesus sinned, only a degenerate person trapped in the darkness of sin could fail to apply Hebrews 4:15’s clear teaching to the question: “For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sinning.”
Sola scriptura is defensible, these apologists claim, because incorrect interpretations of Scripture can always be refuted by the correct interpretation true Christians can always locate within the pages of holy writ. But this pushes the problem back and assumes that everyone will nicely go along with a uniform understanding of what Scripture even is.
For example, how could you respond to someone defending Jesus’ sinfulness who says he doesn’t believe that Hebrews is Scripture? After all, the letter is anonymous, and although it has been traditionally attributed to Paul, several Church fathers questioned its canonicity. The early Church historian Eusebius of Caesarea said, “Some have rejected the Epistle to the Hebrews, saying that it is disputed by the church of Rome, on the ground that it was not written by Paul.”
Even if Paul did write it, why believe that Paul’s words were divinely inspired? Pastor Robertson says there’s reason to doubt that, given that Paul was never one of Jesus’ disciples during Jesus’ earthly ministry. Some Christians follow only the words of Jesus (similar to Bill Johnson’s Just Jesus movement). Others, like hyper-dispensationalists, take the opposite extreme and think Christians are bound to accept only some of Acts and the letters Paul wrote while he was in prison.
Without a Magisterium to appeal to, saying these views contradict Scripture assumes what the Protestant apologist is trying to prove—namely, which writings constitute Sacred Scripture. But because the Church has an authoritative teaching office, there is a way to set objective “ground rules” when it comes to understanding the meaning of Scripture.
A Protestant might offer three objections to this critique of sola scriptura. First, if the meaning of Scripture has been entrusted to the Church, then why hasn’t the pope or an ecumenical council infallibly defined every passage of Scripture and put all controversies to rest? For the same reason Protestants don’t have a divinely inspired biblical commentary: God chose not give this kind of revelation to the Church.
The Church hands on the Deposit of Faith, and, although a handful of biblical passages have been infallibly defined (such as John 3:5’s reference to water baptism), the Church allows biblical scholars a fair amount of latitude more generally when it comes to interpreting the Bible. The Church’s authority primarily presents itself in biblical interpretation by setting “guardrails” that make certain interpretations off-limits. For example, scholars might find new insights into the cultural interaction that took place between Jesus and the Canaanite woman, but they are prohibited from saying the interaction proves that Jesus is not fully divine or not free from sin.
Second, a Protestant might say the Catholic is kicking the can down the road: if there is “anarchy” when it comes to interpreting what the Bible says, then won’t a similar anarchy occur when people try to figure out what Church documents mean? In response, I would say this is a good reply to someone who says private interpretation can never be a part of the life of a Christian. That’s too narrow of a view, and the Catechism even says Christians must obey the dictates of a properly formed conscience (1790).
However, a more defensible position would be that interpretive clarity is at least far more feasible (or may even only be possible) through a living Magisterium. That’s because a Church that persists through history can teach doctrine through deliberate, repetitive acts that account for misunderstandings that arise in each generation. The static words of Scripture cannot articulate themselves anew for every generation.
Finally, a Protestant might point to the dissenters within the Catholic Church as evidence that having a Magisterium does not eliminate the problem of heresy. What about all the priests and lay people who argue for expanding the definition of marriage and the ordination of women? What good is a magisterium if it doesn’t prevent these voices from rising up in the Church?
Well, even when God directly spoke to his chosen people or his faithful angels, people rebelled. That’s the cost of giving creatures free will. But at least Catholic dissenters usually admit that what they’re peddling directly contradicts what the Church teaches. They may hope Catholic teaching will change in their favor, but they begrudgingly allow that their heresy is not Catholic teaching. A Protestant, on the other hand, who dissents from “traditional Christianity” can always say what he believes is what the highest authority in Protestantism has always taught, which others have simply failed to recognize.
So while dissenters and heretics will always afflict the body of Christ, Christ chose to protect his Church not by confining divine revelation to Scripture alone, but by instituting a Church. Jesus told his apostles, “He who hears you hears me” (Luke 10:16). The same principle animates the authoritative teaching of the Catholic Church.”
“Why do Catholics today celebrate the Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus? After all, we don’t have feast days dedicated to any other organs of Jesus’ body. There’s no “Solemnity of the Arm of Jesus,” for instance, to honor His baptisms and Healings. So why a feast day for His Heart?
Biblically, the heart is “our hidden center.” Scripture refers to the heart more than a thousand times, often, as the Catechism (CCC) notes, in the context of prayer (2562-63). The greatest commandment of the Law is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Deut. 6:5; Mark 12:30). In speaking of the Sacred Heart, then, we’re referring to the person of Jesus, to his humanity, and to his love for the Father and for us, what the Congregation for Divine Worship (CDW) calls his “infinite divine-human love for the Father and for his brothers.” In a special way, the image of the Sacred Heart captures the moment in which that love was poured out for us on the cross, when a soldier pierced the side of Christ, and blood and water flowed out (John 19:34).
As the CDW notes, we find devotion to the Sacred Heart throughout the Middle Ages, but it goes from being a personal devotion to a liturgical feast in no small part in response to the heresy of Jansenism. In the words of Pope Pius XI, “the feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus was instituted at a time when men were oppressed by the sad and gloomy severity of Jansenism, which had made their hearts grow cold, and shut them out from the love of God and the hope of salvation.”
So what was the Jansenist heresy, and how was the Sacred Heart an answer to it?
Although the heresy of Jansenism is sometimes unfairly oversimplified, there were three particular features of the heresy that (inadvertently) produced disastrous effects. The first was a double predestination: that God destined some for heaven and others for hell, irrespective of merits. As Leszek Kołakowski traces in his book God Owes Us Nothing, Jansenist theology argued that God gives some people the graces necessary for salvation and withholds them from others (pp. 31-35). The result of this idea would be that some people are going to hell, and there’s literally nothing they can do about it. They aren’t saved—not because they refuse God’s overtures, but simply because God doesn’t want to save them.
The second feature regarded imperfect contrition, sometimes known as attrition. In simple terms: If I turn away from my sin out of fear of hell (rather than out of love of God), is that good enough to be forgiven? The Catechism (1453) now clarifies: by itself, “imperfect contrition cannot obtain the forgiveness of grave sins”; however, imperfect contrition is sufficient to receive absolution through the sacrament of Penance, since imperfect contrition can be perfected through the sacramental graces flowing from the confessional. But the Jansenists taught the opposite: that even for a valid sacramental confession, a penitent needed perfect contrition. Worse, Jansenist priests “routinely withheld absolution, in the belief that few penitents demonstrated sufficient precision and adequate contrition.”
Third, because so few people could count on perfect contrition, Jansenists warned against receiving Communion frequently, in a misguided attempt to avoid the scandal of unworthy reception.
What was the combined effect of these three teachings? That ordinary Catholics doubted God’s love for them; doubted whether they were (or could be) forgiven, even after going to confession; and stayed away from the Body and Blood of Christ in Communion out of fear, thereby depriving themselves of sacramental graces. The resulting vision of God was thereby distorted. As Pius XI would later recount, “God was not to be loved as a father but rather to be feared as an implacable judge.”
This is an important insight, because it gets to the heart of the matter. It’s not just that Jansenism got the details of predestination or contrition or sacramental reception wrong. It’s that Jansenism got God wrong, in a fundamental way that many of us still get him wrong today.
Perhaps it is only fitting, then, that it was God himself who set things straight. While multiple seventeenth- and eighteenth-century popes vainly tried to quash Jansenism, Jesus intervened in an unexpected way: through a series of apparitions to a French nun named Margaret Mary Alacoque (1647-1690). In the last and most famous of these apparitions, Jesus showed her His Heart and said:
“Behold the heart which has so loved men that it has spared nothing, even to exhausting and consuming Itself, in order to testify Its love; and in return, I receive from the greater part only ingratitude, by their irreverence and sacrilege, and by the coldness and contempt they have for me in this sacrament of love.”
Theologically, this is the corrective Jansenism needed. Jesus did not deny any of what Jansenism was getting right: that sin offends God, that so many of us seem indifferent to God, that we can slip into ingratitude toward God with startling ease. But rather than express this in terms of divine wrath, Jesus presents it as a tragedy of unrequited love. That is, sinners act this way not because God denies them the graces to do otherwise, but because they fail to appreciate the depth and breadth of God’s love for them. Jesus saw the same problem that the Jansenists saw, but he answered it with open arms and an open heart.
A great difficulty in believing in God’s love and mercy is simply accepting that God is so radically other. It’s hard to wrap our minds around the idea that the uncreated and unchanging God of the universe has a personal love for us. And so Jesus reminds us that He has a human heart, and with it, the full range of human emotions. Yet He is fully divine as well as fully human. Thus, our devotion is not just to the heart, but to the Sacred Heart. Jesus has at once the full experience of human emotions and the perfect vision of divine foreknowledge.
Pius XI illustrates the implications of this divine-human union in a beautiful reflection on Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. On the one hand, he points out that it was chiefly “because of our sins also which were as yet in the future, but were foreseen” that the soul of Christ became “very sorrowful, even to death” (Matt. 26:38). In other words, what weighed upon Christ was not principally the looming shadow of the Cross, but the weight of our sins.
But there is a happy corollary to this idea: that when we read that “there appeared to Him an angel from heaven, strengthening Him,” this should also be taken as Christ foreseeing our acts of reparation to the Sacred Heart, that “His Heart, oppressed with weariness and anguish, might find consolation.” And so, the pope concludes, “even now, in a wondrous yet true manner, we can and ought to console that most Sacred Heart which is continually wounded by the sins of thankless men.”
This is a wonderful and mind-bending insight. The promise of the Sacred Heart is that our actions today are wrapped up (through God’s perfect foreknowledge) with Christ’s experience in Gethsemane, that we are either adding one more burden to Him through our sins, or giving Him one more consolation through our acts of love and reparation. And so (in yet another encyclical on the Sacred Heart!) Pius XI encouraged that “the Feast of the Sacred Heart be for the whole Church one of holy rivalry of reparation and supplication,” in which we hasten in large numbers “to the foot of the altar to adore the Redeemer of the world, under the veils of the sacrament,” pouring our hearts out to His. What better way can we celebrate the triumph of Jesus’ love over the cold justice of Jansenism and our false conceptions of God?”
Within Thy Sacred Heart, dear Lord,
My anxious thoughts shall rest.
I neither ask for life, nor death;
Thou knowest what is best.
Say only Thou hast pardoned me,
Say only I am Thine,
In all things else dispose of me:
Thy Holy Will is mine.
And may Thy Sacred Heart, dear Lord,
E’er be my counsel sure,
Led in Thy Heart’s obedience
To make my own heart pure.
And when Thou shalt come claim my soul
Then may we never part,
For there shall be my only joy:
Within Thy Sacred Heart.
-please click on the image for greater clarity
Love, O Sacred Heart of Jesus, we place our trust in Thee!! (for generations, atraditional part of McCormick grace at evening meals),
“The woke movement seems to sense that it can grow parasitically off the residue of religion until it has replaced it.
One of the reasons woke ideology has been successful at making inroads among Christian communities is that it feeds off the Christian precept to offer compassion and aid to the marginalized and suffering. This leads to a lot of confusion about whether or not Christians can get woke, with many seeing it as the natural outgrowth of that Christian precept. But as I write in my book, Awake, Not Woke (TAN Books), on both a human and a spiritual level, wokeness is an ideology that harms far more than helps.
It is imperative that we identify how it operates, as it often mimics Christianity, compounding the confusion. Even as society grows more secular, the woke movement seems to sense that it can grow parasitically off the residue of religion until it has replaced it.
One example of how this happens is in connection with the Christian concept of repentance. Under threat of cancelation, people caught on the wrong side of wokeness will often repeat some version of the phrase doing the work in their apology: “Yes, I see where I was wrong, and I am committed now to doing the work.”
On its face, this phrase might strike us as a harmless and even helpful indication that the offender is reflecting on his errors or harmful biases and seeking to undo and repent of them. In this light, it can be compatible with Christian habits of examination, confession, and repentance. This is likely what your nice progressive Aunt Susan thinks is all the phrase means.
Doing the work of woke re-education, however, means coming to see all facets of society through a lens of power and oppression and becoming activists in their undoing. That Aunt Susan does not see the bait-and-switch involved is crucial to the success of the movement.
Here is an incomplete list of what is ultimately involved in doing the work:
Reframing our perspectives to see every person, event, and interaction (no matter how insignificant) through the lens of identitarian group conflict. As celebrity author and woke race guru Robin DiAngelo famously said, the question in any given human interaction is not did racism take place, but rather how did racism take place.
Seeing all Western thought, literature, institutions, ideas, philosophies as fraught systems of oppression and colonization that must be de-centered, destabilized, and disrupted.
Dismantling our understanding of objective moral law and intelligible bodily meaning. Our bodies can mean anything (which assumes that they mean nothing). Sexual repression is an internalized form of political oppression. According to Critical Theory, the academic underpinning of wokeness, moral principles are obstacles to personal liberation.
Committing to silencing (in ourselves and in others) any thoughts or concerns that question the ideology. Such resistance is either false consciousness, if we are in the oppressed group, or further evidence of our complicity and privilege, if we are in the oppressor group.
Committing not to be silent (“silence is violence”), but to use our voices only in support of woke-approved views. (The logic of 4 and 5 combined show how we devolve into compelled speech.)
While the phrase doing the work is far more loaded than what a good-willed person might suppose, in a deeper way, it is astonishingly reductive. Borrowing from Marxist conflict theory, the woke break apart the world into simplistic binaries of the oppressed and the oppressors. Within any given individual, various identity combinations might mitigate or intensify his victim status and corresponding right to be heard or need to repent. How have I participated, unwittingly or not, in the sins of my ancestors or systemic webs of injustice? Or how have I been harmed by them?
Moral stature is given not according to character, but according to victimization, which creates endless motivation to uncover culprits outside oneself.
This reduction of the moral life into collectivized culpability detached from moral law is irreconcilable with the Christian faith. Though the actions at first glance might bear similarities, Catholicism is directed at reconciling the penitent to God, whereas doing the work is directed at conforming the penitent to the ideology.
The Catholic call to self-examination is both more penetrating and more personal. It is also respectful of the reality of human nature. Four guidelines helpful for confession are that the penitent should be concise, clear, complete, and concrete. These simple guidelines serve to help us see ourselves with clarity and humility.
The human desire to see ourselves and have others see us in a good light can easily corrupt our vision. We are prone to hiding our faults—to deflect, to excuse, to generalize, to conceal. We want to avoid acknowledging our sins plainly and simply. When life goes poorly, we look for anything outside ourselves to blame.
Woke ideology exploits this. Stoking anger and resentment serves well the cause of revolution. But it also obscures our understanding of God’s mercy and love. We reduce Him in our imaginations to a harsh taskmaster rather than a loving father.
While we can hide for some amount of time from ourselves, we cannot hide from God. He already knows what we are—which is good and bad news. The bad news is that He knows our sins. The good news? That means that His love for us is far more sincere and intimate than we might have supposed. In knowing our need, He comes to reveal to us the depth of His love.
Woke ideology is both reductive and totalizing. It is parody of the C.S. Lewis quote, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” By doing the work, we begin to see everything as signs and shadows of the power and hatred of man. Through God’s grace and the sacraments, by contrast, we begin to see everything as signs and shadows of the mercy and love of a Father.”
“Be sober and vigilant. Your opponent the devil is prowling around like a roaring lion looking for [someone] to devour.” -1 Peter 5:8
“Therefore, stay awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” -Mt 25:13
“Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.” -Eph 5:14
“But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect Him.” -Mt 24:43-44
Awake, not woke.
Summa Catechetica, "Neque enim quaero intelligere ut credam, sed credo ut intelligam." – St Anselm, "Let your religion be less of a theory, and more of a love affair." -G.K. Chesterton, "I want a laity, not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious, but men and women who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold and what they do not, and who know their creed so well that they can give an account of it."- Bl John Henry Newman, Cong. Orat., "Encounter, not confrontation; attraction, not promotion; dialogue, not debate." -cf Pope Francis, “You will not see anyone who is really striving after his advancement who is not given to spiritual reading. And as to him who neglects it, the fact will soon be observed by his progress.” -St Athanasius, "To convert someone, go and take them by the hand and guide them." -St Thomas Aquinas, OP. 1 saint ruins ALL the cynicism in Hell & on Earth. “When we pray we talk to God; when we read God talks to us…All spiritual growth comes from reading and reflection.” -St Isidore of Seville, “Also in some meditations today I earnestly asked our Lord to watch over my compositions that they might do me no harm through the enmity or imprudence of any man or my own; that He would have them as His own and employ or not employ them as He should see fit. And this I believe is heard.” -GM Hopkins, SJ, "Only God knows the good that can come about by reading one good Catholic book." — St. John Bosco, "Why don't you try explaining it to them?" – cf St Peter Canisius, SJ, Doctor of the Church, Doctor of the Catechism, "Already I was coming to appreciate that often apologetics consists of offering theological eye glasses of varying prescriptions to an inquirer. Only one prescription will give him clear sight; all the others will give him at best indistinct sight. What you want him to see—some particular truth of the Faith—will remain fuzzy to him until you come across theological eye glasses that precisely compensate for his particular defect of vision." -Karl Keating, "The more perfectly we know God, the more perfectly we love Him." -St Thomas Aquinas, OP, ST, I-II,67,6 ad 3, “But always when I was without a book, my soul would at once become disturbed, and my thoughts wandered." —St. Teresa of Avila, "Let those who think I have said too little and those who think I have said too much, forgive me; and let those who think I have said just enough thank God with me." –St. Augustine, "Without good books and spiritual reading, it will be morally impossible to save our souls." —St. Alphonsus Liguori "Never read books you aren't sure about. . . even supposing that these bad books are very well written from a literary point of view. Let me ask you this: Would you drink something you knew was poisoned just because it was offered to you in a golden cup?" -St. John Bosco " To teach in order to lead others to faith is the task of every preacher and of each believer." —St. Thomas Aquinas, OP. "Prayer purifies us, reading instructs us. Both are good when both are possible. Otherwise, prayer is better than reading." –St. Isidore of Seville “The aid of spiritual books is for you a necessity.… You, who are in the midst of battle, must protect yourself with the buckler of holy thoughts drawn from good books.” -St. John Chrysostom