Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Spirit of Truth: the Word of God as taught by the Magisterium of the Church

All Christians agree that the Bible is the Word of God. Its text is believed to be inspired by the Holy Spirit; it is the written source of Revelation from which doctrines are formed, and moral and spiritual guidance is assimilated. Prophets and Apostles were guided by the Holy Spirit to write words of this ancient text, and these writings were compiled into what is called “Holy Scripture” or the “Bible.” This book has been preserved down through the centuries by faithful Christians. No Christian would dispute the importance of Scripture in the life of the believer in Jesus Christ.

The question then arises: Does the Bible ALONE guarantee the soundness of Christian doctrine? Did God give us ONLY the Bible for the preservation of His Word?

There are many thousands of Christian denominations and sects, which claim that “Scripture Alone” is in fact the sole source for Christian teaching. They reject the authority of any ecclesial (church) body or hierarchy to interpret Scripture and they reject any other source for Revealed Truth, and instead claim that the Bible Alone, in the hands of each individual Christian, is the means by which God preserves His Word. They say that the Spirit guides each individual to discover the Truth of Scripture, and that Scripture’s meaning is plain and literal in every word of every page, so that anyone can grasp its meaning.

And so the next question inevitably follows: Why is it that no two “Bible Only” churches agree on doctrine? How can it be that the Spirit has guided all of these individuals down separate paths to different Truths? Is there not ONE Truth? Why does the Bible Alone yield a plethora of churches with competing doctrines? As these “Bible churches” quarrel and disintegrate into break-away factions that spawn new churches every year, one might wonder what the Holy Spirit was thinking in leading so many astray. Is this really the way Christ established His Church?

Is this what Christ prayed for when He said: “I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me. And I have given them the glory you gave me, so that they may be one, as we are one…” (John 17:20-22)

Jesus prayed for the unity of all believers, a unity that mirrors His own union with the Father – “so that they may be one, as we are one.” It is clear that the “Bible Alone” does not provide that kind of unity for the Church. Would the Father and the Son disagree on doctrine; would They quarrel, and then decide to go Their separate ways, and form Their own churches? Because that is what “Scripture Alone” has given us. Scripture Alone has given Christianity a shattered and broken Body. This cannot be what Christ intended. If Jesus prayed for unity (and who doubts that the Father would grant the prayer of His Son for His Church?), then Jesus’ prayer would surely be answered more effectively than the Bible Alone doctrine has done throughout history.

The Catholic Church counters the weakness of the “Bible Only” doctrine in two ways:

1) The Word of God is found not in Scripture Alone, but rather Scripture AND Tradition.

It must be emphasized that the Catholic Church’s position has always been that the Bible contains the Word of God. It is the sacred written record of God’s revelation to mankind. The Catholic Church shares this opinion with other Christian denominations. Make no mistake, Catholics love and respect the Bible.

However, the Catholic Church also recognizes that the Bible makes no claim for itself to be the ONLY source of God’s Word. If we are to accept the “Bible Alone” to be a sound doctrine to guide Christians, then the “Bible Alone” doctrine too must be found in Scripture. But it is not. Bible-Only Christians claim that all authentic Christian doctrine should come from the pages of Scripture. But if this is true then we must reject the Bible Alone doctrine since it disproves itself.

Nowhere does Scripture say that the Bible is the ONLY source of God’s Word. To the contrary, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) states: “In keeping with the Lord's command, the Gospel was handed on in two ways: - orally 'by the apostles who handed on, by the spoken word of their preaching, by the example they gave, by the institutions they established, what they themselves had received - whether from the lips of Christ, from his way of life and his works, or whether they had learned it at the prompting of the Holy Spirit'; - in writing 'by those apostles and other men associated with the apostles who, under the inspiration of the same Holy Spirit, committed the message of salvation to writing'." (CCC 76)

And this teaching agrees with Scripture: “So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.” (2 Thessalonians 2:15)

So we see that the Word of God can be passed on orally as well as in the written form: “And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.” (Acts 4:31)

Paul tells us that his spoken words are truly the Word of God: “And we also thank God continually because, when you received the Word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the Word of God, which is at work in you who believe.” (1Thessalonians 2:13)

So the Church teaches rightly that God’s Word comes to us in two forms: oral and written. Obviously the written form is called the Bible (as we have already established); and to this, other Christians agree. The oral form is referred to simply as Tradition. This is not to be confused with customs and practices adopted by the Church down through the ages. These are not equal to God’s Word, but are merely expressions of faith as the gospel has been lived out from generation to generation. As the Catechism puts it: “Tradition is to be distinguished from the various theological, disciplinary, liturgical or devotional traditions, born in the local churches over time. These are the particular forms, adapted to different places and times, in which the great Tradition is expressed. In the light of Tradition, these traditions can be retained, modified or even abandoned…”CCC 83)

Thus a clear distinction ought to be maintained between Tradition (with a capital “T”) and traditions (lower case “t”) so that customs and practices common among Catholics are not to be confused with the Word of God. Much misunderstanding among non-Catholics stems from this unfortunate mistake in terminology. Sacred Tradition would include such things as the papacy (but not specific ceremonies surrounding the pope), the Mass (but not the precise arrangemnt of words or gestures used at the Mass); Tradition is unchanging (although our understanding of it may grow) – whereas customs and traditions can be altered.

With that in mind, the Catholic Church maintains that Scripture and Tradition are derived from the same source: "'Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture, then, are bound closely together, and communicate one with the other. For both of them, flowing out from the same divine well-spring, come together in some fashion to form one thing, and move towards the same goal.' Each of them makes present and fruitful in the Church the mystery of Christ, who promised to remain with his own 'always, to the close of the age'." (CCC 80)

In fact, Scripture is itself nothing more than a written form of Tradition that grew out of the early Church: “The Tradition here in question comes from the apostles and hands on what they received from Jesus' teaching and example and what they learned from the Holy Spirit. The first generation of Christians did not yet have a written New Testament, and the New Testament itself demonstrates the process of living Tradition.” (CCC 83)

Scripture and Tradition are thus inextricably linked. They grew out of the same source – the preaching and example given by the Apostles under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The two must be viewed and interpreted together to achieve sound doctrine and to appreciate the whole Word of God.

"As a result the Church, to whom the transmission and interpretation of Revelation is entrusted, 'does not derive her certainty about all revealed truths from the holy Scriptures alone. Both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honored with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence.'" (CCC 82)

2) The Church’s Magisterium authoritatively interprets that Word of God as found in Scripture and Tradition.

We know that "Scripture Alone" does not work. It brings us only division and a broken church. Tradition, as a collection of passed on wisdom may shed light on Scripture and clear up shades of meaning, but still, if it were left up to each individual to sort out doctrine on his own, we would be left with the same confusion that the Bible Alone doctrine has yielded. It cannot be that God has given us His Word in Scripture and Tradition, but then left us in the same mess from which Bible-Only churches suffer with individual interpretation and competing doctrines.

Christ did not leave his Church to such confusion and lack of guidance. He first called the Twelve Apostles to a role of leadership in His new Church and gave them an authority that is recognized both in Heaven and on Earth: "I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." (Matthew 18:18)

He promised this authority to the Twelve, but He spoke similar words to Peter (using the singular word for “you”) and also bestowed on him the "keys" to symbolize Peter’s unique position of authority: "I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." (Matthew 16:19)

Obviously the Apostles received a special authority as a group, and individually for Peter. This teaching authority was passed on to selected men who would continue as bishops of the Church, as the Catechism tells us: "'In order that the full and living Gospel might always be preserved in the Church the apostles left bishops as their successors. They gave them their own position of teaching authority.' Indeed, 'the apostolic preaching, which is expressed in a special way in the inspired books, was to be preserved in a continuous line of succession until the end of time.'" (CCC 77)

The early Christians (from the first few centuries A.D. bear witness to this line of succession:

"Through countryside and city [the apostles] preached, and they appointed their earliest converts, testing them by the Spirit, to be the bishops and deacons of future believers. Nor was this a novelty, for bishops and deacons had been written about a long time earlier. . . . Our apostles knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be strife for the office of bishop. For this reason, therefore, having received perfect foreknowledge, they appointed those who have already been mentioned and afterwards added the further provision that, if they should die, other approved men should succeed to their ministry" (Clement of Rome, Letter to the Corinthians 42:4–5, 44:1–3 [A.D. 80]).

"It is possible, then, for everyone in every church, who may wish to know the truth, to contemplate the tradition of the apostles which has been made known to us throughout the whole world. And we are in a position to enumerate those who were instituted bishops by the apostles and their successors down to our own times, men who neither knew nor taught anything like what these heretics rave about" (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3:3:1 [A.D. 189]).

"Far be it from me to speak adversely of any of these clergy who, in succession from the apostles, confect by their sacred word the Body of Christ and through whose efforts also it is that we are Christians" (Jerome, Letters 14:8 [A.D. 396]).

This teaching office that has been passed down from the Apostles is called the “Magisterium.” Rather than drawing our certainty about God’s Word from our own individual interpretation, we can instead turn to the Magisterium of the Church, the teaching office established by Christ and maintained down through the generations. This is not to say that the Magesterium has power over God’s Word, but rather the Magisterium is in the service of God’s Word and is bound by it… "[T]his Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it. At the divine command and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it listens to this devotedly, guards it with dedication and expounds it faithfully. All that it proposes for belief as being divinely revealed is drawn from this single deposit of faith." (CCC86)

So the division and in-fighting that is so often found among the “Bible Only” churches is soundly answered within the Catholic Church, where there can be surety of doctrine and unity of belief just as Jesus prayed for his followers. Interpretation is not left up to each Christian, but rather, the Holy Spirit works through the teaching office of the Church as the Apostles appointed bishops for that very task. The “Bible Only” doctrine is a rebellion against God’s plan of unity within His Church. Holy Scripture must not be isolated from the Tradition from which it came. Nor should God’s Word be misused by those to whom no authority has been given to interpret authoritatively.

Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium work together to bring us the Truth of Revelation: "'The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone. Its authority in this matter is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ.' This means that the task of interpretation has been entrusted to the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome." (CCC 85)

"It is clear therefore that, in the supremely wise arrangement of God, sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture and the Magisterium of the Church are so connected and associated that one of them cannot stand without the others. Working together, each in its own way, under the action of the one Holy Spirit, they all contribute effectively to the salvation of souls." (CCC 95)

By this we can be certain that Christ’s promise is fulfilled: “…when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all truth.” (John 16:13)


  1. I wrote this post as a response to a question asked of me about the Church’s authority to interpret Scripture. Originally the title was to be “The Magisterium of The Church: the Gift of the Spirit of Truth.” However as I gathered information and reflected on this topic I realized that the Catholic understanding of the “Word of God” must also be addressed if we are to understand the Church’s authority to interpret. So with that modification and broadening of the discussion I have present the material under the above title.

  2. Thanks Thomas,
    That was pretty good and I percieved it as how things are supposed to work. Is my perception wrong?
    I understand that scripture can be oral as well as written.
    I understand Christs hope and desire for unity. As compared to your contrast of protestantism,(each having sightly different interpitations of different aspects) compared with the RCC's "unity" would you claim or put forth the notion that the RCC is unified?
    Bishop Williamson continues his history of denying the Holocaust, and those events were only 60 years ago. I have read accounts of many different Priests who are or were still employed by the church and yet advocate for things that are diametrically opposed to the teachings of the church wether the issue be modern like Bishop Williamsons antisemitism, gay clergy, celebate preisthood, or ancient like the Fransiscan belief that priests should be poor as Christ was as compared to the lavish Papal court. Many traditions talk of councils where the 2 sides debated for months if Christ even owned his own clothes.
    Certainly all of these things are beyond the relevant salvic message needed to believe on him who died for us because he loved us. So we must define the scope of what Christ meant by unity.

    "Bible-Only Christians claim that all authentic Christian doctrine should come from the pages of Scripture. But if this is true then we must reject the Bible Alone doctrine since it disproves itself. Nowhere does Scripture say that the Bible is the ONLY source of God’s Word."

    It doesnt say anything about insider trading either yet we know that is not an excuse to do it. All such lines of debate are unproductive since a negative can never be proven.

    I hope you will guide me through understanding how if your system is set up like that, how can things go so far wrong some times? I will put in CAP letters the words or points I wish to emphasise.

    Let me just start our conversation by quoting a few of your salient thoughts and then asking a couple questions relating to the concept.

    "For this reason, therefore, having received PERFECT FOREKNOWLEDGE, they appointed those who have already been mentioned and afterwards added the further provision that, if they should die, other approved men should succeed to their ministry" (Clement of Rome, Letter to the Corinthians 42:4–5, 44:1–3 [A.D. 80])."
    What type of perfedct foreknowledge is considered here? Only about apostolic succession or about other things too plainly covered in the bible like people making a free choice to follow Christ or not with out repurcussions such as Jesus own experiences with the rich young ruler.
    How then did prior Popes even concieve of, let alone allow forced conversions as in the crusades, or forced confessions as in the inquisitions?
    This also pertains to unity I suppose too since no Popes since have overtly endorsed the practices in recent history.
    I wonder about things like that when topics such as apostolic succession come up. A Pope like Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) in Rome or in the 1230s, Pope Gregory IX who oversaw inquisitions or Pope Clement who issued the papal bull Pastoralis Praeeminentiae on November 22, 1307, which instructed all Christian monarchs in Europe to arrest all Templars and seize their assets, why should I care if I lived back then if they had the "authority" to "interpit scripture" if they dont even know Christianity well enough to know you cant force a person into the type of relationship God wants?

    To often I have heard the "party line" like the RCC Popes are somekind of spotless unbroken line.

    I have a hard time considering the authority part and the sacred office part and the apostolic succession part when history has docummented many of these people to be self centered power hungry politicians and dictators.

    I would really like you to help me understand how if everything is set up to work like you say, that such bad things have come from it.

    Thanks for trying.

  3. Michael,
    You asked the question: “…would you claim or put forth the notion that the RCC is unified?”
    I would answer yes. It is the most unified group of Christians that I know in matters of doctrine. Does that mean that Catholics are in total agreement on EVERYTHING? No. As Augustine said: In the essentials – unity; in non-essentials – freedom; and in all things charity. It is on the “essentials” to which all Catholics are called to unity, and by this I mean the things which pertain to salvation.

    When a priest or member of the clergy teaches against an essential Truth of the faith or deliberately and persistently puts forward a heretical teaching then that priest can be disciplined even up to and including excommunication. You mentioned Bishop Williamson. This is a poor example. In denying the Holocaust, we can say that he is a misguided and perhaps deceitful man. Because of this, the pope has issued several statements condemning Williamson’s position and has called on him to recant. The reason this case does not refute my point is that his disbelief in the Holocaust is not a matter of salvation – it is not an essential of faith. Nowhere in Scripture or Tradition is there a teaching that says one must believe in the Holocaust in order to be saved. I acknowledge that it is a matter of historical “fact” verses “falsehood” – and that is why it is important that Williamson accept the truth, as a matter of being honest about history – but the Holocaust is an historical event that does not fall into the category of Divine Revelation. I doubt that any Christian would categorize it as such. Having said that though, it is also important to note is that the pope and the Vatican have acknowledged and condemned Holocaust denial, and so the hierarchy is on the right side on this one.

    As for other priests you mention who teach contrary to Catholic doctrine on matters such as gay clergy or non-celibate priests, and I’ll even add some others, such as the push for female priests and a more active participation of the laity in the governance of the Church...I’d even mention Martin Luther who was a Catholic priest and the first to teach the “Bible Alone” doctrine…These Catholics are in direct opposition to matters of official Church teaching. Many of their arguments challenge the “essentials” of the faith (although not all do so and some are legitimately pushing the envelope of speculative theology). But they are all subject to a reprimand from the proper Church authorities. The fact is that being Catholic does not remove a person’s free will, and these people are acting willfully against Church doctrine. And the Church has a built-in authority to confront this issue. This authority maintains “unity” in official teaching.

    Lets’ contrast this with other denominations. In Bible-Only churches, where each person is encouraged to test their own doctrines against Scripture and rely on individual interpretation, the churches have no real authority to decisively correct or over-rule the individual. I have even been told by one such Christian that he questions his own pastor some Sundays on matters of doctrine and sometimes disagrees with his own denomination. He sees nothing wrong with that, because he feels that it is his obligation to come to his own doctrinal conclusions even if he is at odds with his own church. When a denominational “Assembly” is called among one of these groups, that Assembly usually has very little control over what the local churches will do when a new rule is established or if a doctrine is explained to correct a perceived abuse. It amounts to not much more than a gentle suggestion from the higher-ups, and the local people behave as they wish and can even disregard “official” policies. This often leads to schisms and a new denomination is formed.

    The Catholic Church is “united” on doctrinal matters, not because we check our free wills at the door (believe me there are plenty of dissenting Catholics, many who willfully reject Church teaching), but the Catholic understanding of Church authority is such that we can know where the Church officially stands on matters of faith, and we can then clearly see who is teaching falsehood. It is not left up to individuals to question the Church, rather the Church proposes dogmatic truths and we submit to her authority.

    (On the issue of the Franciscans and living in total poverty, which you mentioned…that is a matter of tradition or custom; it is a religious discipline that is not a part of Tradition. Some religious orders follow it in varying degrees. Likewise the pomp and grandeur of papal ceremony. It is a custom or ceremony that is not a part of Tradition and can be modified or even abandoned. Maybe a lot of your confusion comes from this definition of what precisely is “Tradition” versus “traditions.”)

    You made the statement: “So we must define the scope of what Christ meant by unity.”
    I agree. And as Augustine said it must come down to the “essentials” of faith. You and I probably disagree on many of those “essentials.” I am not trying to change your mind on those things. I am just trying to say that the Catholic Church has a more unified approach to those essentials than other groups. The Truths of Catholic teaching are more clearly defined and the Church claims a true authority to teach instead of individual interpretation. The “Bible Alone” breeds disunity (as history has shown) – whereas the Catholic Church’s “Scripture-Tradition-Majisterium” approach ensures a greater unity.

    (Continued below...)

  4. Michael, to begin our discussion, you cited a quote from Clement of Rome and then asked: “What type of perfect foreknowledge is considered here?”

    If we read the context of this quote from Clement it seems to be referring to the foreknowledge that there would be strife for the office of bishop: “Our apostles knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be strife for the office of bishop. For this reason, therefore, having received perfect foreknowledge…”
    It doesn’t seem to have anything to do with various sins committed by future popes or bishops. The “foreknowledge” to which Clement refers seems to be specifically about the necessity of establishing a line of succession among the bishops so that “strife” will be avoided, and everyone can plainly see who ought to be in that office.
    I would say that the Inquisitions and Crusades are certainly mixed with horrible sinners (some of them popes and other clergy) as well as great heroes (some of them now considered saints). Nowhere in Catholic teaching does it ever suggest that a pope or bishop or priest will be without sin. The promised gift of the Spirit pertains to matters of doctrine and official teachings of the Church, not to the personal sinlessness of the clergy. If you reject Catholic doctrine because its teachers are sinners…then good luck finding a church that is free of sinful teachers. The Catholic Church makes no claim to be free of sinners, nor have I ever met a Christian in any denomination who claims to have such a church. If you intend to make this a debate about who has sinned the most, then perhaps you are not serious about discussing doctrine?
    If you are asking whether popes have sinned and even abused their power, then the answer is, YES. If you are asking whether the popes have officially taught false doctrine as successors to Peter, the answer is, NO. The question of the Magisterium and church authority pertains to doctrine, not the sinfulness of popes.

    Michael: “To often I have heard the ‘party line’ like the RCC Popes are some kind of spotless unbroken line.”
    Thomas: What do you mean by “spotless”? Do you mean “sinless”? Well that is NOT the “party line.” As I have sated, the Catholic Church does not claim that popes are sinless. If you have heard that, then you have heard incorrectly.
    To the question of an “unbroken line” – yes…it is an unbroken line of successors back to Peter.

    Michael: “I have a hard time considering the authority part and the sacred office part and the apostolic succession part when history has docummented many of these people to be self centered power hungry politicians and dictators.”
    Well then, you must have a hard time accepting God’s Will. God has used sinful men as leaders of His people throughout history. Moses sinned, and for his sin he was not allowed to see the Promised Land. David sinned, but he was favored by God to be King of Israel. When Christ came in the flesh, the Bible claims David’s line of succession as Jesus’ own birthright as King, even though it is filled with sinners. This does not delegitimize Christ’s claim. Why should a sinful line of succession cast doubts on Christ’s Church, when a similarly sinful line of succession is cited as His own birthright? Jesus also recognized the authority passed on from sinful Moses. He told the Jews: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.” (Mat 23:2-3) He makes a clear distinction between their authority as teachers and their sinfulness as imperfect humans. It is no different in the Catholic Church. When Christ established Peter as the bearer of the “keys” He established a new line of succession similar to that of Moses. The “seat of Moses” became the “chair of Peter.” I acknowledge that some popes have been sinful and unfaithful to God’s Word (“dictators” – I don’t know about that…) But even Jesus says that we owe our allegiance to those who fill a God-ordained teaching office. And even Heaven honors what is “bound and loosed” by the keys on earth.

    I sincerely hope that your argument against Catholic doctrine does not boil down to a claim that “Catholic leaders are sinners.” If that is the case, then you must also reject every other doctrine taught by a sinner, and that would include your own church as well. Let’s be fair and separate the “sinners” from the “doctrine” they teach. Even Jesus gave weight to the authority the Pharisees claimed as successors to Moses. He differentiated between their teaching and their way of acting. I think you and I can do the same.

    Do you want to discuss doctrine or do you want to discuss sins of Christian leaders? These are two different topics. I do not mind discussing doctrine, but I have no interest in a discussion of other people’s sins. That is between them and God, and I will not throw the first stone.


  5. You answered my questions only obliquely by catagorizing my questions as only encompassing peoples personal sins.
    I neither wish to discuss personal sins. However as Vicars of Christ with the authority to interpit scripture, I would expect the Popes I mentioned to at least have a rudimentary understanding of the wrongness of forced conversions and forced confessions.
    This is more than a personal persons sin. Dont you agree?

    You more correctly grasp my own questions when you say, "Let’s be fair and separate the “sinners” from the “doctrine” they teach."

    Popes I mentioned taught that it was fine (not only fine but guaranteed the salvation if one went on the crusades) to go on the crusades and force convert or kill unbelievers.
    Can you discribe the crusades, inquisition or the arrest or murder of the knights templar as merely personal sins? Since their Papal decrees carried the weight of the church were they not also church actions with church responsibility?

    Can you give me some sense of how you view these issues?

    You didnt even try and respond to one question I especially am interested in. I will ask it again here.
    If I lived back then, why should I care if Popes had the "authority" to "interpit scripture" if they dont seem to know Christianity in general well enough to know you cant force a person to convert or confess?

    Have I more narrowly defined things away from personal sins towards the dycotomy between the specific and narrowly defined church actions mentioned and the fact that these actions were decreed by those who were in the supreme position to interpit biblical passages and the theological concepts of free will and brotherly love? If their ability to interpit is valid how did these things ever happen?
    It is a fair and honest question without any side nuances or confusion.
    Thanks I know you can provide at least your understanding of my question if I can only summon enough writing skills to express them in a way you can understand. At least that is my feeling.

    Thanks for helping me here.

  6. Michael,
    I think I grasp the gist of your question now. If I might be so bold as to re-work it for better clarity on my own part...

    “If popes and bishops of the past issued decrees that implemented forced conversions, or organized soldiers to fight non-believers, or endorsed any other violent act as justified and condoned by the Church, then why should anyone care if they have correct doctrine? Can a religious leader who approves and enables such brutal practices really be trusted to have the Gospel message straight? And also, are these really “personal” sins since they involve the whole Church in scandal?”

    I will address the last question first: The position of leadership within the Church (bishops, popes, priests...) carries a huge responsibility that calls upon the personal integrity of the individual holding that office. Because that person has many people under his charge (in the case of the pope, the whole Church), his personal sin can affect others in ways that any ordinary lay person’s may not. His position of leadership is a very visible sign of authority and his personal sin can cause great scandal and lead others into sin as well. Leading others into sin is far worse than involving only one’s self. When a pope or bishop or other official of the Church abuses his office in such a way that he leads otherwise faithful Catholics into sin we can be sure he will be judged harshly by God for his actions. If he disobeys God’s Law and then compels others to do likewise he is guilty of serious sin – it is a personal sin on his part that may lead to personal sin on the part of those whom he spiritually leads. His is the greater sin though, because of the office he holds.

    The reason I insist that we should separate the “sins” committed in the name of the Church from the “doctrine” of the Church is that the Majesterium only operates under the guidance of the Spirit in matters of proposing articles of faith; this authority from the Spirit does not extend to the sinful actions of wayward clergy. In other words, the gift of the Holy Spirit guides the teaching authority of the Church and guarantees sound “doctrine;” it does not guarantee sound leadership in implementing that doctrine, nor does it protect against “sin.”
    This is why Christ was able to tell the Jews to obey the authority of those who sit in “Moses’ seat” and yet do not do “as they do.” Jesus was distinguishing between the doctrine or teachings of those in authority from the sinful actions and examples set by those same people. I would say the same for the Church with regard to those popes and bishops you mention.

    Furthermore, and to more make my point more clearly, the events you cited, such as the Inquisition and the Crusades were largely political matters. The Church does not claim infallibility in matters of politics and state diplomacy. It is true that popes of the past were more entangled in these affairs than they currently are today, and that is a sad fact of history. But at no time has the Church every claimed to be guided by the Spirit in waging war or sorting out political matters.
    It would be helpful to clarify some of the misconceptions involved in these two historic events...The Crusades were primarily directed at fighting off the invading Muslim forces that had sacked Christian cities in the Middle East and were poised to invade Europe. The goal was to defend Christianity and Western civilization and to win back the land that had been conquered and desecrated by the Muslim invaders. You may fairly ask: Were mistakes made by Church officials during the Crusades? Yes! But they also managed to hold back the total conquest of Europe and protect the West from annihilation. War is a brutal business. And popes have no special power from God to wage war. The fact is though, that Europe was not a united entity at this time, and the only force that could gather enough solidarity among the various European factions to fight effectively was the Catholic Church. The Catholic Faith was the only source of agreement between the competing feudal lords and kings. The popes at that time did what they could to defend Christianity and solidify European resolve. But that is not an action of the teaching Magisterium, nor did their actions result in some new doctrine or propose a new dogma of the faith. The "doctrine" of the Church is a separate matter from the questionable actions of the Crusades.
    On the issue of the Inquisition: There was more than one Inquisition over a period of about 1000 years. I assume you mean the Spanish Inquisition, since it has the worst reputation. It is the one most non-Catholics point to when attacking Catholicism. This Inquisition was largely organized and implemented by the Spanish crown. It was in large part a function of the state. That is not to say that the clergy (including the pope) were free of guilt. They played their part and share the blame. But again the church-state relationship was not clearly delineated in those days. So just as a pope might issue a call-to-arms during the Crusades, so too kings and monarchs butted heads with clergy in matters of faith. It would be false for us to say that the Inquisition can be laid solely at the feet of the Pope in Rome as it was carried out by the Spanish crown so many miles away. Did the pope make mistakes and even sin in supporting any of the practices of interrogation or punishment during the Inquisition? Quite possibly. Looking back from our vantage point it would seem so. But again, the sinful actions of these men do not amount to “doctrines and dogmas” that are taught as part of the Magisterium. The two are separate issues.

    I will offer an example to illustrate better what I mean...Let’s take the case of Bishop Williamson, to whom you referred earlier. (We'll put aside the fact that his denial of the Holocaust is not a "doctrinal" matter and focus on the issue of Truth. I know that you and I can agree that the Holocaust is true, so at least we can start from that point of agreement.) Williamson denies that the Holocaust happened. You and I both know that it DID happen, and we wish that Williamson would admit to it. So we could try to persuade him by using logic and facts; we could argue the case and allow him to decide. Or we could put him “on the rack” – torture him until he professes a belief in the Holocaust and recants his former position. Now let’s say that we take the latter course of action. We force a confession of belief, and he gives in, under much pain and duress.
    Now other people look at what we did and are appalled (and rightly so!) We are horrible sinners for using torture as a means to force the truth on someone. But does that mean that the TRUTH is any less true? We used torture as a policy for extracting a profession of Truth. Does that mean that people should no longer believe in the Holocaust because people like us torture others to get them to believe? No. And the same can be said of Catholic doctrine. Did some in the Church apply sinful tactics in defending or spreading the faith? Yes. Does that mean that the doctrine is false? No. It means that they are sinners and we must put aside their sinfulness and examine the doctrine itself. Just as we must put aside the torture of Williamson and examine the truth of Holocaust on its merits.

    The personal sin of Church authorities, the abuse of their power to shape world politics or to forcibly influence the opinions and beliefs of others, is certainly scandalous, and it hurts the reputation of the Church. But that is a separate issue from the doctrines and dogmas of Catholic teaching and whether these teachings are TRUE. Certain members of the hierarchy may be guilty of horrible crimes, but their personal guilt does not change whether the official teaching is true.

    You asked whether these actions by popes and bishops were “church actions” as opposed to merely private actions, and that is a good question. It could be argued that some of these were indeed “church actions” in that the Church claimed much more temporal power at that time than its does now. As I said before, the Church was more entangled in political and worldly affairs and therefore the hierarchy acted on behalf of the Church in matters of state and diplomacy more so than today. In that sense they were actions of the “church.” (Pope John Paul publicly apologized for these "sins" of the Church a few years ago.) But because they were not doctrinal affairs (they were not matters of faith) these actions were not protected from error by the Spirit. The Catholic Church does not claim such a protection from sinful acts by its leaders. I would also add that since that time many of these corruptions of church power have been corrected.
    To put all of this more precisely...The actions to which you refer are linked to specific events in the history of Western civilization, and are not a part of the Church’s teaching on Divine Revelation. You are using these events and the actions of certain bishops and popes to call into question the truth of doctrine. But these are two separate issues. Doctrine is protected from error by the Spirit. The actions of popes and bishops in the course of world events can sometimes be sinful and are not protected from error by the Spirit.

    Does that clarify the issue?

  7. Thomas
    You have much more closely clarified many of these issues. Thanks
    The last one or point that escapes clarity in my mind, I will try and describe.

    Lets set up a mental flow chart that starts with a Pope. As you have stated a method of determining apostolic succession has been established.
    One would then assume that the person selected would be of sufficient spiritual character and theological intellect that the nuances of Christian character and the biblical concepts Christ demonstrated would be well known and hopefully practiced by this person.

    You have described a situation where a Pope can do terrible things and still have it accounted only as his personal sin and only minimally affect the church since his actions, (Inquisition, Crusades, destruction of fellow Catholics as in Knights Templar) were not doctrinal.

    It seems illogical that the person God selects to interpret and be THE final authority on his word could at the same time be so completely dull in regards to all the Christian standards he violated by these actions doesnt it?

    Wouldn't the person God chose to represent him on earth as the living Vicar of Christ be a vastly better person than those Popes we are currently considering?

    I would then venture to say that because of this, the interpitation of scripture by such worldly and coarse men would be no better than anyone elses. Even Samson who was given a special blessing for serving Gods purpose, had standards to meet or the gift was taken away right?

    Those Popes who displayed a complete lack of what we would call Christaian character....
    We could call into question their "authority" and their "accuracy" or interpeting scripture couldnt we? And since we can, cant we also start to wonder about apostolic succession being anything special since men of such low character interrupted or polluted the chain as it were?

    What do you think?

  8. Michael,
    I tried to answer as thoroughly as possible...sorry about the length.

    Michael: “One would then assume that the person selected [as pope] would be of sufficient spiritual character and theological intellect that the nuances of Christian character and the biblical concepts Christ demonstrated would be well known and hopefully practiced by this person.”
    Thomas: One would hope that would be the case. And for the most part it has been true. Unfortunately not all have been that way. There are a few very bad popes, but there were far more good popes, and that in itself is a surprise. One might think that after 2000 years the papacy would have collapsed under its own weight. I credit the Spirit’s protection that that has not happened. What other man-made institution today is nearly 2000 years old? The bad popes we have had did not destroy the Church or corrupt her doctrine…that in itself is a testament to the Spirit’s power.
    But more to your point…When God hand-selected David as king, one would assume he would have exemplified solid Jewish virtue and would have led his people by that example. When God chose Moses one would assume that he would remain ever faithful and never question God. One would assume that the whole Jewish people, having witnessed miracles and felt God’s presence in their very midst, would follow a more virtuous and faithful path. But the un-faithful actions of the Jews throughout the Old Testament are too numerous to mention here.
    The fact is that God chooses sinful and disobedient people to do His work. When God called Jonah, Jonah ran away from God and tried to avoid God’s work. But God tested Jonah in the belly of a whale. And Jonah emerged a better man, and more ready to serve God. If the Church suffers during certain periods of history, with men at the helm who are running away from God and avoiding God’s work, then perhaps the Church is being tested. Perhaps we spend some time in the belly of a whale, or exiled in Babylon, or in slavery in Egypt, and we emerge stronger and more equipped for God’s work.
    I will not deny that some popes have been corrupted and sinful. That is human nature. Men are corruptible and sinful. But God still uses them.

    Michael: “You have described a situation where a Pope can do terrible things and still have it accounted only as his personal sin and only minimally affect the church since his actions, (Inquisition, Crusades, destruction of fellow Catholics as in Knights Templar) were not doctrinal.”
    Thomas: No, the damage is not always “minimal” – it can have horrible repercussions. Corruption of the clergy lead to the Protestant Reformation. Instead of pointing out the sins of the popes and bishops and rescuing the doctrine from their evil ways, the Reformers reacted by throwing out the doctrine along with the sinners. This was not a “minimal” effect of the sin of the popes and bishops – this was a devastating effect on the Body of Christ. It divided Christians. I never said personal sins by bishops and popes are “minimal” – they can be far-reaching, and destructive.

    Michael: “It seems illogical that the person God selects to interpret and be THE final authority on his word could at the same time be so completely dull in regards to all the Christian standards he violated by these actions doesn’t it?”
    Thomas: Yes, it sure does. It can be a huge stumbling block. It certainly was difficult for the Reformers to swallow, and many Christians today reject the Catholic Church because of these sins of the past. I don’t blame you for questioning these things. It seems to fly in the face of what we think God ought to do with His Church.
    But our ways are not God’s ways. God chose men throughout the Old Testament that defied our human logic. They did not behave uprightly in everything they were called to do. Also in the New Testament, Jesus selected men who fled when He faced His moment of greatest agony, and one of them betrayed Him to His death. They even quarreled after the coming of the Holy Spirit - Peter and Paul seemed to be at odds on several occasions - and Paul himself first persecuted Christians before he became one of the greatest witnesses. People are sinful and unpredictable creatures. Yet God calls imperfect man to be His partner in spreading the gospel message.
    I cannot think of a single Christian denomination that is free of sinners. I cannot think of any Christian group that has been lead by “perfect” people. If that is what we are looking for then we can stop our search because it isn’t out there. If we reject doctrine because its teachers are sinners then there is no doctrine we can follow, because we are all sinners.

    Michael: “Wouldn't the person God chose to represent him on earth as the living Vicar of Christ be a vastly better person than those Popes we are currently considering?”
    Thomas: They ought to be. They were called to be. We are all called to be. But we all fall short. It is a fact of human nature. (Again I would point to Biblical figures called by God to represent Him and to do His work. Many of these fell short as examples of virtue. This is a common story throughout Scripture. Yet God called them. Who are we to question God’s judgment?)
    Who should we trust instead of the Catholic teachers? Martin Luther or Zwingli or Calvin or Ellen White? Are their churches the True Church? Do they teach true doctrine? These churches too have sinners and even have sinful leaders. But are they historically and doctrinally linked to the one Church that was founded by Christ? Are we looking at doctrine or are we pointing out sinful leaders?
    Who is capable of interpreting Scripture? Is it a matter of Church authority established by God…or is it based on virtuous living? If it is “virtue” that allows someone this authority, then what level of virtue are you calling for? What standard are you using? Mormons I have known to be very virtuous people…but I don’t trust their interpretations. It’s the doctrine we must examine – the sources, the history, its link to Apostolic times – virtue does not always lead to right teaching.

    Michael: “I would then venture to say that because of this, the interpretation of scripture by such worldly and coarse men would be no better than anyone elses.”
    Thomas: Can God choose sinful and disobedient men to do His work?
    The answer is YES. He did so many times in Scripture. So if a pope is a sinner it should not surprise us. God can guide us through the leadership of bad men. If the Church suffers from poor leadership, how is that any different from the plight of the ancient Jews who suffered under God-appointed kings and leaders, and yet remained God’s people? Should we doubt God’s faithfulness now?
    Do we throw out doctrine because a sinner leads the Church? Or do we accept the doctrine despite the sinners. Christ commanded obedience to the Pharisees while at the same time pointing out their own disobedience; it seems obvious then that personal sinfulness and lack of moral virtue are sometimes found in those whom God chooses to place in authority. A sinful pope does not mean that God did not choose him…it means that human nature remains weak. Jesus did not discount the teaching authority of those who “sit in Moses seat” – I will not discount the teaching authority of those who “sit in Peter’s chair.” The Bible shows clearly that God often commissioned less than worthy individuals to lead His people throughout the history of salvation.
    If the Biblical interpretations of those who lead the Church are more sound than my own it is not because they are more virtuous or because they do not sin…it is because God promised to protect the Church from teaching false doctrine. I trust God…not men…and certainly not my own self-righteous interpretations.

    So the question is: Did Christ establish His Church with this teaching authority as believed by Catholics? We know that God operated in this way in the Old Testament. The leaders described in Scripture were often corrupt and yet were ordained by God for His service. So do Catholics have it right when we insist on Apostolic Succession? Are God’s people led by men who are sometimes unworthy, but who share in a divine calling tracing itself back to the Apostles?
    This is an historical question which requires us to dig into the past and see whether the Catholic understanding of ordination and the succession of bishops is a true component of the early Church. It does not really have anything to do with the sins of popes or the corruption that has always been a part of human existence.


  9. Not that I want to add another layer of complexity to the issue, but...Looking at the history of the Bible itself may give us another angle on this. The Bible was not compiled into one book by itself. It took the work of many nameless souls, people who copied the texts, passed the books on to others, collected them together, and preserved them down through the generations. Some texts were early on included by a majority of churches in their list of sacred books. Others were more obscure and were even rejected by some local congregations. Some Christians rejected the whole Old Testament; some rejected parts of what we call the New Testament. Some books were accepted by some Christians as inspired, but did not make it into the Bible as we now know it. It was a long process and it took centuries to sort out, but eventually the Canon (the official list) of Scripture was complete.

    Now, you and I agree that the Bible is the Word of God. But God did not include an inspired “Table of Contents” for Scripture. Men had to be guided by the Spirit to select the right books to be included. Who were these men? We don’t know all of their names. We cannot judge their character; their virtue is not really the question. If we only trusted the Bible because it was compiled by virtuous men, then we can never answer the question of whether the Canon is reliable. We do not know all of these men and so we cannot know their virtue. The question is not the virtue of man, but whether we trust the product of their labors – the Bible! Do we trust that God can use man in this way?

    We cannot name all the people who compiled the list of Sacred Scripture. We can only point to a group of believers, a “church” that historically maintained that collection and passed it on faithfully. We do not rely on the Bible because of the virtue of the man who holds it in his hand, but because of the divine origin of the institution from which it came. God guided the formation of the Canon regardless of who the men were whom He used to complete the book. This was the work of the Church. And the Church comes from Christ.

    Likewise with Tradition and the Magisterium. Sinful men are used by God to do His work. I trust the Bible, and I trust Tradition, and I trust the Church, because I trust God.


  10. Thomas
    I want to thank you for answering my questions and I applaud your christianity and attitude.

    I agree also with many of your thoughts.

    Thank you for taking your time to very intelligently and kindly answer questions and provide your perspectives.
    You would no doubt be an excellent addition to any Christian denomination.
    Thanks again.

  11. Thank you, Michael.
    I appreciate the time you took to read my blog and to ask honest and probing questions about the Catholic faith. I hope I was able to clarify the Church's teaching on this issue.
    Feel free to visit any time and offer comments and questions in the future.
    You seem to be a decent and forthright Christian gentleman and I am honored and humbled that you sought answers about Catholicism from me. Good luck on your journey of faith. And God bless.

  12. A fine and interesting discussion!