The Roman Catholic Controversy: Tradition and the Magisterium

The Roman Catholic Controversy

This sixth post in my series on James R. White’s The Roman Catholic Controversy. I am really getting bogged down with this. White’s chapters aren’t getting longer, but my responses to them are. I reckon his accusations are growing more and more onerous and his tone more and more condemning, and I feel there is a lot more that needs to be answered. My response to this chapter, “The Thousand Traditions,” is expanding to monumental proportions; so I’ve decided to split it up into segments. I regret that anyone who reads this chapter will not have my full review in one succinct piece; but I am sure my readers will be thankful that I don’t dump the whole tome on you at once.

In this chapter, “The Thousand Traditions,” White seeks to undermine the Catholic concepts of Sacred Tradition and doctrinal development. As he has throughout the book, White continues to demonstrate a lack of understanding of basic Catholic positions. He attempts to equate the undeniable doctrinal confusion among the diverse Protestant sects with differences of theological opinion among orthodox Catholics regarding the origin and function of Tradition. In comparison to the many interpretations that result from sola scriptura, according to White, “statements of Rome are not only equally as liable to various interpretations, but often more liable.” “Even on the issue of tradition itself,” White argues, “there are a thousand ‘traditions,’ a thousand different ways of understanding the ‘final’ word on the matter.” White in fact discusses two positions, neither of which has any bearing on the interpretation or finality of the Magisterium’s rulings. [I will get to these in the next post, hopefully.]

Tradition and the Magisterium

White continues to struggle with a basic definition of Tradition. He believes, as he argued in previous chapters, that “tradition” is something nebulous and undefined, until it is defined by the Church itself. In examining the Church’s claims that both Scripture and Tradition are necessary for the authentic interpretation of the Word of God, White charges that “not only is Rome claiming the exclusive right of interpretation of the Scriptures but the exclusive right of both definition and interpretation of tradition.” White asserts that Tradition is effectively whatever the Church says it is. “When we ask to see the contents of tradition, we have to depend upon the veracity of the same Church that bases her doctrines . . . on those very traditions!” White once again accuses the Church of “circular reasoning” in its claims to authority. “Because Rome defines tradition itself, you have ‘Scripture and Church,’ not ‘Scripture and tradition.’”

The Church does not define tradition. The Church receives tradition. Tradition is not something vague and nebulous, but something real and substantial. Tradition is the entire body of knowledge that has been passed down through all the ages of the Church. It subsists in the writings of the Fathers, thinkers, theologians; music, hymnody, and liturgy; monuments and inscriptions; art and architecture — documents of all kinds; whatever exists that sheds light on that which has been passed down by Christians before. These documents are visible, tangible, and accessible, not just to the elite circle of the Magisterium, but to anyone who seeks them. Increasingly, the documents that define the Tradition on which Catholic dogma rests are published and available online.

What the Church does is select and interpret tradition. Out of this vast body of received tradition, the Magisterium chooses out the elements that are relevant and applicable to the questions of faith that are being asked, and interprets what they mean. White charges that “Rome has a ‘supreme rule of faith’”  that “does not exist outside of her own realm of authority” — that “the Roman Catholic Church defines and interprets the rule as she sees fit.” The Church’s rule of faith is Scripture and Tradition, read and interpreted by the Magisterium. Scripture and Tradition are received, immutable, and eminently authoritative in and of themselves. (White charges also that since the Church defines the canon of Scripture, the Catholic Church nullifies the authority of Scripture, since it can effectively pick and choose what it wants. This is a preposterous claim, since the canon of Scripture is itself immutable and has existed unchanged since the Church defined it originally.) The interpretations of the Magisterium are defined and limited by the truths that Scripture and Tradition reveal: it cannot create, produce, define, or present what isn’t there.

But by the act of selecting the elements of tradition that are relevant, isn’t the Church “defining” tradition? Can’t the Church pick and choose only what supports the conclusions it wants to arrive at? In theory, it could — but it would be guilty of dishonesty and deception. And since the entire body of tradition is open for all eyes to see, its dishonesty and deception would be transparent and self-evident. If the Magisterium arbitrarily ignored or dismissed conflicting evidence without cause (some conflicting evidence is in fact dismissed with cause — for example, the Gnostic gospels), then any observer or critic would have ample ammunition to attack the Magisterium’s decisions.

There is a clear analogy between the work of the Magisterium and the work of a scholar — for in fact the principles which guide the modern Magisterium are scholastic principles, invented by the Church and only borrowed by secular scholars. Let us suppose an historian, since I am most familiar with that discipline. Just as an historian chooses the sources from the body of accumulated knowledge with which to build an argument, the Church chooses sources from tradition on which to base dogma. The Church is no guiltier of “defining” tradition than the scholar is of “defining” history. The historian meticulously documents his sources, giving the reader the trail by which to check his sources and verify that his arguments are correctly founded and reasoned. If he has built a specious or poorly founded argument, his peers and critics will recognize it. Likewise, the Magisterium meticulously documents the sources of its dogma, and even publishes them and makes them freely available, so that anyone can follow the trail of its arguments and verify that they are well founded. Rather than being opaque, nebulous, and esoteric, the Tradition of the Church is eminently transparent, solid, and public.

White charges that “Rome loudly proclaims her fidelity to the Scriptures and insists that the Church is subject to the Scriptures” while actually “[making] statements that plainly elevate her own Magisterium to the highest position of authority.” White fails to present these “plain” statements. In fact, the Magisterium is subject to and bound by what Scripture and Tradition reveal; its authority is only as interpreter, arbiter, teacher, and servant, to read Scripture and Tradition and discern the truth that it reveals. It can neither promulgate truth not revealed by Scripture and Tradition nor contradict that truth.

White complains that in the Catechism (CCC 83), “Tradition is to be distinguished from the various theological, disciplinary, liturgical or devotional traditions, born in the local churches over time,” and that these “lesser” traditions “can be retained, modified or even abandoned under the guidance of the Church’s Magisterium.” He argues that the Magisterium is free to dismiss what it doesn’t wish to be authoritative as not “real” tradition. But there is a clear, qualitative difference that White fails to grasp between these local traditions — for example, the Benedictine tradition or Franciscan tradition — and the Tradition that binds the entire Church.

White believes that the Catholic Church claims “no one else can properly interpret [the] Scriptures” — but in fact the claim is that only the Magisterium can interpret the Scriptures properly and with binding authority. The Church encourages exegetes and theologians to study Scripture and interpret it to the full extent of their ability. Their judgment informs and supports the Magisterium. Because the Church also claims to be “the sole guardian of ‘Sacred Tradition,’” White argues, there are “no external checks and balances . . . that could correct her should she err.” Of course, the very idea of an ultimate authority precludes the notion of “checks and balances.” But the Church believes the Magisterium does not err. We are taught that the Holy Spirit will guide the Church into all truth (John 16:13). Practically, the possibility of error is limited by the necessity of consensus among all the assembled bishops for an authoritative ruling.

In the end, White insists “that the Magisterium, by its own teachings, cannot logically maintain that it is a servant of the Word of God.” The only logical position it can take, he claims, is that of “‘overseer’ of the Sacred Scriptures, a position that demands a superior authority than that vested in the Bible itself.” White’s logic is flawed. How does the claim of the Magisterium to have authority in interpreting Scripture require that it be a “superior” authority over Scripture, any more than the individual, sola scriptura believer’s claim to have authority in interpreting Scripture require him to be a “superior” authority? In both cases, a party is exercising informed judgment to interpret Scripture. In both cases, Scripture has the superior authority, and the interpreter is bound and subject to the words and truths it contains.

White charges that the Church’s claim to “only [be] teaching what has been handed to her” is patently false. Suggesting such doctrines as the Immaculate Conception, the Assumption of Mary, and Papal Infallibility, he intends to demonstrate that this claim is false, and that “such doctrines were not ‘handed on’ by the Apostles, and . . . were unknown to the early Christians.” “It is obvious” (emphasis mine), “that Rome has drawn from traditions that are not Apostolic.” White offers no such evidence of these claims here — in fact, it is not “obvious” at all. Later in the chapter he addresses Catholic epistemology and doctrines of theological development; it will be more expedient for me to address these claims there.

12 thoughts on “The Roman Catholic Controversy: Tradition and the Magisterium

  1. I’ve been having an.. um.. “interesting” argument with someone on, of all places, YouTube, some of which has to do with the infallibility of the church and where Jesus says that the Holy Spirit will guide the church; specifically, in the interpretation of the idea. But I was reminded of your experience with people who yell at you about what you write. Most of this person’s responses have been I PROVED I AM RIGHT THE BIBLE SAYS SO I WIN WHY WOULD YOU EVER WANT TO BE ANYTHING BUT CATHOLIC YOU’RE WRONG WRONG WRONG. He has gross misconceptions about Protestantism, Lutheranism, the five “solas”, and I suspect his own church. It’s been… interesting.

    • This is exactly why I never comment on YouTube videos or news articles. 🙂 Public comment threads bring out the strangest, most ignorant, most crackpot elements of every population. And some people just like to argue. Either a Catholic is smugly self-assured because he has an absolute authority, or a Protestant is smugly self-assured because Scripture is a house full of all kinds of handy tools and weapons to jab and block and parry. I get into most of my exasperating arguments commenting on other people’s blogs. Maybe I should just steer clear…

    • And I think the issue of sola scriptura versus Scripture and Tradition is so fundamental that neither most Protestants nor most Catholics can see far enough past it to really communicate.

  2. I think White gets more desperate in order to escape the conclusions to which he would otherwise have to come – and that is where you lead us in a rally splendid post. I shall look forward to the rest.

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