A Tradition of Authority: Why Catholic Arguments Were Convincing to Me, and Not Merely a Cure for Exegetical Paralysis

This is a bit heavier than my usual posts here, but it answers an important question that Protestant apologists have posed to me and other Catholic converts: Was I only drawn to the Catholic Church because its claims to authority offered an “easy out” to the difficulties of weighing Scripture and doctrine for myself?

Paralysis

A Catalogue of Sects

A Catalogue of the Severall Sects and Opinions in England and other Nations: With a briefe Rehearsall of their false and dangerous Tenents. Broadsheet. 1647.

I’ve been accused before, and I readily admit that it’s true, that as a Protestant, I never had a very thoroughgoing commitment to Protestant theological principles. It was not for lack of trying: for a number of years I had studied theology, prayed, and pored over the Scriptures in an earnest attempt to arrive at some apprehension of the truth. But no Protestant theology, despite the ardent, sometimes vehement assertions of each’s adherents, had a firm enough foundation to convince me. Each was based in subjective interpretations of the Scriptures that lacked either the context or the clarity to convey everything their doctrines demanded of them. Each’s interpretation conflicted with every other, and yet was based in the very same texts; and each had no greater claim to being the correct and sole interpretation of those texts than the rest. I had not the knowledge or the faculty to sort it all out, and even if I had, any conclusion I reached would be, I realized, my own subjective conclusion, based only on my own interpretation and whosever opinion happened to sway me at that time. I realized the inherent weakness, instability, and insufficiency of this position. Though I would never have articulated it this way then, it was clear that Scripture by itself could not teach me everything I needed to know about God and His salvation.

So as a Protestant, I resigned myself to uncertainty, to never being sure exactly what Scripture was trying to teach; to never knowing, in the sea of competing and conflicting doctrines, which ones were the true ones. Since I could not discern, from Scripture, the truth or falsehood of every doctrine and theology, I was lulled into a sense of complacency, what I called a thoroughgoing ecumenism: if I could discern no school of theology to be absolutely true, then each of them must be more or less acceptable and worthy of consideration. On one hand, I am glad for this: it made me tolerant and accepting of a wide diversity of Christian brothers and sisters, and open-minded enough to listen to and consider what they have to say. It was an open-mindedness that eventually made me willing to examine the Catholic Church and finally found welcome in her walls. It troubled me, and still does, the Protestants who could assume a stance of enough certainty to condemn and judge the doctrines of other believers, based on so unsteady a foundation as I perceived theirs to be. On the other hand, this ecumenism eventually reached a point of doctrinal relativism, agnosticism, or universalism: that not only could we not know the truth of doctrine, but that it didn’t really matter and that God loved and accepted us all anyway.

A Protestant apologist recently referred to this as the “paralysis” of the Protestant mind; apparently it is common enough to have its own name. This apologist also suggested, as I have heard other Protestant apologists charge against other Catholic converts, that the Catholic Church was attractive to me simply because it offered a way to break this “logjam”: that I accepted the Church’s claims only because they asserted a singular authority, because the Church could dictate the answer rather than leave me to muddle it out on my own, and not because there was anything compelling or convincing about the claims of themselves: in short, that the singular, magisterial authority of the Catholic Church was a crutch, an escape, a deus ex machina, an easy out of the Protestant conundrum of having to reason through the Scriptures.

There are several answers I’d like to make to this charge.

I resisted until I couldn’t

no

First, I wasn’t looking for such a crutch. I was well aware of the position of the Catholic Church in claiming to be the only authoritative interpreter of Scripture for years before I ever considered Catholicism — and rather than being an attractive prospect, it horrifed me more than almost anything else I knew about the Church. It seemed the perfect setup for the many doctrinal abuses I had heard about and believed existed in Catholicism: if the Church can dictate that some thing in Scripture means something different than what it says, and that doctrines don’t even have to have a biblical basis at all, then she can teach her followers anything, no matter how contrary to reason and truth, and compel them to accept and believe it. (Of course, these are all mischaracterizations of what the Church teaches.) As an academic, I cared about and was convinced by reason and evidence, and was suspicious of claims without solid factual foundation. The Catholic teaching authority, as I understood it, was a proposition that I strongly and vehemently resisted, not one that I readily embraced as a savior.

“Authority” in a Different Sense

http://www.e-codices.unifr.ch/en/bnf/lat11641/6v/0/Sequence-204

Leaf from a manuscript of Augustine at the Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris, dated c. 7th–8th century (e-codices.unifr.ch).

Once I examined her in earnest, the Catholic Church won me over, against my expectations or inclinations, because her arguments were compelling: not merely because they claimed to be authoritative, but because they were based on actual authority, on an authentic, continuous, and documented tradition of authoritative testimony. Protestants tend to think of “authority” only in terms of divine authority, the absolute, unquestionable authority of God, which they find solely in Scripture. In this regard — even if they acknowledge that Jesus granted authority to His Apostles — they find no essential connection between that authority and the Church, and so presume that the claims of the Catholic Church to be “authoritative” are based only on bald assertion. But to me as an historian, “authority” also has another meaning: the authority of support for a claim or argument. And rather than bald assertions or empty, unsupported claims, as I had been led to believe the Catholic Church stood on, I found, for every substantive point of Catholic doctrine, well-articulated, well-defined, and well-supported arguments based in a rich, academic, scholarly tradition and founded on a continuous and consistent corpus of authoritative documents and teachings spanning twenty centuries.

The Catholic Sense of Scripture

Monk at work in scriptorium

In most everyday matters, it is precisely this latter understanding of authority that is the substance of Catholic teaching, and not the sort of dictatorial pronouncements that Protestants presume. For example, Protestants commonly understand that the Catholic Church must dictate to the believer how to interpret every jot and tittle of every passage of Scripture, such that believers cannot read and interpret Scripture for themselves. But the truth is that the Church has given authoritative teachings on only a very small portion of the whole corpus of Scripture. The sense of the Catholic understanding of Scripture subsists not only in such pronouncements, but in the exegetical tradition of Church Fathers, bishops, teachers and theologians, whose mind and understanding is faithfully passed down and preserved in the Church — whose teaching is authoritative by its own merit, because of their great learning and holiness and their nearness in history to Christ’s revelation. Though not having divine authority on its own, this is more authoritative by bounds than the subjective, substantially unsupported interpretations of Protestants.* In exactly the same way, I accept the writings of past historians as having great knowledge and insight, as being authorities into their subject matter.†

* There are some Protestants, especially the great theologians, who do seek to support their exegetical arguments with appeals to the authority of the Church Fathers; but generally, I find, they do this selectively and unevenly, accepting a Father’s argument where it suits them but ignoring him where it does not, and looking to the Fathers only as a last recourse, designed to support their own subjective interpretation, and not as a primary means to discerning the meaning of the Scriptures in the first place.

† Of course, some historians are simply wrong; and Church Fathers can also be wrong. Here the consensus of the Church, the opinions of other Fathers and teachers and theologians, is important. If the consensus of later writers is that Augustine was a great and orthodox teacher, then that is the reputation and the authority he enjoys. If the consensus is that Tertullian strayed off track in his later life and expressed some opinions that are not in agreement with the Church’s teachings, then we read those opinions of Tertullian as dissenting and sometimes heterodox arguments. Nevertheless, because of his position in time, so close to the Apostles themselves, Tertullian’s authority as an historical witness to the doctrines believed and taught in his time is absolute.

Teaching from the Deposit of Faith

Burglechner, The Council of Trent

Matthias Burglechner, The Council of Trent, 16th century (Wikimedia Commons).

This is the raw material: Scripture and the generations of holy men and women who taught, prayed, and commented on it, preserving and passing on the teachings they had received, the inheritance of the faith delivered once unto the saints, and with it the teaching of Christ and the Apostles themselves. When the Catholic Church does make official pronouncements of doctrine — whether from a council of bishops or pastorally from the pope — these teachings are not invented from nothing, but are drawn from, based on, and supported by this raw material. Especially when the meaning of Scripture and doctrine is not completely clear from the sources themselves, and when there is uncertainty or dispute, it is the role of the Church’s Magisterium, her teaching authority, to weigh the body of evidence and discern the truth from it. Even then, the conclusion is not arbitrary: the Magisterium cannot declare something contrary to the evidence, contrary to Scripture or to the orthodox teachers of the faith; she cannot declare a circle square, or dictate something that revelation has not itself revealed, or compel her faithful to believe something not already contained in the deposit of faith. The Church teaches what she has received (1 Timothy 4:11): not anything more and not anything less.

A Well-Built Building

pyramid

Catholics believe that in such teachings, the Holy Spirit guides the Church into all truth (John 16:13) — and this is a simple matter to believe, because they are evidenced by the constant and unchanging course of that guidance, and founded in reasonable and well-supported arguments from authority. For example: the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the epitome of Catholic doctrine, is not a book of empty assertions, but bases its every sentence on several thousand citations to authority in Scripture, the Church Fathers, councils and popes. Every one of these citations can be followed to find the origin and basis of the Church’s teaching, like a well-built building, every element borne up by the support of another, until it reaches the ground of absolute authority in Christ’s revelation itself. Even the declarations of the most controversial doctrines to those outside the Church, such as the dogma of the Assumption of Mary in Pope Pius XII’s 1950 Apostolic Constitution Munificentissimus Deus, rest not on bald assertion or any empty claim to papal privilege or authority, but on carefully constructed and well-reasoned arguments from the tradition of received authority.

Thus, the charge that I was drawn to the Catholic Church solely because her claims to authority were a cure for my exegetical paralysis, a crutch and an escape from having to discern and decide for myself, is completely false. The Catholic Church did cure my exegetical paralysis, but I was not seeking and did not believe there could be a cure: I was taken by surprise, and thoroughly convinced, by something I was not expecting at all, something I never imagined could exist: a Christian body who based its arguments not on subjective interpretations of Scripture, not on concepts and constructs of theology with no other basis than such interpretations, not on vitriolic polemics against other sects — but on the very concepts of authority, evidence, and tradition I had been taught to embrace and accept as an academic; on a sturdy and unshakeable foundation of such authority reaching back through the ages to the Apostles themselves, evincing and confirming the origin of all authority, Christ Himself.

The signposts converge

The next chapter in my conversion story, and the continuation of my post about the first time I went to Mass in Oxford, Mississippi.

Roma signposts

All roads lead to Rome. [Source]

So I checked the Catholic Church in Oxford off my list. Before I even moved to Oxford, I had made an informal list of churches I wanted to visit. It included, as I recall, Baptist churches, Methodist churches, Presbyterian, Lutheran, and various other Evangelical churches (it had not actually included the Catholic church). I wanted finding a church to be a new experience and adventure, to finally find where I was supposed to be in the Body of Christ.

Alas, I was big on planning but short on fortitude. I was never able to show up alone to an entirely new church where I didn’t think I knew anyone. I visited the big United Methodist church in town several times with a couple of fellow teaching assistants, but I never felt like I belonged there. As the pressures and demands of grad school set in, I gave up, and within a couple of months, I was not going to church at all.

The first semester of grad school went very well; but the second semester got off to a very rocky start. I was struggling with loneliness, depression, and anxiety. I felt completely disconnected from people, more at odds with my classmates and professors than cooperative. I had no friends, I frequently thought. I had run into Audrey a couple of times at lectures, and she was just as friendly as she was when we met the first time, and though each time we promised to meet for coffee, nothing came of it.

I was washing out and I knew it. My classwork was suffering. I spent most of my time alone at my apartment. I went to bed each night with the overwhelming feeling of sinking. So I can only describe what happened next, something so personal that I’ve only told one or two others, as an act of God’s intervention. What I know is that this is not something I did, planned, or even expected at all.

Waking up

Roma sunrise

Sunrise over the Vatican. [Source]

I had a dream, about Audrey — about a friendship that was supposed to be. The dream was nothing at all romantic — she’s now married, and was very much taken even then — but it was real and personal and intense. I woke up feeling more hopeful than I had in a long time, and longing for that connection.

It was Saturday morning when I woke up from the dream, and suddenly, I felt an overwhelming urge to go to the library. I couldn’t explain it or why it was so important, but I felt that it was what I was supposed to do, like my life depended on it.

I was heading up to my study carrel, my hidden perch in the rafters of the library where I would withdraw and see no one else, when I almost ran into Audrey on the third floor landing. We stopped and talked. I remember being shushed (it is the quiet study floor), so we probably only spoke for a few moments. We talked about church — she must have brought it up, because I don’t think I would have.

She asked me where I was going to church, and I told her nowhere, and she said I should come with her sometime. I don’t think I mentioned my previous visit to St. John’s, but I started to rattle off my rehearsed list of Catholic objections: “I don’t like how the Catholic Church insists on interpreting Scripture for believers.” What Audrey said next was simple, but it made perfect sense, and I felt my objection crumbling: “It’s like authority for a historian.”

I’ve written about this conversation and this matter before, and I plan to write still more as I examine how I grappled with sola scriptura in my final approach to the Church. But the most important part of this meeting: she invited me to church, and I accepted; not the next day, I don’t think, but the Sunday after that.

Coming inside

St. John the Evangelist, Oxford, nave

The nave of St. John the Evangelist Church in Oxford. [Source]

The second time I attended Mass at St. John’s was an entirely different experience than the first. The first time I was frightened and unsure, a foreigner on the outside looking in to something foreign. This time I had been invited inside. Just that simple change — knowing that I knew somebody; knowing that somebody wanted me to be there; that I wasn’t a foreigner, but a welcome guest — made all the difference in the world.

I was taken aback by things I hadn’t noticed before. For one thing, this was the early Mass, on a typical Sunday (as opposed to the later Mass on an overcrowded Sunday I had witnessed before); and I got there early. People were quiet, reverent in the church, not socializing and carrying on, but kneeling and praying. I had never seen that sort of reverence before in church, except perhaps in Rome. Audrey had her magazine, the Magnificat, which had the prayers and readings from the Mass as well as reflections and stories about the saints. I was intrigued, and caught myself asking her about it in a normal tone of voice, not realizing that she wanted to pray and that I should be quiet.

From the very beginning of Mass, I think I was captured. The liturgical singing was according to traditional chant forms — I only knew that it sounded very ancient. As the cantor sang the closing, descending strains of Kyrie eleison, I imagined that what I was participating in reached back through the ages to the worship of the Apostles themselves.

[youtube https://youtu.be/Gzqnqan7r8w]

It was the same priest as before, the one I had thought was “goofy,” but somehow he didn’t seem that way at all this time. The difference, I think, was me: this time I was not there to be served but to earnestly seek. The people, the liturgy, the experience all seemed so much realer.

A Presence

Holy Eucharist elevation

The elevation of the Eucharist at the consecration. [Source]

When it came time for the Liturgy of the Eucharist, especially the consecration, I was overcome with an awe I can’t explain. I surely understood what Catholics believe about the Lord’s Supper, about Jesus’s Real Presence, and I had even entertained the thought in Protestant services; but I cannot say I was anywhere close to accepting it before that point. But in that moment, something came over me; I sensed something profound happening at the altar. It was more powerful, more immediate, more earthshaking than all the times in my youth I spoke of feeling the presence of God in the Holy Spirit; all the times I laughed or danced or was “slain in the Spirit.” It was not a fire, or a wind, or an ecstasy, but simply an overpowering presence. “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you,” I said (as the liturgy of the Mass at that time read). Not only that, but I felt singularly unworthy to even gaze upon this mystery. “But only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” I lowered my head and shielded my eyes, and did not look up again until we rose for the Lord’s Prayer.

For the longest time, I thought that what I was looking for more than anything in a church was community, fellowship with people like me with whom I could relate and share. That wasn’t what I immediately found in the Catholic Church: it was slow meeting people, and it was far from the social atmosphere I had envisioned. But then one day after I had been attending Mass for several weeks, as I was speaking the words of the Memorial Acclamation, I was again overcome by a feeling: I was not alone. More profoundly than I had ever felt it, I felt connected — not only with the couple of hundred people in that room, but with countless others whose presence I could only sense, not only connected by space throughout the world, but by time through all the ages: I was there, together with all the Christians who had ever lived, at the altar of the Lamb. It was still more than a year before I could partake in the Eucharist with the Church, but even in that moment, I felt the truth of true communion with the Lord and with His Body, the Church, in the Blessed Sacrament: the communion of saints.

I was falling in love with the Mass, both the visible and the invisible. I realized with a painful start that I had been wrong about the Catholic Church all those years, all the times that I presumed that it was “dead in religion,” bound up with empty ritual without any meaningful relationship to Christ. It was not the end of my journey to the Church, not by far, and there is still much to tell and share, how I dealt with doctrine and doubt. But this marks the beginning of the end: the day when I was finally confronted with, and brought to accept, the reality of where the Lord had been leading me for so many years. This was the destination of all my wanderings: my musical romance; my journeys with history; my long approach to Rome; my pilgrimage to the Eternal City itself; and every other landmark. All the signposts pointed here, I soon realized, with a gravity, finality, and not a little fear.