Saturday, February 25, 2006
Taking God At His Word (Part 1)
Taking God At His Word: Scripture's Role In Catholic Teaching
by Michael Barber
(In the following post I will begin a multi-part explanation of the Catholic understanding of the role of Scripture. My hope and my prayer for this essay is two-fold. First, that this essay will help clarrify for non-Catholic Christians what the role of Scripture is in Catholic teaching. Secondly, that this essay will help Catholics come to a deeper appreciation for God's Word.)
There I was in Rome in the spring of 2002. I was just arriving at a restaurant where I was about to have dinner with Dr. Scott Hahn and Fr. Thomas Williams, a professor at the Pontifical University of the Regina Apostolorum. I had to pinch myself. Could this get any better? Yes, in fact it could. This day was about to become one of the most memorable days of my life.
As we were walking into the restaurant Dr. Hahn told me, “Last time I was here I ran into Cardinal Ratzinger.” We opened up the front door and Dr. Hahn said, in the same breath, “…and there he is.” Sure enough, there was the future pope, sitting in the back of the restaurant in the middle of a large table. It looked kind of like a painting of the “Last Supper.” In a way it was just that, a “last supper.” He was there with the members of the congregation for the faith, who were celebrating the retirement of one of their colleagues.
Of course, I had been hoping to meet Cardinal Ratzinger. As a student at Franciscan University, I had a read most of his books available in English—some of them were required reading for classes. Suffice it to say, I was a fan. Furthermore, I had just finished his brand new book at the time, Many Religions, One Covenant. Incidentally, the Foreward for that book, was written by the man who sat to the left of me at dinner—Scott Hahn. I could hardly contain my excitement.
When dinner was over we had our chance to speak with him. He was very kind, a gentle and soft-spoken man. I told him that I was studying theology and planned to teach and write after earning my doctorate in theology. He asked me what my specific focus was. I said, “Biblical Theology.” He said, “That’s a very important area.” He went on to tell me how important it was for Catholics to pursue Scripture study—to allow the Bible to be, in the words of Vatican II, “the soul of sacred theology” (Dei Verbum, 24). After our brief conversation he signed my copy of his new book and gave us his blessing. I will never forget that day.
That They All May Be One
One thing Pope Benedict has made very clear in his first few addresses as Holy Father is his desire to bring about the unity of Christians. But, with the myriad of denominations, can there really be a re-unification of Christians? Pope Benedict believes so. He has continually affirmed his desire for true dialogue between Catholics and non-Catholic Christians. In fact, the Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that dialogue between Christians is absolutely necessary (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 285).
First and foremost, in order for there to be real discussion with other Christians, Catholics themselves have to know exactly what the Church teaches. Dialogue doesn’t mean we simply pretend there are no differences between Catholics and non-Catholic Christians! Yet, despite these differences it is important emphasize the great deal we share in common. As a Catholic who has studied at two Protestant institutions (Azusa Pacific University and Fuller), I have learned the following: most of the problems non-Catholic Christians have with Catholicism stem from the fact that they have never really heard what Catholics believe.
Technically, “Protestants” are those who “protest”—but what exactly are they protesting? Historically, the answer is the Catholic faith. However, I truly believe that much of what most “Protestants” believe they are “protesting” isn’t truly Catholic teaching at all. I believe Fulton Sheen was correct when he said, “It would be hard to find 100 people in the world who hate the Catholic Church, but there are many thousands who hate what they ‘think’ is the Catholic Church.” We will get to some examples later.
Why they misunderstand Catholic beliefs is clearly a complicated issue. Part of it has to do with the fact that some of them learned about Catholicism from teachers who were severely anti-Catholic. A much bigger part of the problem is the sad fact that Catholics themselves often reinforce false impressions about the Church’s teaching. Here is not the place for that discussion. Suffice it to say, Catholicism is oftentimes not what most non-Catholics think it is.
Happily, thanks to John Paul II, we now have the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It’s easier to find out what the Church officially teaches than ever before. The Catechism sums up the teachings of all the Councils and Magisterial documents written over the Church’s history. What do Catholics believe?—look in the Catechism. If there’s a question about what Catholics really affirm, now people don’t have to take some theologian’s word for it. They can get it straight “from the horse’s mouth.”
Going by the Book
Of course, we could write volumes about the various ways Catholic teachings have been misrepresented to non-Catholics. Here I want to focus on what Pope Benedict has often addressed: the Church’s understanding of Scripture.
Non-Catholic Christians often have the mistaken impression that the Catholic faith has little room for Scripture. Whereas the Protestant tradition honors the Bible, Catholicism, it is believed, relegates it to a position of lesser importance. It is often asserted, “Catholics have Tradition, Protestants have the Bible.”
Of course, this is a totally false representation of the Catholic faith. Quoting Vatican II, the Catechsim explains, “The Church has always venerated the divine Scriptures as she venerated the Body of the Lord” (CCC 140; Dei Verbum 21). The false notions many non-Catholics have about the role of Scripture in Catholic teaching is a perfect example of the misunderstanding that abounds. Far from denigrating the role of Scripture, the Church, as we shall see, has a very high view of the Bible.
Catholics, like most non-Catholic Christians, recognize that Scripture is “inspired” by the Holy Spirit. In fact, the Church teaches that only Scripture is inspired—not the pope, not tradition, only the Bible. Of course, we also believe that the Spirit is also at work in the Church’s Living Tradition and the Church’s teaching authority (the “Magisterium”). Nevertheless, though they are authoritative and guided by the Spirit, they are not called “inspired.” In the Catholic faith, that term is reserved for Scripture alone.
This requires a careful explanation. (Read Part 2...)