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Scripture and Tradition

A.        The Roman Catholic Doctrine of Scripture

1.         The Extent of Scripture - What actually constitutes inspired Scripture, says Rome, is determined by the conciliar consensus of the church or by papal edict. Thus, the apocrypha was officially introduced into the canon by the Council of Trent in the mid-16th century. In addition to the 66 books of the Protestant canon, Rome includes:

Tobit, Judith, Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach, Baruch, 1 and 2 Maccabees.

2.         The Sufficiency of Scripture - Although acknowledging the Bible's inspiration, the RCC denied its sufficiency. Revelation, according to Rome, takes two forms: written (the Bible) and oral (tradition). The latter is an uninscripturated body of truth that has come to expression in the pronouncements of church councils and papal decrees. Bellarmine (1542-1621), noted Jesuit theologian, divided tradition into three classes: divine (those which Christ himself taught and deposited with his followers to be transmitted orally generation after generation), apostolic (those derived from the apostles, though not written), and ecclesiastical (conciliar and papal decrees accumulated through the centuries). In practical effect, Scripture is subordinate to tradition, as Ramm explains:

"Obscure and partial teaching of the Scripture is to be explained by the fuller teaching in the unwritten tradition of the Church. The Roman Catholic believes that he has two sources of revelation which mutually interpret each other. Scripture makes clear matters of the unwritten tradition, and unwritten tradition makes clear obscure matters in Scripture. Hence the Catholic scholar does not feel it necessary to find full teaching of all his doctrines in the Bible but allusions are sufficient (e.g., prayers for the dead, veneration for Mary, confession, the supremacy of Peter). The Catholic Church does not intend to limit itself entirely to the word of Scripture. Its source of revelation is the Deposit of Faith in an unwritten and written form. The unwritten tradition may then be used to fill out what is deficient in the written form (Scripture)" (Protestant Biblical Interpretation, 43-44).

Practically speaking, tradition becomes not simply the context within which Scripture is read but the standard by which Scripture is judged.

B.        The Roman Catholic Church on Tradition

Sacred tradition or apostolic tradition includes every aspect of divine revelation outside the Bible. It is no less binding on the conscience and conduct of Christians than is Scripture:

'The council [of Trent] follows the example of the orthodox Fathers and with the same sense of devotion and reverence with which it accepts and venerates all the books of both the Old and the New Testament, since one God is the author of both, it also accepts and venerates traditions concerned with faith and morals as having been received orally from Christ or inspired by the Holy Spirit and continuously preserved in the Catholic Church.'

'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' (CC, 82; emphasis mine).

Tradition functions primarily in three capacities. First, it provides revelatory truths not found in, but always consistent with, Scripture. Second, tradition safeguards Scripture by preserving the church's authoritative interpretation of the text. Third, tradition provides the church with a more complete development of truths only briefly mentioned in or implied by Scripture (such as Mary's immaculate conception and bodily assumption).

C.        The Magisterium

The Magisterium is the official teaching office of the Roman Catholic Church. It is composed of the bishops of the church in union with the pope:

'This teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously, and explaining it faithfully by divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit; it draws from this deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed' (Dei Verbum, 12).

Fundamental to Catholic belief is that the Holy Spirit enables the bishops and pope to recognize divine revelation (distinguishing it from the spurious), to define official dogmas of the church (which all are required to believe), and to interpret infallibly those truths/dogmas. This office of the church has 'the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of tradition' (Dei Verbum, 10).

Thus the Magisterium's task is 'to preserve God's people from deviations and defections and to guarantee them the objective possibility of professing the true faith without error. . . . To fulfill this service, Christ endowed the Church's shepherds with the charism of infallibility in matters of faith and morals' (CC, 890). The Magisterium exists to provide the faithful with an authentic interpretation of the text and tradition. 'This means that the task of interpretation has been entrusted [not to individual believers but] to the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome' (CC, 85).

It is Rome's intent that Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium function like three legs of one stool: in conjunction, mutually interdependent, none of which is able to stand independently of the other two.

C.        Rome on the issue of Continuous Revelation

See CC, 66-67.

D.        The Authority of Roman Catholic Church Documents

 

The Roman Catholic Church produces a variety of documents and decrees and official interpretations that often create confusion in terms of their authority. The following is a list of the most common documents with a brief explanation of their authority:

(1)       The most authoritative of all RC documents are apostolic constitutions and decrees issued by the pope. These documents are an expression of the magisterium or the official teaching office of the papacy and, as legislative documents, are binding on all catholics everywhere. Examples include:

Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent

Documents of the Second Vatican Council

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (a product of the apostolic constitution Fidei Depositum in 1992)

The Code of Canon Law (1983)

The papal decree on the Immaculate Conception of Mary in 1854 by Pope Pius IX

(2)       Papal encyclicals, teaching documents, apostolic letters and/or exhortations, and motu proprio (lit., 'by one's own initiative') documents that expound or explain existing law.

Encyclical (or encyclica epistola, lit., 'circular letter') - These are formal apostolic letters sent out by the pope to both clergy and laity. E.g., Humanae vitae, sent by Pope Paul VI, addressed the issue of birth control and other matters of human sexuality (1968).

Motu proprio - These are decrees or legislative documents issued by the pope at his own initiative rather than in response to a question that has been asked of him.

Apostolic letters (apostolica epistola) are not dogmatic definitions of church doctrine but are papal teaching documents designed to help the church understand points of doctrine that require additional explanation and application to the changing circumstances in society and culture. Apostolic exhortations likewise serve to provide papal reflection on particular topics and are generally addressed to bishops, clergy, and all the faithful of entire church. These are not legislative documents.

(3)       Often Congregations, with papal approval, will issue formal Instructions (instructio) that explain Council documents or decrees. An example of this would be the Instructions on the Implementation of the Council's Constitution on the Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium).

Included here are such documents as a Declaration (declamatio), which may be a simple statement of an already existing law; a Decree (decretum), which is a statement concerning church law, precepts, or judicial decisions on some specific matter (a decree often announces that a given document or legislative text is in effect); or a Promulgation (promulgatio) which is the process by which the lawmaker communicates the law and its effective date to those to whom the law has been given).

There are various other documents of the church such as those issued by a national conference of bishops (e.g., the recent declaration, or 'pastoral letter', by the U.S. conference of bishops on how they intended to handle the sexual abuse scandal). Such documents must be consistent with already existent church teaching and law. An individual bishop can issue a document that has authority within his own diocese.