Scripture, sacred tradition help lead us to salvation

Scripture, Sacred Tradition Help Lead Us to Salvation

By David Mills

“Excuse me,” wrote one person commenting on Kathleen Kennedy Townsend’s recent article in Newsweek, which we looked at last time, “where does it say in the New Testament that 1) artificial contraception is wrong; 2) priesthood is reserved to men; & 3) homosexual union is sinful?”

This is the indignant “excuse me,” not the polite one. It’s the one that means “Look, you clown, you know you’re wrong.”

Only it isn’t obvious the Catholic is wrong. Like many people who invoke the Bible in this way, the writer may not actually know it very well. The first chapter of St. Paul’s letter to the Romans clearly teaches the third. He even calls such unions the product of “degraded passions.”

And Protestants of the past — till about 1950 — almost universally believed that Scripture clearly teaches the first and second as well as the third. Many feminist scholars today insist that Scripture teaches the second, as part of their critique of “patriarchal” Christianity.

In other words, there are good answers to the question, and they come from all sides, but let it go. That is an argument for experts, who know the subject well enough to argue it out. What do the rest of us say when someone says of a Catholic doctrine, “Hey, that’s not in the Bible” and we can’t point to a verse which says just that?

Other popular objects of this charge are the Marian dogmas and Marian devotion in general, the papacy, the priesthood, confession, Purgatory, indulgences, and the Mass — pretty much anything distinctively Catholic. Most of the time you hear this from Protestants, but sometimes purely secular people trot it out, I think because Protestant assumptions so permeate our culture that the secularist thinks he is beating you on your own grounds.

You can tell them that Catholics understand the relation of tradition and Scripture differently. But in my experience, they look at you as if you’d just said “Pittsburghers see theft differently” while taking their credit cards and car keys. They think you’re cheating.

For some reason, some of my brightest Protestant friends just can’t understand the Catholic view. It’s not difficult. As the Second Vatican Council’s Dei Verbum puts it: “It is not from sacred Scripture alone that the Church draws her certainty about everything which has been revealed.” Scripture and Sacred Tradition both “flow from the same divine wellspring” and form “one sacred deposit of the word of God, committed to the Church.”

This leaves the challenge of knowing exactly what Scripture says and what the Tradition has passed on. The first is a diverse set of books that can easily be read to say all sorts of things (as history shows), the second an historical memory to which people can easily (as history also shows) add all sorts of things. Dei Verbum notes that “the task of authentically interpreting the Word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church.”

This seems very clear. The Church knows some things put down in writing and some things carried down to us in other ways, like liturgical practice. And she has a way to know what they — together — tell us.

Here the Church is not doing anything unusual. Any group with an authoritative text does this kind of thing, because the writers couldn’t possibly cover every issue that would come up.

Let me offer a parallel case that might help them hear you. The people who ask “Where is this in the Bible?” probably believe that the Constitution provides a “wall of separation” between church and state. (I know there are problems with this example — many people build the wall too high or in the wrong place — but it will do for our purposes.)

The Constitution doesn’t actually mention that “wall.” Article VI prevents religious tests for office and the first amendment prohibits Congress from establishing a religion, but that’s it. You might well ask, “Where is that in the Constitution?”

It isn’t there in so many words. So legislatures and courts have drawn out from the words of the Constitution what they think it means for this particular question. They have found in the Constitution unlabeled plans of the wall scattered here and there, and put the pieces together on their own.

They may well be wrong, but the example does show how normal and everyday is the Church’s way of reading of Scripture, and why we can’t always easily answer the question “Where is that in Scripture?” even when it is to found in Scripture, read carefully, if you take the time and care to read Scripture carefully enough.

David Mills is the author of Knowing the Real Jesus and Discovering Mary and writes a weblog for Patheos. He has served as the editor of Touchstone and executive editor of First Things. This column appeared in the Pittsburgh Catholic on October 12, 2009.