Monday, February 8, 2010

Tradition and Scripture

Last night I received the following e-mail from William in Dallas. He kindly gave his consent to my publishing it here, along with my reply.

Good Evening,

My name is william and i am not catholic but i do subscribe to the newsletter "Queering the Church" and this is where i found out about you.

I would like to ask you a question as a catholic man and please do understand i am not singling the catholic church out by any means.

I have wondered why after reading the post on Queering the Church about tradition and how many in Rome and in leadership positions within the catholic church seem to hold tradition with the same reverence as the word of God? Please understand that most if not all protestant churches including the one i am a member of are guilty of the same thing. Surprisingly our sunday school lesson was on this very subject with reference to Mark 7:6-8. Where the pharisees had confused and made the commandments of man more important than the commandments of God. I do know that all churches and all denominations have traditions but at least to me the catholic church is the most visible of churches that hold onto and follow traditions. I guess my question is two fold. Why do catholics put so much emphasis on all the liturgy and traditions of the church and little or no emphasis on the word of God? This question also could be used of protestant churches as well. And how has man in general been able to completely miss the true message of God and teach a message of man and calls it God's message?

I am a gay christian man and a member of a protestant gay church in Dallas. Those like me would not be welcomed into most conservative christian churches today and yet God's message of love is to all people without regard to their orientation, language, nationality, social standing,etc.

How and why did we all mess things up so bad?


Here is my reply:

Dear William:

Thank you very much for your e-mail (It’s the first one I’ve received from anyone reading my blog.) Your question is an interesting and valuable one. But first a huge disclaimer: I am in no way a qualified theologian or expert on scripture. I am just a guy who decided to go back to the Catholic Church after a very long time and who has since that return thought and read and written about the experience. I hope that my blog does not give the impression that I actually know what I am talking about.

Having said that, I offer two propositions in answer to your question. The first is quite simple: I think that there is a huge range of opinion out there about Revelation, so it is likely that no two answers to your question are going to be the same.

The second is somewhat more complex.

In our local diocesan newspaper, a parish priest writes a regular column on the scripture readings for the week. A recent column touches directly upon your question. Here is what he says:

“Accordingly, ‘the Church does not draw her certainty about all revealed truths from holy Scriptures alone’, says the Catechism of the Catholic Church, quoting Vatican IIs Dei Verbum (The Word of God). She relies on Sacred Tradition: the ‘living transmission’ of God’s word by the apostles and their successors, a process demonstrated in the New Testament accounts themselves.

“The content of Sacred Tradition is what was ‘handed on’ (in Latin, ‘traditum’) by the preaching of the apostles, their example, and the institutions they established, even before anything was written down.

“Indeed, the criterion of the Church used in deciding what writings to include in the Bible was their agreement with the content of Sacred Tradition. (The canon, or catalogue, of the inspired books to be included in Sacred Scripture was not formally drawn up until 382 AD, at the Council of Rome.)

“The Catechism says that the Holy Spirit entrusted the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, both written and oral, to the Church, that is, the bishops in communion with the pope.

“It is this Church, founded by Christ on Peter, as on a rock, which Christ promised to guard from error: not the Bible, except insofar as the Bible would be backed by the Church’s Christ-given authority to teach. We call this authority her ‘magisterium’, from the Latin ‘magister’, meaning ‘teacher.’”

The priest goes on to instruct his readers on how to read the Bible, in light of the above information. There are some problems with the idea of Tradition and where it comes from, just as there have always been questions about the interpretation of Scripture. I have quoted Hans Küng quite a bit in my blog as he is a highly respected theologian and as he was a major figure in the formulation of Vatican II documents. In his The Catholic Church: A Short History, he says, of Peter: “But today even Catholic exegetes accept that the famous saying about Peter as the rock on which Jesus will build his church (Matthew 16:18-19; the statement is in the future tense)—of which the other gospels know nothing—is not a saying of the earthly Jesus but was composed after Easter by the Palestinian community, or later by Matthew’s community.”

We also learn from Küng that the councils of the fourth century, including Nicaea, were as much political as they were religious. I do not know of the Council of Rome, but the Second Ecumenical Council in 381, at Constantinople, which was at the time the centre of political power as well as of Church authority, was convened by the emperor Theodosius the Great. Here is what Küng has to say about Theodosius: “…a strictly orthodox Spaniard, who at the end of the fourth Christian century decreed a ban on all pagan cults and sacrificial rites and accused of lèse majesté those who broke this law. That made Christianity now formally the state religion, the Catholic Church the state church, and heresy a crime against the state.”

The issue of the source of Revelation—Scripture or Tradition, or both; if both, how much emphasis should be placed on one or the other?—was hotly contested at the Second Vatican Council. The progressive bishops, who were the majority in the council, argued that Revelation must be based on Scripture, which is the revealed word of God; the conservative Roman Curia vehemently argues otherwise. In the end, the progressives won, but of course Vatican II itself has been steadily reinterpreted by John Paul II and by Benedict XVI, especially when the latter was prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

So what to believe? What to do? I am still forming my faith (In my blog there is an essay called “The Pilgrim and the Path,” which you might find useful. It is the story of my faith journey so far.), but I would tend to go with Jesus: “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. Remain in my love. If you keep my commandments you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my own joy may be in you and your joy be complete. This is my commandment: love one another as I have loved you.”

There is an article in today’s New York Times, by Eric Lax, entitled “Have Faith in Love.” You might enjoy reading it.

I wish you joy and many blessings on your journey and hope we will correspond again.



I would be interested in further comment on this question.

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