Another theme that comes up in the Called to Communion ecclesiology is the superiority of Rome because of — surprise — the pope. This is not some form of papal infatuation but a genuine recognition of the difficulty of interpreting the Bible. If you have no way of determining which interpretation is correct, you wind up with lots of denominations. CTCers don’t consider that when nation-states were confessional, parliaments and kings also did a good job of keeping denominations down in the single digits. Then again, CTCers seem to like authority in the abstract rather than in its hands on (or hands off as the case may be) instances.
An example of CTC logic comes from Bryan Cross in the previously discussed post about sola scriptura where he tries to answer several objections to the idea that a Roman Catholic convert is doing the same thing as a Protestant when he decides to join the correct church. He makes the distinction, repeated often at CTC, that a book is one thing, a person is another:
The problem with this dilemma (one where a person supposedly needs a series of authoritative interpreters ad infinitum to determine which interpreter is correct) is that it ignores the qualitative ontological distinction between persons and books, and so it falsely assumes that if a book needs an authoritative interpreter in order to function as an ecclesial authority, so must a living person. A book contains a monologue with respect to the reader. An author can often anticipate the thoughts and questions that might arise in the mind of the reader. But a book cannot hear the reader’s questions here and now, and answer them. A living person, however, can do so. A living person can engage in genuine dialogue with the reader, whereas a book cannot. Fr. Kimel talks about that here when he quotes Chesterton as saying that though we can put a living person in the dock, we cannot put a book in the dock. In this respect, a person can do what a book cannot; a person can correct global misunderstandings and answer comprehensive interpretive questions. A book by its very nature has a limited intrinsic potency for interpretive self-clarification; a person, on the other hand, by his very nature has, in principle, an unlimited intrinsic potency with respect to interpretive self-clarification. This unlimited potency with respect to interpretive self-clarification ensures that the hermeneutical spiral may reach its end. A book cannot speak more about itself than it does at the moment at which it is completed. A person, by contrast, remains perpetually capable of clarifying further any of his previous speech-acts.
Right away, any Protestant with a well-informed doctrine of Scripture will notice the implicit (though likely unintentional) insult done to the author of Scripture — that would be God himself — in this distinction between a mere book and a person. God is three persons and also omnipotent and omniscient. For some reason, he decided to reveal himself in the pages of holy writ, and he did not then simply stand back and let the interpreters have at it (another instance of canonical deism?). He also gave his Spirit to guide his interpreters into all truth (would Cross’ neglect of the Spirit be an instance of pneumatological deism?). So the mere book that Cross uses in this contrast is the very word of God. As Hank Kingsley might say, “hey now!”
But this contrast is complicated further by a strange notion that persons are better understood than books. To understand a person, we need to hear them speak or write. In which case, a person uses the same medium of communication as a book — language. And language, whether spoken, written, or blogged, needs to be interpreted. Yes, a person may be able to follow up and explain how an interpreter was mistaken about what was said or written. But even here the explanation may need several iterations of additional explanations. So the ontological point misses entirely the linguistic reality. The problem with books and persons is that the language of both, even in authoritative occasions — a father, the Constitution, a papal encyclical, a school district superintendent — is capable of misinterpretation or misunderstanding. This is not hypothetical given John Paul II’s apostolic letter, Ad Tuendam Fidem, along with the then Cardinal Ratzinger’s commentary on the letter (more below).
One last curiosity of this contrast between a person and a book is that the pope technically is not a person. The papacy is an office. That distinction between person and office is important for the sake of infallibility as I understand it. A pope gets to say and do a lot of things. When he greets his butler (if he has one) in the morning, he is not speaking infallibly. He only does that when certain conditions are met and those conditions go to the heart of what the papal office is (as opposed to the person occupying the office; since not every pope becomes a saint, not every person who becomes pope has the same spiritual worth). And when an authority is more official than personal, then the capacity to explain interpretations drops and may even vanish. According to wikipedia, 265 persons have occupied the office of pope. Whether all of those persons would interpret the Bible or each other the same way is doubtful. Even more dubious is the notion that an officer overseeing the kind of bureaucracy the Vatican is would take the time to explain to sit down with the average Roman Catholic and explain infallibly how to resolve her disagreement where her priest over the correct interpretation of John 3:16. It would be like the Secretary of Health and Human Services responding to Hillsdale County’s coroner about the latest guidelines on tabulating causes of death. If the Secretary were to try to explain to all such questions, she would be on the phone 24/7.
This may explain John Paul II’s Ad Tuendam Fidem (1998), an apostolic letter designed to clarify church authority and what Roman Catholics must believe.
TO PROTECT THE FAITH of the Catholic Church against errors arising from certain members of the Christian faithful, especially from among those dedicated to the various disciplines of sacred theology, we, whose principal duty is to confirm the brethren in the faith (Lk 22:32), consider it absolutely necessary to add to the existing texts of the Code of Canon Law and the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, new norms which expressly impose the obligation of upholding truths proposed in a definitive way by the Magisterium of the Church, and which also establish related canonical sanctions.
With all the singularity of persons or officers at the top of Rome’s hierarchy, one might think a letter like this was unnecessary. But if you read the letter or Ratzinger’s commentary, you may still be scratching your head on the clarity of interpretations coming from the papal office. For instance, the commentary says a lot more about the criteria for what is authoritative than what the actual content of the faith is. From explanation number five:
5. The first paragraph states: “With firm faith, I also believe everything contained in the Word of God, whether written or handed down in Tradition, which the Church, either by a solemn judgment or by the ordinary and universal Magisterium, sets forth to be believed as divinely revealed.” The object taught in this paragraph is constituted by all those doctrines of divine and catholic faith which the Church proposes as divinely and formally revealed and, as such, as irreformable.
These doctrines are contained in the Word of God, written or handed down, and defined with a solemn judgment as divinely revealed truths either by the Roman Pontiff when he speaks ‘ex cathedra,’ or by the College of Bishops gathered in council, or infallibly proposed for belief by the ordinary and universal Magisterium.
These doctrines require the assent of theological faith by all members of the faithful. Thus, whoever obstinately places them in doubt or denies them falls under the censure of heresy, as indicated by the respective canons of the Codes of Canon Law.
To see how complicated this business of binding interpretive authority is, check out Ratzinger’s clarification number nine:
9. The Magisterium of the Church, however, teaches a doctrine to be believed as divinely revealed (first paragraph) or to be held definitively (second paragraph) with an act which is either defining or non-defining. In the case of a defining act, a truth is solemnly defined by an “ex cathedra” pronouncement by the Roman Pontiff or by the action of an ecumenical council. In the case of a non-defining act, a doctrine is taught infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium of the Bishops dispersed throughout the world who are in communion with the Successor of Peter. Such a doctrine can be confirmed or reaffirmed by the Roman Pontiff, even without recourse to a solemn definition, by declaring explicitly that it belongs to the teaching of the ordinary and universal Magisterium as a truth that is divinely revealed (first paragraph) or as a truth of Catholic doctrine (second paragraph). Consequently, when there has not been a judgment on a doctrine in the solemn form of a definition, but this doctrine, belonging to the inheritance of the depositum fidei, is taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium, which necessarily includes the Pope, such a doctrine is to be understood as having been set forth infallibly. The declaration of confirmation or reaffirmation by the Roman Pontiff in this case is not a new dogmatic definition, but a formal attestation of a truth already possessed and infallibly transmitted by the Church.
So what are those instances of infallibility, the doctrines that Roman Catholics must believe? You finally reach in Ratzinger’s eleventh point:
11. Examples. Without any intention of completeness or exhaustiveness, some examples of doctrines relative to the three paragraphs described above can be recalled.
To the truths of the first paragraph belong the articles of faith of the Creed, the various Christological dogmas and Marian dogmas; the doctrine of the institution of the sacraments by Christ and their efficacy with regard to grace; the doctrine of the real and substantial presence of Christ in the Eucharist and the sacrificial nature of the eucharistic celebration; the foundation of the Church by the will of Christ; the doctrine on the primacy and infallibility of the Roman Pontiff; the doctrine on the existence of original sin; the doctrine on the immortality of the spiritual soul and on the immediate recompense after death; the absence of error in the inspired sacred texts; the doctrine on the grave immorality of direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being.
And even here the requirements are not altogether clear since there may be a lot more to be believed.
For all CTC’s confidence in the explanatory powers of a single person, it looks again like their exaltation of Roman Catholicism over Protestantism is more hype than substance.