Divine and Catholic Faith

May 29th, 2009 | By | Category: Blog Posts

Q. What evidence do we have that the [Ecumenical Councils’] exercise of apostolic authority was legitimate, and has remained infallible?

A. In order to answer this question, it is helpful to consider the implications of the visibility of the Church in relation to Christ’s promises. I have addressed that indirectly here (in January of 2008) and then more directly here (in January of 2009).

St. Paul Preaching in Athens

St. Paul Preaching in Athens
Sanzio Raffaello (1515)
Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Sacred theology (that is, revealed theology) is above the power of natural reason. In what sense is it above? Much of the content of sacred theology exceeds our ability-to-know-through-our-natural-power-of-reason. That is why we need divine grace to know it. We need divine assistance to grasp divine things, precisely because they are above us. That is why theological rationalism (i.e. requiring that all theological claims be verifiable or demonstrable by human reason) is methodological atheism. Faith is not a stunted or diminished form of reason; faith is an elevation of reason above its natural reach, an initial stage of the superperfection of reason that is the Beatific Vision. That’s why what is seen now by faith is seen through a glass darkly. One day, we will see face-to-face the One who immeasurably transcends us, as He is; then faith and hope will be done away. But now we do not see clearly the object of faith.

The mistake of the rationalist is equivalent to the mistake of Plato’s cave-dweller, only another level up. The prisoner in Plato’s cave laughs at the philosopher who returns to the cave and is no longer able to compete well in the game of recognizing the shadows, thinking that the philosopher’s eyesight has been ruined. Socrates then says:

Anyone with any understanding would remember that the eyes may be confused in two ways and from two causes, namely, when they’ve come from the light into the darkness and when they’ve come from the darkness into the light. Realizing that the same applies to the soul, when someone sees a soul disturbed and unable to see something, he won’t laugh mindlessly, but he’ll take into consideration whether it has come from a brighter life and is dimmed through not having yet become accustomed to the dark or whether it has come from greater ignorance into greater light and is dazzled by the increased brilliance. (Republic, 518a)

The rationalist sees a person who cannot lay down syllogisms for the content of his faith, and assumes that he is either in or in the process of first emerging from Plato’s cave. But the rationalist has failed to consider the possibility that the man of faith cannot play the rationalist’s game not because he isn’t accustomed to the Sun, but because he has just encountered “a light from heaven, brighter than the Sun.” (Acts 26:13)

Reason can show that there is no internal contradiction within sacred revelation, and no contradiction between sacred revelation and what we can know by reason alone. But, reason cannot verify or confirm much of divine revelation. That’s because what makes sacred revelation true, (i.e its truth-maker) is above and beyond the reach of our reason to grasp on its own. And that’s precisely why faith is required to accept it. If we could know it by reason alone, faith wouldn’t be required to accept it, and it wouldn’t be supernatural. Whatever in this life does not require faith to accept, is not above the range of our natural power of reason to know. And so if everything in a proposed religion were verifiable by the natural power of reason, that proposed religion either would not be about anything above us, or it would not be a supernatural religion, that is, supernaturally revealed. When Jesus said to Peter, “Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven”, He said this because Christ’s identity as Son of the Father could not be known by the natural power of reason alone; it could only be known by supernatural revelation.

One important difference between Protestants and Catholics in this respect is that Protestants tend to believe (at least in practice) that the only instrument through which we have faith in Christ, is the Bible. Catholics, by contrast, believe that the Bible (and the whole of the Apostolic deposit of faith) properly comes to us through the Church, and so we believe that the definitive words of the Church as she unfolds the deposit of faith contained in both sacred Scripture and sacred Tradition, are that by which and through which we have faith in Christ. In other words, we show our trust in Christ, by trusting the Church which He established and promised to protect, preserve and guide by His Spirit, just as, had we lived in the middle of the first century, we would have shown our faith in Christ by trusting those whom He had appointed and authorized to speak in His name as His rightful representatives.

This is not circular reasoning, because we are not starting from the assumption that the Church has authority to define and teach the faith. Reason leads us to recognize that man cannot naturally do the miracles that the Apostles did, and that therefore they had some divine authorization and empowerment, a kind of divine seal of approval, and that we should therefore take heed to what they say. And part of what they said, as passed down to us both in Scripture and in the Tradition preserved in the Church fathers, is precisely that magisterial authority in the Church is passed down by succession, by the laying on of hands by those who were themselves already authorized, and so on, back to the Apostles.

The idea is a handing down of magisterial (i.e. teaching and shepherding and sanctifying) authority, from God the Father to Christ, from Christ to the Apostles, and from the Apostles to the bishops, down to the present day. Given that, then faith in Christ is rightly expressed not just as faith in what the Apostles said as recorded in Scripture, but also as faith in what their successors said when defining doctrine, specifying what is orthodoxy and what is heresy, and interpreting and clarifying the Apostolic deposit of faith, continually deepening the Church’s understanding of these things. Just as we could not confirm or verify the teaching of the Apostles regarding what Christ taught them (excepting those things that He taught in public), so we usually cannot confirm or verify the Church’s definitive teachings on matters of faith and morals. (I say ‘usually’ because in some cases the Church does teach definitively things that can be known by the natural power of reason, but need to be taught because the darkness of our minds has obscured the truth of these things to us.) But we accept both what the Apostles said, and what their authorized successors say, by faith, a faith in Christ and in His promise to preserve and guide His Church.

Jesus said:

“The one who listens to you listens to Me, and the one who rejects you rejects Me; and he who rejects Me rejects the One who sent Me.” (Luke 10:16)

Protestants limit the “you” to the Apostles. But Catholics believe that the “you” is not limited to the Apostles, but extends perpetually through the line of the Apostles’ successors, until Christ returns. Jesus uses this principle when He said:

“If God were your Father, you would love Me, for I proceeded forth and have come from God, for I have not even come on My own initiative, but He sent Me.” (John 8:42)

Our love for the sender of the messenger is revealed by our acceptance and love of the messenger authorized by the sender. So we show love for Christ by accepting and loving those whom He sent (from which the word ‘apostle’ is derived). And likewise, we show our love for the Apostles (and thus for Christ and the Father) by accepting and loving those whom the Apostles sent. We see this idea in the epistles of St. Ignatius of Antioch, who died around 107 AD, approximately seven years after the Apostle John died. I wrote about St. Ignatius’ epistles here. Notice there the way St. Ignatius enjoins the believers to think of the bishops, and presbyters and deacons.

This is why, from the Catholic point of view, a faith that is limited to what the Apostles wrote (and to the Old Testament of course) is a deficient faith, not necessarily in the intention or in the will of the believer, but in the believer’s awareness of the scope of the authorized instrument Christ provided through which we are to believe in Him, and thus thereby in what has been supernaturally revealed concerning Christ, the object of faith. One form of this deficiency is what I have called ecclesial deism, which I have written about here. The Protestant sees the Catholic Church as adding man-made extras to the ‘simplicity of the gospel’. But the Catholic sees the Protestant as falling into a quasi-rationalism, treating in a rationalistic manner something (i.e. the Magisterium) that should be treated as a divinely-authorized instrument of faith.

To perceive acceptance of the Church’s teachings as burdensome or restrictive or sacrificial is to ‘see’ them as merely man-made or man-derived. The Catholic perceives the Magisterium as the authorized messenger of the divine, and thus perceives Magisterial teaching as divine gift, quite like the Protestant perceives the written teaching of the Apostles as divine gift. The problem, when the Protestant says, “I won’t become Catholic until the Church changes teaching x”, has nothing to do with teaching x. The cause lies deeper, in a difference of perception of the Magisterium. One sees a bunch of old men in pointy hats; others see the divinely authorized representatives of Christ, the Son of the Living God.

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  1. Consider what Pope Leo XIII had to say about the relation of faith to the Church (and this also explains the title of the post):

    For such is the nature of faith that nothing can be more absurd than to accept some things and reject others. Faith, as the Church teaches, is “that supernatural virtue by which, through the help of God and through the assistance of His grace, we believe what he has revealed to be true, not on account of the intrinsic truth perceived by the natural light of reason, but because of the authority of God Himself, the Revealer, who can neither deceive nor be deceived” (Conc. Vat., Sess. iii., cap. 3). If then it be certain that anything is revealed by God, and this is not believed, then nothing whatever is believed by divine Faith: for what the Apostle St. James judges to be the effect of a moral deliquency, the same is to be said of an erroneous opinion in the matter of faith. “Whosoever shall offend in one point, is become guilty of all” (Ep. James ii., 10). Nay, it applies with greater force to an erroneous opinion. For it can be said with less truth that every law is violated by one who commits a single sin, since it may be that he only virtually despises the majesty of God the Legislator. But he who dissents even in one point from divinely revealed truth absolutely rejects all faith, since he thereby refuses to honour God as the supreme truth and the formal motive of faith. “In many things they are with me, in a few things not with me; but in those few things in which they are not with me the many things in which they are will not profit them” (S. Augustinus in Psal. liv., n. 19). And this indeed most deservedly; for they, who take from Christian doctrine what they please, lean on their own judgments, not on faith; and not “bringing into captivity every understanding unto the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. x., 5), they more truly obey themselves than God. “You, who believe what you like, believe yourselves rather than the gospel” (S. Augustinus, lib. xvii., Contra Faustum Manichaeum, cap. 3).

    For this reason the Fathers of the Vatican Council laid down nothing new, but followed divine revelation and the acknowledged and invariable teaching of the Church as to the very nature of faith, when they decreed as follows: “All those things are to be believed by divine and Catholic faith which are contained in the written or unwritten word of God, and which are proposed by the Church as divinely revealed, either by a solemn definition or in the exercise of its ordinary and universal Magisterium” (Sess. iii., cap. 3). Hence, as it is clear that God absolutely willed that there should be unity in His Church, and as it is evident what kind of unity He willed, and by means of what principle He ordained that this unity should be maintained, we may address the following words of St. Augustine to all who have not deliberately closed their minds to the truth: “When we see the great help of God, such manifest progress and such abundant fruit, shall we hesitate to take refuge in the bosom of that Church, which, as is evident to all, possesses the supreme authority of the Apostolic See through the Episcopal succession? In vain do heretics rage round it; they are condemned partly by the judgment of the people themselves, partly by the weight of councils, partly by the splendid evidence of miracles. To refuse to the Church the primacy is most impious and above measure arrogant. And if all learning, no matter how easy and common it may be, in order to be fully understood requires a teacher and master, what can be greater evidence of pride and rashness than to be unwilling to learn about the books of the divine mysteries from the proper interpreter, and to wish to condemn them unknown?” (De Unitate Credendi, cap. xvii., n. 35).

    It is then undoubtedly the office of the church to guard Christian doctrine and to propagate it in its integrity and purity. But this is not all: the object for which the Church has been instituted is not wholly attained by the performance of this duty. For, since Jesus Christ delivered Himself up for the salvation of the human race, and to this end directed all His teaching and commands, so He ordered the Church to strive, by the truth of its doctrine, to sanctify and to save mankind. But faith alone cannot compass so great, excellent, and important an end. There must needs be also the fitting and devout worship of God, which is to be found chiefly in the divine Sacrifice and in the dispensation of the Sacraments, as well as salutary laws and discipline. All these must be found in the Church, since it continues the mission of the Saviour for ever. The Church alone offers to the human race that religion- that state of absolute perfection – which He wished, as it were, to be incorporated in it. And it alone supplies those means of salvation which accord with the ordinary counsels of Providence.

    (Satis Cognitum, 9)

  2. When we reflect on St. Paul preaching on Mars Hill, we see the very image of the true philosopher shadowed in Plato’s Republic, because in preaching to these Greek philosophers at Athens, St. Paul is, quite ironically, descending back into the cave and preaching to prisoners chained in darkness:

    I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago–whether in the body I do not know, or out of the body I do not know, God knows–such a man was caught up to the third heaven. And I know how such a man–whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, God knows– was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which a man is not permitted to speak. (2 Cor 12:2-4)

    Of course St. Paul himself was in this way only participating in the supreme incarnational act of Christ, the perfect philosopher, who had come from the Father (John 5:37, 16:28), who alone had seen the Father (John 6:46), and who is the true Light who, coming into the world, enlightens every man (John 1:9). Christ is not merely a lover of wisdom; He is the Wisdom of God (1 Cor 1:24), God from God, Light from Light, begotten not made. His speluncular descent was infinite, from the eternal glory of God, to a one-celled zygote in the womb of a virgin of Nazareth. He is the Reason (Logos) of God, as St. Justin Martyr (d. 165) explained in his apologies.

    Of Christ as the true philosopher Pope Benedict spoke in his 2007 encyclical Spe Salvi:

    The sarcophagi of the early Christian era illustrate this concept visually—in the context of death, in the face of which the question concerning life’s meaning becomes unavoidable. The figure of Christ is interpreted on ancient sarcophagi principally by two images: the philosopher and the shepherd. Philosophy at that time was not generally seen as a difficult academic discipline, as it is today. Rather, the philosopher was someone who knew how to teach the essential art: the art of being authentically human—the art of living and dying. To be sure, it had long since been realized that many of the people who went around pretending to be philosophers, teachers of life, were just charlatans who made money through their words, while having nothing to say about real life. All the more, then, the true philosopher who really did know how to point out the path of life was highly sought after. Towards the end of the third century, on the sarcophagus of a child in Rome, we find for the first time, in the context of the resurrection of Lazarus, the figure of Christ as the true philosopher, holding the Gospel in one hand and the philosopher’s travelling staff in the other. With his staff, he conquers death; the Gospel brings the truth that itinerant philosophers had searched for in vain. In this image, which then became a common feature of sarcophagus art for a long time, we see clearly what both educated and simple people found in Christ: he tells us who man truly is and what a man must do in order to be truly human. He shows us the way, and this way is the truth. He himself is both the way and the truth, and therefore he is also the life which all of us are seeking. He also shows us the way beyond death; only someone able to do this is a true teacher of life. (Spe Salvi, 6)(my emphasis)

    This is what I mean above, in the body of the post, when I say that “The mistake of the rationalist is equivalent to the mistake of Plato’s cave-dweller, only another level up.” Apart from union with the Logos who is Wisdom, the philosopher of this age remains in the cave, only another level up, mistakenly thinking that since he has exited a lower cave, he has come into the fullness of the light.

    Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength. (1 Cor 1:20-25)

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