If you ever engage those who advocate Catholic apologetics, you’re probably familiar with the argument that Catholics are unified in their beliefs, while Protestants are not. A Roman Catholic apologist recently stated this common caricature in a blog entry against me:
“The same thing happens with Protestants, in their internal squabbles. This is one of the ongoing tragedies of Protestantism. Protestants can scream “sola Scriptura” and perspicuity (clearness) of Scripture till kingdom come, but they can’t agree on its teaching, and so they need authoritative interpretation and a guide: the Church, tradition, councils, popes, and apostolic succession.”
The claim presented states that Protestants adhere to Scripture as the final infallible authority, yet their disagreements nullify the sufficiency of that authority. Keeping this argument in mind, I’d like to contrast this with an interesting entry on the Jesuits recently posted on Steve Ray’s blog. Ray quoted Catholic World News stating,
“The mission of the Jesuit order, as understood by most of its members, has changed radically in recent decades. As recently as the mid-20th century, the Jesuits were known as stalwart defenders of the Pope, who trained loyal young Catholics to defend Church doctrines. Today they are inveterate critics of the Vatican, who train young Catholics to question their faith. Is there any discussion among Jesuit leaders of a return to the defense of Catholic orthodoxy? Evidently not.
Perhaps not coincidentally, as the Jesuits have maneuvered to establish what amounts to a “loyal opposition” within the Catholic Church, the order has suffered heavily from defections and lost its ability to attract young recruits. In 1965 when Father Arrupe became superior general, there were about 36,000 Jesuits in the world. Today that figure has been cut nearly in half, with about 19,000 Jesuits remaining in a rapidly aging society. . . . “
One can see that the paradigm put forth in the first quote gets chewed up and spit out in the second quote. One of the main branches of the Roman Church is at odds with the authority structure. The Jesuits, once defenders of the Church, tradition, councils, popes, and apostolic succession now, according to the Catholic World News article, “train young Catholics to question their faith.” In other words, the authority structure of the Church, tradition, councils, popes, and apostolic succession is not enough to act as a sufficient authority source for the Jesuits. The Jesuits are hardly a fringe group.
If an argument, when applied to one’s own position, refutes one’s own position, it is an invalid argument. Eric Svendsen’s book, Upon This Slippery Rock: Countering Roman Claims to Authority [New York: Calvary Press, 2002] makes some great points about Catholic authority claims, pointing out:
“Surely, anyone who argues so vehemently against the legitimacy of Protestantism by pointing out variations of belief among Protestant denominations would first want to ensure that his own system was not also excluded on those same grounds. It is important to note that the argument is not one of degree of difference- it is that there are differences, period. One cannot, for instance, argue that his religious system is more legitimate on the basis that there is less disagreement within it than within other systems of belief. It is an all-or-nothing proposition. Either disagreements nullify a system, or they do not. Otherwise, the best one can argue is that his religious system more nearly conforms to a set standard of unity, but does not actually meet that standard. It is also important to keep in mind that the ‘diversity of belief’ argument is one that was invented by Roman Catholic Apologists. We as Evangelicals do not agree with its premise. But any system that argues for an arbitrary criterion for being the ‘true’ church must itself conform to that criterion.” [Upon This Slippery Rock, 23].
The example Svendsen uses to dismantle Rome’s claim for absolute unity is the Vatican II document, Dei Verbum. He presents an extremely pertinent issue for anyone claiming the name Christian: the authority of Scripture. Dei Verbum states:
107. The inspired books teach the truth. “Since therefore all that the inspired authors or sacred writers affirm should be regarded as affirmed by the Holy Spirit, we must acknowledge that the books of Scripture firmly, faithfully, and without error teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the Sacred Scriptures.”
Svendsen points out that this statement itself is prone to multiple interpretations within the Roman community. Conservative Roman Catholic apologists see this as a clear statement that the entirety of Scripture is without error. Some Roman Catholic scholars though see the phrase “for the sake of our salvation” as limiting inerrancy to only those sections of Scripture that teach about salvation.
Svendsen notes, “No one can tell us what the ‘official’ Roman Catholic teaching is on this issue, and Rome’s ‘infallible interpreter’ is of absolutely no advantage to the Roman Catholic apologist, for he has remained silent on the matter” [Upon This Slippery Rock, 24]. Thus, the actual teachings of the Roman Catholic Church are prone to interpretation. The Catholic apologist must use his own private interpretation to determine what the meaning of Roman Catholic teaching is. The conservative and liberal Roman Catholic can read the same document and come to two differing opinions.
So on a fundamental issue- what are, or are not, the very Words of God, Catholics are not unified. In terms of importance, this is a crucial issue. Recall the quote at the top of this entry. It was claimed Protestants need “authoritative interpretation and a guide: the Church, tradition, councils, popes, and apostolic succession.” The question is…what for? If the Church, tradition, councils, popes, and apostolic succession cannot tell me what are, or are not, the very Words of God, of what value is the claim to possess an infallible interpreter? One can claim to have such, but if in practice on a crucial issue like the authority of Scripture, that infallible interpreter doesn’t deliver the goods, or puts forth statements prone to interpretation of a wide range, then only one conclusion can follow: the repeated claims made to possessing such a power of unification is an empty claim.