The Pope enjoys the protection of the Holy Spirit or the gift of infallibility when making a solemn teaching on matters of faith and morals.
REVELATION AND THE MAGISTERIUM
Two Sources of Revelation
Although in the beginning divine revelation was handed down from generation to generation only by word of mouth, some of it later came to be written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Divine revelation that was handed down by oral transmission is known as Sacred Tradition (from the Latin tradere, which means to hand something down.) Divine revelation that originally was handed down orally, but was later committed into writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is known as Holy Scripture (or the Bible). The Bible was therefore not a set of manuscripts directly written by God, but it came out of the oral, Sacred Tradition of the Church. The Bible is nothing else but that part of Sacred Tradition that, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, had been recorded or committed into writing.
Therefore, our knowledge of what God has revealed comes from these two sources: Sacred Tradition and Holy Scripture. Sacred Tradition, together with Holy Scripture, make up what is known as the deposit of faith (depositum fidei).
The total deposit of faith originally contained in Sacred Tradition is now split into two parts. One part is recorded in the inspired writings, called Holy Scripture, but the other part is not. Many theologians restrict the name “Sacred Tradition” to refer only to that part of Sacred Tradition that remained outside of Holy Scripture, or that was not fully written by divine inspiration. There is nothing wrong with that, as long as one keeps in mind that even the contents of Holy Scripture were once part of Sacred Tradition.
In the Christian tradition there were four men, called evangelists, who wrote the Gospels pertaining to the life, miracles and teachings of Jesus Christ. These men were Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. There was a fifth man, Saint Paul, who helped spread the Christian faith to the pagan world, but he did not write a Gospel, so he was not called an evangelist. Saint Paul was a great Apostle and wrote many important epistles or letters (addressed to various Christian communities) that became recognized as "inspired writings" and, therefore, now regarded also as parts of the Bible.
The Role of the Magisterium
Although a divine institution, the Church herself does not make a new revelation, but merely teaches or explains what God Has revealed. Unlike Sacred Tradition and Holy Scripture, the Church is not a constitutive source of revelation, although we learn and understand God’s revelation through her guidance. Through her Teaching Authority, called the Magisterium, the Church acts as the Preacher of God’s Revelation. But because of her role as teacher and interpreter of Christian revelation, we might say that the Church is an interpretative source of divine revelation. In other words, She is a source as far as the interpretation of God's revelation is concerned.
Christ selected twelve Apostles from among His disciples to whom He gave special training and instruction. Before He ascended into Heaven He gave them a special mandate: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt 28:19). Therefore, it is a big mistake to think that the Bible is the only means intended by God to pass His revelation to all nations. It was clearly His will to make use of the Church’s preaching activity for the purpose of evangelizing the world.
Indeed, this was how the Church grew and spread from the beginning – that is, through the preaching activity of the Church. In the early days of Christianity, people had no complete Bible. Biblical scholars estimate that the first canonical Gospel (that of St. Matthew) was not written until about A.D. 42, which was almost a decade after the crucifixion. The last Gospel (that of St. John) was not completed until about the end of the first century, and the entire set of books that is known as the New Testament, was not officially recognized until the fourth century of the Christian era. For nearly four centuries Christians had no New Testament, and they had to depend on the preaching activity of the Church to learn what Christ had revealed. The Church, in turn, drew its knowledge of the faith largely from Sacred Tradition. The Church relied also on Sacred Tradition (a) to decide which of the many books that claimed to be inspired, should be recognized as truly “inspired” by God, and (b) to determine who the inspired authors really were.
After the books of the Bible were officially determined and recognized, the Church relied on both the Bible and Sacred Tradition for her teachings. Because of her special role as Teacher (Magister), the Church received from Christ the gift of infallibility, or the protection and assistance of the Holy Spirit: “But the Paraclete, the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring all things to your mind, whatsoever I shall have said to you” (John 14:26). It is in her role as Teacher that the Church serves as an infallible, but purely interpretative source of Christian revelation. The Church is not above the Bible or Sacred Tradition. She has no authority to originate a new teaching, or to add or change the words of Holy Scripture. But she is the one Authority instituted by Christ to be the sole interpreter and guardian of divine revelation. Thus, in its Dogmatic Constitution Pastor Aeternus, Vatican Council I says: "For the holy Spirit was promised to the successors of Peter not so that they might, by his revelation, make known some new doctrine, but that, by his assistance, they might religiously guard and faithfully expound the revelation or deposit of faith transmitted by the apostles." Vatican Council I, Session 4 (18 July 1870), Chapter 4, #6.
The Church enjoys the gift of infallibility through the exercise of both her extraordinary and ordinary magisterium (teaching authority).
The extraordinary magisterium is exercised by (a) the Pope, when teaching ex cathedra ("from the chair" of Peter), that means, in his capacity as successor of Peter and Head of the Church, or (b) the Ecumenical Councils, when teaching in unity with the Pope. In this capacity the Pope or the Ecumenical Councils may make solemn and extraordinary teachings on matters affecting faith or morals which are infallible, and which would be binding on all Catholics.
The ordinary magisterium is exercised by the Pope, the local councils, the individual bishops, priests and deacons when, in the course of preaching in the name of the Church, they reiterate the constant and universal teachings of the Church. The teaching activity of these ministers comprise the ordinary teaching magisterium of the Church and, to that extent, they also enjoy the gift of infallibility. However, note that these ministers teach infallibly, not when they teach just anything, but only when they teach what the Church herself has consistently and universally taught, and do not deviate from it.
Therefore, the scholars (including the Fathers and Doctors of the Church), historians, philosophers and theologians who write or teach on doctrinal and moral matters, and who seek according to their diligent research the consequences and implications of theological data, are not necessarily regarded as infallible interpreters of Christian revelation. As researchers and scholars, their conclusions and novel teachings are subject to the judgment of the Church. However, if these scholars are ordained bishops, priests or deacons, they also can and usually preach infallibly in the name of the Church when they teach, not their own novel doctrines, but the Church’s constant and universal teaching.
Likewise, the pope also speaks infallibly when exercising the Church's ordinary magisterium. It is incorrect to think that the pope speaks infallibly only when he invokes the Holy Spirit and speaks ex cathedra. That is not true. Just like any bishop, priest or deacon, the pope has the gift of infallibility in the exercise of the Church's ordinary magisterium, that is, when he explains, clarifies or elucidates what the Church herself has consistently and universally taught. But the pope is not infallible whenever he merely expresses his everyday opinion on matters outside of faith and morals, or on novel ideas not previously taught or held by the Church. Thus, his opinions on climate change and globalism are not necessarily protected by his gift of infallibility.
The Catholic Rule of Faith
Although Holy Scripture is the word of God, it is neither the sole source of revelation nor the ultimate Authority in matters of faith and morals. To think this way is to commit the Protestant error of sola Scriptura (the Latin for “by the Scripture alone”). Many Protestants believe that the Bible alone is sufficient to serve as a rule of faith in all matters of faith and morals; and that it is the sole standard by which all teachings and teachers are judged; and that it is the ultimate authority and sole source of revealed truth. Therefore, they reject religious doctrines, such as those that Catholics claim to derive from Sacred Tradition, because these teachings were not fully written in Holy Scripture.
Protestants base their belief on a passage from St. Paul which says: "All scripture, inspired of God, is profitable to teach, to reprove, to correct, to instruct in justice, that the man of God may be perfect, furnished to every good work" (2 Tim 3:16-17). Protestants argue that since Sacred Scripture is inspired by the Holy Spirit, and is able to make a man of God equipped for every good work, that therefore the Bible alone (without the Church and without Tradition) can guide man toward salvation.
Catholics accept 2 Tim 3:16: "All scripture, inspired of God, is profitable to teach, to reprove, to correct, to instruct in justice," but they do not agree with the Protestant reading of 2 Tim 3:17 as: "that the man of God (using the Bible alone and without assistance from the Church or from Sacred Tradition) may be perfect, furnished to every good work." Catholics believe that the cited verse should be read as follows: "that the man of God (using the Bible with the assistance of the Church and Sacred Tradition) may be perfect, furnished to every good work."
So, who is reading 2 Tim 3:17 correctly? Catholics assert that although the Bible is helpful in preparing a man of God for every good work, it is not a sufficient rule of faith because the Bible needs interpretation which the average person is not able to do properly. St. Peter himself says in the epistles of St. Paul that there are "certain things hard to be understood, which the unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, to their own destruction" (2 Pet 3:16). The average person needs the help of the Church in interpreting abstruse passages in Holy Scripture. On the contrary, Protestants maintain the alleged perspicuity of the Bible, or the idea that the Bible is intelligible of itself, and that anybody with guidance from the Holy Spirit would be able to interpret the Bible correctly. Here is where the Protestant encounters great difficulty. Because the so-called perspicuity of the Bible is contradicted by facts! If everything needed for salvation may be found in the Bible and that we could clearly understand it, then everyone (or at least a huge majority) reading the Bible should come to a common understanding of what Sacred Scripture teaches. But that is not the case. Protestants have many different interpretations of the Bible. For example, the Lutherans believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Most Evangelicals, however, think that Christ’s presence in the Eucharist is merely figurative or symbolic. Lutherans believe in the practice of Infant Baptism, but the Baptists don’t. The Quakers, on the other hand, don’t think the issue is important because they think that Baptism is merely an external expression of Christianity. If the Bible is truly perspicuous, then why are Protestants so divided in their faith? How can we explain the extreme variation in doctrines and practices in the various Protestant denominations? This lack of common interpretation or doctrinal unity in the various Protestant denominations results in an uneasy feeling of uncertainty, not only among the faithful, but even among the pastors of each denomination. The pastor in one church is never sure that his interpretation of the Bible is the true interpretation, and that what he is teaching his congregation is the same thing that another pastor, just 10 miles away, is teaching.
Together with their belief that only the Bible needs to be believed, Protestants also reject the Catholic claim that Sacred Tradition is equally a true source of revelation. The problem with that is, without Sacred Tradition, there would not be any Bible, for the Bible only grew out of the Sacred Traditions of the Church. Without drawing from Sacred Tradition, the Protestants themselves would not know which books actually comprised the New Testament of their Bible. The Bible did not say which of the many competing gospels written about Christ were actually inspired. It was the Catholic Church – thanks to her Sacred Tradition – which determined which books belonged to Holy Scripture. When the Protestant Reformers broke off from the Catholic Church, the canon of Holy Scripture was already defined. The Protestants merely inherited their list of New Testament books from the Catholic Church. This means that Sacred Tradition cannot be ignored, and that the Bible alone is not the ultimate Authority in matters of religion.
If the Bible is not the ultimate Authority in matters of faith and morals, then what is? The ultimate source, authority or rule of faith is, of course, God Himself, for it is He who reveals Himself. But for a Catholic the proximate source of revealed truth is not the Bible alone, nor is it simply the Bible and Sacred Tradition taken together. Rather, the proximate source, norm or rule of faith is the Holy Scripture and Sacred Tradition as illumined, interpreted and taught by the Catholic Church.
Truly, the Bible is also a rule of faith, but it cannot serve as a proximate norm or rule of faith because it has many abstruse passages that require interpretation, and the Bible does not interpret itself. Since the Church is the one institution to whom Christ promised the Spirit of Truth (John 16:12-13), and since it is the institution given by Christ the commission to preach the gospel to all nations (Mark 16:15), therefore it is through the Church’s interpretation, explanation and teachings that we learn what God has revealed in Holy Scripture. Christ gave a stern warning to those who refuse to listen to the Church's teaching: "He that heareth you, heareth me; and he that despiseth you, despiseth me; and he that despiseth me, despiseth him that sent me" (Luke 10:16)
This does not mean that the Church is higher than the Bible, because the Bible is the word of God. Relative to the Bible, the Church is only its guardian. Indeed, the Church has a divine authority to preach and interpret the Bible, but it has no authority to introduce new texts, change the word of God, or alter its meaning. The Church has a duty to defend the word of God and safeguard its message.
"This teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed." – Dei Verbum, Ch. II, #10.
Through the ages it is the Church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, that guided the faithful even before the first Gospel was written. It was the Church which, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, determined which religious books were inspired and should be considered as parts of Holy Scripture. To this day it is still the Church who, by drawing from her Sacred Tradition, interprets and explains the meaning of the Bible authoritatively for the believer.
The Conversion of Saint Paul
A painting by Benvenuto Tisi (1481-1559)
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Saint Paul (originally named "Saul") was a great Apostle, although he was not one of the Twelve. He was actually one of the Pharisees and an intense persecutor of early Christians. He became a believer in Christ when Christ confronted him on his way to Damascus, saying: "Saul, Saul, why dost thou persecute me?" (Acts 9:4)
Pope St. Gregory the Great
A painting by Jusepe de Ribera (1591-1652)
Image source link: commons.wikimedia.org
A painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553)
Image source link: commons.wikimedia.org
The sola Scriptura principle was one of the five pillars of the Protestant Reformation. The champion of this principle was Martin Luther (1483-1546) who, at the conclusion of a debate at Leipsic, said: "... A simple layman armed with Scripture is to be believed above a pope or a council without it..." See the article on Martin Luther: A Unique Vessel, IV, E.