“Conservative” Catholics sometimes object to the traditionalist criticisms of Amoris Laetitia by claiming that Catholics critical of the document are in fact exercising their private judgment against the Magisterium just as the Protestant revolutionaries did, with the only difference being that the Protestants appealed to Scripture alone, while traditional Catholics appeal to Tradition alone. The solution, they claim, is to trust that however the reconciliation between the two may be accomplished, we can be certain that no contradiction exists between the teaching of Pope Francis on divorce and remarriage and the Tradition of the Church.
The problem with this line of reasoning is analogous to the faulty objection frequently made by atheists to the various forms of the cosmological argument: “If everything has a cause, what caused God?” To those who are familiar with the classical theistic proofs, it is obvious why the objection fails: because no serious philosopher has ever put forward a cosmological argument with the premise that everything has a cause. It is a caricature of the true form taken by that family of arguments, which is that everything with some relevant feature – contingency, a temporal beginning of existence, composition, etc. – must have a cause.
By the same token, the Catholic principle that it is illegitimate to pit one’s private judgment of Scripture against the teaching of the Church does not rely on the claim that everything other than what the current pope says is ambiguous and capable of virtually any interpretation, a chaos that can be resolved only by the Pope imposing order with a magisterial fiat. It relies on two principles, countenanced by Catholic saints and doctors from the very beginning of the Church.
First, Scripture alone lacks sufficient clarity to serve as the sole guide of faith and thus needs to be interpreted and complemented by Tradition. When this is done, the complete rule of faith, comprising Scripture and Tradition together, is a clear and unchanging statement of the universal teaching of the Church.
Second, whatever the Church pronounces as divinely revealed dogma, which all are bound to believe as part of the deposit of faith, must be true. Hence, appealing to any source whatsoever against a dogmatic definition is in principle illegitimate.
Applying all of this to the Protestant revolution, the Protestants were condemned for appealing to their private interpretation of Scripture against clear and settled teaching that had been put forward as binding on all Catholics on pain of anathema. When John Calvin denied the doctrines of transubstantiation and Purgatory, he was not challenging something that had merely been proposed by formidable theologians. Disputing the arguments of past saints and even doctors of the Church was hardly new; Bl. John Duns rebutted St. Thomas Aquinas on several issues and ended up being vindicated by the Church on one of them (the Immaculate Conception). Much less was he guilty of denying something the bishops and popes of his day had only hinted at, or implied, as if Pope St. Pius V had merely insinuated that Purgatory might exist or allowed some bishops to teach that it does and others that it does not. Calvin was condemned because he denied doctrines that had been explicitly put forward to the entire Church as divinely revealed dogma.
The mere relation of these facts almost suffices on its own as a solution to the objection noted at the beginning of this article. The problem with the Protestant use of private judgment is not that we can believe some statement only if an infallible authority explains it to us – for this would open us up to the Protestant caricature of Catholics needing an infinite regress of infallible interpreters, with the second interpreter interpreting what the first said, the third interpreting the second, etc. – but that Scripture is ambiguous enough to accommodate multiple interpretations, even on important matters of faith. Tradition is clearer than Scripture and cannot accommodate multiple interpretations – that’s why it exists in the first place. It is by reading Scripture through Tradition that we can be sure of understanding its meaning.
In this case, it should be obvious what’s wrong with the “private interpretation of Tradition” objection. Tradition possesses a feature Scripture lacks: it is so clear on many doctrines where Scripture is not clear that it is impossible for reasonable people acting in good faith to disagree on what it means. As a case in point, rational people can and do disagree on whether the New Testament teaches that infants should be baptized. Scholars take different positions on the subject, and shelves’ worth of books have been written arguing the case one way or the other. But rational people cannot and do not disagree on whether the Catholic Church teaches that infants should be baptized, because the Tradition is absolutely clear on that point. Someone claiming that the Catholic Church teaches only the baptism of adults could be corrected with a line from the Catechism and a reference to the fact that infant baptism is and always has been the practice of the Church. If he continued to maintain that the Church denied pedobaptism, he would be manifestly in bad faith, in a way that a sincere Baptist who believes that the New Testament teaches credobaptism is not.
It does sometimes happen that aspects of Tradition are unclear to large enough numbers of Catholics that they need to be stated more clearly through ecumenical councils or papal decrees. This constitutes the real development of doctrine of which Newman wrote, rather than the evolution of dogma condemned by Pope St. Pius X but often advanced by modernists in the hierarchy under the cloak of “development.” However, parts of Tradition that have already been made clear through repeated authoritative statements of the Magisterium and the consent of saints and doctors cannot suddenly become unclear again. To say that they could would in essence be to deny the foundational principle that the Faith does not change. While a previously defined dogma may need to be made even more specific to answer new heresies, it cannot become unclear with respect to what has already been defined.
For instance, orthodox Christology had to be defended against the Nestorians, who claimed that Christ was constituted of two persons, one divine and one human, by defining at the Council of Ephesus in 431 A.D. that Christ was one person, both divine and human. When the heresy of Monophysitism used Ephesus as a pretext for claiming, on the opposite extreme, that Christ was one person with a single nature made from a fusion of divinity and humanity, the Church further clarified her Christology by defining Christ as one person with two distinct but eternally unified natures, divine and human. This is a case in which the Church had to further clarify a dogmatic definition that was itself a clarification. The key point is that the Church was defining an aspect of her Tradition that had not already been clearly settled in the previous definition. Nothing new was added to her teaching on Christ’s one personhood, because it had already been stated. To have raised the question of whether Christ was indeed one person again would have been to implicitly deny that the issue had been settled at Ephesus.
Thus, when we come to dogmas that have already been explicitly affirmed by Tradition, it is not an exercise of private judgment in the Protestant sense to affirm them, because they are already clear and have been regarded as such by the whole Church for centuries. And certainly the teachings that receiving Communion while conscious of mortal sin is itself a mortal sin, that there are absolute moral norms, that God does not command things we cannot keep by the help of his grace, that marriage is indissoluble, and that adultery is mortally sinful are all things that have been clearly and repeatedly affirmed by the Church throughout the ages. The fact of universal consent on these matters refutes the claim that affirming them is an exercise of private judgment.
As a thought experiment for someone claiming that traditional Catholics are exercising their private judgment in an improper manner against Amoris Laetitia, we might ask this person whether he is confident that the Church teaches the existence of angels as personal beings rather than mere symbols of good and evil, even though they have never been the subject of an independent dogmatic definition. If he has even the slightest pretensions to orthodoxy, he will of course say yes, on the grounds that the Church has referred to their existence innumerable times (including in the Mass), that the saints and doctors of the Church have repeatedly affirmed their existence, and that passages of Scripture that refer to angels have always been interpreted as referring to literal beings rather than mere metaphors
Now, suppose that a future pope – let us call him, hypothetically, Francis II – began taking counsel from prelates who openly claimed that angels do not exist and issued an apostolic exhortation or even an encyclical to that effect. Would this hypothetical objector begin to doubt whether the Church had really always taught the existence of angels? Suppose further that bishops throughout the Church began taking this papal document as “authoritative papal teaching” that angels do not exist and harassing priests who insist on preaching that they do, and that the Pope Francis II, when asked to clarify whether he meant to deny the literal existence of angels, responded with stony silence and a refusal to restrain bishops who preached against the existence of angels. Would the objector then begin to say Catholics who continue to maintain the existence of angels are relying on their own private interpretation of Tradition rather than submitting to the Magisterium?
If he would in fact say this, then he has given the farm away to the Protestants and atheists who claim that Catholic Tradition is a contentless license for the Church to preach novelties and that past statements that we have always been at war with Eastasia were really properly interpreted as saying that we have never been at war with Eastasia. Furthermore, he has undercut his own claim to be certain that the Church now teaches the existence of angels, or indeed his claim of certainty on any Church teaching – for if even the meaning of the clearest doctrines of the Church can be called into question by ambiguous papal statements, how can we ever know what the Church really teaches?
On the other hand, if the objector replies that it would be wrong to doubt the existence of angels, because to do so would be to pit one pope’s ambiguity against clear and constant Tradition of the whole Church, then he must give up the claim that traditional Catholics are crypto-Protestants with regard to divorce and remarriage, for this is the very thing we ourselves do with Amoris Laetitia. The dilemma faced by those who object that traditionalists rely upon their private judgment for an understanding of Tradition is stark: either deny that it is possible ever to know what Church teaching really means, since the “true meaning” may turn out to be something quite different from anything previously believed, or admit that the Church is now in one of the gravest crises of her history, as the vicar of Christ continues to undermine the faith of Catholics by his persistent ambiguity and refusal to clarify his statements on divorce and remarriage in light of Tradition.
Spencer Hall is a recent convert to Catholicism from Evangelical Protestantism. By day, he works as a statistician for his alma mater’s disease ecology research institute in Athens, Ga., and by night, he blogs on religion, science, and philosophy at www.baconbridge.com.