• Rob Friedl

Tradition of Truth

The Pieta, by Michelangelo Buonarrati


It is an unfortunate blessing that while a meme can present a commonly shared sentiment about the faith, a proper foundation for a belief in that faith cannot be summed up in anything so succinct as even a single paragraph. One of the characters of the faith is that it has so many dynamics to it, such that any one part of it has a way of affecting some aspect of all the other parts; kind of like the fibers of a net being stretched by a single weight. I call these secondary, tertiary, and other consequential implications of what someone says, the "collateral teachings," of their assertion. Naturally, this makes a lot to account for when considering what they say, so I hope you'll be patient with my response and trust me when I thank you for having the gumption to address your concerns with the statements I made myself.

That said, the first thing to be done, is to refuse your kind offer of having the option to distance myself from your disagreements by making a distinction between "Catholics" and what "Catholicism teaches..." While I recognize how much I have left to learn, I can think of nothing more pitiful than to claim both a title for which I am not willing to take full responsibility and the arrogance to act as if my 34 years of life has uncovered more truth than thousands of saints over thousands of years. You are absolutely correct to ask whether or not, and why, such people would call themselves Catholic. We call those who pick and choose the doctrines of their choice, "Cafeteria Catholics," and their informed departure from the teachings of the church describes them more accurately as heretics.

And that sets the foundation for pretty much all of what we'll end up talking about here, because experience has taught me that the greatest distinction between Protestant and Catholic, boils down to the idea of authority. Both parties believe the Holy Spirit to be guiding the church, but while Catholics understand The Church to be an established entity, both in possession-of and subject-to divine authority, Protestants define "the church" at the level of the individual. This is a practice that, for all of it's enthusiasm and good will, bares itself to the pitfalls of Pride, because at the end of the day, a person cannot serve as both the interpreter of God's Word and the judge of their own actions, without experiencing a recurring conflict of interest.

The thing is, when it comes to divine revelation, anyone can make a claim of interpretation. I see it all the time when I join my many Protestant friends at their Bible "Studies," where more often than not, I have witnessed a lesser interest in becoming informed than in acting as an instructor. How else could ten different people assert ten different interpretations of a single verse, if not for a confidence in their own enlightenment? It is often argued that there is an arrogance of the Catholic, in that he would assert The Church's possession of the fullness of Truth, but between the Catholic and his Protestant counterpart, only one of them allows for The Holy Spirit to speak with authority through anything beyond the subjectivity of the individual. When it comes to authority, Catholicism distinguishes itself from Protestantism in that it possesses only a single pope.

But of course, I can easily sympathize with my Protestant friends, because there is no virtue in blind loyalty. Authority that exists for the sake of itself is called "tyranny," and we are just as well to be wary of it in the religious realm as we are in the political- especially since those can often become conflated. For any authority to be legitimate, it must do one thing: speak Truth. This is why some men will rise to the top of their ranks, regardless of their official titles- because subordinates are more concerned with the content of leadership and less with the brass pins that cry for the attention. A scenario, I would venture to say, in which the Protestant fancies himself to be, as it regards the authority of The Church. Unfortunately, the same disregard for rank that can nullify the dysfunctions of its lieutenant- when applied to the entire battalion, transforms an army into little more than a well-dressed crowd, and leaves the enemy grateful for the interference.

The first problem with a self-proclaimed discernment of the Word of God, is that it attempts to give supernatural sensory to a merely natural being. Humans, for all their aspirations to the divine, are limited in discovery to the information-gathering capacities of the five senses. This can and does serve man quite well in his studies of God, by way of examining the creator through looking at His creation. We call this "Natural Theology." But it is only through direct divine intervention- when the supernatural reaches out to the natural (an event we define as a "miracle") that man can know anything directly about the will of God. For all other modes of being and learning, we as humans must rely on the only other source of Truth available to creation: the revealed Word of God- or what we call the Bible. And since the Bible is a masterful work of literature, written in the various contexts of its times and the lives of its scribes, then its proper interpretation must naturally fall to those in direct possession of not just the fullness of its meaning, but also its very existence. We say that God is the ultimate author of the Bible, but it was the early Church (prior to the distinctions between Catholic and Protestant) that compiled the various books, which served humanity quite well for over 1500 years before Martin Luther decided to exercise personal discernment upon the entire project.

And so the separatism has continued. Despite the fervent proclamations made by many a Protestant as to the legitimacy of their own understanding of the Bible, and the guidance thus received by the Holy Spirit, they seem to remain unable to explain how, when the Holy Spirit is apparently so generous in empowering individual interpretation, so many splinter-cells of Christianity have formed around the same piece of literature. Can contrary positions be equally true? The problem with disregarding a central theological authority, is that The Church, while having a membership comprised of extremely fallible individuals, is something established by Christ and led by the Holy Spirit, giving it the unique quality of being an entity which is greater than the whole of its parts. So it is not to "the Pope," that we Catholics claim allegiance. Such a thing would be absurd indeed. But the Vatican, being the current seat of the Holy See, wherein resides the governing entity of this collection of souls striving for eternal communion with God, is a place which we Catholics recognize, among other things, as where resides the final interpretive authority of the revealed Word of God.

And this is where our conversation arrives at the literary trenches of the Western Front- as destined as Passchendaele, to sink in the mud. Because at the end of the day, while our criticisms might be reproached, both of our defenses are impenetrable. A bombardment of logic will have little effect upon one who's entrenched in faith alone, and modern translations of an ancient work will splash like water against the roots of history and tradition. Until I relinquish my devotion to this usurpatious tyrant of God's word, I will remain blind to my corrupted mind, and until you are willing to hold your faith to the standard of reason, every truth not directly mentioned in the Bible, will continue to to you, look like a poisonous snake.

Because of this and because time is short, I'll save an explanation of Mary's significance in Christianity's origins for another time. Until then, thank you for the discussion, and next time let's do this over whiskey and pipes.

So don't get dead.

-Rob Friedl

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