In honor of Reformation Day, I am once again submitting my Papal complaint.
The primary reason that Catholics believe God provided the Roman Catholic Church as an infallible authority is for unity. Christ prayed in the upper room that His people would be one (John 17:21-22). This unification Christ prayed for would most certainly involve some degree of doctrinal solidarity. For the Catholic, the Magisterial authority made up of the Pope and the congregation of bishops along with the Pope serve to keep the peace and unity. In each contemporary situation, if there are issues of doctrine or morals that are causing division, the Magisterium is able to step in and make clear and binding statements of truth concerning the particular issue. Whether it is the issue of birth control or the reality of Hell, the Magisterium will draw from tradition and Scripture and infallibly reveal the truth. Tradition, Scripture, and the Magisterium; these are the three legs of the Catholic stool that give stability.
From the standpoint of the Catholic, the Magisterium holds the sole right to interpret the “deposit of faith.” This deposit is made up of Scripture and Tradition. Both are given by Christ to the Apostles. The Apostles in turn handed this deposit and authority to others forming an unbroken chain of “apostolic secession.” The Pope resides as the supreme authority as his secession is traced back to Peter, to whom were given the keys to the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 16:19).
Since the Magisterium, headed by the Pope, has been handed this deposit of faith and authority, they alone can interpret Scripture with fidelity. In other words, if there is an issue about the interpretation of Scripture, private interpretation is not an option. While Catholics can read Scripture, they are not allowed to interpret it independently.
Contemporary issues that cause division within the church are many. People are divided over inerrancy, the gift of tongues, Open Theism, women in ministry, gay marriage, and many others. While these are significant and divisive, without question the issue that has caused more division in the church over the last century, Catholic or Protestant, is the issue of evolution. The last two blogs on it I posted have gone over 300 and 1000 comments.
While this is a scientific issue, it is also interpretive. How do we understand the early chapters of Genesis? Did God create the earth in six literal days or did He use an evolutionary process taking billions of years? How are we to interpret the word “day” in Genesis 1? Are there gaps in the genealogies? Did the snake really talk? Were Adam and Eve real people or symbolic representations of mankind in general? Those who take a more conservative approach, such as John MacArthur, say that the stakes cannot be higher. Some will say that if you allow for evolution, you have denied the inspiration of Scripture. Others will go so far as to say that if you don’t believe in a young earth, you have denied the reality of sin. The other side battles to protect their scientific integrity by offering alternative interpretations to the creation narrative. Whether it be the day-age theory, gaps in genealogies, or some sort of accommodating language hermeneutic, from their standpoint there are ways for them to interpret Genesis in a way that harmonizes with current scientific trends.
Either way, this issue is as divisive as any issue in the history of the church. The lines have been drawn. The questions is, can Rome come in and fulfill its primary purpose? Can the Magisterium draw from the deposit of faith and interpret the Scripture so that this matter is settled, bringing unity to this religious anarchy among those who claim Christ?
In 1996 Pope John Paul II did step in. This is what he had to say:
“Today, almost half a century after the publication of the encyclical [Humani Generis], new knowledge has led to the recognition in the theory of evolution of more than a hypothesis. It is indeed remarkable that this theory has been progressively accepted by researchers, following a series of discoveries in various fields of knowledge. The convergence, neither sought nor fabricated, of the results of work that was conducted independently is in itself a significant argument in favor of this theory” (Message to the Pontifical Academy of the Sciences [Oct. 22, 1996] 4. (emphasis mine)
“More than a hypothesis?” Is that it? Is that supposed to bring unity to the Church? With all the authority of his seat, with keys in hand, and shod with the authoritative hermeneutic of peace, the Pope clears the air by saying that evolution is “more than a hypothesis.” I want my money back!
OK, enough tongue in cheek. Do you see the basic problem here? The Roman Catholic Church is not doing is job. Why? Why can’t the Pope clear the interpretive air and let us know, infallabily and and finally, how we are to read this text and how to shape our theology? Why can’t the Roman Catholic Church bring unity here?
Here are the options as I see it:
1. The Pope does not know how to interpret the early chapters of Genesis. He does not know what “day” means. He does not know if there are gaps in the genealogy. He does not know if the narrative is literal or figurative. He does not know if the snake talked.
But if this is the case doesn’t his authority to interpret the Scripture become irrelevant since he and the rest of the Magisterium don’t know the answer to the most divisive theological issue of the last century?
2. The Pope does know how to interpret the early chapters of Genesis, he just does not think it is important enough to dogmatically speak upon.
But if this is the case, what is important enough to speak upon? The assumption of Mary? The immaculate conception of Mary? Eating meat on Friday? Those things need Papal intervention, but this issue doesn’t?
3. The Pope is on a need to know basis only, and this is something He does not need to know.
But I don’t think the Pope is allowed to watch Top Gun. This actually cannot work since it is not new revelation that the Pope and the Magisterium receives, but protection in his dogmatic pronouncements. Whether through ordinary means (ecumenical councils) or extraordinary means (Papal bulls), the issue can be dealt with or the organization is sterile when it comes to bringing about doctrinal unity when it is most important.
4. The Pope does not know; he only knows issues that are essential to the Christian faith. How one interprets the Genesis narrative is not essential.
But isn’t unity the issue? Isn’t unity essential? This issue is causing disunity in doctrine. If the Pope cannot solve this, what good is the claim that the Magisterium steps in and answers contemporary theological issues to bring about unity? As well, is the assumption of Mary really essential. Sure, if you are Catholic post-facto it is, but is the controversy over Mary’s assumption really more divisive than the origins debate?
5. The Pope does not know; this is an issue of science, not faith.
This is simply not true. While I would agree that this is a non-essential issue that should not cause division to the degree that it is, the point is that it is causing massive division. The issue can be solved among Christians if we knew how to interpret the Scriptures. The Pope would simply need to tell us if the word “day” in Genesis 1 is figurative or literal. If he did, it would solve a lot of problems. Further, if he would tell us if Adam and Eve are literal figures or figurative, we would solve even more. In short, there are many interpretive decisions that people are making and these decisions are causing division.
6. The Pope does not know; the emperor has no clothes.
This supposed deposit of faith and authority do not apply to the really hard issues that can be tested since this could expose the Pope as fallible. Rome does not want another Galileo incident where the Catholic Church gets a black-eye and then has to bend backward to cover it up. Understandable.
To sum up my argument this Reformation day: I don’t believe in the infallibility of the Pope. Theologically speaking there is no historic or Biblical warrant for such a belief. Pragmatically speaking, it would be great. However, practically speaking, as we can see with regard to Genesis, the claim for Papal infallibility is sterile.