Sibling Rivalry

One wonders at the variable and accommodating nature of the infallible pronouncements of infallible general councils and other teaching authorities of the mighty Roman Catholic Church. On one hand, they condemn all who do not cleave strictly to the Catholic line, while on the other; they offer excuses for our failure to hold to Catholic doctrine and dogma and call us separated brethren. If I were an imaginative person, I might imagine such contradictory statements to be a clear indication of a house divided against itself.

Actually, I reckon, what these polar shifts really point to is the simple fact that infallible doctrine and dogmas of the “always the same” (Semper Idem) Catholic Church actually are adaptable to the changing needs of that church. In other words, what was infallibly wrong and punishable by anathema or worse a few centuries ago, while still on the books as unacceptable behavior meriting anathema, no longer is really so bad at all and is excusable because the "separated brother" simply doesn't know any better.

Let me point to a couple of instances. The Fourth Session of the Council of Trent declared the Old Latin Vulgate to be the "official" Bible with these words:

…ordains and declares, that the said old and vulgate edition, which, by the lengthened usage of so many years, has been approved of in the Church, be, in public lectures, disputations, sermons and expositions, held as authentic; and that no one is to dare, or presume to reject it under any pretext whatever.--Denzinger 785

That is pretty strong stuff.

The Council also decreed the contents and order of the Canonical books that, together, made up the Vulgate Bible. The Old Testament was to include:

…the five books of Moses, to wit, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy; Josue, Judges, Ruth, four books of Kings, two of Paralipomenon, the first book of Esdras, and the second which is entitled Nehemias; Tobias, Judith, Esther, Job, the Davidical Psalter, consisting of a hundred and fifty psalms; the Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the Canticle of Canticles, Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, Isaias, Jeremias, with Baruch; Ezechiel, Daniel; the twelve minor prophets, to wit, Osee, Joel, Amos, Abdias, Jonas, Micheas, Nahum, Habacuc, Sophonias, Aggaeus, Zacharias, Malachias; two books of the Machabees, the first and the second.--Denzinger 784

The New Testament was to be:

…the four Gospels, according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; the Acts of the Apostles written by Luke the Evangelist; fourteen epistles of Paul the apostle, (one) to the Romans, two to the Corinthians, (one) to the Galatians, to the Ephesians, to the Philippians, to the Colossians, two to the Thessalonians, two to Timothy, (one) to Titus, to Philemon, to the Hebrews; two of Peter the apostle, three of John the apostle, one of the apostle James, one of Jude the apostle, and the Apocalypse of John the apostle.--Denzinger 784

This list does not, of course, coincide with the Canon of Scripture as accepted by so-called Protestants. Is that a problem? Well, according to Trent, those who disagree are in big trouble. As the Council declared:

But if any one receive not, as sacred and canonical, the said books entire with all their parts, as they have been used to be read in the Catholic Church, and as they are contained in the old Latin vulgate edition; and knowingly and deliberately contemn the traditions aforesaid; let him be anathema.–Denzinger 784

Is anathema a big deal? The Catholic Encyclopedia offers a quote to help readers understand what being anathema entails:

“To understand the word anathema", says Vigouroux, "we should first go back to the real meaning of herem of which it is the equivalent. Herem comes from the word haram, to cut off, to separate, to curse, and indicates that which is cursed and condemned is to be cut off or exterminated, whether a person or a thing, and in consequence, that which man is forbidden to make use of."–Joseph N. Gignac, Anathema, The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume I, © 1907 by Robert Appleton Company, Online Edition © 2007 by Kevin Knight; HAS Nihil Obstat & Imprimatur.

To be "cut off" in the old days literally meant to be killed. That is powerful stuff. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, being declared anathema in the New Testament no longer meant the death penalty. Rather, the anathematized person lost his goods and/or was ostracized by the faithful. [Gignac, Op. cit.] That is still pretty awful. Suffice it to say that disagreeing with the Romish version of the Canon of Scripture or the Roman choice of Bibles means a person is cut off from the body of the Catholic faithful. Or does the Old Testament penalty of stoning still apply? Hmm.

Well, maybe the folks who gathered for the Council of Trent were only kidding. Why not look to the Bible itself to see if we can discover a Scriptural basis for their decrees. After all, the Apostle Paul wrote to Timothy that he should:

Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. -- Timothy 2:15

Oops! We run into another problem here. That nasty old Council of Trent, in its fourth session again, made it a violation for folks to study Scripture on their own. Seems folks are only permitted, in the Catholic view, to go to Scripture if what they understand Scripture to say coincides precisely with what the Magisterium says it says. In other words, Catholics are not really permitted to study Scripture. What they are permitted to study is the Magisterium's interpretation of Scripture. Is that a big thing?

Well, those folks at Trent went on to tell us:

Furthermore, in order to restrain petulant spirits, It decrees, that no one, relying on his own skill, shall,--in matters of faith, and of morals pertaining to the edification of Christian doctrine, --wresting the sacred Scripture to his own senses, presume to interpret the said sacred Scripture contrary to that sense which holy mother Church,--whose it is to judge of the true sense and interpretation of the holy Scriptures,--hath held and doth hold; or even contrary to the unanimous consent of the Fathers; even though such interpretations were never (intended) to be at any time published. Contraveners shall be made known by their Ordinaries, and be punished with the penalties by law established–Denzinger 786

Guess all those pretty words boil down to meaning folks will pay a penalty for studying Scripture if the result of that study differs in any way with the Romish party line.

Of course, there are lots and lots of Catholic Canon Laws and lots and lots of anathemas, but these are adequate to make my point. Let me cut this down to size: According to the decrees issued after the Fourth Session of the Council of Trent, folks who do not fully accept and use the Old Latin Vulgate Bible are anathema and those who study Scripture without adhering absolutely to the Magisterium's interpretation are to be punished.

If one looks at the list of Canon Laws and Decrees published after the Council of Trent, it should be pretty apparent that Protestants are in big trouble, at least in so far as the Roman Church is concerned. In fact, it would be safe to say that Bible-believing Protestants once stood much farther away from the Catholic hope for eternity than did Buddhists, Taoists, Muslims, Hindus, Wiccans, or animists in the rainforests of the southern continents. After all, Protestants rejected the Romish doctrines of transubstantiation, Purgatory, Penance, Baptism, the Eucharist, Limbo, the Canon of Scripture and on and on and on. Most of the folks in those other religions really could not have cared less about what Rome proclaimed and so did not fall under many of the anathemas.

And so it went for a few hundred years. Then, Pope John XXIII convened the general council referred to as Vatican II in 1962. Now, rather than being anathematized and outcast, we Protestants are called separated brethren. We are told that, even though we reject the RCC Canon of Scripture, the RCC list and understanding of Sacraments, the RCC understanding of God's salvific program, the RCC's special relationship to Mary and Rome's penchant for praying to and for the dead, everything is gonna be okay. We simply are ignorant of the truth.

In the Vatican II decree called Unitatis Redintegratio, we learn that we separated brethren aren't so bad after all. In fact, we really are pretty decent sorts, although confused in many ways. Pope Paul VI went on to pat Protestants on the head for the love we hold for Scripture. In Chapter III, we read:

21. A love and reverence of Sacred Scripture which might be described as devotion, leads our brethren to a constant meditative study of the sacred text. For the Gospel "is the power of God for salvation to every one who has faith, to the Jew first and then to the Greek.

While invoking the Holy Spirit, they seek in these very Scriptures God as it were speaking to them in Christ, Whom the prophets foretold, Who is the Word of God made flesh for us. They contemplate in the Scriptures the life of Christ and what the Divine Master taught and did for our salvation, especially the mysteries of His death and resurrection.

But while the Christians who are separated from us hold the divine authority of the Sacred Books, they differ from ours some in one way, some in another regarding the relationship between Scripture and the Church. For, according to Catholic belief, the authentic teaching authority of the Church has a special place in the interpretation and preaching of the written word of God.

But Sacred Scriptures provide for the work of dialogue an instrument of the highest value in the mighty hand of God for the attainment of that unity which the Savior holds out to all.

In other words, we love the Word of God, but we just don't know how properly to read it. For that we need Rome. However, in the interests of unity, Catholics and Protestants might meet on the common ground of Scripture -- except that we cannot agree on what the Canon of Scripture is and who is able to read it.

My point, in case it has gotten lost in all this verbiage, is that Rome considers the revealed Word of God to be its exclusive property -- to be interpreted and doled out to the faithful as Rome considers appropriate. According to one infallible council, all who oppose that view are anathema -- cut off from common commerce with the Catholic faithful. Then, a few centuries later, another infallible council issued a document calling Protestants “separated brethren” and praising our love for and study of Scripture, though it did gently chide our failure to understand that only Rome has authority to interpret Scripture.

All this leads to a few questions: If one council declaration was infallibly derived, how can another infallible council publish a statement that what the first council denounced with anathema is not so bad really and the once-anathematized are now separated brethren? Is infallibility a sometime thing? Can any Catholic truly know the infallible position of the church on any issue?

Just a closing comment to make my position infallibly clear:

Vatican II tells the world that everyone who has been "justified by faith in baptism" is a member of the Body of Christ; they all have the right to be called Christian; the children of the Catholic Church accept them as brothers.

I do not believe that anyone is "justified by faith in baptism." I believe we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ and that no works of any kind, including sacraments, are involved in the salvific process. Therefore, by this definition offered by Vatican II's Unitatis Redintegratio, I am not a member of the Body of Christ nor do I have the right to be called Christian. I do not possess either the wit or the vocabulary adequately to articulate the depth of my disagreement with Rome's position.

In any event, I consider myself brother to all true believers, and utterly reject the suggestion that I be considered a spiritual brother to any heretic hovering under the umbrella of the Roman Catholic Church.

14 Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness?
15 And what concord hath Christ with Belial? or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel?
16 And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols? for ye are the temple of the living God; as God hath said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
17 Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you,
18 And will be a Father unto you, and ye shall be my sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty.
--2 Corinthians 6:14-18

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