Catholicism and Interpretation

Catholics seem to believe that the Holy Spirit guides their Church, but not each member individually. Supposedly, this arrangement prevents the multitude of 'authoritative' interpretations of Scripture they claim exists among the non-Catholics.

I believe I understand that Catholic position. And I can understand how it might be appealing to some, particularly those who are struggling to discover God's truth in Scripture and whose difficulties are being multiplied by the variety of apparently conflicting interpretations proclaimed by professing Christians. The strict control the Catholic Church attempts to maintain over matters of doctrine and biblical interpretation might appear to some as an island of calm in a stormy sea.

Does reliance on the Magisterium to accurately and authoritatively interpret Scripture eliminate the possibility of interpretational error on the part of the individual Catholic man-in-the-pew? I think not.

88 The Church's Magisterium exercises the authority it holds from Christ to the fullest extent when it defines dogmas, that is, when it proposes, in a form obliging the Christian people to an irrevocable adherence of faith, truths contained in divine Revelation or also when it proposes, in a definitive way, truths having a necessary connection with these.--Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), 2nd Ed., (C) 1994/1997 United States Catholic Conference, Inc.

The above paragraph, and those that follow, spell out the RCC doctrine concerning the role of the Magisterium in preventing deviation. According to the Magisterium itself, Christ endowed the Magisterium with the charism of infallibility which would, of course, protect it from teaching error in matters of faith and morals. Does it work? I think not.

It would seem that in matters of great doctrinal import, at least some of the time, the Magisterium arrives at its claimed infallible definition of dogmas by means of a process similar to a town hall meeting. My impression, from reading accounts of Vatican I debates and other activities leading up to the definition of the dogma of papal infallibility, is that some dogmas are determined by majority vote of selected delegates to a council. As appears to have been the case with the infallibility dogma, the results of such voting, at least some of the time, might be determined beforehand.

In that some Catholic dogmas are defined by a process of debate and vote, it seems clear that not all who gather in ecumenical assembly are always guided toward the same result by the Holy Spirit. In order for there to be heated debate, as there was at Vatican I, there must be present among the bishops and others who make up the Extraordinary Magisterium, at least some who hold positions on the proposed dogmatic definition that are not in line with what we are expected to believe is the guidance of the Holy Spirit. If these bishops are not being led by the Holy Spirit, who or what is leading them?

A parenthetical question occurs to me. Let us say that one, or 10 or 40, of the bishops present in a general council voted against adoption of a new dogmatic definition that is supported by the majority of bishops and promulgated by the pope. Given that dogmas generally are to be assented to de fide by all Catholic faithful, what would become of the dissenting bishops? Would they be considered excommunicated, or under anathema, until such time as they formally communicated their assent to the Curia?

Let's forget about intra-magisterial haggling over doctrine and interpretations for now and instead focus on how individual Catholic faithful deal with magisterial pronouncements pertaining to dogma, doctrine, discipline or interpretations of Scripture. Once such authoritative teachings are revealed to all the Catholic faithful, each one of them must now try to understand it. The process of understanding involves personal interpretation of the consensus interpretation of the Magisterium. Does this ensure that “the People of God abides in the truth that liberates”?

890 The mission of the Magisterium is linked to the definitive nature of the covenant established by God with his people in Christ. It is this Magisterium's task to preserve God's people from deviations and defections and to guarantee them the objective possibility of professing the true faith without error. Thus, the pastoral duty of the Magisterium is aimed at seeing to it that the People of God abides in the truth that liberates. To fulfill this service, Christ endowed the Church's shepherds with the charism of infallibility in matters of faith and morals. The exercise of this charism takes several forms:--CCC, Op. cit.

I will draw on a couple of personal experiences to demonstrate that having a Magisterium to authoritatively interpret Scriptures is no guarantee that the Catholic faithful will be protected from doctrinal error.

Some years ago, I would occasionally accompany my wife to Mass, though I would spend my time inside her parish church reading in my Bible, rather than participating in the celebration of the Mass. The last time I did that was the Sunday her priest taught on the only miracle of Jesus that is reported in all four of the Gospels; the feeding of the five thousand. The subject of the priest's homily caught my attention, and I left off reading in my Bible to listen to his exposition of Matthew 14:13-21. In paragraph 1335 of the CCC, this miracle is described as prefiguring the “superabundance of this unique bread of his Eucharist.”

When the priest clearly declared that the feeding of 5,000 men and who knows how many women and children with five loaves of bread and two dried fishes was not a miracle of multiplication but, rather, a miracle of persuasion, I was shocked. The priest explained that there really had been a lot more than the five loaves and two fishes mentioned in the Scriptures, According to this man, in his patently erroneous exercise of the ordinary Magisterium, quite a number of those who had come to hear Jesus teach had brought food with them. Seems that they had kept their stash of food hidden from sight so that the less well prepared would not ask them to share what they had brought. All that Jesus really did, according to the priest, was shame those who were holding food in secret to take it out and share with those who had none. That was the last time I entered that church, except to be present at the baptism of one of my grandchildren.

Given that priest's reputation for being something of a free thinker, it was my opinion that his incredible interpretation of the passage may have been unique with him. In my upset, it did not occur to me to check the handout of Our Sunday Visitor to see if that were a more widely held interpretation. Soon, the matter drifted away into the dark corners of my mind where matters of little import to me are stored.

Perhaps six or so months after that experience, I accompanied my wife to Mass in one of the Catholic parishes in which I had helped establish a pro-life organization. I considered the priest to be a friend and wanted to visit with him after Mass. This particular priest is into liberation theology, so I was not surprised to discover, upon entering the church, that he was holding forth on the evils of American colonial aspirations in southern Mexico. Once he had ended his tirade and begun the celebration of Mass, I settled in to read in my Bible. I sat up straight and focused on the lectern when my priest friend announced that when Jesus fed the five thousand, He did not accomplish the feat by miraculously multiplying five loaves of bread and two dried fishes but that He had performed a miracle by persuading those who had brought food in secret to share their bounty with those who were hungry. After Mass, as we chatted, I asked about his teaching. He replied that what he had taught was the true meaning of the passage.

Granted, these likely were isolated incidents that in no way reflect the RCC's official interpretation of Matthew 14:13-21. However, the Magisterium has not issued an authoritative interpretation of the passage in question. In at least these two cases, it would appear that whatever position the Catholic Church actually does have concerning this passage had been filtered out and replaced with a patently false teaching. Having a Magisterium to provide an authoritative interpretation was of no value to the Catholic faithful in those two parishes. Of course, they could have turned to their own Bibles, assuming they all had them, and interpreted the passage on their own, praying for the Holy Spirit to illuminate their studies. I suspect that the great majority of those in present at both Masses likely didn't think a thing about it, not being familiar with the Scriptures.

God's truth is in the Scriptures. Ask the Holy Spirit to help you find it.

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