I've been reading Eric Svendsen's book, Upon This Slippery Rock: Countering Roman Claims to Authority [New York: Calvary Press, 2002]. Eric makes some great points about Catholic authority claims, and i'd like to share a few of them in the next couple blog entries.
If you ever engage those who advocate Catholic apologetics, you're probably familiar with the argument that Catholics are unified in their beliefs, while Protestants are not. Let's concentrate on Catholic unity- for if an argument, when applied to one's own position, refutes one's own position, it is an invalid argument.
Svendsen points out that variations among belief in a religious system among its advocates either invalidates that system or does not:
“One cannot…argue that his religious system is more legitimate on the basis that there is less disagreement within it than within other systems of belief. It is an all-or-nothing proposition. Either disagreements nullify a system, or they do not. Otherwise, the best one can argue is that his religious system more nearly conforms to a set standard of unity, but does not actually meet that standard. It is also important to keep in mind that the ‘diversity of belief’ argument is one that was invented by Roman Catholic Apologists….Any system that argues for an arbitrary criterion for being the ‘true’ church must itself conform to that criterion.” [Source: Eric Svendsen, Upon This Slippery Rock, 23].
The example Svendsen uses to dismantle Rome’s claim for absolute unity is the Vatican II document, Dei Verbum. He goes right to an extremely pertinent issue for anyone claiming the name “Christian”: the authority of Scripture. Dei Verbum states:
107. The inspired books teach the truth. "Since therefore ALL that the inspired authors or sacred writers affirm should be regarded as affirmed by the Holy Spirit, we must acknowledge that the books of Scripture firmly, faithfully, and without error teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the Sacred Scriptures." [Vatican II DV 11]
Svendsen points out that this statement itself is prone to multiple interpretations with the Roman community. Conservative Roman Catholic apologists see this as a clear statement that the entirety of Scripture is without error. Some Roman Catholic scholars though (like R.A.F. MacKenzie and Raymond Brown) see the phrase “for the sake of our salvation” as limiting inerrency to only those sections of Scripture that teach about salvation.
Svendsen notes, “No one can tell us what the ‘official’ Roman Catholic teaching is on this issue, and Rome’s ‘infallible interpreter’ is of absolutely no advantage to the Roman Catholic apologist, for he has remained silent on the matter. [Source: Eric Svendsen, Upon This Slippery Rock, 24]. Thus, the actual teachings of the Roman Catholic Church are prone to interpretation. The Catholic apologist must use his own private interpretation to determine what the meaning of Roman Catholic teaching is. The conservative and liberal Roman Catholic can read the same document and come to two differing opinions.
So on a fundamental issue- what are, or are not, the very Words of God, Catholics are not unified. Svendsen also points out that these important issues likewise do not have an "official" clarification, thus granting divergent opinion:
- The Literal vs. Mythical interpretation of the creation account in Genesis
- The validity of the new mass