After the Magisterium has spoken, theologians play an indispensable role in giving effect to its pronouncements. Just as they took part in preparing the way for the pronouncements to be made, so too they inform the public about what has been decreed and in doing so interpret the documents. Every papal or conciliar definition or condemnation leaves a certain margin for interpretation, so that private judgment has to complete what public pronouncements left unstated. John Henry Newman insisted on this point in his defense of the Vatican decrees on papal primacy and infallibility. Once a thesis or treatise is censured, he writes, "theologians employ themselves in determining what precisely it is that is condemned in that thesis or treatise; and doubtless in most cases they do so with success, but that demonstration is not de fide." Newman considers this process of theological sifting a necessary safeguard, protecting the faithful against the "fierce and intolerant temper" of those who would brush aside theological distinctions and burden the consciences of the faithful with exorbitant demands. (Avery Cardinal Dulles, SJ, Magisterium: Teacher and Guardian of the Faith [Sapientia Press: Naples, FL, 2007], 42-43)
The significance of the quotation will not be lost on those familiar with lay-Catholic arguments on the subject. As we are often told by various lay-Catholic apologists, the use of private interpretation is unbiblical and leads to doctrinal chaos--a great spiritual evil. However, here we are told by an official representative of Catholicism that private interpretation has its place in rightly handling the public pronouncements of the Magisterium, and that it even plays a positive preventative role--inoculating the faithful against "exorbitant demands." While effective epistemological objections can be raised against the standard lay-Catholic argument above, it seems sufficient to note that the role of private interpretation cannot, on Catholic terms, be unbiblical in an unqualified sense. If Dulles is correct, and we have every reason to believe he is an official representative of Catholicism given his relevant qualifications, then the traditional texts leveled against this Protestant hermeneutical assumption are being interpreted too broadly; they strike at both Protestant and (official, authoritative) Catholic notions of private judgment. The lay-Catholic objection to private interpretation must either be abandoned or qualified. For the latter, however, it is difficult to conceive of a way in which an interpretation of a text like 2 Peter 1:20 could be seen to apply only to Protestant private interpretation, and not to the private interpretation discussed by Dulles.
I recommend Cardinal Dulles' work. Indeed, as a general matter, I think most Protestants interested in Catholicism should spend far less time reading and engaging lay-Catholic apologetic blogs and far more time reading and engaging the official works of the Magisterium and their approved scholars. The lay-Catholic convert industry, of which the lay-Catholic blogosphere is a definitive part, merely represents a conservative sociological trend. As Dulles warns, such movements may or may not properly represent the official teachings of the Magisterium:
The sense of the faithful should be carefully distinguished from public opinion in the Church, which is not a theological source attributable to the Holy Spirit, but merely a sociological fact. Public opinion may be correct, but it often reflects the tendencies of our fallen human nature, the trends of the times, and the pressures of the public media. (Ibid., 45)
Indeed, as more of us have come to see, a study of mainstream and approved Catholic scholarship shows a disparity between blogosphere Catholicism and official Catholicism (e.g. Dulles approvingly cites Raymond Brown, a scholar often dismissed as too "liberal" by conservative lay-Catholic apologists). The post-Vatican II sensibilities of the modern Magisterium cannot be found in the basic fundamentalist and evangelical sensibilities of blogosphere converts to Rome.
Consider as well how the informal hierarchy of the Catholic conversion industry functions. Acceptance into its authoritative ranks differs decidedly from entrance into the authority structure of the official Magisterium. In official Roman Catholicism, authority is transmitted via the appropriate form and application of Apostolic Succession. This naturally leads to the promotion of long-time insiders to the faith. In the conversion industry, authority is a function of the kind of conversion manifested (which necessarily excludes persons with a history of life-long Catholic commitment). The more spectacular, with respect to emotional gravity, and the more dramatic, with respect to prior involvement in Protestantism, the greater the authority of the convert to represent the (singular) core value of the movement. As such, those with a prominent voice in blogosphere Catholicism might very well be (and almost always are) completely unqualified to speak for Catholicism in any official capacity. For all their superficial attempts to cultivate an air of intellectual sophistication, Catholic sites such as Called to Communion represent little more than unauthoritative shrines to a selection of conversion narratives. Fellow converts will undoubtedly find such self-centered glorification of the cult of celebrity emotionally satisfying, as, by all accounts, they have imported and applied their evangelical altar-call sensibilities to their new faith community. But for those of us attempting to understand and engage official Roman Catholic belief and practice, nothing seems as fruitless as studying such narratives and interacting with their authors. In terms of official doctrine, they have no more standing than any other set of lay-Catholic opinions.
The natural outgrowth of such circumstances is, of course, the multiplication of situations like the one sketched above--where a popular lay-Catholic apologetic is found to be incompatible with official Roman Catholic teaching. Beyond responding to its effects on unwitting Protestants, there seems to be no value in rigorously engaging a movement that produces such arguments, since faithful adherence to the denomination it promotes would inevitably result in jettisoning many of the very arguments used to arrive at it in the first place.