I have been reading through John L. Allen’s book, All the Pope’s Men: The Inside Story of How the Vatican Really Thinks (Doubleday, 2004) and was struck by his description of a theological debate between Cardinals Joseph Ratzinger and Walter Kasper over the nature of the church. This exchange was recounted as a part of Allen’s chapter entitled “Top Five Myths About the Vatican” in a sub-section called “Myth One: ‘The’ Vatican.” (Allen’s emphasis is on the fact that there is a great deal of disunity in “the” Vatican; he says “the Vatican is not an organism, it is a bureaucracy” [Pg. 57].) John Allen is himself a Roman Catholic.
What interested me the most was that this book nicely illustrated the difference between the rule of the faith and one’s interpretation of the rule of the faith. Protestantism is often accused of having a deficient and unworkable rule of faith in its adherence to sola scriptura. After all, there are Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians and Mennonites all claiming that their doctrinal distinctions are based in scripture. Thus we need a way to evaluate how each interpretation of scripture – i.e., each interpretation of the rule of faith – compares with scripture itself.
Roman apologists suggest that the answer to this conundrum is to have an infallible interpreter of the rule of faith. Thus a different rule of faith is proposed: scripture + tradition. Now one no longer needs to wonder whether his interpretation is correct, he just looks to see what the tradition of the church states to know the truth about God’s word.
So what should Christians believe about a given point of doctrine? Simple: consult the rule of faith: scripture + tradition.
Well, what does it say? Simple: consult the authoritative traditions of the church. (The councils, the decrees, the ex cathedra statements, etc.)
Ok, done. But how do I interpret those authoritative traditions?
Herein lies the crux. These authoritative traditions, which together with scripture constitute the rule of faith, must be interpreted. How does one know whether they have the right interpretation of the rule of faith so as to not be excluded from orthodox theology? I suppose the same way a Protestant knows that he has the right interpretation of the rule of faith so as to not be excluded from orthodox theology. In this sense there is really no difference between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism.
Read through this quote from All the Pope’s Men and ponder the impact of this disagreement between two cardinals about such an important topic as the doctrine and essence of the church:
The two most powerful Germans in the Holy See are Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who runs the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and Cardinal Walter Kasper, who heads the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity…. [T]he two men have serious theological differences and have explored them in a series of public exchanges.
The heart of the disagreement is over the relationship between the local church and the universal Church. Ratzinger believes that the Church was universal before it was local, that the Church was intended for all humanity before it began to take on local forms in Jerusalem, Antioch, Damascus, Corinth, and so on…. Kasper, on the other hand, argues that the local and universal churches are intrinsically related – just as the local church cannot be fully itself apart from its reference to the universal, so the universal Church has no reality apart from its incarnation in a local setting. For Kasper it makes no sense to talk about which “came first.”
The dispute may sound technical, but it has wide-ranging consequences. Ratzinger’s accent on the universal Church tends to promote a top-down ecclesiology, emphasizing the authority of Rome. Kasper’s view lends itself to a more decentralized version. Here’s how Kasper put it in his response to Ratzinger’s Rome lecture: “A local church is not a province or a department of the universal Church: it is rather the Church in that particular place. The bishop is not a delegate of the Pope but rather a representative of Jesus Christ: he enjoys his own sacramentally-based individual responsibility.” The article in which Kasper unfolds this argument was published first in a German theological journal, then in both the U.S. journal America and the English Catholic weekly The Tablet in separate English translations.
The editors of America invited Ratzinger to respond, which he did in the November 19, 2001 issue. The disagreement, Ratzinger wrote, should be clarified by reference to the “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of the Church as Communio,” published by his congregation on June 28, 1992. That letter contains the principle “that the universal Church (ecclesia universalis) is in its essential mystery a reality that takes precedence, ontologically and temporally, over the individual local churches.” Ratzinger understands the concerns for authority that underlie Kasper’s critique. He writes: “Why does this same association keep coming up everywhere, even with so great a theologian as Walter Kasper? What makes people suspect that the thesis of the internal priority of the one divine idea of the Church over the individual churches might be a ploy of Roman centralism?” He answers his own question by noting that the term “universal Church” is often understood to refer to the Pope and the Curia, while its deeper theological meaning is dismissed as a pure abstraction.
Kasper replied in a German essay: “The formula becomes thoroughly problematic if the universal Church is being covertly identified with the church of Rome, and de facto with the Pope and the Curia,” Kasper wrote. “If that happens, the letter from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith cannot be read as an aid in clarifying communio-ecclesiology, but as a dismissal of it and as an attempt to restore Roman centralism.”
Pgs. 58-60 (Bold emphasis added.)
In the end, for all the rhetoric about the “inadequacy of sola scriptura,” this is simply a methodological bait-and-switch. The debate between Roman apologists and the Reformation is not really about sola scriptura. Oh sure, they claim it is as they seek to erode confidence in the Protestant rule of faith, but when those same arguments are turned on them, the real issue comes out: the centrality of apostolic succession and communion with the Bishop of Rome.
After all, “scripture + authoritative interpreter,” the Roman Catholic rule of faith, didn’t stop Ratzinger and Kasper from having “serious theological differences” about the very essence of the church.
If you are a Protestant who is considering converting to the Roman Catholic Church because of “disunity among Protestants,” let me suggest that you shift your debate to the real issue: the merits of apostolic succession and the universality of the Roman pope. Don’t let the apologists drag you into that debate about sola scriptura because it is not relevant. If it were, then disagreements over the meaning of documents like “The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent” and “The Roman Catholic Catechism” would simply not exist. After all, this “infallible tradition” is touted as creating a unity of interpretation of the scripture, as steering clear of the purported problems of what Christian Smith calls “pervasive interpretive pluralism.”
I found the last paragraph cited above particularly interesting as Kasper notes an interesting methodological point. One man’s “clarifying point” is another man’s “covert identification of the universal Church with the church of Rome.” How does one really know which is which?
Rev. Andrew Compton
Christ Reformed Church